Saturday, 15 December 2012

People, Guns, Ammunition: Which Kills?

Before you read further I would like to make one thing crystal clear. I like Americans, and have many American friends. I think America does some things better than us in the UK, for example sentencing of criminals, and the government system has a proper separation between Executive, Legislative and the Judiciary in America. Not so in the UK.

Also, I am not anti-gun per se. In school I belonged to the gun club - air rifles, and have visited the local gun club, although only once about ten years ago. My interest is purely in the skill required to accurately place a small piece of metal in a paper target hundreds of feet away. In that respect sports shooting is no different to archery or darts, both being target based skills with projectiles.

However, in the wake of the tragedy in Connecticut yesterday, there is yet again the need to address the issue of gun laws and ownership. America is not alone in gun related tragedies; in the UK we have had Hungerford, Dunblane and most recently Rothbury in Northumberland and probably others that don't come to mind at present. Norway too with the rampage of murder perpetrated by Anders Breivik Breiling. Other countries have had their tragedies too.  So it is not a uniquely American problem.

That being said, there are three main areas requiring attention:

1.  The US Constitution. What is unique to America is the belief that a right to bear arms for all is enshrined in the Second Amendment of the US Constitution.

Let's have a look at the article in question:

As passed by the Congress:

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.

As ratified by the States and authenticated by Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State:

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.

The two are identical, bar a capital M and a comma. What both have in common is the clear link between a 'well regulated militia' and 'the right of the people to keep and bear Arms..' It does not anywhere state ordinary citizens may bear arms just because they want to.

In reading the Constitution, or any historic document, the reader must always bear in mind the circumstances under which it was written. In the late 18th century America had only recently won independence from the United Kingdom, and the separate states had not yet formed into the United States of America which we know today - the Civil War would not unite them for another 80 years or more. In the article linked above a clear point is made by those involved that

a) A land-owner should be allowed to hunt on his own land, requiring a gun to do so.
b) Each State had a legal obligation to operate a militia in order to quell insurrection etc. In fact there is a clear point made with regard to the military aspect of the right to bear arms.

2.  Even today America has wildlife capable of killing; bears, rattlesnakes, wolves, coyotes etc. Thus it makes sense that a person who commonly goes into the wilds hiking, for instance, should be allowed to arm themselves with a rifle for self defence. It even makes sense, to a slightly lesser degree, to allow people who live in cities to own hand guns for personal and home protection.

It does not make sense, in any conceivable scenario for a private citizen to own an automatic weapon, or semi-automatic larger than a handgun.

a) Automatic / assault rifles cannot be carried openly, even in America.
b) They are almost useless for home protection as the owner would spend too much time wielding a bulky weapon in a restricted environment.

Therefore at the very most, only handguns should be in the possession of private citizens, unless they can show a definite requirement for a rifle. In the latter case there is no justification for automatic weapons in private hands.

3.  There is an old saying, almost always used in these cases to justify gun ownership. 'Guns don't kill people, people kill people.' This seems to be saying it's perfectly alright for everyone to have guns because only some of them will kill each other. When you realise that interpretation you realise how wrong the statement is. However, it is half right. In my opinion the full saying should be:

'Guns don't kill people, the ammunition in guns kills people.'

This brings up an issue which time after time is totally ignored and needs repeating. We are told that the killer in Connecticut yesterday had around 200 rounds of ammunition, an assault rifle and two hand guns. Point 2 above covered the aspect that there is no logical reason a private citizen should have had an assault rifle.

Current reports state 27 people died, which means about 1 in 7 of his rounds caused someone's death. Had there been stricter controls on the ammunition, and he'd only been allowed handguns, the situation would have been far less of a tragedy - still a tragedy for his victims' families of course and even one death in these circumstances is abhorrent. However, the average hand gun holds approximately 10 rounds, a revolver average of six; had be been armed with one of these and proper control of ammunition sales had been in force, with an average of 1/7 shots killing someone the death toll would have been one at most.

