Old News – Volume 2

On October 24th, 2014, there were at least two shootings in America.  One involved high school students in Washington and the other involved police officers in California.  Shootings like these have become so common that they don’t even steal the headlines in the news cycle.  These two incidents were right alongside stories about the Ebola threat (which is basically non-existent for Americans) and Joe Maddon opting out of his contract with the Rays.  While it is still  too early to say anything meaningful about these two recent tragedies, they did get me thinking about prior, similar incidents.  The three that immediately came to mind were Sandy Hook; Aurora, Colorado; and Tuscon, Arizona and what, if anything, we have learned.

Although it shouldn’t be needed, here is a brief reminder of those incidents.  On December 14, 2012 in Newtown, CT, a 20 year old used his mother’s gun collection to murder her and kill 20 children and 6 staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  On July 20, 2012 in Aurora, CO, a lone gunman opened fire in a movie theater killing 12 and wounding 70.  On January 8, 2011 in Tuscon, AZ, 19 people were shot at a constituent meeting for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.  Six people died, including a Judge and a nine year old girl.  Rep. Giffords was badly wounded and has still not fully recovered.  In the aftermath of each of those shootings, there were calls for changes.  But, little actually changed.  In large part the lack of change is due to the NRA and their congressional friends.

My first thought about these incidents is that we have not learned much.  Shootings still happen with enough regularity that they don’t even knock reality TV out of the headlines.  But, that’s not right.  Our failures can teach us a lot.

The first thing I have learned is that anyone who thinks for a second that the 2nd amendment is more important than a human life is a stupid scumbag.  These events are horrible and tragic.  There is no other way to look at them.  The victims are simply victims.  It is only natural for the survivors to grieve and to try to make sure that there aren’t future victims.  This is noble and good.  Survivors of earthquakes push for better building codes.  Survivors of disease push for better medicine.  To view these efforts by the survivors of gun violence as an attack on the 2nd amendment or people’s rights is selfish beyond description.  I want to live in a world where the survivors of tragedies work to prevent future tragedies.  I have nothing but contempt for anyone who would try to prevent that.

The second thing I have learned is that many, if not most, Americans don’t understand what The Constitution is.  It is not a sacred document.  It is not perfect.  And it was not meant to be either of these things.  It is a political document meant to set out the framework and powers of our government.  It is full of compromises and mistakes.  People have often, correctly, pointed out that the most powerful feature of our Constitution is our ability to change it.  This document was written to allow slavery and specifically said that black people are worth, “three fifths of all other Persons.”  The 13th and 14th amendments corrected these obvious mistakes (that they were largely ineffective is another matter for another time).  This document denied women full citizenship and the right to vote.  The 19th amendment corrected this obvious mistake.  The Constitution originally had the federal government collect taxes from the states based on the states’ populations.  This is outdated and was corrected by the 16th amendment.  Yes, the 2nd amendment is a part of the constitution, but that doesn’t mean we are stuck with it.  If it turns out to have been a mistake, like slavery or denial of women’s suffrage, or if it has become outdated, like like the original federal tax structure, it can, and should, be changed.

The third thing I have learned is that many Americans fight for their 2nd amendment rights without understanding what rights the 2nd amendment grants.  The 2nd amendment says, “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.”  The introductory clause, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” is key if one cares about the framers’ intent.  If they had wanted people to have the right to bear arms for self-defense or hunting, they would not have narrowed the amendment with the introductory clause.  It does not say, “A vibrant editorial page, being necessary to political debate in a democracy, the right of the people to express their opinions shall not be infringed.”  That is because they did not want to limit the 1st amendment rights in the same way they wanted to limit the 2nd amendment rights.  I know that the Supreme Court has recently expanded the right to bear arms to individuals, but they did not say that there are no limits on the right to bear arms.  This is from Wikipedia, but it gets the point right:

Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms. Miller’s holding that the sorts of weapons protected are those “in common use at the time” finds support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons. Pp. 54–56.

All of the people who are “protesting” by carrying their weapons into public places like restaurants and stores are not demonstrating a constitutionally protected right, even with the Supreme Court’s ultra-liberal reading of the amendment.

The fourth thing I’ve learned is that the Supreme Court was obviously wrong in the decision to expand the 2nd amendment to cover individuals.  And, they weren’t wrong because they went against the framers’ intent (which they did – even Scalia, the strict constructionist himself).  The were wrong because the “security of a free state” is a constitutional issue.  Stopping a rapist or burglar is not.  Prohibition should never have been a part of the Constitution because that is not what the Constitution is for.  The Supreme Court effectively legalized gay marriage by not accepting appeals, and that was the right decision.  It wasn’t right because homosexuals should have all of the same rights and privileges as everyone else (which they should).  It was right because the Constitution doesn’t have anything to say about marriage and families.  Self protection is a local, criminal matter.  I’m not saying that it is unimportant.  I’m saying that it is unrelated to the framework and powers of the government.

The fifth thing I’ve learned is that too few people think about the legitimate use of force.  One of the foundations of the state, any state, is that the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.  Any other option would result in anarchy.  This isn’t the time or place to discuss the problems with the libertarian ideal of anarchy, so I’m going to assume that we are all interested in having a state.  In order to have a state, all citizens must agree to grant the state a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.  There are situations where people are allowed to defend themselves, but these exist for strictly pragmatic reasons.  If I am being attacked now, I can’t wait for the police to arrive, so I have the right to defend myself.  That right extends only so far as it takes to stop the attacker and must be commensurate with the attack.  For instance, I cannot stab a person in the neck for trying to pick a rose from my garden.  And once I have disarmed or neutralized my attacker or the police arrive, I must stop my use of force.  In other words, the right to self defense is limited and should be thought of as a last ditch right anyway.  There’s a weird romanticism in the language of gun advocates.  “The best defense against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”  But, that’s just not true.  The best defense against a bad guy with a gun is to make sure bad guys can’t get guns.  If that fails, then the police are the next best defense.  Then there are protections like door buzzers, panic rooms, bullet proof glass, etc.  If all of that fails, then I’ll grant it would be nice to have a good guy with a gun.  Although, only if that good guy with a gun is well trained and actually in a position to help.  The last thing I want is a bad guy with a gun and a panicked good guy with a gun making things worse.  In other words, despite the propaganda, the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force is a good thing.

The sixth thing I’ve learned is that the NRA has become a large collection of douche-bags*.  The NRA has, at various times, been tolerable.  They supported responsible gun ownership.  They were for background checks and waiting periods.  Those days are long gone.  The NRA says that your first grader would not have been killed if her teacher were packing heat.  Talk about blaming the victim.  They are keeping our country from having a Surgeon General because the nominee thinks that gun violence is a problem.  They spread fear and distrust with statements about the tree of liberty and the blood of tyrants.  They intimidate rather than convince to get their way.  Look at their scorecard and how it plays out in elections.  There is rampant xenophobia and racism in their statements.  Just look at their reaction to Obama being elected president.  At this point in history, the NRA might as well be the KKK.

While it is still too early to say anything meaningful about the Washington and California shootings, I do know that they should never have happened.  I do know that they happened because we have failed to learn the lessons from all of the previous mass shootings.  We have failed the victims of prior shootings.  I’m not optimistic, but I can only hope that we will not continue in our failures.


*I am using douche-bags here in the technical sense – useless, sexist tools.  See https://medium.com/human-parts/douchebag-the-white-racial-slur-weve-all-been-waiting-for-a2323002f85d.


Breast Cancer Awareness Month

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  Normally, I think these types of events are kind of silly in a way perfectly summed up by a couple of pieces in The Onion.  I never thought that lack of awareness was a problem when it came to breast cancer.  In a lot of ways, breast cancer is the rock star of the deadly disease world.  Baseball players wear pink on Mother’s Day for breast cancer.  Football players wear pink in October for breast cancer.  And, if the statistic that 1 in 8 women will get breast cancer is true, then everyone personally knows someone who has had to deal with it.  So, as I said, I don’t think it is an issue of awareness.  We would be better off calling it Let’s Find a Cure for Breast Cancer Month or Just to Reiterate, Breast Cancer Sucks Month.

I didn’t realize how troubling this type of silliness can be until I read a piece by Leisha Davison-Yasol titled, “Please Put That Pink Can of Soup Down and Put Your Bra Back On“.  I knew that the easy, pat myself on the back because I bought something pink in October type of activism didn’t do any good.  But, I didn’t realize the kind of damage it could do.

Reading Davison-Yasol’s article made me a bit self conscious since I wrote and published a book to raise money for breast cancer research.  This is the description on Amazon:

A short time ago, a good friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer. When I asked her if there was anything I could do, she responded by asking me to write and illustrate a poem in the style of Dr. Seuss called, “What Happened to Mommy’s Boobs”. Since I’m usually game for a challenge, and not likely to say no to a cancer patient, I gave it my best effort. This is the result. My only goal was make my friend smile. Apparently, it worked and she suggested I publish it. Again, since I’m not likely to say no to a cancer patient, here it is. I hope it makes you smile, too. And, even if it fails to make you smile, rest assured that some good will come from the experience. I will donate $1.58 to Dana Farber’s breast cancer research for each copy sold.

Everything in that description is true, but it is a little vague.  And, since the book is rather silly, I thought I’d go through my reasoning a little bit lest I be accused of pinkwashing.

First of all, while I’m not a poet, I am comfortable with the English language, so I wasn’t that worried about writing the poem.  I know it’s not really in the same class as Dr. Seuss, but some of the spirit is there.  I used Green Eggs and Ham and Fox In Sox as my models.  You can see them in the list of slang terms and in the good natured antagonism.

However, I cannot draw at all.  So, I did the stick figures, but that wasn’t really cutting it.  Then, I had the idea that the pictures should be what was in the daughter’s head during the conversation.  But, that brought me back to not being able to draw.  Then, I hit upon clip art.  And when I first showed the poem to my friend, it was just done with MS Word’s clip art.  But, when she encouraged me to publish it, I knew I had to make changes.  I didn’t want to infringe upon any copyrights.  So, I scoured the internet for public domain images and images where the artist specifically said they are free for use for any purpose.

Once I had the images and put it all together, I started looking for self-publishing options.  Amazon was by far the easiest, and I figured it also had the most potential customers, so I went for it.  I was going to ask for $.99 per copy, but Amazon has two royalty rates, 35% and 70%.  Naturally, I wanted the 70% so I could donate that much more money, but in order to get 70%, the price has to be $2.99 or higher.  So, I went for the $2.99 price point.  I figured it’s still affordable.  I’d pay $2.99 for a chuckle for a good cause.  Of course, I don’t actually get 70%, because there is a delivery charge as well.  What I wind up getting is $1.58 per book.  That’s about 53%, but it’s still better than 35%.

After figuring out the publishing, I asked my friend if she had a preferred breast cancer charity.  She said no, so, once again, I took to the internet.  Dana Farber was at the top of every list I found for cancer charities.  Not only do their doctors and facilities get great ratings, but almost all of the money raised goes directly to the cause.  Add to that the fact that I’m a lifelong Red Sox fan and I was sold.

So, I published the book and created a Facebook page.  I have sold 28 copies and raised $44.24 for Dana Farber.  I know it doesn’t sound like much, but that’s $44 more than I could afford on my own.  My friend is doing well and seems to really appreciate the silly little poem I wrote for her.  But, I’d like to do more, and the best way for me to do more is to try to get more people to buy my book.  So, please go to Amazon and download a copy of What Happened to Mommy’s Boobs.  Thanks for reading.

Logic 101 – Teachers

There is nothing that bothers me more than seeing bad arguments put forth by a group I want to be sympathetic to or for a position I support. If it can get worse it would be when the group, or person, making the argument should know better.  Unfortunately, for these very reasons, teachers drive me absolutely crazy.  Teachers are among the best educated people around.  Their main job is conveying ideas in a way that is understandable.  But, when it comes to identifying the problems in education, proposing solutions to those problems, and asking for better treatment, they do a terrible job of teaching, often because of a failure of logic.

One of the most common issues I see is the teachers are addicted to ad hominem attacks. Now, any student of logic should know that ad hominem is Latin for to the man. It is one of the most famous informal fallacies. It is when someone attacks the person making an argument rather than the argument itself. The fashionable target for these ad hominem attacks right now is Bill Gates. It’s also been used on George Bush, Michael Bloomberg, and many others.  Commonly, it is expressed something like, “Bill Gates is bad.  Concentrating on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) is something Bill Gates supports.”  That may be a true statement, but it tells us exactly nothing about whether STEM is a good idea or not.  If a teacher thinks that focusing on STEM at the expense of other subjects is a bad idea, explain why.  Don’t drag Bill Gates into it.  This is also a bad rhetorical decision.  Bill Gates may be disliked in the education community, but for most of the rest of the world, he’s smart and successful and doesn’t have an obvious agenda other than helping others.  Aside from education reform, he tries to rid the world of malaria and get other rich people to donate their fortunes to charity.  Bashing Bill Gates might score points with the people who already agree, but it will not help to change anyone’s mind.

The law of non-contradiction is often ignored by teachers. In logic this can be expressed many different ways, but it boils down to A & -A is false or A & B and A & -B are incompatible statements. In regular English, it’s just saying that one thing cannot be both true and not true at the same time. This is most common with teachers in discussions of pay and assessment. When it comes to pay, teachers like to point out that they are vital to the educational process, that nothing makes as big an impact on students as their teachers. However, when it comes to assessment, teachers are quick to point out that they can’t be responsible for the bad students. The bad students are bad because of their socioeconomic backgrounds, lack of parental support, etc. Unfortunately, it can’t be both ways. Teachers can’t be the most important factor in the good students doing well, but a complete non-factor in the bad students doing badly.  In reality, there are a great many factors in whether students perform well or badly.  Teachers would be better off acknowledging that and not taking too much of the credit for successful students while accepting some of the blame for unsuccessful students.

False analogies are another problem in arguments about education.  It may seem obvious, but a false analogy is an argument from analogy that doesn’t work.  It could be because the two things being compared are not really alike or because they are alike, but not in relevant ways.  A famous example is that employees and nails are similar because they both have heads.  To get a nail to work, you need to whack it in the head.  Therefore, to get an employee to work, you need to whack her in the head.  Like the ad hominem, this is an informal fallacy.  It doesn’t tell us whether the conclusion is true or false.  There are two common areas where this comes into play.  The first is when someone says, “American schools need to be more like Finland’s schools (or Sweden or South Korea, etc.).”  The problem with this analogy is that the US is not much like these other places.  The entire country of Finland is kind of like a wealthy American suburb.  How many Finnish students have single parents working three jobs?  How many don’t know where their next meal is coming from?  The difference between Finnish education and American education is a huge difference in their overall societies.  If it is even possible to make the kind of societal changes that would turn America into Finland, education would take care of itself.  The other place you hear false analogies is in discussions of compensation.  It is often expressed as, “Actors and athletes make millions while teachers struggle.  Teachers contribute far more to society, so they should be paid better.”  There are two things wrong here.  The first is that teachers are comparing themselves to the outliers.  While it’s true that Tom Hanks makes millions, most actors, athletes, musicians, etc. really struggle and make far less than teachers.  The other problem is that the few who do get rich are not compensated based on their contributions to society.  They are compensated based on the fact that they have a very rare skill that people are willing to spend money on.  If people would pay to sit in a stadium and watch history lectures, teachers could be rich as well.

As I said at the beginning, I am mostly sympathetic towards the teachers.  I wish people were compensated based on their contributions rather than the whims of the market.  I wish every student could get a quality education and assessments were fair.  I wish teachers had more of a say in their curricula and monied interests had less.  But, repeating the same bad reasoning over and over isn’t going to help anything.  Parents sway elections, but they aren’t stupid.  Engage them with real arguments.  Let them know why it will help their children, and maybe things will finally improve.

My New York City Adventure

My wife and I spent last weekend in New York City.  She had a continuing education class on Friday, so I had the whole day to myself.  I had no plan or agenda.  I left my bags at the hotel and went out walking.  I got breakfast at some diner, which I can’t remember.  Eggs and an English muffin with orange juice, which was fine, but nothing special.  Then, since I was in the neighborhood, I wandered over to Rudy’s.

