Monday, June 12, 2017

Guns are unsafe and should be banned

Gun violence in this country is pervasive and unacceptable.

According to the Washington Post there are now more guns in the US than people. And people with guns tend to either shoot themselves, intentionally or by accident. 

 Untrained owners of handguns imagine the weapons being used for self-defense and may be surprised when a  curious child kills another, or the owner accidentally shoots  a friend or relative  in the dark, or occasionally in a fit of rage, kills a member of his family.

As we know, long guns and pistols were never used for sporting events. Firearms trace back to the Renaissance, where they were developed to penetrate armor.  Contrary to what the National Rifle Association claims, guns were never widely used for target shooting, or plinking, and the second amendment to the Constitution specifies that gun ownership be restricted to members of a militia. 

After an individual (usually a man) kills several people with a gun, an understandable perception forms that the person has or had "mental problems."

This stands to reason because otherwise, why would anyone shoot a bunch of strangers? Research by the U.S. Army found that  a high percentage of soldiers in World War II would intentionally fire over the heads of enemies, because the idea of killing a person is considered a sin, is so defined by major religions, and seems indefensible. 

That research involved soldiers, who are trained and does not include people with serious mental illness. In fact, the American Journal of Psychiatry says:

Even if one assumes a direct association between violence against others and serious mental illness, the focus must be narrowed to the population of individuals with serious mental illness associated with less than 3% of all violence (Fazel and Grann 2006). Furthermore, current research suggests that in general there is a minimal relationship between psychiatric disorders and violence in the absence of substance abuse (Martone et al. 2013). Thus, the assumption that all persons with mental illness are a “high-risk” population relative to violence gen- erally and gun violence in particular lacks supportive evidence. 
This study, among others, found that "less than  3 percent of all violence" is carried out by people with diagnosed mental illness.  Yet almost everyone would agree that the man at Virginia Tech, the man at the nightclub in Orlando, the man who killed at Sandy Hook, the man who shot people in a theater showing a Batman movie, and etc., must have serious mental issues.

So either shooting people is a rational act -- it isn't -- or many people with serious mental health problems are going undiagnosed and untreated. 

Is 3 to 4 percent a realistic figure? If so, efforts to stop gun violence by stepping up mental health screenings hardly makes sense. One if also forced to conclude that mass shootings are acts of rational people, which flies in the face of common sense. 

The gun industry and lobby are glad to blame shootings on mental illness as a way to distract people from the real issue:  handguns and rifles do no good, are not necessary, and citizens without guns are safer than gun owners in the U.S. 

The solution to gun violence is elementary. Gradually eliminate private gun ownership. Get rid of firearms. 

Will that ever happen? Don't hold your breath.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Publisher's Clearing House, Pirate's Cheating House

Publisher's Clearing House, in combination with the unsettled economy, has me trapped.

Do I want $7,000 a week for life? Yes. Do I want $100,000? Yes.

Are either of these prizes headed my way? Of course not. Nor, in all probability,  are they en route to anyone anywhere.

What or who is Publisher's Clearing House? I do not know, but it should not be too difficult to find out.  It used to mail out bundles of complicated and sparkly forms to fill out for the chance to win huge sums of money.

Ed MacMahon would appear at the winner's house with an enormous check. 

Many people thoughts subscribing to a magazine through PCH would increase their chance of winning. Read the rules, however, and you find that no purchase is necessary.

Funny story: On my iPhone relatively recently I played a PCH slot machine game and won $3,000. I took a screen shot just to prove, sort of, that this happened. I'm not holding my breath.

My impression is that if paying did influence the "game" the whole business might be considered gambling, or wire fraud, or some other felonious operation.

I recently began to play PCH games on my phone. The amount of mail I receive from PCH has gone way up. I need to enter this, I need to submit that. Last night all I wanted to do was sleep, but I felt it necessary to play endless hands of blackjack a la PCH for "tokens" that don't seem to be worth anything.

The occasionally explicit idea is that playing the games enters your name in PCH's great give away of  thousands or millions of dollars. 

Even if I am entering these lotteries, the odds of me winning are so small as to be zero. If I liked to gamble I would have a much greater chance of winning at a casino or racetrack. 

