Sunday, October 26, 2014

Reasonable Gun Control

The perpetual call for reasonable gun laws assumes that the laws we have are somehow unreasonable. Does reasonable mean total control, like North Korea, or a balance like say Switzerland. Yes, guns are too often involved in unjustified shootings, but according to some statistics often prevent a violent crime without ever being fired. No crime, no shooting, no police report.

I agree even one death is too many, but can we eliminate that one even with draconian laws? Just for reference, the number of gun related fatalities is of a similar magnitude as automotive fatalities, but no one is calling our traffic code unreasonable. The number who die from medical errors is several times as high, and the number that die from cigarette smoking is several times that. There is just so much the law can do.

If the War On Drugs were ended, a substantial portion of the gun violence would end.


 I do not know much about fluoride, except that every dentist I ever talked to and the Centers for Disease Control are in favor of water fluoridation. While fluorine is a toxic gas, the fluoride in water is a salt. The main danger is the emotional distress caused by attitudes like some letters.
Many letters have been printed opposing introduction of scientific discoveries, such as bio-controls, or GMO crops. Almost invariably these letters equate the proposal to invasive species introduced in the, mostly distant, past: mongoose, Christmas berry, rabbits etc.

What the letter writers appear ignorant of is that those introductions were made for selfish reasons without any science at all.

There is a popular culture that has come to distrust science, and instead accepts anecdotal evidence (true or not) to reject: fluorides, vaccination, pasteurized milk, nuclear power, seat belts, geothermal, GMO, windmills, helmets or anything else they heard a horror story about.  This happens in spite of overwhelming scientific and statistical evidence that the benefits outweigh any risk.  I guess the world needs boogeymen, even if they are imaginary.

Speed Limit Falacy

It seems reasonable to assume that driving slower is safer.  After all if you are not moving, you can’t crash.  You will never get anywhere either, and you can still be crashed into.  While it is true that driving slower reduces severity of accidents there is no evidence that it actually prevents them.  Most fatal accidents happen at below 35mph!  This is simply because most driving time is spent below 35mph, in locations where collisions are likely to occur, like urban intersections.  On the other hand when all vehicles are going in the same direction at the same speed, as in a tunnel, they cannot collide.  If they do get a little out of sync and collide the severity is reduced.  This is the rationale to build limited access divided highways. The safest situation on traditional roads is to discipline traffic so that the difference in speed among vehicles is minimized.  This can be done two ways.  Draconian enforcement or rational speed limits.  Unfortunately there are not enough police or courts to make the former viable, unless we want to give the police shoot on sight authority, but that has problems of its own.  

It is widely believed that no matter what speed limit is posted most people will cheat by 5 to 10 miles per hour.  Many people also think the police will give them 5 mph or 10% grace. Neither is true.  It has been scientifically established that if there is no posted limit on a highway 85% of the drivers will drive at a safe and reasonable speed for the conditions.  The traffic will thus be self-disciplined and inherently safer.  More than half will be within a 10 mph range of speed, with many going slower for personal reasons, and a few going a little faster.  Of course there will be a small number going outrageously faster.  These are the ones enforcement should be concentrated on.  Unfortunately enforcement creates revenue and that can become the motivation for increased enforcement activity.

Untrained politicians and bureaucrats believe in the fallacy, and given the chance almost always decide to post the speed limit 5 to 10mph less than good traffic engineering dictates, 10mph slower that they themselves do drive on the same roadway.  When their prophesy comes true, their solution is to lower the limit by another 5mph.  This has almost no discernable effect on the maximum speed. Instead the traffic gets more chaotic and dangerous, because while small percentage will rigorously obey, the crazies (habitual speeders) will try to drive as fast as ever.  The rigorously obedient will frustrate not only the crazies, but many otherwise safe drivers, who will now tailgate (follow unsafely close) and be tempted to pass unsafely.  A driver who might feel safe driving 55 on a certain highway will probably not take many chances to pass one driving 50, but as the speed of the impediment decreases the willingness to pass increases.  As the motivation to pass increases the conditions under which a driver will attempt to pass deteriorate.  Almost no one would hesitate to pass a farm tractor going 7mph.

On a highway the grouping of traffic can be observed.  The slower a vehicle is travelling the closer the following traffic will be, disproportionately closer.  Likewise the frustration and risk tolerance of the following drivers will increase.  On a narrow highway for example a car travelling at 35 will accumulate a large number of cars behind it, with at least one obviously tailgating.  A car travelling at 45 will have fewer cars following, with hardly ever anyone tailgating.  A driver at 55 will probably have none behind him, until he overtakes one of the slower drivers above.  Too-low speed limits decrease safety by causing erratic behavior. 

Hawaii's Conquest

No doubt about it, the Hawaiian People were victimized, but it did not start with the overthrow of the Monarchy. It started when the first Hawaiians, sometimes called Menehune, were conquered by Tahitians, who essentially became the Alii. The common people, Maoli Hawaii, had few rights until Kamehameha I declared the law of the broken paddle.

Monarchy like any other system that depends on fealty and patronage is inherently corrupt. Just like everywhere else the aristocracy abused the common people for their personal gain. So many men were put to work gathering sandalwood to be sold to purchase luxuries for the elite (Alii) that there was no one to work the fields to grow food. Fortunately the sandalwood ran out, but by then there was nothing left of the original system.

Inevitably Hawaii went through several transitions. Whether what evolved was the best outcome will never be known, but to restore the monarchy means exactly what? The monarchy as it existed in 1890, 1867, 1848, 1819 or 1810? Because it changed with each new King. Was there ever a time when the common people were fully enfranchised?

There is a lot of sympathy for the last Queen Liliuokalani, but she tried to abolish the so called Bayonet Constitution. It was signed under pressure by her Brother Kalakaua,  It was the only thing however that made her Queen after his death!

No doubt about it, the Hawaiian People were victimized, but name an indigenous people that were not. It could have been much worse. There were attempts by many colonial powers to annex Hawaii.
Imagine if it was the Russians,the French or the Germans who succeeded

America's Future

            Many articles expound the hypothesis that just as the 19th century was Britain’s and the 20th America’s, the future century will be China’s; perhaps, but there are significant flaws in the theory.  Consider this:  Beginning with the Magna Charta in 1215 a new concept paralleled the development of the English speaking world, no human being is supreme, not even the King.  This concept grew and spread within English culture.  In 1588 Sir Walter Drake defeated the Spanish Invincible Armada ending a century of Spanish domination and gradually English hegemony spread over the entire globe.  His sovereign Elizabeth I discouraged religious persecution and in 1689 The English Bill of Rights was enacted: all human beings had certain rights.  By 1700 the sun never set on the British Empire.  However in 1775 that empire had begun to fragment.  Distant colonies became restless and many separated politically, but not culturally from Mother England.  Although England no longer dominates the planet, her collective progeny do.  Of the G20 countries, which account for 85% of the words economy, 4 are English speaking, 7 count English as an official or national language.  English is widely spoken in nearly all 20!  Of the G7 3, 42% are English speaking.  English is an official or national language of 53 countries. English is the most widely spoken language in history and is the predominant language of science, engineering, commerce and navigation. Worldwide air and marine traffic control is conducted in English.  The 23 language EU is considering having all patents in English only.  More people may grow up speaking Mandarin, but they almost all live in China.  English language newspapers, the BBC and CNN influence opinion everywhere. Al Jazeera, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and even Pravda have an English edition.

              Basic concepts of personal freedom as embodied in The English Bill of Rights, The Declaration of Independence (1776) and US Bill of rights (1791) get spread everywhere.  They in turn have lead to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).  Internet and cable television bombard the world with English language entertainment, values, and culture such as it is. Even though the films may be made in Nigeria
            Where a language goes the culture goes.  Just as the English language is very flexible in absorbing words from other languages the Anglo-American culture absorbs and redistributes customs: Just Another American Saturday Night (Brad Paisley). Fourteen of the G20 countries are multi ethnic with rights assured in the Anglo American tradition.  Only 1 lacks a representative government (two of them do it poorly).  In America you can find traces of almost every language or culture from Athabascan to Zulu, and almost every religion from Zoroastrian to Atheist.  Almost all of them tempered with mainstream American “I don’t agree with you, but I’ll pray for you” attitude.

America, with only 5% of the world’s population, controls about 75% of its television programs. Combined with the influence of brands and products such as Hollywood, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s, jeans and Coca-Cola, American culture has permeated almost the entire world.

            China may rise in many ways, but no matter whose economy may be judged temporarily foremost the cultural values that started in England and flourished in America and other colonies have so pervaded the world that one might say “There will always be an England.”  It’s just that the capital Anglo-American culture is no longer political, or a physical location.   

            China’s ultimate limitation is one party rule, oligarchy.  Oligarchy historically has led to excesses that bring down governments.  With no opposition, national priorities get skewed and political energy is diverted from the greatest good to someone’s obsession; like the Inquisition, the Holocaust, the Crusades or Fascism.  Even in America when one party has had too much control of the government progress stalls and excesses like McCarthy hearings, the USA Patriot act or the internment of Japanese Americans get priority.  The system of checks and balances ultimately works.  In Democracies the populations have leveled without political coercion and remain gender balanced.  In China the party holds veto power over any decision or activity.  The party panicked by fear of overpopulation, implemented by force a one-child policy.  Soon China will have a superannuated population, with hundreds of millions of young males for whom there are no women available.  The party is understandably afraid of the masses and so has created a multi class society where the urbanites have rights denied the rural peasants, but not as many as party members. Position not merit determines who gets what. 

            Like a Medieval monarch the party cannot tolerate political dissent, because that would tarnish its self image of infallibility.  When dissent occurs an oligarchy inevitably responds by tightening its grip.  Oligarchies like China may seem more stable than messy democracy, but they are not immune to failure, in fact they are susceptible to abrupt revolution often leading to total chaos.  Does anyone remember the USSR, The Qing Dynasty, the Shah, Hosni Mubarak.

            China is churning out college graduates in prodigious numbers, but the best Universities in the world are not in China they are mostly in America.  Top leaders from all over the planet (even China) send their offspring to America, England or Europe, in that order, to learn.  Those people are forever imbued with western concepts of human worth, and the long term value of free expression.  While China is training repeaters, America is training world leaders the American way.
            America took the leadership from Europe in part by prolific inventing.  Our free culture attracted the best, the brightest and the dissatisfied from around the world.  Americans still secure about half the patents and half the Nobel Prizes worldwide.  Name a modern Chinese invention?  China cannot copy its way to technological leadership no matter how much they revere the clever copyist.  Like Japan, someday they will produce truly innovative products, but it hasn’t happened yet.   Even when it does China will find itself sharing center stage with free cultures like America, Australia, Canada, India, United Kingdom, and all of  the economies that are growing even if not as fast as China. 

When you are the first to reach the top of a mountain you notice that the other climbers are catching up, that does not mean you are falling behind.

War On Drugs

I now see the error of my ways.  I thought of the war on drugs as pointless and ineffective. I now see it as perfect for what it is intended to do. Look what would happen if we ended the war. 
We have built the world’s largest prison system; we have to keep it and all the people and contractors it employs busy.  What would we do with all those people warehoused in prison?  Would they join the ranks of the unemployed, or become just be petty criminals?  In addition to prisons we have courts, judges and their other employees that depend on the jobs it creates.
 Without low level drug users to plea bargain prosecutors would have to work much harder to maintain their important win/lose ratio.  Thousands of defense lawyers depend on the drug trials for easily earned income with no remorse for failure 
Police at every level from local departments to FBI have become dependent on the opportunities it provides, advancement, excitement, publicity, overtime, free drugs, bigger budgets and the assets that civil forfeiture provides: cars, boats, aircraft, electronics, weapons, and cash. 
The small arms industry depends on equipment, gun and ammunition sales to police and organized crime to stay in business and employ thousands of people.
The economies of several countries, and counties in the US, are dependent on the high prices they get for crops that produce an illegal product. What will they do when cocaine and marijuana bring the same price as oregano and tobacco?  Legal drugs would deprive independent vendors of a major source of tax free income.
All the hoopla about illegal drugs distracts people from the tobacco and alcohol industries, and the pervasive and harmful effects of their products. Constant news coverage of the War pushes news about the harmful effects of alcohol and tobacco off the front page.  Celebrity scandals about illegal drug usage are almost as interesting as sex.  Rehab is so much more newsworthy when it is paralleled with a threat of jail time. 
Pharmaceutical companies can justify the high prices of their mass produced product on the comparably high price of street drugs.  How could oxycodone compete with legal codeine or even safer, more effective marijuana?  Hundreds of chemists, now busy designing drugs (prescription and illegal) around the controlled substances act would be redundant. 
The drug test industry employs thousands.  Employers need a simple reason to reject minority applicants "You failed the drug test".  Since marijuana usage is somewhere between 50 and 80% and can be detected for months, this is almost always credible, and impossible to rebut, although meaningless. 
Political contributions from all those with vested interest in the drug war would stop, then what would all the campaign service providers do without the Mothers-milk of politics?  War of any kind provides speech material for polidioticians, “We need to work harder, we're seeing the light the end of the tunnel, can't stop now.”  Gets more votes than, “300 million Americans are quietly behaving themselves.” 
In fewer words, the war on drugs has so thoroughly pervaded our culture that we, or at least our ruling class, can't live without it any more than they could live without their own hypocrisy. It is a small part of the basis of popular politics: keep the public alarmed with an endless series of boogie-men preferably imaginary, or manufactured as necessary to the needs, of the reelection cycle.

The War on Drugs has taken combat mentality into the streets of America. We need to end the insanity by decriminalizing things that really have no business being crimes in the first place, drugs, prostitution, homosexuality, and half the vehicle code.

War on Drugs, War on Poverty, War on Terrorism, what do they have in common? A vaguely described objective. The first thing we teach in engineering is that a problem well defined is half solved. None of the above three are well defined. A war needs a clearly defined enemy that can be killed or captured. None of the War-ons can meet that criterion. These problems have to be mitigated with education and compassion. Unlike real war, total victory is not a realistic goal.


Fearmongers in Government and the Media do everything they can to keep us alarmed and justify their pet battles. So is there anything to fear? My personal fear is not drugs, it’s the War On Drugs. Government lies about drugs to justify Gestapo tactics to fight this invisible enemy called Drugs. Regularly somewhere in America a SWAT team invades a home in search of Drugs, sometimes they find a commercial quantity, sometimes not. Sometimes they have to cook the books to make what they confiscate look commercial, in order to justify the assault. Then there is Civil Forfeiture. Police attempt an arrest, they can’t find any solid evidence, but they can confiscate property based on mere suspicion, property like a car, boat, house, or aircraft. The owner of the property has to sue to get it back. It is very difficult to prove a negative, so more often than not the victim won’t even try. Then there is the inevitable violence of turf battles between criminals.

That which is illegal is by definition unregulated, therefore impure and unsafe.
The War On Drugs is as big a mistake as Prohibition, but it’s not too late to end it.

TMT Thirty Meter Telscope

A lot has been written lately about the telescope on Mauna Kea, citing what appear to be big numbers, like 18 story building, but it’s a dome not an office block. 
In perspective, Mauna Kea is about 1000 square miles, or about 620,000 acres. The entire TMT structure is less than 2 acres. So the structure will occupy 1/300,000th of the surface of the mountain. In comparison to a newspaper page, it will occupy about as much space as the period at the end of this sentence.

The TMT protesters have right peaceably to assemble and the right to freely exercise their religion. The protesters claim to be followers of an ancient religion, but wasn’t that largely abolished by their King Liholiho almost 200 years ago. The core question is “Do they have the right to impose their particular interpretation of that religion on thousands of other citizens and the world wide scientific community”. 

I have to wonder what the most recent King, Kalakaua, himself an amateur astronomer would have to say.

GMO Genetically Modified Organisms

In 1937 without a shred of evidence, but lots of racism, the USA passed the Marijuana Tax Act that for all practical purposes made marijuana illegal. For the last 76 years a stream of anecdotes, hysteria, rigged research and government lies have kept it illegal. It turns out marijuana may be the safest drug ever discovered. Government policy has deprived millions of patients of the very medication that could east their suffering.

Fast forward to 2010, one seriously flawed study and a lot of anecdotes cause governments around the world to outlaw GMO food even though all other scientific studies say they cannot distinguish a GMO anything from its naturally grown cousin.

Anything can be toxic if you are exposed to a high enough concentration for long enough.  Some things that are toxic in large amounts are essential in the right amounts, like salt, NaCl, or copper, Cu.
Believe it or not even water. (Too much can flush out your electrolytes)

It is very easy for zealots to hype their fears with exaggeration and factoids taken out of context. Look for information from unbiased sources that try to look at both sides of an issue, and don’t have a dog in the fight.

It’s OK with me to label (genetically modified organism) GMO foods, but I have to ask why the proponents do not take the other tactic. Label GMO free foods, as they do gluten free, sugar free, or fat free. Organic may imply it, but not really. Could it be that no one can guarantee that their product is totally GMO free? The big food packagers might just respond with “May contain GMO ingredients” on everything making the labeling pointless.

Minimum Wage

Increasing the minimum wage would be good for business. Here is why. If a business increases its wages by 10% it increases their total cost by much less than 5% because rent and inventory are a much bigger share of cost than labor. The employee however enjoys an increase of 100% in his discretionary disposable income. Money he is likely to spend as soon as he can, boosting all local business. This works best if all the businesses in the community do it at the same time, or a major employer like Henry Ford did in 1914. Ford doubled factory wages to $5 a day. The workers became consumers and the economy took off like a skyrocket. Minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 since 2009 and we wonder why the economy is stalled.

Money has an important property called velocity.  It refers to how often or how fast it changes hands. Give $100 million to the 1% and it sits in the bank waiting for an opportunity to do a deal. Distribute $100 million in the form of a dollar an hour and that money will change hands before the sun goes down because poor people always have unmet needs. Chances are it will change hands again the next day or two as storekeepers restock or tradesmen buy materials.  Within a month that $100 million will result in half a billion of revenue while Mitt is still lining up a deal to put more people on unemployment.