Here Comes Biden

August 25th, 2015


It's been reasonable to suspect he'll run for the Presidency, and that now appears to be confirmed.  He's run twice before.  This time, he's been Vice President for 8 years.

If he does, Clinton is done.  Biden doesn't have any major scandals or suspicion to overcome. He's been in politics for nearly four decades, and everybody knows him.  He's got the lock on New England and he'll sweep the labor unions.  He's safe, charismatic, and connected.  He doesn't even really have to campaign for it.

Clinton will fall by the wayside.  Bernie Sanders isn't going to happen.  The party is going to nominate Biden in the primaries.

We can make all the jokes we want about Biden's gaffes.  The fact is, this guy gets stuff done on gun control.  He wrote the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which we know as the "assault weapons ban."  Though the Act had a whole slew of provisions, Biden made it clear that it was about "guns, guns, guns."  He broke the four-year Republican filibuster against it and managed the compromises leading to its passage.

After Sandy Hook, it was Biden the administration chose to take point on gun initiatives.  There's a reason for that.  We underestimate this guy at our peril.

So, what's to be done?  Here's the answer folks won't like.

Vote Republican.  No matter who it is.  Don't ☠☠☠☠ing vote for Rand Paul and prattle about conscience.  This is politics.  Don't tell me you're not going to vote as a form of "protest."  Suck it up and realize that this is really going to be about the lesser of two evils.

While we're at it, pay attention to your Senators and Representatives.  The balance in the legislature tends to change in a President's first midterm.  If Biden wins, he could pull them to his side in 2018.  If a Republican wins, he could lose the Senate at that point.

Unless the Republicans run a real winner (ehh…), the next four years could be really tough for gun rights.

Oregon: Universal Background Checks and Datamining

August 8th, 2015


Oregon recently passed a bill to mandate so-called universal background checks on private transfers of firearms.  One of the arguments we've made against the concept is that it will result in the creation of a gun registry.

This isn't just a "slippery slope" argument.  The only way to enforce background checks on private transfers will be to know who had the guns before they were transferred.  That entails a registration.  Supporters of this legislation claim we're full of hot air.

Well, it looks like that's exactly what's happening in Oregon.  Background checks are done on the state level there, and their system has been amended to require information on the transferor as well as the recipient.

The federal NICS system must purge all information on a check within 24 hours of a resolution.  It must be emphasized that this is not the case in Oregon.  According to the bill itself:

The department may retain a record of the information obtained during a request for a criminal background check under this section for the period of time provided in ORS 166.412 (7).

According to section (7)(a), that period is five years.

Furthermore, the seller is required to keep a copy of the state firearms transfer record for an unspecified period. Federal law requires dealers to retain their forms for a minimum of 20 years, and there are strict rules about the custody and release of those forms.  I see no such safeguards under Oregon's law.

What's the concern?  If I buy a gun in a private sale in Oregon, I'm filling out a form with enough information to make identity theft a trivial task, and I'm leaving it in the hands of someone who could easily lose or sell it.

So, yes–this is registration on the state level, and there's a very real problem with the way the paperwork is handled.

Lamenting the Inevitable

July 24th, 2015


I suppose the rifle open-carry guys needed something to do.  They haven't been in the news the last few months, so they decided to strut around recruiting offices in the wake of the Chattanooga shooting.

In Lancaster, Ohio, a guy named Christopher Reed had a negligent discharge in the parking lot.  Apparently, someone asked to see his rifle and he fired it while he was trying to clear it.

He has been charged with discharging a firearm within the city limits.  As it turns out, this isn't his first rodeo.  He was convicted and fined $50 for a similar incident in 2013.

Way to go, Reed.  You're on a roll.

“I’m nobody special,” Reed said in a telephone interview on Thursday.  “I’m just a guy doing my job because my own government wouldn’t do it.”

He downplayed what happened.  “It is what it is,” he said. “Nobody got hurt.”

Oh, OK.  No biggie, right?  Wrong.  His cavalier attitude is going to get someone hurt or killed.

Needless to say, the management of the shopping center has banned people from carrying rifles there.

