Shootin’ Blanks


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The things you notice sometimes.

I was watching Blood Simple last night, because it was on its final days of free availability on Amazon Prime. Early on in the movie, Abby (Frances McDormand) loads her revolver. As I’m watching, I think “Hey, didn’t it just say on the box those are blanks?”

I had to look it up. But, yes, it did.

I also wondered at the end (minimal spoilers) why nobody ever bothered to count rounds once the shooting started.

Playing the Trump Card


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The big story on the Republican side of the ballot these days is the Establishment versus Trump. Assuming (a fair bet) that Donald Trump does not have 50% of the delegates going into the convention, can he still win? Can the “not Trump” faction get the 50% of delegates necessary to defeat him? Can they do it without gaming the convention? The establishment has backed several candidates; first Jeb Bush then Marco Rubio, whom they have seen fallen by the way. Other Candidates, like Christie, got the beginnings of support before being abandoned. Is Kasich capable of taking on that mainstream mantle? Can they stomach Cruz, who in any other year would be the one they’d want to see defeated?

Described this way, the race seems all about the personalities and (almost to a lesser extent) the politics of these individuals. For many, those things are really about the electability of the candidate when it comes to the general election. How will a conservative, a libertarian or a moderate stack up against Hillary?

Yet, there is another reason why a Donald Trump candidacy spells chaos for the GOP establishment. His nomination would throw a YUGE wrench into the election methods and mathematics that have been so hard-won over the last 8 years.

Briefly, the traditional way to look at an election is this. You have an electorate that is made up of a (and I’ll use the liberal-conservative dichotomy as a shortcut, without stipulating that the electorate is truly this one dimensional) core of liberals and a core of conservatives. These voters can be counted upon to reliably vote for “their” party, but are not numerous enough to get an actual majority. For that, you need the “swing voters,” those whose priorities are neither all-left or all-right and who make up their minds after considering the details of the candidates positions and personality as well as the circumstances surrounding the election. In many cases, these voters don’t make their final selection until the last moment, resulting in elections that appear too close to call even when they turn out not to be.

The traditional politicking says its all about winning the hearts and minds of these swing voters. Candidates must come out of the primary able to convince the massive of the moderate bona fides. Aligning a party or candidate with the voters’ top concern (economy, national security, etc.) becomes the name-of-the-game so as to win over those “Reagan Democrats” or “Republicans for Obama.” On this the Republican Party spent their efforts for both McCain and Romney. And they got schlonged.

Obama, with an army of computer wizards and the power of Big Data, took another tack. Instead of going after the undecideds, who can be incredibly fickle and quite expensive to actually convince, he went after the, shall we say, decideds. Obama’s machine targeted those people who were hard and passionately left – either generally or on particular issues – but were not certain to vote. They needed no convincing that they were liberal, only that it was necessary to their interests to go down to the polls on election day and cast that vote.

Clearly it worked. Of course, you can win an election on math and data mining alone – Obama, especially in 2008, has been popular in the traditional sense as well. But the Romney versus Obama result was a lot closer than most people give credit for.

Republicans (I think) have learned their lesson. They are preparing software and databases modeled after what Obama used so successfully and they have been gearing up to beat the Democrats at their own game for the better part of four years. But it won’t work if The Donald is the nominee.

It is become clear that that many of your most traditional and staunch Republican supporters are not for Trump. In fact, many have been telling pollsters that they would not vote Republican if Trump is the nominee. Instead, Trump makes his numbers from a non-traditional supporters, including some of those independents that the GOP is ready to de-emphasize. Which would all be par for this year’s electoral course except for one thing…

The Presidential Election is only a small part of what really matters.

The November 2016 ballot will contain choices all up-and-down the ticket for other Federal Positions, State Positions, Local offices,  ballot initiatives, etc. And each of these has a role to play in the politics of our Great Republic. While the perception and the story is that the party who wins the presidency is the victor, piratically speaking that is not the case. Certainly, if as Obama did in 2008, a party wins the presidency and a majority of the legislature, that President can push forward with a major partisan initiative (i.e. Obamacare). However, there is no guarantee that an election will award all levels to one party. Even as Obama has demonstrated a newfound power in the Presidency, the other parts of our government still matter – at least for the time being.

Control of the House of Representatives allows a party to put forward lots of legislation and define its principles. These initiatives are easily countered by a Presidential veto and a Senate which requires a super-majority to consider legislation. And this ignores the States, each of which have their own systems and subtleties. Another amazing aspect of our electoral system is the disconnected between the office of governor and the elected representatives. States like California, New York and Massachusetts, which will never, ever see a Republican legislative majority, nevertheless elect Republican governors.

Rather than dwell on the nitty gritty, I merely want to point out that a Donald revolt does damage to this system that even a weak McCain or Romney run doesn’t do. The traditional methods turn out voters who “vote the ticket” or are otherwise persuaded to cause a coattail effect. That is, the party mostly focuses on electing their candidate for President and knock-on effects benefit all the other levels of government. But if Trump is eschewed by the traditional voter and supported by the non-traditional voter, all of this goes away. It threatens the party in a way that even a Sanders revolt couldn’t harm the Democrats.

And that is one, completely rational, reason that the GOP Establishment fears Donald Trump’s winning the convention.


After Apple-Picking


My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

Robert Frost

After Apple Picking

Why, Then, Do We Have Laws Against Murder?


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I was recently subjected to a lengthy debated about gun registration and “Universal Background Checks.”   Briefly, a new State law had been proposed which would have required gun sales between private parties be conducted via a Federal Firearms License transfer under a variety of new circumstances.  In the course of this debate, which I’m not going to get into at this time, opponents objected that laws like the proposed only affect law-abiding gun owners; Criminals will not follow the law when they obtain their guns.

The response from the pro-gun-control speaker was, “If it’s true that criminals don’t follow the law, then why do we have laws against murder?”

Why, indeed?

I was recently reading the history of Harold II of England.   He was the last Saxon king of England until is defeat and death at the hands of William the Conqueror ushered in the Norman and French rule of that nation.  It also began a slower replacement of the Anglo-Saxon/Norse culture with what has come to be the English tradition of law.

Among those traditions, one in particular caught my eye.  In Anglo-Saxon law, one who committed of a murder was obligated to pay wergild (translated to man price).  This was a value placed on each human being.   That price varied depending on the social station of the victim; a slave was worth a fraction of a free man and a lord worth vastly more.  In fact, while the concept has left our culture, some of the language has remained.  Phrases like “A princely sum” refers to the orders of magnitude beyond that of the average man that a life of a noble might be worth.  The price of a free man’s life is sometimes give as 200 schillings (a schilling being worth roughly one sheep or cow).

This concept is not too dissimilar from the earliest recorded law, the Hammurabi Code of Babylonia, which also specified the price of a man (varying by station and gender).   As foreign as the concept is to our modern concept of the value of a life, historically speaking our current thinking is relatively new.

Note, also, that the wergild was paid, not to the king or lord, but to the victim’s family (or to the owner, if the victim was a slave or thrall).

What if a perpetrator was unable to pay the price?  Were they subject to the death penalty?  To life in prison? In fact, neither of these punishments existed in Anglo-Saxon England or the Germanic culture on which it was based. The supreme penalty to be imposed upon the unrepentant murderer was to be outlawed. This meant that the criminal was expelled from society and was no longer afforded the protection of society’s laws.

My first thought on readings this was that this doesn’t seem so bad. So you’re exiled and maybe have to try to start anew in some foreign land, but at least your head is still attached to your neck, right?

More likely, an outlawed murderer probably had a rather short life expectancy.  Once the protection of society is removed, the victim’s survivors were free to extract whatever retribution they felt best. You would probably expect to forfeit not only your life, but everything else you had in the world.

It’s not for nothing that we call this part of our legal framework the “Criminal Justice System.”  Once outside of the law, “justice” has no limits.  Any slight, perceived or real, might be subject to whatever level of vengeance. The law, then, provides justice for the criminal, more so than the victim, by making sure that “the punishment fits the crime” and goes no further.

