Sunday, September 30, 2007

International Range Bowling Day

As I announced last week, today is International Range Bowling Day. I spent the day with family and friends playing the Next Olympic Sport. Over 200 Crayola ® rounds were expended, and at the end of the day I didn't win a single game. I placed last in the first game (which D.W. won), and second in the last game. (The last game was won by my brother's girlfriend, who had never fired a gun in her life).

As we played, it occurred to me that to the general public its origins are clouded in mystery. This is the story of how it was developed to become the phenomenon it is today.

First, a word...

I rarely mention Range Bowling without being accosted by somebody about how terrible it is that we're promoting weapons, we're encouraging killing, yada, yada, yada. To those people I say, “Get a life, you ignorant putz.” Football doesn't encourage mugging, though quarterbacks get sacked; baseball doesn't encourage stealing, though bases are stolen; Range Bowling doesn't encourage killing, though shots are fired.

First of all, we have extensively tested the equipment. It is safer than a pellet gun. One look at the pins after using pellet guns tells the story. The pins struck by crayons are always and invariably undamaged. Those struck by pellets are dented. Those struck by BBs are punctured.

We use a real gun in part because the irony of using a weapon for entertainment isn't lost on us. It's ludicrous, and fun. But it's also safer than the “safe” alternatives I mention above. Finally – and importantly – it gives us an opportunity to teach gun safety with real guns. We treat the guns at all times as if they are loaded with live ammunition, though live ammunition is banned from the premises. There are penalties if you fail to follow gun safety rules (namely, you're ejected from the game). We wear eye protection. We use the safeties on the guns. All this for wax pellets fired without a charge. You probably stand a better chance of getting injured playing catch in the front yard.

As a result of all of this, Range Bowling isn't just fun; it's educational. Our kids are responsible around weapons. They're not fearful, ignorant, or frivolous.

The History

I've always had a habit of opening my house to strays, strangers, and temporary guests. The “guest” at this time, around 1994-1995, was my brother Robert. One of Robert's skills is reloading ammunition, so when he moved in he brought his reloading equipment with him. Basically, this sort of thing consists of casings (the stuff you put the powder in; primers (the thing that blows up when the hammer hits it, causing the powder to ignite; bullets (the lead part that kills or injures); and a press mechanism for putting this stuff together.

Also at that time my son William was about 8 or 9 years old, and like most young kids he owned crayons. He had a tendency to leave them around the house.

One day I idly picked up a casing while talking to Robert. In my other hand I had a Crayola ® crayon that had been left on the floor. Noticing that they were about the same size, I casually slipped the crayon into the empty casing and broke it off flush with the end of the casing. When I wondered aloud whether the wax pellet could be used as a bullet, Robert surmised that the charge would most likely melt it completely, but that the primer alone should expel it from the barrel of the pistol. He proceeded to load the casing I was holding into his .38 revolver and fired it at a corrugated cardboard box across the room.

It bounced harmlessly off the cardboard. From about 3 feet away a crayon fired at the box penetrated the first layer of the box, but did not penetrate the corrugation. As it turned out, this is pretty safe, so long as you don't point it at somebody's eyes. In fact, it's safer than a BB gun or even a plastic pellet gun. The wax doesn't damage the revolver either, though you most assuredly should clean your gun before putting it away. It was safe enough that we could envision an indoor shooting range.

The next order of business was finding appropriate targets. The crayon won't travel more than 40 feet, and has such a low velocity that paper targets are invulnerable at that range. William had some plastic bowling pins, though, and they did fall over when struck properly.

From there it was a short step from target practice to actually bowling for point.

Why now?

It's time, that's why.

Actually, this is the best time of year to introduce people to the sport. I live in South Carolina, so my rules of weather apply, but barring the occasional hurricane, this is the least blustery time of year. That makes it a lot easier to play outdoors, if firing crayons in the house makes you way too nervous.

Secondly, it's the best time to get the proper equipment. Those plastic bowling pins are pretty much seasonal items. At the end of September the stores have put away their Back To School specials and have started to put out Christmas merchandise. The decorations may be for Halloween, but the seasonal aisles in Wal-Mart are starting to fill with toys, toys, toys... including plastic bowling pins Don't worry if you can't find the pins. Just use ten empty 2-litre soda bottles. Just get some pins when you get the chance... they're better.

