Author Archive

How soon we forget the lessons of LeVar Burton

Posted in Uncategorized on January 7, 2013 by eposognatus

Interest in my previous post (If you never change your mind…) has led me to continue on the subject of firearms crime, a short series in which this entry will be part two of three.

No doubt in the maelstrom of debate surrounding firearms in the United States you have been subject to many statistics and heard numerous and contradictory claims hurled about with equal authority. Do more guns invariably lead to more crime, or is the opposite actually the case? Rarely do media outlets or the persons who they give voice to cite their sources in their claims, and if they do they are usually guilty of picking and choosing the numbers that suit them best. As they say, “figures lie and liars figure.”

Just as the wise sage of Reading Rainbow spake unto us, “…you don’t have to take my word for it,” neither must we take theirs. The bounty of the Internet permits us immediate access to numerous databases from the FBI, CDC, Behavioural Risk Factor Surveillance System (BFRSS) and numerous others, from which we can derive raw data to draw our own conclusions. From such sources I have created the following graphs, which I will comment on briefly and leave the rest to you.

Firstly, let us set aside comparing the United States to country X, Y, or Z. The United States is not those countries, and in comparing them many factors are invariably ignored or skewed. Let us instead compare the US to itself, as it is composed of many differing cultural and economic regions known – oddly enough – as states. This first graph shows us all fifty of them and the rate of firearms ownership by household, along with the homicide rate per 100,000 and the firearms homicide rate per 100,000.


So, what do we see here? Both the general homicide rate and the firearms homicide rates trend upwards to the right, while oddly enough, firearms ownership trends downwards. That can’t be right! What’s going on here? This is the basic data set that most pro-gun groups are going to use. It shows that the fewer guns there are, the more crime there is. That’s actually true, and if you look at the raw data it sticks right out at you, but it is of course not the whole story. My take? Areas of high crime have enacted stricter gun control measures, decreasing the percentage of guns per household. Obviously it doesn’t seem to decrease homicides, however…

So it’s a chicken or the egg scenario then. If, based on this data we take the view that more guns does not lead to more death, what then is causing the increase in homicide rates? This is something that is heavily ignored by nearly everyone, but the answer(s) should be obvious to anyone who gets around or can look at a map.


Here I’ve taken only firearm homicides and compared them to two other significant factors – population density and poverty levels. Across all fifty states we can see a much clearer link to a rise in population density and poverty with homicide rates.


Let’s get more detailed and break this down and see it it holds up. Here we have the top ten states with the highest rates of firearms homicide, compared to firearms ownership, population density, and poverty level. As we can plainly see, while firearms ownership decreases as the firearms homicide rate goes up (despite there being fewer firearms), population density and poverty levels neatly follow an upward trend along with homicides. You may be wondering why I’ve left out the overall homicide rate, and if I’m hiding something by doing so. It is (un)surprisingly unwavering across the graphs no matter how you plot them, so I left it to make the remaining data more clear.


On the the other end of the spectrum we have the ten states with the lowest firearms homicide rates. You’ll note first of all that several of these states also have the highest rate of firearms ownership – well over 50%. This graph is a little different because two states – Hawaii and Rhode Island are interesting outliers. Were I a bureaucrat or lobbyist I would most likely drop them from the chart but I’ve left them here for you to see. All these states have very low firearms homicide rates, and also generally low population density and poverty. The trend lines are skewed due to Hawaii and Rhode Island’s much higher population density and their much lower firearms ownership. Hawaii makes sense in this case because it’s an island, and therefore easily regulated, but Rhode Island remains a mystery to me. It would seem there is something to be learned from RI, as its immediate neighbour, Massachusetts, has a nearly identical firearms ownership rate but a firearms homicide rate three and a half times as high. Its other bordering state, Connecticut, of recent mass shooting infamy, has a comparable firearms ownership rate but a firearms homicide rate of more than four and a half times as high. Feel free to crunch your own data on that one.

Let’s get back to poverty for a moment. The “gun control” debate will likely continue for some time, but then both sides stand to make huge amounts of money (either through the manufacture and sale of firearms or through the policing and incarceration of offenders), but not many people have have gotten rich helping the poor. Addressing some of the most basic and long-standing problems of society just isn’t as sexy to talk about as “getting rid of guns.” Poverty, crime, and murder have existed for millenia before firearms were even invented, yet we make little effort to combat so obvious and persistent problems. Better to battle the bogeyman of the terrorist, lone gunman, or looming fiscal cliff. These are all distractions to keep us from taking a hard look at what the real problems are and what we can do to remedy them.

Inverse Appropriation of Power

Posted in Critical Commentary of Civilization, Environmentalism with tags , , on October 5, 2012 by eposognatus

overcompensatingIt continually astounds me how people crave more than they need, or even more than they could ever possibly use. The automotive industry is a horrific offender in the more than you need category, and while we – in the US – still do not produce any fuel-efficient vehicles worth speaking of, we continue to cater to the horsepower crowd.  The majority of people today have no contact with horses. Because of this, and their immensely poor elementary education, they have no concept of the power of single horse. Horsepower is a measurement of work performed over time, equivalent to 746 Watts or 33,000 ft·lbf/min. Since this still is meaningless to most of us, let me put it in terms of driving. To maintain 60 MPH on level ground the average car only requires about 12 HP. That’s it. All the extra is there for acceleration, passing, and going much faster than the speed limit.

