Friday, October 9, 2015

Sensible Gun Control

It's happened again. Some whack-job has slipped through the cracks in the system and killed a bunch of people. The "no guns allowed" sign in front of the crime scene was either blatantly ignored, or taken as a favorable indicator by the killer when selecting his target (after all, with no one able to return fire, he was basically free to do what he wanted). Then, before the bodies were even cold, the call came out once again for "sensible gun control" from our nation's leaders, the media, etc..  Safe, responsible gun owners, the NRA, and other groups who represent them once again find themselves the subjects of misplaced blame, even though we grieve for the victims and celebrate the heroes as much, or even more, than anyone else. Time and time again, we're called to "compromise" and acquiesce to "sensible" gun control measures. Time and time again, the only things that are ever proposed make no sense, infringe on our rights, and usually only serve to make it easier for the whack-jobs to kill more people the next time around.

Frankly, I'm sick of the whole damned thing - every aspect of it.  I'm sick of these nut-jobs killing people, first and foremost. I'm sick of being blamed (as part of the responsible gun-owning collective) for their abominable actions. I'm sick of the calls to restrict my ability to defend myself and my family because of them. So, rather than just rant and rave about how sick and tired I am in a blog post, I'm going to propose an actual solution.  This is going to be fairly radical, and I expect no one will be happy with it, but isn't that what "compromise" is all about? Are you listening, politicians and candidates?  Yes?  No?  Who am I kidding?

The calls for "sensible" gun control usually come in a several different forms, some of which I'll capture here:

  • calls to ban certain types of firearms and accessories (like semi-auto rifles and magazines)
  • calls to further restrict where anyone, including licensed individuals may carry a weapon
  • calls for "universal" or "expanded" background checks prior to any gun sale
  • calls for mandatory licensing of gun owners / buyers
  • calls for mandatory training of gun owners / buyers
  • calls to register all guns and the people who own them
  • calls for some way to keep the whack-jobs in check

Side note: we almost never hear calls to try and fix the root cause of these issues, which, I believe is our completely failed mental health system. I think that if we were better at finding and treating the crazies BEFORE they picked up a gun, we'd see better results - regardless of what we try to control on the AFTER side. We also need to stop making these idiots famous. Their names and likenesses should be erased from public discourse and consigned to the dung-heap of forgotten history rather than broadcast 24/7 on the "news."  This is not really something that can be legislated, though, since there's that other amendment that guarantees free speech and a free press. Rather, it's something we should just do as a society. I also think most sensible people agree on that, so I'll simply gloss over it here. 

Meanwhile, most law abiding gun owners feel there are enough, or even too many restrictions in place already, and that our second amendment rights should instead be expanded (or restored, if you're into splitting hairs). We'd like to see:
  • an end to restrictions on what kinds of guns and accessories we can own (i/e: "assault weapons," suppressors, big magazines, etc.)
  • the right to legally carry, for self-defense purposes, wherever we have a right to go, including across state lines
  • minimal to no hassle when buying a new or used gun or accessory
  • not having to ask permission from government officials or pay exorbitant licensing fees before exercising our rights
  • some way to keep the whack-jobs in check that doesn't negatively impact us

From (emphasis added by me):

Compromise (n): 1. a settlement of differences by mutual concessions; an agreement reached by adjustment of conflicting or opposing claims, principles, etc., by reciprocal modification of demands.

Note that "compromise" does not mean "I give up more of my rights and get nothing in return. Again." Nor does it mean "'shall not be infringed,' motherf***er, deal with it."

So, let's take an honest look at both lists and see what we can each live with and without, OK? I can select a few things from the first list that I would be willing to support in order to gain a few things from the second list, and there are a few things on the second list that I wouldn't be terribly upset to lose in order to keep some of the first-list things from happening.

My proposal, therefore, consists of a couple key components, each of which I will present with a brief(?) rationale. Through this, the gun control crowd will get the following:

  • Get: "expanded" background checks prior to any gun sale
  • Get: mandatory licensing of gun owners / buyers
  • Get: mandatory training of gun owners / buyers
  • Get: registration of gun owners / buyers
  • Give: restrictions on types of guns and accessories that can be owned
  • Give: restrictions on where licensed people can carry
  • Give: registration of guns themselves
The gun rights crowd will get the following:
  • Get: an end to restrictions on what kinds of guns and accessories we can own (i/e: "assault weapons," suppressors, big magazines, etc.)
  • Get: the right to legally carry, for self-defense purposes, wherever we have a right to go, including across state lines
  • Give: now have to be licensed and registered
  • Give: have to submit to mandatory training requirements
  • Give: more hassle when buying a gun in the form of background checks 
We would all get, hopefully, an improved way to keep the whack-jobs in check that doesn't place too heavy a burden on the rest of us. In some cases, both sides should be able to get close to what they want - i/e: instead of outright bans on guns, there are some reasonable hurdles to clear prior to ownership that are designed to ensure everyone's safety - including the owner.

