Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Thursday, January 31, 2013 more reason?

Much of the noise being created over gun control seems to come from the sources responsible for most American discord: angry white males. These people are not too good at connecting the dots, and in the case before the house now, neither was I.

I wrote a few days ago about the amazing price tag that assault weapons carry, but I missed the other part of the equation. They are generally very cheap to manufacture. Low production cost was one of the chief objectives behind one of the grandparents of assault rifles: the Russian AK-47.

By creating a market for weapons that are deficient for recreational purposes, deadly, and cheap to make, firearms makers can gradually get rid of gunsmiths, the artisans who created items like my old Lefever shotgun. Skilled artisans are an expensive resource, more costly than the assembly line operators who churn out assault weapons.

No wonder, then, that the manufacturers are pulling the strings of all their pro-gun puppets with exceptional vigour. It's never about rights, or safety: it's always about profit. I would rather have manufacturers who nourish and cherish the creation of beautiful things than those who are simply stamping out (literally) products that have no purpose other than to spit out killing projectiles. If the aesthetics are gone from the manufacture of firearms, then we're rather close to the "the hell with it" moment.

Just sayin'.


Skip if you like

Sometimes I use this space as a "pain diary." No, this isn't kinky: it's a way for patients to keep track of their chronic pain for their providers. If this isn't your thing, feel free to skip.

The Beast is pretty much back. The interest level in trigeminal neuralgia is one thing that sustains sanity and beats back self-pity. The only pity in the business is that it's a pity this interesting disorder isn't happening to somebody else.

Things are a bit different this year. First, it is manifesting differently. For several years, I could rely on episodes starting with  sharp flashes in the temporal branch (V1) of the nerve. The sensations would descend to the Gasserian ganglion, the central router of the trigeminal nerve, then feed out along the maxillary (V2) and mandibular (V3) branches (into the jaws). Only when things became very extreme would the sensations descend into the trigeminal root, its road to the spinal cord.

This time, the initial sensations are in the ganglion most of the time. They then branch  into V2, V3 and the trigeminal root. V1 is almost a bystander. Besides having to rearrange the defences, this involvement of the root is something I haven't had to deal with since the first years I had TN. Even when the pain is moderate, which it mostly is right now, involvement of a large, deep nerve in the raree show creates sensations that become a major preoccupation.

The triggers are changing, too. Temperature contrasts  still play a role: drafts you would not even notice are enough. But chewing, which used to be secondary, is tied for first place now in my list of triggers.

That's moderately scary, considering all this is happening despite the support of drugs that would turn you into a neural puddle if you began to take what I take all at once. Any thinking person with TN who knows its history has to remember, every day, the ordeals of our sisters and brothers who endured this before our meds were discovered, barely 40 years ago. TN is incurable but not fatal per se. Today, the leading cause of death associated with TN is suicide. Not long ago, a substantial portion of the deaths came from starvation. People for whom chewing was the trigger would rather starve than face the pain of trying to eat. Sharing this makes one very thoughtful.

At any rate, the latest chapter of the adventure has begun again. Stay tuned.


Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Who pays these people?

Ten or twelve years ago, I used to hang with Yahoo because I liked the interface. Today, I'm thinking of leaving because I don't care for the company I have to keep.

Most thoughtful people would agree that the vision of the the Internet's founders, of a forum for the thoughtful exchange of well-considered ideas, has fallen hilariously short of expectations.  Anonymity has not enhanced the calibre of discourse: it has lowered it. Those newspapers which have given up anonymity on their online pages seem to have discovered that they have retained the volume of feedback but increased the quality.

Yahoo hasn't had this satori. It may also be cursed by the law of unintended consequences. The name may or may not hark back to Gulliver's Travels, but Yahoo outdoes itself in attracting yahoos of the Gulliverian stripe. In doing so, it illustrates another weakness of anonymous discourse.

It isn't just that anonymity brings out the worst in people. It is also that Internet anonymity enables the worst people to control any debate they enter. Despite the best efforts of portals to limit the number of user names a person may have, it isn't difficult for one person to have dozens, perhaps hundreds, of handles in use on a given portal's comment pages.

