Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Nothing left to shoot

The tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut appears to be igniting a national debate on gun rights, mental illness and violent crime. I have been watching and listening as people weigh in on these issues on talk radio and online. An important bit of context is so far missing from the debate: the fact that there are far more guns in America than there are legitimate targets for them. There is nothing left to shoot.

As I see it, there are only two legitimate reasons to use a firearm, to hunt for food, and for self defense. I would also add target shooting to prepare oneself for one of those two activities. Today I want to talk about hunting and hunting weapons.

Many people have talked about the tradition of gun ownership and hunting in America, and how in their grandfather's time, everyone had guns and knew how to shoot them. It was no big deal. This is true. 

But that was a very different world, for at least two reasons. There was a lot more wildlife to hunt, a lot more wilderness land to hunt it on, and a lot fewer people around to do the hunting. Bottom line, there were fewer shooters, and fewer total guns, and much more wildlife to shoot. Even so, our ancestors were so efficient at hunting they managed to drive entire species to extinction, such as the passenger pigeon.

There are a lot more people in America today, most of us packed into cities, and wildlife is all but decimated, their range converted to farmland, ranches or housing. Most people do not realize how quickly this has changed in the past century, and especially in the last fifty years.

Aeronautical engineer Paul MacCready once created a graph to demonstrate this point. He calculated the total mass of vertebrate animals on land and in the air. He included mammals, reptiles, and birds, but excluded insects, because most of us do not eat insects, and fish, because we do not compete with fish for living space. He wanted to measure human domination of nature over time.

In one category he put humans, our livestock, and our pets. All the living beings that are either us or directly under our control to service us. I call that the Domesticated category. 

In the other category he put wild animals, including lions, tigers, bears, wolves, deer, birds, bats, and any other wildlife than a human might want to eat or exterminate to take over its living space. Call that the Wild category.

Ten thousand years ago, the Domesticated category was puny. Humans and our livestock and pets (if any) were less than 1 percent, with Wild nature over 99 percent of the total.

Today these numbers are nearly reversed. Humans and our pets and livestock make up 98 percent of what lives on land today, measured in mass. Yes, ninety eight percent. Wild animals only make up two percent of the vertebrates on land or in the air today. That includes every animal you have ever seen in the wild or on television. 

As far as hunting is concerned, there is nothing wild left to shoot.

How recently was the halfway point? When was it the case that the Domesticated category and the Wild category were each 50% of the total? The answer is, about 1950. That is quite recent. My father and mother were both alive then.

Why is this point relevant? Because it means that the American culture of hunting with guns comes down through our families from a very recent time when the balance between humans and nature was nevertheless very different than it is now. It is a disconnect between our values and our reality. A disconnect that happened in only one or two generations.

How many hunters can the wildlife of America support today? And how many rifles would those hunters actually use? I do not know, but I suspect it is far less than the number of rifles privately owned in America today. I never owned a hunting rifle, but I did own a handgun for self-defense for a few years. Most gun owners own only a few guns. Some own a lot more. Which must mean that many rifles are never actually used for their ultimate purpose of hunting, or even for target shooting to prepare for hunting.

If that is true, it means that modern gun ownership has more to do with collecting, and with creating a market for the buying and selling of guns as collectibles that invoke the hunting way of life, than with actual hunting today (I am not discussing self-defense).

I think the gun lobby has been wise to keep silent for a few days after the tragedy. It will be interesting to see  how reality-based they will be when they finally speak up. Before people get bent out of shape one way or another we should remember that when it comes to hunting rifles at least, we are talking mostly about collectibles which are rarely used for their intended purpose, for the simple reason that there is nothing wild left to shoot.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Saying no to the attacks on women

I have been trying not to get pulled into political or religious debates this year. I was looking forward the Republicans having their caucuses in our state on Saturday, so we could break get a break from the phone calls.

