About Gzep

Zep, like the other contributors to this site, is a Rocky Flats alumnus. He worked as an illustrator, model builder and technical writer/instructor. He also worked in the Communications/Community Relations group. He contributed articles to the site newspaper and edited the community relations newsletter. He retired from the site in 1996. He lives in Denver.

Why Show Their Faces?

Colorado lost another law enforcement officer last weekend, a young husband and father, killed in an ambush perpetrated by a deranged cop-hater who staged a domestic disturbance and shot up the responders from behind his bedroom door.  To compound his unspeakable act, he live-streamed the entire atrocity on social media.

As shocking and disturbing as this cold-blooded act was, it was compounded by TV stations’  unfathomable decision to air parts of this evil bastard’s broadcast on the nightly news. Bad enough that the news media repeated his name and paraded his life history in front of the world, but to give him actual face time?  Exactly what purpose does that serve? The gunman died in the lethal exchange so outing him removed no threat to the community, in fact quite the opposite.  Showing his face and his sick manifesto  only serves to provoke and encourage other sick, angry individuals to seek media glory by imitating him. That, and adding to the misery of those closest to the people he hurt.

I am sick and angry, too.  Sick of seeing the names and faces of these killers plastered on the same screens as the grieving families and colleagues of their victims.  Angry that our mass media puts ratings above the feelings of violence victims.  Purveyors of “news” are fond of excusing such behavior by citing the public’s “right to know.”  What about our right to not know?

If one media outlet would have the spine to keep the names and faces of mass killers out of its stories I would be a viewer for life.  As for the rest of them I will wait, in vain I’m sure, for an explanation.

Running Out of Badjectives

Michael Wolff’s latest literary offering, Fire and Fury, Inside the Trump White House, hits bookstores this week, and looks to be a best-seller.  Whether it should make the NYT list in the fiction or non-fiction category will probably depend on one’s political affiliation, but whatever the source of review the book will certainly carry the adjective “controversial” in front of it.  Nothing assures a book’s success like controversy, and coming from the pen (keyboard?) of Wolff, whose reputation for historical accuracy will never be confused with that of, say, David McCullough, this work is on pace to sell millions.  Which begs a question.

Ever since Donald Trump first appeared in the public eye, descriptions of his behavior have exhausted the list of synonyms for “bad”.  He is widely acknowledged to have exaggerated his business acumen, cheated on his wives, stiffed his contractors and suppliers, personally attacked every critic with vitriol and immediacy, bullied other men, verbally and physically harassed women, and pretty much lied about all of it.  And that was before he ran for President.  Since he has been in office, he has done nothing but double down on these character flaws.  He has tried to intimidate the press, bad-mouthed judges, embarrassed and emasculated (sorry, Betsy D and Ms. Chao, Nielsen and Haley) his cabinet, alienated our allies, provoked our enemies – I could go on, but you get the idea.

The question I would pose is:  How much more Trump dirt can possibly be found between the covers of Wolff’s exposé than what we have already had sprayed in our faces?  Does anyone think that Wolff, from his spot on the White House couch, has managed to gather any tidbits of scandalous gossip that Robert Mueller, with his hundreds of FBI agents and his bottomless subpoena power, has overlooked?  Or that anything he can offer his readers about Trump’s vindictiveness and immaturity can equal the revealing content of the President’s own Tweets?

Even if every sentence of Fire and Fury is absolutely true, It is not likely to tell us anything about Donald Trump that we haven’t already figured out.  I don’t need to pony up $29.95 to be privy to the knowledge that our President is narcissistic, ignorant, duplicitous, nefarious, cold-blooded, inarticulate, thin-skinned, juvenile, lascivious, add-your-own-badjective-here.  Unfortunately I, and pretty much every other citizen of the world, already have that information.

Michael Wolff will likely get rich from this book, wherever Barnes and Noble decides to shelve it.  But if Wolff wants to interest me in a tell-all Trump tome it had better reveal an impeachable offense by page 5.  Otherwise, no sale.  I have seen all the dirt on Trump I can stand.

