Saturday, August 12, 2017

CalExit

The State of California, still upset over the results of the last Presidential election, is making secession noises.  Simultaneously, a group of unlike-minded folk in northern California, including a few counties in Oregon, are making secession noises of their own: they want to secede from California.

Opinions on the issue vary wildly.  Some, mostly mid-westerners, can hardly wait for The Republic of California to be a reality.  Others see the loss of 55 reliably-Democratic electoral votes as a certain death warrant for their party.  In the middle is a group that asks "didn't we settle this issue in 1865?".

As a matter of fact, no, we did not settle this issue in 1865.  The American Civil War is still being fought today, but with far fewer casualties.  As time goes by, the drawbacks of a policy that forces two or more irreconcilable groups to live in community grow daily more obvious.  Forcibly joining groups that will never agree is like putting out an anchor to windward: it stops movement in the face of looming disaster — sometimes.  Sometimes, it merely delays the inevitable.

For a very long time, I have held the opinion that secession is a good thing, not a bad thing.  If two (or more) groups of people have decided in their hearts that they can no longer peacefully coexist with each other, keeping them joined against their better judgement is foolish and dangerous.  Recall John F. Kennedy's admonition that those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.  Forced union is asking for trouble, and it's almost certainly inefficient.  Those who are (in their view) held captive against their will will never work with enthusiasm for the benefit of their 'captors'.  They will always be a drag on the economy.

And if your response to that is that we are all supposed to be brothers, then it's fair to ask why you do not wish your brothers the freedom to chart their own course through life.  Or are they only permitted to travel on the course you have charted for them?

I believe CalExit would be a catastrophe for California and Californians, but I could be wrong.  Whatever my personal opinion on the matter, it remains true that Californians ought to decide for themselves without asking me for permission to do so.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Great 'Right v Left' Lie

Of all the memes that can lead our thinking astray, the notion that in American politics there is a "right wing" versus a "left wing" is the most common, the most incorrect, and the most dangerous.  It derives from the tradition in the French legislature that the royalists sit on one side of the assembly and the populists on the other, and this is what makes it incorrect in modern America.  Our legislators, both R and D, routinely claim to be working for the benefit of their constituents — and some do, on occasion — but their primary goal is clearly not to enhance their constituents' freedom, but rather to expand their own power.  They do this by "making a federal case of it" in every instance and on every issue.  They are all (with a very few exceptions) 'royalists'.  This echoes a remark by Judge Andrew Napolitano that there is only one party in American politics: The Big-Government Party, that has a left wing and a right wing.

This meme is so common that anyone who suggests it might be false immediately becomes suspect of having ulterior motives, whereas the 'motive' in such cases is merely to open others' eyes to the truth.  Such crusaders may be consoled by the knowledge that every true thing was first believed by a single person before being believed by dozens, hundreds, millions, and, finally, everyone.

The meme is dangerous because it leads us to believe that those politicians who identify with our side are correct and others who identify with their side are incorrect when, in truth, they are all on the same side, the side of The Big-Government Party.  We thus support those who are guiding us toward ever more intrusive government, ever more dilution of our freedom, in the mistaken belief that we are on the side of the angels.

So, if there really is not a left-right distinction, what accounts for the division so evident among Americans today?  What defines the divide we can so clearly see?

The division is between individualists and collectivists.  It is a statist-v-libertarian conflict.  On one side are those (statists) who subscribe to the notion that the citizen exists for the purposes of the state; these are opposed by those who place the individual above the collective, who insist that the collective exists to fulfill the individual, rather than the other way around.  This is, in fact, the guiding principle upon which our nation was founded.  We find in the Declaration of Independence Jefferson asserting that "...to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men...".  The bedrock of our system is libertarian in nature: that the state exists to fulfill the individual.

Note that it says "to secure these rights", not 'secure our safety'.  Our government was created to keep us free, not safe, yet when the USA PATRIOT Act was proposed in the wake of 9-11 only one Senator (Russ Feingold) and one Representative (Ron Paul) objected and voted 'no'.  Every other member of Congress voted to give the government enormous power over its citizens, power that was unconstitutionally usurped from those same citizens.  With few exceptions, we the people have sent to represent us those who think their job is to keep us safe — even if it means enslaving us.

Whether Democrat or Republican, left or right, nearly all of them are collectivists.  Why?

It derives, I believe, from our natural tendency to acquire.  Whether we understand it or not, economic principles are burned into our very being.  We understand intuitively that it is better to have and not need than to need and not have, and so we gather wood before winter and save our pennies for a rainy day.  Along comes a politician who says "Elect me and I'll see that you have whatever the current hot-button issue is!" and our natural reaction is "Great!  That means I won't have to do that for myself!" and we cast our vote accordingly.

A politician who promises to get government out of our way so that we can do things for ourselves is much less enticing than one who promises to do those things for us.  It's only natural.  How can we delude ourselves into thinking that we are about to get the mythical free lunch?   We can because we want to.

At the very base, our problems with intrusive government start with our desire to have a pony.  Adults are supposed to know that a pony is expensive to start with and requires more expenditures for food, health care, and lodging, but, like children, we ignore those uncomfortable facts when it's our pony.

