Friday, July 12, 2013

Costs and Percentages

Last week, I talked about the percentages and perceptions. This week I want to be little more concrete in my example.

Let’s take a hypothetical situation, and say that 1 million US citizens suffer from something we’ll call Dihydrogen Oxide poisoning.   Let’s also say that an analysis of the situation says that for every 100 million dollars we spend, we can solve this problem for 90% of those still suffering from this affliction. That’s not a bad assessment, up front that sounds like that’s $100 per person, or not a terribly bad investment.

Except for one little thing. That 100 million dollar investment only covers 90%.  So after the first 100 Million is spent, we’ve only solved the problem for 900,000 people, leaving 100,000 people still affected.

To get that remaining 100,000 people, we have to spend another 100 million dollars, but again, we’ll only solve it for 90% of them. So another 100 million spent, and we end up with a total of 990,000 people covered, and 10,000 people still left affected.

200 million spent, 990,000 people covered works out to an investment of a little over $202 per person. But we still have 10,000 people left affected - it will take another 100 million to cover 90% of those remaining.

300 million, 999,000 people covered works out to an investment of a little over $300 per person, but you still have 1,000 people left affected. But it’s not truly an investment of $300 per person - the investment was actually $111.12 per person for the first 900,000 people, and $1,111.12 per person for the next 90,000 people and $11,111.12 per person for the next 9,000 people.  It only averages out to a little over $300 per person when you consider them all - and that’s reaching 99.9% of the people affected.

Are you willing to spend $111,111.12 each for the next 900 people?  Or over a million dollars each for the 90 after that? Or over 11 million each for the 9 people after that? How much are you willing to spend to get that last person?

There is a point of diminishing returns, and you have to consider that when considering any policy. It might only cost a little bit over $600 a person to cover 999,999 people affected by Dihydrogen Oxide poisoning, but it might actually be better to only spend $300 per person to cover 999,000 of them, and spend that other $300 million somewhere else, to provide relief for another problem.

Most public policy situations like this aren’t quite this linear, but they almost always have the same situation of a point of diminishing returns, which, unfortunately, is often difficult to tell where it is.   Also unfortunate is the mindset in government and public perception that we have to always try and cover 100% of the problem instead of recognizing the point of diminishing returns, and investing those resources elsewhere.  This is is unfortunate, because it is almost always the taxpayer who ultimately ends up funding bigger and bigger bureaucracies that ultimately cannot solve the problems at hand to 100% satisfaction. In fact, there often comes a point in which the size of the bureaucracy creates more problems than it solves. And yet, we continue to think that more is better, that we can solve it, when in fact, the better answer may be to recognize when we’re doing the best we can for now, and that further investment could be more effective elsewhere.

It may be distressing to think about it that way, particularly when children are involved.  But would you sacrifice 100 people to save 1 child? And then do that time after time after time, even after it’s been found that most of the time you still don’t end up saving the child? Most logical people would say “Of course not,” yet many of our public policies have reached the point they work just that way.

It makes no sense.   

Think about it...

Friday, July 5, 2013

A Reasonable Percentage

Recently, I was a participant in a conversation online where one person was loudly criticizing what he perceived as a large number of problems with a company’s recently shipped new product line.  At first glance, he seemed to have a point - a fairly large number of people had reported significant problems with their orders.

But when the rest of the forum started analyzing the numbers of how many units were ordered vs the actual number of publicly reported problems, the problem didn’t seem too bad anymore - to most of us anyway. This large number of reports only translated to less than a single percentage point of the total number of orders shipped.

I’ve talked about numbers before, and the perception of them, but now I want to talk specifically about percentages, and our perception of them.

First and foremost, think about what you consider as an acceptable percentage of performance for yourself.  Are you a perfectionist that demands 100% performance from yourself and others?  or are you a little more relaxed, and recognize no one is perfect, thus finding yourself more comfortable with a lower number, like 99%, even 98% or 97% performance? Or are you more casual, and find no problem with a 90% or 85% performance rate?  Do you set higher standards for yourself than you do others?  If you expect 98% out of yourself, are you willing to accept less from others?

If you’re like most people, your expectations are probably pretty variable, depending on circumstance.  You might be an excellent cook who expects perfection in the kitchen, but you don’t have a green thumb, and are perfectly happy if you simply manage to keep the plant in your window mostly alive for another week.

It’s hard to put an actual number to things like that, but it’s a good mental exercise to do so, simply because trying to put a number to your own performance makes it easier to manage your expectations of others.  Because, quite frankly, in almost every circumstance out there involving other people, it’s difficult to expect 100% perfection, and even more difficult to actually get it.

