Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year's Eve, socialism style

Hugo Chavez, the dictator of Venezuela, is not doing well following a cancer operation in Cuba, so the Venezuelan government has decided to show the peasants how real Marxists celebrate a holiday:

By staying home and praying things will get better.

Venezuela called off public New Year's Eve festivities on Monday and social media sizzled with worry after the government said cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez had taken a turn for the worse.  
The streets of Caracas were quiet as front page headlines relayed that Mr Chavez had developed "new complications" from a respiratory infection after undergoing his fourth cancer-related surgery, on December 11 in Havana... 
Authorities canceled a New Year's eve concert in a downtown plaza and Information Minister Ernesto Villegas urged families "to ring in the New Year at home, praying and expressing hope for the health" of Mr Chavez.

You think with all the money he confiscates from his subjects he could afford to be a medical tourist in a better country than Cuba.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Greed can lead to tolerance

My Mom is a casual opponent of gay marriage. She doesn't wish violence on gay people or go on angry tirades about them, but she doesn't accept them as equals.

So imagine my surprise when she showed me a photo of one of the properties she owns and is trying to rent out. She placed a big rainbow flag over the front door.

"I'm hoping some gay guys will rent it and take care of the place," she told me.

I realize this is based on a stereotype which is often wrong. I realize she isn't doing this because her views have changed, But for what it's worth, I think it's wonderful that the quest for profits can motivate people to be kind to someone they otherwise wouldn't.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Ban assault snakes

We can't allow an incident like this near-tragedy to ever happen again.

That's why I'm proposing a long-overdue ban on "assault snakes," which is a vague category of snakes that are only designed to kill and are entirely impracticable for petting zoos or use as companion snakes.

Assault snakes are any snakes that possess two or more of the following features:

* Long, bayonet-like fangs

* Skeletal or folding rattle

* Raised Jacobson's organ

* Patterned hood

* Green or brown "camo" scales

* Venomous bite

* Deep, sexy eyes

Just imagine if one of these slithering murder-beasts was let loose in a school. We don't have the funding to organize an ensemble of irrelevant celebrities to read short, repetitive bursts over and over again at the camera to manipulate the emotions of the public. We need you to pressure your congressman into bringing St. Patrick's Day early this year by chasing the snakes out of American for good.


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

We won the War on Christmas

Every year at this time I hear the same dismissals of the "War on Christmas" that is promoted by people like Bill O'Reilly. I hear more criticism of the concept than actual examples of the War on Christmas.

Clearly, calling it a war at this time is wrong. But things were very different in 2005 when political correctness lead to major retailers like Wal-Mart and Target keeping the word Christmas out of their stores and ads and the city of Boston calling its large Christmas tree a "holiday" tree. There were tons of little tales of individual school districts changing the words in Christmas songs to be unspecific about the

A lot of this was an overreaching attempt to avoid offending people, but in a glorious display some of the people who do celebrate Christmas got offended and fought back. They used public speech and a few boycott threats to convince companies to use the term again, and it worked.

The reason Christmas in 2012 is not obscured with vague wording is the legacy of those pro-Christmas campaigns. The search to find new examples continues. There is no War on Christmas in 2012, but that's only because people opposed to public mentions of Christmas were defeated.

One red herring in this issue is the labeling of Christmas as a religious holiday. Some people celebrate it from a religious perspective, but the holiday itself can be celebrated from an entirely secular perspective and it often is. While nearly 80 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians, 95 percent of them celebrate Christmas.

While I don't support having nativity scenes on government property as they are clearly religious, the same can't be said for Santa. The holiday itself is a major and easily-recognizable part of American culture. There is no such thing as a "holiday tree" and any attempt to use that term is pure legerdemain. We can live in a secular society without hiding parts of our culture because it might offend some people who were determined to find something that will upset them anyways.


Sunday, December 23, 2012

Gun opponents are going off half-cocked

In an article critical of Wayne LaPierre's National Rifle Association speech on Friday, Jacob Sullum of declared it was an exception to the way gun control is being debated, which has predominately featured anti-gun advocates using "raw emotionalism and invective pitted against skepticism and an attempt at rational argument."

LaPierre said some silly things, but he did hit the bullseye when he said

The media calls semi automatic firearms "machine guns." They claim these civilian semiautomatic firearms are used by the military. They tell us that the .223 round is one of the most powerful rifle calibers, when all of these claims are factually untrue. They don't what they're talking about.

Nowhere can this battle of raw, uninformed emotion against careful, reasoned restraint be encapsulated as succinctly as this clip of Penn Jillette trying to get a word in against three anti-gun advocates on the Wendy Williams show

Two minutes in Nicole Lapin demands a ban on semi-automatic weapons, as they can "easily be turned into machine guns." She goes on to say that if the shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School only had a handgun he would have only been able to kill two people, not 26 people.

It is frustrating to hear such blatant ignorance about basic gun information. Semi-automatic means when the trigger is pulled, one shot is fired and another one is readied. This mans the gun is not fully automatic, like a machine gun, but does not need to be reloaded between each shot like a musket or bolt-action rifle. She was inadvertently asking to ban pistols, shotguns and hunting rifles.

Lapin is not the first anti-gun advocate to swing wild and call for a ban on semi-automatics, thinking it means something else. Chris Matthews of MSNBC also failed to understand what the term means, but didn't let them stop him from making policy regulations on an unknown subject.