The fault is truly not in our stars but in ourselves.

If you're content with being a secure peon rather than a free person, you need not change a thing.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Americans and Guns; A discourse to a casual acquaintance

A friend-of-a-friend asked me over coffee why I thought Americans were obsessed (her word) over guns.  What follows is my response.

Let me level-set: have you been to America?  (She had.)  What did you think of it while you were there?  (She thought it generally a nice place but she felt uneasy because of her perception that it could be dangerous.) 

America is generally a nice place to visit.  The violence that one reads about in newspapers and sees on TV is isolated and concentrated to several quite small geographical areas.  Were you to plot on a map the locations of all the violent gun-related events you hear about via the mainstream media, you would be surprised (or maybe not) to discover that almost all of it happens in no more than a dozen compact areas all of which are part of a handful of major cities: Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, Camden and Newark NJ, and a few others.  These compact and isolated areas make up a very small fraction of America’s nearly 4 million square miles — possibly less than 400 square miles in total — and one’s chances of being involved in a violent gun-related event outside those areas is vanishingly small.  Indeed, most of that violence shares a single profile: it is almost entirely black-on-black crime, primarily drug related, and it occurs in places where legal possession of guns is difficult-to-impossible.  In other words, the people committing those violent crimes are already criminals before the first trigger is pulled.  (As an interesting statistical ‘aside’, those hyper-violent places are all — every single one — in cities that have overwhelmingly large Democratic voting populations and have been so for decades.)

So, why then do Americans obsess so over their guns?  It is certainly a cultural phenomenon probably an echo of our frontier heritage, but it also has a political aspect: we are expected to be armed as a way of insuring against the rise of tyranny — however improbable you may think that may be.  Those who wrote our Constitution felt that only an armed populace could guarantee a military dictatorship would not arise.  The Second Amendment to the Constitution, the right to keep and bear arms, was written with that in mind.  There is something buried deep in the American psyche that whispers “keep the guns cleaned and oiled”.

But your question goes deeper than that, I think.  You hear stories of mass shootings, school shootings, or murder at the mall, and you wonder why the government — someone — doesn’t do something.  You hold this view because you believe government’s primary duty is to protect the citizenry.  That’s wrong, at least in America’s case.  Our government’s primary duty is to protect the rights of the people.  We the people have the responsibility to protect ourselves, an easy task when our rights are ensured.  In fact, those horrible incidents the media most often trumpet happen when and where our rights have been subverted.  School zones, for one example, are places where one’s right to keep and bear arms is forbidden.  When a lunatic searches for a place full of unarmed victims, ‘school’ is often their first thought.  Of the last 60 mass-shooting incidents, 59 occurred in gun-free zones.  The lone exception was the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in a parking lot.  Oddly, almost all the shooters in these cases were people with Democratic or ‘progressive’ or ‘leftist’ political leanings or affiliations — including the Giffords shooter — and these are the groups that are most actively campaigning for more gun control.

In fact, what I call ‘the 2nd amendment community’ (hereafter ‘SAC’) — that group of people who lawfully own and lawfully use guns and who favor the ability of peaceful people to arm themselves with their firearm of choice — are confused over the efforts — primarily from the left, the anti-SAC — to restrict the 2nd amendment.  To the SAC, it appears the anti-SAC are focusing on the wrong demographic.  There are lawful gun uses and there are unlawful gun uses but the anti-SAC treat both as if they are undifferentiated.  That view is nonsensical, but it’s what most of the headlines are based on.

I like to point out to people that only two states, Texas and Florida, keep statistics on whether or not this arrestee has a concealed weapons permit (hereafter ‘CWP’).  The pictures from both states are remarkably similar: while we expect police to be law-abiding, those who have CWPs are more law-abiding than are the police!  They are (depending on which year you examine) 7-to-13 times less likely to be arrested for anything than is the general populace.  That is, they are 6%-13% as likely to have an unpleasant interaction with police as you are, and you know how often you get arrested!  Would we see the same picture from other states?  It seems very likely given the dissimilarity of the two we have as examples, so treating the SAC as if they were all criminals makes no sense, yet what do we see again and again?  Ban this weapon (as if criminals will turn them all in!).  Register these weapons (ditto).  Background checks for every sale or transfer (ditto).  Every new suggestion for ‘common sense gun control’ is aimed directly at the people who are not the problem.  That’s neither common sense nor reasonable.

So, what we have is an American nation awash with firepower (over 100 million Americans are thought to own more than 350 million firearms and 200 billion rounds of ammunition — such numbers are necessarily imprecise) but almost all our ‘gun violence’ happens in a few enclaves where drugs are a problem.  No reasonable person can look at this picture and believe that ‘guns’ are as big a problem as are the drugs.  Were we to immediately end the foolish War On Drugs, violent crime would plummet even harder than it has been for the last thirty years.

Oh, yes, perhaps you weren’t aware — crime in the United States has been on a nearly-uninterrupted downslide since the 1980s while state after state has been relaxing restrictions on firearms-for-the-law-abiding!  America isn’t getting more dangerous, it’s getting safer as more and more people arm themselves.  Newspapers and TV stations are just getting better at finding and reporting shocking news.

