Sense and Sensibility and the American Gun Culture

Sense and Sensibility.

Jane Austen put these two words together for a specific reason.

Sense: meaning, understanding, prudence, sound judgement.

Sensibility: sensitivity, awareness, empathy.

She didn’t have to worry about guns the way we do, the way America does today. But if she had I think she likely might have said something worth our while to contemplate. Sense. Sensibility.

We have yet another senseless shooting, this time too close to my home in Flagstaff. At Northern Arizona University, where a close family member teaches, a student retrieved a gun from his car and shot four students, murdering one. (One is still in the ICU.) Over a simple fist fight, hurt feelings, wounded pride — a child lies dead and many lives destroyed.

A spat quickly broke out online over whether or not to call this one (there are so very many) a “mass murder.” The NAU police reassured the public, saying that this was not like another mass shooting that had just happened at a college in Oregon. Others were not buying it. Perhaps because of the shock and cognitive dissonance that comes with a shooting that is too close, too personal, they are missing the point.

A common (sadly — shamefully — this is all too common) behavior can stem from a myriad of complex generators, complicated motivations, because human psychology is, in the now, a complex miasma of innate character, upbringing, experience, and happenstance — nature and nurture and randomness. Yet, dead people on the ground are dead people on the ground: mass shooting, mass murder.

What is the point?

Ask yourself: what is the most common denominator in each one of these mass shootings, this endless succession of mass murders, this underbelly of America’s prolonged spiral to suicide? The answer is readily apparent to anyone not blinkered by stubborn ignorance or mindless fear: the uniquely sick American obsession with weaponry, in concert with the rigidly immoral, ignorant, selfish, counterfactual, antifactual, infantile, long-bankrupt ideology of the right wing, one consequence of which — just one of innumerable repercussions from a depraved world view — is a near-complete absence of meaningful gun regulation.

To choose slaughter (intended or not) over minor inconvenience to the sensible — which is really what we are talking about with effective regulation of firearms — is not an act that comes from moral or ethical values; it is sick and depraved.

You may be thinking, “but this does not apply to me.” Do you choose to stand by and do nothing? Are you silent? Then you, too, have opted for preserving our awful status quo, for senseless bloodshed, shattered bodies, ruined lives, devastated families. Inaction is a choice.

Silence is a choice.

To choose instead reason, and sense, in light of overwhelming evidence; to proactively choose responsibility to the people around you, and empathy for those not in your shoes, and good governance in public policy — these come from ethical, moral values. Reasonable values. Wouldn’t this be better than continuing to tacitly approve senseless carnage?

That is the point.

It is time we start acting like adults, you and I — own up to our responsibility. It is up to you, and me, and you and you and you. The nature of this monster, this beast that we have allowed other monsters to create and nurture while you and I were distracted, is that none of us gets to opt out; you cannot not play.

So which do you choose? Continuance of our national blood bath? Or sense and sensibility?

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Nutballs and the Mode

Atheist Republic's Kaaba: Love Wins
A stylized Kaaba (click to embiggen).

Recently, Atheist Republic (AR) posted this image (⇒) in response to the Supreme Court’s decision (pdf) that legalizes marriage in the U.S. It is a Photoshopped image of the Kaaba in Mecca. The reaction from noisome elements of the Muslim community has been, predictably, swift, violent, and largely incoherent (cf. the Facebook post or AR’s original Twitter post for a sampling). AR’s post is fine; I think it is timely, in good taste, and makes a good point. However, I think AR made a mistake.

AR responded to the growing shit storm in a subsequent post on their web site (WARNING: one image, about ¾ of the way into the post, is deeply disturbing), electing to show a number of select examples of the insults and threats they’ve received to make a point:

Please keep in mind that these aren’t members of ISIS or Al-Qaeda making these statements, but rather are your everyday average Muslim.

Later:

…these aren’t extremists or jihadists, they’re just average Muslims. These are the ones who call themselves “moderate”.

And, if you are feeling particularly thick-headed:

To make it clear that these are supposed “moderate” Muslims, I’d like to point out that we know for a fact that one of these men is a US citizen. This particular commenter has specifically asked for information from one of our admins that he suspects lives in his area, and threatened said admin with physical violence against this admin and their family.

A skewed distribution (click to embiggen). Where do you think IPLs reside?

One thought kept nagging me as I read AR’s response: AR furnishes no valid evidence or argument to support the all-too-common claim that these select nutballs are “your everyday average Muslim” (as opposed to the crazies that carry out terrorist attacks in the name of their religion or, more accurately, their ignorant, deranged ideology). It seems likely to me that the cretinous whackjobs sprinkling AR’s posts with turds are neither average nor representative of Muslims in general. These whackjobs are—like our own noisome right-wing nutballs—an abnormally incoherent, ignorant, and vocal minority. I’ve no doubt average Muslims are as willingly delusion-controlled as our average Christians here in the U.S., but I have to question that the infantile profane loudmouths of either organized delusion system lie anywhere near the peaks (i.e., the modes) of their respective population distributions.

The excerpts above—and, indeed, AR’s entire argument—illustrate several common logical fallacies. In the first two excerpts, the author is arguing by assertion. This is a counterproductive rhetorical tactic. It raises people’s hackles, to your disadvantage.

The third excerpt is somewhat more interesting. First, it cherry-picks an anecdotal example. (The example itself also seems hardly relevant—a red herring.) This is a surprising mistake, since cherry-picking is perhaps the most common logical fallacy for which rationalists such as AR criticize religionists and the right-wing.

In this excerpt the author also equates being a U.S. citizen with being “moderate”, with no supporting argument or evidence. As recent events in the U.S. have shown repeatedly, there is nothing moderate about the beliefs of U.S. terrorists, Muslim or not. This is  a false equivalence, perhaps the second most common logical fallacy employed by the right (or maybe the third, behind strawman argument).