I'm not aware of any mass shootings where the shooter modified a semi-automatic rifle into a fully-automatic one, yet Lapin claims this is a major concern. It's also relevant that she doesn't know what an assault rifle is, and mistakenly applies that label to weapons like the one used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

This idea that only having a handgun would have limited the body count to two is inexcusable. Was she asleep during the Fort Hood shooting where 13 people were killed with handguns? Did she miss the Virginia Tech shooting where 32 people were killed with handguns? This is embarrassingly simple. It's also a false dichotomy, as shotguns present a very real danger to the public and have been used in mass shootings.

And those errors were only from the first 30 seconds of the discussion. It did not get any better as it went on. The anti-gun speakers continued to make careless declarations and Jillette stayed calm and responded to as many as he could with reasonable replies.

I'm not mocking people for simple mistakes like calling a magazine a "clip." These errors are massive and I'm calling into question why they should expect to be taken seriously if they can't grasp even basic concepts about guns.

Would you listen to suggested curriculum guidelines for a biology class from someone who doesn't know who Gregor Mendel was? What about a report on the 9-11 terrorist attacks from someone who claims no Jews were killed in the attacks? What about suggestions on where to set the top tax rates from someone who doesn't understand how marginal tax rates work?

That doesn't automatically disprove their views, but it does cast doubt. If they don't understand simple non-controversial elements of a subject, what are the odds they have anything meaningful to contribute about it? Nothing good has ever come from taking these people seriously.

I have no problem having a rational, reality-based discussion with someone about import subjects like gun regulations and restrictions. What we do not need is loud, obnoxious zealots spouting off a bunch of nonsense on a subject they can't be bothered to research.


Friday, December 21, 2012

We waited a week for that?

Today Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, spoke before the nation, breaking a week of silence from the organization following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

I wasn't impressed.

LaPierre famously focused his speech on a bone-crushingly expensive plan to put armed guards in every American school. As a reporter I can say that school security is already hostile enough to adults who need to visit the main office and I don't think ramping up an over-indulgent security obsession is going to make it any better.

Since mass shootings are in no way increasing, there is no excuse for this flailing attempt at a solution.

He also blamed video games and movies. These are things that we know do not cause violence. When someone gets stabbed, do we blame Shakespeare's MacBeth?

There are a few moments I liked. He did get some good remarks in about anti-gun bias in the media and the way firearm opponents speak about guns the way Deepak Chopra speaks about quantum physics:

The media calls semi automatic firearms "machine guns." They claim these civilian semiautomatic firearms are used by the military. They tell us that the .223 round is one of the most powerful rifle calibers, when all of these claims are factually untrue. They don't what they're talking about

For what it's worth, I support allowing teachers and other school employees who have concealed weapons permits to carry those same weapons into schools where they can be used defensively. That idea is being criticized by the anti-gun crowd and misrepresented as forcing all teachers to carry guns.

If that idea is not politically possible, then Plan B should be to do nothing.


Schools are safe places and school shootings are rare, although dramatic. Just as airplane crashes get more attention than car crashes, mass shootings get so much attention it distorts public perception and implies a fictional trend is taking place. Every one of these shootings is a tragedy, but they do not warrant useless, costly gestures that will not change anything.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

TED spread is catching on

A few months ago I wrote about TED spread, where the TED lecture series is being compromised by its own success, as the demand for TED events causes organizers to accept speakers with ideas that are not actually worth spreading.

Now TED organizers are trying to warn organizers of spin-off "TEDx" events to watch out for charlatans. Unfortunately, some of the TEDx organizers are pseudoscience believers themselves and will keep promoting nonsense under the TED banner.

From the article I learned that science writer Carl Zimmer took a similar anti-TED stance six months ago, where he also discussed how some videos can be good and others are worthless pseudoscience. It's true that Zimmer wrote his article before mine, and he went into more detail about why an specific video was terrible information, but does he have a catchy rhyming name like "TED spread" under his belt? No he does not.

Your move, Mr. Zimmer.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Mass errors about mass shootings

It's a scene we've all watched over and over in countless movies. Dangerous brutes are closing in on a mother and her infant children corned at the end of a cold, dark alleyway. She defiantly holds up a broken piece of wood in front of her hoping to ward off her attackers, but the threat is laughed off. Her children close their eyes as they wait for the assault to come.

But wait, a hero emerges from the streets. He is going to do everything he can to save the innocent woman and children the only way he knows how. With legislation.

This un-dramatic scenario is what you get when you boil down all the current cries for more gun control following the shooting in Sandy Hook Elementary School where 20 children and six adults were murdered last week. However, as emotionally pleasing as it is to make calls for action, any action, the specific ideas for action I've seen emerging are nonsensical and ignore the facts.

The biggest misstatement is the claim that we are seeing more mass shootings over time. This idea is being advanced by writers at Mother Jones and the Washington Post, but has been refuted by criminologists. From the Associated Press:

"There is no pattern, there is no increase," says criminologist James Allen Fox of Boston's Northeastern University, who has been studying the subject since the 1980s, spurred by a rash of mass shootings in post offices. 
The random mass shootings that get the most media attention are the rarest, Fox says. Most people who die of bullet wounds knew the identity of their killer. 
Grant Duwe, a criminologist with the Minnesota Department of Corrections who has written a history of mass murders in America, said that while mass shootings rose between the 1960s and the 1990s, they actually dropped in the 2000s. And mass killings actually reached their peak in 1929, according to his data. He estimates that there were 32 in the 1980s, 42 in the 1990s and 26 in the first decade of the century.