My speciality is in IT, specifically Software Development. It would not take a competent database developer very long at all to augment the existing gun owner database in America - presumably operated by the ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) - to add a record for ammunition purchases. Under such a system it would be much easier, albeit not foolproof, to track ammunition purchases.  For example:

a) Purchaser enters store and shows gun licence (I would make this a prerequisite even for ammunition purchase). I would also place an upper limit on the volume of a single purchase.
b) Purchases ammunition and leaves store.
c) Purchaser enters another store and attempts to buy more. Upon seeing their gun licence and entering it into the system the owner would see the prior purchase and refuse the sale.

While it is not a perfect system by any means, it could be strengthened with safeguards, such as a requirement to justify why someone was making regular purchases, and a centralised system could be devised to detect unusual patterns in purchasing.

[Addendum: Following the first statement by the National Rifle Association - NRA - of America it seems appropriate to update this blog to reflect on their statements.]

They claim that designating schools as gun free zones tells 'every insane killer in America that schools are the safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk.'

There are two problems with that statement:

1. There is an assumption that all killers are insane and doesn't accept that some may have a motive for what they do, such as terrorism.
2. If gun control was tighter then the 'insane killers' couldn't cause their 'mayhem' as they wouldn't find obtaining guns and ammunition so easy.

Secondly they claim violence in video games and films is to blame for portraying murder as 'a way of life'. If this were true then tragedies such as Newtown would be a far more common occurence as everyone who saw a violent film would go out and re-enact their favourite scenes. This doesn't happen, and there are enough examples of mass murderers who didn't - in some case couldn't - have that kind of influence to refute the suggestion, for example these from the UK:

Myra Hindley and Ian Brady: - Active between 1963-65, they had no access to violent films or computer game - neither video players nor home computers had been invented.
Peter Sutcliffe, aka The Yorkshire Ripper: - Active between 1969 (assault) and 1975-80; 13 murders - no link to violent movies was ever mentioned and his activities were prior to home computers.
Fred and Rose West: - Active between 1967 and 1987 first he, and then the pair murdered 11 young women and girls. Again prior to home computers, and no mention ever of violent movies.
Harold Shipman: - Active between 1975 and 1998 - 250 murders officially ascribed to him. A 53 year old doctor in 1998 who in at least one case killed a patient having had her change her will leaving £386,000 to him, therefore showing premeditation and a clear motive, ergo not insane. Unlikely that he watched violent movies or played computer games. Yet he was the most prolific mass murderer in British history.

The most obvious example that comes to mind is Jack The Ripper. I don't think it's necessary to give a link to his exploits as he is infamous, other than to point to the fact he was active between 1888 and 1891. No more need be said regarding computer games or movies I think.

The truth is that in order to kill, a person must possess a propensity to kill already. The stimulus for the act could be anything, a perceived slight, an attack, jealousy etc. Saying that violence in games and movies causes murders is like saying going to church makes a person want to join the priesthood. While a small minority who go to church may want to join the priesthood, the likelihood is that they already wanted to which is why they went to church.

People who murder may well play computer games and watch violent movies, but that is because they already enjoy the violence; it doesn't make them violent. They are unable to separate fictional scenes in games or movies from reality, and that is a mental illness which is not caused by the input they receive.

I will concede there is a possibility that the person who wants to kill may glean ideas on how from games or movies. However the obvious counter to this argument is that to the victim it matters little where their killer got the idea from, they are still just as dead.

The NRA say 'The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun'. Well now that's not entirely true, as there are many non-lethal methods of stopping an armed assailant from pepper spray and tear gas, to rubber bullets and tasers. Stopping him getting near his target is an obvious non-lethal method; simple security doors and metal detectors will achieve this aim. What the NRA's argument glosses over is the fact that if the good guy is shot and killed, his gun will be stolen and there is another illegal weapon on the streets - or in his hands in the school.

The NRA advocate armed security in every school, drawn from retired active and retired police officers, security professionals and firefighters. In a nutshell the NRA, instead of having one possible gunman with a handgun and limited ammunition - which is what the suggested ammunition control would result in - would have what is essentially a Private Military Contractor (PMC) conducting a firefight within a school. Now I know the Special Forces are capable of Hostage Rescue in situations like this with minimal loss of life to the captives, but really? A PMC in every school is the best option? In my opinion all this will do is add to the death toll, as any killer - insane or otherwise - will factor in the additional opposition, be heavier armed with protection, and the only difference is the armed guards will be the first to die.