So I continue to waste time on these dopy PCH games, based on the belief that although the chance is almost zero, I might be able to win $5,000 a week for the rest of my life. Someone will win, after all. Just not any particular person. 

It's the law of big numbers and seems paradoxical. If someone must win, why not me? Suppose the odds of winning are 1 in 100 million. Someone will win, but the chances of any person winning are 1 in 100 million, which might as well be zero.

At any rate, PCH has morphed into an applications company. Visit the app store if you have nothing more productive to do and you will find several PCH "games," which are similar to casino-type games. They include roulette and slot machine games.

PCH claims that if you play their free games you could win money. Philosophically speaking, they mean that winning money is a contingent reality, that is, that result does not violate any physical laws. People who have downloaded these games and have left reviews, suggest that though they have played long hours, none has won anything.

That's because Publisher's Clearing House is a phantom organization. Do you know anyone who has ever won a dime from PCH? Neither do I.

My sense is that PCH may actually award prizes, but it does so in a secretive manner and does not go to great lengths to locate winners.

I imagine them going to someone's address, ringing the bell, and if no one answers within 30 seconds, they leave and the prize money goes to PCH.

Is it a seller of magazine subscriptions and cheap merchandise, or inexplicable games that promise enormous wealth, or a game developer? It may be all of those, or it may be a cabal of criminals based in Siberia.

Anyone know any of these people? Are they actors?

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Complicated Coffee the Easy Way

Making coffee used to be relatively simple.

You bought a can of ground coffee, put some in a percolator, or French press of drip coffee making and pressed a button, or otherwise operated the apparatus. 
The result was "coffee," if not by taste, at least by definition. 

I've never tasted the same coffee twice.  That is, even following the same method, one cup  inevitably varies from the next.  Other consumables always taste the same: Almond Joy, Mars bar, McDonald's; Juicy Fruit, Coca-Cola.

The mysterious Keurig K250
Coffee is complicated. Coffee beans contain about 1,000 chemicals, some of which are more soluble in water than others. What is coffee, the beverage?

Whatever starts out in coffee beans changes when the coffee is roasted. Compounds break down,  and others are formed. Lots of organic chemistry happens between the bean-stage and the familiar roasted coffee, which has that yummy coffee odor.

Then it's added to hot water, for more transformation.

A mixture of soluble compounds, micro fragments of beans, chemicals adsorbed to the fragments, chemicals that react with minerals in the water, chemicals modified by heat, and chemicals that react with each other when introduced to hot water.

Coffee contains caffeine, which increases blood pressure, induces wakefulness, alertness and at higher levels, agitation, tremors, heart arrhythmias, and, presumably at some dosage, death. At normal consumption levels, coffee is a mild stimulant. 

Many people are in the habit of drinking a cup or two in the morning and then perhaps another cup or two in the afternoon. 

Just as individuals are becoming more isolated, coffee-making is increasingly solitary. The culprit is Keurig, what I consider the first digital coffee maker. It used prefabricated cartridges of coffee that are plugged into the machine. The Keurig pumps water through the cartridge, producing coffee.

Aero Press 
The operator never has to see or handle coffee beans or grounds and only has to keep the reservoir filled with water.  The coffee seems okay, but what the Keurig offers is convenience.
 However, making one cup of coffee at a time is a triumph of packaging -- each "K-cup" is an assembly of plastic and foil, and coffee. 

The New York Times calculates that K-cup coffee costs about $50 per pound, while conventional Starbucks is about $12 and Dunkin Donuts roughly $9. Keurig coffee is about 66 cents a cup versus DIY coffee, which is about 28 cents a cup.  

And while you can buy a drip coffee maker for as little as about $30, the least expensive Keurig machines start at about $100.
Quisanart drip maker

An engineer friend told me that Keurig machines contain complex computer-driven mechanisms. The body is filled with circuit boards, microchips, pumps, valves, filters, and sensors. 

I hate to admit this, but lately I've been drinking Keurig coffee. It's so easy. Just pop in a pod, push a button, and in less than a minute, voila. 

