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Archive for December, 2012

On this last day of the year, Diogenes was delighted that the ATP World Tour has resumed after its annual six week off-season. Live play began today from the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, a relatively secular Arab state with a striking new skyline of eclectic modern skyscrapers. The incredibly international nature of the tour was reinforced while watching the first televised match on the Tennis Channel between the Italian Simone Bolelli and Spaniard Daniel Gimeno-Traver.

A new rule was put into effect for this season that ought to improve the viewing experience for the fans. The server has 25 seconds from the end of the last point to put the ball in play. Players today are mostly the products of academies that teach students to employ serving rituals to focus their attention as they step up to serve. Until this year, tour players regularly took three or four balls from ball kids to choose which two to use, even though six balls are used in tour matches and changed every 9 games, so there is not a lot or difference between them. In addition, many players toweled off between almost every point whether or not they were profusely perspiring. These routines sometimes elongated time between play to 45 seconds. (Imagine club play with opponents taking these kinds of delays, especially in New York, where we pay for court time by the hour and someone is always waiting to take your court when your time is up. In the absence of umpires, many would be tempted to club their opponents!)

Until now, umpires would issue a warning to players for time code violations. Additional time delays were supposed to be progressive in that they would result in the loss of the point. As a result, it was very rare for umpires to call second time violations. The new rule calls for umpires to start a clock which only they can see at the end of a point, and call a time violation at 25 seconds if the ball is not in play. The penalty is loss of the first serve. Subsequent violations are not progressive and results in loss of the next serve whether it is a first or second.

Tennis is one of few sports where there is no time limit to finish. Players must win 2 of 3 sets in regular tournaments, and 3 of 5 sets in Grans Slam events. This can sometimes result in very long matches. At the 2012 Australian Open final in January, Novak Djokovic defeated Rafa Nadal (two notoriously slow players) in the longest slam match in history, needing 5 hours and 53 minutes to prevail. In addition to scheduled 90 second breaks every two games, each player routinely took 30 or 40 seconds to serve, so the actual time the ball was in play was likely less than an hour. Such matches are almost as difficult for the spectators as for the players. Shortening them with faster play improves the game for everyone.

In the Bolelli v. Gimeno-Traver match today, time violations were called several times, particularly at crucial break point junctures. This was terrific to see. Diogenes expects that basketball-like countdown shot clocks will be put at court side by next season to further engage spectators and allow the players to time their actions to avoid the penalties. At the end of the day, it’s not just sport. It’s entertainment!

Last Friday’s shooting deaths of 26 children and adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut is the latest in a long series of mass shootings of random innocents by deranged persons. Like many Americans, Diogenes is deeply troubled by these recurring tragedies, and thinks this is an appropriate time to consider the role of guns in American society.

The Right To Bear Arms

The 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution, as ratified by the states in 1791 states

“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Why was this right considered so important that it was enshrined in the Bill of Rights? Here is a partial list of the key reasons:

  • The United States had only recently won its independence after a revolutionary war that had lasted eight years. There was an uneasy peace with England that would again devolve into war in the next 20 years.
  • There was no standing national army, and most (white) male American adults were members of armed militias that could be called out in the event of war.
  • Many of the states had western borders which had Indians (potentially) threatening American settlers on the frontier.
  • Hunting was a significant means of putting food on the table in all of the states.

Guns in the US Compared to the Rest of the World 

Gun regulations in America are lax compared to the rest of the world. Nearly half of all households (47%) have a gun, although many homes contain multiple guns. About 1/3 of Americans own guns, although the percentage of the population owning guns has been declining in the last 50 years. About 2/3 of gun owners state that they own firearms for personal protection, 2/3 for hunting and over 1/3 for target practice. The reasons overlap quite a bit and so add to more than 100%. According to the Washington Post, guns per capita are sharply higher in America than anywhere else in the world, and as the chart below shows, about double that of the rest of the developed world.

Data source: Small Arms Survey (Max Fisher/Washington Post 2012)

The National Rifle Association (NRA) will tell you that “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. Guns are only tools.” This may all be true, but gun violence in the US is higher than anywhere else in the western world, perhaps because we have more tools readily available?  A bit more than 100,000 Americans will likely be killed or injured in gun violence next year. To be “fair”, about 20,000 of them will be suicides, but guns are involved in about 2/3 of violent crimes in America, almost all of these are handguns. Hunting rifles are rarely used in violent crimes.

Current Gun Regulation and Proposed Changes

Policies at all levels of government have attempted to address gun violence through a variety of methods, including restricting firearms purchasing by youths and other “at-risk” populations, setting waiting periods for firearm purchases, establishing gun “buy-back” programs, targeted law enforcement and policing strategies, stiff sentencing of gun law violators, education programs for parents and children, and community-outreach programs. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she will introduce legislation next year to ban new assault weapons, as well as big clips, drums and strips of more than 10 bullets.

Perhaps of even greater significance is the call for more scrutiny of the ways government can keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. Methods for doing so will require much discussion.

Guns & Self Defense

The 2nd amendment’s protection canards are at best disingenuous, as technology is wildly different today than in 1791. Guns then were almost all single shot muskets with limited effective range. No one had the capability to kill 10 or 50 people.

Today’s total of 290 million guns in almost 50% of households is ridiculous. The shooter in Connecticut took his mother’s guns to kill her and 26 others. Purchasing verification would not have stopped him.

Self defense, the stated primary reason for owning a handgun, is a non sequitor. A study from the University of Philadelphia suggests that victims in possession of firearms are 4.5 times more likely to be shot and 4.2 times more likely to be killed than those unarmed.

