30 June 2010

Robert C. Byrd, RIP

Robert C. Byrd, senior senator from West Virginia, departed the observable universe on June 28, 2010, aged 92 years and change. I'm surprised. I thought he was too ornery to die before the age of 125.

The Wikipedia article on Byrd mentions his having steered federal money to West Virginia, and makes a polite allusion to "pork-barrel" politics. That might refer to certain federal office buildings that you would expect to find in Washington, DC, but had somehow been built in Morgantown, WV. Or maybe the monorail in Morgantown that goes from the WVU campus to the downtown area. Or my favorite, the road that goes from Beckley to Sophia, WV. When Byrd first had it built, it was called "the four-lane," because it was the only four-lane road in the area. It was even wider than the nearby West Virginia Turnpike, then listed as "a modern two and three lane highway." It was a remarkable piece of engineering that went from pretty much nowhere to nowhere else. But Beckley had an airport, and Sophia was Byrd's hometown. About 20 years ago, it was re-named Robert C. Byrd Drive.

The Beckley city fathers even floated the idea of raising a statue to Byrd somewhere along his namesake road. I would love to see it. I recommend that it be patterned after a statue called "the Bacchino," which adorns a fountain in the Boboli Gardens built by Cosimo de' Medici in the 1500s behind the Pitti Palace in Florence, Italy. It looks like this:

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
I'd make a few changes, of course. I would have him ride a hog instead of a turtle. I would place a bag of coins and cash in his right hand, a skillet of sausage links in his left, to commemorate the money he raised for the state he loved, and his having risen from working in a butcher shop in Sophia (so the local legend says). And I would put a crown on his head. He was the king of pork politics, if ever anyone was.

And I suppose he could spare two fingers to hold his fiddle and bow. He was a multi-talented man, and my shallow lampoon of one aspect of him captures only a fraction of what he was about.
But, as far as that fraction was concerned, nobody did it better.

26 June 2010

The Second Amendment

We are about to be treated to the Senate hearings to evaluate Elena Kagan for the position of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. No doubt she will be grilled regarding her thoughts on the Second Amendment. If only it would start with a little honesty. Like this:

Senator: Ms. Kagan, what are your thoughts on gun control laws and the Second Amendment?

Kagan: You mean, what do I plan to do to protect the people of the United States from your dereliction of duty? How will I make up for you and your colleagues abundance of cowardice and paucity of wisdom in regard to proposing an updated version of the Second Amendment to be ratified by the States?

The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution reads

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.

When it was adopted in 1789 its meaning was clear. The Americans had no standing army, no Department of Defense, no Military-Industrial Complex. In order to raise an army, the federal government relied on the states, which in turn relied on their citizens to gather at their call, and to bring their own weapons with them. These weapons were state-of-the-art military-grade muskets and rifles, and most male citizens were expected to have them. Indeed it would have left the country defenseless if they did not.

But the framers of the Constitution (as amended) were mindful of another potential source of tyranny - the federal government that they themselves were working to establish. The states could use their militias to defend their rights against the federal government if the need arose. The abuse of this idea to defend the indefensible system of slavery (human beings were enslaved by human-Neanderthal hybrids) led to the Civil War of 1861-65.

Nevertheless, we can still derive a useful concept from the idea of raising militias. We, the People of the United States, in order to enjoy a greater degree of domestic tranquillity, voluntarily give our governments (local, state, and federal) a monopoly on the use of legitimate violence. This monopoly is ours to bestow, and ours to rescind, by inalienable right given to us by our Creator.

Indeed, losing the monopoly on socially legitimate violence is what makes a "failed state." It is therefore our government's responsibility to conduct itself in such a way that we continue to be willing to give it the monopoly on legitimate violence. If it loses our confidence, the founders expected that we would have both the armament and the courage to take back that monopoly, using whatever force was necessary.

Now taking back the government's monopoly would be something to give us pause even if it could be done without violence of our own. It's really nice to live in a society where the government enjoys a monopoly on legitimate violence. You can walk out of your house without having to be prepared to fight to the death every day. If you don't carry a gun, sword, or dagger, it is because you don't need to. Almost nobody else does, either. If you get into an argument, it is very unlikely that either you or the person you argue with will do or even threaten to do physical harm to the other.

