NFA on Gun Control: Bad Taste, Bad Timing, and Bad Logic

I actually wrote this on the evening of Thursday, June 5, 2014 after reading the press release by the National Firearms Association. However, I refrained from posting it, as I felt that the timing was in appropriate.

After reading this article, I felt that I could now post it.

I (and others, it seems) were not particularly impressed with the NFA’s decision to make a political statement regarding gun control at the height of the recent crisis in Moncton. Many felt that the press release issued by the NFA demonstrated tremendously bad taste, bad timing, and bad judgement.

However, we do have free speech in Canada (unless you are a government scientist), so the NFA is free to say what they want to on the subject.

Free speech is a good thing. I like free speech. Especially because it also permits me to point out how horrendously, absurdly bad is the logic of both the NFA’s statement and their associated position.

The fundamental argument by the NFA (beyond “laws interfere with our fun”) is that even with all or Canada’s gun control efforts, someone with a gun has killed three RCMP officers. Thus, all gun control laws should be abandoned. The basic shape of this argument is this:

  1. We do X to prevent Y
  2. Sometimes, in spite of doing X, Y still happens
  3. Therefore, we should stop doing X because it is a waste of time

Lets try this argument in a few other situations, and see how it works…

We put locks on our doors, and install security systems in order to prevent our homes and business from being robbed. Sometimes, even with locks and security systems, we do get robbed. Therefore we should stop using locks and security systems.

Hmmmmm. That doesn’t seem quite right. Lets try another one…

We put in place traffic laws in order to prevent accidents and death. Sometimes, in spite of these laws, traffic accidents and deaths still occur. Therefore we should not bother with traffic laws.

Well, that doesn’t seem quite right either. How about one from personal health…

We eat healthy in order to prevent (among other things) heart disease. Sometimes, people who eat healthy still have heart attacks and die. Therefore, we should not bother eating healthy.

Still doesn’t sound right. Could it be that problem is that the structure of the argument is fundamentally flawed?

I had planned to go into the absurdity of the fact that people view gun ownership as some sort of “fundamental human right”, or the idea that the “right to bear arms” really means “the right to bear any kind of weapon (even those not invented yet) at any time in any situation without any rules or constraints”, or the silliness of believing that owners of dangerous weapons should be subject to lower licensing and registration requirements than car owners or ham radio operators.

Instead, I will just leave it at pointing out the bad timing, bad taste and bad logic of the NFA’s press release.


Interesting opinion piece on the backlash against Smart Metering

In many parts of the US (and maybe in Canada, too) there seems to be significant backlash against the idea of utilities using smart meters in consumers’ homes.

The concerns seem based around paranoid beliefs in four areas:

Elster A3 ALPHA type A30 single-phase kWh smar...
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  1. Many of the meters use UHF radio to transmit their data, and some are concerned about the health risks (as opposed to their smart phones, satellite TV, microwave oven, etc.)
  2. The meters transmit information about your usage (duh), which some see as an invasion of privacy (though they do not seem to object to their phone company monitoring usage in real-time)
  3. There are fears that the utilities will use this as a way to charge consumers more for electricity if they use it during peak times
  4. There are fears that the utility could unilaterally control some portion of your usage (heat, lights, etc.)

Here is a link to an opinion piece that talks about this (from the perspective of someone fighting the backlash). It is an interesting read – I had never even considered that there would be such a backlash against smart meters.

The value of an education

The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza ...

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I see a great deal of debate recently about the value of higher education, and whether the high cost of university is worth it from a job market/earning power perspective. I have this debate myself recently, seeing the challenges my own children are facing, coming out of college and trying to enter the workforce.

I have a few thoughts on the topic that I would like to share.

The debate scares the hell out of me

We already live in a society that does not particularly respect or reward intelligence, certainly not the way it should. People are very rarely rewarded or recognized for academic success, except insofar as it might help them be financially successful.

Most parents would much more proudly proclaim their child’s talents as an athlete or entrepreneur than as a scientist or researcher.

In addition, we see a strong social trend towards active disrespect of scientific or research disciplines because the results might challenge religious dogma and political rhetoric.

I see the arguments against higher education as threatening the very future of our society. We already have far too few young people entering engineering or scientific disciplines.

You get what you pay for

Ok – so I am not referring specifically to what your higher education costs, in dollars. What I really mean is that you get out of a higher education pretty much what you put into it.

If you are studying something for which you have a passion, if you throw yourself into your studies heart and soul, if you embrace and enjoy the entire experience, then I have no doubt at all that you will see great value from your education both economically and personally.