Power output of automobiles has varied over the years, with the earliest cars making around 20HP and going from there. The point here however isn’t how much and when but why. The average passenger car today comes with well over 200 HP. If you look at what you can do with that much power, you really have to start wondering why you need it to drop the kids off at school and pick up groceries.

The above graphic illustrates some popular vehicles and their HP ratings. These were not chosen as extremes, but as well known and commonly-operated models. The Toyota Camry and F-150 are consistently in the top five best selling vehicles in the US, and the D6 and Skyhawk are iconic in their roles.

From Low to High

Caterpillar D6n: 150 HP

Cessna Skyhawk: 180 HP

John Deere 6170r: 200 HP

Toyota Camry: 268 HP

Dodge Grand Caravan: 283 HP

Ford F-150: 360 HP (or more).

If you never change your mind, why have one?

Posted in Critical Commentary of Civilization, Legal / Laws, Politics on August 19, 2012 by eposognatus

A guide to discussing gun control and other divisive topics.

In the wake of the recent Aurora, CO.,  Oak Creek, WI., and other mass shootings I’m sure your Facebook newsfeed and workplace watercooler conversations are saturated with both pro and anti-gun rhetoric. It is undoubtedly circular and and divisive, with each side nodding their heads sagely and thinking the other quite insane. Despite generally being a rational person, the subject drives you to a degree of utter inflexibility that no other can aside from perhaps abortion, religion, or Obama’s country of birth. Well, personally, I’ve rather had enough of all your choir-preaching and utter inability to concede on any point whatsoever or hold a logical, productive discussion.

So, in light of your continued and undying cyclical arguments, I present some observations and guidelines here in the vain hope of bringing some common ground. If you find any of them offensive, you’re probably too thin-skinned to even bother discussing the issue anyway.

For everyone

1. Broaden your perspective. Be critical and open-minded. Question and Factcheck. Don’t just read/listen to/watch the propaganda of your own party/group – pick up the newspapers and magazines of “the other side.” Maybe you have to secret yourself away in some dark corner of the basement in order to turn the pages of American Rifleman or Mother Jones but whatever it takes, read up. Know thy enemy, as they say.

2. Educate yourself. Bone up on history, politics, and law. And I don’t mean sit and watch the “History” Channel. Crack the spine of an actual book. There are these fantastic buildings called libraries which are full of them and staffed with wonderful people known as librarians who can help you find a title worthy of your time.

3. Discuss. Talk to friends, family, co-workers, strangers – about what you think and listen to what they have to say. Don’t go looking for an argument or make one yourself. Don’t discard other’s beliefs out-of-hand just because you think them “crazy.”

4. Be active. Don’t just bitch about how things are or aren’t or how the NRA is too powerful or the “Liberal Media” has brainwashed everyone. Vote. Write your Congress-person. Protest. Make a website or Youtube video. Whatever you need to do to get your word out and see what others are saying.

 For the anti-gunner/(non-gun-owning) Democrat/Liberal

You’re a latte-swilling, long-haired dirty hippie/commie/atheist tree-hugging vegan who – if you have a job at all – works at some liberal arts college. You like to whine, whine, whine!

You wouldn’t go to a foreign country without first learning at least a few phrases and checking up on the customs, right? In the language of firearms, right now you can’t even ask where the bathroom is. You are an outsider and you’ll have to make an effort to understand the culture before you can hope to have a conversation, nevermind negotiate a contract. What’s more is that a little book-learning doesn’t replace experiential knowledge. Just because you “know” something doesn’t make you “right,” so be wary of becoming too much like your opponent in this regard.

1. For the love of all that is holy, learn how firearms actually function. You may have a degree in English Lit, but when you talk about guns you sound like a moron. If you learned terms like “high-powered rifle” and “machine gun” from watching CNN and don’t know the difference between a magazine and a clip, get thee to some firearms education.

A. Ultimately, you should probably even find a competent instructor and take a basic course on firearms safety and handling, culminating in actually firing a gun.

B. Taking such steps is not only beneficial to bettering your own argument(s) but substantially improves your own safety and awareness should you encounter a firearm or (unthinkable as it may be) have need of one.

2. Understand why people own guns. There are as many reasons as there are guns – some more reasonable than others – but it is a very personal matter. Ignoring why someone does something or how much they care about it won’t win you any points in a debate, nor will it help you work out solutions.

3. Be calm. Do you find it frustrating how your conservative gun-toting opponent seems so smug and at ease, despite obviously being so WRONG? Aren’t liberals supposed to be the smug ones?! I hate to tell you this, but you do tend to be a bit excitable. They get a kick out of riling you up too (it’s so easy!).

4. Forget the statistics. Numbers are great, and I know how much you love to throw them around (X number people die from guns each year, etc.) but as Stalin is attributed to have said “The death of a single man is a tragedy – a million – a statistic.” Don’t talk about numbers and abstractions. Make it personal. How would a person feel if their husband/wife/son/daughter/friend were shot and killed? What would they do? They may deny that it would/could happen, but suppose it did?

5. Realize that you can’t just “ban guns.” Why not, you ask? A ban is fine, but I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” As tired as it may be, this is true. Let me ‘splain:

A. There are as many firearms in the US as there are adults. Something between 30-40% of persons own a gun or guns. Suppose they were banned tomorrow. How do you propose to collect them all? There is no existing record of exactly who has what (since private sales and hand-me-downs are unrecorded). Do you expect everyone to just quietly hand them over? Do you intend to go door to door with the Police and Military and conduct a Search and Seizure? Do you find this thought unsavory? (you should).