One factoid often reported is that about 30,000 people die from gunshot each year.  What is not reported in the mainstream media is that 60% of these deaths are suicides and are unlikely to be much affected by the presence or absence of this means or that; ‘guns’ here are a non-issue.  Of the remaining 12,000, about 5,000 are justifiable homicides where the victim was engaged in criminal activity at the time of death.  7,000 criminal deaths from a population of 310 million is a very small fraction (2 per 100,000), but if it bleeds, it leads.  These 7,000 deaths are what the anti-SAC and mainstream media focus on.

Since 1987 when Florida began the current easing of restrictions, crime in the United States has been disappearing (no, really!).  In 1987, Florida became a “shall issue” state.  Any person who applied for a CWP and who could not categorically be determined to be a danger to the community was issued the permit.  At that time, only Vermont and Montana had looser laws: Vermont allowed anyone to carry (concealed) a firearm “for any lawful purpose”; Montana placed an age limit of 14 on that practice.  Since that time, all but five states have become either “shall issue” or “Vermont carry”.   Oddly enough, many of the most dangerous places in the country are found in “may issue” or “no issue” states or in states which have only recently (generally after being forced by the courts) become “shall issue”: New York, California, Illinois;  or which are “home rule” cities like Philadelphia or Washington DC.  Correlation may not be causality, but something is clearly going on here.

In the 90s during the Clinton Presidency, a team of researchers from Florida State University set out to discover how dangerous it was for ordinary people to be allowed firearms.  Kleck and Kurtz did a rough survey via telephone to ascertain how rarely firearms were used for good.  What they found shocked them: their results hinted that there might be as many as 2.5 million defensive gun uses (DGUs) each year.  This number absolutely dwarfs the criminal uses of guns.  Because of that, the survey was widely discounted as flawed.  To correct it, the US Department of Justice commissioned its own counter-survey.  Their conclusion was that DGUs probably did not exceed 800,000 per year.  This number still dwarfs criminal usage.  Later, David Hemmenway of Harvard repeated the DOJ survey, this time excluding every incident that could not be proven to have saved a life, and got the number down to 80,000 DGUs.  Since only about 7,000 people die from criminal gun use in the US each year, even this number was unsatisfactory to the anti-SAC, but there it is.

There’s only one conclusion that may be drawn from the foregoing: America is not a dangerous place and Americans are not a dangerous people.  The first corollary is that trying to disarm the American populace at large is not simply unnecessary, but is probably counter-productive.  The second corollary may well be that every American should be armed.

“An armed society is a polite society.” —— Robert Heinlein

Could this also be true elsewhere?  Switzerland is an enlightening example.  Every Swiss trains in their military and is issued, as part of their training, a rifle.  The typical arm issued is comparable to the standard issue for most modern militaries, and can operate as a machine gun.  It is worth a short detour to explain the difference between ‘automatic’ and ‘semi-automatic’:

 

Both auto and semi-auto arms are classified as ‘self-loaders’ or ‘autoloaders’.  When the trigger is activated, a round is fired, the mechanism extracts the empty brass, ejects it, resets the firing pin, and reloads another round from the magazine, making the firearm ready to fire again.  For semi-autos, this is the end of the process;  the trigger must be released and pulled again to fire the next round.  Autos (or ‘full-autos’) will continue to fire round after round while the trigger is held or until the magazine is empty.  They are sometimes thought of as machine guns.

Fully-automatic firearms are extremely rare among civilian populations in the Western world, very expensive, and heavily restricted.  No full-auto firearms manufactured after May 1986 are owned by civilians in the US.  While some guns are casually designated ‘auto’ (“.45 Automatic”), they are properly referred to as ‘semi-auto’.

Most military weapons are classed as ‘select fire’.  This means that they can change from semi-auto to auto or back at the flip of a switch.

Since 1934, there have been only two crimes committed in the U.S. with legally owned full-auto weapons.  In both cases, the perpetrators were police officers.

 

In the US, the anti-SAC obsesses over the proliferation of semi-auto AR-15s.  The Swiss, at the end of their military service, are sent home with their issued, select-fire rifles which they keep at home along with a small supply of ammunition.  They keep a machine gun handy in case war breaks out, which hasn’t happened since 1391.  The Swiss have an enviably-low violent crime rate.

Guns are not the problem.  They can’t be.  If they were, the Swiss would be extinct.

 

Every now and then, some anti-SAC will propose the repeal of the 2nd amendment.  The SAC used to fly into a panic over this but lately they pay no attention to the rantings.  They seem to understand that repealing the 2nd will have no effect even if it’s possible to find the votes to do so — something which presently appears unlikely.

Every year, something like 15 million Americans get hunting licenses, dress in camouflage clothing, load their high-powered scoped rifles and stealthily stalk animals, mostly deer, and kill them with single shots at hundreds of yards’ distance.  That’s what snipers do.  We have 15 million mostly-civilian snipers.  ’15 million’ is a number larger than the five largest armies in the world — combined.  These are the people the anti-SAC want to disarm.  If the idea weren’t so ludicrous, it might even be funny.

