I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Could guns be made safer?

Let me state up front that I believe in the constitutional right of Americans to own firearms. It's been our tradition for centuries, and the Supreme Court has affirmed the right. The Supreme Court also said in the same ruling that regulations and restrictions were allowed. Presumably, a ban on private citizens owning rocket launchers and fully automatic machine guns are acceptable. Congress also has the power to set manufacturing standards on pretty much any product sold across state line. So, if they wanted to mandate limits on the size of ammo magazines, I can't think of any legal impediment to this, only political ones. A sizable number of Americans don't feel safe unless they can fire 30 bullets without reloading, and they elect politicians who feel the same way, and, for the foreseeable future, they are going to hold the majority in the house and at least a filibuster sized plurality in the senate. This isn't purely a Republican/Democrat split, either. There are plenty of Democratic senators and congressmen with A ratings from the NRA.

This isn't a politically correct thing to say so soon after the Newtown shooting, but, statistically, guns really aren't all that dangerous. There are something like 300 million guns in the US, and about 20,000 gun deaths a year from these. We have a similar number of cars, and they contribute to over 30,000 deaths per year. Of course, the vast majority of these automobile deaths are accidental. But, a fair number of the gun deaths are accidental as well. I haven't found precise numbers I trust while googling this morning, but I feel safe to say that the number of children killed each year in accidents playing with their families guns far exceeds the number of children each year murdered in mass shootings, probably by a wide margin.

Restrictions on the sale of guns are partially negated by the fact that guns are a popular target of theft. According to the BATF, over 25,000 guns are reported stolen each year. Again I don't have statistics, but my gut instinct is that stolen guns are probably used for criminal purposes far more often than legally purchased guns. If you're willing to steal a gun, you probably don't have many qualms about robbing a convenience store.

But, automobiles are also attractive targets of theft, and we take precautions to reduce the numbers of thefts, such as putting locks on the doors and on the ignition. To reduce the number of accidental deaths, we require seat belts and airbags and such safety niceties as headlights and windshield wipers and brakes. Most states also require annual inspections to make sure the safety systems are in good working order.

Couldn't manufacturers be required to implement similar safety standards for new guns? For instance, my wife's car has a wireless ignition key. She just sits in the car and presses a button to turn it on. Couldn't guns be built with a wireless safety? The legal owner of the gun could have a small radio key that he wears on a key chain or embedded in a watch. When he holds the gun, the safety can be switched off. If anyone else picks up the gun without the radio key, the safety can't be unlocked. This means that toddlers can't find the gun in their daddy's nightstand and accidentally shoot someone thinking it's a toy. If the gun is stolen, it's just a useless lump of metal. But, if you have a friend in town who wants to borrow a gun to go hunting, no problem. You just loan them the radio key.

Obviously, this does nothing to make the 300 million guns already in circulation safer. And, with so many guns, there will be a black market that persists for decades. But, changes made today could make the average gun safer fifty years from now. The cost of guns would rise a trivial amount, and firearm owners would be slightly inconvenienced by having to purchase a new battery for their key every couple of years. But, the trade off of knowing that your gun is less likely to be stolen, or accidentally discharged by someone when you aren't home, seems like a bonus for legal gun owners. And, unlike trigger locks, which gun owners oppose since it would slow them down if they needed to grab their gun to protect against a home invader, if you have the key built into a watch, the second you pick up the gun it's ready to go.

To respond to a few objections I anticipate, yes, I'm sure criminals could hack the lock system. But, why bother, when they could just find one of the older guns without the radio locks? If your gun had the lock, they probably wouldn't take the time to steal it. No, I don't think this would do much to deter mass shootings. Most take place with legally purchased guns. But, again, accidental deaths are a statistically more significant problem than mass shootings. And, yes, I know that most accidents are ones the legal owners inflict on themselves. But, just because all the safety systems on cars don't stop  people from driving off cliffs is no reason to repeal the requirements that we all wear seat belts. The goal here is to mitigate, not eliminate.

So, what am I missing? Why wouldn't this one small change help, over the long term, make guns less likely to hurt someone accidentally or be used for a crime after being stolen?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Christmas Dismemberment

When I was a kid, I must have been aware that Christmas had some sort of religious significance. I knew about the birth of Jesus, both from endless hours of church, not to mention Linus’s little speech at the end of the Peanut’s Christmas special. I was also aware that Christmas was all about giving.