B. As Prohibition shows, banning something that people want just drives it underground. A black market for guns and ammo will undoubtedly be created, with attendant organized crime and – you guessed it – murder.

C. Assume for a moment you have a magical gun magnet that can suck every gun in the country out of stores and homes and cold, dead fingers. What then? Let me put it this way: Cocaine is illegal and yet every year upwards of a thousand TONS of it is smuggled into the United States. If we can’t stop drug-runners from bringing in multi-ton shipments, how are we going to stop gunrunners from bringing in guns?

6.  Realize that the raison d’être for the gun lobby’s incomprehensible aversion to even the most reasonable legislative measures is rooted in a fear of the domino effect. The idea that if one thing is banned their freedoms of ownership will quickly erode until it is impractical or impossible to have a gun at all. This is not a groundless fear as it has happened before their eyes in Britain and Australia. You may not have any problem with this thought, but you’ll never win your case or pass a bill unless you can figure out how to assuage that fear.

 For the gun-owner/Republican/Conservative

You’re a beer-swilling cowboy/redneck/hick who drives a pickup for Jesus and watches NASCAR when you’re not at Walmart. You like to say “Mine, mine, mine!”

You tend to be inflexible. When traveling you are easily discerned by your loud, obnoxious manner, swaggering gait, and bone-headed remarks on the superiority of your own nation. You make no effort to understand other cultures because you’re already written them off as inferior. You need to chill out, man. If your fear of not being seen as powerful and in charge was as tiring to yourself as it is to others, we’d all be much better off.

1. Skip the mantras. “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Yes, yes, we’ve heard it before and repeating it doesn’t make it anymore relevant even if it is true. You may also famously declare how far more people die from car accidents than guns. You do realize these are avoidant, insensitive, bullshit arguments, right?

A. People always have and (presumably) will continue to find unique and innovative ways of offing one another, but they do often use guns for this purpose. Admit it. Guns may not be the problem in and of themselves, but the US is ranked right between Mexico and the Philippines by rate of firearm deaths and that’s not cool.

B. Saying that firearms deaths aren’t a problem because X many more people die from something else is basically saying that those deaths don’t matter. More people die from heart disease than car crashes – does that mean we do nothing about making cars and driving safer?

2. Get some grey. You’re very often a dichotomous thinker – seeing things in black and white. Your oversimplification of the world may make it easy to be uncompromising, but it is also a symptom of mental illness.

3. The whole truth, please. You do tend to have the “facts” right more often than your utopian opponents, but you like to mangle the context to suit your whims.

A. The 2nd Amendment. You know how it goes: “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” You love that bit, but you often leave out the first half. The part about “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state.” The liberal yokel you’re talking to will surely bring that up, and how the National Guard is that very militia of which our Founding Fathers spoke! That is a long and heavily written-upon debate which I’ll not comment upon here, but consider that in those few words they wrote what is – taken as a whole – a clearly conditional statement.

B. Speaking of conditions… at some point you’ve certainly thought that some person or other shouldn’t be allowed to drive a car. Why then do you continue to defend an absolutist stance on gun ownership? There are definitely people out there – not just criminals – you wouldn’t want anywhere near a gun. Recent illegal uses of legally-purchased firearms weaken your arguments for unrestricted purchasing.

4. You’re very spoiled. For as much as you whine about attempts to restrict your access to firearms, you really can have just about whatever you want. Ok, fine, so you need a Class III FFL to play with the really fun stuff, but it’s not an impossible task to get one. And honestly, you have your pick of thousands of different models of handguns, shotguns, rifles, all in innumerable calibres with infinite customizations and so many accessories you probably spend more on them than on the gun itself. A few comments on this point:

A. Grandad did just fine taking deer with his .30-40 Krag and iron sights. He was probably a better shot than you too.

B. You have to face facts – when the anti-gunners say there is no “legitimate use” for 50-100 drum mags, they’re spot on. Unless of course “fun” is a “legitimate use.” They ARE fun, but with 5.56 at .60 cents a round do you really want to feed that thing anyway? And Slide Fire systems. Come on. Really? There is no way to justify this other than “it’s fun!”

5. Be not Afraid. You’re afraid of a lot of things. The Govm’t, Terrorists, Carjackers, Gays, Zombies, and non-Christians. You may have legitimate reasons for any or all of these, but bringing them up just makes you look like an insecure paranoid nutcase. Also, disguising your fear with disdain doesn’t fool anyone.

6. The hypocrisy of tradition. You love the idea that we have always been a nation of gun-owners. That it is a part of our American heritage. You invoke images of Revolutionary minutemen, 19th Century frontiersmen, and Civil War soldiers. All of whom were shooting muzzle-loading blackpowder flintlock and percussion lock arms. Have you ever even shot such a thing? Or is your idea of a muzzeloader some awful in-line job you only break out once a year to extend your deer season? If you truly love the past then practice what you preach and realize that muzzleloaders, single-shots, and bolt-guns are the bulk of what our forefathers survived with. If they were good enough for them, what excuse do you have for your over-love of black guns with quad rails?

While I speak specifically to the issue of gun control, much of this applies to any divisive issue. Stop following the rhetoric of your party leaders and moderate yourselves. Everyone sounds so crazy because they repeat what is told to them by increasingly crazy people, seeking to out-do their opponents through ever increasing hyperbole. The further each side goes Right or Left, the more they resemble each other, so do yourself a favour and take the middle ground.


