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.

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

Why Are You Still Here?!

The groundswell of disgust and disbelief that has been sloshing around the White House since Inauguration Day is building into a tsunami that many media savants opine will drown the Donald Trump presidency.  Some House Democrats have already brought forth a bill of impeachment, but party leaders have lent only tepid rhetorical support to the idea, knowing full well that it will get little traction with Republicans in control of both Congressional houses.  And that, I suspect, is just fine with the Dems for the moment.  They want Trump right where he is, for at least another year.  Let me explain.

First let me state that I’m not a Trump supporter and never have been.  He is proving to be a worse Chief Executive than anyone imagined.  I would love to see him out of office, the sooner the better. However, I strongly believe that the process of removing him from office must be legitimate and unassailable, maybe more so than the election that put him there.  Right now, hard evidence to support that scenario does not exist and Schumer and Pelosi know it.  Rank and file Democrats are getting their Trump therapy by conflating Russian attempted interference with actual interference. They then further muddy the water by claiming that Trump or his cabal solicited Russian intervention and are now trying to cover their tracks.  They claim that Trump wants to torpedo the investigations because he has something to hide. This conspiratorial construct is not based on any verifiable facts, but on their analysis of his behavior, which I believe is incorrect.  Here’s my analysis:

Donald Trump is such a monumentally narcissistic egomaniac that he views any slight as a declaration of war and any question of his motives or actions as treasonous.  He is fighting the investigations because he sees them as unwarranted attacks to be repulsed.  I expect he is innocent of any collusion because he believes that he didn’t need the Russians or anyone else to help him win the election, and he takes it as a personal insult that his opponents believe it.  Members of his campaign may have met with Putin cronies and may have lusted after whatever dirt on Hillary the Russkies promised to provide.  Trump himself may have been in that loop somewhere. Hard to prove.  But Trump’s most likely response to any offer of foreign assistance would have been, “Sure, whatever.  We don’t need them.  I’m gonna win bigly anyway”.  And should Jr. and Kushner be found to have committed any act beyond criminal stupidity, Trump will shed it like he has everything else.  He not only doesn’t remember what he said or who he said it to last month, he doesn’t care.  He lives in the moment and will say whatever suits his purpose today.  He is immune to embarrassment or shame, and attempts to impugn him will make his behavior worse, not better.  He is also immune to impeachment for any crimes committed by underlings of which he had no knowledge or part.  His removal by this route is possible only if a lot more solid evidence comes to light, and then only if this craven Congress has the integrity to undertake it. I’m sure Ryan and McConnell will not lean in. Trump may be a colossal ass, but for better or worse he’s their colossal ass.

If Democrats were focused only on actual governing, they might start stroking his ego and playing to his insatiable need for adulation rather than continuing to goad him. They might even get him to switch parties if they could swallow their post-election angst for a few months.  Trump was a Democrat not that long ago, remember?  But I’m not expecting that.  I expect that they will keep doing what they’re doing, swamping him and Congress with leaks, attacks and innuendo to keep the Republican agenda stalled, but letting him Tweet on so that every Dem candidate for office, from Senator to dog catcher, can run against Donald Trump in 2018.  Good luck with that, as he is likely to be more vulnerable and will almost assuredly be more unhinged by then. Why would Progressives want him impeached right away?  That would leave them with three years of President Pence, who is even more hostile to their ideology than Trump, and as an incumbent (and a decent human being) might be a serious threat in 2020.  No, The Donald is of more use to the Democrat Party as an abhorrent adversary than as an ex-President. Unless he is on the verge of starting WWIII or letting the Russians annex Alaska, Democrats will be content to let him blunder on.  What’s a few international crises and a couple more years of gridlock when control of Congress is in play?

When it comes to President Donald Trump, both Republicans and Democrats have a lot to be ashamed about.  From my vantage point, neither party in this soap opera really cares about anything other than gaining a political advantage from it, and both will use Trump as best they can to do so. Meanwhile, the country and the world will just have to stand nervously by and watch.

How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Climate Change

Photo by John Englart (flickr.com)

Photo by John Englart (flickr.com)

My Facebook feed has been abuzz lately with postings from a Progressive friend about climate change. As one might expect, the view from that side of the political street is not looking good.  One particular article put forward the ultra-gloomy contention that human-caused global warming is likely irreversible and most of the world will soon become unfit for human habitation even if we exceed the most ambitious goals proposed in the Paris Accords to curb our carbon emissions.  The crux of the authors’ hypothesis is that present CO2 levels are already so high that vast areas of permafrost in the sub-Arctic are starting to melt.  Permafrost contains huge amounts of methane, a gas with almost ten times the heat retentive capacity of CO2.  Release of even a small portion of this entrained methane will cause a warming feedback loop which will raise global temperatures at an exponential rate, melting more permafrost and releasing more methane.  The result?  Catastrophic warming that may very soon and very quickly progress beyond our ability to slow it down, let alone reverse it.

As is usually the case with climate change literature, the dire outline of the scientific problem is followed by a proposed political solution.  Our slim chance of survival, say the authors, hangs on humanity  suddenly acquiring the wisdom to reject the nationalist, capitalist economic/political model that has landed us in this frying pan and put Big Government in control of, well, everything.  The Ship of State needs to make a sharp turn, and we mean right now!

Hmm!  Putting aside the obvious inconvenience that ships, especially the State variety, are seldom capable of sharp turns no matter how urgent the need, what exactly would this course correction look like?  A possible answer comes from another Facebook post, from the same source.  It linked to a group calling itself The Climate Mobilization.  Their stated goal: To transition the US to 100% renewable energy within the next 10 years, by whatever means necessary.  I paid a visit to their website for a look at these  “means” and found they are right out of the Radical’s Handbook; boycotting and blockading businesses and whole industries, general strikes, massive protests and other “non-violent interventions”.  Their timetable warns of their intention to “escalate until we win!”  Does this sound like anarchy itching to be unleashed?  I thought the idea was to turn the Ship, not sink it. Continue reading