A case in point - many years ago, I ran the warranty & repair department for a manufacturer of musical accessories. Part of my job was keeping the numbers that assessed the performance of the manufacturing line - they were expected to have no more than a 3% return rate on any piece of equipment they manufactured. Considering the manufacturing line was running anywhere from 500 to 1000 units a day, it meant the company expected to see no more than 15 to 30 units a day being returned for warranty issues.  For the most part, the production line was pretty good, usually keeping their return rate at just under 2%, a couple of times even dipping almost as low as 1%.  Even with those low error rates, the repair department still saw around 2000 units a year for warranty repairs, a number that always alarmed management until the percentages of production numbers helped put it in perspective.

Even though I was quite aware of the percentage of return from the production line, I was blissfully unaware of the return rate of my department and the standards it was going to be held to until one day my boss and I were hauled in front of the plant manager and ripped a new one for a warranty repair that had come back a second time for yet another problem.  We were the repair department, therefore something sent in for repair should never come back for repair again - that was completely unacceptable to the plant manager, and more importantly, to me.

That is, until my boss put it in perspective for both me and the plant manager.  You see, at that point, my department had processed over 500 repairs, and this was the first failure since I had taken charge.  That meant we had a 99.8% rate of success with our repairs. The plant manager still wasn’t happy about it, but it was pointed out that since there was no set performance standard for my department, it would thus be reasonable to assume that the standard should be the same as that for production - no more than a 3% return rate.

Ultimately, it was determined that the repair department should be held to a higher standard than production, and that standard was set at no more than a 1% return rate.  This first return was well within that rate, and the matter was dropped. Until, of course, another warranty repair came back a second time a few months later, and we were ripped a new one again, despite still being well below the previously established 1% return rate standard.  By the end of my three year stint there, the standard had finally become accepted, and when I moved on, the department had a less than 0.5% return rate for my entire employment there. Or, in other words, a 99.5% success rate.

We truly strived for perfection, but despite our best efforts, we couldn’t do it. But we did do pretty damn good, setting a new standard for the guy who took over from me.

The entire experience put success rates in perspective for me. While I may hold myself to a higher standard in the areas I am experienced in, I’ve come to realize that in most areas of life, anything from a 95% on up is pretty damn good.  Consider this - in most grading systems - an A grade is typically 90% or better. So even straight A students are given a 10% cushion for error.

The bottom line, and the whole point I’m trying to make here is that while striving for 100% perfection is worthy goal for an individual and even a company, it’s also an impossible task for a society.  We are not a society of straight A students.

If a law or policy is serving the needs of 95% or more of the population, it’s typically not reasonable to go to draconian lengths to try and reach that last 5% or less. It almost always puts an undue burden on the rest of society to achieve a goal that is almost never actually achievable. This is not to say we should never try to reach 100%, but I am pointing out that inevitably, we reach a point of diminishing returns, and as individuals and a society, we need to begin to recognize when we hit that point, no matter if it’s a law involving national security,  taxes or even children’s safety.

Think about it...

Friday, June 28, 2013

"We hold these truths to be self evident."

In just a few days, we will be celebrating the 237th birthday of the United States of America.

As almost every American knows, 237 years ago 56 delegates from the 13 colonies began to put their name to Thomas Jefferson's eloquently written Declaration of Independence, thus launching themselves and our country into the annals of history.

As you go about your personal celebrations and barbeques this Thursday, July 4th, 2013, take a few minutes of your time to re-read the Declaration of Independence, and reflect on its words.

And as you read it this year, also consider that the 56 men who put their names to that document were branded traitors by their government of the time.

If you need a copy of the Declaration,you can find it here:

Friday, June 21, 2013

The spirit vs the letter

As a long time player and enthusiast of all sorts of games, from board games to roleplaying games to wargames using dozens of miniature soldiers, I've spent more than my fair share of time reading various rule sets. Some are simple affairs, designed simply as a framework for people to have fun. Others are more complex, designed to be a simulation of some aspect of real life. And yet others fill multiple volumes of books spanning hundreds of pages.

In the case of miniature games, many sets of popular rules start out as slim, simple affairs, and as they grow more popular, they also grow in size and complexity - especially if the rules become popular among a crowd who play them competitively in tournaments. The reason these rule sets get so complex is because as the rules become more popular, the people playing them become more removed from the rules designers. And the more removed they become, the harder it is for these players to distinguish the spirit of the rules from the letter of the rules.

In games, determining the spirit of the rules shouldn't be that difficult. After all, the primary purpose of a game is to have fun. So whenever a situation occurs in a game that isn't clearly defined by the letter of the rules, it should be pretty easy to determine the designers intent, right? After all, the intent is to have fun.

Or so one would think. The problem is that not everyone's idea of fun is 100% the same. Plus, in a game, the way a rule is interpreted can make the difference between who wins and loses. So sometimes even the simplest rule can cause discussions and even arguments among players. In most regular gaming groups, the outcomes of these discussions and arguments usually evolve into sets of house rules.Informal rules that resolve these disputes to everyone's satisfaction.

Each group tends to create it's own set of house rules. In some cases, these house rules are fairly common among groups for any given game. Particularly where there is good access to the rules designer and/or their designer notes.  Designers notes in particular outline the thought processes of those who wrote the rules, and quite often give a good insight as to their intent - or the spirit the rules are intended in.