As for their claim that a ban on assault weapons would not have any effect, perhaps they'd like to explain their reasoning on that one in detail. I have no idea what possible logic could lie behind that statement.

I'll end with a quotation. In 1937 a Spanish town named Guernica was virtually flattened by German bombers fighting on the side of Franco in the Spanish Civil War. In the aftermath of the attack a poster was created with the slogan;

'If you tolerate this, then your children will be next.'

The warning, unheeded then, was stark.

'If you do nothing now, the next time it may be your children who die.'

Please America.. don't ignore this warning, don't let more of your children die..

[NB. If you recognise the slogan, yes, the Manic Street Preachers used it in their lyrics.]

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Spotting Computer Scammers

I'm sure everyone has had the cold-call saying 'I am calling from Windows, your computer has a virus' or something very similar. Obviously not everyone is technically adept or highly computer literate, so I thought I'd put together this very simple (I hope :)) guide to spotting scammers of this type.  I've been involved in IT since studying for my O Levels in 1985, over six years in Internet Technical Support helping customers understand their problems, so hopefully I can do the same for you.

If you're not interested in the explanation feel free to skip down to the One Simple Rule at the bottom, however I hope you will persevere with the explanation.

I will only use two items of IT jargon, and will explain them before I begin.

ISP. Your Internet Service Provider is the company you pay for Internet access - in some cases such as Virginmedia, Sky and BT also for your telephone and TV services.  Only they have your contact details such as telephone number and postal address.

IP Address: This is a unique number assigned to your Internet connection by your ISP when you connect to the Internet.  This means if there is a problem of any kind your ISP and only your ISP can contact you to let you know.

That's the jargon out of the way :)

The Facts

  • The only way to trace any virus back to your computer is by the IP address.  However this will not identify you personally, only the ISP you are with.  Think of it like a postcode.. all that tells anyone on its own is what town you live in or near.
  • To identify you and your actual address is only possible if the request is made by a member of law enforcement, such as the Police or a solicitor, to your ISP and must be in relation to a criminal investigation for which there will be a warrant.
[Addendum: 20.12.12: I have just taken a scam call who asked to speak to me by name.  When I pointed out the only company who could legally link my IP address to me personally he hung up.  It seems they are using a - presumably stolen - database of names and telephone numbers.]

The Signs

Ways to tell immediately that the person is a scammer:
  • Empty phone line before they speak.  Generally the call connecting to one of their staff abroad.
  • Calling 'from Windows'.  Windows is a product not a company.  There are teams within Microsoft, which is the company, who work on Windows, but they have nothing to do with consumers.  Ever.
  • Calling from Microsoft.  Microsoft will never call you.  They have no interest in individuals who may or may not have viruses on their computers.  It's not their problem.
  • Wrong terminology.  Computers get viruses, worms or Trojans.  They do not get germs - as I explained to the person who made the mistake of waking me up at 0800 this morning to try and scam me.  Bad mistake - I was tired..
  • Ask what ISP you are with.  As above they cannot have obtained your telephone number anywhere other than your ISP in this instance.  They won't know who it is.. another clear indicator - as if you needed one - that it's a scam.
  • Ask how they obtained your number.  They can only have obtained it from your ISP (which we've just shown they don't know).

In a nutshell, if someone telephones you and says your computer has a virus, and they are not from your ISP they are lyingFact.

Another Fact.  Your ISP will not ring you about this kind of issue.  They have far more to do than telephone individual customers about possible viruses.  If you consider an ISP with a million customers, and only 10% had viruses that's still 100,000 people they'd have to call.  That is a pointless waste of time and resources.  ISPs don't do it for that very reason.  You may conceivably get an email from them if there is a really serious problem, but if you do I would urge you to telephone them on a number you know, not one from the email, to confirm it's not another type of scam.