In many other times and places, such a thing would be an unheard of luxury. In order to survive, you must be armed. And even then, it's not enough. On your own, you still can't defend yourself or your family. You need a larger unit, whether its the males of your extended family, your tribe, or your gang. The extended family, tribe, or gang has always been the natural unit of human organization, not the nuclear family. It results in a relatively constant, but sustainable level of violence. Think of the Hatfields and McCoys, or if you want a more literary example, the Montagues and the Capulets of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Or think of Afghanistan or the tribal areas of Pakistan. Or even Mexican drug cartels fighting each other. (It takes a lot of dedicated socialization and values training of our young to keep societies from reverting to this kind of organization in one or two generations.)

So, it was the Founder's intent that we keep and bear military-grade weapons. In their day, that meant muskets and Kentucky rifles. The equivalent in our day is the AK-47. It's a great weapon, powerful, reasonably accurate, delivering a high rate of fire. And it's relatively low-tech, cheap and easy to make in large quantities. It's not finicky, it works in almost all conditions. But a guy going berserk in a crowd with a musket might get off only one or two shots before the crowd overcomes him. The same nut with an AK-47 might mow down everybody in sight. Unless, of course, the crowd was full of well-meaning citizens carrying AK-47s. But we don't want to live like that. That's how they live in Afghanistan.

So we ignore and otherwise subvert the Constitution of the United States, thereby undermining the Rule of Law, because we don't let the supreme Law of the Land mean what it says. We do this by passing gun control laws willy-nilly without benefit of amending the Constitution to reflect the technology of our time and our relationship to it.

What we need is an amendment that is intended to reduce the level of violence by our society and our government by providing a balanced incentive for both parties to calm down. Something like

We the People of the United States, in order to increase our domestic tranquillity do voluntarily limit our right to keep and bear arms such that no citizen, resident, or visitor in the United States shall keep and bear arms exceeding the military capability of the arms kept, borne and used by local police walking their beats.

This by construction excludes SWAT teams. Now without SWAT-style weapons it will be impossible to sustain an insurrection or insurgency against the government. But insurrections and insurgencies are always by definition illegal. It is absurd to expect legal protection for an illegal act. If you want to rebel against the government, please have the decency to obtain your illegal weapons by illegal means. I hear there are some good AK-47 factories in Colombia.

This can't be good enough to be the final form, but you get the idea. Incentivize both the police and the crooks to carry less firepower. And let the rest of us have whatever they have. Make it a societal disarmament race. If the government wants a less armed citizenry, the let the government limit the armament is uses to control the citizenry. Fair enough?

Here is our previous attempt to update the Second Amendment.

25 June 2010

Points of Rebellion

I appropriate the title of Justice William O. Douglas' book (worth a read, by the way) because I am outraged by the following bit of bureaucratic skullduggery:

Joseph Diliberti, a Vietnam combat veteran, is about to have his home confiscated by San Diego County because he can't pay a $60,000 bill for weed abatement that he did not need, want, or consent to. I wouldn't be surprised if somebody was scheming to get him off his land, and the public good of weed abatement seemed like the way to do it. The original bill was for $25,000, but late fees and fines have inflated it (Mob-style) to $60,000. Diliberti can't pay, because he doesn't have much income. He lives in a kiln-fired clay house he built himself on 30 acres of semi-desert. He needs more than a lawyer. He needs a criminal investigator working to see who and what is behind this illegal taking.

See the Chapparal Institute article on this case.

This is the kind of government abuse that undermines the legitimacy of government itself. Surely some of our politicians will intervene on this man's behalf. Or will they? Here is the kind of ad you will be seeing this fall:

16 June 2010

Who says bicycling isn't a blood sport?

Ouch. That was Mark Cavendish, going down after touching wheels with a fellow sprinter. Note how his front wheel breaks and pancakes after the touch, triggering the chain-reaction pile-up.

I have long maintained that people who ride bicycles on the road, whether for transportation, recreation, or racing, just don't have an intuitive grasp of statistics. On a per trip basis, the odds of being killed or injured while bicycling are greater than rock climbing or sky diving, but a little bit less than cave diving. Or as Lance Armstrong says, "There are two kinds of cyclists: those who have crashed, and those who are going to."

And of course, we have our helmet laws backwards. Kids can recover from traumatic brain injury much more easily and completely than can adolescents and adults. If we were really interested in protecting people, we should require the adults to wear the helmets, and leave the kids to their parents' best judgement. Besides, helmets cut down on the number of potential organ donors.