Rudy’s is a famous music shop in Manhattan.  By famous, I mean a place that people who are into guitars have heard of, even if they aren’t from New York City.  They always have nice stuff there, but well out of my price range.  There were a couple nice looking MTD basses, but for whatever reason, window shopping guitars wasn’t doing it for me that morning.  I was in the mood for records.  So, I asked one of the people at Rudy’s where I could find a good record shop.  He laughed and said that there are tons of them, but that I was in the wrong part of town.  Rudy’s is on 7th and 48th, near Times Square.  He said I had to go to the East Village or Williamsburg.  He mentioned Rough Trade records as the best around.  I asked if they had a specialty and he said no, they have everything.  I was a little hesitant to walk all the way to Brooklyn (I always walk, I hate the subway and taxis), but I had a whole day to kill, so I decided to go see what Rough Trade was all about.

Now, I’m not from New York City.  I’m from Connecticut and I went to college in New Paltz, New York, which is about two hours north of NYC.  That’s why I refuse to call it the City or New York.  The City is too vague.  There are lots of cities and I don’t want anyone to be confused about which one I mean.  And most of New York is not New York City.  I know, I lived there for three years.  Living near New York City for my whole life has given me a different kind of perspective.  I’ve been there a lot.  I’m comfortable there.  I mostly know my way around, but I’m not a native.  The natives are quick to point this out.  I don’t take the best routes.  I go to touristy places.  They know the real New York City and as an outsider, I do not.  I have to admit, part of why I decided to take this walk was to see what I could see, to try to see this real NYC.

When I left Rudy’s I didn’t exactly know where I was going.  I knew I had to head south and east to find the Williamsburg Bridge.  I figured the safest way to do that was to head east until I hit the river and then go south until I hit the bridge.  That way there would be no chance of overshooting my target.  Once I was in Brooklyn, I’d check my phone for real directions.  My plan worked.  It turns out I had to back track a little as the bridge doesn’t start right at the river, but I found my way.

I would talk about the walk itself, but there really isn’t much to say.  I passed a lot of buildings that mostly looked the same.  There were some schools with kids playing outside, some small parks with people walking their dogs, churches, restaurants, and businesses.  I think I passed about 100 Starbucks and 150 Duane Reades.  There was a ton of graffiti on the bridge, but none of it was interesting or amusing.  Williamsburg was more residential and the buildings were a bit smaller, but there still wasn’t much to talk about.

Finally, I arrived at Rough Trade.  It was promising from the outside.  It looked like a record store.  It had a handwritten sign out front and the usual notices near the door.  I spent a long time working retail, so one of the first things I noticed upon entering was a lot of wasted space.  But, it was a large space, so they still had potential.  Unfortunately, the second thing I noticed was that they clearly don’t have everything.  It is really focused on Indy-pop, which is not my thing.  After some wandering I found the Jazz section.  It took up half a bay, and the other half was filled with blues, folk, country, and roots music.  I started digging, and trying to lower my expectations, but I was disappointed.  Their jazz selection was mostly classics and look-at-me-avant-garde (I know that sounds incredibly snobby of me, but I’m not sure how else to describe it) and blues was even less interesting.  It’s not that it was a bad store, it seemed to have a lot of pop, dance, and hip hop, but it sure wasn’t what I was looking for.  I left and walked back to my hotel without even stopping for lunch.

I know my New York City adventure doesn’t sound like much.  There wasn’t a lot of adventure, it was boring, and I wound up disappointed.  But, it wasn’t a waste of a day.  I learned something.  I learned that the real New York City has been right under my nose all these years.  I missed it because the natives have such pride in their city.  I’ve always expected the real New York City to be big, exciting, and wonderful.  The real NYC, however, is just like every other city.  It’s people’s homes, schools, and favorite restaurants.  It’s people’s friends, neighbors, and pets.  It’s sweet, in a way, that the natives love their city so much that they think these things are special.  And, they’re half right.  Homes, schools, restaurants, friends, neighbors, and pets are special, but they are special everywhere.  People shouldn’t go to New York City looking for the real New York City.  They should go for the Met, MOMA, and Guggenheim.  They should go for Broadway, Rockefeller Center, and the Empire State Building.  Those are the things that make New York City unique because those are the things you can’t get anywhere else.