Russell's Blog

New. Improved. Stays crunchy in milk.

Makers do not make weapons

Posted by Russell on December 17, 2012 at 6:58 p.m.
Last Tuesday, I started writing an article about Thing 11770 on Thingiverse, a MakerBot Industries for sharing 3D printable objects. Thing 11770 is a reinforced 3D printable lower receiver for an AR-15 assault rifle. This is the part of the gun that feeds bullets from the magazine into upper receiver, which handles the cycling of the spent round and the insertion of the new round. With the right combination of upper and lower receiver, fresh rounds are cycled into the weapon using a portion of the kinetic energy from firing the previous round. When the trigger is pulled, this process happens continuously, firing one bullet after another. That is what it means to be an "automatic" weapon. Thing 11770 is particularly interesting because, legally speaking, the lower receiver is the gun itself. It is the engine that makes the gun a gun, rather than a movie prop. And you can 3D print it. And it works.

At very the moment I was hemming and hawing over how to articulate my feelings about this development, someone used an AR-15 to murder twenty seven people, including twenty children, ages six and seven at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Now I know exactly how I feel.

I love 3D printing. I love the maker movement. I love the idea of people building home-brew versions of all sorts of devices, and inventing entirely new classes of devices. 3D printing has played, and will continue to play, an important role in that.

When I was fourteen, like many boys at that age, I thought missiles and fighter planes and tanks were pretty awesome. I read a lot of Tom Clancy books, and I indulged in my interest by dragging my family to the Wright Patterson Air Force Base Museum, the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, the California Science Center’s Air & Space Museum, and the Intrepid Air, Sea & Space Museum. At Wright Patterson, I visited the F-117 Nighthawk as many times as I could. The author of Thing 11770 calls himself "Have Blue," the codename for the Nighthawk demonstrator aircraft.

When I was sixteen, I went to boarding school, where I learned vector calculus and farming. I learned how to grub potatoes out of the freezing ground in the driving rain, how to make maple syrup, how to lay in beets and squash and onions for the winter. I stood on a windy mountain top and learned how to find the orbital ephemera of a comet. I learned how to milk cows, how to care for cows when they are sick, and how to make the most delicious yogurt and mozzarella cheese you could possibly imagine. I learned how to repair a tractor engine with a mallet and a wrench. One freezing night, I found myself covered in blood and shit and urine and fear as I helped bring a new life gasping and staggering into the world.

Farming also means slaughtering and butchering. One morning, I walked into the barn. I was handed a weapon. I was asked to take a life.

I found that I could not.

Not ever.

The instant my shoulders took up the weight of the strange, snub nosed machine, it felt like the weight of the metal hung from my heart, stretching and distorting it. I wanted the weight of it to tear me apart, but I knew it was a weight I could carry, if I wanted to. I quietly handed the gun back to the farm manager, and walked out into the thawing snow, and spent the rest of the black pre-dawn puking into the mud behind the water tower.

Many people have wondered why I do not eat meat. This is why. For the rest of my life, I will feel the weight of that terrible little machine.

There are reasons to make, to have and to use guns. To defend your country, yes. To humanely put down an animal before butchering it, perhaps. For vainglory? For entertainment? No.

Tools are sacred things. We are a tool-using species; our tools are projections of our hopes and aspirations. When we are filled with joy, we pick up our tools and hammer the air into music. We need to understand and to be understood, and so we shape our voices into language. We send our tools delicately probing into the bodies of our loved ones, seeking out cancers and blood clots and infections. We invest huge amounts of effort building and maintaining tools that allow us to speak to one another across great distances. We hurl our tools across the void to other planets to satisfy our craving for knowledge. When we grieve, we take up our tools and carve the names of those we have lost into the living rock of our planet. Our tools are our souls. They are our defining characteristic. Love may be what makes us alive, but our tools are what make us human.