Making it even more ludicrous is the fact that disarming that population will have to be carried out by armed men most of whom are, themselves, members of the SAC.  The panic of yesteryear has been replaced by a somewhat grudging admiration of the anti-SAC capacity for self-delusion.

We are not amused.

Austria is now contemplating adding “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” to their constitution.  The influx of many mostly-Islamic refugees has brought with it a huge jump in violent crime and many Austrians are discovering the benefits of being able to defend oneself at the moment a violent crime happens rather than waiting to file a police report after the fact.  What makes this notable is that the Austrian constitution will grant a right.  Americans consider rights to originate from God or nature or whichever metaphysical entity least offends one’s sensibilities, rather than originating from governments or constitutions —  “…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…”.  If the Austrians press onward with this, they will come into conflict with the European Union which, as a matter of policy, opposes civilian ownership of the means of self-defense.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the shadow of Brexit and the impending exit of several others.

 

Having a rational conversation on the topic of ‘guns’ with an anti-SAC is nearly impossible because virtually everything they think they know about guns is wrong.  Some of their beliefs:

  • anyone can order a machine gun via mail-order
  • guns at home are more dangerous to the family than anyone else
  • criminals will be deterred by another law
  • people all across the country own “weapons of war”
  • guns can be sold at gun shows without background checks
  • guns can be bought on the internet without background checks
  • guns can be shipped to any address
  • no civilian has any lawful need of a 30-round magazine
  • hunting and target shooting are the only reasons for having a gun
  • all you ‘gun nuts’ are paranoid
  • you think your gun makes you Dirty Harry
  • we would all be safer if only the police and military had guns.

Most of these are demonstrably wrong;  some are just illogical nonsense;  all of them are tenets of the faith, believed because it is necessary that they be believed.  We ‘gun nuts’ often try to treat the anti-SAC as if they are rational beings capable of absorbing truth, capable of accepting proof and abandoning their belief in fantasy.  In most cases, it simply doesn’t work that way.  Whether they think the SAC is lying to them or whether it is just too painful to give up their fantasies or whether it is merely impossible for them to abandon such deeply-held notions, in all but the most unusual cases, they will simply tune out any and all opposing views no matter how firmly backed by fact.  So-called ‘researchers’, some in residence at prestigious universities, produce studies and papers purporting to show by statistical evidence that pro-gun opinions are manifestly cuckoo.  One of the most notorious of these was Michael Bellesiles’ ‘Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture’ published out of Emory University.  Bellesiles supposedly examined court documents of colonial and post-colonial America to demonstrate that private possession of firearms was rare-to-nonexistent as evidenced by their conspicuous absence from probate records.  It won several prestigious awards for scholarship and hit the New York Times’ bestseller list before other researchers attempted to recreate his evidence and failed.  For his part, Bellesiles claimed his notes had been destroyed by a flood and thus couldn’t be produced for verification.  When one researcher discovered Bellesiles had cited records from before the time such records could have existed, the whole story fell apart.  Bellesiles had fabricated the bulk of his ‘research’.  The awards he had received were revoked and he was terminated from employment at Emory.  Sadly, ‘Arming America’ can still be found on many library shelves in the non-fiction area.

The best arguments the anti-SAC can produce are generally 'fiction'.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

A Muslim majority?

What happens if Islam becomes the majority religion in America?

There is already a Muslim mayor of London, so don't think it's not possible.   That same mayor just announced, in response to the recent terror attack on Parliament, that such things are part of the price for living in a big city and that people should get used to it.

The first thing that will happen in a Muslim-majority America is that the 1st amendment to the Constitution will come under attack.   Long before that, Islam will have become a major religion among the U.S.Congress and the several statehouses, and that's where the process starts.   Either 2/3rds of both houses propose an amendment or 2/3rds of the states call for a convention.   Why the 1st amendment?   Well, technically anyone may broadcast or print negative words about the Prophet.   This cannot be tolerated in an Islamic country or by Muslims anywhere.   The first has got to go.

"The First Amendment to the Constitution is hereby repealed."   If 3/4ths of the states, either by ratifying convention or by the legislatures ratifying on behalf of the people, accept this, it could then become a crime to speak against the Prophet or Islam, even if what you say is true.   There would be no escape, either, for those who merely make such remarks among family and friends because, as we have seen from recent events, the government has the ability to spy on us even in private via our phones and television sets, and that spy apparatus would be in the hands of a largely-Islamic government.

It would then also be possible to have a state religion, and it would be Islam.   As in nearly all other Islamic nations, the practice of other religions would be forbidden.   Media outlets that took adverse positions could be lawfully shuttered.   There would be one voice throughout the land, and it would deliver a single message, and the Republic would be no more.

There comes a point in such a struggle that the tide sweeps the victor onward to inevitable victory, and we are too, too close to that point for comfort.

"If you will not fight for right when you can easily win without bloodshed;   if you will not fight when your victory is sure and not too costly;   you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival.

"There may even be a worse case.   You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves."