Message Undeliverable

The special Senatorial election in Alabama is over, and the era of the political earthquake continues.  Voters in this reddest of red states, a year after elevating a clinically narcissistic, linguistically challenged, misogynistic Republican to the country’s highest office, decided for the first time in 25 years to send a Democrat to Washington.  Both parties were quick to get on message about the result.  Both messages are predictably laden with partisan spin, and are a sad indication that neither party has gotten the real message.

Republicans assured us that Doug Jones’s win was not a refutation of Donald Trump or his/their policies, and that Roy Moore would have won easily if not for a Democrat-orchestrated smear campaign.  A more reasonable assessment might be that Alabama voters couldn’t stomach being represented by Moore, an accused sexual predator who also happens to be Elmer Gantry on steroids.  His alleged mall-trolling aside, Moore is a disgusting anachronism even in the Deep South, and his loss was a gift to the Republican party at a time when its image is already layered in mud.  Making the best of President Donald J. Trump has put the GOP on shaky moral and ethical ground, and having to support and defend Moore any longer would have stripped Republicans of any pretense of decency that might be left to them.  They already seemed hellbent on stripping themselves of any vestige of fiscal conservatism by concocting a tax reform plan that drills a trillion-dollar hole in the concept of a balanced Federal budget.  Has the Party of Lincoln become the party of misogyny and hypocrisy?

At the other end of Dream Street, Democrats are telling us that Jones’s victory is a referendum on all things Republican and the first falling rock of a liberal landslide that will return Congress to Dem control no later than 2020.  To prepare for this glorious occasion, the party has initiated a Reform Convention the apparent goal of which is to codify more, not fewer, extreme planks in its platform.  The Dems’ bewildering takeaway from the presidential election continues to be that Hillary Clinton was not liberal enough, and their response will be to anoint an aging, blustering European Socialist the party’s de facto standard-bearer.  Even if Bernie Sanders doesn’t run in 2020, whoever the Democrats nominate will be mouthing his words.  At a time when most Americans want to see more cordiality in Congress, the Democrats seem prepared to declare a full-blown class war.  In a country that pollsters say is still moderately conservative, this approach may get headlines, but will it get votes?  In his victory address Jones, a former US Attorney, sounded like a moderate Democrat.  How will he fit into the Party of Bernie?

So as the world of politics as we thought we knew it provides yet another election night surprise, both Republicans and Democrats appear unable to see beyond their respective dogmas. As both camps retreat further from the political center, are voters to be stuck choosing between government by the Old Testament and take-no-prisoners Populism?

Hopefully not.  A Centrist movement is gaining momentum nationwide, and every time the American electorate is presented with a lesser-of-two-evils choice by the two-party system, that movement gets a little stronger.

How much longer are we going to allow the political extremes to pick our candidates?  I’ll bet that many Alabama Republicans are asking themselves that question right about now.  And if the Bernie Revolution comes to fruition, many Democrats will be asking it as well.

“Violence Here is the Social Norm”*

Question_Callout_WHYAnother week, another under-the-radar lunatic goes on a killing spree with his AR-15, and another round of recriminations from gun control advocates leveled at Congress for not passing stricter gun laws, at the NRA for existing at all, and at law-abiding gun owners for not saying “enough” and remorsefully schlepping their weapons to the local police station to give them up.

Gun ownership advocates, as usual, managed to throw off this guilt and continue to insist that putting more guns in more places, carried by trained individuals, will deter the maniacs or at least minimize the carnage.  Each group cites statistics supporting its position, bringing to mind the old saw about statistics being used the same way a drunk uses a lamppost – for support rather than illumination.

We do have a lot of guns – a recent NY Times article alleges that Americans own some 300 million – four out of every ten private firearms in the world.  We also have a lot of anonymous, deeply troubled individuals who are one fight with the in-laws away from going postal.  No law of God or man can be expected to keep all of society’s crackpots away from all those lovely, deadly weapons, and the gun argument is distracting us from another discussion that we desperately need to have.

