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Trying to take care of my little piece of the planet

The Tragedy of the ‘Mass Casualty’ Commons

Many years ago, working on my MAT, I was fortunate to stumble into the classroom of a teacher who was well and truly ‘old school’. He was domineering. He was obstinate. He was rude. He suffered nothing remotely close to foolishness. He publicly embarrassed me on more than one occasion.

Yet I went out of my way, to take another course under him. Years later, he pulled strings so that I could teach his granddaughters. I visited him in the hospital, and sawed firewood in his stead. Later, I helped spread his ashes off Cape Lookout. I both respected and loved him. He opened my eyes.

One essay that he shared in that second college course, was the classic ecological piece by Garrett Hardin: ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, written in 1968. It largely deals with overpopulation, which is irrelevant to my rambling here. But it describes a centuries-old social contract that sheds light on our current self-destructive obsession with guns in America.

The essay, based on the 19th century writing of William Forster Lloyd, describes the costs and benefits of an individual raising his personal cattle on communal grazing space, known as the ‘commons’. As Hardin writes: “The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries…. As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component.

1) The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.

2) The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of -1. Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another…. But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

Enough about cows.
Let’s talk about slaughtered American civilians.

Our debates over gun control are understandably very complex.
I own a gun. Actually, several.

But as I’ve written elsewhere, we not only don’t control guns, they control us.

It was Dr. Charles Jenner who introduced me to Hardin, who introduced me to Lloyd, who previously shed light on the basic human trait that makes it so damned difficult to find common ground on this tragedy.

Guns are like cattle. But rather than providing economic security for an individual, they provide a sense of physical security. For most, possibly including me, that is illusory. As statistics show, the presence of a firearm in a home is more likely to create violence rather than prevent it. However, I readily accept that there are individuals who have the proper training and temperament to manage a firearm. In my recent experience, those individuals argue loudly and logically that any restriction on their access to a semi-automatic weapon capable of using a high-capacity magazine makes them less safe. I agree that in certain situations, they have a valid point. They may indeed be safer. If, as they argue, an armed ‘good guy’ who was highly-trained and cool-headed been present at X (pick your massacre), the death toll may well have been reduced.

But in allowing for that rare possibility, we make ourselves much, much less safe. It’s the ‘tragedy of the commons’, substituting safety for profit. And assault rifles for livestock.

By law, allowing that previously-mentioned, well-trained civilian access to a weapon that can fire multiple rounds per second, with magazines that hold 30-150 rounds, in reality means that almost ANYONE can own the same handheld carnage factory. Such has been the case for twelve years, since the Federal Assault Weapons Ban expired. In the decade-plus since, the genie has left the bottle. Firearms designed for inflicting mass casualty are cheaply available almost everywhere. As a result, on average there is a firearm for every man, woman and child in this country, and increasingly those guns fit into the ‘assault weapon’ category, rather than your uncle’s deer rifle.

So, my point? While I accept that a rare civilian may personally benefit from easy access to such a gun, his or her access comes at a huge price. Namely, that all of us, including that person, are far less safe, because we are awash in a sea of easily-accessible mass casualty weapons, thus hugely increasing the odds that any one of us will walk into the wrong bar.
Or the wrong school.
Or the wrong theatre.

Again, my suggestions on walking this back are elsewhere. But I thought it useful to throw one more element into our discussion on our uniquely American problem. Some of the opponents of gun regulation are being ‘logical’, while largely oblivious or unmoved by the selfishness of their position.

Taming the 800 Pound Gun Gorilla


I think about guns a lot.
I grew up with them. I own them. Several of them.
But I believe that at this point in our nation’s history, they own us.

Many intelligent people have talked about ways to address this problem. The President recently spoke eloquently about it. He talked about ‘smart’ guns, and background checks on sales, etc. I agree with all of the steps he proposed, none of which threaten me as a gun owner. Over the years, I’ve listened to the experts and I’ve learned much (including some of the pieces of what I’ve included below). But I haven’t heard anyone offer what I believe is a comprehensive approach that could actually work, by addressing the concerns of gun owners, yet reducing the access to high-capacity firearms to those who would misuse them.

So, I’m taking a crack at it here.

First, nobody who’s talking about ‘gun control’, or who really wants a solution seems to deal with the fact that there are already 300 million guns in America, on average one for every man woman and child. So, measures on ‘smart’ guns, background checks on new weapons, etc. miss the mark by failing to address existing guns, which are largely off the government’s books. And though most of us agree that we have the right to defend ourselves with a firearm, the second issue that’s not addressed by advocates of ‘gun control’, is that restricting the sale of assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, etc., will never be tolerated by many law-abiding citizens who feel the need to be be equally armed against a perceived threat, regardless how unlikely that threat may be. So, any gun control measure that seriously addresses the phenomenon of American gun deaths, and has any hope of passage, must allow for existing guns, and it must accept that there needs to be legal access by a ‘good guy’ to a weapon that’s equal to the one being carried by the ‘bad guy’. Okay, we’ve laid out the tough part.

So what tools do we have at our disposal? Well, we have the marketplace, and an existing tradition of taking personal responsibility. Looking elsewhere for guidance on how to manage guns, like others who’ve considered this issue, I looked at cars. Out here in the country, a car is a necessity. We all know you can buy a cheap used car for essential transportation, or you can pay much more for one with more bells and whistles if you feel the need. The choice is yours on how much you wish to spend. If you want to drive the high horsepower, gas-guzzling muscle car, you have to be willing to spend more money on gasoline. And more on collision insurance. Still continuing the car analogy, if as the operator, you are deemed to have driven that vehicle improperly, you have to pay. You are penalized either by having your liability insurance rates raised, and/or by paying fines or doing jail time. I know this comparison has been used before, but please bear with me for a few more paragraphs…

Here’s my approach. Yes, we would require that each gun be covered by liability insurance. And yes, I know it’s been talked about, and that many, many, many people won’t buy it, especially the very ones we’re worried about abusing guns. We’ll get to that hurdle in a minute. First, the policies would vary significantly in price, based on the type of gun. A policy on a hunting rifle like a shotgun or a .22 caliber would be cheap, because such weapons are rarely used in the crimes we consider our main concerns. However, a policy on a high-capacity ‘assault’ rifle would be much more expensive. But it’s your choice. You’re free to own either. Just like the car. Similarly with pistols, a policy on a revolver, would be much less expensive than one on a semi-automatic pistol capable of using a high capacity magazine. (And yes, I’m reading your mind… So far, this is ludicrous. Right?)

So here are the twists which I think could make this work.

First, it brings one money-making behemoth (the insurance industry) up against another one (the gun manufacturers). The insurance company will work to be damn sure that their policy holders are law-abiding types or the company will have to pay out to the victims. (Remember the auto liability insurance analogy?) In addition, the often-mistrusted federal government will be largely out of the loop, once the system is in place, as they are in car insurance today.

Second, and by far the most important….

You have to show proof of insurance to buy ammunition. If you don’t have the card that shows you own an AR-15, then you can’t purchase 5.56 x .45 ammo. Period. Anywhere. (And for you non-gun types out there, the ammo for military style ‘assault weapons’ is largely distinct from that used to hunt deer, etc.) First, this approach addressees the 300 million guns in circulation. Without ammunition, a firearm is harmless. No, this is not an overnight fix, not even close. But ammo gets used up and doesn’t keep forever. (Think of bullets as gasoline.) Second, each ammo purchase can now be tracked to the specific buyer who was issued the policy. The result is that ‘straw buyers’ will eventually be found as their ammo purchases pile up, in the same fashion that excessive credit card purchases result in that phone call from the card company today. Another huge benefit would be that individuals with newly manifested mental health or violence issues would have their insurance revoked, drying up their ability to buy ammunition, and rendering their gun impotent. Third, although we are restricting access to ammunition and likely encouraging black market purchases, the mentally ill, or suicidal, or even jihadist individual is likely unfamiliar with obtaining black market goods. More importantly, unlike or other historically-prohibited items like alcohol and drugs, cartridges are really difficult to make privately from scratch. Even folks who re-load their own ammo have to have a source of industrially manufactured primers, casings, etc. Thus controls on the manufacture and subsequent sale to distributors should be able to have a major impact.

Does this approach require as yet demonstrated political will? Absolutely. Am I encouraged by the political logjam in Washington? No.

But such an approach could tip the balance by assuring law-abiding gun owners that they can own any gun now deemed legal. No one will ‘take their guns’. If they fear that criminals will be more heavily armed, the homeowner can pay to replace their cheap 12 gauge with an AR-15. It’s the American marketplace at work. Furthermore, by targeting ammunition, such an approach focuses on the buyer’s mental state/criminal record in real time, rather than only at the time the weapon was purchased, which could have been years in the past. And most importantly it addresses the issue of the sea of firearms that already exist in this country, by depriving non-compliant owners from the ammunition that makes their weapon a weapon. Again, this is a long game solution. But in time it could have a major impact on reducing the number of those weapons specifically designed to kill large numbers of people, while having a minimal impact on those used to put food on the table or protect one’s home.

While there is a mental health component to many crimes, focusing on that instead of guns is a distraction. Americans are no crazier than the rest of the world, except perhaps in our fixation on firearms. On this issue, we must rejoin the civilized nations of the world, by getting this uniquely American genie back in its lethal bottle. But as the President said, our government will only take action if we tell them to. Please join me by contacting your representatives. Let’s take steps towards solving this.

rev 1/7/16


The concrete pour went splendidly.
Next week. Block laying begins. Hopefully.


Plodding Along

After a period of using Facebook to blather about my world, I’m returning to the blogosphere. No, it’s not because I’m convinced that my story needs to be heard. Rather it’s that my memory sucks, and if no one reads these posts in the future but me, they will have served their purpose.

So, the first phase of the additions started with the front looking like this, taken in mid-February:


Now, on April second, it looks like this:

Footings Approved

Six weeks is a long time to just get this far, and it’s been discouraging. But so be it. First, the weather has sucked. Second, I am not the thirty-two year-old that did this part the first time in 1987. Third, this time, it was me and a shovel, mattock and wheelbarrow. No backhoe, etc. And fourth, I did manage to slow progress by squeezing in one trip to the ER and two follow-up medical ‘procedure’ days lost (3/16, 3/24, 3/31) due to ‘acute colitis’ and excessive dehydration. But at this point, I am smarter, lighter, and better hydrated, and looking forward to the next steps. And today, the County gave me a thumbs-up to pour concrete; hopefully tomorrow.

Stay tuned readers. By that, I mean me.

Wrapping Up a Personal Interregnum?

Yeah ‘interregnum’ is an SAT prep kinda word, but for some forgotten reason it came up the other day, and hung around in the back of my mind. I’ve always thought of it as defining the ‘unruly’ period between two monarchs, and it occurred two me that perhaps that’s what I could call the last six months: my own personal interregnum. By that I mean, that period between my previous life, which was ruled on a daily basis by school/work, and my future life, which will be ‘ruled’ by….still unclear. While I’m not certain, I think I’m beginning to sort out what will order my daily routine. Don’t get me wrong, my first six months of retirement have been both productive and enjoyable. I’ve gotten ahead on some projects here in the country, though by no means am I caught up. And I’ve also had some time to think about me, and what brings me satisfaction. On that list of satisfiers, (along with a stiff bourbon at sunset), is a task to be done, preferably in my own manner and at my own pace, with skills that I at least sort of possess. I mean, while I’ve thoroughly appreciated having more time to fish, and continue to look forward to my weekly sessions gardening with the kids doing community service in Siler City, I realize that I emotionally need a to-do list damn near everyday or I start twitching. So, in gradually ending this first phase of retirement, I’ve decided to tackle a big project, which will likely ‘rule’ my life for the next few years. It’s one that my wife and I have talked about for years, but I’ve been seriously dragging my feet, reluctant to spend our savings to pay for someone else’s labor (and giving that someone else control to boot). So starting in early spring, I plan to embark on stage one of a three-stage home renovation/addition project. It will mean sore muscles, and acquiring or dusting off construction skills largely dormant since we built our own house in 1986-88, while I was teaching high school. I’m hoping to farm out as little as possible, but point-and-pay is always an option, since I’m definitely not as young as I used to be.

This week, my opening moves have been spent in front of the computer, learning the CAD program I used to generate the 2D and 3D images below.

Draft of Parts 1 and 2 (west view)

In the image above, our existing house is under the light colored silver roof, and is sided in white. Stage one is adding a new entrance, seen in brown siding, under the darker roof (red arrow) seen at the left front. Stage two (a dining room) also uses brown siding in the drawing, but is largely under the light-silver roof of the existing house, since it consists of converting an existing screen porch/entrance. This addition is seen on the right. While stage three (the most ambitious) is a large, geriatric-friendly bedroom and bathroom, seen under the back right red arrow.

Renovation Plans2

In the two dimensional plan, stages one and two are outlined in red. The area in green is the existing screen porch, which we plan to double the existing width and morph the area into a new dining room. Stage three isn’t shown on the 2D plan (it’s off the bottom of the page), and is only vaguely roughed in on the last 3D image below, in which it is the right-hand red arrow. The middle arrow points to the planned bump-out to widen the dining room, which will require adding six feet or so to the existing roof line.

Draft of Parts 1 and 2 (south view)

So, after six months of deciding how to spend my early years of retirement, I’m hoping that this is a good call. Wish us luck.

Cutting and Running?

On June third, I was arrested and charged with second degree trespassing and failure to disperse at a Moral Monday protest at the NC General Assembly. Tomorrow morning is my first court appearance. After several days of consideration, I’ve decided to accept the District Attorney’s plea agreement rather than plead ‘not guilty’. The agreement involves paying $180 in court costs and serving twenty-five hours of community service. Accepting it was not an easy decision, and most of those who are aware of my arrest will likely be disappointed in my choice. So, I’m going to try and explain my rationale.

First, why did I get arrested in the first place? For me that is easy. What was happening behind the closed doors of the General Assembly was in my view unconscionable, yet the majority of voters were ignorant of the policies that were being enacted in their name. The Democratic legislators in the minority were powerless, and so the NAACP, joined by a cross-section of citizens, committed civil disobedience week after week by refusing to leave the General Assembly rotunda when directed to do so. The resulting nine hundred plus arrests made news week after week. And citizens in their living rooms across the state, indeed across the nation began to ask why. The answer to that question required an airing of the specifics of the myriad of horrific bills that had been passed. And that exposure caused an increasing number of people to question the actions of their legislators, so that in time more people approved of the Moral Monday protestors, than approved of their legislators. So far, the movement has been a remarkable success.

Fast forward to September, and decision time for me. I lay out the pros and cons of accepting the plea agreement, versus continuing the protest by pleading ‘not guilty’ and forcing the case to trial. I attempted to divide the argument into how my choice would affect me personally, and how it would affect the overall goal of the protest. Personally, foregoing the plea deal is less risky for me than for many. As a retiree, I have time. I live within sixty miles of the courthouse, and I can afford a larger fine if that is the result. That said, I do not want to invest large amounts of time, or money, and I certainly do not relish the thought of actual jail time. However, I feel strongly about the issues that drove me to protest. If I didn’t have serious concerns about the wisdom of an ongoing number of Moral Monday-related trials, I honestly feel I would stand my ground. But I’m not. Because I think pursuing this further is a bad strategy when it comes to achieving our goals. I’ll try to articulate why.

The protest was about legislation involving voting rights, educational cuts, regressive tax rates, etc. It was not about access to the rotunda. In that sense, I have a hard time pleading ‘not guilty’ to the charge of trespassing. I knew the law. Frankly, I was not there to protest the law I was accused of violating. But I violated that law, and I am willing to pay the price demanded. Yes, as these cases proceed through the courts, that law will be challenged, and it may or may not be eventually overturned. But the attention of the public will be on the burden on the court system, not on the law itself, and most importantly not on the horrific legislation I was there to protest. If that particular trespassing law needs to be challenged, then a single case will have the same impact as nine hundred cases; the law will stand or it will fall. And a single case will not burden the court system and the taxpayers further. In addition, this situation is not analogous to the the lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s or the Campaign for Southern Equality protests of today. Those protests directly challenge an unjust status quo, and each and every case reminds the public of that specific injustice directly. In our case, most people outside the movement would fail to connect the dots; while watching news coverage of a trespassing trial, they’re unlikely to ponder cuts to early voting.

Let me be clear. I am proud to have been arrested as part of this movement, and am not re-thinking the wisdom of that decision. Because I am firmly convinced that those protests achieved their goal – the enlightenment of many North Carolinians who would otherwise have remained ignorant about cuts to their school budgets, about steps taken to suppress future voting, about additional abortion restrictions, etc. The publicity surrounding those weeks of protest accomplished that goal. But the question I asked myself was: “What would the publicity surrounding months of Moral Monday trials accomplish?” Would it improve the public’s understanding of the new regressive tax structure? Would it highlight taxpayer money diverted from public education to private education? Would it explain the gutting of the state’s key environmental oversight commissions? I expect not. I don’t think that it will educate the voters. It will simply showcase taxpayer money being spent on trials of people like myself, who deliberately got ourselves arrested. I believe that many largely apolitical voters, feeling that these trials could have been avoided, will lose sympathy for our efforts. In short, I think continuing this process could backfire. And I believe it is time to declare victory and focus our energies on voter registration and education, so that we can overturn the acts of this past legislative session.

Finally, I fully realize that my position is somewhat heretical among people, zealots like myself, who feel strongly about the righteousness of the Moral Monday protests. But if our goal is repeal of these laws, then that must happen at the ballot box. And to win at the ballot box, we must convince large numbers of non-zealots of the wisdom of our efforts. We did just that with this summer’s rallies, and with the exposure generated by our arrests. I am proud to be associated with those who feel the need to continue along this path. But I do not believe that we will repeat our previous success by pursuing this avenue.

In Over My Head

So I’ve been retired for ninety days. More time off than I can remember since I was fourteen. But it’s zoomed by, filled with two week-long road trips (one on the other side of the continent), preparation for three mega parties on the property (a retirement party for 100+ and two showers), six trips to Raleigh, culminating in getting arrested, a fortieth high school reunion, and a LOT of mowing and weeding to keep up with an amazingly rainy summer. Still, I’ve been making progress on some projects and am just barely beginning to get a handle on what retirement will hold for us. As part of the long view, I’m determined to acquire a few life skills, among them…cooking. Let me explain. We grow a lot of our own food. I help with that. A lot. We preserve a lot of our own food. I help with that. Very little. But most importantly, the VAST majority of the meals we eat are cooked at home. I help with that. Not at all. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Although, in my defense, honoring the prominently displayed plaque over our kitchen sink (“No man was ever shot while washing dishes”) I do wash a lot of dishes (take out the garbage and compost, etc.) But I do NOT cook. Ever.

Until tonight. And it wasn’t part of the plan. I had mentioned my ‘continuing education’ plan to my siblings. Error. As a retirement gift, I received kitchen towels, two books on cooking, and a kitchen knife worth more than my car. Crap. Bet called. So my wife and I agreed that I would start next week. No problem. Plenty of time to study up and achieve a sufficient level of Prozac beforehand. An over-reaction? Let me explain. My wife is a phenomenal cook. A freaking prodigy. I have dined like a king for thirty-five years. Practically every night. So my agreeing to cook dinner one night a week is roughly equivalent to saying: “Shit, I been playing b-ball since 1967. Meet Koby in the Staples Center? Hell yeah! And he better bring it!”

Yes. Self-induced pressure. But I had another six days to get ready, until early this morning. I have my list of chores at home. A full day. looking forward to it. Sent my wife off to work and started into the list. The phone rings. It’s my wife. She has that voice I’ve only heard a handful of times in thirty-five years, and hope to never hear again, though I certainly will. Something seriously bad has happened. Someone has died, and it has shaken her to her core. But she has a job to do; a staff of youngsters that need a leader. Her, their mama doc. So she plunges into her day, amidst the tears of her entire staff. Meanwhile, I hang up the phone. Sad at the loss of a young man I also knew, and unspeakably sad for his family, but also amazed at my wife’s resilience. My wife of thirty-four years, who will work a long, long day. And then come home to cook dinner as usual, after a most unusual day. So I jumped the gun. I called in the ‘pros from Dover‘ (my brother and his wonderful significant other) for assistance. Despite teaching college classes in Virginia, she helps me to do the only little thing I could do. Attempt to pick up the load and cook, so that my wife arrives to the smell of a homemade quiche, a unique summery salad featuring watermelon and cucumber, and ice cream with a truly killer blackberry sauce (from berries I picked here this morning).

My efforts (and hopefully the food) made her smile.

And that meant the world to me.

Pepper Train Wreck

Here are two shots of the impact.



Voter Suppression: Doubling Down

The circus that was the NC General Assembly has left town, and in response, the televised outrage that was Moral Monday has also disappeared from the airwaves. But while relishing the break from the yammering, those of us that have continued to pay attention are slowly coming to the realization that the madness continues on a daily basis, though it’s now carried out on a local level. North Carolina Republicans have clearly decided to double down on their gamble that suppressing Democratic voting by any means necessary is their only means of retaining power. So they are systematically restricting the right of college students, particularly minority students to vote, in what now appears to be an organized series of local efforts. First at Appalachian State in Boone, then in Elizabeth City, and now in Winston Salem.

Rachel Maddow covers the topic below, in her interview with my former State Senator Ellie Kinnaird, who has resigned in order to help combat these moves in future elections.

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Yes, it’s likely that at least some of these measures will be overturned in the courts, but I know what kind of volunteer work I’ll be doing for the next year or so.

Louis Vuitton Cup – Day One

Here’s a six minute video I shot from the seawall at Marina Green (seen below), which had a great view of the starting line for the races, as well as a big screen to view the network coverage. You can hear their commentary in the background on my video.

Marina Green

The opening video sequences are pre-start practice by Oracle Team USA, Luna Rossa and Artemis, followed by the actual race between Artemis and Luna Rossa. During the edited footage of the warm-ups, you can see Artemis practicing their turns three times in a row, getting better each time. There are also several runs past Alcatraz (the subject of a later post). I realize that serious racing fans will have seen much better network footage of the sailing, but it was simply amazing to be there and capture these 72 foot flying boats on ‘film’ as they reach speeds of almost fifty miles an hour.