— Winston Churchill

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Growing Up In Brooklyn

I just recently saw a group of old photos of the Sunset Park pool sent to me by nephew Wayne Lydon and it got me to thinking about how weird it was growing up in Brooklyn in the 50s and 60s.

I lived for most of those growing-up-years at 441 43rd Street just below (that is, northwest of) the main staircase of Sunset Park.  Surprisingly, that staircase still looks the way I remember it with huge concrete finials atop the walls, although there is a curved path above that I don't recall.  Wayne says it's newer than his childhood.

I attended St Michael's School just down the street at 43rd and 4th Avenue from age 6-or-so until high school and for most of that time I led what must have been an extremely sheltered life.  All that changed about the 5th or 6th grade.

There were always new students moving in from elsewhere, and students who would disappear at the end of term because their family moved away, a slow but constant churn in the population.  One term, a boy named John McLean Simpson joined the class and I have to admit he turned my sheltered existence inside out.  John grew up on Manhattan's East side, barely more civilised than it was 100 years prior, but it was Manhattan, a world away.

One day John asked if I had ever been to The American Museum of Natural History (Central Park West at 81st Street) and I admitted I had not.  He talked me into going with him on Saturday, and here begins the weird part:

On Saturday morning, I informed my mother that I was going to the museum with a classmate and that I needed some money.  Understand, I was 12, possibly 13, and I had just asked my Mom to fund an all-day, essentially unsupervised excursion to Manhattan from Brooklyn.  A parent who did that today would lose their children to state supervision and never see them again.

She handed over two, maybe three dollars.  This would be enough for two 15-cent subway tokens and lunch.  Admission to the museum was then free.

John made a small navigation error and we got off the train on the east side of Central Park rather than the west side.  John assured me this was not a problem and we proceeded to hike across Central Park to the other side, and then to 81st Street.  Now, Central Park is only 2,000ft wide, less than half a mile, measured from east-side to west-side, so it's not so big that it can't be walked, except that I had never been to Central Park so it seemed pretty damned big to me.  It gobbled an hour or more of our day, but I always considered it 'worth it'.

We wandered through the museum as John pointed out absolutely awesome exhibit after absolutely awesome exhibit.  I was thunderstruck.  I had never imagined such stuff even existed, much less existed a simple train ride away.  It was the first museum (of many) that have thrown me out at closing time.  John and I used our remaining tokens to bring us home to the 45th Street station of the 4th Avenue Local, now called the RR line.  When I got back to my home around six-ish, my mother asked how my day had been and I may have bent her ear for the next hour.  It was apparently not a surprise to her that I had spent all day in another county, managing to deal with the New York City subway system both ways, and that I was still alive. To this day I wonder what the hell she was thinking.

Until I married and moved away, it remained one of my favorite attractions in New York City.  I even took my kids on a field trip there when we lived in Westchester County.

—==+++==—

From the time I entered first grade I have worn glasses.  I probably needed them before that but no one noticed until a teacher discovered I had problems with small print.  My Mom took me to her optometrist (?), Samuel Laub, 400 Van Brunt St. in Red Hook.  Fifth Avenue bus to 9th Street, transfer to the 9th Street line, and it's all a fog after that, but I wound up with my first pair of glasses.  I was now, more or less officially, "four eyes".

During my tweens and teens, Red Hook had a reputation as a place run by street gangs of the most violent sort.  To the best of my knowledge I never went there again.  Today, Red Hook has an entirely different reputation as it houses NYC's cruise port.

I've now worn glasses for so long that it has become an almost Pavlovian reaction that if I take my glasses off I go to sleep.

—==+++==—

At the foot of 43rd Street (at 4th Avenue, downslope toward the Upper Bay) was, at one time, a courthouse (I don't know what sort) that occupied the entire strip from 42nd to 43rd.  On the 43rd Street side were two stone platforms that always seemed to me to be speakers' platforms.  They were excellent sites for play-acting of various sorts.  On the 42nd Street side the land was slightly lower (or the building was higher) and the 'platforms' were ramps that were perfect for sliding, and many were the jeans whose seat was worn thin from them.

On the 4th Avenue side, a pit allowed light to flow into some of the basement offices.  It was possible (but quite dangerous) to scale the four-foot fence guarding the pit and, if one had good sneakers and strong fingers, climb down into the pit and then climb back out.  Although I, personally, never did, I did cheer on a few of my more daring neighbors and was eyewitness to it being done.

These days the court house is no longer a court house but has been repurposed for local community use and is surrounded by a seven-foot picket fence.  No more playing on those dangerous structures.

—==+++==—

When I was very young, it was a tradition for my father to take me for a walk on Thanksgiving morning.  'The Walk' had several good effects.  It got me out of the house and out of the hair of those who were doing the cooking.  It gave me an appetite so that I would be able to do justice to the meal.  It gave us a little father-son bonding experience.  My Dad used it to get the pies we would eat for dessert.  We got our pies from (Wayne suggests) a Mrs Wagner's bakery outlet at 283 4th Avenue, so we're talking quite a walk, easily two miles each way and with my short legs, it certainly took the better part of two hours.  My brother Jerry and his family continue that tradition to this very day minus the pie pick up, and it's not unusual for three dozen people to go out walking.

