In Memoriam: Leonard Nimoy

I discovered Star Trek in my early teen years, sneaking watching the show when my fundamentalist parents were away. It was everything I could ask for in television–spaceships, adventures to new worlds, a universe of characters who showed that life still has meaning, even when surrounded by and built on machines. And more than that, when it was at its best, the series asked deep questions about philosophy, morality, politics, and science.

With that in mind, it comes as a shock–not an unexpected one, alas–to see the death of Leonard Nimoy. He was, of course, many things–a photographer, poet, director, and actor in many roles on stage and screen, but just as with other people who became icons for one role, he will always be remembered first for one character he brought to life:


In these last few years, he also made his mark on Twitter @TheRealNimoy. His final tweet, found here, reminiscent of Candide, sums up how we must all now feel:

A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP

Live long and prosper in that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. You will be remembered.

Crossposted on English 301: Reading and Writing.

Je Suis Charlie

Yesterday (7 January 2015), three pathetic cowards who can’t handle criticism of their beliefs attacked the office of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. Their cartoons can be seen all over the Internet now, showing that the people working there understood–and will continue to understand and practice–the value of comic criticism in a free society.

Words can’t do justice to the rage that all good people feel toward the oozing piles of dogshit that would kill to censor ideas. The best response is to use something from the culture that the attackers claim to defend, but, in fact, are dishonoring:


Crossposted at English 301: Reading and Writing.


Thanks to the protests after the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Harvard Law students requested that their final examinations be postponed, claiming that students of color and their “allies” will perform poorly, being unable to “walk away from their pain.”

The absurdity of this should be clear, but let’s review it for sake of making sure. Students who attend Harvard are in a position of privilege, whether by accident of choosing one’s parents well or by the largesse of the school. People who are graduated from Harvard Law typically go on a variety of positions of power and prominence in this country, including these fellows. These are not jobs for the timid or the lazy.

Now schools do have a system for dealing with people who have personal emergencies. Students can be given incompletes on a case-by-case basis, with the expectation that they return to complete the work soon. The truth is that they often don’t do so, and this is not something that is good to allow willy-nilly. In principle, students should attend the final on the scheduled date to demonstrate their fitness for being called college graduates.

That being the case, I offer the following suggestion to students who feel themselves traumatized by events that they are no more connected to than anyone else.


Notice how those students are wearing warm weather clothing? Students who wish to postpone their fall semester finals may feel free to do so. They may retake the class in the spring and take that class’s final in May.


Spend much time debating gun rights on-line, and you’ll be told that “stronger” gun laws correlate to better outcomes in terms of deaths.

All right, let’s find out. I’m drawing data from the following sources:

1. Homicide rates by state, 2013:

Numbers are homicides per 100,000.

2. Suicide rates by state, 2012:

Numbers are suicides per 100,000.

3. Brady Campaign state scorecard, 2013:

Their methods are their own, but since they are opposed to gun rights, I presume that their scoring favors gun control over loose gun laws.

Both graphs use an X axis with values from 0 to 4 and a Y axis from 0 to 30. The X values are keyed to a four-point grade scale:

A: 4
A-: 3.75
B+: 3.25
B: 3
B-: 2.75
C+: 2.25
C: 2
C-: 1.75
D+: 1.25
D: 1
D-: 0.75
F: 0

The Y numbers are suicides or homicides per 100,000.

First the homicide numbers compared to the Brady score:

Homicide to Brady score

Notice the lack of a pattern, other than groups of states with the same gun laws having homicide rates at wild variance from each other? If the Brady Bunch were correct, there should be a strong correlation, not nothing.

Now let’s consider the suicide numbers:

Suicide to Brady score

Here, there is a low negative correlation, though as with homicide rates, the large grouping at X = 0 is significant.

Of course, as any student of statistics knows, correlation doesn’t imply causation. But if there is causation, there must be correlation. The lack of correlation in homicide rates and the weak correlation in suicide rates demonstrates that we cannot claim that the strictness of gun laws determines lives saved.

Feel free to share this next time you’re dealing with someone promoting gun control.

Call ‘Em As I See ‘Em.

Here we go again. A grand jury, this time in Staten Island, has declined to indict a white police officer for the death of a black man, and protesters are marching against this perceived injustice. Unlike events in Ferguson, MO, the New York protests have been largely peaceful. On the surface, the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner look the same–white law enforcement violating the rights of black men. But as with life, things are more complex in these situations than a reflexive reaction would believe.

Some might accuse me of exercising “white privilege” here, and perhaps an objective view requires having distance, but it’s my position that a valid conclusion has to be based on facts and logic and that while societal trends are important in general terms, each case must be treated individually, since people act individually.

With that in mind, we have to consider the evidence of the two cases. There is no video of the Ferguson event, but we do have the testimony presented to the grand jury, and that supports Darren Wilson’s account. In addition, nothing to date has come to light to show that Wilson acted out of racist motives or that he had a history of excessive force. It’s always possible for new facts to emerge that will change the interpretation of the total evidence, but we cannot ignore present data in the belief that the truth is out there somewhere to be found at some unspecified future point.

By contrast, we do have video of the arrest of Eric Garner:

The video of the incident itself starts at 1:04.

I worked for a while in a residential treatment facility for troubled youths and was taught how to restrain someone who is agitated or violent. A chokehold wasn’t allowed. In fact, NYPD officers are specifically barred from using chokeholds. In the video, I see no evidence that Garner posed a threat to the officers or to anyone else. I don’t know if there was a reason to arrest him, but I don’t see any cause to use force in the process. What is more, unlike Darren Wilson, the officer responsible for Garner’s death, Daniel Pantaleo, has a history of excessive force incidents. That doesn’t by itself prove that Pantaleo was wrong this time, but it does show a pattern of behavior that speaks to the nature of the person.

The point in all of this is that if all we do is react without thinking, we jump to invalid conclusions. We lash out at people not responsible for the perceived wrongs, and we champion causes not worthy of our efforts. Michael Brown was a violent criminal. Eric Garner was not. Brown attacked an officer, while Garner simply expressed his frustration with the police. Neither event justifies burning down a city, but protests are warranted over Garner’s death. But rage without reference to facts invariably brings another wrong in response to the first wrong and thereby dims the moral authority of the cause.

Ferguson Burning

The decision of the grand jury in Ferguson, MO is finally in (24 November 2014), and Officer Darren Wilson will not be indicted for the shooting of Michael Brown. This is being met with violent protest as I am writing.



Seeing the events unfold, starting with an eighteen year old man rob a store and assault its owner, then attack a police officer and opening out onto protests and riots, reminds me of students I had in inner-city high schools in the Nashville, TN area who were convinced that a life of crime would bring them fortune and ease, while becoming educated was somehow “acting white.”

As my picture at the top of this site shows, I’m a white male. To some, that negates everything I’m about to say. If so, that’s not my problem. I’ve spent the better part of twenty years in education at various levels, and I will call things as I see them.

Life isn’t easy, especially if you live in the depressed and disadvantaged cities of this country. That’s a fact. But resentfully clinging to that won’t get you out. It won’t make things better. The following are what will:

1. Dress like a successful person, not like a thug. If no one around you is doing so, watch television. Dress like the successful people. Visit a college. Dress like the professors. No, you won’t be seen as cool, and you won’t get laid. Those facts are good for you.

2. Attend classes, talk to your teachers, commit to learning and to getting a diploma. Many schools in the inner city are shit. There’s no other way to put it. But at the same time, you can learn something, more than a little something if you’re determined to gain knowledge.

3. College is expensive, but some are less expensive than others. Go to a community college after high school. Or see what four-year colleges in your state accept any residents with a diploma. Spend time with your school’s guidance counselor, and get answers that you want. Research scholarships. First, get a two-year degree, then go on to a bachelor’s degree at a full college. Even if it takes many years of a class or two a semester, keep doing it.

This all may sound like so much pablum, but like many things in life, it’s a simple answer that requires a lot of hard work. It’s also not a guarantee, though the odds will be much better if you do it.

Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt

In marketing, the term, F.U.D., shows up from time to time. Those letters stand for fear, uncertainty, and doubt. It’s a strategy used to keep people from accepting a new product or proposal by making people afraid to change from some old and settled way of doing things. But these days, this concept is used more generally to discuss attempts in a debate to sow F.U.D. against an idea without bothering to show any actual errors in facts and logic.

One example of this can be found in debates on-line about gun rights:

1.  What are you afraid of?


Say that you carry a handgun for self-defense, and someone will ask you what you’re afraid of. It’s an inevitability, just like questions about penis size and other silly examples of ad hominem fallacies. But in addition to mocking a supporter of rights, the purpose of the question is to create fear in the minds of undecided people about those of us who are exercising our rights. The insinuation is that you wouldn’t want fearful and thus unstable people running around in public, now would you.

But let’s consider the data. Violent crime certainly does occur. The rate is down from years gone by, but attacks on good citizens do still occur. Preparing for a potential bad event is not fear. It’s a rational calculation.

On the other hand, carry license holders commit crimes at rates much lower than the average population. Consider these numbers on people who legally carry in Texas. Year after year, license holders represent a fraction of one percent of convictions. These data match reporting across the whole nation.

2.  But how can we know?


How can we know that a person with a gun is a good person and not a bad person? We can spend endless hours debating epistemology, but specifically on this question, the essence of American values is the belief that human beings are good until proved otherwise. Asking how can we trust someone with the exercise of basic rights betrays the kind of attitude found in Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, a view that we must be strictly controlled to restrain our evil natures. That is a reasonable view to hold–one that I certainly don’t accept, though–but it is fundamentally contrary to the principle underlying a free society.

3.  What if I don’t believe you?


In many discussions, there comes a point at which someone rejects not only interpretations based on judgements but facts as well. The facts about guns in the United States are mixed, leaving both sides the opportunity to have valid positions derived from their values–freedom or safety–without being compelled to choose one answer or another to be intellectually honest. For example, some 30,000 Americans die each year from gunshots, while something like 80,000 suffer non-fatal injuries. At the same time, hundred of thousands use firearms to defend their lives annually. But facts have an unyielding quality that creates cognitive dissonance in the minds of people not willing to ground their beliefs in reality.

So what do we do? We have to admit that we can’t reach everyone, but we can persuade those who are undecided, and we might persuade some who haven’t thought things through. My choice is to advocate for basic rights, a view I call eleutherianism.