Sunday, 30 December 2012

Gun For Christmas

The recent Sandy Hook shooting has deeply affected the American nation, and has reached the ears of most of the western world at least. For those immediately affected, this is a horrible tragedy and devastating event that will leave a long lasting impact on the community. For almost everyone else it's a great chance to talk about gun control and, misguidedly, mental illness. The debate has been mired in all sorts of intentional half truths, unintentional half truths, out of date statistics, fallacious reasoning and outright lies. This of course, has happened on both sides of the issue. I like to think of myself as a sceptic, but rummaging through the multitude of information that could go either way was tiresome at best. There are a few things I would like to clear up.

The first thing to do here is to dispel a few myths. The first is really important, but not super relevant. It is assumed, by a large amount of people and news program hosts, that any mass shooter is a crazed, mentally ill human being. This is not a healthy attitude, for a variety of reasons, most of them resting on the shoulders of “not necessarily”. Two blog posts deal with this issue here  and here

A common question lodged by people who are pro gun is “what about the Swiss?” - Supposedly Switzerland has low gun control, a high number of people who own guns and little gun violence. Well, firstly this source here shows that Switzerland actually has an extremely high number of gun related deaths per 100,000 people, especially compared with other countries with similar living conditions. Another country with a high figure in this arena is Finland, which also has a high percentage of the populace that own guns. It should also be pointed out that this article here suggests that Switzerland is not the gun toting utopia once thought. Some comments on that article, from people claiming to be Swiss, say some of the information here is incorrect, with one commenter saying since Switzerland introduced gun control crime had gone up 15% every year. This is an hilarious claim. Crime statistics for Switzerland show rising terms of traffic offences. Criminal offences have increased in Switzerland since 1999, quite drastically too (roughly 30% from 2000-2005 before stabilising), but so have traffic offences. Narcotics offences have remained virtually the same. The number of Homicides has more or less been unchanged between 2005-2009, and was at its lowest in 2009. The point here is that some of the things floating around about certain example countries might not always be right, in the online discourse on gun control it is recommend that statistics, especially if claimed without any kind of evidence, are checked. 

This post here is about how we shouldn't renew the assault weapons ban the US issued in 1994. It argues it did nothing to reduce crime, and that the ban contained all sorts of unreasonable definitions of things like “high capacity clip” and “assault weapon”. This blog here briefly points out that the Assault Weapons ban included more than 600 exceptions, and was rather flimsy. This issue about gun control working or not based on how successful the 1994 ban is an issue that still seems to be open, with arguments pouring in from either side of the issue.

 Many people fail to grasp the fundamental trivialities of living in a society. This is super simple stuff: to live in a society you surrender parts of your freedom. The government imposes consequences for actions outside of acceptable bounds, we tend to call these laws. Some are very useful, like don't murder people, others less so, like don't jaywalk. Then again, the idea is that the government exists for the people, by the people and offers them identity, sovereignty and protection (in all forms). If the laissez fair attitude towards gun control in the US is actually endangering society, the government can and probably should step in. It is worth noting that there is a substantial difference between your right to something like free speech and your right to own a gun: in form, value and necessity. Of course both can be viewed from the rising up against the government view, in which free speech and the right to bear arms both hold equal footing on grounds of fighting against government oppression (in all its forms). The idea that the American people would ever fight the American government is absurd, but if it does happen it is unlikely owning an assault weapon/gun is going to help. Points can be made about successful guerilla fighting against even the US military, but I would hardly call the Taliban successful and the Vietnam war was not just fought by guerilla warfare. Nowadays, the upper hand seems to be determined by how the international community reacts, not whether everyone has a gun in their home. More importantly, when society breaks down and reaches a civil war like state, it won't be hard to obtain a gun, with interested parties racing in to the supply the insurgents. So the only real footing for owning a gun being a right is either a belief in minimal government that interrupts as few freedoms as possible or belief that the constitution is an absolute and timeless document that should never be violated.

Of course, we don't just need arguments, but figures as well. In Australia, introducing strict and rigorous gun control halved gun crimes, in a country that tends to be very violent. The data here and here strongly suggests a link between reduced gun ownership and reduced gun violence. And almost all evidence goes to show that gun control reduces suicide, or rather than there is a link between gun ownership and suicide . Honesty is important, and so is balance, and there are a couple of things worth noting, one is that gun control in Washington D.C, or rather the handgun ban, seems to have done little to stem gun violence, even when it is considered that the ban was introduced not too long before the crack epidemic of the 80s which saw the murder rate in D.C peak at an all time high in 1991. The other is that apparently gun crime in Australia had already been falling before the 1996 gun ban. However, I am unable to obtain any data on if there was an increase in the rate gun crime fell after 1996