I have only ever been contacted regarding a perceived problem with my Internet connection by my ISP once in the 17 years I have been online, and that was by email.  Never by phone.

One Simple Rule.  There is no direct path between your computer's Internet connection and your telephone number, therefore anyone - other than your ISP who won't - who telephones you about problems with your computer is a liar.

Monday, 10 December 2012

X-Factor - Mending the Faults

I have been watching X-Factor for several years and over that time I have become disillusioned with the format for several reasons.  It appears that this series has seen a slump in ratings, and I suspect it may be due in part to the faults I perceive in the format;

  • There should never be an even number of judges with equal power to vote.
  • Judges should never be mentors as well.
There is basic common sense behind both the above comments.

1.  The even number of judges.  In Strictly Come Dancing for example, the head judge Len Goodman has the final say.  Therefore if there is a tie at the end of a dance-off with two judges each voting for the couples, the one that Len votes for survives for another week.

Unfortunately this would not work in X-Factor in the circumstance where the head judge was also a mentor of one of the acts up for elimination as they would always vote for their own act.

This brings me to the other, and I believe fundamental, flaw in the format.

2.  Judges as Mentors.  This can never work for several reasons:

The judges will always bias their feedback in favour of their own acts, meaning their own acts think they are better than they actually are, while their competitor mentors' acts will be given the impression they are worse.

Secondly there are major issues with the vote-off.  Two acts face each other, one to be voted off.  The flaw in this is that no judge will vote for their own act to be voted off, thereby rendering the opinions of half the panel of four pointless.  The only exception is the rare occasion when one judge has two acts in the vote off.  Therefore as a general rule only two of the judges' opinions will be genuine, and if they don't agree - as often happens - the result is that the one with a lower viewer vote, often not the worst singer, ends up leaving.

There has been talk of Simon Cowell returning to the show, and this could be incorporated into one of my suggested solutions for the programme to address the above flaws.

a)  Bring in different people to mentor allowing the judges to give their unbiased opinions.  There could then be a head judge appointed so that a deadlock never occurs.  This is I admit the more expensive of the two options as there are four more wages to deal with, however it has the benefit that every judge's opinion would be unbiased.

b) If Simon Cowell is to return he could be added to the existing judging panel as a non-mentoring judge to give five in total.  This would also fix all the flaws;
  i)    The contestants would always get one unbiased opinion of their performance.
  ii)   The vote off would always have a definite result as there would always be a majority vote.
  iii)  Each week there would be three judges giving an unbiased opinion of which act should leave.

I think if either of the above options were chosen this would add a new dimension to the X-Factor and result in fairer judging, and help revive ratings.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Politics v Religion

This blog, fairly short is my take on this article

Curiously it is a point nobody mentioned.

The thrust of the argument seems to be whether politicians should be allowed to influence their decisions, and therefore policy making, based on their religious beliefs.

This in my opinion is yet another instance of public figures blurring the distinction between private and personal life.  For example several politicians have been laid low by marital indiscretions, and while personally these events will affect them, the important question in my view is 'How will it, if at all, affect their ability to do their job?'  Yes, there are cases such as Profumo where private and professional life cross; Sleeping with a woman who also shares her bed - separately - with a Soviet Intelligence officer when you are Secretary of State for War will always end in tears.

However back to the main point.  I have no issue whatsoever with any politician who holds particular religious beliefs and practices them in their private life.  I do take issue if they then incorporate them in their professional life and allow those beliefs to colour how they vote on issues which affect me.

Members of Parliament are elected by the people to represent us and our views, not their own.  Party Politics is fundamentally flawed anyway as a democratic system; the Party Whip's job is to make sure MPs vote the way the leadership tell them, which may well not be the way their constituents want them to.  If you then add an element of MPs voting according to their religious beliefs, not the wishes of their constituents or the evidence in front of them, then the system has broken down completely and may as well not be there.

I want my MP to make all his decisions based on the evidence available, taking into account my wishes as he is my representative in Parliament, not preconceived notions based on religious - or any other factor - beliefs.  Naive?  Maybe, but that is how it's supposed to work.