When this kind of fun is just verbal masturbation by trolls, it's bad enough. Gresham's law applies just as well to online discourse as to money.  But the trolls open the way to people with political agendas,  who get to use loudmouthed boorishness to drive dissenting opinion away from any topic and give the impression that they represent majority opinion. Those fond of defending Internet trolls with the First Amendment might pause to reflect that the outcome is exactly the opposite of free speech. When one person can masquerade as a hundred, drowning out dissenting voices and, on occasion, threatening people naive enough to speak under their own user names, we have a definition of the First Amendment as perverted as many definitions applied to the Second Amendment.

It is no accident that defenders of Second Amendment rights have lately been hyperactive little trolls. Yesterday, I left a social media arm  of Gabby Gifford and Mark Kelly's Americans for Responsible Solutions. This good idea had been swamped by Second Amendment pros, Second Amendment antis and generic trolls, to the point where one genuinely responsible statement would be drowned by fifty rants. This is a Web site, however, not a portal. There is nothing but convention to prevent commentary from being responsibly moderated.

It is said, and truly enough, that the United States is a young country. More to the point, it is an immature country. Its immaturity is so pronounced that it may pass from national childhood to national senility without a pause in the middle for national maturity.


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Worrying about the wrong thing

Back in December, I dutifully filed for Social Security online, just as Lt Sulu told me to do. Piece of cake, right?


See, the problem here is that whilst you, as the filer, may be able to take advantage of 21st century technology to file, it's still the 1930s at the other end of the pipeline, and it is there that the pipeline chokes.

The first sign of trouble came last week, when a crack Social Security rep called me with "a couple of questions." The first one I expected. It isn't enough to say "no, I'm not filing for Medicare Part B because we're enrolled in my wife's public sector retirement programme." It is necessary to repeat that several times, going slower each time and using smaller words with each iteration.

We got through that, and the rep says, "what was your state of birth?" I was tempted to say "a baby," but a lucky instinct warned me I was dealing with someone unfamiliar with humour. I answered, truthfully, New Hampshire. The rep digested this for a moment, and I asked "why?" It seems that some GS-1 on their end had somehow made my place of birth Concord, MA, instead of Concord, NH. Either the party at the keyboard had never heard of Concord, NH, or by a feat of digital gymnastics typed MA for NH. Look at the keyboard and you'll how interesting a feat this is. Look at the average scroll-down list for state abbreviation and you'll find that even more challenging.

This error is my fault, somehow. According to today's follow-up message,  it is now my problem to prove that I was indeed born where I was, and not where the stupidity of a Social Security grunt says I was. To do this a certified copy of my birth record will not do: it must be an original. (Social Security says nothing about returning this original document, by the way.)  This, mind you, is from what is supposed to be an all-powerful, all-knowing Government. They can't pick up the phone and confirm my place of birth with a small city bureaucracy. Come on, I'm not John Smith: I have one of the rarest names in the country. How hard should this be?

Piece of cake, says my librarian spouse:  just go online and file with Concord Vital Records. Uh huh. Concord NH may be more advanced than Social Security, but they have not quite made it to 2013. All one can do is download a .pdf application, fill it out and snail mail it to Concord with a copy of a "government issued photo ID." Oh good, a copy: I won't have to go without a driver's licence indefinitely. Presumably, in a few weeks they will get around to snail mailing the embossed original, on parchment, maybe?

Time, meanwhile, is marching on. The rep said that I should  receive my first deposit on April 24. I am now embarking on a bureaucratic journey that I expect will take as much as two months. Meanwhile, as far as I can tell, the process stops. Any delay will presumably be my fault as well.

Sorry, George Takei. At the other end of the Web application process is a bureaucracy for which typewriters seem to be a novelty. When I receive the parchment from Concord, I'm supposed to stuff it into an off-size, oddly-coloured envelope addressed in a scrawl that seems to have originated in the Yerkes Primate Centre.