The big problem I've had with the calls for tighter gun control laws and "compromise" is that they aren't really proposing a compromise - they're just proposing more restrictions and requirements, with no concessions in return.  Anyway .. here's how I think this could play out to everyone's benefit:

1. Federal preemption for firearms laws - meaning state and local governments do not get to make their own gun laws. Rationale: The right to bear arms is guaranteed by the federal constitution, therefore its regulation should be a federal matter. This will eliminate the confusing and loop-hole-ridden patchwork of laws on the books now, which is part of the reason there are so many cracks in the current system. I am ordinarily a fan of States' rights, but I don't for a second think that constitutional rights are the domain of the states.
"If the words 'congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion .. ' can be interpreted such that 99.9% of the population of some tiny little village in the middle of nowhere can't decide they want a manger scene on the town hall lawn, then ' .. the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed' should prevent the NYPD from being able to throw me in prison for simply bringing my handgun into the city."
2. Open up the NICS system so that private individuals could run a quick, anonymous background check prior to selling a firearm without having to seek out a dealer.  Someone could even write an app for it.  If item 4 is implemented, they could just enter the buyer's gun license number and get a quick go/no-go decision.  Do away with the NICS backdoor registration scheme, though.

3. It should be blatantly obvious that a background check system is only as good as the data behind it, right? How many times has a mass-shooter passed a background check before the event? It happens more often than it should. So, we need to figure out a way to fix that system and ensure timely, accurate data is available. The federal preemption idea will help with this by doing away with the current hodge-podge of state laws and state level systems, some of which feed their data into NICS, and some that don't. This will need to be balanced with a way to quickly correct erroneous data in the system, and to prevent abuses.  We also need to start prosecuting felons who try to buy guns and who are caught by a NICS background check - something the government has only done a dozen or so times.

4. Establish a federal licensing scheme for gun owners such that:
  • No one without this license would be allowed to purchase or possess any firearm.
  • No one with a violent criminal history, nor anyone judged (in a court of law) to be mentally defective in such a way as to pose a danger to themselves or others would be allowed to obtain a license.
  • Anyone with a license who is convicted of a violent crime, or who is likewise judged to be mentally defective would forfeit their license and their firearms immediately. There should also be a process whereby they could petition a court to have their rights re-instated (and their guns returned) after meeting rigorous requirements to prove the restriction is no longer warranted.
  • If a person is merely suspected of a crime, or suspected to be an immediate danger to self or others, then the license may be suspended and the person's firearms temporarily held in a sort of escrow status by an order of a court. This would be done in a similar manner to obtaining a search warrant. If the suspicion turns out to be false after due process, then the license is reinstated immediately, and all firearms returned.
  • No exemptions for law enforcement or government officials, etc., either. Not even secret service. Everyone and anyone who wants a gun has to follow the same process.
5. Establish better accountability and responsibility across the board. Parents who own firearms are legally responsible for what their kids do with them should they obtain access to them, legally or otherwise. Junior gets daddy's gun and shoots up his school?  Mom and dad are looking at some criminally negligent homicide charges, at least. Some court clerk forgot to do their job and didn't submit a felony conviction to NICS and the felon is able to obtain a gun later on and do some mayhem?  Guess who's getting fired and brought up on criminally negligent homicide charges. You sold a gun to a shady dude in the Wal-Mart parking lot who turned out to be a drug dealer getting supplies for his next drive-by? Well, you better be ready to explain why you didn't use the new open NICS to background check the guy or prove that you were duped in some way, or you're in some hot water, too.  Now, there would need to be some moderation in place here. If the gun owner has done his due diligence, but his gun is still stolen from him and used in a crime, then he should not be held any more liable than he would if his car was stolen and driven drunk through a farmer's market or something. A judge and jury should be able to figure this out in a reasonable way.

I'll now expand on the licensing scheme, since it's really the core of this proposal.

There could be different "levels" or "classes" of license. I propose a tiered approach, something like this:

1. Learner's Permit for Minors: the first stage. This allows the holder to handle firearms under the supervision of a licensed parent or guardian, or a licensed and qualified firearms instructor, provided the parent or guardian has given consent. The firearms allowed would be equal to the ones allowed by the accompanying Full License plus endorsements. No age restrictions, but the parent or guardian assumes full legal responsibility for the licensee's actions. Available for people under 18 years of age after a basic written exam and background check. Parent or guardian must have a valid Full License. Firearms instructors would need to be certified / qualified by the NRA or some other accredited organization, much like they are today.

2. Learner's Permit for Adults:  the first stage for people over 18. Allows you to handle firearms under the instruction of a licensed and qualified firearms instructor and/or holder of a Full License after a basic written exam and background check. This is basically the same thing as item 1, but since the holder would be a legal adult, the requirement for parental consent and responsibility is not present.

3. Full License - this would be available to any holder of a Learner's Permit for Adults (kids have to wait until they're 18) after they have demonstrated proficiency and safety with, at minimum, single-shot rifles. Without endorsements, this would allow the licensee to purchase and possess any single-shot rifle anywhere in the country. Holders of full licenses may only handle firearms for which they do not have an endorsement while under the direct supervision of another full licensee who does hold an appropriate endorsement - this is so they can legally participate in practice and instruction activities in order to obtain their own endorsements.

4. Endorsements - the full license would have a number of endorsements that could be gained by training and/or passing an exam relevant to the endorsement. An exam should also include some reasonable amount of instructor observed "trigger time" with a firearm appropriate to the endorsement being sought. These would include endorsements for:
  • handguns
  • semi-automatics (rifles/shotguns)
  • fully automatics
  • public carry (concealed and open)
  • etc.
So, basically, if you want a handgun, you have to take the training (or test out of it) and show that you're competent and safe with a handgun. If you want a semi-auto, you have to do the same for that. If you want to carry in public, you have to be trained for that. Let's go ahead and say that any time you apply for an endorsement, you have to pass another background check, too. There could be dependencies between endorsements as well. For example, it wouldn't make much sense to give a Public Carry endorsement to someone without a Handgun endorsement, right? And you'd have to get a Semi-Auto endorsement before going for a Full-Auto because .. well, do I really have to explain that to anyone?

Any conviction for a violent crime, mental illness that warrants it, etc., would result in the suspension or revocation of the license and seizure of the guns.

What do you think, liberals?  Sounds good so far?

Well, here come the parts you might not like as much. Compromise, remember?

1. Licenses and endorsements (all of them, including PC) are on a shall-issue basis, meaning that no one who meets the qualifications will be denied a license or endorsement. If an applicant can prove they already know the material and possess the skills, they may "test out" and not have to sit through training they obviously don't need. I do think that requiring a license for a constitutional right is an infringement on that right, but having the license on a shall-issue basis will mitigate that somewhat.

2. License fees will be either non-existent, very minimal, or even tax-payer funded (especially for the more advanced endorsements). The PC endorsement, for example, should not be a "rich old men only" domain. Again, this mitigates the infringement aspect of it. License fees should be considered the equivalent of a poll tax.

3. Licenses and all endorsements are valid in all US jurisdictions without exception, including all states, DC, remote territories (like Puerto Rico or the US Virgin Islands), etc.. No one who has jumped through all these hoops should face prison time for nothing more than carrying their otherwise legal firearm across the wrong state line.  I'm looking at you, NY, NJ, CA, HI, DC, etc..

4. Public schools will be required to teach gun safety courses at all levels. This is KEY to removing both the fear and "forbidden fruit" issues surrounding kids and guns. We could put an opt-in here for students who want to get their Learner's Permit (with parental consent) and study for their Full License and endorsements, too. As part of this, marksmanship courses and competitions would once again be welcome in public schools. Some parents may squirm about this, so an individual opt-out option could be placed here. However, they should consider that we do have a "gun culture" here in America, and ask themselves, would they rather have their children learn about guns in a safe environment from a certified instructor, or take the chance it'll  happen somewhere else beyond their control?

5. Once you've got your full license and your endorsements, there are no more restrictions. You can buy (or make / 3D print for yourself) any firearm for which your endorsements qualify you. No magazine capacity restrictions, no bans on accessories (like suppressors), etc., no closed machine gun registry, etc.. Of course, you assume full legal responsibility for your firearms and their safe operation and storage at all times. This is fine, though, because you've already shown you've had the training and skills required for that, or you wouldn't have the license.

6. With a Public Carry endorsement, you can carry your firearm wherever you want, period. That includes schools, bars (but there should still be strict laws against carrying while intoxicated), hospitals, on airplanes, etc.. No more "no guns" places for licensed people. No more helpless victim zones. No more registrations, back-door or otherwise. I would be willing to allow state and local governments to specify what kind of carry (concealed / open) would be allowed in certain areas, but "no carry" would be off the table. For example, in a school, concealed carry only is probably a better idea, as well as in certain urban areas (like NYC). Privately owned businesses that open their doors to the public would be able to adopt something like a "don't ask / don't tell" policy where they could ask someone to leave if they see them carrying, but concealing and carrying into such a place would not be a crime in and of itself. Businesses and employers could still enact policies that forbid the carry of weapons while "on the clock," but they would also be held fully responsible for the safety and security of their employees and visitors. Employees, if your workplace is "gun free" and some whack-job decides to shoot up the place anyway, the company and/or the guy in charge of the building who enacted that policy is civilly and maybe even criminally liable for whatever mayhem happens. Employers, you can still disarm your employees at the door, but if you do, you will probably want to hire armed security to stop the nut-job who got the memo but didn't care. You can't fire a person for keeping their legal firearm safely in their car in your parking lot, though.

Of course, all of these rights must come with great responsibility. This does not give anyone the right to "shoot first, ask questions later." Applicable laws regarding the threat and/or use of deadly force would still apply, and the gun owner / carrier would be responsible for following them at all times. Screw up, and your license gets suspended for a time or revoked, as appropriate, as determined by the judge.

This, to me, sounds like a compromise. Each side gets something they want. The gun control crowd gets licensing, vetting, and training for anyone who wants to own and/or carry a gun, and the training will benefit the gun owners as well. More background checks would be conducted on gun buyers and on licensees, and the checks themselves would be less error-prone both ways. The gun-nuts like myself, once they get the license, get their full second amendment rights nation-wide. The only ones who would be denied the license are the ones who everyone agrees shouldn't have a gun in the first place.  To prevent abuses, there would be a system in place where someone denied a license could appeal to an impartial court, present evidence, and petition for relief.

The bad news is, this scheme will not completely stop bad people from acquiring or using guns illegally. It would, however, ensure that everyone who legally acquired one was properly trained and screened first, and I do think that's important. It would also allow licensed carriers to act as a first line of defense in more places. There's a reason you don't see massacres at NRA conventions, folks. It would also strengthen the idea of individual responsibility, which is something that I think is lacking across the board currently. I like the idea because it emphasizes education and training over prohibition, but still has some strong checks and balances in place to weed out as many idiots as possible. Under this scheme, everyone who wanted to legally own a gun would have to prove they're competent enough to do so first. Plus, when all else fails, the whack-jobs have a better chance of earning themselves a Darwin Award without hurting so many people first.

One other caveat is what to do about current gun owners who are "off the books?"  Perhaps an appropriate window of amnesty would be appropriate, providing it would be of sufficient length to allow anyone ample time to complete or test out of all of the training. Then, once the window expires, how do we go about enforcing the law on those who refuse to comply, but sit quietly with their now-unlicensed guns and don't bother anyone?  Well .. my answer to that is basically leave them alone unless they commit a crime - but then, throw the book at them. What we really don't want to see is SWAT teams going door-to-door looking for unlicensed guns. That's how you get innocent civilians and good officers killed, not to mention the very real possibility of igniting a second civil war in which the rebels wouldn't have the same moral baggage as last time that demanded they lose.
Compromise (n): 2. a solution no one is happy with.
Now that you've read through this, I'd like to make it clear that I understand that the likelihood is that something like this will never happen. It would require starting over from scratch, for one thing - wiping out all of the existing laws at federal, state, and local levels, and replacing them with one uniform, national set. I understand it'll never happen. I intend it as more of a thought experiment - an attempt to find some sort of common ground that both ensures that anyone who chooses to exercise their second amendment rights also receives the training necessary to do so responsibly and safely.

Perhaps the toughest obstacle, though, is that both sides of this debate will need to change their attitudes about guns and their use in crimes. The gun control crowd would need to acknowledge that guns themselves aren't evil, and focus on the "people problem." The gun nuts should recognize that gun violence, as much or more-so than unconstitutional laws, is an affront to the second amendment of the worst kind and work more earnestly to end it.

I think the two sides of the debate are very polarized now, but at the end of the day we both want the same thing - to end, or at least dramatically reduce the problem of "gun violence" in America. If we're ever going to reach a consensus, though, both sides are going to have to be willing to give a little, or maybe even a lot. Most importantly, we have got to find common ground and work together. I think this concept does that in a manner that is at least somewhat fair to both sides, and stands a good chance of improving things. A guy can dream, can't he?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Doctor and the Albatross - Prologue

What's All This, Then?

My oldest daughter is 14.5 as of the time I'm writing this. She is an avid author, mostly of fan-fiction with a little poetry and other stuff thrown in for flavor. Ask her what she wants to do for fun, and she'll ask you for a notebook, something to write with, and a few hours of peace and quiet. She's also very talented. I've read most of her stuff and it's really quite good.

The Tardis
In fact, she's inspired me to take my own stab at a piece of fan-fiction. That is what I'm going to present here, as a series of entries to my blog. What you are about to read, for those unfamiliar with the fan-fiction universe, is called a "cross-over." It's a story in which characters and  universes of two separate franchises interact to create a new adventure for both .. basically. Usually a cross-over assumes that the reader is familiar with both "parent universes," and this will contribute to his enjoyment of the story. I've tried to do that, but at the same time I've provided some details to try and help those who may not be overly familiar with either of the universes I'm about to unceremoniously smash together.

With that said, however, if you haven't seen David Tennant as Doctor Who, and/or you haven't watched Joss Whedon's masterpiece Firefly and the movie that followed it (called Serenity) then please stop what you're doing, go log onto Netflix or whatever, and watch them. Do it now. Not so much because it will help you better appreciate this story, but just because they are both excellent series and you will be a better, wiser person for having viewed them.

Firefly and Doctor Who are two sci-fi series on the opposite ends of not only the longevity spectrum, but others as well. The Doctor has been puttering around through space-time in his bizarre police box ship for over 65 years now, and is the longest running sci-fi show ever. Conversely, Firefly was canceled, most fans believe unjustly, after just one season.  Firefly portrays a more believable future than most sci-fi shows - there are no phasers, light-sabers, or photon torpedoes. Humanity, after having expanded into space to survive (and having done so without warp drive or transporters), still believes itself to be the only intelligent life in the universe, and maintains its conflicted nature which breeds corruption and war along with compassion and love. Doctor Who, however, contains some of the craziest, most outlandish, wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey, cheesy, steam-punk-ish, and mind-numbing .. stuff I've ever seen, complete with time travel paradoxes that inexplicably sort themselves out, alien robots with toilet plungers protruding from their forms .. the list goes on and on. Obviously, I am a huge fan of both.

Possibilities ...
So what would happen if the Tardis suddenly showed up in Serenity's cargo bay? To be fair, I did search the web for other Firefly/Doctor Who crossovers, and there are plenty. I didn't read any of them.

I had originally presented this story as a series of posts, but I have now consolidated it into one giant page that you can get to from the front of my blog, or here. I did this to make it easier on the reader to follow along since, in blog format, the posts appear in reverse order, and .. you know .. spoilers.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Catching Up and Giving up the Cup

Yes, I know it's been an awful long time since last I blogged anything. I've been awfully busy, still with the baby and family. I've also been devoting a little more time when I can to my amateur radio hobby by either making contacts or working to improve my antennas.  Once I  have something I'm reasonably happy with, I may blog about that, too.

I've had to go on another hiatus with regard to my ninjutsu training as well. It's just not realistic to continue that when I have a one-year-old who still won't sleep through the night. A friend of our family rightfully refers to the early years of a child's life as "the Cave Years."  Hopefully once everyone's a little older and more independent, I will be able to start up again permanently.

Part of my antenna system
Anyway, something that happened last week inspired me to write again, and that will be the main focus of this article.  On Friday, I spent several hours working on my antenna project. This involved climbing up and down off the roof, using ropes to lift a bunch of wires into the air with the help of some well-placed trees, a slingshot, and some 1.5 Oz lead sinkers - not to mention constantly fending off swarms of blood-sucking, bite-y sting-y bugs. Did you know mosquitoes come in two sizes here in Michigan? They're either small enough to crawl through your screen door, or large enough to knock it off its hinges and drag you into the woods.

After this antenna work, I was pretty worn out - it was a pretty good workout. I slept really well that night, and the next day I started to feel like utter crap after being awake for a few hours. I felt run-down, exhausted, weak, and completely lethargic. To top it off, I got the mother of all headaches that just wouldn't go away, in spite of taking a bunch of ibuprofin and drinking lots of coffee - the two things that usually help me with that. This was Saturday. Sunday was even worse. My headache never went away and kept me awake most of Saturday night - that is, when Isabel wasn't screaming for attention. I don't remember much of Sunday, other than it was bad. At one point, I felt like I was going to be sick and needed to lay down. I went to bed early, and felt even worse in the morning.

Monday morning was, thankfully, Labor Day, so I didn't have to go to work. I dragged my exhausted body out of bed at about 8:30AM and began to make my morning cup of coffee when something on the K-cup box caught my eye. It was one word - "Decaffeinated."
The Dreaded Decaf Discovery

As it turns out, my wife had bought the box on Friday because it was on sale and  hadn't noticed that it was decaf. Suddenly, it all made sense - I had been going through caffeine withdrawals the whole weekend! Fortunately, we had some of the real stuff, too, so I made myself a cup of that right away. Of course, as soon as I had some caffeine back in my bloodstream, I felt a thousand percent better. My energy level was back to normal, the nausea went away, the headache disappeared, and I realized that I am most likely physiologically addicted to caffeine.

So, I've decided to quit caffeine altogether.  I've heard people who have done this often feel much better and have more energy after their body recovers from the addiction, so I'm hoping that will be the case for me, too. Now, understand that I don't drink that much to begin with. I usually have a 10Oz cup three times a day, plus a diet soda with lunch.  Still, it's amazing how hard the withdrawal symptoms hit me! I think if Al Qaeda or ISIS want to really screw America over, they should disrupt our coffee supply - we'd all be too tired and worn out to respond!  I certainly know that if the zombie apocalypse happens, and I have to quit coffee cold-turkey, I'd have a hard time functioning.

Therefore, I've decided I'm not going to quit cold-turkey. Rather, I'm going to gradually wean myself off of it. I've already given up the lunchtime soda and my afternoon cup, and I haven't noticed any ill effects. I still have two cups first thing in the morning, though. I'm going to give myself a few more days like this, and then see about spreading those two out, shrinking their size, and eventually eliminating them and drinking more water instead.  For now, though ...

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Hero's Passing

It's Christmas Eve, 1944 or thereabouts. A fleet of transport ships has set sail on the English Channel carrying fresh troops bound for France and the European theater of allied operations during World War 2. Their mission would be to bolster allied defenses in the face of a fresh German onslaught that would later be referred to as The Battle of the Bulge. For the moment, things are not going well - not for the allies, and not for the fleet of ships now being harassed and picked off by u-boats. Aboard one of the ships, a country boy from some no-name backwoods town in upstate New York tries to tune out the cries for help coming from his fellow soldiers who were so unfortunate as to be aboard one of the sinking ships. They can't be helped - stopping would make them sitting ducks and all would be lost. It wouldn't be the first time he said goodbye in his mind to everything he knew back home, including the wife and unborn child he had left behind, and waited for his own inevitable and imminent demise.

"Any minute now," he mutters to himself as he thinks of his wife - my grandmother, and her child - my dad, for what he is sure will be the last time.

It didn't happen. Ships were sunk to the left and right, but not his. A miracle?  Perhaps .. but miracles don't usually deliver a man into the depth of horror that was western Europe at the time. Over the next few months, that simple country boy would see things and do things that no one should ever have to see or do - freezing foxholes, concentration camps, massacres, bombed out cities, and God only knows what else. He would see and inflict death more often than he could track, yet somehow manage to avoid its grasp. There were probably more than a few times when he thought those men drowning in the Channel on Christmas Eve were the lucky ones. Some of those things he would never speak of, not even to those closest to him, and the things he would be able to discuss would be the stuff of nightmares.

Finally, it was over. The war in Europe had been won, and Japan would soon surrender after witnessing devastating fury of America's newest weapon. Against all odds, grandpa came home. Back to his sleepy little hometown in upstate NY. Back to his family where he finally got to meet his son for the first time. He would never forget what he went through, and it would always be there in the back of his mind. But, he would manage. He would raise his family as best he knew how, and they would turn out ok, too. That's what he had fought for, after all. He had done his duty, and the world, for the moment, would be safe.

Grandpa liked the 2A, too!
Grandpa went on to lead a simple life after the war. Two more children would come, as would grandchildren and eventually great grandchildren. He retired long before I understood the concept, and concentrated his efforts on things he enjoyed: music, motorcycles, ham radio, etc., and he would pass those interests on to his descendants - some of whom would carry on what seems to have become a family tradition of military service as well. More importantly, he and my grandmother would pass down their values and faith. Even though it took Grandpa a long time to rediscover his faith after all he'd witnessed, he spent the latter years of his life making sure he was a blessing to others and never hesitating to share what Christ had done for him and brought him through.

On February 7, 2014, having completed 88 years on this earth, Grandpa went home to be with his savior in the manner that every soldier hopes for - in his home, at peace, and surrounded by family and loved ones. He had run the race, kept the faith, and was ready to be at rest.  His funeral was a celebration of his life, full of country music, and touching, sometimes amusing stories about the man we all love and miss. I think I was the only one who wasn't able to sing along, but that was only because I didn't know the songs - country music isn't really my "thing," you see. In fact, I had to "cleanse my brain" afterwards with some real music (see video), but that's beside the point.

Real Music, ha ha

I've posted this story for a couple of fairly simple reasons. Mainly, I want the world to know that it has lost a true hero, but the world's loss is Heaven's gain. I firmly believe that my grandfather lives on in Heaven, thanks to the saving grace of Jesus Christ, and he's now more alive than we are. Secondarily, I wanted to tell a small part of his story and let the world know that I'm proud of my grandpa and grateful for his sacrifices, and those of his comrades. I hope we will all remember and preserve the faith and freedoms Grandpa and those men and women fought and died to pass on to us.

"Greatest Generation," indeed.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Free Software Everyone Should Know About

The other day, a good friend asked me a question - one that I hear frequently. "Hey, Efpophis, my <relative> just got a nice new computer, what software do you recommend for <purpose>?"  So, I decided to compile a fairly comprehensive list of the miscellaneous software stuff I know is out there and use myself.  Why?  Well, because I'm a cheapskate when it comes to software, so most of what I use is open source and free.  Further, you'd be shocked at how much of that stuff is out there and what you can do with it.

So, without further ado, here is my list of personal favorites:

1. ClamWin - a free antivirus program for Windows. It works well, and it finds stuff that other commercial software doesn't. It's not intrusive at all, either - meaning it doesn't stop working every month/year and demand you pay its author more money, unlike some others out there.  You can find ClamWin at:

2. SpyBot Search and Destroy - a free anti-spyware program for Windows. It will let you search your computer for software that secretly tracks your movements on the internet and get rid of it if you like. It will also warn you if you're about to visit a site that has that sort of thing on it. You can find this at:

3. LibreOffice - a free office suite for Windows (and Linux and Mac) that is 100% compatible with Microsoft Office and even offers a few more features. I use this personally on all my computers where I require a word processor and/or spreadsheet, etc.. If you don't feel like shelling out big money for an office suite, just go download this from

Side-bar:  I always recommend that you NEVER use Internet Explorer as your default web browser. Microsoft has, at times, deliberately left gaping security holes in it in order to maintain "features" that no one really needs anyway. I strongly recommend installing a replacement and only using Explorer when nothing else will work.  This way, not only will you be immune to about 95% of the viruses out there, but you'll also enjoy a faster, cleaner internet experience.

4. Google Chrome - a free, screaming fast, and feature packed web browser from Google. If, like me,  you use a lot of google services like gmail, google+, blogger, etc., then this is the browser for you. You can get it at

5. Mozilla Firefox - the one drawback to Chrome is that Google does use it to gather information about your browsing habits so they can better serve you ads on their pages (but you can get rid of those - more on that later). If you're a paranoid privacy person, then use Firefox instead - it's the best rated web browser in terms of privacy and security on the market. Find it at

6.  If you use one of the browsers above, you'll want a couple of add-ons to make your browsing experience a little more safe and enjoyable. Web Of Trust, or WOT, is the first one. It will warn you if you're about to visit a malicious or unsafe web site. It features an extensive and set of controls allowing you to customize its behavior to your own needs, and allows you to post your own ratings of web sites you visit. Find it here for your favorite browser:

7. Finally, if you're annoyed by all those advertisements sprinkled all over the content you're trying to see, or if you have limited bandwidth and don't want them hogging up all your bits, you need AdBlock plus. Just install it and say goodbye to irritating ads. Find it at

This ends the basic list that I recommend for pretty much everyone when setting up a new computer. There are literally thousands upon thousands of other free, open source programs out there for just about every purpose you can imagine. If I haven't covered something you need here, feel free to drop me a line and I'll add it. In the meantime, enjoy your new computer - without breaking your bank any more than you already did when you bought it!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Where the Heck I've Been for 4 Months

Wow, have I really neglected my blog for that long?  Assuming I have any Devoted Followers(TM) left .. or that I had any to begin with .. I apologize.  There has been a LOT of life happening since last I posted.

A more recent picture of Isabel looking
somewhat sleepy
Certainly the biggest deal is that my newest daughter was born on July 29th this year. Isabel Scarlet arrived at 5:13 PM, weighing in at 5lb, 5.7oz, and 18.75 inches long. For you metric folks, that's 2.4kg and 47.6cm .. but I figure if God wanted everyone to use the metric system, we'd have all been born with 10 fingers.  Just let that sink in for a while.

We're all doing well and adjusting to having a newborn in the house. It's been pretty crazy, what with all the sleep deprivation and diapers and mayhem that goes along with having a family. As anyone who's ever been there can tell you, it's exhausting, frustrating, and completely worth it.

I've also re-kindled what is perhaps my longest-held hobby - Amateur Radio. I've managed to erect a set of home built antennas and resurrect some old equipment I had in boxes and have a more or less fully functional station set up. Now I'm starting to think about upgrading pretty much everything next time I have a big wad of cash I don't know what to do with.

That will be, as they say, an interesting day.

My martial arts training had to take a back seat from about a month prior to Isabel's arrival to this month. I started classes again the first week of October. Fortunately, this hiatus was much shorter than my last one, and I seem to be getting back into the swing of things.  Hopefully my next belt will come by the end of the year.  In any case, I am still learning a lot and I can tell I'm making progress. Even if the progress is slow, it's at least thorough, so I won't advance prematurely and miss something important.

So yeah, that's mainly what's been going on.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The NSA and You - Privacy in a Connected World

By now everyone has (hopefully) heard about the most recent scandal involving the National Security Agency (NSA) collecting data on everyone's "private" phone calls, emails, internet activity, etc.. While I do agree that this activity is illegal, a violation of our rights, and not to mention wildly inappropriate in a nation formerly known as "the land of the free," I am not in the least bit surprised. You shouldn't be, either.  Here's why.