Violence itself is going down, as most people should be aware. The pattern has been very steady for four decades.

There's a clip being passed around of semi-conservative Joe Scarborough citing this phony increase in mass shootings and violence as his reason to make vague anti-gun platitudes, along with calls to censor Hollywood and video games. It's all for the sake of the children, of course, even though we know that entertainment does not cause violence.

There are calls to ban certain types of guns, which people are erroneously referring to as "assault rifles." Assault rifles are fully-automatic. There is an artificial political term called "assault weapons" that uses arbitrary details of weapons to make certain semi-automatic weapons sound deadlier. This is a term used by activists, not gun experts. The requirements include things like a pistol grip (who cares) and bayonet mounts (ever heard of someone getting bayonetted? The president hasn't). One problem with calls to bring back these bans to prevent mass shootings is that some states already have them, including Connecticut where the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting took place.

Handguns, not assault weapons were used at Fort Hood, Virginia Tech, the Wisconsin Sikh Temple, and the Tuscon shooting that targeted Gabrielle Gifftords. The Columbine shooters used several shotguns and one TEC-9. The Auroro 2012 shooter used an AR-15 that would meet the ban, but he also had a shotgun and two pistols. The flawed Mother Jones report that erroneously claimed mass shootings are  on the rise also said weapons that fit the fake "assault weapon" category were only used in a third of the mass shootings.

The fact is, guns that could be used for a killing spree have been available since the 19th century. Just look at this video comparison of the AK-47 and a Winchester Model 1894:

There are some people who oppose gun control who made the mistake of listing a mass stabbing of children in China that happened the same day as an argument that we will still have killing sprees even without guns. The problem is that no one died in the Chenpeng Village Primary School stabbing spree, and it proved a point gun control advocates make, that it's easier to outrun a blade than a bullet.

While gun control in England has brought the horror of "knife crime," guns and pointed weapons are not the only tools mass killers have on hand. This is a false dichotomy. The killer in the Akihabara massacre rammed people with a truck before switching to a knife, killing seven total. The Happy Land fire killed 87 people from a single can of gasoline. A staggering 18 other people were injured inside a high-ceiling Walmart when a woman poured two common cleaning products on another woman to try to kill her. Be glad she didn't mix those chemicals in a smaller space when no one was watching. What about the 9-11 attacks where 3,000 people were killed with airplanes hijacked with box cutters? Are we going to ban blades, van rentals, fuel and cleaning products?

One idea that's being floated around is to limit the size of magazines. This seems like symbolic legislation because reloading is an incredibly fast, easy maneuver. I honestly don't think my life would be worse off if I was unable to buy a 100-round drum magazine, but there's a big misunderstanding to how useful they are. The military doesn't use them, partially because they jam easily, and surprise surprise that's exactly what happened in the Auroro shooting. Of course, none of the gun controls advocates are trumpeting that important detail. If someone isn't good at changing magazines, they can always switch to another weapon, something people have been doing for ages.

Nate at CongressShallMakeNo Law likes to remind us that 3-D printers will eventually make gun control obsolete. It will be much easier to fashion a high-capacity magazine than a full firearm, so don't expect this restriction to change anything.

Some moderate positions include more gun registration procedures and in-depth background checks. These wouldn't have stopped the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting because the killer stole the guns from his mother, but if people want to be opportunistic with the momentum from this tragedy, they do have to come to grips with how any effort to make guns harder to get legally will affect the peaceful, non-violent majority of gun users as well.

I cringe when pro-gun advocates make the simplistic argument that criminals don't follow the law, so why bother making guns laws. Right or wrong, these laws do make it harder for people to get their hands on guns. It just so happens that any major gun restrictions or legal hoops to jump through will disproportionately affect people that follow the law, and encourage the odds that an armed criminal will encounter an unarmed victim.

The anti-gun advocates have a big advantage because they can make emotional arguments centered around victims. Well, we have people like 18-year-old mother Sarah McKinley of Blanchard, Oklahoma who shot and killed a knife-wielding attacker who had been creeping her out for days while her husband died of cancer. When he finally came for her, she was on the phone with police for 21 minutes and had barricaded herself and her child inside their home. Two men broke in and she shot one and the other ran.

Imagine if she wasn't allowed to have that gun, or if her ability to have a gun was delayed. That is the scenario gun control advocates are fighting for. A brutal, stone age world where young gay men, old women and people in wheelchairs are at the mercy of big thugs. That would be a primitive, dangerous world.

As a famous essay said, the gun is civilization:

The gun is the only weapon that's as lethal in the hands of an octogenarian as it is in the hands of a weight lifter. It simply wouldn't work as well as a force equalizer if it wasn't both lethal and easily employable.When I carry a gun, I don't do so because I am looking for a fight, but because I'm looking to be left alone.

Being able to defend oneself empowers people. Waiting around helplessly for a hero to save you does the opposite. The ability to possess a weapon is a human right, and not just because it is enshrined as one in the Bill of Rights. It is unjust and immoral to rob innocent people of that right. Gun ownership is, and always will be, a civil rights issue.

There's a rather silly article being passed, mostly to mock it, that claims shooting sprees reveal something evil inside white males. Don't expect the diversity police to come to our aid, but did these people miss Virginia Tech, Fort Hood and the DC sniper attacks? Do they really want to start that conversation in a country where blacks are seven times more likely to kill someone than whites? It's not a road anyone wants to go down.