Those who are beating the drums about the possibility of reduction of Social Security benefits have misdirected their anxieties. The real concern is whether the creaking, primitive bureaucracy that is the Social Security Administration is capable of dealing with 10,000 people a week retiring for the next 17 years. Based on this instance, I suggest the bureaucracy will collapse long before the money runs out. We, poor schmucks, will die off in the wake.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

One thing that needs fixing

At each Presidential inauguration, we are--or should be--reminded that a peaceful transfer of political power is a rarity amongst living things. That used to be the focus of inauguration coverage.

Not now. Did Sasha yawn? Did Schumer upstage the President? Did Michelle roll her eyes at Boehner? Did anyone muff their lines during the swearing in? Did this? Did that?  Did some other damned piece of transient nonsense happen?

Jaazus H. Christ! This is journalism? This is tripe. One hears a lot today about the people getting the representation they deserve, because they're the ones who voted the Congressional ship of fools into office. Maybe so, but the people's decisions can be no better than  the information they receive from a free media.

If inauguration coverage is any measure, most of the people get no information at all, only cheap entertainment tarted up as journalism. I don't know why the average broadcast journalist doesn't learn to juggle or do stupid dog tricks: that would add breadth and dimension to what they have the gall to call news coverage.

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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Contemplative calculations

Oddly enough, this is prompted by a barside conversation about why in hell the cost of good whiskey has increased so far ahead of the rate of inflation. We might get onto that someday, but all that plus the gun control "conversation" ( still more of a screaming match, it seems) made me wonder what we are talking about in the way of economics. How much do assault rifles cost, anyway?

First, if you know little or nothing about firearms, you need to grasp Fact 1: for a civilian without homicidal intent, and assault rifle falls somewhere south of useless. You can't use one as a deer rifle in most states, and if you did, you'd end up with pulled venison. Their defenders like to say they are good for target shooting and shooting vermin. So are many other, more traditional rifles that lack the crippling liability of assault rifles (coming to that), as well as their deadliness.

Being curious, I did some firearms shopping, trying to see if I could match the rural arsenal I had when I came south and gave up hunting. As I recall, I had:
  • a .30 cal bolt-action deer rifle. (Deer were safe around me; I was not a good shot off the range.)
  • a 20 gauge double-barrel Lefever shotgun, a beautiful masterpiece of the gunsmith's art. I'm going to leave this out of the estimate because it's hard to find them now at any price. The one I had would now be about 100 years old, and a collector's item, not a working firearm.
  • a .25 cal "varmint" rifle
  • a .22 target rifle
  • a .22 target pistol
In short, it was a typical collection for the time and place, apart from the Lefever.  I could replace all of the other firearms at today's prices for the average cost of just one assault rifle, and probably have change for ammunition.

Here we see the delusional logic of extremists at work. Most of the people ranting about the government taking their guns away probably can't afford assault rifles. Left to their own devices, most would avoid wasting money on something so worthless. It's no more accurate on the range (probably less) than less extreme firearms. It doesn't kill rats any better than a .22, and every round costs five times as much.

If assault rifles had not been made the icon of the anti-gun movement, how many average people would give two to three weeks' pay to own one? We've been down this road before. In the early 1960s, the workhorses of WWII, the M-1 Garand rifle and the M-1 carbine, came onto the surplus market. Our fathers were intimately familiar with both.  They respected them, but did not love them.*  The Garand was never popular with anyone but militaria collectors. The carbine enjoyed a brief  vogue as a varmint rifle, but the genre that included today's assault rifles soon came along and pushed them  into obscurity. Now, anyone who adds a passion for politics to a passion for firearms does not ask whether an assault rifle is of any use to them, they know only that they must spend as much as $2000 on one, to assert their Second Amendment rights. This would be comical if it weren't so damn deadly, and perhaps we'll be making progress when enough people see the hilarity of their actions.

Sic transit gloria saniae.

*Consider that 50 years ago, a much higher percentage of the population were veterans. That experience cures many people of a desire to play soldier, and I wonder if the fascination with assault weapons reflects unfulfilled military ambitions. In that case I have a suggestion: enlist.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

Truthy dialect humour

As a troublesome child, I spent an above-average amount of time in my grade school principal's office. I remember a sign hanging on her wall, which was at first incomprehensible to me. It was a measure of my advancing education that I was eventually able to understand that the German Gothic type formed words, and that the words formed a saying in dialect German:

Ve grow too soon old und too late schmart

I recalled this yesterday, when the effort to bring a measure of reasonable gun control to this country included appeals to the moderate majority of NRA members to support such measures. Good luck with that. 