Sadly, this year I couldn't find the pins! I had given away the set I used previously, thinking they'd be easily replaced, and then I couldn't find a set to save my life. So, it was the Dr. Pepper company to the rescue. I sucked down ten Diet Dr. Peppers over the last couple of days, and spray-painted them With the caps on you get a lot of pin action, so set them a little bit further apart than you would place bowling pins.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Navy loses spine: capitulates to morons

Today on the following headline appeared:

Navy to Modify Barracks Complex that Resembles a Swastika From Air

This one's worthy of comment, so I'm quoting the entire story (don't have a cow... it's Fair Use). It leads off with a startling photo of a barracks complex at the Coronado Naval Air Station in San Diego, California.

CORONADO, Calif. — The Navy will spend as much as $600,000 to modify a 40-year-old barracks complex that resembles a swastika from the air, a gaffe that went largely unnoticed before satellite images became easily accessible on the Internet.

This wasn't a “gaffe”... it was a design feature, and a damned good one, as I'll point out in a moment.

The Navy said officials noted the buildings' shape after the groundbreaking in 1967 but decided against changing it at the time because it wasn't obvious from the ground. Aerial photos made available on Google Earth in recent years have since revealed the buildings' shape to a wide audience.

Ooooh, look at the phrasing. Makes it sound like just an unfortunate accident, doesn't it? Except that it was neither unfortunate, nor an accident. It's a swastika, alright. But ironically, here, in this context, it's not a symbol of hate. Keep reading and all will be revealed.

The Navy approved the money to change the walkways, landscaping and rooftop solar panels of the four L-shaped barracks, used by members of the Naval Construction Force at the Navy's amphibious base at Coronado, near San Diego.
"We don't want to be associated with something as symbolic and hateful as a swastika," Scott Sutherland, deputy public affairs officer for Navy Region Southwest, told the Los Angeles Times.

Gee, you should have thought about that before taking on the Germans in WWII.

Listen, folks, it's OK to be “associated” with a symbol of hate, so long as the association is clear that you are an enemy of those that the symbol represents. It's OK to be the enemy of Nazis, the enemy of the Ku Klux Klan, the enemy of terrorists. If you're in the military, and you're not readily identifiable as an enemy of our nation's enemies -- if that association is not clear -- then you're not doing your job, plain and simple. It's part of the oath. In fact, it's how the oath begins: “I... do solemnly swear, (or affirm), that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic... At least that's how it went when I took it.

Online commentators remarked widely about the buildings' resemblance to the Nazi symbol.

Yep. The 1:1 “resemblance”.

Dave vonKleist, host of "The Power Hour," a Missouri-based radio-talk show, said he wrote to military officials calling for action.
"I'm concerned about symbolism," he said. "This is not the type of message America needs to be sending to the world."

Looks like Dave vonKleist has a very narrow outlook. Otherwise he'd have broadened his view to see the Big Picture:

Yep. What you see coming from the SouthWest are two Allied bombers approaching the symbol of Nazi aggression and hate. Beyond the swastika you also see the aftermath: a ballfield tended so as to resemble a bombed out field. This isn't a symbol of hate in this context. Rather, it is a commemoration of past accomplishments and a promise for the future.

But according to Dave vonKleist, America doesn't need to send the message that the enemies of freedom will be met with deadly force. Does vonKleist has a soft spot in his heart for der Feuhrer, or does he just have a soft spot in his head?

The Navy decided to alter the buildings' shape following requests this year by Anti-Defamation League regional director Morris Casuto and U.S. Rep. Susan Davis.
"I don't ascribe any intentionally evil motives to this," Casuto said of the design. "It just happened. The Navy has been very good about recognizing the problem. The issue is over."

Yep. No evil motives. Only the purest motives of defense against tyranny. Of course, Casuto and Davis don't see that because they didn't look at the big picture either. Or perhaps this California Democrat just didn't want to see the big picture. By taking the image out of context, she found herself a very convenient way to target the military. While she votes for spending in her district (the NAS is a major presence in the 53 rd district, on broader issues she tends to vote against the military.

Out-of-control political correctness aside, there's nothing wrong with the swastika as it's portrayed here: a target of the defenders of justice. It was designed and erected by patriots, not sympathizers. However, the United States Navy, in a fit of mamby-pamby back-pedaling, characterizes this noble patriotism as “the problem.” It's a good damned thing our parents fought in WWII and not the present generation.

On the other hand, the issue IS over. These people are idiots. Case closed.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Next Sunday is Range Bowling Day!

Range Bowling is one of my contributions to the world of mindful entertainment*. It's been a while since I mentioned it, so I'm declaring next Sunday (September 30th). Official Range Bowling Day. I'll see if I can organize something and post some pics.

If you're wondering what it is... it's the most fun you can have with a set of plastic bowling pins, a table, a box of empty cartridges, and .38 calibre revolver. Follow the link at the top of this post for more details.