If on the other hand, you are only there because your parents said you should be and they are paying for it, if you pick your program based on least difficulty or avoiding early morning classes, and if you only apply yourself to least extent necessary to get by, then you will probably get out of education exactly what you put – diddly squat.

So, like many things, what value you get out of higher education depends very much on what value you are looing for.

A good education is more valuable than a mediocre education

A few generations ago, higher education was available to a small enough segment of the population that getting a university degree, no matter in what field or from what school, gave you a significant competitive advantage when it came to the working world.

More recently, say in my generation or the one before it, higher education had become significantly more accessible, but it was still typically sufficient to have a good degree from a good school (and have had reasonably good marks) to have a high probability of long term success.

Now, however, having a degree is not in and of itself a strong differentiator when it comes to the job market. It is now more important that ever to invest in an education that matches your goals. If your goal is to be highly employable and make lots of money, you better be very careful to choose a discipline and a school that matches that goal. Otherwise, you will be one of those who sees your education as a waste.

Education does not guarantee success

This should be obvious, but an education does not in and of itself guarantee success. Actually, nothing guarantees success. All you can hope for is to follow a path and takes actions which improve the probability of success.

People often point examples of very successful individuals who did not finish university, and say “that proves that you do not need higher education to be successful”. That is very true, but remember that such cases statistical outliers, and are so rare as to be meaningless in planning you future. Others often use these examples to support statements like “higher education is a waste”.

Again, what is critical is to have some idea where you are going, and then choose a type and level of education which is appropriate to those goals.

But please, do not discount higher education completely based upon questionable, anecdotal evidence.

The end of physical books? I hope not!

I was just reading this article on, in which author Nicholas Negroponte, founder of One Laptop per Child, foretells the demise of physical books.

I recognize the trend, and can see some reality in what he says. I am a big fan of digital books, and have been for far longer than those who have jumped on the bandwagon with the introduction of the Kindle, iPad, and other such devices. I have been using my slate tablets as ebook readers for 8 years now. The fact that I can carry several thousand books with me when I travel is really convenient (especially for an infomaniac like myself).

However, I absolutely do not advocate the end of physical books, for a number of reasons.

First of all, there is no standard distribution technology for ebooks. I do not want to have to drink Apple’s or Amazon’s koolaid just so I can read the books that I want. And when I have purchased material, I do not want that material tied to a specific device (especially if it is tied to iTunes or Apple in any way). Until there is some level of standardization (beyond PDF), then ebooks should not be the principal format for books.

Secondly, an ebook-only world introduces a 2-tier society – those who can afford ebook-readers, and those who cannot. While I applaud Mr. Negroponte’s efforts in the One Laptop per Child campaign, we are not there yet. Even if we were, laptops are not the optimal platform for reading books. There is no way I would want to read any book of any length on a laptop (tablet maybe, but not a laptop). Right now, people (in much of the world) need nothing more than a library card to have access to a wide variety of books. A switch to an entirely digital world takes that away. I recognize that in the third-world,this is not the case, but I am not convinced that a switch to digital media fixes that problem.

My biggest concern is actually more of a “doomsday” or “conspiracy theory” kind of thing. The strength of physical books is that they are just that – physical. I do not need any device to read them. I do not need electricity. I do not need DRM. I pick up a book, and I read it. What happens in situations of natural disaster, decline of society (for example in war – we are not that far removed from the threat of world war), or even zombie attacks ;-). I personally would prefer that most books continue to exist in a tangible form in addition to a digital one. Then again, I still have a slide rule, just in case all of the computers and calculators fail and I really  need to figure something out!

I am also concerned with the greater possibility of distortion and censorship of the written word once it is only digital. We already see some organizations which distribute digital content exerting inappropriate, heavy-handed control over content and “apps” that they will “allow” to be published on their devices. The potential for corporate or political censorship is great in the digital world, though as has been demonstrated in the past, it is extremely hard to completely suppress information on the Internet.

Finally, there is a distinct sensory pleasure to reading a book. It is one of the few escapes I have left from the digital, technological world. When I am reading digital books, I am unfortunately also subject to all of the distractions of the digital world (email, IM, Twitter, etc.) Physical books are an escape from that noise, and i need that.

Just because I can read everything digitally, does not mean that I should read everything that way.

Geocentrism? Seriously? | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine

This is too cool!

Yesterday, I came across a link to, the site for a conference based on the premise that Galileo was wrong, and that the Catholic church was right to convict him of heresy, and the in fact the Earth is the fixed centre of the universe.