Crazy people killing other people – not just with guns, but with rental trucks, homemade bombs or box cutters – is a relatively new phenomenon here.  The U.S. has always had a surplus of firearms and lunatics-in-waiting, but the growing number of high-casualty events seems correlated with our growing fascination with – and tolerance of – brutal, graphic conflict in every form of our entertainment, from TV and movies to the internet to video games to sports, even music. Today, more than ever, potential assassins are at risk of having their worst impulses constantly reinforced whenever they tune in or log on.  Less violence soaked cultures (including a fairly recent version of our own) have suffered fewer, and smaller, mass-casualty incidents, no matter how many guns (or rental trucks) their citizens have access to.  But today America has normalized violence to the point where a crazed assailant has to kill at least a dozen innocent people in order to get noticed.

Focusing on guns as either the root of, or the counter to, this savagery is a cop-out.  Those 300 million weapons are an effect, not the cause, of the culture we have allowed to evolve; a world in which “fake” violence is so pervasive that it has become background static.  Whenever some tortured soul decides to embrace the real thing, we seldom pause to consider his motivation. We are too busy arguing about his methodology.

We have to start recognizing the fake violence that surrounds us for the empathy suppressant that it is and seeing real violence as the insidious cultural sickness that it is.  Until we do there will be more – and given the glorifying publicity lavished on them by the media, worse – incidents of mass murder in our future.  If we really want to stop the bleeding, the discussion has to go beyond the “how” and the “who”.  We need to look in the mirror and ask, “why?”

*Rehumanize Yourself – Sting and The Police

We Need Dumber Phones

dunce_cap2smI’m probably not the first and certainly not the only person to observe that as smartphones get smarter, the people using them seem to be getting dumber. We have all witnessed drivers weaving along as they fumble with a text or pedestrians barging into traffic with their noses glued to their screens.  Annoying, and all too often tragic; casualties among drivers and walkers are up dramatically nearly everywhere.  Also not surprising.   The draw of a palm-sized device through which one can access everything and everyone all the time is difficult to ignore, even when its use threatens our physical well-being.  But the bigger threat posed by smartphones, and the insidious marketing strategies they enable, may be to our minds rather than our bodies.

Smartphones have placed more information at our disposal than we can possibly use, and many human brains find this data avalanche perplexing, if not overwhelming.  Some form of filtration might be useful, and the clever programmers at Facebook, Amazon and a hundred more Big Media companies stand ready to help.  Their algorithms scour your browsing history and analyze your reading habits, your media consumption, even your grocery list, to compile a dossier of your personal preferences. Through ads, suggested websites and “those who looked at this also might enjoy seeing that” prompts, they turn you into a demographic of one,  a “one” that can be specifically targeted by marketers every time you log on.  In the process, you are subtly encouraged to ignore any influences that might broaden your taste in books, clothing, cars, organic produce – or news outlets.  Of course there are a thousand other sources of information out there, but the algorithms don’t want you to bother with those.  Your time is too valuable.

The unintended (perhaps) outcome of this assistance is a populace that is becoming  accustomed to letting computer programs perform its due diligence. An app may be a great way to shop for underwear, but do we really want Facebook to choose which political or economic commentary we want to absorb?  Because while some marketers only want to “help” you decide which brand of running shoes to buy, others want to “help” you decide which news stories best fit your political leanings and which ones are fake.  A few (rhymes with Prussians) may even be using your predilection for indifference to influence your vote.

The ability to sort through reams of data and separate the good stuff from the background noise is like any skillset; if you don’t use it, you will lose it, and the evidence of our disuse is pretty stark.  Something like 95% of Google searchers never make it past the first page of results.  Is Google really that good, or are we just getting too lazy to look at page two?  Most readers of newspapers – remember newspapers? – glance at a story’s headline and skim the first couple of paragraphs.  There’s a reason it’s continued on page 9, but in the Age of the Smartphone brevity is king.  And speaking of brevity, there’s Twitter.  If erudition is a sign of intelligence, what to make of a medium wherein proper spelling and capitalization are MIA, punctuation marks have facial features and the deepest exchanges are more shallow (and shorter) than a 6th grader’s book report?