Politics of Night

Posted in Critical Commentary of Civilization, History, Politics on February 18, 2012 by eposognatus

Recently on NPR Robert Siegel interviewed professor Philip Freeman about timeless political advice, discussing a letter written by Quintus Tullius Cicero to his brother in 64 BC.  Over 2000 years later, in 1964, Frederick Pohl writes just as aptly concerning politics, in a theme very appropriate to current campaigns:

“The classics of public relations clearly show how little reason has to do with M/R, and yet I had allowed myself to fall into that oldest and most imbecilic of traps set for flacks. Think of history’s master strokes of flackery: ‘The Jews stabbed Germany in the back!’ ‘Seventy-eight (or fifty-nine, or one hundred and three) card carrying Communists in the State Department!’ ‘I will go to Korea!’ It is not enough for a theme to be rational; indeed it is wrong for a theme to be rational if you want to move men’s glands, because, above all else, it must seem new and fresh and of such revolutionary simplicity that it illuminates an enormous, confused, and disagreeable problem in a fresh and hopeful light. Or so it must seem to the Average Man. And since he has spent any number of surly, worried hours groping for some personal salvation in the face of bankrupt Germany or a threat of subversion or a war that is going nowhere, no  rational  solution can ever meet those strictures… since he has already considered all the rational solutions and found either that they are useless or that the cost is more than he wants to pay.”

As he says, “If there is an area of human endeavor in which I know a specialist’s kind of knowledge, it is politics. I spent 20 years in political work, have written one book (Practical Politics) on the subject and a lot of shorter pieces, have ghost-written speeches, run campaigns – the lot. At least a dozen times I’ve tried to write a science-fiction story about politics, and every time I’ve abandoned the effort – every time but one. “The Children of Night” is the one.

Who can hear the insane ramblings of any of the GOP candidates today and not agree with Pohl’s observation that rationality is counter to effective campaigning? The more extreme and irrational a candidate appears to be, the better they seem to do!

Percentage-based Purchases

Posted in Cooperatives / Communities / Networks / Travels, Economics, Legal / Laws, Services, Sales or Trade on August 21, 2011 by eposognatus

Some time ago I recall reading of how some countries base their traffic fines upon a percentage of the annual income of the offender. I believe this to be a great practice, as it assigns a penalty relative to the means of the person in violation, and in principal at least, making it “hurt” equally between low and high income earners.

Then the other day I wondered: What if the cost of all products and services were based on a percentage of one’s income?

For example, say the current U.S. median income is $50k/year. A typical consumer television might cost around 500 USD, or 1% of that median earner’s income. So if we then extend that formula across the board, someone earning 22k/year would pay 220 USD and someone earning 120K/year would pay 1,200 USD for the same product!

Such figuring would extend to all aspects of the economy, and would undoubtedly be exceedingly complicated when factoring in entire companies, shipping, wages, etc., but in reality, how much more so than it is already? It would, in effect, flatten the distribution of wealth without overtly re-distributing it.I’m certain someone somewhere must have already experimented with or designed such an economy, and if so, I’d like to hear more about it.

Of course the usual reaction to this thinking will be something along the lines of “Then what incentive is there to make more money if we all pay the same amount?”


Some Prefer the Familiar, Others the Exotic.

Posted in History, Military, Philosophy, Uncategorized on August 12, 2011 by eposognatus

Recognizing the effect a martial art’s cultural background has on its teachings, how it is taught and understood is an important aspect for both teacher and student. Bob Orlando cites as his “central truth” in his work Martial Arts America, that the “philosophies and methods of instruction must match the culture of those being instructed.” In his work he argues for recognizing the differences between East and West and assessing relevancy to the American student in modern society. In such an approach it should not seem far fetched to recognize that an American claiming European ancestry might find more inherent romantic attachment and understanding in the teachings of a 15th century Franconian fencing master than any number of Asian schools which can present unfamiliar languages, religions, and philosophical concepts.

A martial system developed for persons of another culture arguably ignores fundamental instincts or tendencies of those raised in other cultures and influenced by their own traditions. This does not make it less effective a martial art, but perhaps less implicitly understood by someone whose understanding of combat is fundamentally different, and perhaps better served by a different style of teaching or training system.

By contrast, Western Martial Arts align themselves very handily with the same such individual seeking to reconnect with their European ancestry. The languages, religions, social habits, even the foods their historical counterparts knew are still familiar today within their own cultural sphere. If the philosophies and methods of teaching must match the culture of those being taught then by going straight to a martial art of one’s own culture this requirement is met much more readily then by traversing not only time (as must occur in any historical study) but culture as well (through East and West).


Posted in Critical Commentary of Civilization, Military, Politics on May 18, 2011 by eposognatus

Relative cost of a few items. Figures are adjusted for inflation or are near enough to estimates made sometime between 2005-2011. I generally insist on thorough citations, but these are readily verifiable. And really, when the numbers get this big, what’s a few billion?

A Boeing 747:  $318 Million

Boston’s Big Dig: $14 Billion

The Channel Tunnel: $17 Billion

The Manhattan Project: $23 Billion

Three Gorges Dam: $25 Billion+

Bill Gates’ net worth: $56 Billion

International Space Station: $157 Billion by completion.