If you want to be an advocate for gun control than you have a responsibility to learn some basic facts about guns and gun violence. Otherwise, you are attempting to legislate from emotion, not reason, and nothing good comes from that.


Sunday, December 16, 2012

My experience in Newtown, Connecticut

On Friday my boss asked me if I'd be willing to go to Newtown, Connecticut to aid a sister newspaper in covering the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. I said sure.

Saturday I was on the road at 6:30 a.m. and arrived at the newspaper office a little more than two hours later. An editor from the corporate team talked to us briefly, took down our contact information and told us to drive 45 minutes away to Southbury. The company had rented a hotel conference room there to use as a temporary office 10 minutes from where the shooting took place.

The plan was that we would each descend on a family of one of the 20 child victims and see if we can get anyone to talk or share a photo. We just had to wait for the police to release the names at a press conference, which we are expecting to happen soon. I hate approaching people who recently lost a loved one. Everyone does, and that plan broke down before I even reached the hotel.

I listened to NPR on the drive to Southbury and they cut to a live announcement from State Police Lt. J. Paul Vance that the 20 families had all asked to be left alone and each one had a state trooper stationed outside their home to make sure that happens. He means us media people, not the general public. I was relieved, personally. Forcing us to keep away also forced the competition to stay away.

There's a bit of game theory in why reporters swoop on victim families as fast as they can. When I first started out as a reporter at a weekly I tried giving some families a few days before approaching them. I figured, we only publish weekly and it will still get in print at the same time, so what's the harm. Big mistake. People will often talk to a few reporters and then get sick of it and turn all the other ones away, so we have to get in before that happens. In this case, the state police took that need to rush out of the equation.

When I arrived at the hotel I was one of about eight young reporters in a small conference room. They had come from places like Pennsylvania and New York and were setting up their laptops. No one was working and they were talking about how much they dread talking to the families. They were all chatty. One young woman said she's going to try contacting them anyways because other people will and I silently resented her for the rest of the day. I checked to see that my computer would connect to the Internet so I could file what I wrote and then packed up my things.

German tank commander Erwin Rommel famously said "In the absence of orders, find something and kill it" and I had that idea in mind when I set my GPS for Sandy Hook Elementary. On the radio Lt. Vance had said the outside of the school was part of the crime scene investigation and was under wraps, so I wasn't surprised to see the road was blocked off thousands of feet and around the bend early near the downtown village.

I parked and walked around the small Sandy Hook downtown village. The streets were lined with cars, many of them big news vans. I spent about 45 minutes just walking around, taking photos. I didn't try to interview anyone. About two-thirds of the people here were reporters, many of them from foreign media companies. We always stand out with our shiny press passes, thin notepads and stuffy outfits. There were a few pairs wearing matching action team jackets.

I overheard a ton of broadcasters recording cliche lines that are always pulled out when a whole lot of people die at the same time. This town will never fully heal. The entire nation is shocked. No one thought it could ever happen here. Etc. Anyone walking around with a child was pounced on. They wanted to know what local parents thought. Do their kids go to that school? How upset are they? No one said anything surprising.

A number of religious groups descended on the place as well. I eventually spoke to some Seventh-Day Adventists who said we all need to forgive and heal and that the shooter was tricked by the devil. I passed someone wearing a roadside reflector vest that said "PRAYER TEAM" in vertical letters. There were plenty of Honk-For-Jesus style signs held by the road.

Churches had their doors open for the public to come inside for comfort and I went into the United Methodist Church to check it out. I hid my press pass and notebook before approaching the building and I spent a few minutes inside trying to memorize what I saw. I was the only person in an empty sanctuary and I took a seat in the front pew between two boxes of tissues. They had taken a plywood manger from a nativity scene upfront with a single candle on a blue cloth under it. There were three vases of flowers and two bouquets. I spent a few extra minutes there to avoid suspicion, trying to fake weary, religious body language in case anyone was watching.

I was wearing a navy blue suit, a green overcoat and a bow tie. I try to wear a bow tie when I'm covering stories like this to appear less intimidating when I approach. All the cafes and hair salons and corner stores in the downtown area had signs up front in support of the victims. A few of them had signs saying they will not give interviews.

I met up with a talkative British reporter named Tom. He now lives in New York City and his company sent him out here. Frustrated, he said he just wants to go home to his wife and not bother anyone here. He convinced me to eat a small lunch with him at an English pub. Every booth  had reporters working behind electronic equipment set up on their tables. I just ordered pie because I want to save money. Tom ordered fish and chips, but they were out.

We talked for a little bit and he was very interested in learning more about me, what I've read, how I got into reporting, and why don't I move to a bigger city. He asked a lot of questions and said little about himself. He was pleased when he found out I have a British last name but was less impressed when I said my middle name is German. While we were talking an overly polite woman approached us and asked us to keep it down please because they were recording at their table. I headed out and he said he'll email me to keep in touch.

I got my first interview on the sidewalk. Two college students had just set up a donation table for the victims' families. They had only been there a minute so I knew they weren't sick of reporters yet. While I was talking I saw another reporter standing a few feet off, waiting for me to finish. I waited for a break in the conversation and told him he's free to join in. Other jumped in as well.