But, let’s get real. Until I was well past puberty, Christmas for me was about getting. And I don’t mean getting socks or a new lunch box. It was about the toys. I’d lay awake all night, my stomach knotted, imagining the awesome things that might be contained in the gift-wrapped boxes under the tree. There might be trains, or Lincoln Logs, or science kits with microscopes and little pre-made slides of fly wings. And there had better be some cars. Saturday morning cartoons had promised me Hotwheels and the corresponding miles of looping tracks on which to race them. Even better would be a radio-controlled car. Or a radio-controlled plane! Really, not getting my own motorized go-cart would certainly qualify as child abuse.

Alas, I never got my go-cart. I suppose there was a lesson to be learned about handling the disappointment of not getting everything you wanted. Christmas also taught me the disappointment of getting exactly what you wanted. I did get a toy train set. I set up the oval track in my attic, sliding all the little rails together with tiny metal clips and figuring out the weirdly elaborate mechanism for one car to hook into the next. Then, I plugged in the transformer and let the train fly! Or, if not fly, at least roll along at a respectable pace. Around the oval, then around again. And around again, then again. About ten minutes after setting my train in motion, I’d pretty much lost all interest in trains. I tried to revive my Christmas morning excitement by finding interesting things that the train might crash into. A Matchbox car mysteriously broke down right in the center of the tracks as the train was approaching at full speed. And the train’s brakes have failed! This was going to be the most horrifying crash ever!

Then the train nudged the car aside and whirred on as if nothing had happened. It wasn’t as if I lacked the imagination to pretend that the car had been scattered across three states. It was that my imagination was superior to the reality. Toys seemed designed to teach me that real life would never be as spectacular as daydreams.

Despite my instinct to simulate collisions, I wasn’t a particularly violent or destructive child. I don’t remember having much interest in toy guns. When I did get cap guns, I ignored the gun and triggered the caps by smashing them with rocks on the sidewalk. As for destruction, the primary thing destroyed on Christmas mornings was our living room. My sisters and I were not patient unwrappers who neatly folded back the paper to slowly reveal the secrets within. We would tear into those wrappers like sharks taking down a sea lion. Five minutes after we were unleashed, the floor was completely hidden by shreds of paper and the remains of cardboard boxes. Except for the tree rising from the clutter, our living room looked as if a violent but curiously localized tornado had struck.

While I may not have been destructive by nature, I was intensely curious. While I never set out to destroy a toy for pure meanness, from time to time, I’d steal into my father’s workshop and help myself to screwdrivers and pliers to reduce a toy to its component parts. Sometimes, I was even able to put them back together. I was especially fluent with bicycles. To this day, I could probably take one apart then put it back together blindfolded. But, I also wasn’t shy about taking wrenches to things like clock radios and lamps. I often explored the inner workings with the power cord still plugged in. That was the only way to see how things worked. My failure to electrocute myself is probably something of a Christmas miracle. Usually, I was able to reassemble my experiments, leaving my mother none the wiser.

I do remember one toy I couldn’t put back together. When I was about nine, I got a toy doll, or, to use the proper gender attribution, an action figure. It was of Captain America, evidence that my mother really didn’t understand comic books. Captain America was Marvel, and I was a DC guy. Superman or Batman would have been worthy fuel for my imagination, but the Captain? The Captain was just a cold lump of plastic to me. I discarded him almost the second I unwrapped him, and would have forgotten about him forever if he hadn’t slipped into the couch cushions where I accidentally sat on him.

I took a moment to study the Captain. He was made of blue plastic, with red and white stripes and just a tiny touch of flesh color dabbed on for his chin. The limbs were stiff, but articulated at the hips and shoulders. His head could turn a full 360 degrees, and his hands bent at the wrists, with one hand permanently making a fist and the other frozen into a karate chop that could slide into the little handle on the round plastic shield.

Examining the wrists closer, I found they were held on with tiny bolts with screw heads. I’d already started wearing glasses, and knew my father had an eyeglass repair kit in the desk drawer. Despite my fondness for taking things apart, I was wise enough to know better than to disassemble my glasses. But this toy… would my parents notice? Would they care?

