Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Joe the plumber is an insensitive jerk

I'm not going to mention names, because I think lauding a killer by plastering his face all over every inch of every web site and talking about him only encourages other seekers of fame to try the same stunt. But we all know who I'm talking about. The latest disturbed young man who took lives.

Joe Wurzelbacher (AKA Joe the Plumber) wrote, in an open letter to the parents of the victims of the this disaster “As harsh as this sounds — your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights.”

Monday, May 26, 2014

Angels Always Remember

No joke today, out of respect for the men and women who have served our country, and paid for it with the ultimate sacrifice, their lives.

This Memorial Day I'd like to call your attention to a facebook page run by a friend of mine. Angels Always Remember is a group devoted to remembering our fallen warriors. They are a small group of people who do research on the lives and last days of each soldier killed and write letters to their families to let them know their loved ones are not forgotten.

Please "like" the group, and if you are interested, consider getting involved. On this Memorial Day especially we should remember the people who gave their lives to give us the freedoms we enjoy today.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Monday Joke

Sister Mary Ann, who worked for a home health agency, was out making her rounds visiting home-bound patients when she ran out of gas. As luck would have it, a gas station was just a block away.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Smart Guns, Dumb Humans

Image credit: Armatix GmbH
Don't mean to go off too far on this topic, but it seems to be in the news. Everyone form Mark Shea to my dentist has been telling me that "just make everyone shut up and buy one." It's not that simple.

First off, what is a gun? The main stream media wants you to think it is an evil thing, made for destroying families and children. They want you to think the primary use for a gun is crime, and that millions of children killed playing guns each year.

However, gun owners see them as lifesavers. A gun shifts the balance of power. It can make a 90 pound young woman able to stand off a rapist. It can make a 90 year old man stand off a gang of young punks. It can stop the armed home invader, or carjacker. But in those situations it has to work, and work quickly and work reliably.

Fighting Fires
In  lot of ways, a gun is like a fire extinguisher. It's something that you hope you never have to use, but if you need it, you need it, and it can save your life. And that's an analogy worth exploring further.

You see, a fire extinguisher does a simple job, and it is made to be the simplest device that can do the job, and as simple to operate as possible, because when you need it you are panicking, and possibly injured, and not able to operate complex equipment.

Who in their right mind would design a fire extinguisher that required the owner to be wearing a special watch on their right wrist, and enter a 5 digit security code before they could use it? Who in their right mind would design a fire extinguisher that couldn't be used by their wife, neighbor, etc.? Nobody, of course. And yet, that's what the purveyors of "smart" guns want to impose.

Impose? Merely having a product in existence is not "imposing," is it? Sadly it is. First off, in New Jersey there is a law on the books that says within 18 months of the first "smart" gun being available, not "non-smart" guns will be legal to sell in the state. How many ways is this legislation bad? I don't have enough electrons here to go into all the details. Suffice it to say that the law is bad for citizens, for gun manufacturers, and even for smart gun makers (since it guarantees that recent events will repeat themselves whenever someone wants to bring the technology to market).

New Jersey Senate majority leader Loretta Weinberg (D) says that they will rescind the smart gun law if the NRA will stop opposing smart gun technology. No, sorry. You don't use bad laws a weapons to beat people into submission. Realize that the NRA is not some corporation like Apple, or even a group representing gun manufacturers. It is a group representing law abiding citizens who legally own legal guns legally. If the NRA is against something it's because millions of their members are against it. Besides, we know she will reintroduce the law as soon as the next thing comes along that the NRA opposes.

Saw Stop
But even if you don't live in New Jersey, smart gun technology is scary, because it might keep your fire extinguisher gun from working when you need it, and because we know it will become mandatory. Consider the case of Carlos Osorio. He defeated all the safety devices on his table saw, then cut himself. And as sad as that is, it gets worse. A court ruled in his favor and said that because saw stop technology existed and the saw didn't have it, it was the manufacturer's fault.