“gun possession by urban adults was associated with a significantly increased risk of being shot in an assault. On average, guns did not seem to protect those who possessed them from being shot in an assault. Although successful defensive gun uses can and do occur…such successes are (not) likely…

A gun may falsely empower its possessor to overreact, instigating and losing otherwise tractable conflicts with similarly armed persons. …individuals who are in possession of a gun may increase their risk of gun assault by entering dangerous environments that they would have normally avoided. Alternatively, an individual may bring a gun to an otherwise gun-free conflict only to have that gun wrested away and turned on them…

when victims had little to no chance to resist, they were almost always confronted with events that happened very suddenly, involved substantial distances, had no face-to-face contact, and had physical barriers between them and the shooter (e.g., bystander or drive-by shootings). These victims likely had no meaningful opportunity to use a gun even if they had one in their possession.”

“Investigating the Link Between Gun Possession and Gun Assault”, Branas, et al, American Journal of Public Health, November. 2009

What More Needs To Be Done?

Diogenes believes that current proposals do not go nearly far enough to safeguard the public from gun violence. The following steps should be taken to stop the continuing massacre of innocents.

  • Sale and possession of handguns should be severely restricted to law enforcement and those few occupations where armed force might be necessary, such as jewelers and armored truck drivers and guards.
  • Biometric “trigger locks” should be mandatory to prevent illicit sales and use of stolen firearms.
  • Possession and display of unlicensed firearms should be grounds for mandatory prison terms.
  • Federal funding should be made available for the buy back of semi-automatic weapons and handguns from the public using a carrot and stick approach. Time limits should be imposed for the purchase and surrender of such weapons, after which private ownership should simply be made illegal.
  • For those citizens who insist on personal protection, non lethal means of defense at close range should be used. Pepper spray and personal stun weapons such as Tasers are the solution. (The Taser fires two small dart-like electrodes, which stay connected to the main unit by conductive wire as they are propelled by small compressed nitrogen charges. The air cartridge contains a pair of electrodes and propellant is replaced after each use. There are a number of cartridges designated by range, with the maximum at 35 feet for law enforcement and 15 feet for consumer use. Tasers primarily function by creating neuromuscular incapacitation; the devices interrupt the ability of the brain to control the muscles in the body. This creates an immediate and unavoidable incapacitation that is not based on pain and cannot be overcome. Once the electricity stops flowing the subject immediately regains control of his or her body.) Taser devices are not considered firearms by the United States government. They can be legally carried (concealed or open) without a permit in 43 states. Tasers typically fire one cartridge, although a new model has three shots in case of a miss.

Armed criminals will always be a challenge  as long as handguns are made anywhere in the world. Nevertheless, these proposals would allow for legitimate hunting and sporting uses by citizens while adding protections for the general public. Knives and other deadly weapons will still be available, but mass killings would be made far more unlikely. It is time to break the “cowboy culture” of violence in America.

Diogenes is a long time resident of a New York apartment building which has the wonderful amenity of a fitness room in its basement. First established nearly 20 years ago, this gym had deteriorated over the years through lack of updates into a slightly dingy and depressing, albeit functional place. One feature of the health club that regular users cherished was that each of 12 aerobic machine stations had its own small TV and VCR/DVD player, allowing users to record their own media and watch it while working out. A long overdue refurbishing of the gym at the end of the summer yielded flat screen TVs with no speakers and no media inputs. It seems that the remodeling committee decided that users (their neighbors) could not be trusted to comply with facility rules requiring headset use. Additionally, some few of us were spending too much time on any one machine, and perhaps grunting overly or perspiring too much while doing so.

Initially, Diogenes was outraged at this small infringement of his right to sweat profusely. Of course, the reality is that anything that governs any action is a limit on liberty, which is why the Founding Fathers held the idea of limited government as a basic tenet of the foundation of our republic. “Civil society” regulates our activities in countless ways, so why was Diogenes annoyed? It was because he had seen this problem coming and tried to head it off. As an original member of the committee that planned the construction of the gym, he had long ago specified the equipment to be replaced. Diogenes wrote letters to the current committee asking for slight changes to accommodate personal media. In a West Side building this input would have likely been debated intensely, but in this East Side coop, Diogenes was ignored, probably due to a lack of technical knowledge.

The simple answer to the equipment change in the gym would be to purchase new media from iTunes for every use of the facility. But Diogenes is rarely simple. This would constitute a new tax when he already paid for cable and NetFlix. Accepting the self imposed challenge to find a solution to the new equipment required Diogenes to exercise his brain, a far more daunting task than beating up his body. It had been years since Diogenes had considered the topic of video capture, and most of what he knew involved recording in old, “standard” definition of 480 lines of resolution. His first attempt involved the purchase of a TV tuner for a laptop. It would not record through the cable box, and so would only record unencrypted basic 2-13 channels. Not good enough.

The wonder of the internet is the ability to teach yourself almost anything without leaving your desk. Eventually, Diogenes purchased a high definition video capture device intended for gamers. It allowed the recording of signals through the cable box to a laptop. Unfortunately, the recorded media was not in a format to be transferred into an I-Pad. Further research yielded a separate media conversion software program that did the trick.

Diogenes wound up spending as much for hardware and software to record and view media as he would have to simply buy it for a year or so. But as noted physicist and polymath Richard Feynman wrote in 1981, sometimes “the pleasure of finding things out” is its own reward. Every time Diogenes forces himself to overcome his inertia to use the gym, he chuckles to himself as he watches…whatever he wants. He thanks the committee for prodding him to expand his knowledge, and upgrade his viewing experience.