While I tweeted about the absurdity of this, and posted it on my Facebook page, I knew that writing a big blog post about it was a waste of time, because well, not too many people read my blog and even fewer read any posts not related to programming (my Of Mosques and Book Burnings post from last week has still yet to get a hit lol).

So I emailed the link to to Phil Plait who writes the Bad Astronomy Blog, and the hopes that he would expose this silliness at a much more visible level than I ever could. Well, today I see the post Geocentrism? Seriously? over at Bad Astronomy.

I am not sure if this was because of my email, but I can always hope!

PS – also nice to see the that is down – apparently it exceeded it bandwidth quota lol!

Of Mosque’s and Book Burnings

When I started writing this post, it was to be somewhat of a rant. As it turns out, it came out more “preachy” than “ranty’. I hope will forgive me, and indulge me just a little 🙂 .

Unless you live under a rock (or are much smarter than me and ignore the mainstream news), you have no doubt heard about the plans to build a mosque new so-called Ground Zero in new York. You have also heard of the debate that has sprung up between proponents of the mosque, and those who oppose it.

At the same time, we have someone who calls himself a Christian, and a leader at that, proposing to hold an event to burn copies of the Quran, and encouraging others around the United States to do the same.

Although both of these controversies stem from very different motivations, they both illustrate the very clear difference between what is legal, and what is simply “the right thing to do”.

On the one hand, we have a group wanting to build a religious centre, with a stated goal of also reaching out to other communities in the interest of collaboration and understanding. While I know there are those who see more subversive goals behind the project, I am willing to take what they propose at face value.

It is very clear that the construction of this complex (if I understand correctly, it is more than a mosque) is legal. This has been made clear at many levels of government, up to and including the president. They own the land. What they want to do fits within the zoning for the land. To be clear, what they want to do is completely legal, and they are fully within their rights to proceed.

That said, it is also clear that a significant number of people (I hesitate to say a majority, as I do not believe any statistics published by the media) are upset and offended by this plan. Some are upset because they a paranoid, xenophobic extremists who are absolutely convinced that anything Islamic is inherently evil. There also many, however, who are normal, rational people who have an understandable sensitivity when it comes to the events of 9/11. It is this second group whose feelings should be considered in this matter. While I do not believe any of the rhetoric that the mosque complex is a conspiracy to infiltrate the US, or to be a slap in the face or “victory symbol” for the 9/11 attacks, it is very clear that the project is causing pain to many people.

So what does this mean? It means that the right thing to do here has nothing to do with what is legally allowed. The right thing to do is to recognize and embrace the people who are genuinely hurt by this proposal. The right thing to do is to tell them “while we know we have the legal right to build our mosque, and we will not be bullied or coerced into changing our plans, out of compassion for those for whom we are unintentionally causing pain, we will change our plans and move our project somewhere less sensitive.” This would go a long way towards improving the image of Islam in American, and disarming the extreme “Islamo-phobes” who are so vocal. Again, this is the right thing to do, as opposed to merely the legal.

Turning attention now to events in Florida and the Christian group planning to burn Qurans as a philosophical statement. As opposed to the supporters of the mosque project, this Christian group is wilfully and intentionally acting to cause pain and upset to Muslims around the world. It is their stated intent to offend Muslims. This event has been vocally opposed by religious leaders of every persuasion. It has been opposed by political leaders at all levels and of all philosophical leanings.

The unfortunate fact, however, is that as morally reprehensible as these actions are, they are perfectly legal. What they are doing is legal, and to force them to abandon their plans would definitely not be the right thing to do, as it would infringe upon their rights and only further fuel their hatred.

As what they are doing is perfectly legal, what should we do about it? Well, for one thing, stop giving them so much attention. Unfortunately, it is far too late for that as this has been publicized around the world. The only thing we can do is stand by and watch. And forgive them. We can also make sure that we use this as example to explain to our children why this type of hatred and intentional disrespect is wrong. Finally, we can embrace those who are hurt and offended by this action, those who are its targets, and try to make them understand that we share their pain and outrage. Even though the book-burners are doing what is legal, we can take it upon ourselves to do what is right.

If only we could spend more time focusing upon what is the right thing to do, versus simply what we are legally allowed to do, we might have some hope of moving forward.

What if we had an election and nobody won?

We need a new option on election ballots – “None of the Above”. If none of the parties manage to field a platform or a candidate worth my vote, I should be able to express that fact in a meaningful way and still have my voice heard. If “None of the Above” wins in my constituency, then there MUST be a new election, with NEW candidates (the same hacks cannot run again). We could really weed a lot of crap out of our government that way, and possibly increase voter turnout – why vote it you do not approve of any of the options?