This is not an apology for “average” adherents to horrifically damaging organized delusion systems. From all that I’ve seen, Western religions are among the most senseless and destructive invented concepts in the history of humankind. But accuracy, precision, and validity in our claims and arguments, whatever the context, matter.

We rationalists are—or should be—better than this.

 


Seriously, you do not need to see this image—it cannot be unseen.

 Speaking of crazies, is there much, if any, difference between a Muslim terrorist who slaughters innocents in a medical treatment building and, say, a Christian terrorist who slaughters innocents in an African American church? Or between that (or any other) Muslim terrorist and a Christian terrorist who shoots dead a medical doctor during church services?

The Printer and I: A Tale of Spinning Fans, Diseased Hearts, and the Tragedy that is Life

psprinter-overview
[Click to embiggen.]

This (see photo) is how I spent my afternoon and evening, today. I have a conference to attend next week and must present a poster paper on some recent research results. Because I know by now that both Old Man Murphy and Loki the Trickster always lie in wait, snickering — I hear you, you bastards — I go to check the large-format printer. It is a Beast, and it turns electrons into poster papers. I flip the power switch, and it makes a horrible noise, won’t boot up, freezes, then whines plaintively, “call HP … call HP … please, won’t you call HP ….” Not very encouraging. Screw you, Loki — thou art a Puck.

As with all things computer that misbehave, I keep trying the same thing over and over, hoping for a different result, though I know full well that no different result will … um … result. Indeed, no dice. Run around the building and check with everybody: nobody knows what’s wrong or what happened. Yeah, sure.

What to do? Go find some screwdrivers, of course. The horrible noise emanates from somewhere around the power supply. Sort of. It’s buried in the guts of the Beast, so it’s hard to tell from the outside. It is a place to start, anyway. I roll up the sleeves of my robe, pick up a Holy Implement of Torx, and get to work …

Several hours later, I finally have figured out, cuss word by cuss word (proper ordering is important), how to get past all the barriers cleverly designed by Evil HP Engineers to make rational disassembly near-impossible. (Ever disassemble a laptop computer, down to the bare metal? This is harder, I kid you not.) Sixty screws later (I count them, twice), I get to the power supply fan. The heart of the Beast is diseased, despoiled. It is not turning quite right, and the motor shaft wiggles a little. It is not supposed to wiggle. Even a little. Culprit apprehended at last? Perhaps. Fortunately, it’s just a cheap $8 cooling fan you can pick up at any Radio Shack.

But Radio Shack does not exist anymore. When did that happen?

We have come round to this place again: what to do? Rummage around in the junk spare parts room, of course. It is a glorious room, beloved of tinkerers on staff. Bingo: six salvaged computer power supplies, just lying there on a shelf, calling to me. No, seven! But I am wise to their siren song. One after another, a closer look reveals frightening ugliness — mostly in the form of caked-on dust and dirt and grime. Their hearts spin, but they are Unclean and Decrepit. Sigh … last one: yay, Cleanliness! The Blessed One, Savior of the Beast, is found.

It believes it has been bestowed a new chance at life. I wish I could be happy for it. Little does it know its fate. Surely it deserves to be told of its pending doom? Yet that would crush its new-found hopes. You are perverse and cruel, you Fates! I do not have the heart to tell it.

True to my calling as Lord High Tinkerer, I pick up the Holy Implement of Torx and sacrifice the Blessed One upon the Ancient Altar of Gorthung (a fifty-year-old, government-issue desk, solid and heavy as a tank, with an ice-cold slate top). I flay its body and cut out its heart. I know no mercy.

Fan in bloody hand (a blood blister acquired some time during printer pieces-parts separation has popped), I trundle down the hill to the electronics lab. There, a colleague — the Wizard of Wire, Lord of Circuit — performs minor surgery. Lo, and behold! Upon application of the Lightning of Zoltar (a 12-volt power supply), the heart of the Blessed One lives again, spinning round and round in a most pleasing whir. Back up the hill.

That dreaded niggle squatting in the back of my mind finds a crack and blossoms. It dawns on me: now I have to put it all back together. Sixty screws. I realize I am tired. I’ll never remember where they all go. Come back tomorrow with freshly caffeinated veins? Pffft. Such is for wusses, unbecoming of a Tinkerer. So, since the operation of my memory — even on a good day — resembles most closely that of a sieve, I have little choice but to re-figure out how to take apart the Beast but in reverse. I am reminded of Ginger Rogers. I miss Ann Richards and her rapier wit. Today is not a good day.

Another hour passes by. I wave hi. We do that a lot, Time and I. My finger leaks on the table; I wipe it. And also on the housing of the reassembled printer power supply. I look at the smear, and I do not wipe it. I have left my mark upon this Beast, I think to myself. I shall not remove it. It will be buried amidst your guts; only you and I will ever know it is there. This token of my toil is enough, I decide. I move on.

At last, it is back together, despite all the King’s men staying home, watching TV. I do not want to plug it in. I’m sure you understand. Don’t you? Even so, I still roll the Beast back to its lair. I reattach its stiff black tail. I notice it is dirty, the cord, this conduit of the Lightning of Zoltar.

We have arrived at the moment of truth: I flip the switch. And wait. As with a pot of water that has yet to boil, it is best not to stare at a booting computer, especially one as slow and dumb as the Beast’s. I stare anyway. I wave hi to passing Time again, then it whirs with a pleasing sound. And dies. And tells me to call HP.

Naturally, I turn it off, wait ten seconds (capacitors can be slow to bleed, you know), and then turn it on again. Maybe something different will happen this time.