Monthly Archives: December 2018

False choices: gun control

As early as preschool, I remember boys arguing about cars. Allegiances fell into simple A/B categories: Ford vs Chevy, Ferrari vs Porsche (our preschool was in Newport Beach, after all).

These arguments were sometimes heated. Yet even then, at age five, it was clear they argued over nothing. Obviously so, in the sense that our feet did not yet reach the pedals. Less obviously so, in that Ford and Chevy were not meaningfully different from each other, and presented a false choice between only two options, at a time when Toyota and Honda were quietly eating their lunch.

American politics today are like my preschool, and not only in their maturity level. Democrats and Republicans are superficially more polarized than at any time since WWII. But polarized over what? Party platforms look like an army of straw men, false choices trumped up to stoke false outrage, shallowly argued, as legitimate issues are ignored.

Take public safety. For most “coastal elites” like myself, public safety means gun control. Let’s stipulate that owning a gun is statistically not worth the risk. That’s why I don’t own one and don’t want one. But that’s not the question. The question is, are guns so dangerous that I should make it a political priority to force my personal choice on everyone else? The answer is no.

Large numbers of voters want their guns. America represents us both; their voices matter as much as mine. The Supreme Court has already ruled for gun rights. The great majority of gun deaths are suicides, household accidents, or inner-city mayhem. With the first two, consequences fall on the owners themselves; with the third, the problem is lawlessness in urban areas that already have tight gun laws, so more regulation would have no effect. High-profile events like mass shootings are statistically not meaningful.

In short, the gun owner in Ohio may be objectively illogical, but I don’t see a compelling reason to abridge his freedom, when both the courts and big chunk of the population are on his side. Fighting over this is an unproductive waste of energy.

While we hyperventilate about this unresolvable and useless gun debate, we leave synthetic opioids untouched. Should they be a public safety priority? Well, they now kill about as many people as guns or car accidents, and are still rising exponentially. Opioids are not defended by the Constitution. They do not provide benefits anywhere near the costs. They have no eager constituency in either party. There is no debate. Everybody agrees they are bad. It should be easy to collaborate to shut them down. Yet nothing happens.

There are many false choices like this — more in future posts.


The internet’s biggest irony

The whole purpose of the internet was to avoid overcentralization of communication networks.  The system automatically re-routes packets around broken nodes, so you get information slowdowns, but not shutdowns.

Yet the services built on top of the internet today are increasingly centralized.  The odds of an eventual widespread business shutdown are probably going up, not down.

A huge percentage of the Web runs on Amazon Web Services.  When that goes down, tons of things break.  Netflix.  Twitter.  Maybe more fundamental things.

A huge percentage of Web traffic runs through a few huge trunk lines.  If they goes down, internet traffic doesn’t quite stop, but almost.

A growing number of companies keep all their files in cloud servers, which claim to use decentralized storage, but from the client’s perspective are a single point of failure.

Such failures have happened before.  Remember the Sidekick, produced by the presciently named Danger, Inc.?  It was an early mobile-and-messaging device. One day in 2009, all 800,000 users irretrievably lost all data, including all contacts, messages, photos and calendar events.

That was a decade ago.  Today, the cloud providers are more stable, but we’re also more centralized, and more vulnerable to system failure, than ever…