That's just the natural evolution of friendly disagreements about the rules.  Exasperating the situation are those players who actively seek out and exploit the letter of the rules. They will use every ambiguity, every bit of semantics to twist things to their advantage. The adhere to the absolute letter of the rules, while often blatantly in violation of the spirit of the rules.

And so, between that, and the times when those house rules aren't so close between different groups, the rules tend expand to clarify those situations.  Especially for officially sponsored games and tournaments. The letter of the rules become more restrictive to reinforce the spirit of the rules.

The reason I mention all this is the same thing applies to the law. The legislative branch writes the laws with a certain intent.  The executive branch is supposed to uphold those laws in accordance with that intent. And the judicial branch is supposed to make sure both of the other branches stick to the intent of the Constitution.

The reality is, though, that the legislature will write the law, and the executive branch will follow that law to the letter. Fortunately, the legislature expects that to some degree, and tries to write the law specific to their intent.  But no matter how well they do write it, there will always be some exploit, something the judicial will have to clarify.

Recently, the original author of the Patriot Act, Wisconsin Representative Jim Sensenbrenner expressed his concern over the revelation that the NSA had been using the Patriot Act as a means of sweeping up the phone records of millions of Americans, as it was "never the intent" of the law.

This is really the problem of certain laws - their intent may be pure, but someone, somewhere in the executive branch will push past the spirit of the law into the letter of the law. And maybe even beyond it - like has been done with the Patriot Act.

This is why it's important to look at every law in how it could be abused, not with just what the intent is. Because a lot of people operate with the belief that rules were meant to be bent, if not outright broken.

Remember that...

Friday, June 14, 2013

An Exercise in Trust

Trusting government should be like trusting a toddler.  Never, ever leave them unsupervised for too long, because you will not like the results.

Far too many people put their trust in government without verifying tht trust is warranted.  This is a recipe for disaster - simply because the very nature of government is ripe for misuse by those with ill intent.

I'm not proposing that you should distrust government for grand conspiracy theories, or anything like that.  No, I'm proposing you shouldn't trust government blindly simply because of the sheer number of government employees we have. Even if the vast majority of government employees are completely trustworthy individuals, there is still room for damaging corruption.

Take, for example, the Federal government, which has on the order of around 3 million employees. Estimated totals of ALL government employees at all levels of US government top 20 million. If 99.9% of those employees are trustworthy, that still leaves about 3,000 corrupt Federal employees, and another 17,000 corrupt state and local employees. About 400 per state, if they were distributed evenly (which they're not - Illinois tops the nation in corruption, and Kansas is the lowest).

That's a lot of people who can still do a lot of damage, especially if we the people aren't vigilant.

That's assuming 99.9% of the people are moral enough to be 100% trustworthy. I have no idea what percentage of people in the world are 100% trustworthy, but I can ask you this - do you trust 99.9% of the people in your life?

If we take a look at public corruption convictions among government employees, the number of employees and elected officials convicted of corruption runs as high as 0.8% in Illinois - or eight times higher than my hypothetical example. To be fair, the conviction rate in Kansas is about the 0.1% my hypothetical example gives - but even then, most states have higher rates than my hypothetical example

That's just corruption convictions though - it makes no account for the people who don't get caught, or who got caught, but weren't convicted. How much higher is the real corruption percentage? And that's just for corruption - actual violations of the law.

What about those who pass and enforce bad laws and policies because they truly think it's the right thing to do?  Surely that percentage is much higher.

The bottom line is that you shouldn't trust government, not because of ideological differences or conspiracy theories say you shouldn't, but because the statistics suggest that they are not worthy of complete trust.

If you can't bring yourself to actively distrust your government, then at least go by the old adage - "Trust, but verify."

If you would like to do more research on government corruption, here are some handy links:

Friday, June 7, 2013

A Fearsome Tool

Given the current political climate, and my past blog posts, there is a good chance that the title of this post brings guns to mind first. After all, there is an intense national debate on what to do about guns, particular those most fierce looking ones, the so called assault rifles.

A fearsome tool indeed, yet in the hands of a responsible citizen, it is merely a tool.  A deadly one, true, dangerous in the hands of an irresponsible person, and doubly so in the hands of someone with evil intent.  A tool that requires great personal responsibility to wield properly

But that is not the fearsome tool I’m thinking of today. No, there is another tool that many of use, some of us daily, that is also dangerous, that has also led to unwanted deaths, that also causes fear and distress among many of our citizens.

The automobile?

Nope - another tool that requires personal responsibility to use, but still not the one I’m thinking of.

I’m thinking of the internet.  Yes, the internet.

The internet is a wonderful tool that has allowed some profound changes in the world. But it has a darker side, a side that requires personal responsibility. A shadowy side to it that we ignore at our own peril.   I’m not referring to the dark underbelly of the internet where porn and piracy sites reside, nor the cybercrooks and spammers.