The entire Apollo Program: $188 Billion

U.S. Share of cost for WWII: $288 Billion

War in Afghanistan (2001-present): $405 Billion

Vietnam War: $686 Billion

NASA’s entire budget from 1958 to 2008: $790 Billion

War in Iraq (2003-present): $790 Billion

US Education Budget 2011: $880 Billion

Total US Defense Budget 2011: ~1.2 Trillion (GDP of Australia)

US Debt (as of 2011): $15.5 Trillion (GDP of United States)

Scott Walker: Bad for Teachers and Other Living Things

Posted in Education / Schools, Events / Celebrations, Politics on February 18, 2011 by eposognatus

Wisconsin is open for Business! So says Scott Walker in his campaign ads and in response to criticism to his increasingly criticized proposals. So far as one can tell, it is open for business, but only if you swear to cling to a fossil-fuel economy, reject proven, efficient technologies, and want to turn back the clock on worker’s rights about 100 years.

All this week in Madison, tens of thousands have been protesting Walker’s “budget repair bill.” You have likely heard that this proposal will increase the amount state employees must pay towards their pensions and healthcare, and this is what many on the right have made all the fuss out to be over. However, the bill would also strip these workers of their collective bargaining rights. You remember collective bargaining, right? That little thing that brought us the weekend and a decent wage?

The events of this week in Madison have played out in extraordinary sequence. A brief timeline to summarize:

Friday, 11th February, 2011: Walker introduces his Budget Repair Bill

The plan calls for cuts to 175,000 state employees, including teachers, nurses, and prison guards… but not Police or Fire personnel (who supported him heavily in elections…).

Walker also announces he has alerted the Wisconsin National Guard, and that they are “prepared to respond wherever is necessary.” He declares that he has every confidence that state employees will continue to show up for work and do their jobs. But he says he’s been working on contingency plans for months just in case they don’t.

Walker says he’s not anticipating any problems…

Sunday, 13th: Protests begin in Horicon.

Monday, 14th: Students and Teachers begin protests state-wide. 400 Gather at capitol for nightime vigil.

Tuesday, 15th: Teachers hold a sick-out. 40% (~1040) of Madison area teachers and staff call out and schools are closed. Teachers and students protest. 3,000 fill the capitol rotunda and an additional 10,000 fill the capitol square. Hundreds testify during 17 hours of public hearings.

Wednesday, 16th: Crowds swell to a reported 30,000. Schools remain closed.

Thursday, 17th: All fourteen Democratic senators walk-out, leaving the senate without a quorum and unable to place a vote on the bill, stalling it. Walker’s attempts to round them up with the State Highway Patrol are foiled when it’s later discovered they’ve left the state entirely. Walker declares he will not concede on collective bargaining.

Friday, 18th: Obama called Walker’s bill “an assault on unions.” Walker tells Obama to mind his own business, saying on Fox News Friday morning, “It would be wise for the president and others in Washington to focus on balancing their budget, which they are a long ways from doing.”

Many here feel this to be a historic moment. Not only because protests of this magnitude have not been seen here in some thirty years, but also because of the unity they represent. Many have joined the protests to support those who cannot go themselves for fear of reprimand or loss of their job. Parents, children, friends. All have come to engage in a clear demonstration of direct Democratic process, which Walker and other state Republicans continue to condescendingly refer to as “disappointing” and “disrespectful,” pointing out how they of course responsibly “showed up for work today” while so many others couldn’t be bothered. Last we checked, Walker’s healthcare was pretty secure, and he probably doesn’t need to worry too much about his bargaining rights.

Walker calls to Democrats to return to session “Out of respect for the institution of the Legislature and the democratic process” yet it is the Democratic process he and his cronies seek to destroy. His threats to use the National Guard to put down rebellion are particularly distasteful, in light of past clashes in this country.

Robin Eckstein, a former Wisconsin National Guard member, Iraq War Veteran from Appleton, WI says: “Maybe the new governor doesn’t understand yet – but the National Guard is not his own personal intimidation force to be mobilized to quash political dissent. The Guard is to be used in case of true emergencies and disasters, to help the people of Wisconsin, not to bully political opponents. Considering many veterans and Guard members are union members, it’s even more inappropriate to use the Guard in this way. This is a very dangerous line the Governor is about to cross.”

We must also asks ourselves, as one protester’s sign does, “Can the National Guard teach Organic Chemistry?”

Oh, baby, now you’re such a drag.

Posted in Cooperatives / Communities / Networks / Travels, Sustainability on December 21, 2010 by eposognatus

The aisles of Target and their ilk, replete with inexpensive imported tripe, purchased predominately by svelte young women in yoga pants, all quite fine to behold, but leaving one feeling that too much plastic purchased portends a plastic soul.

Not so many miles away, in a small-town grocery, the aisles perhaps not so laden with “gourmet” or “premium” goods, but stacked with much more from not nearly so far away. The customers offer a rare and fascinating cross-section of a diverse people. A young man with gauged-out ears can be seen at the deli counter besides old women, who banter with the butcher just as does the hunter in his camo or the farmer in from his field, wearing wet and worn overalls and stinking of manure. Friends and neighbors meet here, and talk of life and love and dreams. Last night’s episode of that hit TV show… not so much.

It is for many in this country becoming an uncommon or even unknown scene, such that we think of it as some nostalgic view of the past, or representative of some quaint backwater. The rapidity of this change is staggering: “In Iowa the number of grocery stores with employees dropped by almost half from 1995 to 2005, from about 1,400 stores in 1995 to slightly over 700 just 10 years later. Meanwhile, “supercenter” grocery stores (Wal-Mart and Target, for example) increased by 175 percent in the 10-year period.“

Quaint backwaters do still exist, and ironically, may be more progressive than those enviro-conscious consumers at Target. They are closer in their habits and purchases to their fore-bearers, and though they may much more readily accept food presented in a can or box or plastic than their grandparents, they still tend to eat seasonally, buy locally, and recycle both materials and their money back to the community.

