City Mileage

I’ve known forever that city mileage for cars is worse than highway mileage, but I never knew why. But it’s a bit like riding a bike.

When you ride a bike, you have to put in a lot of work at the beginning, getting up to speed. And after that, you can mostly coast. Assuming you’re on flat ground, you have to pedal a bit because friction is slowing you down, but it’s nowhere near how hard you had to work getting up to speed.

And then you stop at a red light, and you throw away all the energy you had, so that when the light turns green, you have to put in another burst of work getting up to speed. And, of course, in the city you’re stopping like this all the time. Every few blocks, you throw away all your accumulated energy, and have to start over. This applies to cars the same way as to bikes, except that on your bike, you immediately sense this in your legs, not at the end of the week when the tank is empty.

So it’s not that highways somehow enhance your mileage. Rather, it’s cities that make for wasteful driving. It’s a bit embarrassing that it took me this long to figure it out, but better late than never.

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Your Child Died Because ________

Another week, another mass shooting. The biggest one in recent history, the headlines tell us. And while it’s awfully, tragically familiar, I draw some small portion of comfort from the fact that I’m not so numb that I don’t feel angry and disgusted.

In the TV series American Gods, there’s a scene where a faulty railing at a weapons factory gives way, a middle manager falls into the molten metal below, and eventually the insurance company settles with the victim’s family. All of this is because there’s a god of guns, and he needs the occasional human sacrifice. When it aired, some people lost their shit over it, because rawr rawr rawr Holy Second Amendment and how dare you bad-mouth guns, which have never done anything bad?
And then another shooting happens, in Las Vegas or Orlando or Blacksburg and you realize that the authors’ error lay in him only demanding one sacrifice, not twenty or fifty or a hundred.

I got into a discussion about this today. I say “a discussion” and not “an argument” because I did try to remain civil, to listen to the pro-gun side, and see what they had to say. I didn’t want to stereotype gun advocates, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised before, so who knows?

Unfortunately, what I got was long on rhetoric and short on facts. My interlocutor was apparently quite willing to have shooting after shooting after bloody shooting in order to preserve his right to have whatever kind of gun he deemed fit.

He kept bringing up self-defense, which is fair. But surely you don’t need a semi-automatic to defend yourself against muggers, rapists, and burglars, do you? So he pointed me at an article about why yes, you do.

The post starts out laying out some basics, including the fact that in the case of a burglary or home invasion, the main thing is to stop the intruder from intruding, and whether that involves him being shot or killed, well, that’s a secondary issue. But the point of the article is to explain why a handgun isn’t sufficient:

Now you can shoot somebody once with a feeble handgun round, and instantly incapacitate them.  Great.  You won.  But on the same token, we’ve got people that have been shot a dozen times with duty ammo who walk under their own power into the ambulance.   Humans are amazing.

So if people can be so amazing, and I want to stop them right now, then I want to maximize the amount of trauma I inflict on them.  This is where rifle caliber carbines and shotguns rule.

This is where I call bullshit. This is an action movie plot, not a real-life category of crime that we should be worried about. This isn’t a thing. If it is, show me the stats. Show me the stats on burglars who take two or five or ten bullets and keep coming. From the FBI or CDC, not your Walking Dead fanfic.

Which leads me to my gun debate challenge: If you’re going to argue for gun rights, do it in the form of a letter to the parent of one of the children killed at Sandy Hook. Begin with “Your child died because …”, and make your case for who should be able to own which weapons, and how you propose to prevent abuse, and deal with the inevitable mistakes. And if you’re not a garbage human, you’ll at least try to end with “… so that fewer parents have to endure the heartbreak that you did.”

I also got the inevitable “guns are for shooting at government representatives in case of “tyranny” line. But while I’m not unsympathetic to this line of reasoning, the fact is, that ship sailed long ago. It may have been possible, in the XVIII c., to envision a citizen militia posing a serious threat to the federal government, in the 21st century, the idea is laughable.

Look at Ruby Ridge. At the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. At Afghanistan. At Iraq. At Cliven Bundy, and at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. As much as people complain about needless violence and death, and rightly so, still, in every case, the US government is holding back.

I think the closest analogy to what the people arguing “tyranny” have in mind is Afghanistan: loosely-organized, highly-motivated coalitions of citizen fighters waging a guerrilla war against the US military. And yet, the US does not engage in Dresden-style carpet bombing. It uses memes (what used to be called propaganda) to try to win hearts ad mind. It uses satellites and reconnaissance to try to distinguish friend from foe, and limit civilian casualties. But all that is thousands of miles away from the average mainland American, who hasn’t been asked to help the war effort by planting a victory garden or collecting scrap iron, as in World War II.

Now, imagine that, by some miracle, the rebels grow stronger, and the “tyrannical”  Government decides that its very survival is at stake so it stops holding back, stops trying to take them alive. The rebels hold Fort Knox, and have all of the Uzis and Kalashikovs they think Obama confiscated, and who knows how many buildings full of bullets?

Against that, the US military has several thousand Tomahawk cruise missiles, just to name one off the top of my head. And bombers, and drones, and nukes. What I’m getting at is that the US military is very very powerful, and very very good at its job when it wants to be, and its job is to ruin your day in the worst possible way.