To get back to the title, why then is murder illegal? Making murder against the law doesn’t stop people from killing each other, so is it a failed law? Or are there other reasons for it.  In some ways, the involvement of the State in punishing the murderer is about equality – that the State should advocate for the homeless victim with no family with the same process that it would advocate for the child of a powerful family.  But, more than that, laws against murder set a framework for the criminal that limit his culpability through both due process and maximum sentence. We create our laws against murder and then set limits on those laws in a way that provides the victims with a sense of justice while preventing the creation of a new set of victims; victimized if we end up over-punishing the guilty.

Without laws against murder, people wouldn’t “get away with murder.” In fact, without the law, murderers (especially of victims with sufficient friends and family) might be less likely to “get away.” We as a society, however, deem it better to go a little easy on our murders so as to avoid family feuds, blood feuds, and vendettas that in the long run would be far more destabilizing to our society than the occasional murder.

Do mala prohibita (laws, such as these gun control measures, which criminalize the failure to complete paperwork) provide “criminal justice” in the same way that prohibitions against murder do?  Of course not. The idea that without the requisite paperwork, society would descend into waring clans is too ridiculous to imagine.

After all the debate, the gun law in question was, appropriately I would say, defeated.





It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.

Calvin Coolidge

Speech on the Occasion of the One Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence

July 5, 1926


Injuries and Usurpations (continued)

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

Many a slip ‘twixt the teacup and the lip. TV Review: 24


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So I’m finally catching up with 24. I was enthralled by the first season, and eagerly watched it as it came out. I recall reading at the time (don’t remember where) an interview with Keifer Sutherland where he speculated that the show could never run for more than two Seasons. While the second and third seasons kept me watching every week, I always felt a little less for having done so. Finally, by Season 4, it wasn’t important enough to set aside time to watch or record it, and I let it go.

Until now. It is one of the free shows available with Amazon Prime. And just like that, I’m back into the cycle of addiction. For some reason, year after year American deals with an existential terrorist threat and only one man, Agent Jack Bauer, can stop it. If you read it, I discussed what I called the “small world” problem in my Under the Dome review. Why the fate of the world so often depends on the doings of a handful of people within a 20-block radius in downtown Los Angeles is a puzzle I’ll leave to you, the reader.

Instead, I’ll comment on what is bothering me most about the series. It’s a minor thing, that has only reoccurred one or twice in each season. Each time I see it, though, it really irks me.

Now, much has been written about the silly portrayal of guns in Hollywood in general and in 24 in particular. I could go on and on about all the little mistakes in 24 that bug me. What really gets to me most, though, is the sounds made by empty guns. Especially machine guns. When a 24 machine gun runs out of ammunition, it makes this whirring and clicking noise – as if it were some kind of electric-powered minigun. Quite clearly, this was added in during the post-production sound editing. There are very obvious instances where a firearm is quite clearly empty and locked back, and yet it continues to make clicking noises that couldn’t possibly come from the real thing (or, for that matter, the blank-firing versions used to film the scene.)

So why does this happen?   Why can’t the entertainment business include even a high-school level of physics research into their stories? Do they not know, or do and just not care? Maybe it is a little of both. It’s quite likely that an L.A.-based sound editor has no direct knowledge of what a machine gun does or, more importantly, doesn’t sound like. It is also possible that, knowing that it’s likely that most of the viewing public shares in this ignorance, the producers/directors decide to exercise a little artistic license. In reality, how does one tell the difference between a wielded machine gun that has stopped firing because it is out of ammunition as opposed to the shooter simply having stopped firing. Short of having the character mutter, “Damn, I’m out” in every scene, a little sound effect will do the trick. We all know that a double-action revolver will click-click-click when you pull the trigger (thanks Deer Hunter).  So why not the same for any pistol? Similarly machine guns, but these also need some kind of a machine sound.  They are “machine” guns, after all.

That’s what really annoys me.   Yet, I keep watching so I guess, from Hollywood’s standpoint, it’s all OK.



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