This isn’t strictly out of a sense of altruism, but more out of practicality. You can still (sometimes) find milk here in glass bottles not because the customer’s conscious shies away from plastic packaging, but because the dairyman can wash and re-use them. Products purchased directly from local farmers are less expensive and better tasting, if not always available. But to get one’s corn from the roadside farmstand, honey from a small home-based business, or anything not containing high-fructose corn-syrup is an arrangement often arrived at not by design, but through neglect. These places have been passed over by big box stores and national chain supermarkets as having insufficient economic density.

Many of us cannot imagine that any exit we take off the Interstate should not yield precisely the same array of stores as the last and the next. It is predictable, and that predictability is reassuring, in that we know what we’re getting (even if it isn’t particularly good for us). This isn’t a new phenomenon, as evidenced by a bit of dialogue from an episode of M*A*S*H (Out of Gas, 1972), in which Hawkeye Pierce checks in on a patient:

Hawkeye: Where are you from?
Patient: Idaville, Indiana. 
H: No kidding? Idaville?
P: Yeah. 
H: Ever go to the dances at the American Legion Hall there? 
P: Yeah, sure.
H: And, um… on the edge of town, there’s this little place… where you can get the world’s greasiest french fries. 
P: Right, Mona’s. – Yeah, yeah. 
H: And, uh, uh, what else? The Studebaker dealership, always has those search lights when they bring in new models. 
P: Hey, when were you in Idaville? 
H: Never. I grew up in the same small town in Maine. 

Rather than the predictable few, here the greasy spoon at the edge of town goes by many names, lending familiarity but not necessarily sameness. The menu is more or less the same, but each establishment is more reflective of its owners, clientele, and community. National chains deliberately look to avoid this, and, mistaking sameness for familiarity, plasticize the experience.

Maybe we’ve reached a point where we can only think of anything but what we know as that which others do, but not ourselves. Our nation is so hypocritically proud of its ethnic diversity yet always striving for utter culturally homogeneity. Perhaps it is unfashionable to think of more intimate and comfortable relations with our food suppliers, or it is has become so distant from our experience as to be unfathomable. Jane Jacobs, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities describes interactions that today seem somehow improbable, even fictional, as if the idealized world Norman Rockwell illustrated for us was founded on fantasy:

“The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts. It grows out of people stopping by at the bar for a beer, getting advice from the grocer and giving advice to the newsstand man, comparing opinions with other customers at the bakery and nodding hello to the two boys drinking pop on the stoop, hearing about a job from the hardware man and borrowing a dollar from the druggist…”

What she was telling us back in 1961 wasn’t strictly about the city, it was about the people in it and the communities they form. A city just happens to be a large community, but we don’t think of them that way because people in them rarely behave as one. Jacobs rightly spoke to this as founded in trust, and that all of the seemingly trivial interactions we have with one another build that trust. Without interaction, or interaction conducted solely in the name of “customer service,” we all keep our guard up even if behind a facade of friendliness.

So you can put a grocery in a small town, but you can’t necessarily put the small-town in the grocery.

And a hundred years ago we didn’t even need electricity.

Posted in Environmentalism, Sustainability on December 16, 2010 by eposognatus

A recent headline from The Guardian entitled “Fox News chief enforced climate change scepticism” reveals a leaked email demonstrating an official policy of denial disguised as even-handed newscasting. Aside from this mandated skepticism, you may have noted many others in your daily life (or are one yourself) who debate the reality of “climate change.” Such articles invariably produce a slew of comments for and against, with few in-between, each side thinking the other absolutely mad, in much the same manner that only topics of religion seem to inflame. And really, we can treat both subjects similarly, in that the answer itself really doesn’t matter.

Yes, truly, for whether climate change is occurring, or if God exists or does not, does not matter. What matters is the question, and how we choose to approach it. I believe that religion or faith are not required for one to act in a moral manner, and neither should belief in climate change be required to behave responsibly. Nearly everyone agrees that we should have clean air, pure water, and fertile soil, but few are those who act to maintain such. Sadly, far too few. Nearly all of us – myself included – are part of the problem, and minimizing how big a problem we are should be our goal. A particular affliction of my countrymen is an overwhelming lassitude to take any action which infringes upon perceived comfort, though this nearly always means a change from the status quo rather than any real inconvenience. And, as Doctor Horrible so eloquently stated, the status is not… quo.

What is most confounding are those who simply regard environmentalism in general and climate change in particular as some sort of liberal scam, invariably having the objective of taking one’s money and forcing us to drive smaller cars. We may debate the means by which we get there, but how is it even sane to think of cleaning up our air, earth, and water as a “scam?” There are those who point to wind and solar and say “well, they can never meet all our energy needs” which by their reasoning makes them useless. So, rather than do something – anything – we should do nothing? I might liken this to a life-threatening illness which one treatment may not cure, but against which several in combination may work, or at least have a chance. Do you take the chance to live, whatever the cost? Or do you allow the affliction to consume your body until you suffer a horrifically miserable death?

“Their” answer, by the way, is almost always nuclear or “clean coal,” which are a physical and metaphorical cancer themselves.

