Tuesday, January 29, 2013

How Gun News Has Changed

Joe Nocera this morning gave us a roundup of last week's gun news. The news of various deaths and injuries by gun, that is.

When the NRA declared January 19 Gun Appreciation Day, most of the news was about the accidental shootings at gun shows across the nation.

This is really a turnaround in how gun news is covered and an example of the change that Barack Obama has brought to the nation as president. It's what I wrote about in my recent post: the national discussion, and particularly the media had to change before legislative changes could be made.

Think back: No national paper would have run a column like Nocera's, and the coverage of Gun Appreciation Day would have struggled to link it to Martin Luther King and the inauguration. "In the best tradition of American independence..." Yeah, I can hear it.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Barack Obama: Community Organizer

People joke about President Obama’s abilities at eleven-dimensional chess. I think that Obama has a long-term strategy, more understandable than eleven-dimensional chess. I also think that it’s quite different from much of what passes for strategy in political Washington.

Obama came into office in January 2009 with an enormous number of problems facing the country. He had been dealing with the financial crisis since his election. That crisis was, in a way, the culmination of the financialization of the American economy, which, along with tax and other policy, had hollowed out prospects for the middle class. The country was stuck in two wars that had very little to do with its national interests. Other aspects of the “War on Terror” that damage the perception of the US abroad and damage civil liberties at home persisted long after any utility had disappeared. North Korea had demonstrated nuclear weapons, and Iran was engaged in pursuit of technology that could make nuclear weapons possible for them.

Perhaps the most difficult problem Obama faced, though, was an apathetic electorate and media that depicted that president as the only political actor in the country. Democracy can’t work without the participation of the people.

Obama would have seen that apathy before, as a community organizer. Poor communities are often demoralized or do not know how to fight for what they need. The organizer’s job is to get citizens active in helping themselves. This involves many things: educating citizens on their rights and ways to go about changing their circumstances, which would include the political process; and encouraging the citizens to take action on their own behalf.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Bits and Pieces - January 22, 2013

Jihadica continues its series. Primer on Jihadi Players in Algeria and Mali, Pt. 3: Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa
Update: Pt. 4 (Final): Ansar al-Din

Photos from immediately after World War II.

Another gun non-owner speaking out.

The many gun metaphors we use every day.

The war in Mali is unlikely to be about uranium resources.

Iran wants everything in exchange for nothing. And maybe won't join another round of talks. This truly is a baffling negotiating strategy, particularly since it is carried out in public. Speculation on its purpose ranges from delay to assure progress in Iran's nuclear program to bigtime cultural misunderstanding. I incline toward the latter. However, as I've said before, Iran might well look to their former neighbor, Saddam Hussein, to see what this kind of bluffing can lead to.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Bits and Pieces - January 20, 2013

Remembering the struggle for racial equality. A selection of videos from the 1960s.

Primer on the jihadi players in Mali and Algeria. Part 1: AQIM. Part 2: Belmokhtar & Those Who Sign with Blood.

The battle against sexist sci-fi and fantasy book covers.

And my latest at Nuclear Diner: Keeping the plutonium from scavengers at Semipalatinsk. The Soviets left a fair bit of plutonium lying around their nuclear test site. The story of how Kazakhstan, Russia, and the United States worked together to secure it has only recently been declassified.

Friday, January 18, 2013

How I Learned to Shoot: A Response to Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall writes for his tribe of non-gun-owners, like me. He gives his story and another really terrible one.

Here’s mine. Our tribe comes in all flavors, all sorts of experiences with guns.

I grew up in the New Jersey suburbs of New York. We just didn’t think about guns. We also learned a defensive situational awareness when we went into the city. We didn’t think about that in that way either, just learned to watch what was going on around us, stay away from certain kinds of places, walk briskly, and evade footsteps that persisted too regularly behind us. That was when I was around twelve years old. It’s served me well in many cities around the world.

My assumption has always been that I didn’t need a gun. I’ve mostly lived in safe neighborhoods, and my imagination doesn’t incline me toward fear of things like home invasion.

I had a male friend at one point who grew up in the country, had been in the Army, and felt strongly that I needed to own a gun. He also thought I’d like guns once I got to know them, so one day he invited me to drive out to the quarry with him for some target practice.

Sure, I said, thinking that it would be good to have fired a gun even if I never intended to take on the responsibilities and dangers of owning one. Besides, it was a nice summer day, and I hadn’t been to that quarry before and would enjoy an afternoon with him.

He seemed to be applying adequate safety to handling the guns, which I appreciated. He put the target up on a tuff wall of the quarry. Off-target bullets would be stopped by the tuff.

I was familiar with target safety from having learned archery, which intrigued me as a summer camper and carried through when I became a counselor. Place the target so that no people will be between you and the target or behind it. It’s a good idea to have an arrow stop too.

He started me off with a .22, I think. It was some time ago, and I didn’t pay attention to that kind of detail. I held my arm out in the general direction of the target and missed the paper a couple of times. He explained to me that the little nub at the end of the barrel was for aiming. Ah, just like the tip of the arrow, but much closer, much easier to aim. I hit the target.

I needed to deal with squeezing the trigger and my muscular reaction to the shot. There was no need to correct for trajectory, usually a big part of setting one’s aim in archery. Muscle control was nothing new.

My camp was not particularly wealthy. We had three or four bows, all different, all longbows, not the mechanical monsters that people who now call themselves bowshooters use. I think that by the time I was archery counselor, we had acquired a fiberglass recurve bow that always looked shabby. The recurve intrigued me, but the bow I liked best to shoot was the biggest longbow. We said that the pull was forty-five pounds. I have no idea whether that was true.