In retrospect, I'm relieved we didn't have an incident like this during the whole Starbucks/Chipotle orgy last year.  Seriously, guys…you're not protecting anything.  You're only making the rest of us look bad.  Knock it off.

(Bonus content: what federal offenses is this guy openly advertising?)

SETI Gets Real Funding

July 21st, 2015


Through most of our history, we've assumed we occupy a privileged and unique place in the universe.  In the 16th century, Copernicus paved the way for the understanding that we orbit but one star among many.  Over the last two centuries, we've found that we're a small part of one galaxy, and that ours is but one galaxy among billions.  If we look at those numbers, it seems ridiculous to assume ours is the only planet in that whole universe to host intelligent life.

Until the 1990's, the main counterargument was that planetary formation appeared to be limited to our sun.  That changed in 1995, when radio astronomers were able to infer several extrasolar planets.  The Kepler observatory was launched in 2009, and we've now verified the existence of nearly 2,000 exoplanets in more than 1,200 solar systems.

In 1960, Frank Drake decided to turn a radio telescope to the sky and listen for signals from possible alien civilizations.  The experiment was underfunded and limited in scope.  NASA took interest, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) was funded in 1971.  It went through several iterations before funding was cut in 1992, with politicians calling it a "Martian chase" and a waste of money.

The Luddite claim was, "we haven't heard anything yet, so we must be alone."  Light (and therefore, radio) travels at a finite velocity.  We've only scanned a small part of a universe that's 13.7 billion years old and 46 billion light-years across.  It's a bit like pronouncing evolution a sham after observing only one species for one generation.

For the last two decades, the SETI project has worked on a reduced scale and with fewer resources.  It is currently funded by donations.  Much of the data analysis is done through distributed computing via the SETI@home program.

Things took a turn for the hopeful this week, when Russian investor Yuri Milner announced he'd be donating $100 million to the project over the next decade.  This gives SETI the resources to cover the sky in a breadth and depth they've never been able to manage.

Does this guarantee we'll hear something?  No.  Does it have monetary value?  No.  But we really need to stop thinking in those terms.  We live in an age that's stopped valuing the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.  It's nice to know some people won't accept that mentality.

Bloom County Is Back

July 19th, 2015


Bloom County was a comic strip that ran in newspapers through most of the 1980's.  If you don't know what those things are, I pity you.

It was both a product of the times and a commentary on them.  Our culture was refracted through the lens of a vomiting Garfield parody, an incompetent scoundrel of a lawyer, a boy whose anxieties literally lived in his closet (the purple snorkelwacker!), and a neurotic penguin (actually, puffin) named Opus.

It touched on politics, but it wasn't an overt political cartoon.  What's more, it had a huge heart and endearing characters.  It was a tremendous part of my childhood.

(I still have the promotional Billy and the Boingers record somewhere.)

Berkeley Breathed discontinued the strip in 1989.  There would be two spinoffs, Opus and Outland.  Both ran limited runs.  In 2008, he retired from the business.

Word comes this week that he's bringing the strip back.  Apparently, it has been 25 years:

Bloom County

There's an interview with Breathed here explaining his motivation for bringing the series back.  I still have my theory that he just wants to remind us that Bill the Cat and Miley Cyrus are actually two different people.

I've gone back to reread the old strips, and many are still relevant today.  Apparently, Donald Trump jokes never get old.

Pluto and Beyond

July 15th, 2015


The Voyager probes were a huge part on my childhood.  I was 7 years old when they gave us the best images of Jupiter and its moons we'd ever seen.  The following year, we received unprecedented data on Saturn.

Uranus and Neptune remained somewhat mysterious.  In the ground-based telescopes of the time, they were just big, white dots.  Voyager 2 reached Uranus when I was 14, and it revealed a more colorful, active, and strange world than we'd imagined.  Neptune was predicted to be remote, cold, and serene.  My senior year of high school, Voyager proved that expectation wrong.  Neptune is warmer than we though it would be, and it has storm systems with winds faster than the speed of sound.  Its moon Triton is large enough to suggest it had been captured from somewhere else, and it has geysers of liquid nitrogen.

In short, the more we knew, the stranger things became.