Gun control has been the mother of all wedge issues for forty years. As a person of progressive leanings, a one-time owner of firearms and (horrors!) a one-time NRA member, I've received a good deal of the vitriol thrown from the left as well as that thrown from the right. To the lefties who have indulged themselves in this fashion, I hope that you've enjoyed this. Now, more than ever, it's clear that gun control will only happen when people like me sign on to make it happen, after elements on the left have done everything possible to ensure that moderate support can't happen. It's one more reason why the left in the rest of the world constantly rolls its eyes at the painful imbecility of the left in the U.S.
Jon Meacham, author of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, appeared on WGBH's Greater Boston yesterday. In the context of the eternal tension between the principles of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Margery Eagan turned the discussion to gun control.   Meacham discussed the appeal to the centre,  and how this is another case where the Declaration's timeless principles are again in conflict with the sometimes-obscure legalisms of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Moderate gun owners, he said, must choose now or at some point to separate themselves from the pro-gun extremists, in order to achieve the sort of democratic pragmatism that Meacham argues was Jefferson's genius.

It can happen, Meacham says. It has happened. He observes that 50 years ago, the NRA was a constructive force teaching firearms safety and promoting shooting sports. Lobbying was a small tail to the dog.  I can attest to this, because that was when I became involved in the NRA. In the aftermath of the assassinations of the 1960s, when more stringent gun controls were bruited, the NRA's legal stance hardened and lobbying grew to be the tail that not only wagged the dog, but made the dog disappear altogether. In the aftermath of Waco and  Ruby Ridge, its actions and stance became toxic.  After the Oklahoma City bombing, their rhetoric grew intolerably shrill and paranoid.  Meacham cited Bush 41 as one  of thousands of NRA members who resigned in protest in those years. I can attest to that also:  I was one of them. 

It would have made a great deal of sense for leftist gun control supporters to reach out to these disaffected former NRA members, but of course they did not: As I said, painful imbecility. Now, any action this critical centre takes will probably be their own. The ship of cooperation with the left may have sailed.

As I understood it at the time, the NRA was rocked by the resignations of the 1990s, but obviously not enough to change course. I suggest that the extremists by then in control persuaded themselves that it amounted to a purge of the weak-willed.

Having worked that patch for a dozen years once, I know enough about membership organisations to know that membership numbers are their Achilles' heel. Dues may not be the largest part of their income structure, but membership is the magnet that attracts corporate support. A useful centre-based strategy would be to induce NRA membership resignations in the tens, even hundreds of thousands. If I were in development for one of the smaller, related organisations, I would begin a move to the centre and a drive to recruit people disaffected by NRA extremism. If there is such a thing as Jeffersonian pragmatism, this would be it: another organisation acting simply in its own interest, and able to persuade NRA corporate supporters that it, not the NRA, represents the majority of gun owners. Competition could reduce the NRA back to what Meacham called "four people...with big megaphones."

Would it happen? On the one hand, as that sign said, Ve grow too soon old und too late schmart. On the other hand, the NRA today issued a disingenuous statement that of course it had never opposed background checks, because it is a supporter of firearms safety. Funny how that self- knowledge only occurred after recent polls showed that over 60 percent of NRA members support background checks. Even wild-eyed extremist groups apparently have cold-eyed Development departments.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Repeated grumps

Readers know that I am no friend of the stew of verbal shorthand and intellectual laziness that infects most America media. Witness my losing battle against the term "NOR-easter." My vexation du jour is bullet. Here is an example of the potential of media to educate, a potential which is consistently disregarded. A bullet, by itself, is just a lump of metal or metals. But spread the word? Lord no.

I think the answer to both of these irritations is to return to the days when reporters were paid by the line instead of the meme. How easy then it would be to get them to say or write "cartridge" if that were the case. Likewise, we could expect the name of that there storm to get its "th" back.

