Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘gun control’

Blurring the lines

Those of us of a statistical turn of mind and inclined toward caution (not the same, even if the categories may be highly correlated) like to compare the lives lost to terror attacks (about which there tends to be unbounded panic, leading to willingness to abandon vast stores of wealth, national pride, and long-cherished principles of justice) and to the sorts of banal lethal events that people don’t get very excited about. For example, there was the study showing that additional automobile travel due to fear of airplane hijacking in the few months following the 9/11 attacks killed more people — through the ordinary difference in automobile and airplane fatality rates — than were killed in the planes on 9/11 (and over time may have killed 2300 people, almost as many as the entire death toll of the attacks).

An obvious point of comparison is between the Paris terror attacks and the remarkably similar style of mass shootings that have become such a regular affair in the US. (More than one a day in 2015!) The latter evokes reactions ranging from a shrug to a right-to-bear-arms rally. The former have American conservatives — who not too long ago would eat nothing but freedom fries — expressing their fraternité with the noble liberty-loving French people, and the need to exclude refugees from ISIS from the US because you can never be too careful. The connection was best expressed by Texas congressman Tony Dale, with an “A” rating from the NRA, who argued that Syrian refugees need to be kept out of Texas because once legally admitted they would be entitled to Texas drivers licenses, and with those they could freely purchase firearms: (more…)

How to rid the world of genocide

One of my favourite Monty Python sketches is “How to do it“. It parodies a children’s show, teaching children how to do interesting and cool new things — in this case, “How to be a gynecologist… how to construct a box-girder bridge, … how to irrigate the Sahara Desert and make vast new areas of land cultivatable, and… how to rid the world of all known diseases.” The method described for the last is

First of all, become a doctor, and discover a marvelous cure for something. And then, when the medical profession starts to take notice of you, you can jolly well tell them what to do and make sure they get everything right, so there will never be any diseases ever again.

I think of this sketch often, when I hear a certain kind of blustering politician, most commonly (but not exclusively) of the US Republican variety. The classic sort of “How to do it” (HTDI) solution is the completely generic “I’d get the both sides into the room and tell them, c’mon guys, let’s roll up our sleeves and just get it done. We’re not leaving here until we’ve come up with a solution.” (That’s for a conflict; if it’s a technical challenge, like cancer, or drought, replace “both sides” with “all the experts”. Depending on the politician’s demeanor and gender this may also include “knocking heads together”.) The point is, they see solving complicated problems the way they might appear in a montage in a Hollywood film: Lots of furrowed brows, sleeves being rolled up, maybe a fist pounds on a table. It’s a manager’s perspective. Not a very intelligent manager. Of course, it sounds ridiculous to anyone who has ever been involved in the details solving real problems, whether political, technical, or scientific, but it sounds good to other people who have only seen the same films that the politician has seen. (more…)

The man with the Kalashnikov

Having been on a Thalys to Paris yesterday I took particular interest in the aborted attack the previous day. We hadn’t heard anything about it, but a conductor told us a bullshit story about how the news media got the story all wrong: the attacker was actually being followed by police, the capture was planned, and he didn’t have firearms.

But here’s what I’m wondering. According to the NY Times,

Less than an hour away from Paris, a French passenger got up from his seat to use the toilets at the back of the carriage. Suddenly, in front of him rose a slightly built man. Across the man’s chest, in a sling, was an automatic rifle of the kind favored by jihadists the world over: an AK-47.

The passenger threw himself on the man. The gun went off, once, twice, several times. Glass shattered. A bullet hit a passenger.

The man with the gun kept going down the carriage, holding his AK-47 and a Luger pistol. In a pocket was a sharp blade capable of inflicting grievous harm. He had at least nine cartridges of ammunition, enough for serious carnage.

So, they’re heroes. But if this had happened in the US, would they be the ones in prison? After all, up until the point where they attacked him, he was just another open-carry enthusiast celebrating his constitutional right to keep and bear arms. Once he was attacked, of course, by rowdy foreigners, it is perfectly understandable that he started firing. And even if he did fire a single shot first (the news reports disagree on this point), well, how could they have known that it wasn’t self defence. They should have waited until he’d shot at least two people before infringing on his civil rights.

Maybe that’s why they don’t have trains in Texas… (Actually, that’s not entirely true.)


So, they only differ by one letter (in fact, just one step in the alphabet), but what else do they have in common? It occurs to me that the NSA’s weird Schrödinger’s-cat defence of its mass collection of phone records — it’s not spying until someone actually looks at the records — is reminiscent of the NRA’s famous anti-gun-control slogan. We could write it this way:

Computers don’t spy on people. People spy on people.

Computer culture and gun culture, ctd.

Since I’ve been interested in the history and political significance of cryptography (I discussed the connection between computers and the 2nd amendment here) I read the book This Machine Kills Secrets by journalist Andy Greenberg, a fascinating, if somewhat brief and barely technical history of underground cryptography in the internet age. Among other things I learned there is that, whereas I had thought of gun culture and computer culture as analogous but non-intersecting, in fact there was considerable overlap:

One adjunct group, called the Cypherpunks Shooting Club, even organized trips to rifle ranges to teach each other to shoot .22s and semiautomatic weapons, the final resort should the government ever come after their electronic and physical freedoms. (Tim May, an avid gun enthusiast himself, didn’t attend. “I Don’t give free lessons, especially not to clueless software people,” he says.)

