2nd Amendment Brainstorming

The latest round of gun-fueled insanity in Las Vegas has prompted, once again, calls for more rational gun control in these United States. Including by me.

But it occurred to me today that draconian shifts — which is what those of us appalled by the slaughter of little kids and concert goers keep pushing for — are, based on empirical evidence, probably unachievable.

Put another way, if the murder of screaming, terrified kindergartners and primary school students isn’t going to motivate us to take action, it’s likely nothing will. At least for that kind of contemplated action.

But that’s not the total universe of possible actions. In fact, when you remember “politics is the art of the possible”, maybe we can aim lower, and, if not eliminate this insanity, at least put a leash on it.

So here’s an idea. What if we amended the 2nd Amendment from this:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

To something like this:

A well regulated Militia being helpful to the security of a free State, the right of individuals of sound mind to keep and bear a modest number of Arms for personal use and protection, subject to reasonable regulation to maintain public safety, shall not be infringed.

This wouldn’t prevent gun ownership, for whatever reason, provided you can demonstrate you’re not a maniac, or nuts, or a risk to the rest of us.

It would clarify that this is a personal right, not associated with being part of a militia…which also opens the door to regulating groups of individuals organizing themselves with firearms.

And it explicitly acknowledges that this right of ownership, which exists, in part, to help maintain public safety (i.e., as a free State), must be balanced against the negative consequences that indiscriminate firearm ownership poses to public safety (i.e., the carnage we keep witnessing, and which we’d all like to reduce or eliminate).

Not being a Constitutional scholar, or lawyer, I won’t claim this as the last word. But I’m interested in hearing people’s reactions to it, and thoughts on how to improve it or redraft it.

The Old Truths Must Be Preserved!

My brother Art & my sister-in-law Diane recently got back from a trip to western Germany, where, among other things, they were digging into the Olbert family tree (Diane’s been doing a lot of research into family history over the last few years).

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Baboon Butts

Years ago I read about an interesting aspect of baboon social behavior.

The males have a variety of rituals they go through when they are trying to assert dominance…but if one male baboon moons another, it always ends up in a teeth-and-claws fight.

Now, I’m not sure of the provenance of this information, so it may be inaccurate (I tried searching online, but while I turned up a lot of interesting information about baboon butts, I didn’t find a reference to this particular assertion).

But the author who made this observation in a novel was making a point that goes beyond our hairy primate cousins: sometimes you have to use training, intelligence and adaptability to overcome one’s built-in wiring. You can’t always operate on instinct. Which should be obvious…but often isn’t.

This all came back to me as I watched what’s developing between the US and North Korea. Here’s hoping the Glorious Leaders involved in this pas-de-deux think about the Lesson of the Baboon’s Butt.

But I’m not sanguine about their doing so. Because I have my doubts about their collective training, intelligence and adaptability.


One of the odder things about getting older is the unexpected — and unanticipated — systems failures you get to experience along the way.

For the past few years I’ve been pretty diligent about going to the gym, at least four times a week and often every day except Sunday. That’s kept me in reasonably good shape, and, in fact, made it easier to do stupid things, like weeding the garden from a stooped position. In fact, I didn’t even think about what I was risking by doing that. At least up until something would give out in my back.

Even with being a slow learner about such things, I eventually realized it’d be better to go back to the “old ways” and sit on the ground while weeding. Problem solved!

So you can imagine my consternation yesterday when, while sitting on the ground weeding, I pulled some grass out and did something so awful to my lower back that even today I’m having trouble with walking, let alone anything more strenuous. And it wasn’t even a deeply-rooted clump of grass!

Sheesh. Where’s the warranty on this thing??? 🙂

RIP, Jerry Pournelle

I just read that Jerry Pournelle, one of my favorite sci-fi authors, passed away. Unlike many of his compatriots, he wasn’t an engineer or scientist. Instead, his background was in political science and psychology, coupled to a deep knowledge of history. If his libertarianism got the better of him in his old age he remained a great storyteller.

While he will probably be known for the books he co-authored with Larry Niven — among them Inferno, about a sci-fi author dealing with coming back to life in Dante’s Hell, The Mote in God’s Eye, about first contact with aliens, and Footfall, about an alien invasion of Earth — I’ll always remember him for the stories set in a world which could’ve evolved out of the 1970s.