That left Pluto.  An original flight plan for Voyager 1 was to take it past Saturn to the little wanderer, but when we discovered Titan's atmosphere, that made it a more pressing (and practical) target.  Pluto was out of the picture.

To rub salt in the wound, the IAU decided to demote Pluto in 2006.  It was no longer a proper part of the Solar System.  It was reclassified as a "dwarf planet," now just one of the little planetisimals in the Kuiper Belt.  What a rip.

Whatever its status in the nomenclature, Pluto's still important.  Its composition gives us a glimpse into the earliest composition of the solar system.

In 2006, NASA launched the New Horizons probe.  Its mission is to get better pictures of the planet than Hubble can take, analyze its properties, then continue on to study other bodies in the Kuiper Belt.  So far, it's been a resounding success.

Here's what we've learned in just the last few days:

  • Pluto has a temperature of -387°F
  • its north pole has a methane and nitrogen ice cap
  • it has a tenuous nitrogen atmosphere, which appears to be escaping into space
  • its geographical features are given appropriate names, such as Balrog and Cthulhu
  • its moon Charon has extensive geological formations, including a crevice deeper than the Grand Canyon
  • Pluto is a rock with a bunch of ice, while Charon appears to be an even mix of rock and ammonia/water ice
  • because of their relative size, Charon doesn't exactly revolve around Pluto.  The two bodies actually orbit a central point between them
  • Pluto's other four (!) moons may have more chaotic and unstable orbits than we thought
  • New Horizons is programmed in raw assembly language

The probe still has plenty more science to do.  Its downlink is sending data back to the Goldstone Deep Space Network at a trickle of 2,000 bits/second.  At that rate, it's going to months, to send everything back.

There's a fun talk between Neil deGrasse Tyson and Stephen Colbert here, in which Tyson observes that Pluto has gone from the "tiniest planet" to the "king of the Kuiper belt."  They even have Tang, although (like me) they refuse to drink the powdery swill.

The Brady Check Loophole Isn't

July 13th, 2015


Let's see if we can get this straight.  A loophole is defined as, "an error in the way a law, rule, or contract is written that makes it possible for some people to legally avoid obeying it."  If somebody writes a law with a specific exemption, that exemption doesn't qualify as a loophole.

The Brady Act regulates background checks on retail sales of firearms. Sarah Brady helped author and promote the law. She knows full well what's in it.*

The Charleston shooter purchased a firearm at retail.  He lied on the form by failing to disclose he was an unlawful user of drugs.  Since the FBI dropped the ball when they should have entered his indictment into the NICS system, his purchase was not denied.

It was delayed, but the gun was released after three business days.  That's protocol.  Why?  Without it, a delay could be made indefinite.  3 business days is plenty of time for the folks at the Clarksburg office to check someone against the disqualified persons database.

The Brady Campaign consented to that 3-day limit when they pushed their bill through committee.  By crying loophole now, they are quite simply lying.

* 18 USC § 922(t)(1)(B)(ii)

The Confederate Flag Thing

June 26th, 2015


Charleston can a rough town.  They've got a dark history when it comes to race relations.

It's sad that it took the murder of nine people at the hands of a neo-Nazi to get the world to notice that.  It's even sadder that people think taking a stupid flag down will change anything.

Yes, I get it.  The Confederate flag isn't strictly about slavery.  But like it or not, that flag is unavoidably tied to perceptions of dehumanization, oppression, and segregation.

Consider the svastika.  Hitler didn't invent it.  He appropriated it for his uses, and it will forever be tainted by his association.  There's no reclaiming it.  Even if I see it as a Jainist symbol for opportunity, there's no way my Jewish or Polish friends want to see it.

So…yes, it's time to consider taking it down from government offices.  It's a symbol of a divisive and awful time in our history.

But to call the act positive political or social change is a lie.

Everybody's going to throw a fit and draw lines in the sand.  Conservatives will harp that the flag is a symbol of history and heritage.  They're correct, to some extent. But they're also being somewhat tone-deaf.

It doesn't matter.  Liberals will wrap themselves in the garb of social reformers and get drunk on their own imagined virtue.  There may even be singing.  Anyone who disagrees with them will be labeled racists.  It's that one little cheap and reprehensible ad hominem that will shut down any argument.