So yeah, I’m not buying your argument of shooting at federal employees because of “tyranny”. Power fantasies are not a solid basis for public policy. You’d think that would be obvious, but apparently it needs to be repeated:

Power fantasies are not a solid basis for public policy
, you fuckers.
I get standing for principle. I do it all the time. I even agree with Ben Franklin’s dictum that “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”. But note that he didn’t say, “don’t give up an inch of Liberty”. It doesn’t even say, “don’t trade Liberty for Safety”. What it does say is, if you’re giving up some measure of liberty, make sure it’s worth it.
Yeah, I get that you want to protect yourself and your family. I also get that it’s fun to shoot guns. But if that Liberty means a permanent loss of Safety such that we have to endure one mass shooting after another, until the pictures of dead children all run together, then the price is too damn high.
To quote The Onion, “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens”. Literally every other first world nation on the globe has figured this out.
So that’s where I now stand: if you’re going to argue for gun rights, you have to explain yourself to the parents of a dead child. Have at it.
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Prescriptivist Christianity

I’ve been called a Grammar Nazi. I don’t call myself that, but I will cop to “grammar cop”, “pedant”, “stickler”, and other descriptors and epithets in that vein.

And one argument that I’ve run into over and over is that language evolves over time, an argument bolstered by the fact that most English dictionaries are descriptivist, not prescriptivist. That is, they don’t tell you how you’re supposed to use a word (the way the Académie Française does with the French language); rather, lexicographers study how people actually use words, and compile their observations into dictionaries. Thus, it does me no good to complain that “beg the question” means “assume one’s conclusion”: if most anglophones mean “raise the question” when they say it, and understand it that way when they hear it, then in practice, “beg the question” means “raise the question”. Sucks to be me.

But one thing I hear quite often is “that’s not very Christian”. In what might be considered a technical win for bipartisanship, I hear this from both ends of our new bicolored political spectrum. Things that are “not very Christian” can include lying, watching porn, bragging, refusing to help someone, lack of empathy, and much more.

Which brings me to this:


which links to a WaPo article entitled, “Christians are more than twice as likely to blame a person’s poverty on lack of effort”.

So for once, I”m going to put on my descriptivist hat and say that no, if large numbers of Christians do X, then X is Christian. Do you want “Christian” to be synonymous with “good”? Are you annoyed that people think hating on gays and brown-skinned people is Christian? Then stop tarnishing the brand.

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A Republican Drama

Via @Billy, Just Billy, who saved screenshots:

I understand that the reason his insurance claim was denied is that he was using his own car for his job (delivering pizza), but had a personal insurance policy, not a professional one, which costs more but covers job-related accidents.

So now he’s running a GoFundMe campaign to pay his bills. As of this writing, he’s raised $2,225 of his $15,000 goal.

In a book or movie, this would be the point where Our Hero has an epiphany: that accidents can happen to anyone, even the young and healthy. That medical care is fucking expensive (and replacement cars ain’t cheap either). That having to ask people for money while you’re busy getting your spine, your car, and your job back together is another pain in the ass.

It might also lead one to wonder: what if he didn’t have 30,000 Twitter followers who could chip in? Or if he didn’t happen to be young and photogenic? How long would it take him to pay his medical bills on a pizza delivery guy’s salary?

Wouldn’t it be great if there were some way to have something like a GoFundMe that scales? Maybe something where people pay in while they’re healthy and able to draw a salary, and can then get help paying unexpected bills so they don’t go broke from being sick or in an accident? What if, in short, there were such a thing as medical insurance?

However, we don’t live in a movie, and as of this writing, Sassy Gay Republican still seems to equate universal healthcare insurance with tyranny or some similar right-wing talking point. But while he may be cutting off his nose to spite his face, the rest of us can use him as an object lesson.

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Of Course BillDo Endorses the Nashville Statement. What Did You Expect?

Bill Donohue, aka Our Lady of Perpetual Aneurysm, has issued a statement in support of the Nashville Statement, a non-binding statement by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood to say, in brief, that it intends to keep its sexual mores anchored in the 18th century for as long as humanly possible.

BillDo writes:

“Hateful,” “homophobic,” “anti-LGBT” are among the hysterical condemnations of the statement flying around print, broadcast and social media. But the statement is none of those things.

Unless, of course, you consider statements like

WE DENY that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.

to be somehow anti-LGBT. And besides,

the statement does not single out homosexual or transgender persons. It emphasizes that all human beings are called to “chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage,”

See? It doesn’t say that only gay and trans people are horrible and should live lives devoid of sex. All they need to do is to get married. To someone they’re not attracted to, per Article 1. Because God ordained one-man/one-woman sex specifically so that evangelicals wouldn’t get funny feelings in their down-there areas.

Of course, BillDo belongs to an organization that considers suffering to be a gift from God, so his opinions may or may not match yours.

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Grand Juries: Some Suggestions on Note-Taking

In which I share some things I only figured out after over a month of grand-jurying.

If your grand jury is anything like mine, each session you have a pad of paper with your name on it, that you get back every week, and a docket list listing the cases for that week, and for each case, the case number, name of the accused, name of the police officer, list of charges, and some other details.

The docket has a lot of blank space on it, so you can take notes. The pad of paper is also good for taking notes. However, note that the pad stays, while the docket is different every week. So try to use the margins of the docket for things that only matter that week, and use the pad for notes that you’ll want to refer to in future weeks.

The latter category includes things like:

  • Legal definitions: what’s the difference between first-, second-, and third-degree burglary? How much heroin is considered “personal use”, and how much is possession with intent to distribute?
  • Anything to do with ongoing cases. In particular, if you hear from a witness one week, it’s likely that you’ll hear from another witness in the same case another week. You’ll be happy you wrote down names and places: it’ll help you get a better idea of what went on.
  • Anything else you might need to know in weeks to come, like the phone number of the courthouse, or the names of your co-jurors.

Now, the docket lists the cases you’ll be hearing that week. But if your case load is anything like mine, you’ll hear anywhere from twenty to forty cases per session, so by the time you’re ready to vote, you won’t be able to keep all of the different cases straight.

This means that as the police officer (or whoever) reads the police report for each case, you need to listen for the elements of the crime the person is charged with. Put a check mark next to each one as you hear it: if the report contains “… a search of the vehicle revealed a digital scale, forty baggies, and twelve rounds of ammunition”, you can check off “possession of drug paraphernalia” and “illegal possession of ammunition”.

If the report later says, “upon questioning, Smith said that the baggies were his, but the bullets belonged to his friend”, you can add an A (for “admitted”) next to “possession of drug paraphernalia”, in case that makes it easier to determine whether there’s probable cause.

During the reading of the report, pay attention to where the information came from: if it begins with “On April 17, defendant Smith threatened victim Jones with a pistol”, who is saying that? Witnesses? A police officer describing surveillance camera footage? As a grand juror, you’re not determining guilt or innocence; only probable cause. In practice, “no probable cause” means that a cop made it up, or something along those lines. It’s a low bar to hurdle, but make sure you do.

Don’t be afraid to ask where the information comes from. If you or someone you cared about were accused of a crime, would you want them indicted by someone who simply took a cop’s word for it, and didn’t ask any questions?

 

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Grand Juries: The System Is Biased

Four months ago, I was kindly invited by the county to sit on a grand jury. The whole thing turned out to be more interesting than I had expected, and while I’m not allowed to talk about deliberations or the internals of the process, to allow jurors to speak freely inside the courtroom, I wanted to share a few thoughts.
First of all, this is a grand jury. The kind you’re probably thinking of, the 12 Angry Men type of jury of your peers, is a petit jury. The grand jury looks at an indictment and decides whether there’s probable cause to go forward to trial. That is, the petit jury decides whether the defendant did what they’re accused of doing. The grand jury merely decides whether there’s something going on; whether it’s worth having a trial at all.

One of the first things that struck me is how biased the system is in favor of bringing a case to trial.

  1. To start with, the evidentiary bar is much lower: instead of “beyond a reasonable doubt” or “preponderance of the evidence”, which a petit jury uses, the grand jury merely looks for “probable cause”. Basically, was a crime committed, and is there reason to think that the defendant may have committed it? The bar is low, so it’s easy to pass. Basically, this just excludes cases where a cop arrests someone for looking funny.
  2. The cases are introduced by a state prosecutor, who also educates the grand jury in legal matters (e.g., explaining the difference between first and second degree assault), and are read by another state employee, such as a police detective. That is, the state presents the (alleged) facts of the case, the state provides legal guidance, and no one is there to speak for the accused. It’s a bit like when your car mechanic tells you that you need a new part, and is also the person who explains what that part does.
  3. Related to the above: the prosecutor decides which cases to bring before a grand jury, and when. This isn’t a bad thing, as it means that the prosecutor doesn’t push a case before it’s ready, but it does mean that by the time a case gets to a grand jury, it’s probably good to go.
  4. As I understand it, a petit jury has to render a unanimous verdict. That is, twelve out of twelve people have to agree. In a grand jury, on the other hand, twelve out of twenty-three people (at least, in this county) have to agree. That is, almost half of the jury could have reservations, and the case could still move forward.
  5. Not all errors are equally costly: there are two types of mistake a grand jury can make: it can accept a case with no merit, or it can reject a case that ought to go to trial. In the first case, someone walks who should have gone before a judge, and possibly sent to prison. In the second case, someone has to waste a few hours or days getting their case thrown out of court. The impact of the two types of error is not the same, and so there’s the temptation to play it safe and let iffy cases proceed.

To give you an idea of how biased the system is, the state prosecutor who conducted orientation said that grand juries do dismiss cases, maybe two or three times a year. A year. I estimate that over 2000 cases a year get presented to grand juries in that courthouse, so that’s a rejection rate of about 0.1%.

I’m not saying that the system is broken, or hopelessly unjust, or anything like that. Just that the way things are set up, if you can get a case before a grand jury, it’s a very safe bet that it’ll proceed (I was going to say “that it’ll make it to trial”, but then I realized that there are a lot of pitfalls between the grand jury and the trial.)

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