My father was a walker and a talker.  One of his favorite walks was up 36th Street past the bus garage (now renamed after Jackie Gleason whose character on 'The Honeymooners' was Ralph Kramden, a NYC bus driver) alongside the southern border of Greenwood Cemetery up to 9th Avenue past the tracks where the Culver Line used to run.  Along the way at about 7th Avenue, 36th Street turns to become 37th Street.  There was a concrete wall there and it was split vertically.  On one cold-weather walk my father told me to slip my hand into the split and, after some initial hesitation, I did.  "Remember that," he instructed.  Later in the season in warmer weather we repeated the walk and at the same point he told me to slip my hand into the split.  I couldn't because the split was much narrower than it had been.  In this way I learned what an expansion joint was and why they existed.  A one-piece wall would have fractured from compression as the weather warmed or pulled itself apart as it cooled.

—==+++==—

At the foot of 69th Street was the 69th Street ferry terminal.  For five cents you could get passage to the St. George (Staten Island) terminal which connected also by ferry to the ferry terminal at The Battery.  For those driving cars and wanting to cross the Narrows on their way to the Goethals Bridge or the Outerbridge Crossing, using the ferry meant a long wait.  The boats could only carry 50 cars at a time and took nearly an hour for a round trip, so the three ferries that served 69th Street could only move 150-200 cars per hour across the water.  When the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was completed in 1964 the ferry route between Brooklyn and Staten Island shut down.

During its years of operation, we kids used the ferry to get to the relatively-rural Richmond.  The attractions over there were not substantially different than what was available on the Brooklyn side, but it was more adventurous to 'go by sea'.

It was possible to take your bike on the ferry to have transportation on the other side, but the bridge had no pedestrian or bike lanes, so the only way for a Brooklynite to go for a bike ride to Staten Island after the ferry shutdown was to cross the Brooklyn Bridge, pedal down to The Battery, and ferry across, doing that trip in reverse to get home.

—==+++==—

Speaking of bike riding, a favorite route for everyone I knew was the bike path alongside the Belt Parkway.  The Belt Parkway in those days did not yet connect with the Gowanus Expressway, the original name of that elevated roadway over 3rd Avenue.  The Belt actually started in Leif Ericson Park at 4th Avenue and 66th Street.  Turn west from 4th Avenue onto a shady landscaped roadway reminiscent of the Southern State Parkway and you're on the Belt which crossed above 69th Street, passing over the line of cars waiting their turn to get passage across the bay.

The Belt Parkway bike path ended at Bay Parkway where we had to exit to take Cropsey Avenue the rest of the way.  That part is a blur for me, but Wayne assures me it's so.  Coney Island was foreign territory for us kids from Sunset Park and it had all the attraction of the strange.  For one, there was Nathan's, the home of the best hot dogs in the visible universe.  Their Surf Avenue open-front walk-up service dished out hot dogs, hamburgers, french fries, fried clams, chicken, and all sorts of other goodies.  Nathan's is famous for its hot dogs and for most of my life that was what I went there for.  Later I learned to love their hamburgers smothered in sautéed onions.  Their french fries, served in a paper cone, were indescribable.  The Nathan's sites you might find at the airport or the mall are a poor imitation of what was available there on Surf Avenue.

We were always careful not to get too full because just a half block away was Shatzkin's Knishes, real potatoes with real flavor wrapped in a thin crispy crust.  'Potatoes for dessert?' you ask.  Not just potatoes;  Shatzkin's knishes.  Yes, for dessert.  Enough salt and cholesterol to kill a regiment but we didn't care.  It was an eight-mile ride home, and we'd be hungry again when we got there.

—==+++==—

By my late teens all of us were starting to sort ourselves out politically.  I leaned Republican like my family and the Murphys leaned left.  One of the Kennedy's had just done a long hike with the Marines (or something) and the chatter at the local pub (yes, you could drink at 18 in those days) was about how macho etc.  There followed a wager, and three of us, myself, John Gunn, and Artie Bergen accepted the challenge to hike from the Manhattan side of the George Washington Bridge to the Bear Mountain Inn, a trip we all agreed was close enough to 50 miles that we wouldn't quibble over the difference, the trip to be completed in no more than 17 hours.

Dark and early the next Saturday morning (3am or so if I recall correctly) we three set out on our quest, first taking the train to the GWB, backpacks loaded with water, snacks and what-not, and walking across the bridge and north on Route 9W.  (We had originally planned to use the Palisades Parkway until a trooper ordered us off — no pedestrians allowed.)  We actually made the trip in 14h20, thanks to Artie and John helping me limp the last few miles after I was unable to walk unaided.  They plopped me in an easy chair at the Bear Mountain Inn and went to buy tickets for the bus ride back.  I was asleep before my butt hit the cushions.  They woke me ten minutes later and helped me onto the bus, plopping me on the wide back seat.  I immediately went back to sleep.  An hour-or-so later, the bus arrived at the Port Authority bus terminal and I was dragged off the bus and onto a subway car where I fell back asleep.  (Repeat for each change-of-trains.)  Arriving at the 45th Street station, we checked in to the local watering hole, reported our victorious mission, had a congratulatory beer, and went home to soak our aching feet or, in my case, to go directly to bed.  I was wrecked.  The next day was not better, but I still recall it fondly.