It was one where the US and the USSR came to realize the only thing they feared more than either of them beating the other was some third power rising up to replace them. Thus was born the CoDominium, a world empire maintained by two nations who hated and feared each other. 

It eventually failed, as all human institutions fail. But in preserving an uneasy peace it bought time for a number of interstellar colonies to be founded, so that when resurgent nationalism in the US and the USSR brought about a long-delayed global thermonuclear holocaust, the species had a shot at surviving.

The price of maintaining that peace was high. From a dialog between a young Marine who’s just seen part of that price tag and his more experienced superior:

“You asked what good we do. We buy time. Back on Earth they’re ready to start a war that won’t end until billions are dead. The Fleet’s the only thing preventing that. The only thing, Hal. Be as cynical about the CoDominium as you like. Be contemptuous of Grand Senator Bronson and his friends — yes, and most of his enemies, too, damn it. But remember that the Fleet keeps the peace, and as long as we do, Earth still lives. If the price of that is getting our hands dirty out here on the frontiers, then it’s a price we have to pay. And while we’re paying it, just once in a while we do something right. I think we did that here.”

Even if you strip out the admittedly romantic view of the military present in that speech, I think something important remains: sometimes the best you can do is just hold on, and take whatever minor victories come your way. Because if you hold on, there will be a tomorrow. And who knows? Maybe it’ll be better.



A Great Book About Nothing

I just finished reading A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing, by Lawrence Krauss. It’s a grand tour de force that attempts to explain why there’s a universe with a bunch of stuff in it rather than nothing.

Interestingly, it turns out our latest understanding of physics and cosmology allows an attempt at answering the question. Krauss makes a cogent argument for why a universe filled with stuff — that could give rise to things like us — is inevitable, based solely on physics. Because a true state of nothing is inherently unstable. No creator need apply :).

What makes the book enjoyable are two things: Krauss’ irreverent sense of humor (he seems to enjoy poking fun at even himself and his earlier, incorrect perspectives) and the way he lucidly explains how the theoretical understanding on which he bases his argument is derived from, and validated by, empirical data.

As an added bonus, there’s not one piece of mathematical symbolism in the entire book. Although he does occasionally blyihely traipse through written explanations which require a certain amount of mental algebra to keep straight. 

If you’re looking for some mind-bending entertainment incorporating a lot of color and humor, check it out.

Great American Eclipse

I’m a big believer in Murphy’s Law: if anything can wrong, it will. But sometimes the gods take pity on us mere mortals, and let things work out for the best :). That happened for me with the Great American Eclipse.

I’ve wanted to see a total solar eclipse ever since I saw my first partial solar eclipse as a child. One of the very first things I did, once there was an internet and websites, was to check out the calendar of upcoming total eclipses. Years ago I zoned in on the 2024 eclipse that will go up the Mississippi River Valley…and completely ignored the August, 2017 one that spanned the continental United States.

So I was quite surprised to read, just last December, about this August’s eclipse. And, as a result of procrastination, I didn’t even start to look for a place to watch it until a few months ago. By which time all the easily accessible hotel sites were booked.

Only…we spend a week at the Angora Lake Resort, near Lake Tahoe, every August. This year, our week just happened to end the day before the eclipse. And it turns out — if you’re willing to drive almost ten hours north of Tahoe — there was a section of the path of totality that didn’t have any significant cities nearby, and wasn’t a logical destination for anyone coming from any major metropolitan area. Plus, August there is generally pretty dry.

So on Sunday Barbara, Arthur & I — sadly, Caroline had to go back to work — drove five hours north of Tahoe to Alturas, California.

After a great meal in a packed local Mexican restaurant we went to bed and got up at 4:00 AM to drive for another four and a half hours to get to the path of totality in time. Hoping that we wouldn’t run into so much traffic that the two lane US 395 would get tied up. Fortunately, while there were a number of people going the same way, the traffic never got too bad.

We checked out a number of viewing sites once we got into the zone of totality, but none really grabbed us. But about two miles south of John Day — the Oregon town we were targeting on the eclipse’s center line — Barbara shouted “Wait, look! There’s an empty parking lot right next to a small public park! And it’s next to a cafe!” 

Which is how we came to watch the eclipse in Canyon City, Oregon. After a nice breakfast and a couple of cups of badly-needed coffee.

