Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The only way to end gun violence once and for all

The kind of assault rifle used in the Newtown horror. Based on the military M-16

The first known gunpowder weapon, from China

Gunpowder spread from China to Europe. A 16th century soldier

Many people are now interested in firearms in the wake of the horror in Newtown.

Some who favor "gun rights" may be willing to strengthen gun control laws.

Yet relatively few people are familiar with the history of firearms, or harbor mythologies of the Old West, or the National Rifle Association's interpretation of the second amendment to the constitution.

By the way, try reading the second amendment:

 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.

No wonder it generates so many different readings. If you're an English major type, try diagramming it. There's also confusion over what is meant by "a well regulated militia."  "Militia" dates to the 16th century and is from the Latin that means "military service." What we would now call an army.

This is a subject of contention, but it seems clear that the second amendment is intended to prevent disarmament by a king. (There were some in the 18th century).  Note that the language refers to the right of the people, not the individual. Resolution of what the amendment means is not imminent.

Guns, since the first one was invented in China, have been developed for military use. The idea of "sporting arms" is a relatively recent invention to create business for firearms manufacturers. 

A more advanced Chinese weapon

Likewise, hunting with a rife is also a recent development. Hunting with a smooth bore musket, or a rifled musket, would not have been remotely easy. Muzzle-loading guns are inherently inaccurate due to their design. The projectile has to be shoved down the barrel, meaning that the bullet has to be slightly smaller in diameter.

Consequently, up to and through the Civil War, armies had to maneuver and fire in large formations to ensure an adequate volume of fire. This is also why battles could be fought by two ranks of opposing soldiers a few hundred feet apart. 

The invention of the Minie ball, during the course of the Civil War, increased the range and accuracy of rifle fire, by squeezing the bullet into the rifling grooves. Most of the weaponry and tactics of the First World War were in use by the end of the Civil War.

Invention of smokeless powder and the self-contained brass cartridge further improved the accuracy and firepower of rifles and allowed the design of smaller and more deadly hand guns. 

Winchester rifles and Colt pistols become icons of the Old West. Did cowboys all walk around with pistols as in movie Westerns? No, in reality they did not. 

The invention of the machine gun turned the Great War into the bloody impersonal killing of thousands upon thousands of French, English and German young men. Many also fell to Mauser bolt-action and British Lee Enfield rifles.  The Thompson submachine gun favored by Chicago gangsters was designed as a "trench sweeper" but did not see use by Dough boys.

 World War II was even worse, much worse. In addition to similar rifles, soldiers were also armed with semi-automatic rifles, like the Garand M-1, sub-machine guns, and the novel  Nazi sturmgeweher assault rifle. The sturmgeweher was chambered for rounds smaller than rifle ammunition and larger than pistol cartridges. The Soviets drew upon the sturmgeweher to produce the ubiquitous AK-47. 

Private ownership of guns started to rise in the U.S. after World War II.  Thousands of returning soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen, were familiar with the Garand, the Browning Automatic Rifle,  and the .45-caliber Colt semi-automatic pistol. 

Somewhere along the way, the myths of the self-reliant rugged individualist-explorer, the quick-draw outlaws of the West, gangster anti-heroes, and what Richard Hofstadter saw as a paranoid and anti-intellectual culture of America, melded into the idea that every person had the right to own lethal weaponry.

Consequently, the U.S., with a population of 311 million, now has an estimated 270 million firearms, including rifles and pistols.  The U.S. has one of the highest rates of gunfire homicides, suicides and accidental deaths in the developed world.  (See link below)

Clearly, private small arms would not be sufficient to overthrow a repressive government armed with heavy weapons, artillery, armor, air power, and a standing army. 

How many gun owners successfully defend themselves or their homes? No one knows with any accuracy. Estimates range from 1.5 million to 2.5 million times a year. Few people outside of police and the military have the training and discipline to use firearms in a responsible and effective way. 

This is why arming everyone is an insanely bad idea. 

Guns are more often used to kill family members, gun owners themselves, and untrained people who handle weapons. And they are also used to assassinate presidents and other politicians, civil rights organizers, people in theaters, colleges, high schools, and most recently in an elementary school. 

No matter how stringent gun control laws become, there is only one way to ultimately end gun violence in the U.S. That's a total ban on gun and ammunition ownership. If our elected leaders were up to the task, they could set a year, say, 2020, at which time owning or possessing a gun would be illegal. The penalty would be a non-negotiable prison term. 

During the intervening years, state, federal and local governments could offer to "buy back" guns.