For those who are not wood workers, a table saw has a spinning circular saw blade sticking up out of a table (hence the name). The blade is covered by a guard to keep your hands away from it, a splitter or riving knife to prevent unexpected kickbacks, and the saw is generally plastered with other safety features and warning labels. There is one brand that has a proprietary technology called "saw stop" which electronically detects when flesh contacts the blade rather than wood, and slams a chunk of aluminum into the blade, stopping it instantly (and destroying it in the process).

Now, there's nothing wrong with saw stop technology, if you want to worry about an accident that can really only happen if you are defeating all the other safety measures and relying on it to save your fingers. But saw owners no longer have that choice, because all manufacturers will soon have to have the feature, which will add hundreds of dollars to the retail cost of the saws, and add nothing to saw owners who actually follow safety instructions.

And so it will be with "smart gun" technology. even more so. Of course when your saw stops working, you may be inconvenienced. If you need it for your job you may lose a day's pay while it is replaced or repaired. But you won't die like you will when your fire extinguisher stops working.

"But if it saves just one child..."
62 children (14 and under) died of accidental firearm discharges in 2012. That's 62 too many , but does it indicate a safety problem with the guns themselves, or with the owners? Because no matter how smart the gun is, it will still fire if the owner pulls the trigger (and does whatever the heck else he needs to do). And it will still fire if the user defeats the safety mechanisms (like Carlos Osorio).

But to put that in perspective, 390 children drowned in swimming pools. Considering that about 9 million homes have swimming pools, vs about 35 million homes that have guns, the pool is about 24x more dangerous to have than a gun. And yes, there is smart pool technology, but nobody's forcing all pool owners to buy it. Why? Because pools are not scary.

To be Fair
To be fair, there are smart gun technologies that are not as offensive as the Armatix gun. NJIT is working with dynamic grip recognition, which senses how you hold the gun. Sounds like a good idea, but even that has its unknowns. Under extreme stress you may no hold the gun the same way you do at the range under calm conditions. You may be running for your life, firing at an odd angle from behind something, and you may have to hold the gun in an unusual manner. I heard of a gun owner practicing holding the gun upside down, with his pinky on the trigger, to simulate taking a gun from a holster that was facing the wrong way. It could happen and unless the owner trained his smart gun to recognize that grip I guess he would be out of luck.

And aside from worrying about the gun legitimately failing, we have to consider all the ways someone could make it fail. We have only recently learned that the government has been secretly forcing computer and communications technology manufacturers to put in features to let them eavesdrop. And we know they want to (or perhaps already have) put in technology to let the government turn off the internet when they deem it necessary. Should we give them the opportunity to turn off all the guns as well? Realize that's what the second amendment was supposed to prevent.

[UPDATE: Breaking news - Armatix has filed a patent for a device to remotely disable their guns via commands from a satellite or other signal. There's the government kill switch. I thought it would take longer before that came out.]

But we don't even have to go that far. For technologies like the Armatix gun, it is trivial to buy an RFID jammer, and thereby disarm everyone within range.

But Safety™!
I realize that the intention of the smart guns is to make firearms safer. And one strategy used by anti-gun groups is accusing the "gun nuts" of not wanting their guns to be safe.

But does technology really make them safer? There were around 600 accidental deaths from firearms in the US in 2010. That's out of 300 million guns, used defensively over a million times (and I don't know how many times a year guns are used for hunting or target shooting). That's really an incredible safety record. Anything that makes the gun less reliable, even a tiny bit, is going to have a negative impact on gun safety. For instance, let's say the smart gun works 99% of the time. Out of the 11,000 criminal uses of a gun each year (excluding suicides, who will just pull the trigger a second time), 110 times the gun will not work, and in some percentage of those cases the shooter won't have time for a second shot. So we have saved something less than 110 lives. But in the million defensive uses of guns, the gun will fail 10,000 times, and in some of those cases the defender will be killed by their attacker. Net result is more lives lost.