* others include Jedi Chess, my Qui-Vive implementation and the unpublished game of BaseFire!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Test of Weblog Extension

Last night I upgraded to 2.3 and noticed that there's now a Weblog extension. So I'm testing it here. Don't expect much in the way of pithy comment.

The way this works is that you simply install the extension by double-clicking on it. Then when you open Writer you'll notice a new Weblog menu. Edit your settings by choosing the type of blog and entering your username and password. The extension publishes to Blogger, Roller, Wordpress, Atom Publishing Protocol API, and MetaWebLog API, and you can have multiple blogs.

Then just use your word processor to compose the post, complete with all of the nifty features. There's no need to title the work as you'll be asked for a title later.

When you're satisfied, click on “Send to Weblog”. In the dialog box that pops up, select your blog then enter the title, and a category, and select whether you want it saved as a draft or published. Click OK and you're done.

Seems to work.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Cul-de-sacs are Evil? Way too simplistic.

In a recent blog, Dana Blankenhorn contends that cul-de-sacs are evil. I kind of hope he's just kidding, because the conclusions he draws from his lack of evidence are are practically jaw-dropping. So I'm going to pretend that he means what he says in this discussion. Please keep in mind that I'm not arguing for cul-de-sacs -- I can't think of a reason why I'd care -- I'm arguing against the silly conclusion Dana's drawn. Namely:

Cul de sacs are the symbol of what's wrong with America. But they have become so ubiquitous that no one can imagine building cities any other way.
Well, now. If only life were so easy that we could blame all of society's ills on the prevalence of dead-end streets. Sadly, Dana's hyperbolic analysis defies not only reason, but fact as well. Let's look at his points (though they're interwoven and not clearly delineated. Since he rambled, I don't feel bad about rambling, too).
1. The cul de sac makes the War Against Oil nearly impossible to win, by guaranteeing that people of every age have only one way to get around -- the automobile. As cul de sac developments grow this dependence increases.
It depends a lot on the cul-de-sac. I used to live in a gated apartment complex in Coral Springs, FL. In fact, it was exactly here. If you zoom out a level or two you'll see that there's shopping right across main drag, to the East. Within walking distance to the North is a Publix grocery store. Oh, and right beside the entrance to the cul-de-sac is a bus stop. That's right... public transportation. In fact, controlled access to gated communities makes it easier to plan public transportation, and to use it to lessen our dependence on oil. Most people don't even think about it, though.

Dana's observation is not limited to cul-de-sacs, and it's not even new. Look at this neighborhood in Columbia, S.C. It was planned... oh, about 50 years ago. Very few dead-ends here, and also very few shops of any kind. Of course, that didn't stop my parents from sending me out on my bike to pick up this-or-that from the A&P several miles away. They just had to wait an hour or more to get it. But in general, it's not the number of outlets, it's the distance from the store that puts people's butts in their cars. So why are the cul-de-sacs evil and traditional residential neighborhoods not?

Since living in Coral Springs I've since moved several times, most recently to a wide-open rural community. Now that I live in the county, I have to drive to the store, and it's inconvenient, so I do it when I'm out for other purposes. If I'm missing an essential ingredient for a recipe, I cook something else. Frankly, even when I lived in Coral Springs most of my shopping was done mostly on the way home from work. The change in location and convenience hasn't really changed the shopping pattern.

It's not living on a cul-de-sac that makes us dependent on automobiles, its lack of adequate public transportation. Though... the urban planning in Coral Springs shows that this is easily fixed in suburban areas. Rural areas simply can't adequately solve this particular problem. (But surprisingly, they're not evil, either.) But multi-purposing your trips -- such as shopping on your way home from work -- will most certainly cut down on your use of oil. This is true whether you live on a cul-de-sac or a thoroughfare or a two-lane highway in the county.

Conclusion: it ain't the urban plan that's a problem. It's the failure of people to buy into it and work with it. To encourage public transportation we have to use it. To use it, it has to be there.

2. Cul de sacs make you fat. They make you lazy. They give you the illusion of security, but there's plenty of crime in the cul de sacs. Crooks have cars, and they know that there's little traffic inside the cul de sac. Drive up, smash, grab, drive away -- chances are great no one will see you.

There are two arguments here: they make you fat, and they're not safe.

The first one is adequately answered thus: lack of exercise and too much food makes you fat. Not the kind of street you live on. Neighborhoods can be designed for security and convenience, and they can put walking trails and bike trails there for you. But that alone won't make you healthy; you have to actually use that stuff.

The second one is not true either. The question isn't whether crime exists at all, it's how it compares proportionally to other types of residential plans. In many cul-de-sacs, the houses face each other (on thoroughfares they're typically end-to-end). The families know each other. And there are Neighborhood Watch programs in place. More preventative 911 calls are made by neighbors who know that something's unusual, not casual drivers who have no idea that the intruder doesn't actually live in the house. The lack of traffic is not a problem, it's a boon: few people visit except those that live there; therefore everything else is unusual. The residents know that. So do the crooks.

National statistics show that crime is lower in cul-de-sacs. Robbers, especially those in cars, prefer targets that are on main roads, preferably with multiple routes. Preferably no dead-ends, no narrow lanes, and enough choices so that they're not likely to be blocked or their route anticipated. This isn't limited to residential areas, as a study from Raleigh, NC has revealed (PDF. The link is to a US Dept. of Justice police guide concerning bank robbery).

Here's one of the many I found: It's a paper called "Designing Out Crime: Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design" presented by the Australian Institute of Criminology. It describes an actual case study in Hartford, Connecticut... a redesign of a deteriorating neighborhood called Asylum Hill:

Three major physical design changes were made in Asylum Hill: cul-de-sacs were created to stop through traffic; outside motor traffic was diverted to define neighbourhoods better; and residents were encouraged to put up fences. And to promote a sense of territoriality and control in the area, residents were encouraged to use the area more while outside pedestrians were discouraged.
The results?

Beside revealing a substantial drop in crime and fear of crime, an evaluation of the project (Fowler et al. 1979) concluded that the three components of the project - changes in physical design, police operations and community responses to crime - were essential in producing the positive results, but that the physical design changes were crucial in making the other crime prevention strategies work.
But you don't have to trust me or references I supply. Simply Google for "crime statistics robberies in cul-de-sacs".

Conclusion: Dana is just flat wrong, according to multiple studies by multiple agencies in multiple municipalities across the globe.

3. And if anyone thinks being part of a "gated community" with a gatehouse protects the residents of a cul de sac from crime, think again. There's crime there too. And much of it is never solved, again because there are no witnesses.

There are references that support this conclusion, such as this paper by Blakely & Snyder cited by Wikipedia. Frankly, Wikipedia is not widely regarded for its accuracy, nor am I impressed by this paper at all: where it gives hard numbers, they are given as a percentage of change, not as per-capita crime rates. In areas where the objective level of crime may be lower to start with, they provide neither evidence nor reasoning to support why we should expect the rate of change to differ from the outside areas. In other words, it appears their conclusion is a result of poor methodology. Neither does their conclusion match with their case studies, as with the case of Potomac Gardens in Washington, DC, where "The measures did dramatically reduce drug dealing and vandalism, however, and the majority of tenants came to support 'the fence' within a few months."

Not all gated communities are equal. Some are more densely populated than others. Some may contain single-family homes; others, apartment buildings. "Stately homes" (wherever they are located!) are more isolated than bungalows or apartments. Some are just residential neighborhoods; but some are entire communities. And the idea that crime is less prevalent in a gated community necessarily presumes that the criminal element does not live there in the first place.

Crime prevention isn't done on a macro scale. We could easily (within a week) control access to Manhattan Island. It would in every sense of the word be a gated community, but the crime rate wouldn't significantly change. Clearly, as we scale up we can expect diminishing results. Small areas, with neighborhood associations and clearly defined territories having restricted access does in fact work. Trying to scale this up to an entire community is over-ambitious, and frankly irrelevant to the discussion of cul-de-sacs.

That said, having lived in a gated apartment complex with a security guard on each gate, a regular patrol, and neighbors, I simply have to conclude--on that scale, at least--that Dana's just plain wrong.

Conclusion: cul-de-sacs are still more secure than thoroughfares; gated communities are irrelevant to that discussion.

He actually makes some other arguments; that traffic in cities increases with the adoption of cul-de-sacs there, though the public transportation and population remain unchanged. He wildly extends this to widening streets and gridlock without even considering alternatives such as improved public transportation to accompany the change in street plan (and he has the chutzpah to state that no one else can imagine building cities any other way! Pot, meet kettle.) These are unwarranted, unreasoned, and we can ignore them.

So let's get past Dana's overly-simplistic and hyperbolic conclusion (that cul-de-sacs are evil) and perhaps focus on what a message that he should have intended to say. It has nothing to do with dead-end streets.