Remaining guns would gradually be taken out of circulation as they are used. They would be recovered from crime scenes and destroyed. Some number of gun owners would get by, but when they pass away, their heirs would not be allowed to inherit their guns. 

So the whole disarmament might take 10, 20, 30 years, or more. 

After that, no more senseless mass murders by assault rifle. 

Sturmgeweher 44, Nazi assault rifle

Soviet AK-47

Saturday, December 15, 2012

tragicadjectivea tragic accidentdisastrouscalamitouscatastrophic,cataclysmicdevastatingterribledreadfulawfulappalling,dismalhorrendousfataldeadlymortallethal. ANTONYMSfortunatelucky.a tragic talesadunhappypatheticmovingdistressing,depressingpainfulharrowingheart-rendingpiteous,wretchedsorrymelancholydolefulmournfulmiserable,gut-wrenching. ANTONYMS joyfulhappy.a tragic waste of talentregrettableshamefulterrible,horribleawfuldeplorablelamentablepiteousdreadful,grievous.
unspeakableadjectiveunspeakable delightsindescribablebeyond description,inexpressibleunutterableindefinableunimaginable, unspeakable crimehorrificawfulappallingdreadful,horrifyinghorrendousabominablefrightfulfearful,shockingghastlygruesomemonstrousheinousegregious,deplorabledespicableexecrablevile.

When an inexpressibly sad, shocking or horrific event happens -- an unspeakable act -- there's no need to speak.

Some dignified silence on television would have been merciful following the appalling Newtown murder of children. But no, television being what it is these says, there had to be verbiage, and lots of it, to fill the time.

Perhaps the most egregious way to approach the unapproachable was conducted by ABC news, personified by Diane Sawyer and Chris Cuomo.  With few facts to report, they shamelessly inserted themselves into the story.

"Look at my monumental humanity and empathy," they seemed to be broadcasting. As the old joke goes, once you can fake sincerity you've got it made. 

During the quaint days of real  journalism, reporters were required to be objective. That meant that no reporter was to insert his or her feelings into a story.

If the story is so horrible it leaves you without words, think of some words. That's what you were being paid for. 

Under no circumstances could you have turned in a few pages about how there was no way to express the story. Describing your own horror: no. Revealing the weakness of your vocabulary: no.

But what viewers got instead was an unctuous Chris Cuomo "interviewing" a young girl about the shootings. In self-conscious fake felicity he put words in her mouth, expressed self-conscious  concern for her, and generally scaled the heights of bathos.

WTNH was better, by a little. No one at channel 8 could apparently stomach the false sincerity of Sawyer or Cuomo. 
What our local news men and women did was sincere, but clunky.

 That evening was not the time to reflect on your own children over the cable. Or how as a parent you could imagine the terror or grief (You could not possibly).  Or how difficult your job is. Or what a strain you are under. Or how devastated you are. Or how you are coping with unspeakable tragedy.

By doing so, they converted the story into themselves. 

It's not necessary to tell viewers that 20 kindergarten kids being shot methodically by a deranged man is worse than horrible. 

But that was the easiest way to fill time, and given the usual undermanned staff that newspapers and television stations have acquired,  doing any more would have been difficult. What more?

Ideally, find a story.

 That's what you're being paid to do. If that cannot be done, how about a few blessed minutes of video without commentary? Show, don't tell. 

And by that, I mean do not show how slick you are, or how well you can simulate humanity. Enlighten. Disseminate some news.  State Police spokesman  Lt. Paul Vance was the clearest-headed person at the scene, and had a monopoly on useful, real information. 

He explained cogently why details were scarce. If anyone was listening, he said that the crime scene had to be thoroughly examined, and evidence had to be preserved.

Maybe someone could have asked him why.

That crime scene was incredibly complicated and traumatic to the men and women who were collecting shell casings, or some other nightmarish, grisly task.

 Do we need to know the path of each round, or what type of ammunition was used? Those kinds of details seem pointless. However, there might have been compelling forensic reasons for doing so. 

When a spokesman is orders of magnitude sharper, clearer, more articulate and  well composed than the reporters at the scene of a crisis, something is wrong. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Accidentally on purpose or vice versa

photo courtesy of the Discovery Channel

Earlier this month the Discovery Channel presented "Plane Crash," which was about, you guessed it, a plane crash.

But this wasn't a real plane crash, but a controlled demonstration plane crash. An old Boeing 727 was equipped with surprisingly primitive radio controls and directed into a Mexican desert.  The point, then, was not to determine why the plane went down, but to see what happens inside a plane when it collides with the ground "accidentally."

