Archive for December 2012

Tyranny of the Gun/Night Thoughts Of A Parent On Tucking In His Child

December 14, 2012

What can I say?

How to express the sorrow I feel for the families and friends in mourning after the Newtown school murders?

As many of you know, I have a young son, twelve now.  Every day I walk him to his public school in a suburb of Boston.  As I write this paragraph, I’m just about to head home to take him to his martial arts club — the kind of ordinary thing parents do.  The notion that I could have hugged him at the school door at 8 a.m. and then at lunch received that unspeakable phone call?

I have no words.

Fra_Angelico_-_Massacre_of_the_Innocents_-_WGA00610

I’ve spent the afternoon trying to think of something other than the raw misery of the day.  The way my mind works, though, I couldn’t stop coming back to the same old question:  what to do about the damn guns.  I started by reading Fallows on this near-weekly exercise in American exceptionalism, and then I came across this essential Ezra Klein  piece, “Nine facts about guns and mass shootings.” 

The whole post is worth your attention, but here’s what is to my mind the money quote:

7. States with stricter gun control laws have fewer deaths from gun-related violence.

Last year, economist Richard Florida dove deep into the correlations between gun deaths and other kinds of social indicators. Some of what he found was, perhaps, unexpected: Higher populations, more stress, more immigrants, and more mental illness were not correlated with more deaths from gun violence. But one thing he found was, perhaps, perfectly predictable: States with tighter gun control laws appear to have fewer gun-related deaths. The disclaimer here is that correlation is not causation. But correlations can be suggestive:

“The map overlays the map of firearm deaths above with gun control restrictions by state,” explains Florida. “It highlights states which have one of three gun control restrictions in place – assault weapons’ bans, trigger locks, or safe storage requirements. Firearm deaths are significantly lower in states with stricter gun control legislation. Though the sample sizes are small, we find substantial negative correlations between firearm deaths and states that ban assault weapons (-.45), require trigger locks (-.42), and mandate safe storage requirements for guns (-.48).”

And yes, just in case there are any gotcha gun nuts reading this:  I’m aware that Connecticut with its relatively strong gun laws was the site of today’s tragedy.  That’s (part of) the problem — the most rigorous gun laws in this country are a shadow of what they are in other, less murder-stricken lands, and the state-by-state patchwork of laws combined with the interstate highway system means that even the strongest local protections are leaky as hell.

So, as I say, check out all that Ezra has to offer on all this; this is one of his good ones.

The only other thing I want to say right now is that I think it’s important to politicize the hell out of this event…but towards particular policy goals.
I’m not really ready to write coherently anything more than to note that it is intolerable — immoral, in my view — to simply accept as the cost of being American a gun culture that results in both the murder of children and a rate of death by gun that took about 30,000 lives in 2011, roughly two-thirds of them suicides. (PDF).  We’ve got to get to a better circumstance — and if that means taking out NRA candidates state assembly rep by rep — that’s a challenge we can talk through over the next little while

But for now…well I’ve been pecking at this between kinder-transport duty and dinner and dishes, and I’ve just come downstairs again from a longer-than-usual bedtime cuddle.

My son and I talked a bit about the shootings, and he took the news on board without really letting me know what he thinks about it.   He does that — he guards his counsel until he’s decided what his parents need to know.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if he knew why I squeezed him tonight harder than usual.

It sounds hollow as hell to say it, but fuck it — here goes:

Stay safe, everyone, and hold close those you love.

Image:  Fra Angelico, The Massacre of the  Innocentsbetween 1451 and 1452.

Prescience, or Claude Shannon Anticipates Sen. McConnell’s Procedural Maneuver Today

December 6, 2012

Claude Shannon is best known as the founding titan of information theory — which was an idea of such pervasive impact, some have ranked it along side relativity theory as the most significant intellectual creation of the 20th century.

He wasn’t simply a brilliant mathematician and logical thinker, though.  He was as well a lifelong tinkerer, builder, and whimsy merchant. You can get a sense of that side of his life from this catalogue of MIT’s collection of Shannonania.

Among those creations you can find a simple device, apparently inspired by Marvin Minsky (himself no stranger to orthogonal humor), one that Shannon dubbed the Ultimate Machine.

I happened across mention of it today while reading Jon  Gertner’s excellent new book about Bell Labs, The Idea Factory, looked it up, and on seeing it, realized it was a perfect model for both Minority Leader McConnell’s decision today to filibuster his own bill — and for the Republican approach to the whole concept of governance.

Check it out:

As a lagniappe, enjoy this demonstration of the boss donkey’s approach to tech:

You’re welcome.

Alienating The Electorate, Nineteen Million Americans At A Time

December 5, 2012

Ladles and Jellyspoons!