Healthwise, it's being sedentary that's bad, not living on a dead-end street. No matter where you live you need to exercise. I know it's the Liberal modus-operandi to blame everything bad in your life on somebody else, but enough is enough. The city planners didn't give you a gut, you big baby. Drop the fork.

Crime prevention-wise, being involved through community watch programs really and truly works. Take part. It's easier if you live in a neighborhood with controlled access. If you have even the slightest smidgen of common sense you know that if you're on a thoroughfare then you can't depend on total strangers passing by at 40 mph to notice odd happenings in your home in the 3 to 5 second window of opportunity they have. So you're going to have a harder time of it than the guy on the cul-de-sac.

Winning the War Against Oil. What should we do?

Well, first, drop the rhetoric. "War Against Oil" is a slogan, not a plan. For one thing, it makes it difficult to identify the goal. If it's a war against foreign oil dependence, then it's not a war against oil at all. If it's an environmental statement, then as Yvo de Boer, the UN's top climate official, says, "The war against climate change is not a war against oil. It's a war against emissions." In this case, "War Against Oil" is flatly insufficient, as it should encompass other hydrocarbon fuels. If it's just a oil use, period, without any practical environmental, economic, or health goal, then it's just irrational.

I prefer to think in terms of a balance between ecological stewardship and political and economic independence. Drive down the burning of oil here so that we're not only not less dependent on it economically, but to improve the environment and quality of life here. It will not be cheap at first, and the oil we don't use will be burned by developing countries, making the overall global effect most probably negligible. But we can use our economic power to come up with workable technologies to replace the use of oil in those developing countries bootstrap a cleaner world.
  • Government:
    • Better suburban planning, for starters. Cul-de-sacs aren't evil. They do in fact lower crime, and they make it easier to plan bus routes. It would be nice to have more affordable, community shops and fewer mega-stores. But since mega-stores are so damned cheap to run, make sure the bus routes go there on convenient schedules.
    • Don't zone aesthetics so tightly that people can't use solar panels, for instance. Make it illegal for homeowners associations to forbid them, too.
    • You want people to use alternative fuels? Set an example: buy buses that use 'em.
    • Approach the problem realistically. If we use less oil, we won't extend the planet's reserves at all, as other countries will take advantage of falling prices to use more. So we need to promote alternatives on realistic economic grounds.
    • Promote and maintain your hydroelectric plants.
    • Promote nuclear energy. It's clean, it's reliable, it's cheap, and the residue is less energetic than than the uranium that was taken out of the environment in the first place. You want to use less oil? You want to cut back on hydrocarbon emissions? Use nuclear energy.
    • Discourage new coal and oil electric plants. Encourage replacement of those we have.
    • Stop thinking mainly in macro terms for energy alternatives. Encourage individuals to use efficient, cheap methods that work and make immediate economic sense.
      • Wind energy need not be generated in huge farms when you can put a generator on your rooftop to charge batteries.
      • Likewise for solar energy. The most effective use of solar energy isn't to make electricity, it's to harness the sun's heat to heat water or oil. This can be directly used for water heaters and radiators. That's a lot better than using photovoltaic cells at 15% efficiency to generate electricity to use for that purpose. Pipes on the roof can pay for themselves quickly.
    • Come up with a consistent national energy policy, PLEASE. We're pretty sick of wondering whether this or that energy-saving home improvement will get us what tax credits in what states. It's a simple concept: reducing our dependence on the government infrastructure should reduce our obligation to pay for it. It doesn't even need to be proportional, but we do need to eliminate the guesswork.
  • Individuals:
    • Better use of public facilities. The city plans, but they can't make you use the stuff. It's up to you to use trains and buses and your feet.
    • In rural areas you have more options with regard to self-sufficiency. For instance, stupid zoning laws that value aesthetics over function may prevent you from using solar panels in a suburban area. In a rural area you rarely have those kinds of restrictions. So use windmills, solar panels, and other creative supplements to your energy needs.
    • Conserve processed water by using gray water or groundwater for watering the lawn or washing the car. Some municipalities (like Cary, NC) offer separate lines for this.
    • Telecommute when possible. I live 60+ miles away from each of three major population centers, so this is a big one for me. My gas use is cut in half by working from home 2-3 days a week.
    • Multi-purpose trips. When you have to drive, do more than one thing at a time. If you need some incidental, put off getting it until you need to do something else. Avoid instant gratification... keep a list instead.
    • Buy better cars that use less petroleum. Bicycle when you can. Carpool.
    • Encourage alternative sources of energy. Getting over your irrational fear of nuclear power is a great step. You want to use less oil? You want to cut back on hydrocarbon emissions? USE NUCLEAR ENERGY.