The plane was packed with some crash-test mannequins, many cameras, and other recording devices. Engineers, test pilots, and other specialists were on hand to set up the event and then analyze the results.   Eventually the data will purportedly be presented to the public so that aircraft designers and scientists can glean information about how to improve crash safety.

The show, "Curiosity," paid an undisclosed amount of money to arrange and film the event. It was promoted as a scientific first and goldmine of information, ranking somewhere between discovery of the Higgs boson and seeing what happens when you mix vinegar and baking soda to make sodium acetate and bubbles of carbon dioxide.

(This reaction is actually more interesting than a full scale test of Newtonian physics. )

Aside from the improvisational air of the show -- the 727 was flown with a model airplane controller -- the event was  surprisingly not surprising.  After the crew parachuted out of the plane's rear exist the plane was guided to the ground at a gentle glide and low speed so that the onboard instruments would not be destroyed. The team also wanted to avoid a fire after the crash.

The show was entertaining, but the odds of an American dying in a domestic air crash are somewhere between 1 in 6 million to 11 million.  In other words, dying in an aviation disaster should be close to the bottom of your risk list. 

Experimentally, what happened was pretty much exactly what you would expect. The front landing gear crumpled, which pulled the nose under the fuselage,  the other two wheels detached as designed and "dummies" in the plane who weren't wearing seat belts were subject to greater forces that those belted in.

The one anomaly was that the engines continued to operate after the crash, which is kind of odd. But it was not pursued. 

Otherwise, most of the results seem as if they could be obtained through first principles. That is, if you know the mass and speed of an object, then calculating its momentum is a simple matter of multiplication.

Likewise, if you have information about the plane's design, predicting what would happen after it exceeded its envelope should also not be too difficult. 

Moreover, there are unfortunately many real plane crashes to study. What Curiosity demonstrated was what damage would result from intentionally crashing a perfectly operating plane into an unpopulated desert.

Which is kind of cool to watch over and over, but of what value is that?  Also, if the experimenters did not want a fire, they could have limited the amount of jet fuel.  Otherwise, they discovered that overhead wiring comes loose impeding rapid exit, and that sitting in a brace position wearing a seat belt is safest. 

That's one data point. And an unusual one at that. The chances of this recurring seem remote.

 To be more useful, a large number of identical  planes would have to be crashed at the same place at the same speed and rate of descent. However, what would be the point? Why not crash scale models, or use computer simulations?

Because those would be relatively dull to watch.

 And this crash was for entertainment more than science. Just like the vinegar and baking soda "volcanoes" that appear frequently at science fairs.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Attach brida A to soporte B and Good Luck with that


Clear instructions are an unexpected casualty of the Internet.

The problem is also a result of global marketing and the desire of manufacturers to print the minimum amount of directions for power tools and accessories. They often tell you to look at their websites, which usually are not very helpful.

The next place to look is You Tube. Good luck with that.

First, instructions about how to work appliances, power tools, and so on, where printed on paper in English. Unfortunately for me, I am only fluent in English, so that was OK. Not so good if you speak Spanish.

Now instructions for everything from box fans to power saws, to paint to solvents, are written in several Indo-European languages, including Spanish, and sometimes French, German,and  Dutch and some non-IE ones like Polish, Mandarin, and Swedish.

Your only option is to search for guidance on the World Wide Web. Some videos are more useful than others, but generally they are full of sound and imagery signifying nothing.  (Why am I buying power tools that I am unfamiliar with? Long story.)

I am not an "English only" Tea Party lunatic, and the more languages the merrier. However, all of those non-English instructions consume space on a limited piece of paper.

 Try to pick up a can of Drano and try to quickly find the dangerous ingredients. Not so easy. However, I have learned the words for "danger" and "warning" in Spanish, if the occasion ever arises.

Instructions for power tools are ridiculously incomplete and difficult to follow. These are products able to severely injure or kill you, and operating instructions (in English) are crammed into a small space, or printed in microscopic type, or both. Typically, sparse English instructions are repeated in one or two other languages. 

Instead, if you're lucky, you may receive a DVD with the product. If you purchase a Rockwell Blade Runner, for example, you receive a Rockwell DVD with a menu that promises to be complete: "for best results...miter gauge and rip fence...trouble shooting and a few other preliminaries. But, if you play "trouble shooting" just to see the contents of the DVD, the video man tells you to read the instructions.

Adjust the stop using hex wrench, making sure the spacer under the template is parallel to the board and does not extend to the bit measuring screw, or something like that. Refer to drawings on another page.  Several additional pages that could be used to clarify, are instead, in equally, one presumes, confusing Spanish.

It might cost a few extra cents, but how about different manuals for English-speaking and Spanish-speaking countries? 