My biggest problem?  All those pompous, self-satisfied hypocrites will never do anything about the real problems in places like Charleston.  As soon as the flag comes down, they're going to find another issue to write Facebook posts and petitions about.  The issues of economic disparity and unequal opportunities will be yesterday's news next week.

Meanwhile, the same wheel of poverty and discrimination will continue to grind the people who actually live there.  But hey, we took a flag down, so we don't have to think about it anymore.

Victory in Puerto Rico

June 20th, 2015


This one came in under the radar. An organization called Ladies of the 2nd Amendment in Puerto Rico brought a class-action suit challenging the Commonwealth's permitting system.  They won.

In the Court of Salinas, Judge Lugo Anibal Irizarry ruled that Articles 2.01, 2.02, 2.04, 2.05 and 2.06 of the Arms Act failed constitutional scrutiny.  Most notably, he criticized the voucher system, stating "no fundamental right is taxable."  While I doubt we can expect this decision to be quoted in continental cases, it's nice to see an acknowledgement of that.

Residents may now carry firearms without needing to pursue a permit of any sort.  Additionally, there is no longer a licensing requirement for purchasing guns.

The last time I'd seen movement on the issue down there was 2011, in which they won two significant victories.  There isn't a translation of the decision yet, but I've got feelers out.  I'll post it as soon as it's in my hands.

(If anyone would like to translate, the relevant documents are here and here.)

H.R. 2058

May 14th, 2015


The FDA is soon expected to extend its authority to all tobacco products. They consider electronic cigarettes and vaping products to fall into that category, so we could be looking at serious trouble for manufacturers.

Currently, products introduced prior to February of 2007 are grandfathered in under the doctrine of substantial equivalence.  Anything introduced later would have to go through an expensive and difficult approval process.  The problem is, the vast majority of vaping products were introduced after that date.

Rep. Tom Cole has introduced a bill that would move the "substantial equivalence" date for FDA deeming from 2007 to 2015, with a 21-month extension period. That means all vapor products currently on the market would be grandfathered in, as would any introduced in the following 2 years.

It's not ideal by any reckoning.  I'd rather the FDA didn't classify these products as tobacco, but that looks inevitable.

CASAA is supporting it, and you can contact your representative through Popvox.


May 9th, 2015


The sunset, seen from the Gale Crater on Mars.

Sunset. On. Mars.

New Star Wars Trailer

April 16th, 2015


So, we have an actual trailer for the Force Awakens.  It looks like JJ Abrams has the feel of the original trilogy figured out.

I'm not even going to warn you that there are spoilers ahead.  Well, I guess I just did.  With my obligation thus fulfilled, let's get to it.


That's a Star Destroyer crashed in the desert, with a dead X-Wing in the foreground.  Notice the rounded turbines:  that's an old-school model, not one of the new ones.  The battle must have taken place during the original trilogy.


Kylo Ren, the new bad guy.  The mask reminds me of Darth Revan, from the one good Star Wars video game.  His lightsaber looks downright dangerous.


I think that's Leia receiving the lightsaber.  Notice the resemblance to Luke Skywalker's first lightsaber, which he lost in the Empire Strikes Back.  The person handing it over appears to be an alien.

Who ends up with it?  Finn.  Apparently, the stormtrooper gig wasn't working out too well for him.  I expected Daisy Ridley's character to be the one, since she's supposed to be Han and Leia's daughter.


Speaking of Luke, I think that's him.  Who else has a mechanical right hand and hangs out with R2D2?


New stormtroopers.  The Nazi parallels in this scene are hard to miss.  The Empire is gone, and they appear to be serving something called the First Order (the good guys are apparently the Resistance).


Check out this dapper guy.  It looks like they've switched to a more practical rifle than the old converted Sterlings.


The Millennium Falcon being chased by a couple of TIE fighters.  They're actually flying into the fuselage of the dead Star Destroyer.  In case there's any doubt about the pilots, the final shot clears it up.


Shut up.  I've just got something in my eye.  From chopping onions.  Also, allergies.

Ah, screw it.  "Chewie, we're home" is all I needed to hear.

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