Not that I have anything against cyclists, mind you. In fact, here is my ride, tricked out with light weight components, so I can chase my buddies up the local hills:

It's a Lightning.

13 June 2010

Whites are Mixed Race

A recent article in Science News discusses evidence provided by genome sequencing that modern humans and Neanderthals interbred. Apparently people of European and Asian origin have about 4% of their DNA from Homo Neanderthalensis, Neanderthal Man, aka the Cave Man. People from Africa do not. African people are pure Homo Sapiens, Intelligent Man, i.e., modern human.

To be more clear about it, there were several waves of human migration from our common origin in Africa. Neanderthals migrated into Europe some tens of thousand years before anatomically modern humans. When modern humans moved into Europe and Asia, Neanderthals disappeared as an anatomically distinct group. Now we know that they were not entirely wiped out. The interbred with some of our ancestors.

This means that, contrary to racial doctrines that enjoyed some popularity among white people in the previous century, white people are the product of Africans mating with Neanderthals. White people are not only of mixed race, they are of mixed species. If, that is, Neanderthals continue to be regarded as a distinct human species, which they probably will not.

Anyway, all you white supremacists out there, if you want to know what a 100% pure human being looks like, he or she is black.

11 June 2010

Probing the Fence Line

If you want to attack a facility that is protected by a fence festooned with intrusion sensors, the first thing you want to do is to nullify the sensors. You could try to disable them, but that would only give the guards inside warning of your attack. The best thing is to train the guards to ignore the intrusion sensors, at least for long enough to give you time to establish a position of tactical advantage. So, you cut loose some of the tumbleweeds around the fence. You might entice some of the local animals to interact with the fence. Anything to generate a random sequence of false alarms until the guards get tired of checking out each one. Then you can risk a little jiggling as you get inside.

That lesson from a retired U.S. Navy Seal is what I thought of when I learned of the Israeli encounter with the "Freedom Flotilla" sent by Hamas sympathizers to challenge Israel's blockade of Gaza. Send a ship full of food and aid, no contraband, and a few rowdies ready to make trouble. When the Israelis board the ship to inspect it, mob them, beat them with clubs and sticks (some say metal rods). Now clubs, sticks, and rods are not "deadly weapons" in the same way guns are, but you can kill a man by beating him with clubs, rods, and sticks. You can kill a man by beating him with your fists, if he doesn't fight back. Given that they were being beaten by a crowd that vastly outnumbered them, it isn't surprising that the Israeli commandos started shooting their guns. It was that or be killed. One might fault the Israelis for letting themselves get into a situation where they would have to use such deadly force, but it would have taken a lot more ships and commandos to control the situation without such intensity of force.

In any case, the result was a made for television and blogosphere media event. Mean powerful Israelis bullying innocent people trying to help starving Palestinians in Gaza. And a successful probing attack, to be followed by many others, to break Israel's will to continue the blockade. This will then be followed by another season of rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza, once the Palestinians get rockets shipped from (indirectly or otherwise) Iran. Then another round of Israeli soldiers on the ground in the Gaza strip, followed by another blockade.

It would be nice if the cycle could be broken. Heck, it might even help if Israel could hire a Public Relations firm as good as those working for the Palestinians. There is plenty of material for them. To start, note that the term Palestina was coined by the Roman Empire so that it could make a better case for removing the Judeans (Jews) from their land, which previously had been called Judea.

Here is a video telling the other side of the story:

Maritime Martyrs from CJHS on Vimeo.

And there has also been violence on the border between the US and Mexico. A boy threw rocks at a US Border Patrol Agent, who then shot the boy. There is some discussion that the boy might have been acting as a decoy for smugglers, but who knows? In effect it was another successful probing attack on the fence line. But there is also talk on the right in America about making the border with Mexico harder and shallower - by putting up a guarded wall.

I would prefer making the border softer and deeper - by creating a joint US-Mexican governmental authority to manage the transient population of Mexicans who want to enter the US to do temporary or seasonal work. To make sure they are well treated and reasonably paid. And to vet them so as to keep the criminals out.

We may also have to legalize marijuana just to knock the profit out of the business. We will then get a taste of what China went through when Western interests forced it to legalize the opium trade. But it would be a setback for Mexican drug cartels. And both the Mexican and US governments need them to be set back.