To paraphrase Caveat Emptor -

“Let the user beware.”

Most of us adults are quite aware of the dark underbelly, and take appropriate precautions.   But the shadowy side I’m referring to is not typically part of the dark underbelly, it sits boldy in the light, sometimes even unaware of it’s own darkness.

I am referring to misinformation.

The internet makes it so easy to spread misinformation in the guise of facts and truth. Much of it is done without ill intent - that is, people pass on information because they think it is helpful, without taking the time to check it.  Things like fake stories of children missing, or the supposed trick of using your ATM PIN backwards to call police.

But some of it is deliberate, too, particularly among teens - the internet has become the new home of nasty rumors and bullying.

Bottom line, when you think about it, the internet - for all the good it’s brought us - can be used in many, many different ways to hurt, and yes, even kill people.

Like any dangerous tool, using it demands personal responsibility.

Perhaps we should put the same onus of responsibility on using the internet that we do on things like automobiles and firearms?

Friday, May 31, 2013

If you're my friend, you can't be his friend.

Have you ever known a couple that was together for a long time, and then went through a bitter , or even downright nasty breakup?

If you have, you've probably noticed that during the breakup, and in the months and weeks afterwards, the couple's mutual friends do one of two things. They either gravitate towards one member of the couple, taking "their side", or they refuse to take sides, and as a result, eventually drift away from being friends with either person. Sometimes, one member of the couple will even outright say "Well, if you're their friend, then you must not be my friend." or something similar.

When a person has been a close friend of both members of the couple, things like this strain their ability to stay friends with both.  Especially when neither member is clearly to blame for the breakup, such as abuse, or infidelity.   The strain of their breakup affects friends, but friends have an out that the couples generally don't - they can often simply choose to avoid both people.

Many people take that option. Consider that for a moment.

Now I'd like you to consider a hypothetical couple - we'll call them Mike & Jill. Mike & Jill have been married for what seems like a hundred years, but have such opposing personalities and fight so often, it's hard to figure out why they're still together. They probably wouldn't still be together, save for the house they live in that neither wants to give up to the other.

Many of their friends have taken sides in the bickering, slinging accusations back and forth not only about Mike & Jill, but about each other as well, simply because of who they support. Meanwhile, a fair number of their friends have simply decided to ignore the entire situation, ignoring what Mike & Jill and their friends are saying about each other. They're not going to get involved.

Of course, without me telling you a bunch of stories, you can't really take a side in this hypothetical argument between Mike & Jill. So if I pressed you, right now, to pick a side, your most likely answer is going to be neither.  You don't have enough invested in either one of them pick a side.

But what if I told you that you were Mike & Jill's landlord? Now you suddenly have a vested interest in their arguments - because what they do could affect the value of your property, and whether or not you receive income for it.

Do you now feel you have to pick a side? Are you curious for more information about Mike & Jill and their arguments so you can pick a side?

Or, are you thinking, I'll just not renew their lease, and get another tenant?

You should be, because frankly, that's probably the wisest course of action - especially when you learn their fighting is damaging your property, reducing its value to you and anyone else.

The hypothetical situation I outline with Mike & Jill really isn't that hypothetical - it's a very apt analogy of our current political situation and the Democrats and Republicans.  I almost made the situation a little more obvious by naming my hypothetical couple Rick & Donna, but opted not to so that you would truly consider it on a personal level, rather than a political level. .

The two major parties are like a bickering couple, and we are their landlords. Their fighting is damaging our home - the United States. And while this Rick and Donna each have their own differing agendas, they both have a shared agenda - they want to stay in our house, they desperately want to stay in power.

And they are doing it by convincing a majority of voters that your only choice is one of them. Where that doesn't work, they're using every legal trick they can find or create to block any alternatives - they have become, in effect, squatters in your house, resisting every attempt you make to evict them.

A landlord cannot give up evicting a squatter from their property, otherwise they risk losing it. Likewise, we the people cannot simply accept the situation and give in to the Democrats and Republicans desire to stay in power indefinitely. They've been in power too long, and it's time to evict them both.

Think about it.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

They're Coming!

The purpose of my blog is not to solely preach, but to try and get people to think. Sometimes that takes preaching and essays, but as any school student knows, that can get awfully dry and boring if it goes on for too long. You need variety. Fortunately, getting people to think can take a wide variety of forms. 

So I thought I'd do something a little different this week, and present you a little bit of fiction to enjoy and ponder over. 
Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, Pentagon, Washington DC.

"Mister Secretary?", said Eileen. "Your 10:30 appointment is here."

"Show him in, Eileen," the Secretary answered.

General Martin, head of Area 51, stepped into the room, and held the door for a young man of about 30 with unkempt hair as he hefted a large box into the room. The Secretary, who was just coming around his desk to greet the general, paused for a moment, confused.

"General," he queried. "What's going on here."