The saying is an old one, but we all share the air we breathe. This is true, and so we logically have made certain we have the capacity to pollute it all equally well. While there are some 800 million operational automobiles worldwide, this does not even begin to account for the emissions of aircraft, industry, and energy production. In fact, nearly all figures on annual global emissions neatly avoid those produced by military operations, which can be staggering. Officially, the US Military consumes 340,000 barrels of oil per day. That’s 14,280,000 gallons. Every day. Each soldier is responsible for about 16 gallons each day. This works out to around 1.4 million tons of CO2 – or the annual emissions about 194,000 Toyota Camrys. Every day. This doesn’t include emissions from non-petroleum sources such as rocket propellant or explosives nor does it hint at chemical and radiological contamination from weapons systems and nuclear propulsion.

For most, these figures are meaningless. The only thing that matters is that when they get to the pump, they can fill up their tank and keep driving, keep consuming, keep polluting, and keep complaining to their co-workers about their “over-priced” fuel. Honestly, there is no price too high. Gasoline is one of the cheapest liquids you can buy. Never considered this? Take a look at your grocery bill next time you go shopping and see that milk, sports drinks, olive oil, laundry detergent… even water are all more expensive, and some many times over.

These numbers may also not impress you because you believe that humans are not causing climate change (or that it’s not occurring to begin with). So let us assume for a moment that the generally held view of the scientific community – that CO2 is a major agent in climate change – is false, or that it’s not taking place at all… CO2 emissions have no effect on the climate, and humans are not affecting the atmosphere through its production. Well, CO2 is merely one product of combustion, and the others aren’t all that particularly nice to inhale. If you disagree with this then you are welcome to go sleep in your garage tonight with your precious car running.

It is quite clear to me that the only effective means by which to drive the American consumer is through their wallet. While the Government tends to agree with this thinking it prefers to rely on rebates and incentives, tax breaks or refunds. Not good enough – these usually require paperwork and take time and few are responsible enough or can read well enough to take advantage of them. They would simply prefer to purchase the cheapest crap available to them. Corporations resist government limitations or standards, and individuals decry such actions as moving against their freedoms. Freedom to recklessly consume and endanger not only themselves but billions of others, and that is where we come to issue. Presently, I pay a premium on my electric bill to ensure that I am purchasing and supporting energy from renewable sources through the Second Nature program. This is backwards. Conventional energy production should cost a premium, and the balance used to subsidize startup and operational costs for new renewable sources. Still, we must start somewhere, and I’m voting with my wallet.

For an example of how un-quo the status is, take a look at this clip from The Age of Stupid. In it, wind-farm developer Piers Guy has his proposed fifteen-turbine project rejected by local opposition group CLOWD. It sounds like a bad Saturday-morning cartoon organization of villains, and they certainly act the part.

Way to Throw (at) A Birthday Party

Posted in Arts (Design & Performance) on April 27, 2010 by eposognatus

Often, though we desire a thing for ourselves, we’ve little reason to create it for that reason alone. It takes the spirit and joy of another to bring that thing into creation, and when this exuberance takes hold it works one’s hands just as deftly as if in a fit of our own creative passion, though with a strange blindness to the desires of self.

This piece came into being as if of its own will, to be given to another and never destined for any other purpose. It was remarkable how each scrap from which it was made came together, as if all intended. It is always a delight to serve as the midwife to such a simple delivery.

Materials: Wood (cherry), antler, artificial sinew, leather.
Fibreglass fencing poles, leather.

A Blind Hammer Destroys What It Cannot See

Posted in Film Reviews, Military, Sustainability with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2010 by eposognatus

This week President Obama announced a proposal for a three-year spending freeze on all domestic programmes, with the sole exception of defense spending. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) precisely echoes my feelings on this, saying “Defense represents a significant part of our discretionary spending in this country. The defense establishment needs to be under fiscal discipline, as do all of our agencies… I don’t think defense should be exempt. If there are extraordinary things that occur that require us to respond for national security, we always will be prepared to do that. But to exempt the normal military spending just because it’s military, to me, is wrong.”

The idea that the military and actions conducted by it or in the name of defense should take ultimate precedent over all others is both pervasive and baffling. Senator Cardin was being modest when he said that defense accounts for a “significant” part of discretionary spending, as it is in fact a majority. According to the Office of Management and Budget, military spending comes to about $657 B for 2009, as compared to $584 B on all other non-defense discretionary spending. For perspective, $45.4 B went to the Department of Education, the DOE got $25 B, NASA received $17.2 B and the National Science Foundation… $6.9 B. We can perhaps agree that yes, the military is an expensive machine, and that these costs do not pay solely for guns and bombs, but the livelihoods and careers of thousands of men and women. There is also arguable benefit in national defense, peacekeeping, disaster relief, and other causes…

However, can these pursuits not be met through other, non-military means? I think the answer is a simple and emphatic “yes.” Yet there seems to be a long-standing and strongly socially enforced attitude that the military in some way is privileged to remain faultless and unanswerable even when its function is questionable or ineffective. It is perfectly accepted to put a sticker on one’s car stating that a son or daughter is in military service, but to proclaim “My son is a scientist,” invites confusion if not ridicule.

This is merely a prelude to a question that I have pondered increasingly of late. That if one browses television programming, there can be found a number of highly dramatic, over-the-top “edutainment” shows devoted to the military, warfare, weapons, and combat. There is of course a “Military History” channel, and popular shows go by names like “Future Weapons” and “Deadliest Warrior,” while in contrast the NASA channel features exciting offerings like “STS-130 Crew News Conference” and “ISS Mission Coverage.” Which titles do you figure will draw the attention of the average viewer at home? I think it’s clear, and it’s also undeniable that we all enjoy a good explosion or demonstration of the destructive capabilities of the human species. It’s fun and somehow liberating to see such carnage, but it is invariably dissociated from the suffering, pain, and death they are designed to inflict.

