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.

“Violence Here is the Social Norm”*

Another 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

I’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.

I Had a Dream…

Like most literates these days I’m watching the political battle unfold over the future status of children who ended up in the United States because their parents decided to come here illegally.  These kids, many of whom are now adults, are known as DREAMers, as much for their dream of being real Americans as for the failed legislation, known as the DREAM Act, that would have made their dream a reality.  Dueling Executive orders and a recalcitrant Congress have left them in legal limbo, sitting on a ticking deportation bomb set to blow up their lives in less than six months.  Many Americans seem indifferent to this outcome and many more seem eager for it.

As children we all had dreams.  Let me tell you about one of mine.

I have almost no memories of the first couple of years of my existence, only a few fleeting images that family members helped me pin down to year two or three.  What I do remember is how terribly dependent I was on my mother.  My dad left us shortly after I was born, and I doubt that I have to elaborate on the emotional effects of that.  I don’t doubt that some of those effects manifested themselves in this particular nocturnal excursion that appeared when I was four or five.

In this dream I am alone on a dark, empty street, watching my mother walking resolutely away from me.  I could see her slender form, dimly lit by a fading streetlight, her heels clicking on the pavement.  It was graphic and frightening, one of only two nightmares I can recall from my childhood (the other one involved being treed by elephants in my backyard – a subject for another post).  I couldn’t understand why she would leave me, and I was terrified.  My most overwhelming impulse was to follow her, wherever she was going.  It wasn’t a choice, it was an imperative.

I still remember that dream clearly, 67 years later, and I can’t avoid thinking of it whenever I hear about the DREAMers and their quandary.  Based on my experience as a very dependent child, I have to ask:  What else could these kids do?  Let mother or dad walk away?  Stand alone and watch them disappear into the night?

The answer coming from far-too-large a fraction of the American public makes me wonder what sort of superhuman childhood they must have had.  Were they totally independent by age four?  Did they have the maturity and presence of mind to recognize and correct their parents’ legal missteps, piping up a reprimand from the back seat whenever daddy edged past the speed limit or mamma forgot to put on her seat belt?  Were they all, as pre-adolescents, fluent in US immigration law?  How else to explain their apparent belief that these immigrant children possessed the wherewithal to persuade their parents not to enter the United States illegally or, failing that, to say, “Fine, mom and dad, hit the road.  I’ll be just fine staying right here.”

How these budding Einsteins all grew up to become so hard-headed, unempathic and ultra-susceptable to every bogus anti-immigrant bloviation on the web is beyond my ken.  How wonderful to have been so precocious.  And how unfortunate to have regressed so completely  to the mean.

These supposed savants are focusing their ire on a group of young people who, by and large, represent exactly the type of immigrant that most countries are pining for; smart, well-educated, well-behaved, articulate (most of them probably speak better English than I do) and either primed to contribute to or already contributing to the society in which they were raised.  Many have graduated college with honors in spite of the extra burdens placed on them by their status.  Criminals?  A much lower percentage of DREAMers has had brushes with the law (discounting ICE) than has the general populace.

Our universities and corporations go to great lengths, and considerable expense, to recruit high-quality foreign students and workers.  How does it make sense to toss out the ones we have already educated and assimilated on what surely has to be the most shameful of legal technicalities?  Were they remiss in not coming forward and applying for citizenship?  In reality, all that action would have done is sentence them to 13-odd years in the meat grinder of this country’s capricious and incomprehensible immigration system.  Almost as scary as being treed by elephants.

Anti-immigrant emotions run high and hot these days, threatening to incinerate any attempt at setting a firm, fair policy for dealing with our DREAMers.  But if we let our lesser selves deny these victims the chance to stay in, and contribute to, the only country they have ever known, we deserve to have our sleep disrupted by marauding pachyderms – or worse.

J. D., We Hardly Knew Ye

hillbilly elegyPresident Trump can’t catch a break.  Even when he might have had a legitimate point to make about the events in Charlottesville, the tenuous connection between his mind and his mouth failed him yet again.  Few situations carry more emotional complexity than the proposed removal of Confederate Civil War memorials, and the tragic death of a counter protester heated the situation well beyond the boiling point.  A carefully nuanced response was called for, but as everyone from North Korea to the South Bronx is well aware, The Donald doesn’t do nuance.  His convoluted ruminations wound up sounding vaguely like an endorsement of white supremacy, which it wasn’t.  His critics, few of whom go for nuance themselves, turned their amps up to eleven and let fly, never giving the slightest nod to the possibility that there might be more to the story than the heinous murder of a valiant cultural warrior, abetted by society’s fave villains, the Nazis and the Klan.

The issue seems straightforward; monuments to those who defended slavery are a stain on the moral fabric of modern America that should be obliterated (along with the voices of anyone who disagrees).  Media scribes and civil rights activists are happy to label those who oppose this erasure as racist crackers and toss them into the ninth ring of Hell along with the likes of Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer.  Ideologies espoused by groups like the KKK and the American Nazi Party are easily and justifiably condemned,  but the roots of their appeal go far deeper than raw racist bigotry.  Society is always better served by trying to understand its deviants, if only because how we deal with them may determine how many more of them there will be.

How quickly we seem to have forgotten about Hillbilly Elegy.  J. D. Vance’s spare, poignant account of growing up in the world of the white not-so-privileged is still hanging around the NY Times best seller list.  But the lessons it should have taught us about the thought processes of  disaffected poor whites in America apparently didn’t get through. Continue reading

I’ll Show You a Tyrant

Nicolás_Maduro

Venezuelan President, Nicolás Maduro (By Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0)

If you are a pessimist, 2017 has so far been a pretty good year.  The chaotic beginning of the Trump presidency has provided the nation’s media with truckload after truckload of low-hanging political fruit, and pundits are in breathless competition to enumerate the ways in which Donald Trump is likely to destroy American democracy.  Readers of The Times or The Post could be forgiven for believing that we are on the verge of following pre-WWII Germany down the terrible road to tyranny, and the picture painted on social media looks even worse.  Angry Twitterers and Facebookers would have us believe that political conditions here are fast approaching the level of disarray currently on exhibition in Venezuela.

As it happens I recently stumbled upon an interview with the last American journalist to be granted a visa to report from Caracas.  Hannah Dreier, who writes for the Associated Press, spoke to Politico Magazine about what life was like in a country where democracy is actually circling the drain.

Venezuela was once one of the richest country in South America, a beautiful tropical land above and the world’s third largest petroleum reserves below.  But political instability, economic inequality and poverty have long persisted there and, a la Cuba,  populist discontent eventually brought populist Hugo Chavez to power in 1999.   After the bombastic Bolivarian revolutionary ascended to the presidency, he courted the masses by spreading the wealth generated by $100-a-barrel oil.  But collapsing oil prices deprived the country of most of its cash flow just as the death of Chavez, from cancer in 2013, deprived it of charismatic leadership.  Enter Nicholas Maduro, Chavez’ Interior Minister and political heir, whose futile – and increasingly brutal – efforts to keep the Chavista Revolution alive have left his country economically paralyzed and its people descending into anarchy.  Since winning the presidency by a bare 1% margin Maduro has shown no proclivity for running Venezuela other than to make absolutely sure that he gets to continue ruling it.  Bolivarian democracy means never having to say Vaya con Dios!

What has Maduro’s brutal incompetence meant for Venezuelans?  Dreier’s reports that even the most affluent are becoming malnourished while the poor are approaching starvation.  Inflation has rendered the national currency nearly worthless.  The Black Market is the only source for staples like toilet paper.  Kidnappings and robberies happen hourly, and no neighborhood is safe.  Dreier tells of being robbed only to be told by her local friends that it was a “good” robbery, since she survived it.  Later she was also kidnapped and was momentarily relieved to discover that her abductors were none other than Maduro’s secret police, who nevertheless threatened her with rape and worse.

Despite international sanctions, Venezuela continues to sell millions of barrels of oil per day, but no one seems to know where the money is going.  It is certainly not in evidence anywhere outside Maduro’s circle.  Rioting, however, is everywhere, as are Maduro’s police and the (presently) loyal military, their control measures growing more violent as the death toll rises into the hundreds.  The situation is so horrific, reports Dreier, that many Venezuelans are willing to embrace Maduro’s nascent dictatorship just to see some stability in their lives. Continue reading