"Mr Secretary," the general replied, "I would like to introduce you to Professor Malcolm Bennett, one of our top technology research scientists."   Professor Bennett looked up at the Secretary and nodded as he began pulling a long cylindrical object with scores of wires and tubes trailing from it.

The Secretary looked the young man over as he gently set the device on the desk, and began arranging boxes around it. He was wearing a high end grey suit with a pin striped shirt and a red tie. But even though the attire was appropriate for the visit, the young Professor looked like he had been sleeping in this particular suit for three days. His hair was a mass of black curls, and he wore thick wire rimmed glasses.

"Mr Bennett has something very important to show you," the General said. "Something I think you're going to want to bring to the President's attention."

"What is that thing," the Secretary asked, pointing to the large cylindrical metal tube on his desk. "It looks like a pile of junk."

"It was a pile of junk until I rebuilt what I could," Bennett said. He finally turned and faced the Secretary. "Mr Secretary, this is known as the Roswell Core.  It was discovered as part of the Roswell incident in 1947."

"The Roswell incident was just an experimental weather balloon," the Secretary said. "Are you telling me it really was a UFO?" He looked at the General. The General stayed quiet and looked to Professor Bennett for the answer.

"Not exactly," Bennett said. "It was a weather balloon, but what the government never admitted to is what brought the balloon down."  He paused, and connected some of the wires on the Core to his laptop.

"And?" the Secretary said.

"It was a missile," Bennett replied. "A missile of extra-terrestrial origin.  The Core here was the warhead this missile carried."

"A weapon?" asked the Secretary.

"No sir, a computer," Bennett said. "But the Core and its carrying missile were damaged in the crash. It didn't work on landing, and well, our scientists in 1947 weren't even close to capable of understanding it enough to repair it.   In fact, their so called forensic analysis of it actually did most of the damage to it. After a few years, they gave up, and set it aside.  I found it in an old storage room at the Area a few years ago, and started putting it back together as a side project. I didn't expect much from it.

"Now, don't get me wrong," Bennett continued. "The technology of the Core and their analysis of it jump started our own technology.  We wouldn't be where we are today, without it. It's important to our history and development.  But two weeks ago, it became even more important"

"So why is it important now," the Secretary asked.

"It is important because if the scientists in 1947 hadn't ruined it, had been able to repair it, or it had worked as intended, we'd be even further along than we are now. This computer, this Core, carries technological plans beyond anything we can even imagine now.

"And because we wouldn't face the crisis we're now in."

"What crisis?" the Secretary asked.

 "Watch," was all Bennett said as he flipped a switch, and the screen of his laptop came to life.

Thirty chilling moments later, the Secretary swallowed the large lump in his throat, and said simply "I'll get the President."
The Oval Office, Washington DC, three days later

Bennett shut off the video, and looked around the room at the assembled dignitaries. The room was quiet.

Finally, the Secretary of Defense spoke up. "What are we going to do?"

"There is little we can do," General Martin said. "The message said we had approximately 70 years from the time we received it.  There are only a few years left."

"But they sent us plans for weapons and defenses, didn't they?", the Director of Homeland Security asked.

"They did," Bennett said. "But we'll never get them analyzed and built in time."

"We have to go public," the Director of NASA said. "We need to tell the American people - the world - that aliens are on their way to invade."

The room erupted into chaos, as the arguments on the benefits and dangers of doing so were flung back and forth across the room.  Eventually the consensus was that they couldn't go public - not yet - but they still needed a way to prepare the public.

The President called for quiet. " Ladies. Gentlemen," he said. "I have a solution.  A way to arm the American public, without telling them." The room fell silent.

The President looked over every one as they waited for him to continue.

"Historically, what has been the reaction whenever gun control is seriously discussed?" the President asked.

The senior Senator from California made a face. "Gun sales go up," she said.

"Exactly," the President said. "So the best way to arm America is to ramp up the gun control rhetoric to unprecedented levels."   The room began nodding their heads in agreement.

"At least then when the aliens arrive, the American public will be armed," someone said.

"Yes, yes they will," the President said.

For the record, I do not in anyway think this is a likely scenario - it's just a piece of fiction I wrote for fun. But it makes you think, doesn't it?  And with all the conspiracy theories out there and how wild some of them are, you have to admit it's plausible in comparison, if not in reality.

But if it is true, I hope aliens are allergic to lead.   

Have a good Memorial Day weekend everyone.

Friday, May 17, 2013

A hypothetical question.

No long essay this week, just a question I want you to ponder for yourself.

"What would you do if a presidential administration nearing the end of it's term, attempted to cancel elections and retain power?"

A disclaimer here - I don't believe this will happen with this administration. Unlike a lot of people out there, I don't see Obama as a Hitler or Stalin wannabe, just as a man who has convictions, is blinded by them, and that blindness means he's refusing to admit he is wrong even in the face of proof.  But there are people who think he is - if they are right, the only way he could retain power would be to somehow cancel the 2016 elections.