I got the students on video and I didn't tell them what I was thinking, that fake charities spring up around popular tragedies and how do we know they aren't going to pocket or skim the cash they take in? I hope videotaping them and putting it online will help if there's ever a case against them, but they did seem sincere. I'll never know.

Outside a toy store there were crayons to write notes to heaven and I took some photos of it before it was used by two girls, ages 7 and 11. I asked their mom if it's OK to take pictures of them writing their notes and she said yes. After my first two shots I look up and see there are half a dozen other news photographers around now. I backed out of their frame and mom told me how to spell their names. I wrote it out twice and tore off one of the sheets for her so she could show it to reporters instead of having to spell it out again and again.

The younger girl told me she wrote that she feels bad for all the parents who don't have their children for Christmas. It was genuinely touching and I thanked her.

While I was driving back to the hotel to write I drove past the Blue Colony Diner about a mile from the school. I recognized it as a place I had gone to with friends who live in the area at least twice in the last few years. That gave me an eerie feeling.

An editor from corporate was now installed in the hotel conference room. Everything was chaos. He had a dry sense of humor and everyone was talking about how poorly things were being coordinated. People talked about accessing some Google document I never saw. I was told to give my Skype name to be used as a central messaging service, but no one ever contacted me on it. There were at least four email addresses to send our stuff to..

It was a little past 1 p.m.when I arrived and the new plan was that when the names were released we would try to track them down on social media. The problem was that most of the victims were too young to have their own Facebook pages, so this was going to be tough.

We got to order lunch and charge it to the room, but just after I placed my order my cell phone rang. It was an editor from New Haven and she wanted me to find places that cater to children to see what their turnout was like that day. They wanted to know if parents were keeping kids home or putting more effort to take them somewhere fun. I didn't need to talk to kids, just managers and parents. She said it was something they should have thought of earlier in the day, but we've already missed the morning so I needed to head out right now while there's still time. I was told to finish typing my observations from town later. I canceled my lunch order and drove. Someone from corporate told me in a friendly, reassuring voice don't forget to eat.

She was supposed to email me a list of places to try, but that never happened. I knew the downtown area was too congested and the legions of reporters would have burned anyone out who was there, so I started driving around the area. It was much more rural than I thought and I decided to search for different words as part of business names in my GPS, like "kids," "play" and "fun."

I drove onto a road to turn around towards the "Family Fun Factory" (whatever that is) six miles away when I spotted the perfect business next to me. By stupid luck, I had found a business that has a big play room full of gymnastics equipment for kids to romp around on. A six year old was having her birthday party there. It was perfect, but they still had to agree to talk to me.

The clerk told me there was no manager there for me to talk to, but she would call her boss to see if she was allowed to talk. I figured this would be a dead end, but I was wrong. The boss said sure. The clerk even pointed me to the birthday girls mom who was willing to talk. I just couldn't take photos. Close enough, I called the editor in New Haven to say I had enough to start the story, and could she please email me those suggestions. She said yes, but never did.

My GPS took me to a sprawling area with multiple strip malls in Danbury. I couldn't find the Family Fun Factory, and after a lot of driving around to see what the area offered, I ended up pulling over to use Google on my smartphone. There was a YMCA a few miles away. Bam, another clerk interview. I saw signs for an ice arena nearby. Bam, another hit.

The manager at the ice arena was incredibly welcoming to me. I think it was because I started off by saying I was writing a positive story. She told me plenty, including how they went into lockdown the day before while the shooting resolved. I was allowed to take photos in the ice area.

There was a kids hockey game taking place on the ice. I stood by a guy and his kid who were watching, but they were interacting with each other and walked off before I could get the nerve to approach them. I walked around and a mom smiled at me. That's all I need. I made my positive story pitch again. Bingo. She was friendly and understanding, and her son was the goalie so it would be easy to photograph him on the ice since I knew where he was. I asked her about taking photos so she wouldn't be weirded out and she recommended holding my phone against the battered glass barrier so all the marks and scrapes don't show up.

I didn't get any good photos. The puck was on the other side of the ice for most of the two minutes I had before the game ended. I now had five sources at three locations and arrived back at the hotel around 5:30 p.m.

The names had been released while I was out and there were different reporters in the conference room now. One reporter said she felt bad that a waitress broke down crying while she interviewed her. I was lucky to get a seat because there weren't enough to go around. My company has a pay freeze and I have the oldest laptop there and I spent some time wondering how we can afford all these hotel rooms and staff overtime and paid lunches. Someone said their paper saw a 50 percent jump in paid website subscriptions this weekend so maybe venture will pay for itself.

I worked next to a loud talker and typed up my story in a Gmail. It took me about 45 minutes and required some Googling to make sure I got local details like the spelling of town names correct. Then I closed it out accidentally while looking for the email address to send it to. Big mistake. It took me about 10 minutes to learn that it really didn't autosave on me and I had to write it again.

The rewrite only took 30 minutes because I wrote the parts in reverse order while the last section was still fresh in my mind. I sent it in in time to order the same cheeseburger I didn't have for at lunch and typed up my downtown interviews while I waited for food.

I was sent the names of one of the children while I worked on my story. The only trace of her on Facebook was a Facebook group someone had set up that day, and it had no photos of her. The people who joined it seemed to be strangers. I tried searching for her on Twitter, but all I got was people sending out lists of the victims names. I had to report that I couldn't find anything. They weren't mad; it's the nature of the situation.