How you place your feet, the patterns of tension and relaxation in your arms, your fingers on the bowstring keeping the arrow in place, not pinching, all affect aim. The arm that holds the bow is particularly difficult: you must rotate your elbow out to avoid hitting the inside of it with the string. It is not a natural position. I could usually find the red and the gold fairly quickly.

As I learned how to squeeze the trigger, my shots marched toward the center of the target. I was pleased and quite amazed at how easy it was.

My friend said sadly, “It took me weeks when I started in the Army to hit the paper.” I tried to wipe the excited smile off my face and gave him a turn. He had a bigger gun, a .44, I think, and he took a few good (and loud!) shots. I praised him. He let me try it. It took me a few shots to hit the paper again.
By then, the summer afternoon was feeling a little ragged. We decided to head back, maybe have a hamburger on the way.

It was fun, but not enough to change my mind.

Cross-posted at The Agonist.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Begging the Question

I've long been bothered by evolutionary psychology. Thoughts leave no fossils, the way bones do. So we can know that ancient Egyptians suffered from tuberculosis, or Neandertals from arthritis, but it's much harder to know how they brought up their children.

Behaviors may leave fossils, although the interpretation of them is much more difficult than the lesions of tuberculosis or arthritis. A Neandertal grave with the body carefully arranged and flowers around it may mean respect for the dead or magic to keep death away from the living. Or both, or something we haven't thought of.

Dan Slater this morning provides what may have really been bothering me about the field. I haven't paid enough attention to its methods, but I have noticed, far too often, that its results tell us that men do things pretty well and we should allow them to keep doing what they're doing: following their penises, mostly.

The term "begging the question" is frequently used when the writer finds a question in material preceding. But the older meaning, from formal logic, is that a conclusion is assumed and then used to prove itself. Slater:
Evolutionary psychologists who study mating behavior often begin with a hypothesis about how modern humans mate: say, that men think about sex more than women do. Then they gather evidence — from studies, statistics and surveys — to support that assumption. Finally, and here’s where the leap occurs, they construct an evolutionary theory to explain why men think about sex more than women, where that gender difference came from, what adaptive purpose it served in antiquity, and why we’re stuck with the consequences today.
Assume that men think about sex more than women do. Then gather evidence to support what you've assumed. Then use that to explain why men think more about sex than women do. A very nice, clear example of begging the question.

I'm a chemist, and the matter that we investigate is more easily pinned down than human behavior. Our usual method is to make a great many observations, designed to observe a phenomenon from many sides, then make a hypothesis about what is causing the phenomenon, then designing experiments that will come out one way if the hypothesis is true, another if it is false. We admit all evidence, even when it does not support the hypothesis. In fact, we will usually try to find evidence that conflicts with or undermines the hypothesis. If we don't, another chemist will.

The example Slater has chosen is telling, too. Yes, men and sex and why that behavior is justified, again. I haven't done a count, but I wonder how many evolutionary psychologists are women.

Slater goes on to examine the navel of ev psych. Some of the initial male preferences hypotheses are being, apparently, invalidated by later investigations. If those later investigations beg their questions in the way that Slater has outlined, they are no more valid. Although they investigate current behavior rather than imagining how the caveman slung the woman over his shoulder and she liked it. And apparently some of that behavior is at odds with those initial male preferences hypotheses. Horrors!

As I said, chemists try to disprove their hypotheses. If it turns out the hypothesis was wrong, then we devise one more in line with the observations. I guess that finding your hypothesis is wrong when you've used it to prove itself is a worse outcome.

It's nice that people can get  jobs fantasizing about sex and asking others embarrassing questions. But, if this "science" is done as Slater describes, what can we possibly expect to get out of it?

Update: Steven Pinker tweets that Slater has misquoted him. His entire statement is here.

Cross-posted at The Agonist.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The White House Responds to Some Highly-Publicized Petitions

You've probably seen it by now: we won't be building a death star.
Update from Imperial Center, Coruscant.

Another set of petitions, for secession of various states from the Union, was also answered yesterday. Ain't gonna happen, at least not from Washington.

But as much as we value a healthy debate, we don't let that debate tear us apart.

Whether it's figuring out how to strengthen our economy, reduce our deficit in a responsible way, or protect our country, we will need to work together -- and hear from one another -- in order to find the best way to move forward.

Whatta concept! It'll be interesting to see how that works.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Bits and Pieces - January 10, 2013

Did you know that John Boehner usually doesn't bring a vote unless it can pass the House with only Republican votes? The New York Times today suggests he might try democracy.

This seems to happen every few years: killer whales trapped by ice in Hudson Bay. Let's hope some brave humans with chain saws can help them out.
Update: And so the humans did.

Yuval Diskin disses Bibi and Barak. Really ugly stuff here.

An eyewitness account of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

John Galt kills Americans. Great title. Serious problem.

New book: Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons. I review it at Nuclear Diner.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Christopher Saunders: The Long Now

For those of you in the New York Area, FOTB (Friend of the Blog) Christopher Saunders will have an exhibition of his paintings at Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, East Hampton, New York. The exhibition will run from January 12 to February 23, and there will be an opening reception on January 12.

More information here.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Bits and Pieces - First of the New Year

Barack Obama is the first president in more than five decades to win at least 51 percent of the national popular vote twice. The first since the Eisenhower landslides. This is a really important point to remember, as the Republicans begin with their incessant diatribes. This is our president, and most of the voters wanted him as president.

There are a number of articles along these lines that I could have linked, but John Judis looks to the longer view. The "fiscal cliff" legislation was a win for Obama, and it weakened the Republicans. I hope to write more about the big picture, but the way things are going today, it may be a while.

Pickpockets and how they do it. The real kind.

A year in fragments from Charles Simic.