I don't think there is anyway in hell the majority of Americans would accept such a power play, but then again, I could very well be wrong. But in either case, it's worth asking the question, so that people can figure it out for itself, in case a president ever does attempt it.

Friday, May 10, 2013

You can do it. No you can't.

Earlier this week, Defense Distributed announced they had finally achieved their goal of a 3d printable gun, called the Liberator, and revealed it on their website, The political backlash of this act is only just starting.

New York Representative Chuck Schumer - “Now anyone, a terrorist, someone who is mentally ill, a spousal abuser, a felon, can essentially open a gun factory in their garage. It must be stopped.”

New York Representative Steve Israel is pushing to update the current Undetectable Firearms Act to include the Liberator and other like weapons.

California State Senator Leland Yee is proposing legislation to ban 3D Printing in California.

Gun control advocates in Australia like Sam Lee have already begun pressuring the state and federal governments there to regulate 3D printers. 

Similar statements can be found across the world, in Canada, Britain, Europe and beyond. Overall, the general reaction is “You can’t do this!” and “We have to stop this!”    It is a predictable reaction - to clamp down when faced with an apparent threat. 

And in between the time I started writing this and before I got to post it, the US Department of Defense has pressured Defense Distributed to remove the files under its International Trade of Arms Regulations. 

No matter your viewpoint on this situation, it serves to illustrate something vital to understanding and coping with the future.

Many of our technological developments, particularly those of the last 50 years, are serving a far grander purpose of empowering the individual.  This is something that our founding fathers understood about firearms - they empowered the individual - and empowered individuals is something they tried to embody in the form the government they established.

The United States has constantly been on the forefront of technological change that empowers the individual, particularly in the last 50 years.  The computer, the laser printer, and the celphone are just a few of the technologies we have that empower the individual. And none more so than the internet. These developments have allowed the individuals to interact on an unprecedented global level. A perfect example is this blog - even as little as twenty years ago, my ability to make my voice heard would have required great personal expense, and most likely would have reached a much smaller audience than the small audience I’m reaching now.

At this point in history we can share knowledge more freely than before. Knowledge empowers the individual. And the more empowered we are as individuals, the better life should be, right?

Then why is it that government and society tend to be moving in the opposite direction, and attempting to contain the individual? Seatbelt laws, Helmet Laws, Drug Laws, Anti- Smoking laws, Gun bans, even soda bans all attempt to contain the individual in some manner.

These two things are completely at odds with each other.  Technology empowers us, while government and society attempts to contain us.  You cannot give a man more power, then tell him you don’t trust him with it. The natural human reaction to such a situation is to lash out.

In an era with empowered individuals, the emphasis needs to be on personal responsibility. Because only those capable of personal responsibility and entrusted with it can truly be entrusted with the technology that empowers them.

Increasingly, though, our government is moving in directions that actively discourage personal responsibility.  This is not a good situation - we cannot continue to punish those who are practicing personal responsibility by decreasing their liberties while at the same time rewarding those who practice irresponsibility by “taking care of them.”  Especially not in an era of technological change that empowers individuals. 

Empowered individuals have the capability to strike back at government and society, and there is little that can be done about it. At least not without imposing draconian and tyrannical measures of control on everyone. And the more you do that, the more people you have with reason to strike out and government and society.  

If we really want to see the utopian ideal of a world of peace and harmony, the path lies with personal empowerment, personal responsibility and trust, not down the path of control, restriction and distrust.

Just something else to think about.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

As a society, we're becoming more and more afraid. We're afraid of things like bombings, school shootings, abductions and a growing list of other things. But statistically, we're afraid of the wrong things.

You're more likely to be hurt in an auto accident than any of those things. Auto accidents and a whole host of other things like diabetes are more likely to affect you personally than a terrorist bombing or a school shooting will. I could quote a whole host of statistics to prove my point, but I'm going to take a more anecdotal and personal approach.

How many Americans do you know - personally know, not a friend of a friend or someone you encountered once on a plane or at a bus stop - how many do you know who have been seriously injured or killed in a car accident? Now how many do you know who have been killed or injured in a bombing or school shooting?

The vast majority of you reading this will have more of the former than the latter. Those of you who don't probably have a personal connection to one of this nation's tragedies like Columbine or 9/11 or Virginia Tech.

My point in bringing this up is to point out how we tend to deny the most likely bad things that can happen to us. And that leads me to mention another fear that most of us are ignoring. The fear we should have of government.

Whether you admit it or not, we do live and act in fear of government every day. Why do you follow the speed limit? Fear of getting a ticket. Why do you pay taxes? Fear of what will happen if you don't. Etc, etc.

Now, mind you, I am aware it's not all fear - many things we do are also part of social responsibility. And, as I've gone over before in my Cupped Hands Analogy, government is a lubricant that makes society work.