Jim Bell, a cypherpunk insider, proposed in the mid-1990s “Assassination Politics”, basically a scheme for combining strong cryptography with a sort of stock market for murder contracts. The goal was anarchy:

If only one person in a thousand was willing to pay $1 to see some government slimeball dead, that would be, in effect, a $250,000 bounty on his head[…] Chances are good that nobody above the level of county commissioner would even risk staying in office.

Just how would this change politics in America? It would take far less time to answer, “What would remain the same?” No longer would we be electing people who will turn around and tax us to death, regulate us to death, or for that matter send hired thugs to kill us when we oppose their wishes.

This all sounds like the sorts of rant you hear these days from the extreme gun nuts. So maybe the analogy is not that far-fetched.

And, come to think of it, now that concrete schemes are afoot to turn weapons manufacture into a software problem with 3d printing, even the technical differences between guns and codes are dissipating.

The right to bear codes

Back when I was a graduate student, in the late 1980s and early 90s, there was a lot of discussion, among those interested in cryptography and computing (which I was, only peripherally) of the status of cryptographic algorithms as “weapons”, subject to export controls. The idea seemed bizarre to those of us who thought of algorithms as things you prove theorems about, and computer code as something you write. It seemed as absurd as declaring a book to be a weapon. Sure, you might metaphorically call Das Kapital  a weapon, or the Declaration of Independence, but it’s not really a weapon, and a country was much more likely to think about banning imports than banning exports. The author of PGP was then being threatened with prosecution, and had the code published as a book to mate the analogy more explicit.

So, I used to defend free access to cryptography because I thought it was ridiculous to consider codes to be weapons. I now think that was naïve. But if codes are weapons, does that provide a justification for a right of free access (in the US)? Maybe it’s not freedom of speech or the press — 1st amendment — but if cryptography is a weapon, is the use and manufacture of cryptographic algorithms and software protected in the US by the 2nd amendment? Certainly the main arguments made for a right to firearms — sport, self-defence, and bulwark against tyranny — are all applicable to cryptography as well. Are there current US laws or government practices that restrict the people’s free access to cryptography that would be called into question if cryptography were “arms” in the sense of the 2nd amendment?

This is connected to the question I have wondered about occasionally: Why didn’t strong cryptography happen? That is, back then I (and many others) assumed that essentially unbreakable cryptography would become easy and default, causing trouble for snoops and law enforcement. But in fact, most of our data and communications are pretty insecure still. Is this because of legal constraints, or general disinterest, or something else? The software is available, but it’s sufficiently inconvenient that most people don’t use it. And while it wouldn’t actually be difficult to encode all my email (say) with PGP, I’d feel awkward asking people to do it, since no one else is doing it.

It seems as though the philosophy of the Clipper chip has prevailed: Some people really need some sort of cryptography for legitimate purposes. If you make a barely adequate tool for the purpose conveniently available, you’ll prevent people from making the small extra effort to obtain really strong cryptography.


Fascism in America

Today we have conquered the health-care insurance exclusion for pre-existing conditions. Tomorrow, Poland!

Today we have conquered the health-care insurance exclusion for pre-existing conditions. Tomorrow, Poland!

Nuremberg rally

Die NRA sind unser Unglück!

I remember many years ago when I first saw a car bumper sticker saying “First round up the guns, then round up the Jews!”, which I assumed to be suggesting that the owner disapproved of both confiscations. Just now, the “Nazi gun control” trope is all over the place: for instance, here and here and even here.
It’s weird, because this story seems to have literally zero basis in fact. I’ve read quite a few books about the Weimar Republic, the rise of Nazism, and the Third Reich, and I’ve never come across any reference to a Nazi interest on the question of private gun ownership. Sure, Jews were forbidden to have guns, but they were also forbidden from owning cats. It’s not that the Nazis feared the wrath of the Hebrew feline defenders.

The only reference I’ve come across to a nexus between Nazi ideology and private guns (as opposed to military armaments, in which they obviously had an abiding interest) is a passage in Ian Kershaw’s masterful biography of Hitler. Discussing the extraordinary thoroughness of the campaign of “Gleichschaltung” — the “coordination” of all institutions, whether large or petty, with Nazi goals and ideology — in 1933, he quotes an “activity report” from the small town of Theisenort (population about 750) in Upper Franconia:

The Veterans’ association was coordinated on 6.8.33, on 7.8.33 the Singing Association in Theisenort. With the Shooting Club in Theisenort this was not necessary, since the board and committee are up to 80 per cent party members.

So there would have been no need to round up the weapons of regime opponents, because the shooting enthusiasts were all Nazis to begin with. That doesn’t really support the whole bulwark against fascism idea. (more…)

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