As Anne Laurie has so ably documented, your modern GOP has once again managed to be both vicious and stupidly self-destructive.  This time, it’s their wisdom in the decision to piss on  some 19% of the American people — from a considerable height — in the process of  blocking ratification of the UN treaty on the rights of the disabled.*

The wickedness at the heart of the trumped up objections that led 38 Republican senators to tell our disabled brothers and sisters that they do not rate equal protection under the law is, I think, obvious.  It’s well documented, at any rate. (Link via Anne Laurie.)

So, yeah.  To channel my inner Dennis Green,** the Republicans are who we thought we were.

Evil.

Dumb (also too).

Fresh on the heels of repeated, reasonably high profile forays into insulting Obama voters, minority voters, Asian-Americans, Latino-Americans, and whoever they’ll figure out they hate next, it turns out there are a fair number of disabled folks in this country.

How many?

According to the US Census Bureau [pdf], as of 2010, 56.7 million Americans from the civilian, non-institutionalized population had a disability — that’s 18.7% of the US population.  Of those, 38.3 million, 12.6 percent, had a severe disability (as defined in Table 1 of the linked report).***  

Bringing it down to the sharp edge of what it takes to make it through the day,  “About 12.3 million people aged 6 and older (4.4%) needed assistance with one or more activities of daily living (ADLs) or instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs).  (See p. 9 of the linked report for definitions of those terms of art.)

That’s a lot of folks, no matter what level of disability you choose to emphasize.  They’ve all got families — and that’s a lot more people.  [Full disclosure — this is an issue that has at times, though not now, impinged on my own family.] They have friends too…and you get the point.

Befoere stating the obvious about the wisdom of the GOP vote in light of these facts, let me drop in a bit of anecdotage.

A few Sundays ago, I was up in New Hampshire, knocking on doors to get out our vote.  I and my partner were nearing the end of our list, and, after a rough beginning — first stop at a house where the vehemence with which we were ordered off the property bordered on the “or I’ll get my gun” territory — we’d had mostly good quick conversations, the “yup, I’m voting for your guy” kind.

We had split up at that point, my colleague taking a couple of houses down the road while I walked up a little hill to an old house on one of those big New Hampshire yards that always look like they’re thinking about being a farm.  It was a gorgeous afternoon, and I saw one woman out doing yard work, so I didn’t bother with the door bell.

She was soft spoken, and little reserved, and she told me that she really didn’t do politics, that I needed to talk to her partner.  She very kindly walked me a little further up the hill and called out, and then almost a cliche of a tough old New Hampshire bird came rolling down on an ATV to talk to me — a small woman, well into middle age (look who’s talking, pilgrim!), lots of daylight on that face over the years, thick New Hampshire accent and an air of utter no-nonsense competence.  Reminded me a lot of the best sergeants I’ve met over the years.

She liked to talk as much as her partner craved quiet, and we had a great conversation, sharing our disdain and horror at the person and prospects of W. Mitt Romney.  She agreed to volunteer for the campaign and I gave her contact info, and then we got to trading greatest hits (the horse as tax deduction! “Our turn!”).  Then I mentioned the 47%, and we starting going over who actually lives inside that number — the old, I said, students…the disabled.

At that, the first women I’d met suddenly spoke up. She’d been standing off to one side the entire time (ten minutes or so, now), clearly defining herself as audience and not participant in our little GOP loathe-fest.  But now it was as if a valve blew.  She was, she said, herself disabled, couldn’t work.  Was it really true, she asked me, that Romney had said that about the 47%? That she herself was a taker?

Yup, I said.

That’s it, she said.  That makes me mad.

We talked a bit longer — really it was a grand way to spend twenty minutes on a stunning New England afternoon, revving each other up to take action on our own and our country’s behalf.  The sun was kind, the trees still had some color, and I was talking to two people who were not just going to vote, but do whatever they could to drive a stake through the vampires that both exsanguinate our politics and work to deny the possibility of American dreams for so many of our fellow citizens.

So though I think it both tragedy and travesty that 38 scumbags senators blew up the UN treaty, I take a residue of comfort in seeing the Grand Old Party reaffirm its commitment to alienate an ever greater majority of the American people.  The party cannot collapse too soon — but I suppose I could say we owe our friends in the minority a debt of thanks for doing so much on their own to advance that goal.

Factio Grandaeva Delenda Est

*That treaty would, by the way, be the international agreement that would enshrine one more example of American Exceptionalism (in the good sense), with the US actually playing the role of that shining city on a hill that offers a light to the nations, being as it is more or less the enshrinement in international law of the landmark protections and perspective of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

**Get him out of me. RIGHT NOW!

***those numbers are based on sampling, not derived from the total census, and the report records a 90% confidence level in the significance of the estimates — which isn’t great.  But the broad magnitudes are what matters here, not the decimal places. Tens of millions of folks with disability is the key take away for this argument.

Image:  El Greco, Christ healing the blind, c. 1567