That was until talk radio windbag Rush Limbaugh let spew from his mouth a vile attack on a young American woman using language dehumanizing to women generally. My wife and I were actually hoping for political calls on Saturday so we could have demanded that the callers explain their candidate's position on Limbaugh's comments. But by then the calls had stopped.

So far the responses from the Republican candidates on the comments by Limbaugh have been pathetic. Romney said he would not have used those words that Limbaugh used. Does that mean Romney agrees with the thought? Romney should put that question to rest.

Santorum went further, arguing it is wrong to force conservative Christians to pay taxes for medical procedures that are against their deeply held beliefs. Never mind that the law does not use tax money, it is private health insurance after all.

The principle behind Santorum's argument, that having a deeply held religious belief should mean a special exemption from our laws, is deeply wrong in my view.

Consider the recent violence over the inadvertent destruction of the Koran by American soldiers. Should those who killed American soldiers be allowed to use the fact that their Muslim religious convictions were offended in their defense? No.

I have some deeply held beliefs of my own. I believe that all of Nature is sacred. Humans are part of nature and no part of nature is superior to any other. Men are not more or less sacred than women, nor are adults more or less sacred than children. Every part of nature deserves to be accepted, respected, and protected, for what it is, in its own way. That, more or less, is the gospel according to me.

Should there be special laws to accommodate my deeply held beliefs? Of course not. If I want to persuade anyone of a political position consistent with my faith, protecting a wilderness area, for example, or equal pay for women, I should have to use arguments based on reason, shared experience, or common interests to do so, not special pleading. Not always getting my way is the price of living with other people.

So when Catholic employers demand special exemption from laws requiring employers to provide female contraception as part of their health care plans, simply on the basis that is against their patriarchal religion, I am not impressed.

Religious exemptions are rare in our laws and will hopefully remain so. Religion in America is still too political to hope for such laws to be abolished soon, or to expect politicians or talk radio windbags to stop arguing for new ones. But as one of my favorite politicians like to say, hope is audacious.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

So long Steve Jobs, and thank you

This afternoon I learned that Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computer, has died.

The Apple Macintosh had a major impact on my life and career. I was in college when I first encountered the Mac, around 1986. The engineering lab at the University of Houston had all Macs, and a few Mac SE models. The killer Mac app that got my attention at the time was Hypercard and its Hypertalk scripting language. I was enthralled with the idea that ordinary people could create interactive applications that anyone could download and use for themselves. Those applications probably look quaint now, but they got me excited.

Before that I had little interest in computers, and even less in programming. I had learned other languages like Basic and Fortran, but I did not see programming as something that had much relevance to my life. I did not see the things that could be done with computers as cool or interesting. The Mac, and especially multimedia applications like Hypercard, changed that. I bought a Mac SE in 1988, and the rest as they say, is history.

As it turns out, I didn't use computers to make history. I didn't write a killer app. But I did use computers to make a career and a good living. That was pretty cool.

Thank you, Steve Jobs, for your part in the building the personal computer industry and the other innovations you played a part in changing the world. Big changes are the work of many hands, and yours was one of them.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A very musical vacation

Yesterday our family returned from our summer vacation at July Eliot. Eliot Institute is a camp and conference for Unitarian Universalists and their friends and families, held in Seabeck, Washington. This is the fifth summer we have gone and we had a wonderful time again this year.

The Eliot camps are unique, imagine 250 people of all ages spending a week together in a beautiful relaxed natural setting and sharing music, poetry, art, jokes, games, skits, conversation, outdoor activities, food, drink, and worship.

LeAnne enjoys working with the children during the morning program, and making new te-dye creations and knit crafts. This year she tie-dyed a set of taple napkins. Our girls enjoy seeing old friends and making new ones. Hailey's best friends are a pair of twins whose grandparents drive down from Canada to bring them, they become part of our extended family for the week. I enjoy taking my girls on boat rides, taking walks in the forest, and sharing my music as well as playing with other musicians who stay at the camp.

At the concert, I sang an original song I wrote during the past year, in front of almost 100 people. It was the first time I have performed in front of a crowd without being nervous. The song got numerous strong compliments, including from the guest speaker, who is an accomplished songwriter herself. I have been thinking of myself as more an instrumental player (I would not call myself a singer), but apparently I have a talent for songcraft. It felt really, really good to get that feedback. Not bad for a software geek and an introvert.

I left camp feeling tired but energized, and excited to develop my music and songwriting further in the next year. I have already started working on a new guitar tune that started coming to me while I was sitting by the lagoon at Seabeck.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

50 years in space

Today is the 50th anniversary of the flight of Alan Shephard who became the first American in space, only three weeks after the flight of Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space.

I do not remember those flights, of course, I would not even be born for another year and several months. But I do remember the excitement of the years that followed. The fact that humans could now travel into space was the number one fact of the time. Adults were talking about it. And my young boy mind soaked up that excitement like a sponge.

I did not have the mental tools then to put the achievements of space exploration in historical context. I understood that space flight must be expensive and dangerous. Still it did not occur to me that the progress of human space exploration was something that might plateau, or even reverse, that having achieved the moon landings, a nation or humanity as a whole might lose interest. I did not think that a discovery can only be made once, after all, that having journeyed to a place for the first time for reasons of curiosity or the political prestige of doing it first, different motivations were needed to return. If in my lifetime, humans were on the moon, surely that meant we would be on Mars in another decade or two, and I would be part of making that happen.

I realize now that my excitement about space was in part the normal excitement of a boy over things that were fast and powerful. But it was also a way of being connected to the vast space that is out there. Perhaps the word "space" itself was the problem. Space is everywhere the Earth is not. Space was up, Earth was down. In space you get to wear a special suit, in Earth you just breath. What is cool about that?

Today I like the word "universe" better. That which unites everything. If space is not here, the universe certainly is. It is part of me and I am part of it, always. The very act of breathing on Earth connects to me physically to every one and everything that lives here, or ever has. Not touching the moon myself is OK. Not visiting every continent is OK. I don't have to prove anything to the universe, like being the first person to do something no one else has done. If I can not touch space in my lifetime (and few of us alive today will ever get up there), I can touch the universe any time I want. In fact, I can not NOT touch the universe. Don't try this at home. Breathing turns out to be pretty cool, after all.

Still, some parts of the universe I cannot touch (in that which we call "space") are pretty cool to look it. And it is cool to think that some people I have seen with my own eyes (Buzz Aldrin, for example) have touched parts of the universe (the moon) I will never be able to touch while I am alive. I was alive when that happened. I shared the air with the people who went. That is pretty cool in itself.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Possible habitable planet found

Astronomers have found a possible habitable planet 20 light years from Earth.

Called Gliese 581g, the planet is the first rocky planet in another solar system in the "Goldilocks zone", the the range of distances from the star where the temperatures could allow liquid water could exist on the surface. Of the 492 extrasolar planets found so far by astronomers, this appears to be the first one with the right conditions for life as we know it to have a chance.

Even if this planet turns out not to have life, this is an important discovery that should fire imaginations and inspire astronomers to continue the search. It inspires me to remember that I am part of an amazing universe, and to put my daily challenges into context.

See here for a larger photo of the artist's conception of the planet.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Musical debut

I have been playing guitar for many years. At first it was for my own enjoyment and relaxation, an escape from the world's stresses. The last few years, I have been honing my skills and composing my own music. Recently I have performed at church and in other small group settings. Finally I have enough material that I have decided it is time to let my music out into the world and see what happens.

This Saturday, August 7, I will be performing at Caffe Felice in Renton. I will be doing sets at 7:30 and 8:30 PM. The owners, Ron and Kelly Stilwell, are good friends of mine, and I really appreciate this opportunity. All are welcome!

My music is instrumental fingerstyle acoustic guitar. My songs are inspired by nature, and I try to bring the joy and peace that nature brings into my life into my music.