The decision to create shows on certain topics, what their titles are, and their content are all choices. Almost invariably, these choices are made to generate profit, but I am not convinced that these choices are made to meet a market demand. Rather, I feel that the programming drives a market. The reality TV genre is evidence of this, and so to are many products (when did we last have input on the type of car that should be built by GM?). Governments and corporations alike have at their disposal the best and brightest designers and marketeers, and spend a lot of time and effort making sure we buy what they sell. If the same energies were put towards selling science and exploration, I cannot see why the latest developments in aerospace technology, bio-engineering, or space exploration could not be topics of conversation around the water cooler just as much as “American Idol.”

This may sound hopelessly romantic, naïve… even absurd. However, we are faced with an interesting pop culture phenomenon which shows it is not. James Cameron’s Avatar is now closing in on $2 B in box offices sales worldwide, and an ask around will show you this is not because of the story, or the even the spiffy 3-D effects, but because we have been presented with a coherent, believable new world to explore and discover. A new people, a new language – a new frontier. A frontier reached through technological means (whether through spaceflight as in the film, or through new film-making techniques, as in the theatre), yet presenting a world of natural beauty and celebrating its divinity and defense. For some, the excitement of this new world will not extend beyond their 160 minutes of entertainment, for others, it may be a life-changing phenomenon. Some even experience depression at returning to their “ordinary” existence. This needn’t be so, for the wonders of Pandora are real and all around us, and we still have a chance to explore and preserve them. Avatar and its success shows us that people do yearn for other worlds, and that when presented properly, they will gladly empty their wallets to explore them. Why can we not mimic this enthusiasm for reality, which is not so very different when put into the proper light?

In the 1972 film Silent Running, As in Avatar, the Earth is a blighted, ruined place, and here the last of the planet’s trees have been put aboard spacecraft to preserve them. While back on Earth there is “hardly any more disease, no more poverty, [and] nobody’s out of job.” The main character Lowell is incensed by the lassitude of the rest of the crew, saying, “Well you know what else there’s no more of? There’s no more beauty, and there’s no more imagination, and there are no frontiers left to conquer, and you know why? Only one reason why! One reason why! The same reason you three in this room are giving me today, and that is, nobody cares!

Like Lowell’s shipmates, many of us are content to sit back and watch what TV execs think we want, purchase goods from corporations who think they know what we desire, and eat foods with no other care than that it is cheap and easy. We accept that the government will spend more money on the military than our education, and for the most part, do not even concern ourselves about it. Whether 1972 or 2009, the message is the same – the wealth of our world is all around us, and it is worth fighting for. Where might we be if we were as financially committed to destroying cancer as we are to combating “terrorism”? What if we glorified blasting off into space as much as we did blasting holes in the ground of Iraq and Afghanistan? Or in saving lives instead of destroying them? While money cannot solely provide the answer to these questions, it certainly doesn’t hurt, and taking funding away from already paltry budgets of non-military research and development is inexcusable. It may be difficult to see how any one of us can make a difference, but remember, none of us are as dumb as all of us.

Yes, that Peter Schickele.

Na’vi Inspired Dagger

Posted in Arts (Design & Performance) with tags , , , , , , , on January 16, 2010 by eposognatus

Cordite made a Moose Antler Dagger and sheath:

JRR Tolkien and War

Posted in Book Reports, Medieval Tavern, Memorials / Obituaries / Epitaphs, SCOD Fallout Projects, Spiritual with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2009 by eposognatus

While war and glory often go hand-in-hand in fantasy, the reality is – as Tolkien knew far too well himself – vastly different. We have the great fortune to be able to pursue our recreation in peace and without fear of true harm, but let us not forget that the weapons we may carry and their manner of use were devised not for fun, but for brutal and efficient killing. Few who walk upon the field of glory find it, and many do not walk back off at all.

“Wars are always lost, and War always goes on…” -J.R.R. Tolkien

“[Sam] was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil at heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.” -Ibid

Cross of Iron (1977)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , , , on December 1, 2009 by eposognatus

I just finished watching the film Cross of Iron (1977) and I must say it now ranks as one of the best war/anti-war films I have seen. It demonstrates what is, to me, the essence of the genre. That the particulars of time and place, nationality and politics are all irrelevant. That the setting is merely a vehicle for the examination of the best and worst to be found in humanity, which is brought about through the unimaginable insanity of the situations in which the players find themselves.

From the film’s commentary:

“The destructive violence shown here is endless. It’s an eternal cycle throughout history, just as the tendency towards Fascism, embrace of authority, super-patriotism, and its use to oppress others is always present in human history. The battlefield is eternal. It’s Peckinpah’s metaphor for human life, and it’s why his outlook is so grim and alienated.”

“[Steiner’s speech] is enigmatic, but the main idea is that politics can never work. That all of the political systems – National Socialism, Communism (and by implication, Capitalism) – which promise to free and empower people are lies, and merely new forms of enslavement. All are violence without mind – accidents – temporary forms of power thrown up by history and all are doomed to failure. No-man’s land, where Steiner says they stand, is the only enduring reality. But the individual can’t long survive there.”

“Peckinpah is in a deeply dark place, with no evident means to escape it. The despair is total! Psychological, political, emotional. No American film-maker has shown WWII with such absolute, uncompromising despair. It’s no wonder therefore that American audiences didn’t like this movie.”

-Stephen Prince, author of Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies