Gun Fight!

January 28, 2020

Last week, there was a big demonstration in the capital of Virginia, concerning the sweeping restrictions on firearms that the Democratic legislature is proposing.

I understand the urge to do something, and showing that there are lots of people willing to come out on a chilly January morning to demonstrate may seem like a good idea.  Demonstrations such as these, however, are at best rear-guard actions in a political fight that is going to be lost if we don’t win the cultural fight, and at worst they can make things much worse.

The Democratic legislation is not doing this because they are tyrants who are willing to overrule the will of the people just to restrict firearms for a couple of years before they all lose office and the Republicans reverse it all. They’re doing it because they think it will be popular. They think this because gun restrictions are popular with their base; I know, because most of my friends are the Democrats’  base, and they support gun control because they think it will make them safer, or because they want to rebuke the right-wing social politics of much of the Second Amendment community’s more vocal elements.  Democratic politicians favor gun control because their base demands it.

We are going to lose if we don’t engage that base to shut off that demand.  The GOP already cannot win in fair elections throughout much of the US; it’s only voter suppression and gerrymandering that’s keeping them in power in some areas.  It’s only a matter of time before that stops working, and more and more states look like Virginia.  Calm engagement of legislators can slow gun control somewhat, but eventually demand from the base will overrule even that.  Before that happens, we need to help convince the Democratic base that gun control isn’t what will make them safer; that what will is an attack on the root causes of violence: social justice concerns like systemic inequality, economic insecurity, inadequacy of healthcare, and the like.  Social justice is not a particularly hard sell.

That’s the real fight.  It’s not going to be won with III% or Gadsden flags.  It’s not going to be won by carrying an AR-15 into Starbuck’s. It’s not going to be won by shutting folks down for calling a magazine a “clip.”  It’s not going to be won through intimidation.  

It’s going to be won by doing the opposite.  By showing people that gun owners aren’t scary.  By demonstrating, when you can, that your values and theirs are not that far apart.  By showing (if it’s true,) that you support many of the same social justice issues they do.  Basically, by engaging them as you would want to be engaged by someone who thought you were wrong about something.  Try some of the techniques presented by Sarah Cade and Jon Hauptman in Guns Guide To Liberals.  Just remember — the way we win this is to shut off demand for gun control, and the only way we do that is to change minds.

So, get out there.  Talk to your anti-gun friends.  Take ’em shooting, see if you can get ’em hooked.  Your friendships, and your rights, will be much stronger for it.

Functional Programming in Scala at Coursera

February 27, 2013

I enrolled in this course in July of 2012. I didn’t know much about functional programming, but a night of Clojure koans at Software Craftsmanship McHenry County and several articles (like this one by John Carmack) about the advantages piqued my interest, and when I saw this course offering, I leaped.

I didn’t really know what I was getting into, but there were several surprises in store for me.

First, the instructor was Martin Odersky, designer of Scala.  I’m not always the sharpest Ginsu in the drawer, so the course had already started before I figured that bit out.

Second, if you don’t know much about functional programming, you might think, as I did, of recursion as something very useful in specific cases, but otherwise a waste of stack space.  You need to quit thinking that; recursion is indispensable to functional programming, and once you’ve learned to write methods to exploit tail calls, they aren’t even hard on the stack.

Third, it can be frustrating (in a good way) to craft a functional solution to a problem that you *know* you could do imperatively in five minutes.  In a way it feels like tying a hand behind your back, but once you get into the mindset, the functional solutions become much more natural.

Finally, this was one of the hardest things I have done since my qualifying exams in ’89.  Getting my mind off a problem and letting a solution bubble up is a tool I have used many times in the past for really hard problems, and it’s something I found myself doing a lot in this course.  Many exercises were solved in bed, just before I drifted off to sleep.

The course was more about functional programming and less about Scala, but I feel I should mention a few features of the language.

First of all, it is not a purely functional language — you can write imperative code in it, and since it is a JVM language, you can intermingle it with Java fairly easily.

Second, it’s got some really nifty features; in my opinion the niftiest of these is pattern matching. Basically, you define a function to do different things based on an expression. While this isn’t really anything you couldn’t do imperatively, the notation Scala uses is rather concise and easy to work with:

def combine(trees: List[CodeTree]): List[CodeTree] = trees match {
  case Nil => trees
  case List(x) => trees
  case x :: xs => insert(makeCodeTree(x, xs.head), xs.tail)

What this code does is to merge the first two entries in a sorted list of trees into a larger tree.  If the list is empty (the first case) or has a single element (the second) the function returns its argument.

The third case selects lists where there is a head (x) and a tail (xs — xs can technically be empty, but won’t here because we wouldn’t have fallen past the second case if it were).  It then merges the head of the list, and the second element (here expressed as xs.head, ie the head of the tail of the list) and sticks it in the proper place in the list of remaining trees.

Overall, this was a great course.  If you’re looking to learn some functional programming, or if you are just looking for a mental challenge that is missing from your day job, you should check it out.  Another session starts on March 25, 2013.

Fresh Start

December 17, 2012

I’m rebooting the blog, hoping to take my content in a more technical direction.

The old content still exists, somewhere else, and if you really miss it that badly, ask and I’ll tell you where it is.