By the way, try to find instructions on how to use the Porter Cable 4216 dovetail jig. Check he web and You Tube. What's there is intended for people who already understand how the apparatus operates.   Dovetail and related wood joinery is complicated.

That could explain the relative rarity of cabinet makers. And perhaps the number of people missing pieces of their fingers.

Peligro! Advertencia!

Monday, October 8, 2012

The other you you hope to find

Are you fantastically successful in another universe? 

Somehow this seems to be an increasingly popular idea, especially among New Age types and people who misconstrue quantum mechanics. 

Let's pose some questions to Brian Greene, author of popular books on physics and cosmology, and professor at Columbia University. He's one of the latest to explicate the multiple-you idea. Greene's reasoning is logical, well thought out, and he's probably no slouch on quantum mechanics, either. 

Greene posits an infinite universe, filled with an infinite number of sub-universes. Our universe is just one of many.

How often would you expect to run into a universe similar to ours, with an Earth similar to this planet? If you take every proton, neutron and electron in our universe and combine them in every combination and permutation, the number is 1 followed by 10 to the 122nd power of zeroes. There isn't enough space in the universe to write this number.

For simplicity we will call this unimaginably large number "1 zillion."

Moving out into the multi-verse, you could expect a universe like this one about once every 1 zillion miles, or meters, (doesn't really matter). 

Because the multi-verse of universes is infinite, at some point you would find an Earth-like planet  with a person just like you, Greene asserts.  Really?

Instead of universes, we'll consider sets of numbers, because it seems much simpler.  A set of even integers is definitely infinite, but you would never find a single odd integer.  Likewise, a set of all positive numbers is infinite, but it excludes the equally infinite set of negative numbers. 

So in an infinite universe, would you necessarily find a duplicate of Earth? Maybe our and other  universes have a property corresponding to positive, negative, rational or irrational. If what extends to infinity is "negative" universes, do not expect to ever encounter our "positive" one. 

But wouldn't there also be a "positive" infinity of universes? Maybe. But isn't it possible that the positive infinity of universes follows the negative one? In that case, no matter how far you travel, you'd never find one.

 Or perhaps the cosmos somehow limits the number of ways that elementary particles can combine. Could there be an as yet unknown law of nature that constricts universes so that no two are exactly alike?  Maybe only 1 percent of universes can be identical. Who knows? 

Moreover, odds are that if a universe identical to ours is out there somewhere, it's probably exceedingly far away.  Since superluminal (faster than the speed of light)  travel is impossible, it could take longer than the age of universe to get there, billions, trillions or quadrillions of light years away.

The bottom line here is that if there is another "you" in the universe of universes, you will find her or him, unless your lifespan could somehow be increased to 1,000 billion trillion quadrillion years. 


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Ticked off for no good reason

As it turns out, Lyme disease was not created as a biological weapon on Plum Island and did not accidentally escape into an unsuspecting population.

Who said it did? For one, Jesse "The Body" Ventura, former Navy underwater demolitions expert, governor of Wisconsin and professional wrestler, real name, James George Janos.

He's quoted on the Web as contending that Lyme disease resulted from biological warfare research on Plum Island, a mysterious little island off the coast of Connecticut.  The actual institution there is the Plum Island Animal Disease Center.  During the Cold War the site was allegedly used to create bio-weapons against domestic animals, like sheep and cattle.

The bacterium that causes Lyme disease

Yes, it's a bit creepy, and having to change out of your clothes and into a special disposable suit, and being required to shower before exiting, adds to the spooky atmosphere.

But, getting back to Lyme disease. 

DNA from the bacterium that causes Lyme disease was recently identified in a sample taken from "Otzi," the remarkably preserved frozen fellow found in the Otzi Valley, in the Alps, a few years ago. 

Otzi is about 4,000 years old. That is, way, way  before Europeans landed on this continent and thousands of years before the construction of the lab on Plum Island. 

However, even if Otzi had never been found, the idea of Lyme disease as a biological weapon is ludicrous. It typically causes flu-like symptoms, a rash, painful joints, and is almost always cured by a week of antibiotics. There is no record of any otherwise healthy person ever dying from Lyme disease.

This is not what you want in a weapon. It's too mild and too easily treated. Treatment calls for nothing more exotic than amoxicillin, a standard, cheap antibiotic. Smallpox, plague,  and anthrax are the kinds of terrifying pathogens that some countries have weaponized.

The Lyme disease pathogen, Borrelia burgdorferi, just wants to live in ticks. The ticks are not affected. The parasite just uses mice, deer, shrews, voles and us, as way stations.

 Nothing personal.  Just passing through, like they've been doing for a long, long time.