Google, Twitter, Facebook, now Siri and Alexa – they are all waiting for us on our smartphones, waiting to answer questions we didn’t really ask, waiting to tell us what they want us to know.

Our personal devices may not literally be sapping our intelligence, but they are certainly making us less intellectually rigorous.  In the long run, that may amount to the same thing.

Gun Control – A Ghost of a Chance

After the horrendous shooting deaths of dozens of concert-goers in a Las Vegas parking lot last week, one could have hoped that the country might be allowed a few days of respectful silence to lick its emotional wounds and grieve, but that was not to be.  The sirens were hardly silent before our ongoing national gunfight took back the stage.

The skirmish lines are numbingly familiar. Anti-gunners clamor for more “common sense” gun control laws, while pro-gunners argue for more armed law-abiding citizens patrolling the streets. As the facts of this week’s tragedy begin to accumulate, they suggest that neither of these assertions holds much water.

The gun lobby’s favorite canard is “The only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”  There were armed security guards near the concert stage when the shooter opened fire.  What good were their handguns when he let loose from a hotel window some 400 yards away?   Even seasoned SWAT teams were helpless to intervene.

On the other hand, control advocates are particularly fond of the idea of reinstating the expired ban on “assault weapons”, an indistinct descriptor generally attached to a gun’s appearance rather than its lethality.  Gun deaths actually decreased in the US in the years following the expiration of the original ban, and long guns have been involved in a tick less than 3% of all mass shootings.

A flicker of agreement between the two sides has emerged, with both calling for regulating so-called “bump stocks”, the aftermarket devices that allow semi-automatics like the AR-15 to fire several hundred rounds a minute.  Nobody needs that kind of fire rate except the military and adrenaline junkies for whom it evidently serves as a substitute for Viagra (and a more expensive one; gun shops that sell these accessories report that most buyers discard them soon after discovering that they can easily burn through a thousand bucks-worth of ammunition in a few minutes).

Banning a gun accessory that has been on the market for years is problematic.  Thousands of bump stocks are already out there, and since they are only a gun part there is no record of ownership. But the biggest obstacle to firearm regulation may be maker tech – our fast-growing capability to envision and manufacture complex gadgetry in the anonymous comfort of our home workshops.  Coming soon to a basement near you – Ghost Guns.

I received an email from a tech-savvy friend linking to a video from Wired magazine.  In the video one of the editors documents how he made an AR-15 rifle from a kit.  Gun parts are not regulated, and the kit is sold legally through the mail.  One vital component is not included – the receiver, which is the precisely machined housing that contains the trigger and firing mechanisms, the heart of the gun.  Receivers are not for sale, but maker tech to the rescue.  For around $1500 anyone can buy a tabletop computer-controlled (CNC) milling machine which will turn a chunk of aluminum into an AR-15 receiver from plans available on the internet.  Presto, your very own “assault rifle”.  The finished firearm has no serial numbers and no record of it exists in any state or Federal database.  A Ghost Gun.

Total cost for this do-it-yourself project, including the CNC mill (which is marketed under the name Ghost Gunner) is less than $3K.  As these tools and 3D printers become more capable and less expensive, virtually all the parts needed to assemble ghost guns will soon be makeable by individuals in the privacy of their own garages.

There is an old saying that government regulation is always at least 5 years behind whatever it is trying to regulate.  In the case of technology in general and maker tech in particular the time lag is much greater.  The effectiveness of gun regulations already on the books is debatable.  Imagine how much more complicated the regulatory undertaking becomes when the guns technically don’t even exist.  Can (or should) buyers of machine tools and 3D printers be forced to undergo background checks?  Is aircraft grade aluminum to be regulated because of what people might make from it?

For those policymakers trying to come up with “commom sense” ways to prevent gun deaths without turning half the country into de facto criminals, your job just became a lot harder.