Speaking of things missing. Either the coverage of New York's strict new gun control law seems to fall short, or the law itself has. Is it true that mental health practitioners must report any statement by a patient that involves gun violence? We're left to ask, well, suppose the patient threatens to set off a bomb? Or to drive a car down a crowded sidewalk? Or to hijack an airplane and fly it into a building? Is it OK not to report those? If true, don't doubt for a minute that psychiatric professionals, who don't want to cooperate with disclosure, will leap on such exceptions to excuse their actions.

If my speculations are unfounded, then why the fuck has no one reported the whole story?  It's the "noreaster" mentality, or absence of mentality. Nobody cares about anything but gun control, so why bother with all the facts?

As usual, I'll have to go scratch it out for myself.


Thursday, January 10, 2013

An emerging and fluid position

(Disclosure: the Beast is back, in somewhat moderate form, but my Special K snack is messing with my concentration. Bear with me.)

My starting principle is that, 49 years ago, nobody thought the Surgeon General, with lukewarm support from the White House and Congress, could wage war on the tobacco companies and win. With that example in mind, I refuse to believe in letting the corporations who pull the NRA's strings will always win.

The fear factor being what it is, I believe that those of a progressive mindset need to make the first moves. A little honesty will remind us that not all the extremists are on the far right. One step, then, is kindly to ask the most extreme people left of centre to STFU until a rational dialogue can begin. The objective here will be a compromise that they detest as much as their right-wing counterparts do. All good compromises are like that.

For example, I do think a licencing/registration plan is necessary. I suggest it has to be accessible and offer benefits as well as penalties to every social level. The proposals I've heard so far appear to be deliberately burdensome and unhelpful. If proposals like this smack of confiscatory policies to someone who favours gun control, how much more so will they to the other side? Back off.

@ Mass Marrier: I haven't heard or read any arguments drawing analogies with auto registration, nor have I advanced them. On the face of it, I should think there is something to learn there,  unless the purpose of registration is punishing the innocent. Why, pray, is there not? Incidentally, if we're going to get anywhere creating a centre interested in solving the problem, we have to take a pass on pejorative adjectives. If the analogy is false, it is not lame, it simply appears to lack evidence. (To live up to my own standard, I just took a very nice pejorative adjective out of the next paragraph.)

I think the journalistic gambit of publishing names of law-abiding firearms owners is as useful as it would be to publish the names of all smokers in the same jurisdiction. Both sides seem to agree that theft of firearms owned by the innocent is a significant source of firearms used in crime. There is a moment in this sort of reporting when it crosses the line between advocacy for a position and accessory before the fact. It's been crossed when a newspaper provides a road map for gun theives.

Job One in gun control is to defuse the fears of a significant portion of gun owners that any form of control will end with Them "taking our guns away." Advocates of gun control must take any personal fillips that they conflate with the job and bury them far, far away. Only by doing that, one by one if necessary, can one hope to cut the legs out from under the fear-mongering. That is why it is not useful to have any extreme left positions colouring the debate.

Job Two is to get the most dangerous firearms out of the hands of the most dangerous people. Defining those people may be an exceptionally difficult task.

Gen. Mc Chrystal has said that he sees no reason for civilians to have and use firearms as dangerous as assault weapons. There are 80-year-old laws prohibiting certain types of weapons dangerous then. The precedent exists; let supporters of gun ownership either recognise that the present statutes need to be modernised, or present a cogent argument (at low decibel levels) why civilians need these weapons.

One suspects the reason, in some circles, isn't rational. It's the argument that arms the self-appointed militias in many rural areas. They are naive enough to think their M-16s would protect them against tanks and rocket-armed drones in the event that they pull off their fantasy revolution. I suggest that the availability of assault weapons just feeds the angry white guy delusions.