A gun is a tool. It is a simple tool. Any man or woman or child can use one. A gun is not much more complicated than a can opener, and not nearly as sophisticated as cordless screwdriver. Like all tools, a gun reveals something fundamental about its maker, its wielder and its abuser. This is true for all weapons.

As a strong supporter of the maker movement, of free and open source software, of open science, I want people to have as much freedom as possible to make and remake and experiment. I also believe very, very strongly in the responsibly we have to one another. I believe that we each have a responsibility not make things that hurt and kill and destroy.

I am not yet prepared to call for a law to prohibit Have Blue from posting functional 3D printable assault rifle parts on the internet. The law is a blunt instrument, and would cause a great deal of collateral damage. However, I am prepared to say that Have Blue is a fucking asshole. I am prepared to call Justin Halford, who created the original CNC model, a fucking asshole. I am prepared to say that anyone who considers themselves a "gun enthusiast" and is older than about sixteen needs to grow the fuck up. The maker community should not tolerate this behavior. Meditate on the meaning of the word antisocial for a moment. What could be more antisocial than gleefully proliferating machines whose principal function is murder?

The maker community should not tolerate these designs, or the ideas and opinions of their designers until they show evidence of behaving like adults. It's clear that the CNC Gunsmithing community has a lot of talented, clever people. It's clear from reading his blog that Have Blue is neither ignorant nor stupid.

So, I'm calling you folks out. There are twenty children dead in Connecticut. Their bodies were ripped apart by the very machines you are "democratizing." As far as I know, nobody has used your designs to kill anyone. If you continue down this path, some future version of Thing 11770 will be used to murder little children. It's just a matter of time, and probably a lot less time than you think. However, there is still time to take a stand. Do the right thing. Take down the designs. Apologize for what you've done. Find a new project. Use your talents for something good. This will not stop people from murdering children with 3D printed guns, but perhaps you can buy us some time before that day comes. You know that this is true.

If making home-brew assault rifles is really what you want to do, there is perhaps one venue where this might actually make sense. Freight your CNC machine to Istanbul, and smuggle it into Homs or Aleppo. Help the Free Syrian Army get rid of Bashar Assad. Oh wait, what’s that? You don't want to get shot? Fancy that.

It takes courage to admit you are wrong. Show us some courage.

Update : It appears that MakerBot has decided to remove Thing 11770 from Thingiverse. If you follow the link to the item, the files have been removed and a message says, "This Thing is currently under moderation for violating the Thingiverse Terms of Service. Files and images for this Thing are currently unavailable." I'm glad it's no longer up, but I am disappointed in how this was handled. I'm disappointed that MakerBot left it up for so long, but I'm also disappointed that Have Blue didn't just take it down himself.

Moving forward by stopping

Posted by Russell on April 02, 2012 at 4:06 p.m.
Just a three weeks after I was sworn in for my term on the City of Davis Safety and Parking Advisory Commission, UC Davis law student Megan Glanville was killed just a few dozen feet from my doorstep. She was out jogging on a foggy morning, and truck coming into town from the county road ran her down in the crosswalk. I never knew Megan, but her death deeply upsets me.

I've been worrying about pedestrian and bike safety ever since my little sister was nearly killed by a careless driver.

I find it extremely frustrating that most people do not look beyond the (usually imagined) behavior of the people involved in an accident like the one that almost killed my sister, or that did kill Megan Glanville. Either they identify with the frustrating experience of driving, and blame the victim, or they side with the law, and place the responsibility at the feet of the operator of the more dangerous vehicle. I will always side with the person who suffered more, but both views are myopic. When someone has been killed in an accident, the question of who was more "right" in that sliver of time is irrelevant. It is worse than irrelevant; it is an insult to the lives of all the people affected.