It was 8 p.m.when I finished everything. Some people were staying overnight, but I wasn't. They were making plans to get drunk together in the hotel rooms the company was providing. It turned out one of my friends lives less than two miles from the hotel and we went out for ice cream afterwards. I changed into jeans and a sweatshirt in a public bathroom and I finally got home a little bit before midnight.

I've never been part of a large news team working on a national tragedy before. There was always a sense of gravity for the tragedy, but I was focused on not being trite or shallow in my coverage. It was as if people think they will turn over a rock or interview a street and find a rational explanation for why the shooter killed all those people, as if it's possible that the motive has a logic to it people can relate to.

We're probably going to find out the killer did it because he has mental delusions, and the broadcasters will tell us that we will never know why he did it. Well, if it was because of mental delusions, that is an explanation for why he did it. It's just not a satisfying one.

There isn't really a moral progression or a character arc in how I look at the situation. I'm just sharing what I saw and experienced, so please don't expect anything more than that. Like every other reporter there, I came as a sense of duty to my media company, the public and my own curiosity. No one ghoulishly enjoys these stories. They can be emotionally difficult to cover.

Children, along with adults, were murdered in cold blood. The only insightful thing I heard all day about the tragedy, from my own reporting or any one else's, was from that little girl who said she feels bad for those parents won't have their kids home for Christmas. Everything else was fluff.


Friday, December 14, 2012

So what if President Obama is politicizing this tragedy

I heard the president's reaction to the terrible shooting in Connecticut today. After speaking about the horrors of so many innocent children being cut down by an armed maniac, President Obama said the country needs “meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”

Make no mistake, this was an attempt to politicize the tragedy in a non-committed way. A coded message, if you will.

It just so happens, however, that I don't think there's anything wrong with people using a tragedy as a rallying point for their movement. I don't support most gun control measures, but if I did I wouldn't see how speaking of ways someone believes would reduce future tragedies is in any way disrespectful to the victims. As I said this summer, there's nothing wrong with politicizing a tragedy.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

It's OK when we do it

At the risk of idiot hunting this issue, I wonder how many of the people who approve of union members assaulting right wing comedian Steven Crowder were also opposed to police using pepper spray to remove dug-in protesters at U.C. Davis last year.

After all, we were told, those U.C. Davis protesters were non-violent, so it was wrong to use force to remove them, even though they purposely put themselves in a situation where they could only be removed with force.

That's why we get comments that non-violent Crowder was "asking for it" by being part of a small group that set up a protest tent where the union members would be engulfing them. Our old friend utilitarianism is being evoked to justify the assault on Crowder, as well as the assault on opposing speech.

Saying that Crowder should have known that setting up a tent in an area surrounded by union protesters will get him assaulted is admitting that union protesters are violent thugs. It is no different than saying mocking Islam will inspire terrorist attacks.

Props to Crowder who issued an ultimatum to his assailant: Agree to fight him in venue that will raise money for charity, or charges will be pressed.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Why I support states rights

With President Barack Obama planning to crack down on the recent state-level marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington, I find it's a good time to go over why I support state rights.

There's a knee-jerk reaction from the left to say that states rights are some kind of secret code word for racism, as if no one could ever support states rights for legitimate reasons. Here's what I mean when I say I support them.

States give us the opportunity to provide experiments. As potential laboratories of democracy, we can test a new policy or program on the state level and if it turns out poorly, it won't harm the rest of the nation.

It also allows progress to take place sooner in certain regions. Take gay marriage for example. Massachusetts legalized it in 2004. If we only had the option of legalizing it on the national level, we probably wouldn't have it yet and we would have to wait until an overwhelming majority of states both approves of it and is willing to push it forward.

However, what about states like Mississippi, which would probably block gay marriage on the state level until the other 49 legalize it? Because some states get it earlier, and some get it later, doesn't it average out?

No. National gay marriage would not kick in the moment a mere majority of states approve of it, it would take an overwhelming majority.

What's more, the gay couple in Mississippi has the option to move to Massachusetts instead of waiting for it to become legal in the south. Moving can be expensive and difficult, so not everyone will get to take advantage of it. Still, some people would. Without states rights, none of those couples would even have the option.

This possible exodus of residents who "vote with their feet" would exhibit pressure on Mississippi to catch up sooner.

What's interesting is that gay marriage is the only issue President Obama has stated he is in favor of on the state level and not through the federal government. However, this is transparently a cop-out and should not be mistaken for his real position. He just wanted to tell voters he supports gay marriage, but isn't willing to do anything about it. If he wanted to promote states rights for gay marriage, he would help the federal government recognize those marriages on the federal level and give those couples more legal rights.

But with marijuana legalization, it looks like the president will be trampling on states rights. As Penn Gillette famously said, the same president who goes on talk shows to brag about his own drug use is now doing everything in his power to ruin the lives of other people who use the same drugs. Forget about states rights, what about human rights?


Sunday, December 9, 2012

Told you so

Republican Senator Marco Rubio has clarified his pandering comments about the age of the Earth with more pandering.

This video proves the point I made last time, that Rubio was not saying he is a young-Earth Creationist. No, he was showing he's smarter than that, but entirely willing to sound stupid to avoid getting bumped off the crazies' Christmas card list.

Just look at this quotation and ask yourself, is this pandering?