Then we have the issue of people growing to rely on technology. In this article on smart guns we see a video of one of the smart gun inventors showing the gun to a reporter. Note that he points the gun at her! He "knows" his technology is safe, and so he handles the gun in an objectively unsafe manner. How many people will assume the smart gun will take responsibility for keeping people safe, and disobey the four rules of gun safety (FYI they are (1) treat every gun as if it is loaded at all times, (2) never point a gun at something you don't wish to destroy (3) keep your finger off the trigger until you have decided to shoot and (4) be aware of your target and what's beyond it).

It may surprise you to know that most hand guns have no "safety" to speak of. Yes, they have safety features, but pull the trigger and they will fire. It may also surprise you to know that until recently most police did not carry semiautomatic pistols at all. The reason in both cases is reliability. It took close to 100 years for semiautomatic pistol technology to be reliable enough to not be a detriment. Likewise, the safety lever adds enough unreliability to make the gun less safe. These decisions were not made by "gun nuts" who want to cling to their weapons in the face of logic, or by gun manufacturers hell bent on profits at any human cost, but by the people who keep us safe, and the people who train the people who keep us safe - people who spend their lives analyzing criminal and defensive gun use and calculating how to save the most lives.

I could go on...
...but I won't. I could talk about the (un)reliability of computers in general, and how the arguments for accepting safe technology are being misused, but I'll spare you from them.

Suffice it to say that the smart gun issue is a complex one. In a world where everyone wants sound bites and quick fixes with high technology. On the one side, lawmakers and the public need to trust that when someone owns a gun they are still capable of making rational decisions. On the other side, gun owners have to stop couching every response in terms of the second amendment and explain how laws mandating untested technology are dangerous to the public safety.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Monday Joke

Today's Monday Joke is courtesy Ambrose Little on g+.

Three preachers sat discussing the best positions for prayer, while a telephone repairman worked nearby.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Mark Shea

Mark Shea is on a rant about guns. I read his recent post the single most important thing about our gun culture and as is sometimes the case, Mr. Shea is demonizing anyone who isn't a Mark Shea mind clone. Rather than post there, where I will be attacked mercilessly, I am posting on my own blog, where both my readers are gentle people.

So according to Mr. Shea "the single most important thing about our gun culture is 30,000 corpses every year. This is an outrage, and so guns should be abolished, or at least gun owners should take any suggestion non-gun owners come up with to try and stop this insanity.

Before I start dismantling his arguments, let's just note that the single most important thing about our car culture is 35,000 corpses every year. But those corpses don't bother Mr. Shea one bit.

Now, on to the dismantling. For those coming in without having heard the news, there is a law on the books in New Jersey that says when "smart" guns become available commercially, no guns may be sold in New Jersey that do not have that technology. A company, Amatix, has come out with a commercially available gun, which a Maryland store was considering selling. The owner claims to have received death threats over it, and has decided not to sell it, after a drunken social media rant. You are now up to date.

I covered many of the problems with the Armatix gun in a previous post.

According to Mr. Shea
Note that: these are not people coming to steal our guns and leave us all prostrate before the Nazi, Communists, and criminal hordes who haunt the imagination of the NRA. These are just people who want to sell guns that, like your car, computer, and front door, can’t be used by people you don’t want using them. An eminently common sense effort to make gun security tech better. Who could object to that? 
Insane gun culture, that’s who. So instead of supporting smart gun research, insane gun culture makes death threats. And when I pointed this out on Facebook, the response from the gun culture was that the people claiming to be threatened were like abortionists claiming to be threatened by prolifers. That’s a special kind of crazy.
Right off the bat, gun owners are crazy and unreasonable, and paranoid to boot. But let's look at some facts (which are sorely lacking in Mr. Shea's emotional tirade).