The thing that makes the internet wonderfully awesome is that, at its core, it is really dirt simple. It's just a really great and (usually) efficient way of moving bits and bytes of data across networks of computers. It was never designed with security in mind - just simplicity.  It's that simplicity that has allowed it to be used for so many different things from email to streaming music videos to phone calls to shopping .. the sky's the limit, really. If it can be done by moving information from one point to another, it can be done on the internet. And the convenience and speed with which it can accomplish that simple task has become an inextricable part of our modern lives.

The thing is, we have also developed several unrealistic expectations when it comes to privacy on the internet. We expect our email and text messages, for example, to only be "opened" and read by the recipient - similar to when we send a letter via the US Postal Service. We expect our phone calls made over digital networks to be private, just like our old analog phones were back when you had to get a warrant and climb a telephone pole to establish a wire-tap. And for some reason that is incomprehensible to me, we also seem to expect information we post on public web sites like Facebook and Twitter to only be seen by people we want to see it and no one else. The thing is, these things just aren't so. Those of us who make a living in the computer industry and have been exposed to the internet and its internal workings for a long time know this, and it's about time the rest of the world did, too.

Your "private" email and text messages are not at all like a sealed letter going through the post office. They're more like postcards - able to be read, copied, archived, and even modified undetectably any time during transit. The protocols that handle these "letters" were not designed with security in mind - they were designed to be dirt simple and fast.  Security was to be the responsibility of the user, not the transporter.  And don't even get me started about your facebook and twitter activity - you might as well be publishing your information in a newspaper or yelling it through a megaphone on a street corner.

"Well, what does all this have to do with the NSA spying program," you ask?

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

-- US Constitution, Amendment 4

Written as part of the original Bill of Rights, the Fourth Amendment pre-dates the internet by 2 centuries. However, it has been interpreted to apply to modern forms of communications like telephone calls, etc, and presumably also to internet communications. At this point, before you continue, I'd like you to followthat link up there and read the Wikipedia page on the Fourth Amendment.  Go ahead, read it. I'll wait...

So .. did you notice how much it's already been eroded over time by the courts?  Did you notice how the government can basically look at anything you say or do as long as they can show you had no "reasonable expectation of privacy?"  Did you notice how "reasonable" isn't clearly defined, so it can mean whatever they want it to?  So, how do you think they will argue when you say your un-encrypted email had a reasonable expectation of privacy?  What about your unencrypted text messages?

What you need to know is that there's a very good reason the NSA and other government agencies and even corporations are spying on internet users the way they are:  it's because it's so EASY, and because we let them in exchange for convenience.  That's right, when you sign up for a gmail or facebook or yahoo or whatever account, you usually agree to allow them to collect, analyze, and sell anything you do with that account.  You basically waive your "reasonable expectation" of privacy by agreeing to the terms and conditions for your shiny and very convenient google account. Don't get me wrong, I love the convenience these things offer - I even have 2 google accounts myself!  But, I harbor no delusions about privacy or security of anything I do online, because I know how the internet works. And now you have an idea, too.

"I don't use encryption because no-
one I communicate with uses encryption."
 -- Me
If you want the privacy afforded in the "snail mail" world by a "privacy envelope," then you need to use encryption, and you need to encrypt your stuff in files on your own computer before you type them into your GMail (or whatever web mail client you like) window.  You need to learn about public key cryptography and secure passwords and entropy and a host of other complex and scary-sounding words. You need to learn about SSL and secure data destruction as well, as well as all the shortcomings and vulnerabilities of these methods.  Did you know that, for example, anything stored to your hard drive can be recovered after being deleted?  This is true to the point that even so-called "secure data destruction" software isn't a guarantee. In fact, the standard FBI-approved method for secure data destruction involves melting the hard drive with a thermite bomb!

The thing is, encryption and security is HARD.  Certainly harder than it was in 1789!  Back then, if you wanted privacy, all you had to do was lock your papers up in your house, or talk to your buddy out behind the woodshed without anyone in earshot. Today, the "lock" is strong encryption .. the "secure envelope" is public key crypto with strong digital message signing and trusted public keys. And while some degree of anonymity and privacy can be had from Virtual Private Networking and projects like TOR, "Behind the woodshed" remains unchanged:  if you want real privacy in your communications, that's where you have to be - not on the internet and not through the mail.  I think the real purpose of these tools, rather than to actually keep your stuff away from prying eyes, is to allow us to reclaim some of that "reasonable expectation of privacy" in case we're ever taken to court over something we said in an email.  A lawyer could conceivably argue that the evidence, if seized without a warrant or probable cause (as in the case of NSA surveillance), was inadmissible if the user attempted to protect it with strong encryption.

Anyway, the whole point of this article is to shatter your illusions of privacy online, and provide you some search terms to check out if you're interested in trying to get some of those illusions back.  Meanwhile, one simple rule applies:  don't do or say anything on the internet that you wouldn't want Big Brother to know. Because if you think they're going to stop spying on us, you're even more delusional than I thought.