What I've said to them is that I believe that God created the universe and that the six days in the Bible may not be six days as we understand it … it may not be 24-hour days, and that's what I believe. I know there's always a debate between those who read the Bible literally and those who don't, and I think it's a legitimate debate within the Christian community of which I'm a part. My belief is that the story that the Bible tells about God creating this magnificent Earth on which we live—that is essentially true, that is fundamentally true. Now, whether it happened exactly as we might understand it reading the text of the Bible: That, I don't presume to know.

Yeah, that's pandering too. The sad part, however, is those words came from the president, not Rubio. Sorry for the ruse, but hopefully it allowed some readers to check their own bias.

Don't get me wrong, Rubio's remarks sound worse to me, but I was surprised to read on Slate that the O-man has tripped into that swamp as well.


Friday, December 7, 2012

Merry Christmas from Russ Roberts

Just because Russ Roberts is Jewish doesn't mean EconStories, the econ online video group he started with John Papola, can't cater to everyone's favorite secular December holiday. Here is the latest:


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Bush tax cuts are the new normal

American progressives love the Bush tax cuts. You never hear them put it that way, but undoing most of them would be unthinkable to most liberals.

In 2000 the tax brackets were 15, 28, 31, 36 and 39.6 percent. By 2003 they were 10, 15, 25, 28, 33 and 35 percent, although the parameters for the brackets had shifted. While the reduction to the top tax bracket gets the most attention, the cuts at the bottom were rather large.

It's a bit complicated when we try to compare them. In 2000 the first bracket ended at $43,850 for a married couple filing jointly. In 2003, that bracket ended at $17,072. What that means is that the smallest bracket did not actually see a one-third cut for most low-wage taxpayers (unless all of their income fit in that under-$17,072 bracket) but it was a larger proportion than the cut to the top bracket, which was a little more than one-tenth.

So when you hear a critic say that most of the Bush tax cuts went the rich, they are correct in terms of dollars saved. They are not correct in terms of percentages.

There's an old parable about splitting up a restaurant check in proportion to one's income, and how when the  check is reduced (metaphorically, a tax cut) it makes sense to reduce it proportionally, but the critics will sound off about how the low-payers are not getting as big a discount as high-payers in terms of dollars paid.

That parable is rather important. Please read it.

The left hates the reduction to the top tax bracket, but they just love the reductions to the lower brackets. The lefty suggestions in Washington right now do not even consider snipping those cut. People are used to paying them, and President Barack Obama campaigned on not raising taxes to the poor and middle class. The rates are the new normal, and it's politically unpopular to consider messing with them.

Which is kind of funny, since the left swoons over speeches from Elizabeth Warren and Obama that reiterated the Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. quotation that "Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society." Yes they are, so shouldn't everyone in the society be responsible for paying them?

The standard defense is that half of Americans who don't pay federal income taxes still pay taxes through sales tax and other indirect payments. Sure, that's true, but would the people making that argument accept the same logic when applied to corporations that do not pay income taxes, but do pay property taxes, sales taxes and payroll taxes? I'll wager they would reject that idea.

This tendency of lumping tax increases on the rich, but targeting everyone else when it's time for a tax cut, has given us an unbalanced progressive tax system. With such a high percentage of our taxes being paid by the rich, wouldn't it be proper to show a little gratitude towards the people who pay so others don't have to?

The biggest problem with the Bush tax cuts was not that they reduced the money the government has to work with too much, it's that they occurred in a vacuum and were not coupled with major reductions in spending.

I don't buy the line that Republicans should make a deal with the Democrats to increase the top tax bracket to 39.6 percent in exchange for spending cuts. There are two major problems here.

The first, as Kevin "Angus" Grier has beat into my head, is that our current Congress can't bind future Congresses to stick to the deal and there's no reason to expect the pledge to reduce spending would be honored.

The second is that that wouldn't raise very much money. A report indicates that raising that top tax bracket to Clinton levels would provide the government with an additional $950 billion over the next decade. However, for the last four years the federal budget has added more than $1 trillion annually to the deficit. The math is all wrong.

That deal would just lead to higher taxes, and if history is any indicator, the additional tax dollars would not go towards paying off the deficit but instead would inspire new federal spending.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Fringe feminists oppose free speech

I had to stop myself from titling this entry "Feminism isn't a religion, it's a cult" because I started writing immediately after I watched the following video from the University of Toronto:

Feminist activists tried to stop men's rights and gender equality author Warren Farrall from speaking at the school defaced and removed promotional posters and blocked audience members from entering the venue until police forcibly removed them. They also assaulted police and harassed people who tried to enter.

I realize that the brutes who staged this violent protest do not represent all of feminism. That's why I wouldn't let myself use that pointed title I first came up with. However, the protesters who blocked the doors did behave like cultists. One of the hallmarks of cults is shutting out the influence of outside messages. That's exactly what they did here, try to block other students from hearing a message they don't like.

The target of these protests wasn't just Farrell, it was also the public. In a summary of the fundamentals of freedom of speech, Christopher Hitchens said:

It’s not just the right of the person who speaks to be heard, it is the right of everyone in the audience to listen and to hear. And every time you silence someone you make yourself a prisoner of your own action because you deny yourself the right to hear something. In other words, your own right to hear and be exposed is as much involved in all these cases as is the right of the other to voice his or her view.

Hitchens went on to ask who would the listener entrust the great responsibility to decide what they should be allowed to listen to or read. The implied answer was no one.

Watching that video, I can't say that I would appoint a group of ignorant, self-righteous, close-minded angry fanatics to decide what I can hear.