In less than five minutes, I had both hands off and had already lost the nearly microscopic nuts that had held the bolts in place. Unable to hold his shield, the Captain had little reason to continue his existence, so I decided to satisfy my curiosity and find out what held his head on. As it turns out, not much. It popped off with just a little pressure, revealing a little plastic peg with a ball at the end that snapped into a corresponding hole on the torso. About what I expected, but the arms and legs were more mysterious. They had a wider range of motion, and tended to snap back in place when I let go. I could tell that the tops of the legs were rounded and sat in little cups in the hips, but why didn’t they just fall out?

Some mysteries are best solved with brute force. I twisted one of the legs until it snapped free. When I did this, the other leg instantly fell off. When I looked into the hollow cups that spanned the hips, something like a little brown worm fell in my lap. It was a snapped rubber band, small enough that it wouldn’t have fit around my pinky. The legs had little metal hooks screwed into them that the rubber band had been stretched between, holding them in place.

Were the arms held on by the same configuration? I pried one up and twisted with a little less force. Sure enough, peering into the gap, I could see the tiny metal hook holding a rubber band. I wanted that rubber band, and I wanted it intact. Action figures were a plentiful commodity, but a tiny rubber band would be a treasure worth showing off.

I slipped the eyeglass screwdriver into the joint and carefully poked it through the loop. A few minutes of prodding and twisting freed it from the hook. I let the rubber band slip from the tip of the screwdriver and the arm on the other side fell off. The rubber band disappeared into the hungry gap between the couch cushions. Luckily, I found it, and held it into the light for closer examination like a precious gem.

Action figures are meant to stimulate imagination. For me, it was this rubber band that set the wheels of my mind in motion. If I had taken this rubber band off, that meant that someone, somewhere, had put it on. Captain America’s butt was stamped “Made in China.” When I imagined the factory, it was the elves workshop from Rudolf the Red Nose Rain Deer, populated by Chinese people in straw hats. It impressed me that this rubber band had been touched by someone on the other side of the planet. I couldn’t help but be a little awed that this toy had crossed an ocean to reach me, only to be taken apart a little under a half hour.

I found my mother in the kitchen and showed her the rubber band. When I explained that I’d taken apart the doll to retrieve it, she looked a little hurt that I’d destroyed yet another gift. She sighed. “What did you do that for?”

At the time, I didn’t have an answer.

From the perspective of adulthood, I do. I took the doll apart because I’m driven by a need to understand how things work. It’s why I took apart my bike and the lamps, and hinted at my future when I would be driven to more sophisticated bouts of creative destruction. I’ve taken apart friendships, even marriages before I could understand what made them work. I’ve aimed my curiosity at my own mind, analyzing the mystery of why I am who I am, figuring out my own clockwork, solving the mystery of what makes me tick. While I was never able to put Captain America back onto his feet, I like to think that I’ve bolted myself together in an improved configuration. I’m an adult who’s never let his imagination wither. To this day, I can still look at something as mundane as a rubber band and find myself thinking of foreign lands.

My parents never smothered my curiosity by putting an end to my destructive explorations. That, I think, was the greatest gift they ever gave me.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Week Thirteen: I lost 37 pounds!

Today was the final weigh in for the weight loss competition at work. 90 days had passed since I weighed in at 284. I finished today at 247. I lost 37 pounds, or 13% of my body weight.

The desire to win the competition definitely helped motivate me, but, honestly, I've been pretty certain I was going to win for a while. A lot of other people started off strong in September, but after the first thirty days I could tell that there was a fair amount of backsliding. In the end, I not only lost more weight than my closest competitor, I lost more weight than the next two competitors combined.

I couldn't have done this without my wife. She's a person who loves organizing and planning stuff, so she's taken to meal planning with a vengeance. I cook a couple of nights a week, but I tend to think about what to make for dinner a couple of hours before it's time to serve it, which means I sometimes give into the temptation to just take us out to eat. Cheryl has meals planned for several days in advance, and this protects us from impulse restaurant trips.

Cheryl has been seeing the benefits of our new lifestyle as well, having lost 24 pounds so far. Combined, we've lost over 60 pounds, and I'm hoping that 90 days from now our combined total might be closer to 100.

I certainly don't intent to stop at 247. I think that I can get down to 220 with my present practices, and would like to do so by my birthday, March 2.

Now, time for dinner, some delicious lentil and barley soup!