There are other, far more urgent questions that need to be raised. If you see a problem, the first question you should always ask is, "In what way am I responsible for this?" We are all bound together by bonds of mutual responsibility, and nothing happens among people, good or bad, for which each of us are not in some sense responsible. That is what words like "society," "community," and "civilization" mean. They describe the fact that the bonds that link us together are fundamentally inescapable. There is such a thing as integrity, but there is no such thing as self-reliance. Interdependence is the very essence of what makes us human. And so, if you see something that upsets you, the first thing you should look at is your own role in causing it. Through our choices, we were all present on morning that George Souza killed Megan Glanville. You. Me. Everyone. We all had a hand in it.

Clearly, we failed. You failed. I failed. Someone is dead as a consequence of that failure.

So, let us set aside the choices of George Souza and Megan Glanville, and look at the choices we made that contributed to this terrible thing. They are easy enough to see :

This is the crosswalk where Megan was killed, which is part of a system of roads that belong to the City of Davis. The arrow on the yellow sign is pointing almost directly at the spot. The laws that govern the design of the road are a kaleidoscopic fugue of local, county, state, federal and international regulations. Within that often contradictory matrix of statutes, the city government has a small keyhole of authority within which it may choose what the road looks like and how it works.

From an engineering point of view, it's pretty clear what the problem is. The road on the left is just a stone's throw from the border of the city. Beyond the border, it is a wide county road that cuts a nearly straight line for miles among orchards and farms. When it crosses into the city, this road suddenly plunges into a dense residential neighborhood with no transition whatsoever. The intersection where Megan was killed is the very first intersection an eastbound driver encounters in the City of Davis. So, drivers come in from the county road going at county road speeds, and roar through this intersection where people are trying to cross to the bike path that parallels the road. Add a little darkness and bit of fog, and the accident was basically inevitable.

Why was this intersection designed this way? I don't know. According to the laws and statutes that regulate its engineering, there is nothing particularly wrong with it. But then again, houses that catch fire and burn people alive inside are often built to code. Compliance with the law is not enough. Only thoughtful design can keep people safe, and the absence of that thoughtfulness killed someone.

So, who is to blame? The legislators who wrote the statues describing how intersections should be designed? The engineers whose designs were constrained by those statutes? The City of Davis Public Works Department that built and maintained it? Surely, some of the responsibility falls to them. But not very much. If you've ever driven, walked or bicycled through the intersection of Lake and Russell, then a great deal of the responsibility falls on you. If you've ever felt uncomfortable or unsafe while passing through it, then you knew someone would get hurt there sooner or later.

The Council Chambers are open to the public. The meetings and agendas are available weeks in advance for all to see, at CityOfDavis.org. You can even submit your concerns in writing if you don't have time to come to the meetings. In other words, you had the reason and the means to get this fixed, or at least play a part in getting it fixed, before Megan Glanville was killed. I share in this responsibility; I serve on the commission charged with advising the City Council on these things, and I did not raise this issue either. And I use this intersection several times a day. And I always feel unsafe. It is my fault too.

So, here is what is going to happen. The City Council was asked, and agreed, to take steps to prevent anyone else from getting killed. The proposed changes will add stop signs on Russell Boulevard in both directions, a blinking red light in case drivers don't see the stop signs in the fog, and four new street lights for better illumination overall. It will cost about $20,000.

This is a much better design. It's impossible to know if it would have saved Megan's life had it been in place in December, but it seems likely that it would have. I strongly support it.

Roads are not natural phenomena. They are public infrastructure, and they are designed and built and maintained in exactly the way the public asks them to be. Let's try to do a better job of holding up our end of that conversation.

Tiptoeing around perjury

Posted by Russell on September 11, 2007 at 2:29 p.m.
While I listened to Petraeus and Crocker tiptoe clumsily around perjury, I couldn't help but wonder how many people will take them at their word that the level of violence is declining. I find it difficult to understand how the level of violence is decreasing when the rate of killing has been increasing. I guess it must depend on how you count the bodies. Evidently, ordinary muggers shoot people in the face, and death squads shoot people in the back of the head. Accepting, for a moment, this ridiculous criterion for distinguishing muggings from sectarian killings as reasonable, it seems very weird that we don't count muggings as violence.