The one thing that's apparent is that there appears to be a multitude of information that can go either way. It would be silly to ignore other factors, such as a culture of violence, that might exist in the USA. The approach shouldn't be one dimensional either and any solution should  try to encompass an multi-pronged approach to tackling the issue. I might write another post on violence, once I research the topic of violence. Ultimately introducing gun control laws may or may not actually reduce crime: some studies say it will, while others suggest a negative correlation between gun control and violence! The reason there are multiple well reasoned opinions on both sides of the debate is because it seems that the statistics, obtained in a variety of ways, can be used to show multiple and opposing things. There are certain things that are total bullshit: one is that mass shooters have to be mentally ill, the other is that Switzerland is some gun slinging utopia, the third is the claim that it is an undeniable right to own a gun that the government has no business interfering in. The rest can be fought over tooth and claw. I would encourage one to go through all the sources, they offer a plethora of information, that one can use to become more informed on a issue that may prove to be extremely crucial. 

Further Recommended Reading: – Anti gun Control, worth reading comments section – Interesting mix of data. I've noticed at one point it mentions statistics between 1975-1984, the later portion of these years were during a crack cocaine epidemic that affected many major cities and centres of population in the USA. Crime in the USA was, in general, extremely high during that period and any statistics from the era should be viewed with a suspicious eye.


Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Deconstructing Towers

So I'm currently in Vienna, Austria, a grand old city whose walls and capitalistic monoliths (read: buildings) have centuries of history embedded in them.Of course, I am gathering about some high rolling Vienna life experience, namely, going to very nice and very old art galleries. Imagine a four story palace, filled with paintings. This building no doubt contains art from all eons, but the section I was examining one, fine, cold Austrian morning, contained almost exclusively 16th and 17th century paintings. The level of technical ability present in the paintings was extremely high. The  attention to detail, contrast, depth and general craftsmanship was all very impressive. These paintings had a life like quality.

We're talking about 16th and 17th  century paintings reach a technical peak. I'm sure painting, in terms of pure skill, hasn't reached it's ultimate limit yet, but it seems that by the 17th century art was at a high level of technical excellence. So what happens if the only place to go is down? Well, it may have taken a few centuries, and perhaps several other important factors, but it seems like a big motivator in the more abstract and unusual artistic styles that dominated the early 20th century's artistic landscape. Cubism, expressionism and abstract art all began to be on the rise. In this movement, their appears to be a shift away from pure technical ability towards more abstract and more intellectual focuses. Art that used to focus on depiction of events evolved to be concerned with ideas and meaning (or lack thereof). Indeed, many people who remain skeptical of say, Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko can often be heard retorting "but I could have done that", these people have utterly and completely missed the point. Art here, by which I mostly mean paintings, became about expression or evocation, emotional or intellectual. While it would be naive and dangerous of me to say that art in 16th and 17th century did not also have similar aims, by stripping away the aesthetic virtue of something, by making it not conform to standard ideas of beauty and pleasantness, we can engage with ideas more directly, and more purely. We ask "this is unpleasant. Why?", or if we find these distilled and abstract objects enticing, we once again are forced to ask questions.

With music, it reached its apex around a similar time. Sure shredding didn't really become a thing until the 70s, but there are many pieces from 16th and 17th century that require dexterity, grace and the fastest Jazz Hands the planet has ever seen. And most of them were compose a few hundred years ago. At some point, also around the start of the 20th century, music was slowly picked apart. John Cage's 4'33" is actually not music in a strict sense, yet in some ways it is completely music (this depends on audience engagement with the piece). A similar counterpoint happened in contemporary music around the 80s. A lot of music in the 70s had at least some technical focus, the rise of progressive bands like Genesis and Yes, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and the origins of Shred music all are distinctly 70s thing. One decade later noise, musical deconstruction at its purest, was becoming a distinct aspect of music. Bands like Fugazi, Big Black, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr all incorporated noise (elements of feedback, and so on) into thier songs and definitely their live sets. By the 90s, noise was a widely accepted aspect of popular music, provided it didn't interfere with our standard song structure. Nirvana had some very noisy songs, and nosier live sets and thier influence on modern music, in all aspects is tremendous (you'll be surprised how many bands are working on their cover of Tourette's, right now).

Of course, total noise 'music' still exists on the fringe, but the presence of musical deconstruction has touched most elements of modern music. Likewise, elements of 20th century abstract art has had a definitive influence  on the course of 'modern art'. It would be naive to attribute changes in any social system to a singular cause, but it seems like part of the technical decline of 'art' would have something to do with the high levels of skill reached at certain epochs, and this deconstruction and shift of focus away from talent has become an important part of the modern world.