A year-or-so later I bought a glitzy new 10-speed racing bike and decided to repeat the trip.  I used a lower Manhattan ferry to get across the Hudson and took city streets north from there.  The rough cobblestone streets and road debris put the bike out of action before I got as far as the GWB and I wound up scrubbing the trip.  A few months later I tried again, this time using the GWB as a starting point (you could take a bike on the trains if you could lift it, and this bike weighed less than 18 pounds) and made it as far as Hastings-on-Hudson before it threw a pedal and discretion made me turn for home after a not-quite-adequate repair.

The third try got me all the way to Bear Mountain — and back, completing the 100-mile round-trip in just under 12 hours road time after subtracting time for having something to eat at the Bear Mountain Inn, refilling the water bottle and taking a short breather.  The 8mph pace wasn't competition-worthy, but I was pleased.

—==+++==—

I'm not sure anyone still in Brooklyn does such things anymore.  It's a different world.  I miss it, but I've moved on.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Security Before All Else

I have this bug up my @$$:  every time I log on to one of my favorite sites — the ones that require a password anyway — I'm being prompted to change my password to something more secure.  I'm not sure why the security of my password should be anyone's concern but mine.  After all, if I feel secure enough with a password of '42', why should anyone else care?  If my password gets hacked, who's going to get hurt, me or the site that I had an insecure password for?  Answer:  me.

Yet site after site seems intent on forcing me to select a password that can only be remembered if written down.  How secure is that?  Any normal person will have a single location, maybe a note on their smartphone, where they keep a record of all their passwords.  Lose your iPhone and — guess what? — every last one of your passwords is now exposed.

The only thing I can think of is that the webmasters for these sites are PFCSKs* fresh out of community college where they learned to verify a string has at least one upper case character, at least one lower case character, at least one numeral, and at least one symbol.  They're thrilled over their new-found skills and just dying to test them out.  Thus:  "We're sorry," (not!)  "Your current password does not meet our password guidelines." (Oh, really?  How did they know?  Answer: they read your password and analyzed it.  Oh, that's secure...)  "Please change your password now to one which has an equal number of upper-case characters and special symbols plus half as many numerals as lower case characters.  Your password must be at least 17 characters long.  Thank you for helping us make your data secure." (It's my shopping list!  How much damage will it do if my neighbor finds out what I buy at the supermarket??)

Because everyone must now have a secret list where they can discover what arcane password they used for every website with a sudden interest in their (sometimes paying) customers' data security, we're seeing the truth in that old IT adage:  the quest for complete security sometimes leads to 'none at all'.

 

 

(*) Pimply-faced computer-science kids.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Massively-Parallel Trial-And-Error

There are several ways you can approach 'solving a problem'.  You can iterate, trying one proposed solution after another until you find one that works.  This is (supposedly) how the light bulb was invented.  The drawback to 'iteration' is that you may find a solution that works but is sub-optimal;  there's another solution that's better, but you didn't find that first, so it didn't get adopted.  Again, this may be true of the light bulb.  Also, because you have found a solution, it will be applied to every instance of the problem, for some of which it will work excellently and for others of which it will barely work at all.  Of course, if there's only one manifestation of 'the problem', we don't have to worry about that.

For that case where 'the problem' exists in several versions, there is a better way:  massively-parallel trial-and-error.  Set n teams to work solving the problem.  As solutions begin to be put into practice, we should expect to see at once that most solutions are unworkable, some are acceptable, and a few are remarkable.  The unworkable solutions can be discarded, the acceptable solutions can be improved, and the remarkable solutions can be adopted.  We wind up with several solutions that can be applied to various manifestations of the problem.  The drawback to this method is that it is expensive because every proposed line of research must be funded up front.  The costs that might have been avoided because we found that initial (possibly sub-optimal) solution and stopped looking are going to be spent right now.  We're going to examine every plausible solution and we're going to pay for the examination today.  We actually have laboratories where this type of problem-solving can take place.  They are called 'states'.

In fact, save for a few issues already addressed in the Constitution, most of the country's problems are supposed to be solved using this massively-parallel trial-and-error method.  Each of the states is supposed to solve its own problems of health, education, and welfare (among other things).  Fifty potentially different solutions to each problem, each solution funded not by a gigantic federal bureaucracy but by the states themselves.  After a reasonable trial period we would be able to discern that the Iowa model for education works easily as well as the South Carolina model and that the Idaho model is a catastrophe for everything beyond kindergarten.  Before long, Kansas would drop their solution in favor of the South Carolina model, and Idaho would adopt the Iowa model.  Over time, each state would move toward better solutions and away from poorer solutions, a process we regard as 'improvement'.  How much better this than a 'one size fits all' solution imposed by the federal machine onto places and conditions for which that single allowable solution may or may not be workable?

Impossible, you say?  Up until very recently, this was the way we dealt with wide-spread problems.  Some states did better, others worse, but all did as well as they could given the resources available.  Why don't we still do this?  Perhaps the answer was best enunciated by Thomas Sowell:

The first lesson of economics is scarcity:  there is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it.  The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Guantanamo Bay

The United States maintains a naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, leased (wink wink nudge nudge) from the Cuban government in 1903 for an indefinite period for use as a 'coaling and naval station'.  It now also houses a military prison.  The U.S. government houses non-military 'terrorists' there because, the argument goes, the Constitution, especially the 5th amendment (self-incrimination), the 6th amendment (speedy trial, jury of peers, cross-examination of witnesses), and the 8th amendment (cruel and unusual punishment), doesn't apply outside the United States.  Really?

Let's take a look at some of those amendments.

The Fifth:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger;  nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb;  nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Note that nowhere therein does it say anything like 'citizen'.  It says 'person', the implication being that the government (who else deals with capital offenses and criminal cases?) is precluded from doing any of these things to anybody, citizen or not.

The Sixth:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation;  to be confronted with the witnesses against him;  to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

'The accused'.  'All criminal prosecutions'.  Again, no hint that this applies only to citizens or that it applies only within the borders of the country — 'all criminal prosecutions'.  This is not a right being doled out, this is an instruction to the government:  follow this procedure.  All the time.  Every case.

The Eighth:

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

...except for foreigners being held at Guantanamo Bay...  Nope, it doesn't say that.  Again, it's a plain instruction, applicable to everyone, everywhere, all the time, not restricted as to person, place, or time.

So the next time someone says "We can't close Gitmo!  Then we'd have to treat them like citizens and give them regular trials!" you can explain to them that we have to give them regular trials now because the Constitution is blind to the fact that these people aren't citizens and aren't here.

Of course, first you're going to have to overcome the barrier that the American people are blind to their own Constitution.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Are You Being Hacked?

Are you caught up in all the hoopla about Russia hacking the election?  Are you pissed off at those interferin' Russkies?  Are you additionally pissed that the proper candidate wasn't elected President?

It seems clear to me that the time has come for a reality check.  Let's get started.

First, does anyone believe that CIA/NSA knows so much more than Russia about back-tracing an IP chain that revealing what we do and how we do it would seriously compromise our national security?  No?  Good, because we have to get past that before going further.  Russian hackers are no better and no worse than American hackers.  Showing them exactly how we discovered their fingerprints all over our election (if, in fact, they were) will have zero effect on national security.  Zero.

Further, in order to change the outcome of a U.S. election, one would have to crack nearly 4,000 separate county Supervisors of Elections databases, many of which are not online.  Surely somewhere out there some clerk would say "Hey, that's the wrong number!  I recall thinking that the total was my sister's birhday: '71463', and that Trump lost this county.  Hey, what's going on?"  As far as we know, no precinct captain, no county supervisor, no state coordinator for any party has uttered a single word suggesting there was anything untoward going on as far as 'vote totals' were concerned.  The 'hacking' that was done (if 'hacking' is the proper word) was exposing corruption evident in emails swirling around the Democratic National Committee — emails concerning sabotaging the Sanders campaign and rigging polls to guarantee Hillary Clinton would be the nominee.

So, why is there a 'classified' version of the report and an 'unclassified' version?  It's not like we can't afford to lay all our cards on the table for all the world to see.  In fact, I have a grand-nephew who can probably tell you — sight unseen — what's in the classified version.  What is NSA/CIA trying to hide, and from whom?  They're not going to lose anything by being open and above-board, are they?

Realize that our 'intelligence community' works hand-in-glove with the military.  The military has a vested interest in seeing wars, cold or hot, multiply and expand.  Division and contraction are not on their wish-lists.  It is in the best interests of the military-intelligence community to be in conflict with other political entities.  Russia is an easy target;  they have a foreign policy which runs counter to ours, and most Americans are, after the last 70 years or so, inclined to think negatively about the former Soviet Union.

Now, Vladimir Putin may have preferred Trump to Clinton.  Trump is an idiot;  he'll be easy to work with and around.  Clinton is a hard-ball player and unpredictable like Trump wishes he were.  Clinton spells trouble for Putin and Russia.  If Putin needed a reason to muddy our electoral waters, that would have been adequate, but would it have been worth the risk?  Surely Putin would have known that there would be blowback!  If a reason were needed for a 'hands off' policy, that would have been adequate.

But the real issue is that the 'report' comes in a classified version and an unclassified version.  There's something in the classified version that NSA/CIA doesn't want loose in public.  What? 

Perhaps — I'm speculating — revealing the proof of Russia's complicity will also reveal how deeply NSA/CIA tracks everything you and I do on a daily basis.  Perhaps NSA/CIA doesn't want everyone to know that they're under a microscope from the time their alarm goes off until they shut out the lights for the night — and maybe still then.  Perhaps NSA/CIA would prefer you be kept in the dark about just how thoroughly and closely you are watched in their all-seeing Surveillance Society.

You are being manipulated.

Sweet dreams.