Ambassador Crocker, for his part, repeated the assertion that Iran is supplying the insurgency with sophisticated weapons, particularly explosively formed penetrators. If you will direct your attention to the photograph below, from Wikipedia :

This is a sophisticated weapon that exploits some very tricky hydrodynamics. It is also improvised from an ordinary copper pipe. The penetrator (the bowl shaped part) looks like it was turned out on a lathe, and that the machinist was either not very skillful or not very concerned with quality. Note the disk-shaped depression in the center where the lathe spindle was attached. The penetrator appears to be soldered to the pipe with plumbing solder.

I don't think the insurgency needs anyone's help to build these. The hardest part would be obtaining the explosive material. Who is supplying the insurgency with explosives? The simplest explanation is that they helped themselves to the weapons caches we left unguarded at the beginning of the war. How many improvised explosively formed penetrators could you make with 377 tons of high explosives?

Maybe Iran isn't being very helpful when it comes to American interests in Iraq. After all, why should they? I have no doubt that Iran's leadership would be delighted to see things go as badly for America as possible in Iraq and elsewhere. However, it's not as if Iran actually has to do anything to make Iraq a disaster for America. The fact that they don't like us is not in itself a very good reason for them to arm the insurgents. Practically any government in Iraq is likely to be friendly with Iran. Iran actually has a lot of good reasons to want the insurgency to stop.

If I were Mr. Ahmadinejad, I would just sit on my hands. At most, I would give some political support to Iraqis who might be friendly to Iran should they gain or keep power. But weapons? Why bother when the insurgents have already looted all the weapons they could ever want? It would be redundant and unnecessary.

Like most Americans, Mr. Crocker knows that we've either lost or that we're loosing. What sets him apart from the rest of us is that Americans are grown up enough to accept responsibility for the bad outcome of this conflict, and Mr. Crocker would rather blame it on someone else.

The Surge Isn't Working

Posted by Russell on September 05, 2007 at 9:24 p.m.
Charles Boustany turned up on CNN to peddle the administration's latest outrage -- that the surge has reduced violence in Iraq substantially. So, Wolf Blitzer asks a hard question :
BOUSTANY: We’re clearly seeing some major improvements. Clearly in the Anbar Province, we’ve seen significant improvement. We were able to walk the streets of Fallujah. Sectarian deaths are down.

[...]

BLITZER: And Congressman Boustany, you say that the number of casualties is going down. But we took a closer look — and The Los Angeles Times did as well — citing Iraqi Health Ministry numbers. In June, it was 1,227 civilian deaths in Iraq. In July, it went up to 1,753 civilian deaths in Iraq. And in August, the month that just ended, 1,773 civilian deaths in Iraq. Those numbers are going in the wrong direction.

Ah, the numbers. It is rather alarming how often important news comes without any specific discussion of the numbers upon which it hinges. Someone needs to send Mr. Blitzer a pundit-snack. Good pundit.

But reading a triad of four digit numbers from a teleprompter (or maybe even from memory) is not the best way to communicate about numbers. That might be appropriate for MegaMillions, but we owe these particular numbers more careful examination. We are, after all, talking about the deaths of human beings as a direct result of our collective decisions at the ballot box.

So, I looked up the data on conformed killings of Iraqi civilians. Against the background of men and women and children turning up as abandoned corpses on the street, there are a lot of mass-casualty events. There are also a few rare days when there are no confirmed killings. It's somewhat difficult to see the trend in the raw data. So, I borrowed an analytical tool from the financial world -- the moving average.

That looks like a slight upward trend to me. The GAO agrees. Their data measures the number of attacks, rather than the number of dead, but one would expect attacks and deaths to correlate.

General Patreous is going to make his presentation in a few days, which everyone assumes is going to say that the surge is working. If it doesn't explain these numbers, then the report should be ignored.