But for the last century or so, we've been slowly and surely handing over our liberties to government "for our safety."  At some point, that willingness to hand over our liberties is going to come back to bite us. If we don't reign in this willingness, we're going to eventually encounter a President who takes the laws we've let Congress enact, and the precedents we've let the government establish to enslave us, much as Hitler and the Nazis took over Germany from the Weimar Republic.

Some people believe that day is already here.  And when you really pay attention to some of the incidents that have happened, particularly surrounding the TSA, DEA, ATF and various "Child Protective Services" agencies, it does give reason to think they may be right. It IS time for a revolution.

I don't believe we've reached the threshold yet where that revolution has to be bloody.  There is still time to fight with votes. An election or two that completely throw the existing parties out of power will go a long way to revitalizing our government "Of the People, For the People and By the People."  All it takes is YOUR vote.  Vote now against the establishment. It's a hard thing to do, but it will take a large number of us speaking up to make it happen without blood shed.

I'll end with a great passage from John G Hemry's bood, Stark's Command:

"If you think you don't matter, then you don't."

Stand up and matter...

Friday, April 26, 2013

Snapping Points?

Like most children growing up, I had to deal with my share of bullying. Most of these were relatively minor instances, but trying for the emotional child I was.  At one point in middle school,  I even became a bully, for reasons I can’t even comprehend as an adult. Fortunately, it did not last more than a couple of weeks, because my victim finally made the decision to stand up to me.

Beyond my brief and shameful period as a bully, most of my encounters with bullies were the result of witnessing the bullying of others, and reaching my breaking point to speak up for others when they would not speak up for themselves. Sadly, I never spoke up enough to completely end their bullying, all I did was end a few instances. But the experiences did teach me that to truly end bullying, you have to stand up for yourself.

My most memorable instance of being bullied was in high school during my Junior year.  A small group of my friends and I spent many of our lunches in the school library playing Dungeons and Dragons and other games. A classmate of ours, whom we’ll call Wesley, apparently decided that was reason enough to pick on us. At first Welsey’s attacks were merely verbal, and we ignored him - after all, at that point in time, if you played D&D openly, derision of your hobby of choice was to be expected.

When Wesley realized his verbal taunting was doing little to bother us, he escalated things a little bit.  Honestly, it was so many years ago, I don’t remember the specifics, though some of my friends may.. What I do remember is that as a result of his actions, we asked the librarian if we could move our games to one of the private study rooms, and she agreed we could. For a while, that helped, until the day of our final encounter with Wesley.  That final encounter is what I remember the most.

One lunch period, Wesley let himself into our study room. We were right in the middle of something important in our game, and he reached down and picked up a pair of dice I was using.

“Give me back the dice, Wesley,” I said, in what I recall as a calm, but firm voice.

“What are you going to do about it,” was the gist of his reply.

After about a half a dozen repetitions of my request, and his taunting replies, I had had enough, and I unleashed.  Things got physical - which was, and still is, pretty rare for me.  Wesley found himself shoved up against the wall with my hand on his throat, and a shocked look on his face.

“Give me back the dice, Wesley,” I repeated for the last time, but my voice was now brimmed with venom.  Wesley dropped the dice, I let him go and that was the end of it. As far as I can recall, Wesley did not bother me nor my friends for the rest of our time in school.

What I recall the most of this event isn’t the details, but the way I felt when I snapped, and unleashed on Wesley. It was anger, righteous indignation, vengeance and a sense of violation all rolled into one. But with all that, there was also an overriding sense of not giving a fuck what happened to me.  Wesley was a bigger guy than me, I had almost no fighting experience, and frankly, in the back of my mind, I just knew I was going to get my ass kicked.  But I didn’t care, damnit - I was determined to go down swinging.  

Every single one of us has that snapping point, that point in time where we feel the actions we take are far, far more important than consequences we will suffer for them.  The most profound example I can think of this point is that of the passengers of United flight 93 on Sept 11th, 2001.  They reached a point where they knew they were going to die, but damnit, they weren’t going down without a fight.  Their actions ultimately didn’t change their fate, but they probably changed the fates of hundreds, possibly even thousands of other lives.

Sometimes it’s the other way around.  Sometimes people feel they are being bullied, and snap, even when hindsight shows they over reacted. A good example of this is the Oklahoma City bombing - McVeigh repeatedly said that his actions were a response to the government’s actions at Ruby Ridge and Waco TX.  His actions may have been reprehensible nor justified, but I don’t think any of us can deny that he reached a point where he snapped.

We are at a point in this nation where millions of Americans feel they are being bullied by the government.  Specifically, I’m referring to the fight surrounding the 2nd Amendment.  This fight cannot go on at it’s current level without someone else snapping.   

What I find surprising is the number of people who can’t or won’t factor this into the conversation.

From the research I’ve done, an estimated 30-34% of our population are lawful gun owners. That’s an estimated 70-80 million adults who legally own guns.  Let’s go with the lower of that number - 70 Million gun owners. If 99.9% of gun owners do not reach their snapping point with any future gun laws, that still leaves 0.1% who will.  That’s 70,000 people at their snapping point. To put that in perspective, that’s approximately the same number of people as live in Sheboygan WI, or Flagstaff AZ.

Now let’s assume that is only people who are at their snapping point, but not yet over it. They have not yet been faced with the incident that causes them to snap. An incident such as law enforcement confronting them about their previously legal guns.  If only one percent of those people are actually faced with an incident, and shooting starts, that’s still 700 incidents of shoot outs with law enforcement over something that was previously legal.  If only one percent of those incidents result in the death of a law enforcement officer, that’s still 7 officers dead.

Now consider that’s only pushing 0.1% to their snapping point, and only 1% of those being confronted.   Things have the potential to be much, much worse.  Put the number at their snapping point at 1%, and you get 700,000 people who are potential trouble.  That’s between the population of Allentown PA, and Rochester NY.  If 1% of those are faced with an incident, and again, only 1% of those incidents result in the death of a law enforcement officer, that’s 70 officers dead.

If the percentage of people pushed to their snapping point is higher - and I have no doubt it could be as high as 6-7% - then you’re looking at hundreds of potential law enforcement deaths over enforcement of gun laws.

These quick calculations leave out a lot of other factors as well.  I’m only pointing out the lives of law enforcement officers, the ones who are on the perceived “good” side - agents of government.  What about deaths of those who fight back when confronted?  Ruby Ridge had a death toll of three - two from the Weaver family, and one law enforcement officer.  Waco had a death toll of 84 - 80 Branch Davidians and 4 law enforcement officers.

Furthermore, every death caused by government confrontation over gun laws is a potential catalyst for further violence.  The ATF’s illegal actions at Ruby Ridge, and perceived illegal actions at Waco were a catalyst for the 168 deaths in the Oklahoma City bombing.

In a nutshell, being too aggressive with anti-gun laws in this country has the potential to get ugly fast. Real fast.  Especially when you consider how fast information (and misinformation) about these type of incidents can spread. An overzealous ATF officer in Minneapolis could very well touch off an incident that leads to the deaths of FBI agents in Los Angeles and beyond.

For an agenda that says “if we can save even one life with these laws, it’s worth it”  I find it incredulous that they don’t consider the potential loss of life these laws could cause, especially when pushed by a government that has done much to erode our trust. Because it’s not just gun laws we’re talking about, but laws and policies that violate many other Amendments, too.

The death of a child is a tragic thing. I agree that we should take prudent steps to protect their lives. But we’re also at a tipping point where another incident like Ruby Ridge could set off a firestorm and anti-government backlash that we might not be able to contain.By ignoring that potential, we're not being prudent.

Ramming through more anti-gun laws only increases the likelihood of things spiraling out of control unexpectedly. The 26 lives lost at Newtown, and the 12 lives lost at Aurora’s Century theater will mean nothing if the emotional reactions to them give us ill-conceived feel good laws that lead to even more deaths.

Once again, I find myself standing up for those who are being bullied.  In other words, it’s time for the government to stop bullying law abiding citizens, because a significant number of them appear to be at, or near their snapping point.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Reading Assignments!

In lieu of my usual story and rant this week, I’m just posting some links to some reading you can do for yourself. Again, I’m a big believer in people educating themselves and making their own decisions, and all of my posts so far are intended to make you think about these things for yourself.

But sometimes it’s helpful to just say “Hey, read this” without editorializing (too much).

The following are all Supreme Court Cases where the government was found to be in violation of the Constitution in some form or another.  To make them easier to digest, I’m linking to the Wikipedia article for them where it exists. Wikipedia is usually pretty accurate, and relatively neutral, though not always.  I encourage you to do your own research, the references given in each Wikipedia article are a good place to start.

United States v. Jones - attaching a GPS to a citizen’s vehicle to monitor his movements without a warrant violates the 4th Amendment.

Sackett v. EPA - imposing fines against landowners for non-compliance without due process violates the 4th Amendment

Arizona v. United States - States are within their 10th Amendment rights to uphold Federal Law regarding immigration.

Gabelli v. SEC - the Security and Exchange Commission must abide by it’s own statute of limitations.

Arkansas Fish & Game Commission v. United States - reinforces the Takings Clause of the 5th Amendment

Georgia v. Randolph - police need a warrant to search a residence if one resident objects to the search, even if another resident gives consent.

Various blogs out there will try and paint some of these cases as evidence to push an agenda that either Bush or Obama is evil.   For example, the first example - US V. Jones came from a Republican leaning blog that used it as one example of how horrible the Obama administration is.  However, the fact is that the violation and the subsequent court case began under the Bush administration, but was just as vigorously pursued or defended under the Obama administration.  Abuse of government power by it’s bureaucrats does not suddenly change just because the President is a member of one party or the other. 

These are just the cases that have made it to the highest courts.

More interesting cases can be found here: