Thursday, December 29, 2005

AIDS in Africa: Does Throwing Money at a Problem Fix It?

From the Guardian's Christmas appeal 2005
Photo of slums in Lagos, Nigeria by David Levene,displayed under fair use

The Gardian (UK)'s Christmas appeal for 2005 has a very poignant story about AIDS in Nigeria. One in ten people in that country are HIV positive, and AIDS is prevalent throughout sub-Saharan Africa. We are likely to see a severe medical disaster in the next decade as those afflicted with the disease develop full-blown AIDS and suffer from all of the diseases and infections that plague the continent due to their compromised immune systems and woefully inadequate health care system. Some experts estimate that Africa will lose over half the population in the next half century due to AIDS and related diseases. That is a significant portion of the world's population.

Stories like this make me very thankful that I was fortunate enough to be born in America. We think we have poor people here, but our poor are generally poor due to their mindset, their attitudes. In America, poor people have working cars and color TVs, and they have access to a free education and basic health care. Poor in the Third World is poor. We're talking living in cardboard shanties-poor, drinking out of the same water source that is used for a sewer poor, living on less than $100 a year poor.

How do we fix Africa? My former boss has spent, and has committed to spend, millions of dollars in Africa. His heart's in the right place... but unless that money is directed by people who are both knowledgeable and trustworthy enough to spend it wisely, then I'm afraid it will only end up making more African bureaucrats rich. I don't think money in and of itself is going to fix Africa. Instead, the two biggest problems facing Africa are ignorance and corruption (we could say the same thing about New Orleans, or Seattle for that matter), and these must be addressed before money will make a difference.

I list ignorance first, because I am amazed that the people in Lagos don't do the simplest things... like clean up their immediate surroundings... that don't take much money or effort and that would make a difference in their health situation. The place is a freakin' mess... abandoned cars, rotting organic material, etc. Of course, this ignorance is compounded by the well-intentioned and the evil. Most NGOs that work at AIDS prevention do not, and will not, preach abstinence, preferring to pass out condoms that are invariably discarded instead. And then there's the rise of the "super-evangelist" hustler-preacher, who builds the big church and promises the desperate that he is uniquely gifted and can cure their ills... of course, the good man needs donations to do the Lord's work.

Second, corruption must be a big problem here. Nigeria has considerable oil resources; why doesn't the government use some of that money to make life better for its citizens? Compare Nigeria to Alaska; both have considerable oil resources (Nigeria has more), yet every Alaskan gets money from the oil. Does every Nigerian get money from the oil revenues? I doubt it, although I'm sure the leaders are extremely wealthy.

There's a reason that some countries and cultures are better off than others: every culture is not equal. Cultures that are bound by traditions tend to be backwards and resistant to improvement. African culture is an example of this, and Middle Eastern culture is another example. What might have been optimal for Iron Age existence just doesn't work in a post-Industrial Age world.

Whatever your goal, if you look to those who have accomplished it and imitate them, you will also accomplish it. Want to look like Arnold Schwartzenegger? Work out like him. Want to be wealthy? Then embrace the habits of wealthy people (living within your means, investing, owning your own business, etc.). Want to transform your country from a Third World disaster to a thriving, prosperous, nation? Then look at other countries, from America to Japan to South Korea to Singapore, determine what they did that worked, and do it!

A century ago, many parts of America and Europe were like present-day Lagos. We figured out what to do and how to do it. Why is it that the Chinese have figured this out in the last decade but Africa hasn't? Why doesn't Africa look to the West to see what works, and then imitate us? The answer is attitude. Of course, this attitude is only reinforced by the pseudo-intelligentsia in the West who can only find fault with Western society, culture, and government.

I don't think that the rest of the world can save Africa unless we conquer it and administer it -- and that's not going to happen. The West has thrown hundreds of billions of dollars at Africa over the past half-century, to very little effect. We can (and we do) help a little, but Africa is going to have to save itself... or not.

I'm not saying we shouldn't try. I hope The Gates Foundation can make a difference in Africa. I wonder, however, if it will, because we're talking about dealing with sovereign governments who can arbitrarily decide what rules to follow and what not to... and Bill's only option is to take what's left of his money and go somewhere else. I have faith in Bill Gates; I know he's smart enough to figure out what works and what doesn't. I don't have faith in most of the governments in Africa.

Perhaps some of that money, the part that is going to end up buying a retirement villa on the French Riviera for a Nigerian politician, might make a much bigger difference if, say, it was used to improve things in, say, Eastern Europe, or eastern New Orleans.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Image Quality Is More Than Megapixels: A Primer on Image Sensors

A Bunch of Old Coots © 2005 John Clifford
Sigma SD10, Sigma 70-200/2.8 EX @ 200mm, 1/200 @ f/6.3

A digital camera's image resolution, as measured in megapixels (millions of pixels), is what most people view as the primary indication of image quality. Manufacturers play to this perception, releasing cameras with increasingly greater megapixel ratings. However, there's more to image quality than the sheer number of pixels comprising that image.

All megapixels are not created equal. Sensor size, photodetector size, and sensor technology all play a role in determining image quality, or how closely the image reflects the scene that we attempted to capture. I'll explain why in a moment.

First, lets get some terminology straight. A pixel is shorthand for picture element, and refers to one of perhaps millions of colored 'dots' that make up an image. A photosite is a more precise way of saying a particular location on an image sensor that can record a light value. Photosites may have one or more photodetectors, or light sensing areas. Pixels and photodetectors are used interchangeably, but they are not necessarily so because most image sensors create a pixel by calculating its value from several adjacent photodetectors, each occupying a photosite in a two-dimensional array, while some image sensors can record multiple colors at the same X-Y photosite location via a stack of photodetectors (the Foveon sensor is the most widely-know of this type). And finally, let's define image quality as a coefficient that relates the RGB value of a single pixel compared to the value that should have been captured if the sensor was perfect in terms of capturing the RGB value. In other words, the highest quality image would have the actual RGB value captured at each photosite match the resultant pixel on the image.

Next, let's discuss how image sensors work. There are three main digital imaging sensor technologies in use today. We'll ignore the scanner backs used on medium- and large-format cameras (interesting technology but for very limited use), and look at the two variations of 'one-shot' digital imaging sensors: the Color Filter Array (CFA) sensor and the Foveon® sensor.

The most widely-used sensor technology is the Color Filter Array (CFA) sensor comprised of a two-dimensional array of photosites with a color filter array on top. Since photosites are monochromatic in nature the CFA sensor puts a pattern of color filters on top of the sensor so each photosite is only sensitive to one of the primary colors (red, green, or blue). The most commonly used CFA is the Bayer pattern, of arranging the color filters in a repeating Red-Green-Blue-Green order, and most digital image sensors used in cameras today are Bayer CFA sensors. Bayer sensors have one obvious limitation; the CFA filter assures that 25% of the photosites will detect only shades of red, another 25% will detect only shades of blue, and the remaining 50% will detect only shades of green. Most CFA sensors have an anti-aliasing optical filter that slightly blurs fine detail in an attempt to minimize moire at the expense of fine detail. A Bayer sensor's resolution varies depending on the color composition of the scene: best for black and white, better for green hues, not so good if red and blue are the predominant colors. Figure on about 60% to 70% of the theoretical resolution based on pixels per mm of sensor, or about 45 line pairs per millimeter (45 lp/mm) on the Nikon D70 and other 6 MP Bayer sensor-equipped digital cameras.

Comparison of Bayer CFA sensor and Foveon® sensor (from the Foveon website)

The second image sensor type used in dSLRs and digicams (point-and-shoot digital cameras) is the Foveon sensor. Unlike CFA sensors, the Foveon sensor has a three-dimensional photosite structure, with three photosensors stacked at each photosite (one for red, one for green, and one for blue). The founders of Foveon discovered how to to use silicon as a color filter of sorts, taking advantage of how deeply each primary color penetrates. What this means is that the image reconstruction process is as simple as taking the RGB value at each photosite and writing it out to an image file. No interpolation occurs; what you see is what you get until you are limited by either lens or sensor resolving ability. On the Foveon X3 second-generation sensor, that would equate to about 50 line pairs per millimeter (50 lp/mm).

Wait a minute! You're saying that a 3.4 MP camera has better resolution than a 6.1 MP camera? You're kidding!

No, I'm not kidding. That is exactly the point: more pixels in an image don't mean a higher-resolution image if the extra pixels do not contain valid image data but instead reflect interpolated, "guessed" data that may or may not accurately reflect what was in front of the camera. Here's a comparison of resolution test pictures from the Foveon-equipped Sigma SD10 and the Bayer-equipped Nikon D70:

Sigma/Foveon (left) and Nikon/Bayer resolution test shots, from the dPreview website. Click on Sigma or Nikon to get a better view.

This black & white resolution chart is the best case test for a Bayer sensor because every photodetector either sees no light or some light and the color isn't important, yet the D70 and the SD10 have about equivalent resolution. The Bayer sensor's performance is dramatically diminished if resolution charts that are red, or blue, or green, on a white background are used. You can also notice the multicolor aliasing (moire) on the D70 image, a result of interpolation (guessing): certain photosites capture a boundary between black and white and because of the color filtering this is interpreted as different hues.

A better comparison of resolution between the Foveon 3.4 MP sensor (left) and Bayer 6 MP sensor (right). The Foveon's slightly higher resolution can be seen by how lines on the left side of the image extend slightly more towards the center.
(image courtesy of Digit Life)

Let's compare image quality from different-sized sensors with the same number of photosites. Obviously, smaller sensors with equivalent resolution will have physically smaller photosites. What does this mean in terms of picture quality? Generally speaking, sensors with larger photosites deliver images with less noise (a 'grainy' look), because while the electronic circuitry inside an image sensor will occasionally generate random photons that emulate light striking the photosites, the number of photons captured per photosite over a set time is greater when the photosite is larger and thus the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) is higher. This is why high ISO images taken with digicams (compact point-and-shoot digital cameras) with smaller sensors display much more noise than their larger-sensored digital SLR (dSLR) brethren. It is also why a 6 MP image taken with a dSLR nearly always looks better than the same image taken with a digicam. And, it is why some digicams with 6 MP sensors actually provide better image quality than a nearly identical camera by the same manufacturer with a higher megapixel rating.

How do you get the most resolution out of your digital camera regardless of its megapixel rating or sensor design?
  1. Set your camera to save images in a lossless format (raw or TIFF) instead of JPEG
  2. Set your camera to its highest resolution rating
  3. Set your camera to the lowest ISO speed that will allow you to successfully capture pictures in your situation
  4. Finally, for the ultimate in image quality, do your post-exposure image processing (sharpening, etc.) in an image editor such as Photoshop or Picture Window Pro (my favorite) instead of the camera
I hope this brief explanation helps you make a better decision when it comes to purchasing a digital camera. If nothing else, I hope more people realize that other companies besides Nikon and Canon make excellent digital cameras that are worth serious consideration.

Whacha Gonna Do Wid All Dat Junk?

Slate's Musicbox had an article on what was referred to as "a song so bad it veers towards evil." Give the writer his props: any article on that subject invites reading.

The song in question, "My Humps" by the Black-Eyed Peas, is a twist on the typical hip-hop view of the roles the different sexes play during courtship. It's not about love and respect, it's about access to those "lovely lady lumps" for "all that cash." Before I go further, let me state that I'm really not a Black-Eyed Peas fan, and I listened to the song initially because I wanted to understand how a man like Howard Dean could choose this band as one of his favorites (I think Howard was a poser who was trying to show how hip he was while hopefully getting some of the black vote).

I must be getting old. One of the elements of pop culture that ties a generation together is its music. By definition, I'm one of the last of the Boomers (people born between 1945 and 1961). I grew up with the music of the late '60s, listening to a lot of R & B and '70s rock and roll. Disco reared its generally-bland head during the mid-'70s and, I am ashamed to say, my senior-year high school yearbook features an abysmal drawing of a tiger (the school mascot) in the classic "Saturday Night Fever" pose. But the late '70s and early '80s had some great music. Punk, metal, alternative... it was all good. When I listen to today's music, I understand my father when he said, "You listen to that crap?"

All of these genres had one thing in common: they treated courtship respectfully. Male performers sang about the worship they had for a special woman; women sang about the positive aspects of men that invited respect. Yeah, there was the occasional "See Ya" song, like Journey's "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'" or Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" or Genesis' "There Must Be Some Misunderstanding." I look at these songs as warnings: guys, don't put up with cheating and getting blown off, girls, don't put up with a self-centered guy.

Which leads me to today's pop music and its misogynistic bent. I think much of this comes from black urban subculture, specifically hip-hop and gangsta rap. We don't want to know what love is anymore; we want that ho to call us Big Daddy when she backs that thang up. The hip-hop/rap subculture consciously rejects the social values of the mainstream. Why it does would make a fascinating essay in itself.

One of the recurring themes of Judao-Christian civilization is the union of sex with love in a monogamous heterosexual relationship that is the molecule, so to speak, of human civilization. The ideal is to find one person of the opposite sex that we can bond with for life, and then build a multi-generational family unit based upon that bond. There are a lot of good reasons for this ideal: monogamy builds stable societies without the problems of bastardy or jealousy.

This flies in the face of our genetic programming: men are designed to go forth and multiply. However, casual sexual relationships lead to violence between jealous lovers, unsupported children, and a fragmented society. People are programmed to require trust and security in a relationship in order to be happy. These problems have been with us from the beginning of time, and the ideal of monogamy is the result of millenia of experience.

Back to the song. I have to disagree with the author of the Slate column. I rather liked "My Humps" as a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the pathetic state of modern courtship, which evidently consists of winning a woman's affections temporarily by the simple expedient of throwing enough money at her. If you listen to the song, you realize that what the lyrics really say is that both sides play each other for fools. It's also a good dance track, and evidently a lot of people disagree with the column since this is one of the hottest singles on the charts.

You want a bad song? Just turn to any rap station and listen for a few minutes. How about "Shake That Laffy Taffy," a song so totally lacking in lyrical and musical merit that the person responsible for allowing it to be made should be barred from the music industry for life. The only rational explanation for why this song gets any airtime is that payola is alive and well in the music industry. No radio station would pay that song without getting paid big bucks. Hell, we should be getting paid to listen to it, but there isn't enough money in the music industry to make listening to this song bearable. Marvin Gaye would turn over in his grave.

I'll pick on my own generation because the new stuff is too easy. "Rock the Boat" by the Hughes Corporation? Yuck! Or "Afternoon Delight?" Every time I hear "thinkin' of you's working up a appetite" I wince. I want to slap the stupid songwriter who failed grade school grammar. How about "Ride the White Horse" by Laid Back? Or, pretty much the entire Beastie Boys collection, and the entire category of music referred to as 'Butt Rock.'

Whatever happened to great vocalists singing beautiful songs? Or great musicians? Earth, Wind, and Fire? Anita Baker? Jean-Luc Ponty, or Van Morrison, or Pat Methany, or any one of a great number of talented artists? Give me their music any day... and keep your Laffy Taffy.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

What Not To Do When Challenged by Police, Part Two: The Fallacy of Shooting to Wound

"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."

Theodore Roosevelt,
"Citizenship in a Republic," Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910
Earlier this week a man was shot and killed by US air marshals. Rigoberto Alpizar, a Latin American native and naturalized American citizen, allegedly announced that he had a bomb in his carry-on bag. Two federal marshals were on the plane and confronted Alpizar, and he fled back off of the plane onto the gateway where he was cornered by the marshals. Alpizar refused to comply with the marshals' demands to place his carry-on bag on the ground and instead reached inside the bag, whereopon he was shot repeatedly by the marshals.

Given that what the marshals report is true (what they believed they saw), then the marshals did exactly what they were supposed to do: they neutralized a potential terrorist who ignored repeated warnings at gunpoint. However, Alpizar was not a terrorist, nor did he have a bomb in his carry-on. Instead, he was a diagnosed manic-depressive individual who had failed to take his meds and was clearly mentally unstable.

Of course, talking heads such as NBC's Katie Couric wondered why the marshals couldn't shoot to wound, disabling suspected terrorists instead of killing people like Alpizar, who with the benefit of hindsight was not a terrorist but instead a disturbed individual. What Couric and her ilk fail to understand is that in such a situation law enforcement has a very hard choice to make: do we ensure that we stop this individual who is exhibiting all the behavior of a terrorist because he may be mentally ill, or do we act in a manner that gives a dedicated terrorist a real chance of completing his mission to spare the occasional innocent but deranged person? The proper answer is, and has to be, of course you neutralize someone who has satisfied the threat triad of ability ("I've got a bomb!"), opportunity (on a crowded airplane), and jeopardy (reaching into a backpack despite orders to the contrary, at gunpoint). Couric's ambivalence to this, and in fact her wishing for another way out, is in my opinion a tacit admission that she lacks the courage to make the hard choice... yet feels no reluctance to criticize those who do.

More Roosevelt:
"Criticism is necessary and useful; it is often indispensable; but it can never take the place of action, or be even a poor substitute for it. The function of the mere critic is of very subordinate usefulness. It is the doer of deeds who actually counts in the battle for life, and not the man who looks on and says how the fight ought to be fought, without himself sharing the stress and the danger." (1894) Ibid
More and more, I think the major problem with America is that too many people without the necessary knowledge and experience believe that freedom of speech gives them the right to criticize about things which they know very little. Yes, everyone has the right to speak and to their opinion, but everyone also has the obligation to base their opinions on facts. When Katie Couric gets out of her New York studio and attends training with law enforcement, learns how to shoot a handgun and how hard it is to hit with one, and then runs through some realistic roleplaying situations and can handle the challenges without making mistakes, then she might have a better understanding of what it is she speaks. Alas, only in America can a perky airhead make eight figures.

Not that all criticism of this incident is unwarranted. There are several points to be made here. First, Alpizar's death is a tragedy, as I'm sure everyone including the air marshals who were forced to shoot him agrees. Second, Alpizar's wife knew that he was off his meds, that he was suffering from symptoms of his mental disorder before he boarded the plane, and yet she allowed him to board the plane anyway. What on earth was she thinking? Or, was she even thinking?

Third, and most important, in this day of heightened security due to the very real threat of terrorism, anyone who fails to immediately comply with law enforcement in a high security environment, or who otherwise behaves in a manner that is indistinguishable from terrorist behavior faces swift and certain death. Unfortunately, there is no other alternative.

We saw the same thing happen in London a few weeks after the subway bombings last summer. When the police are on heightened alert, everything will be evaluated in the context of a possible terrorist attack.

It bears repeating: if you don't want the hounds to chase you, don't act like the fox.

NB: Part I is here.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Lessons Learned: The Tacoma Mall Shooting

On November 20, 2005, Dominick Maldonado, 20, described as a gun enthusiast who was "unstable with a drug problem," went on a shooting spree at the Tacoma Mall in Tacoma, Washington. After shooting and wounding seven people, Maldonado took four hostages inside a music store, but eventually released them unharmed and surrendered to police.

Washington state has had a concealed pistol license law on the books since the early 1970s, and it turns out that at least two and perhaps three people in the mall were carrying a gun and were in a position to stop Maldonado. Yet no one did. Why?

One person, who encountered Maldonado outside of the J.C. Penney's store, refrained from being involved because of fears that he might miss and inadvertantly shoot bystanders. While the information released on this person was understandably sketchy to protect his privacy, it appears as if he never drew his weapon and openly confronted Maldonado. Getting involved is a choice, and if one is not sure that he can prevail then discretion may well be the better part of valor.

Another person, Dan McKown, a manager at a mall store and part-time stand-up comic, confronted Maldonado as the shooter passed by the store McKown was visiting, after the original flurry of shots were fired.

As the Tacoma News Tribune reports:
He [McKown] walked to the front of the store to see what was going on, and took a defensive posture, crouched to one side in the store’s entrance. He had his gun out, but tucked it back into his belt, under his clothes, after thinking better of it.

Meanwhile, Maldonado walked past the Kits store.

"We had eye-to-eye contact the whole time," McKown said. He is unsure if Maldonado saw his weapon.

McKown, standing, said to Maldonado, "I think you need to put that gun down, young man."

McKown’s hand was back near his gun. Maldonado swung his barrel over and opened fired from the hip.

"Every one of his shots got some part of me," McKown said.
Dan McKown was shot at least five times by Maldonado. Because of the hostage situation, McKown lay bleeding for over an hour before he was evacuated and rushed to the hospital. He owes his life to an Army soldier and Iraq War veteran who used a teddy bear to staunch the bleeding.

This first-hand account begs the obvious questions: why didn't McKown shoot Maldonado? Why did he confront the shooter without having his gun at the ready?

In McKown's own words:
“I’m looking at this guy,” McKown said. “He’s a kid. I would have had to shoot him in the head.”

McKown just wasn’t ready for that. It’s not easy to shoot someone in the head, McKown said. McKown also didn’t want to get in the way of the police if they were handling the situation, and he knew he could get in trouble for brandishing a weapon in the mall.
There are some lessons to be learned here, both tactically and stragetically.

One tactical lesson is that you never confront an armed gunman without having your gun up and ready to shoot immediately! McKown was armed, and he had sufficient training and experience with a handgun to surely be able to hit a walking man in a dress shirt at under ten yards. However, with his gun in his belt instead of in his hand, he was already behind the eight-ball. Action always beats reaction; once Maldonado became aware of McKown, the person who decided to act would be the victor in an armed confrontation and Maldonado was that person.

Defense trainers refer to a verbal confrontation to a gunman as a "challenge." They know that, once the challenge is made, the gunman will either surrender or fight, and thus the person who challenges had better be ready. They also know that challenging an adversary cedes the initiative; by its very nature the challenger is expecting some sort of reaction and thus must take valuable time to assess that reaction.

Why do we challenge? That's the way they show it in the movies. Shooting someone without challenging him seems somehow unfair. We're supposed to confront the bad guy and give him a chance to realize the error of his ways, to offer him a chance to surrender before gunning him down, aren't we? Isn't that what makes us the good guy?

No. It makes us the dead guy. In a deadly force encounter there is only one rule; survival. Do not give the bad guy a chance. He will most likely take that chance, and you will end up getting shot. Don't fight fair. Fight to win, or take yourself out of the situation and don't fight at all.

In the situation above, several shots fired, people heard screaming and running en masse, observing a person strolling down the center of the mall with an obviously inappropriate weapon (the AK-47 is not used by any legitimate force in this country), once you've made the decision to interject yourself into the situation and confront the gunman the response should be obvious: take cover, draw your handgun, and shoot the gunman at the first opportunity without challenging him. Think of how this situation would have ended had McKown followed this course of action instead of doing what he did.

In my opinion, the real reason that Dan McKown ended up getting shot was not his tactics. It was his mindset. It was because he had not thought about what he would do if he ever had to confront a live gunman. McKown had not consciously decided on what conditions would not only allow him to use deadly force, but require him to do so in order to protect himself. McKown was in imminent danger of death, within yards of a gunman prowling the mall with an AK-47 who had already fired several shots... and he was worried about getting in trouble for brandishing a weapon? He had the wrong priorities. (None of this removes the complete and total responsibility for McKown's injuries from the shooter, Dominick Maldonado, who should be punished severely for his conscious, deliberate acts.)

The time to decide on how you are going to react to a deadly force confrontation is now, not when you are suddenly confronted. You won't have time then. When you are facing deadly force you need to be focusing on how to survive and prevail, not on whether you should be involved. The way to do this is to decide on triggers, acts by another that justify deadly force and that turn off your normal, natural, and salutory inhibitions against hurting others, and then make the conscious decision to act in a tactically appropriate manner based upon those triggers.

Under the law, we are only allowed to use deadly force when we, or others in our immediate presence, are threatened with death or grave bodily harm (rape, maiming, disfigurement). In order for the threat to exist, our potential attacker must have the ability to threaten us, the opportunity to threaten us, and we must be in jeopardy by his indicated propensity to carry out that threat. For instance, our friend at the skeet range clearly has the ability to harm us since he is holding a loaded shotgun, and he has the opportunity since we are within a few yards of him, but there is no threat because he has not shown any inclination to harm us. Similarly, the wino across the street may be yelling curses and insults at us, and waving a pipe around, but ability and jeopardy without opportunity (a pipe is a contact weapon and he is not in our immediate vicinity) we are not authorized to shoot him (I certainly would be alert and looking around to see if the wino had friends who were trying to sneak up on me with his distraction, though).

My triggers are simple: if someone threateningly points a gun at me or others within my vision, that person can now be shot by me without further notice on my part. If someone has a knife or other contact weapon (club) and threatens me at a range that precludes my successful evasion or escape, that person can be shot without further notice. I'm in my early 40s, with some martial arts training, and I don't go provoking people: if someone seriously threatens me with physical force and they are big enough to scare me, the gun gets drawn and the challenge gets issued ("If you attack me I will shoot you! Go away!") and if they attempt to attack me anyway they get shot without further notice (I know of too many people who have been disfigured, brain-damaged, crippled, or maimed by getting stomped to put up with that foolishness).

Once my 'trigger' has been activated, I will then do whatever it takes to obtain and maintain an unfair advantage on my attacker, and I will shoot him at the first opportunity without warning and without hesitation. Hesitation gets you killed! Once you have decided to act, follow through and do not hesitate! I will continue this course of action until I am absolutely sure the circumstances which 'triggered' me are no longer in effect and the threat no longer exists.

I urge anyone who has a firearm for self-defense to think about what would constitute a trigger, and to think about whether they can make the decision to shoot an attacker. Write out your triggers, say them, and repeat this until you believe you will act accordingly.

Accidents (unforeseen bad things happening) are invariably the result of a series of events, each one leading to the other until the accident. Break the chain and you prevent the accident. McKown's wounding occurred because he consciously put himself into a situation that he subconsciously wasn't prepared for. McKown had not made the decision that he would shoot someone if necessary, and that decision must be made before confronting an armed assailant; you will not have time afterwards. In fact, that decision should be made before deciding to carry a gun for self-defense. The failure to make this decision is what lead to McKown's wounding.

I'm not faulting McKown for this failure. On the contrary, it means that McKown was a genuinely good person, who had the ability to empathize with others, and who genuinely cared for people. Most of us are like McKown, and most are similarly handicapped when it comes to shooting another, and that is a good thing because it means we aren't sociopaths. Hurting others is an unnatural act to most of us, whereas it comes naturally to bad guys.

We used to host civilian classes with a law enforcement training company that used a realistic video training system where students could actually draw and fire their own gun at the screen depending on their evaluation of the situation. Invariably, we would have students who were otherwise very skilled with handguns either balk or fumble because of the reality and the unpredictability of the training scenarios, and get "killed" by the on-screen bad guy. It was a sobering experience, and that was the value of the training: getting people to get past the generalities of "Sure, I'd shoot someone who was trying to hurt me!" and think about what they would do in a real-life situation. Far better to get "killed" in a training bay by a video projection than by a bad guy.

That is why we train. That is why we think about using deadly force before being thrown into a deadly force situation. That is why we decide now what conditions make it necessary to use deadly force, and we further decide that we will not hesitate once confronted.

The only way to win a gunfight is to not get shot. Decide now, while you have the time, what it will take and what you will do to win.

HT: HaveGunWillVote

Update: Some people think that a hesitation to shoot shows the caliber (no pun intended) of person who legally carries a gun. I agree, as stated above. However, metaphorically speaking, if you decide you're going to handle garbage, it doesn't do any good to hem and haw when you notice the stench. You have to be willing to step up, accept the fact that you're going to have to do something unpleasant, and get the job of taking out the trash done as expeditiously as possible.

NB: The first Lessons Learned article, about a shooting in Tyler, Texas has more on the subject. Those who carry smaller-caliber pistols might want to check out this article on stopping power for the .32 ACP.

Rights Versus Responsibilities: Revisiting Abortion

A blogger I respect wrote a very good article on the subject of abortion, which prompted this response.

I can see both sides of this issue.

When I was younger I was pro-abortion, but it was mainly an unconsidered opinion that rested chiefly on the perceived benefits to me. Thankfully I never had to make that decision, or be involved with someone who had to make it.

Now that I’m older, hopefully wiser, and have had a child, I realize what a remarkable gift a child is. And, as an aside, I do not understand people who do not want children.

When all is said and done, what else is more important than a child? What else really matters? In a century the world will forget how great of an artist, poet, or builder you were… but you live on in your children and in their children. They’re a tremendous pain in the ass. You’ll spend hours and hours doing the most disgusting, menial tasks. When your infant daughter throws up all over your sweater at the bank, and you can still hold her and kiss her head while you clean it up, when you spend all night at the hospital with your infant son hooked up to an IV, cleaning diarrhea off of his behind every ten minutes… and that child looks at you and smiles in appreciation through their misery… only then will you truly understand love. Love means you do these things not for money, but simply because they must be done and someone is depending on you to do it, and it is a privilege.

It really all comes down to responsibility. Taking responsibility for our choices, instead of taking the easy way out. Having a child at a young age is very hard. Aborting a child because you do not want to face the hardship of having it should also be a very hard decision to make. That it is not to many is, to me, very troublesome.

I agree with you, Chrissy… if people aren’t ready to face the responsibility of childhood then maybe they should strongly consider whether they’re ready to face the responsibility of being sexually active. But everyone wants the easy way out, the convenient way, and to avoid what it is we’re doing we use words like fetus, abortion, and termination instead of child, infant, and killing.

I understand the arguments behind keeping abortions legal. “Women will get them anyway, and many will die from back-alley abortions.” I’m not in favor of women dying, but let’s not forget that every abortion requires a death. The child pays for the mistakes of the mother.

I would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned. I’d like to see late-term abortions made illegal, and especially the heinous procedure of late-term partial birth abortions where viable infants are legally murdered just because they’re delivered in the breech position and killed when only their heads remain in the birth canal. For Pete’s sake, you should have made up your mind in the first trimester! I’d like for teenagers to get at least one parent’s consent before they can have an abortion, and then be accompanied by that parent. I’d like to keep the government from spending a cent on abortions or abortion clinics. And I’d like legal abortions to be so rare that the majority of abortion clinics go out of business because people grew up enough to either ensure they don’t get pregnant by whatever means, or accept the consequences if they did.

I wouldn’t make abortions illegal, but I would make those changes. I know they will not be popular with many, just as I would have found them onerous in my ill-considered youth. The right thing is never easy, and seldom popular.

I can live with that.

NB: More articles on the subject here, and tangentally here and here.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Psyching Ourselves Out

David Broder has a column in which he blames disillusionment among voters on Bush's purportedly dismal record as president, and says the Congressional Republicans are running away from him in droves in a desperate attempt to keep from losing control of the House to Democrats in the 2006 elections.

I have one question to Mr. Broder about his amazing analytical powers... do they really pay you for this?

There's a lot of disillusionment among the voters, however contrary to Broder's assertions, large numbers of voters are disillusioned with the tactics of the Democrats and the apparent willingness of their attack dogs in the mainstream media. Broder's rewriting of history to support his contention is factually incorrect to the point of being farcical.

Sorry, Mr. Broder. Clinton didn't win the 1992 presidential election because George Bush, Sr., had "played out the string" on the Reagan revolution. Clinton won because Ross Perot was able to siphon off enough conservative voters to give the Democrat a plurality, a rare event in presidential elections which Clinton managed to repeat in 1996. In both elections, the majority of voters chose someone besides Clinton.

Disillusion with the Clintons started early, and not because Clinton couldn't get anything accomplished. Rather, he accomplished too much. Clinton ran as a centrist, appealing to many independent voters who did not like George Bush but who also didn't like progressive Democratic policies. Once he won, however, he quickly revealed himself to be a progressive. It didn't help that the man announced he would break every major campaign promise immediately after he was elected in 1992. Many Americans who were willing to give Clinton the benefit of the doubt, like me (I didn't vote for him but I hoped for the best), saw the disconnect between his words and his actions. Many voters were alarmed by his tax hikes which killed the Bush-initiated economic recovery, his push for meaningless but restrictive gun control, his willingness to tinker with military readiness for political gain, and his attempt to enact government-controlled healthcare. Of all of these, I think the Brady Law and the semiautomatic rifle ban (both laws which have expired without an increase in crime) angered the most activists on the Republican side and led to the Democrats' Congressional defeat in the '94 elections. Clinton evidently agreed when he told an interviewer in 1995 that "the NRA cost us the Congress."

Eight years of the Clintons brought us phrases like "No controlling legal authority," and "It depends on the meaning of the word 'is'." We had 900 FBI files of political adversaries being delivered and examined at the White House. We had illegal campaign contributions from the Chinese People's Army delivered to Al Gore at a Buddhist temple. We had a foot-high printout of Rose Hill billing records turn up in the Clinton's living quarters at the White House two years after they'd been subpoenaed. The image of President Clinton telling us in no uncertain terms that he "did not have sex with that woman, Monica Lewinsky" is iconic in its representation of dishonest politicians. And who could forget how the Clintons left the White House; in shambles with keyboards defaced and government property being illegally appropriated (can we just say "stolen?") by staffers and the Clintons themselves. The Clinton Administration was equal parts tragedy and farce, and the real tragedy was that such an intelligent, gifted, charismatic man was so lacking in courage and character that he was an utter failure as a president.

Clinton's lack of courage was most evident in his foreign policy. We also had events like the US effectively surrendering to an African thug who was responsible for the deaths of eighteen US Army soldiers after Clinton sent them in to capture that warlord without allowing the Army to bring armor in theater. After the infamous Battle of Mogadishu, and despite the Rangers' expressed willingness to go back in the next day and finish the mission (this time with proper support), Clinton instead decided to pull our troops out, negotiate with Aidad who was directly responsible for the soldiers' deaths, and abandon the people of Somalia to the warlord's rule. Osama bin Laden realized then that the US under Clinton had no stomach for a confrontation, and so he began a series of terrorist attacks that culminated in the real tragedy of the Clinton Administration: September 11, 2001,

Here we are, five years after Clinton left office, and yet he has left behind a Democratic Party in his image. The 2004 Democratic presidential candidate couldn't make up his mind to save his life: "I voted for the $87 billion [troop funding] before I voted against it." (By the way, Kerry has yet to answer the SwiftVets' charges and sign a Form 180 and release it to the public, as he repeatedly promised during the campaign and even in January of this year.) Congressional Democrats screamed for the chance to vote in support of war with Iraq before the '02 midterm elections; now they're screaming that they want a do-over. And, of course, Bush is attacked for not having a plan even though the plan he enumerated today is the same plan that has been in place since shortly after the end of the war and by all credible accounts (including Democrat Senator Joe Lieberman) it's working. I love this remark from Senator Patrick Leahy:
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., called Bush's remarks "nothing more than a spruced up version of more of the same, riddled with feel-good rhetoric that bears little relationship to the facts facing our troops." He questioned why the White House waited until now — more than 2 1/2 years into the war — to lay out publicly its strategy for victory.
How on earth can Bush's plan be "more of the same" yet this is the first time it's been presented?

I'd be a lot less disillusioned if the media would actually report what is going on, for once, instead of only reporting the news that hurts the war effort, that hurts the Bush Administration, or both.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Life (in prison) or Death? Why I Support the Death Penalty

Albert Owens, one of Tookie Williams' victims, shot in the back with a twelve gauge shotgun as he lay on the floor of the convenience store that Williams robbed

Yet another convicted murderer is trying to obtain clemency on the grounds that he has changed himself, and therefore redeemed himself.

Stanley "Tookie" Williams, one of the co-founders of the notorious "Crips" street gang, has lost his final appeal and is scheduled to be executed on December 13 for the murders of four people during a series of armed robberies. There is no doubt of his guilt: one witness (Williams' brother!) remarked that Williams smoked PCP before one of the robberies and laughed at one of his dying victims who lay groaning in his own blood.

Stanley "Tookie" Williams, co-founder of the Crips street gang. Williams had a reputation as a fearless, and fearsome, fighter. I can believe it.

Contrary to the assertions of Williams' defenders, a jury comprised of blacks and whites convicted Williams even though the prosecutor was disallowed the use of Williams' history as a street gang leader. We are about as sure as we can be of William's guilt in the murders he was convicted of; we can be certain that Williams, in his role as the co-founder of perhaps the most infamous street gang in America, was involved in many more murders. We know that Williams threatened to "get each and every one of you motherfuckers [on the jury]" when he was convicted. We know that Williams got off on the thrill of killing from his conversations with prison counselors. We know that Williams planned to kill prison guards during his abortive escape attempt after his incarceration. And we have strong evidence that meets the 'probable cause' standard that Williams continued to play a leadership role in the Crips gang after his conviction and imprisonment including ordering 'hits' on individuals and managing factions of Crips prison gangs. In short, Stanley "Tookie" Williams is a reprehensible human being who has no respect for the rights of others or the rule of law and who poses a direct threat to others both in and out of prison despite his incarceration.

Others disagree. They want Williams to have a new trial, despite exhaustive appeals that have determined Williams' original trial and conviction was without procedural error, he was judged by a jury of his peers that included blacks, and that Williams' defense team was highly qualified. Williams' conviction was not due to some miscarriage of justice, but because he was guilty and numerous witnesses including family members, friends, and bystanders, testified to his guilt. These facts don't matter to Williams' defenders. Their strategy is two-fold: insist against all evidence that Williams didn't get a fair trial, and urge clemency based upon Williams' purported rehabilitation. Williams supposedly came to a realization that he was an evil dude and decided that the path to redemption was to write several books about his life, as well as some aimed at children, all preaching that gang life and criminal activity are signs of self-hatred. These efforts have drawn attention to Williams, to the extent that he has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by a Swiss legislator (who opposes the death penalty).(After preliminary research into how people are nominated for the 'prestigious' Nobel Prize, I am a lot less impressed with this award than I used to be... something I should have realized when folks like Jimmy Carter, Adolf Hitler, and Yassir Arafat are among the winners.)

I can agree with Williams' message as portrayed in his books, but that is besides the point. If everyone who claimed to be rehabilitated while serving time was let off the prisons would be empty. More to the point: prison sentences aren't dependent upon the redemption, whether actual or fraudulent, of the person being sentenced. Williams did the crime, reasonably should have known that the punishment for murder could include the death penalty, and thus them there's the breaks, Cuz.

In California, there effectively is no life sentence without possibility of parole. If Williams' sentence was commuted, he would be eligible for parole eventually. The choice here is between ensuring such a person is never going to be able to prey on society, or trusting his allegations that he is a changed man and eventually offering him a second chance. Hasn't his history shown that Williams cannot be trusted?

There was a case a decade or so in California, where a convicted rapist who was out on parole kidnapped a young woman, raped her repeatedly, then cut off both her hands with an axe and left her to bleed to death in a roadside ditch. She survived to testify against her attacker, and he was convicted of attempted murder... only to be freed a few years later. The criminal made the mistake of committing his next rape/murder in Florida, and we all know what happens to those convicted of capital murder in Florida; he was executed. As Ted Bundy so aptly illustrated, a convicted murderer who is put to death will never threaten the public again.

Putting someone to death is unpleasant, but sometimes it's necessary. I'll grant the possibility that Williams may have changed. He may finally have realized the error of his ways; staring death in the face is a powerful force for change. Unfortunately for him, it's about twenty years too late. We cannot afford to risk innocent lives if we're wrong and Williams hasn't changed. Williams crossed a line that can't be recrossed. Impose the sentence.

Note: more information on Williams, both pro and con.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Now Do You Understand Why You Were Fired?

Mary Mapes, the "60 Minutes II" producer who was fired from CBS News for airing a story alleging that President Bush was AWOL from the Texas Air National Guard based upon fraudulent documents, evidently still doesn't get it.

As everyone except Ms. Mapes and her erstwhile partner in slime Dan Rather have acknowledged, the documents, which were obtained from Bill Burkett, an avowed anti-Bush partisan, were almost immediately debunked as fraudulent. The debunking was based on the fact that, based upon specific and precise measurements of the typographical font used on the documents themselves, they would have to have been created on a PC running Windows software, and PCs running Windows didn't exist back in the early 1970s. Ergo, unless the Enterprise happened to visit during this period and Captain Kirk inadvertantly left behind a laptop from his antique computer collection, there is no other way than fraud to explain the creation of these documents.

Ms. Mape's lame defense:
She points out that the independent panel, whose findings led to her firing and the forced resignations of four others at CBS News, wasn't able to figure out whether the documents were real.
Don't you get it, Mary? It's not up to the panel, or anyone else, to determine whether the documents were authentic. It was up to you.

You rushed this story to air a month before the presidential elections in the hopes that it would discredit a sitting president and lead to his defeat. It was your responsibility to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the documents were true, not others to prove they were false. That others were able to do so literally within hours, that your chosen experts stated that you misquoted them in order to imply something was true that they specifically warned you was false, and that you, Dan Rather, and CBS News stonewalled instead of living up to your supposed journalistic ethics of going after the truth wherever it lay and whomever it vindicated... all of these facts were why you were fired and Dan Rather was forced to resign. "Fake, but accurate?" Come on! How about fake and inaccurate!

Now, do you get it?

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Much Ado About Nothing

The whole PlameGate thing is much ado about nothing. Yet I understand why the press is in a frenzy, as are the Democrats. Since Watergate, using the legal system against political opponents has become an art form, and no one is better at it than the Democrats and their fellow travelers in the mainstream media.

Yes, lying under oath is a big deal. Libby should have resigned... and he did. Too bad the Democrats and Bill Clinton didn't think that resigning was the appropriate thing for someone who has committed perjury to do. But, the Dems only hold Republicans up to a high standard. I guess that is a complement.

Note also that the reason Libby was caught in a lie is because every single other White House staffer who was questioned, including Rove, contradicted Libby's testimony. There was no stonewalling here, no Rose Garden press conferences defending the person under indictment. Instead, the president let it be known that an indictment would need to be followed by a resignation. Contrast that with William Jefferson Clinton's statement to Dick Morris after the latter warned him against the political and legal firestorm that would ensue if Clinton lied about Monica Lewinsky: "Well, I guess we'll just have to win, then."

And, speaking of lies, it should be obvious to anyone who can read the bipartisan 911 Commission Report that the biggest liar in the Plamegate scandal is none other than Joe Wilson, Ms. Plame's husband. His leak to Nicholas Kristol that started the furor over Iraqi attempts to buy yellowcake in Africa, his op-ed in the New York Times, and his testimony to the 911 Commission have all been proven to be riddled with lies. How about a little mainstream media focus on Mr. Wilson and his lies? How about indicting him for perjury in his testimony?

Re Libby being the first White House official to be charged with a crime since the days of Grant, how about Watergate? And, is the Clinton White House staff exempt because Monica plea-bargained, Bill committed perjury, and everyone else who faced indictment was either elected (Al Gore, for campaign law violations) or a Cabinet-level official, or resigned before they were indicted?

Libby was foolish to lie when it seems evident that he broke no law. The law in question describes outing an agent as a crime when that agent is undercover, the people who out that agent know the agent is undercover and that blowing the cover will endanger the agent's life, and they do it anyway. Valerie Plame Wilson's neighbors knew she worked for the CIA. The woman posed with her husband in 'Vanity Fair' magazine, for criminy's sake. Her cover had been blown years earlier; that's why she worked in-house as a WMD analyst.

What does this so-called 'scandal' prove about Democrats and Republicans? About honesty?

It proves is that the Democrats are more accomplished liars who, unlike the Republicans, rally around their fellow liars and mischaracterize and then deny the lie rather than forcing them to face the music. If only Libby had uttered "Valerie Plame!" during a moment of passion with Judy Miller. Then, he could use the Clinton defense: it's all about sex!

It proves that the Democrats and their fellow travelers in the mainstream media are intent on fighting the issue of whether we were justified in going to war in Iraq years after its relevancy has passed.

It proves that the Democrats would rather defeat George Bush than Al Quaeda and the Iraqi insurgents, and if it takes losing the War on Terror to win the White House, then that is the price they're willing to pay.

The scary thing it proves is that the CIA is effectively able to oppose the elected head of the executive branch, enough to at least politically damage the president and reduce his effectiveness at governing, and at worst to give his political opponents enough ammunition to hound the president or vice-president from office. This isn't Allende's Chile in 1973. This is America, at war, in 2005, and elements in the CIA have actively worked to cripple the president's ability to govern.

The anti-war Left blames Bush, calling him a liar because he supposedly went to war based on false intelligence. Funny, (not so funny, really) how that intelligence came from the CIA... the same source of the current scandal.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

They Mean To Govern Well...

It is hardly too strong to say that the Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions, real or pretended.... There are men in all ages who mean to exercise power usefully—but who mean to exercise it. They mean to govern well; but they mean to govern; they promise to be kind masters, but they mean to be masters. – Daniel Webster (ht: Jim Leth)
There was considerable outrage last week when Mayor Nagin directed the remnants of the New Orleans Police Department to confiscate legally-owned firearms from law-abiding residents of New Orleans. Nagin justified the move as a means of re-establishing control over the city and avoiding resistance to his policy of forcibly evacuating city residents. In order to carry out the Mayor's policy, the NOPD, assisted by federal marshals and military police, have forcibly entered private households without probable cause or a warrant and seized lawfully-owned private property.

The uproar over this policy was immediate and widespread. DavidKopel, a noted constitutional attorney, quickly pointed out that the Mayor's order was illegal on both procedurally and constitutionally. The NRA got into the act a few days later:

"The NRA will not stand idly by while guns are confiscated from law-abiding people who’re trying to defend themselves," he [Chris Cox, NRA-ILA director] said.

"We’re exploring every legal option available to protect the rights of lawful people in New Orleans," Cox said, "and we’re taking steps to overturn such laws in every state where they exist."

Here we are, a week later, and after considerable furor, it seems that the confiscation policy has been effectively, if not explicitly, rescinded. No more confiscations are occurring, and the federal government announced that it would not allow its military or civilian personnel to assist the city forcibly evacuate non-willing residents. Hopefully, they have also been told to refrain from any other type of constitutionally dubious actions. Of course, under Louisiana state law the Mayor would have to repeatedly re-issue his order (there is considerable doubt whether he legally issued the order in the first place) every five days. Thank God the state legislature realized that one way to reign in out-of-control officials who enacted idiotic policies during emergencies was to give those policies a very short lifetime.

What's next?

This is America! Time for a lawsuit! A massive lawsuit against the Mayor, the City of New Orleans, and any federal agency that was involved in this clearly unconstitutional policy is the proper, legitimate means of discouraging future acts of stupidity by panicked, incompetent officials. Contact everyone who suffered under this odious policy and make it a class-action suit.

Oh, and something else needs to happen: gun owners in New Orleans should organize a petition drive to recall the Mayor and call for new mayoral elections. Set up a website to contact evacuees, and get this ball rolling ASAP.

What's that, you say? The mayor was trying to do what he thought was best for the city? Doesn't cut it; the mayor has legal advisors that should have been consulted and that should have strongly advised him against such a policy. Incompetence, ignorance, or capriciousness... none are a valid excuse.

Here in America the ends don't justify the means. New Orleans is a beautiful city with a unique and vibrant culture that has been woefully mismanaged for decades. Many areas are effectively lawless, and the police literally will not go into certain neighborhoods unless they move in with overwhelming force to handle a specific complaint. These neighborhoods are effectively ceded to the control of the thugs who terrorize innocent residents, and the city's murder rate makes it the Homicide Capital of America for two years in a row. Yet we don't solve the problem by cordoning these areas off and napalming them. To any reasonably-informed and thinking American (which, it seems, excludes Mayor Nagin), kicking people's doors in, lining them up against the wall at gunpoint, searching the household for guns, and taking the guns without probable cause is obviously unconstititutional and equally repugnant. Mayor Nagin's approach seems to be "So much for the rule of law if it gets in the way of what I think is a good idea."

America is what it is because it was the first nation-state in the history of the world to govern itself by the rule of law, and to declare individual rights as inviolable: all men are created equal under the law and are guaranteed certain rights, among them the right of freedom of speech and thought, the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, the right against self-incrimination, the right to due process, and lastly the right to keep and bear arms. The anarchy following the complete disintegration of civil authority in New Orleans after Katrina is a prime example of why, in order to protect their right to life and property, law-abiding residents needed to exercise their right to keep and bear arms.

The stories coming out of the city about how people were able to protect themselves and drive off looters speaks volumes for the relevance of the Second Amendment and the wisdom of our country's founders. Sadly, the story of police-state tactics and the trampling of fundamental rights speaks volumes, too... and it's all bad.

I grew up in small-town south Louisiana and spent several years living in New Orleans and Baton Rouge during and after college, so I think it's fair to say I have a reasonably good idea of what's wrong with the state, and how to fix it. To my friends in New Orleans and throughout Louisiana, I say this: you deserve better! Fix the problem. Get rid of the idiots and quit electing them! And hold the current idiots responsible for all of their lapses, constitutional and otherwise!

Update (19 Sept 05): Michelle Malkin has some comments on the subject that are worth reading (read the referenced articles, also). And, it looks like the idea of holding leaders responsible is gaining popularity. But don't forget about Nagin! (ht: Instapundit)

Monday, September 12, 2005

Lies, Damned Lies, and Polls... er, Statistics

John Zogby has this to say about the results of his latest poll:

In our new poll, every president since Carter defeats Bush. But Kerry still loses to Bush by one point. What am I missing here?

Glenn Reynolds adds:

It says a lot about what a weak candidate Kerry was, doesn't it? It also underscores Bush's weakness. I said from the beginning that he was a weak candidate, and vulnerable in 2004, but the Democrats managed to put up a guy that he could beat. (I was prophetic in 2003: "I'm always hesitant to disagree with Barone -- but I think that Bush is far more vulnerable than most commentators suggest. The real question, I guess, is whether he'll be vulnerable to whoever the Democrats nominate." Survey says -- nope!)

I'll answer Zogby first: the reason your poll numbers are where they are right now is because of the non-stop lambasting that Bush has taken in the press over the past six weeks (really, over the past five years). Much of the lambasting has been unsubstantiated by the facts, and most of it has been unfair. What your poll is really reporting is the effectiveness of the MSM attack machine at its peak.

Also, concerning Kerry, you have to consider the comparison. Kerry's political career ended back in August 2004; the November presidential election was merely the sound of dirt hitting the coffin. What does it say about a political party when John Kerry, an arrogant, immature, self-aggrandizing bullshitter, is the best candidate they can come up with? What does it say about a candidate when he still can't beat Bush at Bush's lowest point?

And then, on to the Instapundit: Bush's weakness as a candidate is more a reflection of perception than reality. Need I point out that Bush's numbers were a lot higher in the late summer and fall of 2004 than they are now? Every Republican president either knows going in, or comes to understand, that the press really isn't impartial. Not when 90% of the press simultaneously declare their objectivity and their identification as, and agreement with, Democrats. How else do you explain the resounding silence on Kerry's war record (he has yet to fully disclose his military records to the press as he promised repeatedly, as recently as last January)? How else do you explain the rush to bring forth the Texas National Guard "memos" supplied by Bill Burkett, that were so obviously false that casual observers on a blog could spot the forger's mistakes?

Glenn doesn't think much of Bush as president either:
Bush is, in my estimation, adequate as President, but not much more. I've thought that all along -- which is why you've never seen the kind of lyrical praise of Bush here that once appeared at Andrew Sullivan's place, or the kind of disappointment with Bush you see at Sullivan's place now. But in a world of goofy-looking yet pompous empty suits, the adequate man is . . . President. And the Democrats made sure that this was the choice we had in 2004.
Everyone's entitled to their opinion, especially someone who self-identifies as the InstaPundit. However, I think it's fair to ask Professor Reynolds about his grading criteria. After all, Bush is the first president since his father (back in 1988) to win a majority of the popular vote. Bush is the first president since FDR to see his party's lead in Congress increase during a mid-term election. Facing a bitterly divided Congress and a hostile Senate for his first term, Bush still managed to get his major legislation passed. Contrast this to the Clinton Administration, their reneging on all of their major campaign promises before the first inauguration, and the stunning losses among the Democrats in Congress that reversed control of that branch of government for the first time in 40 years. All of Bush's successes should go into the 'plus' column.

I also think it's fair to point out that Bush has also made mistakes. A big mistake was not housecleaning the Executive Branch in the manner of the Clintons; much of his agenda has been attacked, and sabotaged, by administration opponents who work in the administration. Appointing Colin Powell as SecState was, in hindsight, another mistake, albeit one that was quickly rectified after the '04 election. However, the biggest mistake (and it is an ongoing one) is the absolute failure of the Bush Administration to use the power of the bully pulpit to push their agenda and to respond to critics' attacks. A major strength of Bush's character is the fact that he really doesn't care what people think of him as long as he is doing what he believes is right; that is admirable in a person but potentially fatal in a politician.

Bush is the type of person that everyone always claims to want in the office: reflective, principled, and more concerned about doing the right thing than being popular. He is virtually the anti-Bill Clinton, and historians will undoubtedly find it interesting that the electorate turned from one to the other. However, he is also a skilled politician who has benefitted from the combined arrogance and ignorance of his opponents who tend to continually "misunderestimate" Bush to their detriment. I think that history, and hindsight, will be far kinder to him than Glenn Reynolds is today.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Surviving Calamity

Image © 2005 AP via DrudgeReport, 'fair use'

Who among us isn't looking at the cataclysm that New Orleans has become, and hasn't wondered what things would be like in their neck of the woods should a similar catastrophe strike? Sure... not everyone lives in areas prone to hurricanes, but Nature has a veritable smorgasborg of disasters on an epic scale from earthquakes to tsunamis, volcanic eruptions to massive meteor strikes. Science fiction writers have made millions writing about the death and destruction that would ensue from such calamities and the ensuing chaotic aftermath. And then there's disasters of the man-made variety: epidemic, war and its aftermath, or terrorist attack.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has been like a disaster novel come alive. Fierce winds pummeled the Gulf Coast and left widepread destruction. A tremendous storm surge washed away buildings and roadways, altering the topology perhaps permanently. Most of us thought that, on the day after Katrina passed northward, God or fate or call it what you will had once again spared New Orleans, and that the worst case had not happened. We were wrong: New Orleans dodged one bullet but she relaxed too soon, only to run smack into the followup shot when the levees failed and the city slowly yet inexorably flooded.

Is your community ready for a similar disaster? Are you ready for a similar disaster? What does "being ready" mean? It means that your household is ready to survive for a minimum of seven days in complete isolation from society, without the availability of utilities such as electricity, phone, and natural gas, without access to grocery stores or pharmacies, as if your household were transported to a deserted island.

• Being ready means stockpiling sufficient food and water for your household to last seven days

At a bare minimum, you should have one-half gallon of drinking water per person per day (that means 3.5 gallons per person for seven days of sufficiency). This water will be used for drinking only, not washing or cleaning. An easy way to obtain a water supply is to thoroughly clean your used one-gallon plastic milk containers as your family normally consumes the milk inside, and fill them with tap water. Do this for a few weeks until you have enough water stockpiled. Once you have sufficient water stockpiled, empty and refill one gallon every week as you rotate through the stockpiled water, ensuring that the water remains fresh. Additionally, keep pure chlorine bleach on hand as an expedient way of purifying water (16 drops of chlorine bleach per gallon should be sufficient to purify filtered water) as well as a water purification system although remember that these are adjuncts to, and not substitutes for, stockpiled water. Note that one-half gallon a day will lead to eventual dehydration under severe conditions, so you might want to stockpile even more water.

Military MREs make good survival food; they come in environmentally-resistant packaging, they contain balanced, nutritious meals that have enough calories to sustain moderate to intense physical activity, and they can be eaten as-is and are provided with a means of heating them. No, they are not gourmet meals and yes, under normal conditions you will tire of them... but in an emergency you will devour them with gusto. MREs are bulky, but are fairly inexpensive and excellent for a limited duration stockpile that will be used to get your household past a short-term crisis of a week or two. I recommend that you stock a minimum of two MREs (2400-2600 calories total) per person per day for seven days (you can always eat less to prolong your food supply if necessary). Google the Web to find vendors.

Don't forget necessary prescription meds. A good, stocked first-aid kit is also a necessity.

• Being ready means stockpiling sufficient simple utilitarian tools and equipment to facilitate your survival

Anyone who camps should have items such as tents, sleeping bags, backpacks, sturdy boots, and portable stoves that greatly facilitate surviving under extreme conditions. If you don't camp, you should consider buying such items and trying them out by camping out (in your backyard, at least). I guarantee that those folks who are still in New Orleans and who have tents and camp stoves and fuel are a lot better off than those who don't.

If you live in a flood-prone area, then common sense indicates that you may be trapped in, or on, your house. Having some common tools, like a hatchet, a crowbar, and a hammer, could mean the difference between drowning in your attic or escaping. A folding shovel is an exceptionally useful item to keep in your vehicle (here's my favorite). It can save your life.

You also need flashlights with sufficient batteries to last for at least a week of several hours-per-day usage. Consider obtaining rechargeable batteries and a source of power (such as a generator), and perhaps contacting an electrician to install a cut-out circuit that will allow you to power several circuits in your house from that generator while isolating your residence from the power grid (so your generator doesn't waste fuel attempting to power the neighborhood or endanger utility crews). Consider also alternate means of power generation (such as a solar cell) or getting a recharger that can utilize a car's 12-volt electrical system that can be used to recharge batteries.

Dry storage for supplies is also important. I have many large Rubbermaid containers that I store camping gear in, that I grab for my camping and hunting trips. Each container is labeled so I know what is where, and I keep them stocked. In an emergency, I can grab a couple of these containers, bungee the lids closed, and toss them in the back of my pickup truck knowing that I have everything I need to survive living outdoors. I keep a couple of extras around that we store blankets in, to be used to store clothing (heavy jackets, extra trousers, shirts, socks, footware, etc.) and MREs in case we have to quickly leave our house. You know what? These float, too, meaning you can tow them behind you with little effort if you have to traverse a flooded area.

• Being ready means acquiring sufficient weapons and training to defend yourself from those who would steal your stockpile or otherwise do you harm

If you don't own firearms, then make the decision today to learn how to handle and use them safely and effectively... and buy a gun. If you truly believe that the government will always be able to protect you, and that ownership of weapons is a sign of sexual inadequacy, please save my bandwidth for more intelligent readers and skip reading the rest of this because your stupidity has condemned you to be one of the first victims of post-disaster anarchy.

If you're still reading, then there's hope for you. All responsible law-abiding adults in your household should have at least one handgun, in a caliber and configuration suitable for self-defense (4" .38 Special revolver or 9mm pistol minimum), and should have had the minimum training necessary to be able to pass your local police qualification course. Additionally, your family should have at least one defensive rifle (16" AR-15 or Mini-14 or lever-action rifle in .357 Magnum, minimum) for every two adults (better to have one for each adult, and they should be identical) with a 'basic load' of magazines and ammo (210-300 rounds loaded in magazines if appropriate) and every adult should know how to load, fire, and maintain these rifles, and be able to hit a basketball-sized target at 50 yards at a minimum.

Firearms are useless without ammunition. Obtain at least 300 rounds of ammunition for each firearm and at least four spare magazines per firearm (for those firearms that take detachable magazines). Obtain cleaning kits for each firearm as well and keep them stocked. A gun that won't fire due to inadequate maintenance is useless.

Chances are, you'll never need these weapons. Good. If disaster strikes, and looters see that you can defend yourselves, chances are they'll bypass your household and look for those readers who skipped this section. If worse comes to worse, you'll most likely prevail... and if you don't then you are no worse off than if you never owned a gun in the first place.

• Being ready means possessing sufficient means of communication to enable your household to stay in contact if neighborhood separation becomes necessary, and to communicate to areas outside the disaster area, without having to rely on the public communications infrastructure

Cell phones are modern miracles of technology... that invariably fail when disasters hit. You can't rely on them in an emergency. Get a Technician-class amateur radio license ASAP and upgrade from Tech to General-class as soon as possible. The Technician license lets you own and operate two-way radios that transmit on frequencies above 30 Mhz which are excellent for local and regional communication. The General license lets you operate in the HF bands (1.8 to 30 Mhz) where you can communicate around the world on as little as 5 watts of transmitted power. Contact the ARRL for more information on amateur radio in the US.

Once you get your Tech license, get a 5-watt handi-talkie (HT) that can be opened to operate outside the amateur radio bands, and open it. Do not operate outside the ham radio bands unless and until you are in a true emergency where you need to communicate in order to save lives or property from damage and have no other means of communication. Your HT should also have scanning and monitoring capabilities so you can listen to AM or FM radio, emergency Public Service frequencies, and National Weather Service broadcasts.

Get enough FRS walkie-talkies for everyone in your household. Get everyone in your household familiar with using the FRS radios, and their shortcomings. In an emergency, your 'opened' amateur radio HT will be able to communicate with your (and others') FRS walkie-talkies, you will be able to stay in touch with everyone via FRS radios and frequencies, and you can use your HTs to obtain news and valuable information and to contact the authorities to arrange for rescue.

Make auxiliary battery packs for your HTs that can utilize common, inexpensive 12-volt gel cell batteries. Unlike a $40+ factory battery pack, which only lasts a couple of hours, your homemade pack will cost under $20 and last for a couple of days.

After you obtain your General license, get a portable HF transceiver and make your own antenna out of wire. This small setup will allow you to communicate outside the region, if necessary, to arrange for help or to share information. If Tom Hanks had packed one of these in his briefcase he never would have spent four years on a desert island and lost Helen Hunt to an ex-"Law and Order" detective cum dentist.

• Being ready means possessing a viable means of transporting your household out of the disaster area if, and when, you determine that leaving your current location is necessary to ensure your survival

Everyone mocks SUVs, but the best vehicle for emergency travel is a big honkin' SUV with four-wheel drive. You can tow a trailer behind it... or rescue someone else's car. You can haul all of your stockpiled food, water, supplies, and weapons, as well as your entire household. You can cross damaged roadways, traverse minor flooded areas, ram your way through looter roadblocks, and withstand gunfire better than with just about any other vehicle. If you live in a city like New Orleans and you know a flood is coming (say, the news alerts you to a levee breach), then load up the SUV and head to a highway overpass. Set up your tent outside, establish watches, and be ready to flee the area when the waters subside.

If you live in flood-prone areas, such as river flood planes or, say, cities that are below mean sea level, perhaps a small johnboat or canoe might be a good idea... but only if you can store it at your house and where it won't be destroyed or rushed away by strong winds or flash floods.

Whatever vehicle you have, keep at least a half-tank of gas in it at all times. Most natural disasters strike without warning, and you will not be able to pump gas from underground tanks when the power is out.

• Being ready means not waiting until the last minute

Don't wait until a couple days before a major hurricane is predicted to wipe out your city before starting to prepare. If the National Hurricane Center starts issuing press releases with words like "horrible" and "devastating" don't wait for your mayor to give the word. The majority of Orleaneans didn't wait for Mayor Nagin and his belated call for a mandatory evacuation; they listened to the urgent warnings from the National Hurricane Center and got out of Dodge before Katrina struck. Some might have felt a little silly on Tuesday morning, when the aftereffects of Katrina didn't seem too bad... just a little wind damage. I'm sure they feel a lot better now about their decision. They're alive.


Watching Katrina approach, and then overwhelm New Orleans and south Louisiana, where I went to high school and college and lived for more than a decade, has been particularly disturbing. As of today I still cannot contact many friends who live in the affected area, and my thoughts and prayers are with them. I am saddened and disgusted by the dregs of society who are taking advantage of the situation to wreak havoc on the city and its innocents, and I am heartened and encouraged by the numerous acts of courage and compassion by those in the maelstrom that is New Orleans, and by those outside who are expending considerable time and energy (and money) to help save the people of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama who have been so devastated by this storm and its aftermath. Please, donate to the organizations that are rushing to help. My suggestions: The Salvation Army, The American Red Cross, and Mercy Corps.

You can learn more about the Blog for Relief Day at Instapundit. Michelle Malkin also has information about how more than just New Orleans has been affected. And, Brendan Loy has done an outstanding job of Katrina-blogging; his sentiments on the performance of the city's leadership echo mine exactly.

Update: Ed at Captain's Quarters has a post on how the primary responsibility for disaster planning lies with local governments. I would (and have) extended that line of thinking: the primary responsibility for disaster planning lies with each of us (as described above).

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Thursday, August 25, 2005

Solving The Energy Crisis... Really!

I see that the Bush Administration has finally decided to modify the way CAFE (corporate average fuel economy--the way car manufacturers' average gas mileage for their fleets is computed) standards are measured. The major change is to move SUVs and light trucks (pickup trucks) from the exempt 'truck' category into the 'passenger cars' category. The goal is to try and force car manufacturers to make lighter, more efficient SUVs and trucks with better fuel economy.

What the NHTSA seems to have forgotten is why the popularity of SUVs rose in the first place. In the late '70s, SUVs were available (the IH Scout II, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Chevy Suburban, full-size Ford Bronco) but were generally sold to special purpose users, i.e., large families, rural residents who lived in communities with bad roads or bad weather, trailer pullers. The station wagon was the vehicle of choice for the average American family with children. The Carter Administration changed that, when they enacted CAFE regulations, and these regulations largely doomed the station wagon. Corresponding with these regulations were the increasing requirements for child safety seats, which require more 'hip room' than the average adult occupies. The American car-buying public is inherently rational, and the disappearance of the station wagon forced many of them into buying SUVs. This trend was noticed by the Big 3 and, with the introduction of the Dodge Caravan mini-van and the Jeep Cherokee SUV the market was born. It didn't hurt (the car manufacturers) that SUV and light truck sales weren't counted against the CAFE averages.

Here we are, twenty years after the introduction of the mini-van. What will happen if American auto manufacturers are restricted from making enough SUVs to satisfy customer demand? Well, car buyers will buy SUVs from foreign manufacturers. Used SUVs will rise in price. And people will keep their SUVs longer, and keep them running longer. Altogether, not what the rule-changers have in mind, and a course of action that will actually result in a decrease in average fuel economy (older vehicles invariably are less efficient as their drivetrain ages and deteriorates).

Instead of all of this useless symbolism, why not do something that will make a difference? That will result in a decrease of at least 10% of the petroleum used by this country? That will make the environment cleaner? And, that will require absolutely no reduction in energy consumption by American businesses and consumers? I know... you're sold already... or if not, you should be.

First, some facts about US energy consumption:

• Approximately 2% of the electricity consumed in this country is generated using petroleum not including natural gas

• Because of inherent generation inefficiencies, it takes three times the amount of energy as measured in BTUs to be consumed as is generated, e.g., one BTU of electricity requires the expenditure of three BTUs of petroleum with two BTUs wasted in heat and friction losses

• Approximately 45% of the total petroleum consumed in this country is used for gasoline production and use in automobile transportation

These facts indicate that if we can generate an extra 2% of our electricity via other means we can eliminate the use of petroleum for electrical generation, and any extra generation will reduce the usage of natural gas. They also indicate that using another energy source for automotive transportation besides petroleum (electricity, hydrogen) that is itself not a byproduct of petroleum will, again, reduce our oil consumption.

The secret to petroleum independence is alternate means of generating electricity. After all, hydrogen is created using electricity. And, solar-generated electricity (by the use of solar panels) is among the cheapest forms of electricity; the entire cost consists of the cost of the panels and ancillary hardware, and there is no operating cost. So, what we have to do is to increase the amount of solar electrical generation.

Here's how:

• Change building codes to require each new residential and commercial construction to include enough solar or wind generation capability to provide 10% of the anticipated daily building consumption

• Give corporate and individual taxpayers a tax credit for US-manufacturered solar or wind generation equipment used to provide up to 10% of their daily energy consumption (US-manufactured means the solar panel must be made entirely in the US, ancillary gear must be manufacturered here in the US and use US-made components if available)

• Require utilities to provide net metering so consumers can sell their generated electricity back to the utilities, thus reducing the amount of electricity utilities have to generate especially during peak times (daytime) while lowering consumers' electricity costs

• Give corporate and individual taxpayers a tax credit for purchasing vehicles that use renewable energy sources (electric vehicles) or for using non-petroleum fuel sources (electricity, biodiesel, ethanol)

• Require public transport to use either electricity, biodiesel, ethanol, or LPG as fuel, and prohibit the use of any other fuel (gas, diesel)

• Let drivers of electrical vehicle get free public parking and use of HOV lanes regardless of the number of passengers in the vehicle

• Allow the sale of biodiesel to consumers and exempt it from any fuel-related tax (sales tax only)

• Open up ANWR for drilling and exploration because any oil we get domestically reduces our trade deficit and keeps US dollars in the US instead of sending them to the Middle East

These changes would result in automakers building SUVs with small, powerful, yet efficient turbodiesels, as well as producing more electric and hybrid vehicles. They would also stimulate the public to buy these vehicles. The onsite generation requirement would result in more efficient structures that also generated part of the electricity they consume.

All of these changes would be much less disruptive to the American economy (the tax credit for US-manufactured energy equipment would greatly stimulate production and lower costs due to increased economies of scale), and would knock back our usage of petroleum. If only the business/residential energy generation requirement were passed in California, their electricity crisis would be over (max consumption is during the day, when the sun shines). Giving people incentives to purchase new, more energy-efficient and eco-friendly vehicles that still met their needs will also help, and it will help stimulate the economy. If all of these changes were adopted nationwide, in a decade or so our petroleum energy consumption would probably drop by 25% per capita, which would make a big difference.

Well, there's my plan for energy independence. What do you think?