So, my Aero press, French press, siphon, percolator, and drip coffee machines are temporarily idle. As are my electric grinders and manual bean grinders.

Soon I will tire of K-cups, I suspect. Meanwhile, someone needs to determine the chemistry of coffee making. Right now, I just need another cup.

Hario hand grinder
Hario single cup drip maker

Monday, November 14, 2016

What if the polls were right and the election was wrong?

Now that Donald J. Trump is president-elect and Democrats are fighting like rabid raccoons to lay blame for the disaster, and pollsters are pulling out their hair to figure out what went wrong,  let's consider a possibility.

If thousands of engineers agreed on a bridge design and then the bridge was built and immediately collapsed, who would you suspect made a mistake? The highly trained engineers and their computers or the company that built the bridge?

The engineers checked and re-checked their design, but in practice the design proved terrible.

What's easier to imagine, that the engineers were wrong, or that perhaps the construction company used substandard concrete or steel, or took some other shortcut?

Back to the election. Virtually all of the polls, which change from week to week, were in basic agreement. 

Then the exact opposite happened.  Suppose that the polls were correct and that the election was flawed.

 We know many voters were prevented from voting and were incorrectly told they were not eligible, or were otherwise disenfranchised. And we know with a fair amount of certainty that Russia hacked into various email accounts and then gave the messages (or false messages) to Wikileaks. 

If a hacker can penetrate an email account, how difficult would it be to hack into an election computer and change some totals? The hacker would only have to alter a relatively few votes in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and maybe for good measure a few smaller states. 

I have no idea  what voting systems were used or how votes were tabulated. Where I voted in New Haven paper ballots were fed into a machine. Did anyone calibrate or check the machine at any point? I don't know.

Some voters in other states used computers to vote, which seems like an extremely bad idea. 

Meanwhile, has anyone started to compare the results with the numbers of votes cast? The number of votes could be below the number of voters, if some chose to not mark their ballots. But the total should never be greater than the number of ballots cast. 

Some enterprising reporters could check into this, unless they are otherwise occupied writing about dogs, celebrities, sports, cooking, relationships, medical miracles, fires, and other things. Sports, to paraphrase Marx or someone or other,  is the Valium of the people. 

What we need, assuming elections continue in the future,  is a system that is as uncomputerized as possible.

Who understands how computers work? Do you? Sure, you know vaguely about 1s and 0s and electricity, and microchips. and programs. But if you had to explain exactly how a computer counts paper ballots, you would not be able to.

 Few people could.  Maybe Alan Turing or John Von Neumann, or Steve Wozniak.

What we need instead is the simplest system imaginable that can still be counted in a few hours, unless people are willing to wait a month or two for results. 

Let's consider a precinct with 1,500 voters. The poll would receive 1,500 1-gram neodymium magnets. The voter is given a number of magnets equal to the number of candidates and ballot measures that are possible. 

If two people are running for mayor, for example, the voter would only need one magnet, because he is not supposed to vote for more than one candidate.

The voter drops his magnet into either hole A or hole B. 

When the poll closes, you remove the magnet bins and weigh them. If the total is more than 1,500 grams, alarm bells are sounded. Otherwise, the votes are weighed and the bins impounded. Seems simple. The most recent ballot would be more complicated. 

A voter could spit a ticket, or not vote for certain candidates, "leaving the space blank," so to speak.
Perhaps the voter is given enough magnets to vote every possible combination of votes and is instructed to place any unused magnets into another "extra magnets" hole. 

Presumably, where I voted, the paper ballots could be checked against the computerized totals. 
Magnets leave no paper trails, but then again, each magnet could weigh exactly 1.14159 grams. Different precincts could use different weights. If need be, someone can count the magnets.

Or something like that. Let's not depend on machines that work in obscure ways, and let's not depend on machines that someone can hack into.

So, who's going to start investigating the vote, and why the results were so different from the predictions?

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Good Guys and Bad Guys With Guns: The Future

(This is an Associated Press story published in the future. The events described here have yet to take place.)

New Haven CT ( AP) -- Conroy C. Nelson, 38, became the first person in the U.S. Friday to be sentenced under a controversial law backed by the National Rifle Association that criminalizes the act of not attempting to engage a suspect with a handgun during the commission of a felony.

The pretzel-logic law was enacted with major NRA muscle and a Tea Party minority in the U.S. Senate, after a less radical version of the bill was tabled in the House.

The law, called The National Punish Your Neighbor Freedom Act of 2020, was signed by President Marco Rubio last month amid predictions that its provocative contents could result in a perpetual gun fight on the streets of the United States.

Simply put, the NPYNP considered armed people carrying licensed and concealed weapons to be de facto  federal peace officers and thus responsible for upholding local and federal law. Moreover, one of the "peace officer's" duties is to halt felonies with quick and precise use of their weapons.

The expectation of the law is that it will lead to a major increase in civilian shootings and a corresponding drop in crime. 

The most controversial and to many, frightening, aspects of the law is this requirement for the peace officers to use lethal force -- and the punishment for failing to stop the alleged crime being committed -- is itself punishable by a hefty fine and prison sentence.

Critics of the measure, such as Irwin Chemerinsky, professor of law emeritus at Stanford University, contend that the bills twisted logic will result in armed people shooting people whom they merely suspect of a crime in order to avoid going to prison.

"This is the startlingly unconstitutional and practically implausible," said Chemrinsky, an expert in civil liberties and gun laws, at Stanford's "Beach School for Integrative Government Studies," a  left-leaning think tank.

"If this law is faithfully followed urban areas will become perpetual no-man's lands. The peace officer 
is not compelled to see a suspect's weapon before he opens fire.  These so-called peace officers have a license to kill whomever they choose," Chemerinsky said.

Traditionally, police officers are only allowed to use their weapons in clear instances of self-defense and in cases where a suspect may inflict serious harm to others. 

According to police, Nelson, owner of a Walther PPK .380 caliber concealable semi-automatic with 6 rounds, was walking to his parked car at the Southington (Ct) Mall at about 7 p.m.Thursday,  when he allegedly saw William Santos, 27, of Bridgeport, attempting to force a woman into his 1987 Ford F-150 pick-up truck.

Nelson ordered Santos to stop, police said, and he woman yelled "Help, I am being raped," police said.

Witnesses said the woman, whose identity has not been released, clearly and repeatedly shouted "I'm being raped," and "He's going to kill me."

Under the law Nelson was required to unholster his weapon and shoot to kill the alleged assailant. Instead, he yelled "Stop or I will shoot you," as he approached Santos. Santos shot the woman in the abdomen and tried to drive out of he parking garage, but hit a pillar, police said. 

He was shot to death by state police who had been summoned by mall patrons. The medical examiner's office confirmed that Santos died from 12 to 14 gunshot wounds to the head, torso, and legs. The head wound, one of the first shots, was probably lethal, according to the medical examiner.

Nelson declined several requests for a comment. 

Walther PPK .380

In a statement President Rubio said, "A man who shirked his duty will now have to face the consequences. If we as a country do not counter armed criminals with all resources, then terrorist acts will recommence with a fury." 

Police confiscated Nelson's pistol and placed him under arrest. Nelson did not struggle. Nelson was arraigned in Superior Court before Judge Yin Bin Yao, and charged with dereliction of duty during the commission of a crime, a felony under NPYNP. (Court officers call the law Nip-Yip) 

 Nelson, who owns his own real estate company, argues that he was not sufficiently trained in the use of his firearm and that he could have injured bystanders, a class 2 felony.

On the advice of his attorneys Nelson pleaded no contest to the charge and his lawyers appealed the judge's sentence of 25 years to life. 

"He did not do anything other than witness an alleged crime," said one of his attorneys, Hugh Keefe of New Haven. Keefe said Nelson has since been treated for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder at Yale Psychiatric Hospital. 

"Should this be the future of urban America God help us," Keefe said.

Keefe said he would appeal the sentence on the grounds that it violates the Constitutional due process clause, and that Yip-Nip forces involuntary "peace officers" to commit state sanctioned homicide.  