I’ve seen a number of partial solar eclipses, so I thought I knew what to expect from a total eclipse.

Boy, was I wrong!

First off, it gets cold. Not so much that you’re shivering, but definitely enough that I kept thinking about going back to the car for my sweatshirt.

Then, as coverage passes 80 percent, it feels like someone is sneakily turning down the lights. Because your eyes keep adjusting, you keep doing double-takes every 30 seconds or so (1st picture was taken at 10:04 AM, 2nd picture at 10:20 AM).

At some point you notice the street lights have turned on. In mid-morning. On a perfectly clear day.

Finally, as the last tiny fragment of the solar disk vanishes, the sky plunges to a very dark gray, the stars come back out, and the solar corona leaps into view.

The change is so sudden, and so complete, that I sat there, dumbfounded, staring at what looked like a black hole in the sky where the sun used to be. You can easily appreciate how eclipses used to freak out our ignorant ancestors!

Definitely worth seeing, at least once in your life.

Benedict Arnold and the American Revolution

Another great book for your reading pleasure and edification… 🙂 This one’s about how Benedict Arnold transitioned from being a hero of the Revolution to its almost-successful betrayer, and thereby earned the dubious distinction of having his name become a synonym for traitor in American English.

That story is worth the read in its own right. But along the way Philbrick colors in a lot of Revolutionary history that I was unaware of, and which explains a bunch of things. For example, why didn’t the American Revolution devolve the way the French Revolution did a few years later, with Committees of Public Safety, the Terror and the rise of Napoleon? Answer…it started down that path (gulp), with witch hunts dragging people who didn’t express enough support for the Cause out of their homes. In fact, Philbrick asserts that part of the reason it didn’t go further was because of Benedict Arnold turning traitor, which gave enough people pause to remember Franklin’s observation “we must all hang together, or we shall all surely hang separately”.

I also enjoyed reading about how Washington repeatedly put the Revolution in danger by trying to foment “one glorious battle” to defeat the British…failing miserably every time he tried. Which eventually forced him to overcome his naturally aggressive instincts (he was an upper-crust, self-made Virginian, after all) and switch to a war of attrition, and let the nascent United States hang on long enough for the French to make it not worth England’s while to keep the colonies (England made far, far more money off of its Caribbean possessions, which France’s entry into the conflict put immediately at risk, than it did off of the 13 colonies combined).

Which is not to denigrate Washington. Real character, and genius, IMHO, is not in having amazing gifts (or at least not just having amazing gifts), but learning how to surmount the limitations we are each born with, whatever those may be. That’s what made Washington the guy we named our national capital after.

Definitely worth picking up.

East Meets West

I just finished reading a pair of wonderful books, 1491 and 1493, both by Charles Mann. The first, 1491, is an in-depth survey of the history and civilizations of the Western Hemisphere prior to the arrival of the Europeans, and what happened to the folks who had been living here after that event. I found it riveting, and chock full of things that I either had no knowledge of whatsoever, or whose significance I hadn’t fully appreciated earlier.

For example, the “virgin forest” described by early colonial settlers appears to have been the result of intensive farming by the native Americans. As also appears to be the case with the Amazon rainforest. The reason neither was appreciated by the Europeans was because there was little or not tradition of “farming” trees in Europe, and diseases to which the original inhabitants had little resistance spread in advance of the wave of colonization, killing off as much as 95% or 96% of the inhabitants. I cannot imagine what the impact of that extinction level event was to the previously-thriving cultures, which, like the Europeans, had no understanding of how bacteria and viruses cause disease, let alone how to combat them.

1493 focuses on the global paroxysms that resulted from that first contact, as Western Hemisphere crops — and pests — flooded the world, along with Inka silver destabilizing both European and Asian societies. 

Definitely worth reading.

Std Dev X * Std Dev P >= h / 2

Today, in Gregory Benford’s book The Berlin Project, I came across the first quantum mechanical dirty joke I’ve ever seen (it’s no doubt an oldie, but, hey, I never actually studied quantum mechanics).

It’s attributed to Enrico Fermi:

Poor Werner Heisenberg! When he finds the right position, he loses his momentum. And when he has the energy, he doesn’t have the time.

I find it a grand commentary on the human condition that one of the most profound and subtle products of the human mind — quantum mechanics — can be the basis of dirty jokes :).