I find it frustrating when someone tries to dismiss a thinker based on something tangential they said that is separate from the important ideas they contributed. Last week I tried reading what progressive writer Corey Robin had to say about Friedrich Hayek, but he was more interested in alerting people to Hayek's embarrassing support of Augustus Pinochet than to address any of his major ideas. This is a sign of a hack, and it's telling that the Toronto protesters focused on a single line Farrell wrote in 1993's The Myth of Male Power.

Farrell had criticized watering down the definition of "date rape" to include cases where women say "no," then change their mind and engage in sexual activity without verbally declaring "yes." Farrell was critical of labeling this as "rape" because no unwanted sexual activity occurred. Instead, the sexual partners did not follow a protocol established by certain activists. He then wrote "We have forgotten that before we began calling this date rape and date fraud, we called it exciting."

That's where the out-of-context quotes of saying Farrell supports date rape come from. They have no interest in understanding his message, they just want an excuse to shut him down.

It is customary to blame media bias when stories like this fails to capture much media attention, even though reporters where there when it happened. I try not to make jump to those conclusions when a story like this fails to spread, but I would bet money that if this was a Christian group shutting down Dan Savage from trying to speak using the same forceful tactics it would be all over the news.

Is there anyone who would find tactics like this acceptable when used against a speaker they agree with?

These activists are brutes. They are so absolutely sure that their world view is correct that they are willing to stomp all over the rights of others to silence their opponents. This is fanaticism and it has no place in a civilized society.


Saturday, December 1, 2012

"Don't Rape" lectures are an insult to everyone

This image one on the left is the kind of nonsense you end up with when extremists insulate themselves from outside opinion for years at a time.

And the worst part is the way this sort of drivel is applauded as if it's profound.

It's tempting to read this as a straightforward, literal message, which produces a ridiculous reading: That idea would be that the sign holder is fired up that her university informs female students ways to avoid situations where they could become a rape victim. She feels that that self-empowering advice should not be given, or even followed, and instead the university should force male students to hear condescending lectures reminding them not to commit horrible crimes.

But what you have to remember hear is that a lot of political activists, especially those in third-wave feminism, like to change the meaning of words, such as rape. In the past rape has meant a situation where an attacker purposely forces a victim into an unwanted sexual act. The new definition promoted by feminist extremists is that rape is a sexual act where one partner does not give legal consent.

The problem with that view is that it assumes all sex is rape as a default, and a protocol must be followed to prove it is not rape. The overly broad definition can include acts of genuine miscommunication and situations where both partners are willing but have consumed alcohol. Suggesting that rape can occur without intention is an insult to rape victims.

Another watered-down term that is not explicitly mentioned in the sign, but is mentioned by its defenders  is "blaming the victim." Apparently, sharing advice with women to help them avoid becoming victims means that if they are victimized that it is now their fault because they were warned.

So they propose not warning them.

This is an absurd, irresponsible view. I had a conversation with a friend online about this previously. Here is part of her reply after I asked what's wrong with identifying foolish risks to help people avoid them:

Well calling something foolishly risky is a nicer way of victim blaming, even if it is minimal. One time I left the door unlocked overnight at my house and my mom said, "How would you feel if someone came in the house and murdered all of us in the night?" which is a way of saying it would be partially my fault if my family was murdered. I felt this was very unjustified.

She went on to say that women should be able to commit acts that are harmless in and of themselves and not have to worry about being harmed. These actions include getting a ride with someone she doesn't know, leaving money out on the table or getting drunk around strangers.

I don't know what "should" has to do with reality. Children shouldn't get AIDS or cancer. Unfortunately, the real world doesn't care what should happen and we need to be ready for it.

If someone leaves their keys in their unlocked car, plays three-card Monte, or clicks a strange link in a suspicious e-mail, they can expect to be a victim. Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme victims needed to have a lot of money to make the minimum investment with him. They should have known his rate of return was too high, and they should have become suspicious when they did not receive monthly statements from his company. In those situations, we can say that the victims made risky decisions and got hurt as a result. That's not saying the culprit is off the hook, and that is not the same as blaming them for the entire crime.

I can see why someone would say that is the same thing as saying the victim is partially to blame for what happened. If the definition of "blaming the victim" is that loose, then so be it. It's up to them to tell us why doing so is automatically a bad thing.

So with those two broad definitions in mind, what else could the sign mean? It makes more sense if the sign holder believes women should be encouraged to act as if rape is not a looming threat and that college freshmen should have to endure lectures about consent and non-intentional date rape.

I actually attended one of those freshmen orientation lectures in 2002 at a state University. It was both condescending and aggravating. I remember an adult asking us if we knew the lyrics to "Date Rape" by Sublime and then went over the last lines with us. In the songs narrative, the rapist goes to prison and the narrator says "Well, I can't take pity on men of his kind/Even though he now takes it in the behind."

The orientation leader read these lines and paused for the last word, having us all say "takes it in the behind" together. This was an awkward and useless experience. What about people around campus who aren't students? What about evil men who don't care what a 40 year old orientation leader has to say? How does that help anyone?

I have been unable to find any evidence that "don't rape" speeches have any kind of impact on rape incidence. Please comment below if you know of any.

Should we refuse to tell children not to look both ways before they cross the road and instead tell drivers to slow down? If it doesn't make sense there, why would it make sense anywhere else?