The State Supreme Court could  reduce or eliminate the sentence, vacate the conviction, and or declare the law unconstitutional under Connecticut law. The five-member panel comprises three democrats and two republicans appointed by former Gove. Daniel P. Malloy. 

U.S. State's Attorney Stefanie Zara-Linley said, "The law is very clear. Nelson had the responsibility to kill the suspect with his weapon. He completely abandoned the good-guy/bad-guy basis of the law and in doing so placed himself and the poor victim in danger. She died because of him."

Yin denied Nelson's request to post bond and he was remanded to the Whalley Avenue Correctional Center in New Haven pending his appeal. 

Public response to the case has been mixed, as residents wrestle with the implications of the new law.

Anthony Vitale, of West Haven, said, "I can see why he was charged, but the idea that someone other than the police is responsible to use lethal force -- required by law to kill an innocent person -- troubles me. 

"What if it was a prank? What if they were married and having a fight?" Vitale said.  "This whole Nip-Yip thing is a disaster."

Like many others Vitale pointed out that peace officers such as Nelson must shoot suspects based on their perception of complicated events that may easily be misinterpreted. 

Such was the case Oct. 3 in Newington, when Jonathon Walker shot and killed Hiram Espinoza after seeing Espinoza exchanging cap-gun fire with his cousin Marcel Guttere.  Walked shot and killed both men with a Smith & Wesson .40-cal. semi-automatic loaded with hollow point "Hydra Shok" ammunition designed to inflict devastating wounds.

Smith & Wesson .40

Walker was awarded the Newington Bravery Medal by the mayor and has refused to comment on the incident. Medical and police  reports suggest that Walker has also sought treatment for PTSD at a local drop-in clinic. 

Statistics maintained by the FBI show that since the law was enacted, non-municipal peace officers have intervened in 26 cases, leaving 24 suspects dead and 4 wounded. None of he peace officers other than Nelson has faced charges. 

Monday, February 29, 2016

The 3D Printer From Satan

For some reason I became interested in 3D printers.

Big mistake. I am now wiser but sadder, or vice versa. Here is my tale of woe:

Stubbornly useless

My interest was piqued by a recent price drop in the machines. A printer used to be extremely expensive (thousands of dollars). Recently, models have appeared for about $300.

Suspending my deep pessimism about everything, I purchased one. A Monoprice Architect, which I subsequently discovered is a rebranded Flashforge Creator. 

the original Monoprice, a Flashforge Creator

The machine, with thin wood-like walls, came with only a two-page introduction and no software. Also supplied were a power source and a USB cable. The no software proved to be problematic.

Searching the Monoprice web site for the printer showed no results, a bad sign.  Sending Monoprice an email resulted in nothing. When I called the company, support was desultory. The company does not seem willing too part with information, even to consumers who've already been hooked and hauled in. 

The printer came with an SD card that contained "models." The models turned out to be oblongs. Not especially fun nor useful. 

Then I spent many hours downloading software, fiddling with the card, and trying to follow what a support person had told me: first convert files into some program that would slice them up, and then convert the files into a format that the printer could recognize.

Easier said than done and not easily said.

Back on Monoprice's web site, I searched for my model machine and kept being shown another different model.  At this point I should have taken a sledge hammer and crushed the thing into little pieces.

But I digress.

 I added files of things like dinosaurs and cup holders  to the card, but the Monoprice/Flashforge did not recognize the files. Picky little gizmo. I have a feeling that either the USB port came loose during shipping, or perhaps, is not connected to anything.

The software I ended up using, Replicator G, kept telling me my laptop was not connected to a printer. I was puzzled. Another call to support, which proved useless. 

I was told that the machine would not work with OS 10.11.3. Oh-oh. If I wanted it to work I would have to downgrade my computer. Not easy to accomplish.  I'm not sure, but I think no one in history has ever accomplished this feat. I certainly was not about to try. 

So, sadly, I had to tell Amazon that the Monoprice Architect had to be returned because it was literally useless. Well, unless all I wanted were blocks. 

Take this as a warning:  If you are the second person in the world using OS 10.11.3 (I am the first) do not buy a 3D printer, unless you are an electrical engineer and computer scientist. Or unless you like hours of torture.