The question of mental illness and gun control strikes close to home for me. First, let's be very careful about plastering labels on people. I would rather my neighbour with a rifle be bipolar under successful treatment than a rabid racist outside the mental health system preparing for some kind of Commie takeover, but perfectly normal in the eyes of the world. As things now stand, the reward of the recovered or stable mentally ill person will be a scarlet letter to wear lifelong, which will include never laying hands on a firearm of any kind. The  racist, depending on where he lives, can keep on amassing an arsenal that would equip a rifle battalion and keep it in the field for a year. Punitive gun control's answer is delusional: let no one have firearms. Yeah, how did that work for the country when we tried it with alcohol? Even reasonable approaches right now are clouded by the examples of Aurora and Newtown. It's so much easier to keep victimising mentally ill people, isn't it? Controls that would recognise innocent intent, and filter every sort of malicious intent, are far harder to accomplish. They are also essential, or the whole idea is a waste of time.

Personal experience and recent examples teaches me that psychiatry has a very poor record determining who among its patients may be a danger to themselves or others. When psychiatrists do succeed in this, either the clinicians are too timid in presenting their conclusions to authority, or the authorities are too stupid to listen. It isn't that psychiatrists are necessarily cowards: they are hamstrung by increasingly absurd rules from their own profession that limit the sharing of information. Those rules in turn are driven by the stubborn refusal of the rest of the world to understand that these are illnesses; that they can be treated, controlled and sometimes cured. The profession knows that the mentally ill label stays with the patient forever, but what price confidentiality?

Another favourite position of both extremes has to go, and that is attitudes toward knowledge or ignorance of firearms. To the extreme Second Amendment advocates, those who oppose them must also know nothing about firearms. In many cases this is true, and I'll be there in a moment. They have no really good argument to present against current and former gun owners, who also support the Second Amendment, but who think that enough is enough and want reasonable controls.

Well, then, how are such people going to be welcomed by extreme anti-gun advocates? Not well, if my past experience is any guide. There is no other place in the rubric of progressive thought in which ignorance of a topic (firearms) is not only welcome but raised to the level of a virtue. The corollary is that knowledge of this topic is a vice in itself, and indicative of evil, even homicidal intent. That is intellectual weakness, and a luxury that has to go. Any successful effort at gun control needs to welcome everyone prepared to support it, and especially welcome those who understand the mechanics of what one seeks.

During my absence, forced by a war of Linux, v. Blogger,  I note that a number of  other people have come to these conclusions. This is one of those times when a growing a vocal centre may be the moving force for change. Let's not screw that up.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Channeling Treebeard

It was Treebeard the Ent who said "I am not altogether on anybody's side, because no one is altogether on my side."

That's me on prevention of mass shootings in general, and gun control in particular. Several years ago, I used to comment on both of these questions here. In my innocence I thought that the perspective of someone who had grown up with firearms and still knows how to use some of them might matter. This was also the viewpoint of one who spent seventh grade being savagely bullied, and did not commit mass murder despite as much justification and means as anyone ever had; I thought that might count for something.

It doesn't matter to anyone, because a question once resolvable has become almost beyond resolution. There are two sides, period. Someone like me who tries to introduce an alternative perspective, or facts that don't fit the preconceptions, can expect to be demonised. If one introduces an alternative view and know how firearms work, they must watch out for the torches and pitchforks.

For example, when I reached adolescence in the early 1960s, numerous adult gun owners were far more progressive in their views than most knee-jerk anti-gun people today. They had grown up seeing the worst possible consequences of firearm confiscation in the form of the Spanish Civil War and never forgot it. Mention it and you get denial. Like most Americans, most anti-gun people never heard of the Spanish Civil War or the issues involved. A typical answer is to assert that no true progressive would ever support firearms ownership. My answer to that is to say that's an example of polarised thinking.

Similarly, we are in the land of the blind when it comes to management and treatment of mental illness. What afflicted the Newtown killer? We have only media speculation, because we have a set of psychiatric protocols that forbid informed speculation and forbid disclosure by any clinician who might actually have seen the child. Despite the numerous consequences, we still have psychiatric professionals who can't bring themselves to act in ways that prevent a mentally ill patient from doing harm to him/herself or others.

If you can actually read this (which is rather old) I'd like to know that. This is my first shot at seeing whether Blogger will actually support my new Linux Mint OS. On the other hand, if all you want to do is bash the poor schmuck trying to carve out some room in the middle of this verbal war, don't bother. I won't post it, but I will keep score and perhaps swipe a few tangential quotes.