You see, the problem is that Mark Shea is smart. And like most smart people, he can see holes in arguments that the average person doesn't see. And like most smart people, he assumes falsely that (1) his abilities extend to areas of knowledge about which he has no clue and has done no research and (2) because the average person can't articulate a reason to him, nobody can and therefore that reason doesn't exist.

So let's say we destroy all the guns we have and replace them with Armatix technology. Would the death toll go down? I doubt it. I think the facts show it would go up. And I'm not just saying that as someone who wants to "give Adam Lanza as much access to the technology of mass death as possible" as Mr. Shea accuses.

First off, the vast majority of gun deaths are suicides (19,392 of them). Sad, but true. But if I'm going to kill myself, the fact that I don't have a gun doesn't stop my death, it just means I will use a different method. The US ranks 33rd in suicide rate, despite ranking 1st in gun ownership, and many of the countries "ahead" of us in suicides have gun bans or strict gun control. So access to guns do not equal suicides.

Now we're down to a much smaller number. The next highest use of guns for homicide is violent crime (11,078). Well, putting Armatix technology in guns s not going to affect this number either. It's pretty trivial to defeat such technology if you have physical access to the gun, but even if you didn't, many criminals and gang members actually use guns which are illegal. I know, shocking, isn't it?

In fact, the only cases where the technology will be effective is the case of someone taking a gun from its legal owner, then backing away and shooting them from a distance, and someone finding a gun and shooting someone by accident. I don't have numbers on the first, but I would bet it is small. If I were a criminal and I got a  hold of a gun I would not move away before shooting. And as for the accidental shooting, according to the CDC this happened 606 times in 2010.

So let's be generous and call it 1,000 theoretically preventable deaths. I say theoretical, because it's still possible to shoot someone accidentally with a smart gun, especially if it's your smart gun. Still a horrible thing (though it pales in comparison the the 35,000 automobile deaths). Shouldn't we do what it takes to prevent the 1,000 deaths?

Let's look at the flip side of the coin, though. There are between 55,000 and 2.5 million defensive gun uses per year in the US. for the purposes of argument, let's guesstimate 250,000. What are the odds that in some percentage of those cases the technology will fail? First off, as I've pointed out, it is easy to defeat the RFID technology of the Armatix gun using a commercially available RFID jammer. They are cheap, can be bought on ebay, and the effective range is longer than that of a handgun. So any criminal with $200 and half a brain can know that no honest citizen (or cop) could ever shoot him.

But even if we look at alternate technologies, they all have problems. Biometric measures, such as fingerprints, are also easily fooled and do not work well if the user is under stress, sweaty, bloody, or dirty - things likely to be the case in a defensive firearm use.

In short, the technology will make defensive use of guns less reliable, which will result in more deaths. As the Forbes' article  Why You Should Be Concerned About The New 'Smart Guns' (Whether You Love Or Hate Guns) puts it "How many fire codes allow fire extinguishers that require a battery to operate?" Go read the whole article, it's a well reasoned examination of the issue.

Now, why don't we mandate all cars be driverless to stop the horror of 35,000 automobile deaths every year? Because, you know, the single most important thing about our car culture is 35,000 corpses every year.

By the way, all these numbers are for the year 2010 and are from the CDC website

Monday, May 5, 2014

Monday Joke

A minister decided that a visual demonstration would add emphasis to his Sunday sermon.

Four worms were placed into four separate jars.
The first worm was put into a container of alcohol.
The second worm was put into a container of cigarette smoke.
The third worm was put into a container of chocolate syrup.
The fourth worm was put into a container of good clean soil.

At the conclusion of the sermon, the Minister reported the following results:

The first worm in alcohol ... Dead .
The second worm in cigarette smoke ... Dead .
Third worm in chocolate syrup ... Dead .
Fourth worm in good clean soil ... Alive…

So the Minister asked the congregation,

"What did you learn from this demonstration?"
Maxine was sitting in the back, quickly raised her hand and said
"As long as you drink, smoke and eat chocolate, you won't have worms!"