Thursday, November 19, 2009

Twilight Euphoria/Vomitting

My wife is going to go see the Twilight movie tonight with her friends. She never saw the first one or read the books. Neither have I. I found out about the Twilight series about a year ago when a friend of mine mentioned that he had read the books. He was a high school English teacher and likes to keep up with what his students read in their spare time. His opinion of it was that it was definitely something geared towards the teenage girl crowd.

This suprised me then when I read that Miley Cyrus doesn't like Twilight. She goes so far as to call it a "cult" or as one commentor mentioned, perhaps she means "occult." The word "cult" has been vastly overused and pretty much is meaningless other than as a derogatory. Going by Webster's definition you would find that you are probably a member of 2 or 3 cults. However, no one admits to belonging to a cult when asked. Some may say that they used to belong to a cult when they no longer like a certain group. So let's pretend she really meant occult. Which still means something.

Occult is derived from the latin root for hidden. It is usually associated with the paranormal or in the religious sense with satanic roots. Miley, being a professed Christian, understandably doesn't want to be associated with the satanic stuff. But to me, satanic stuff was things like Baphomet, or the Pentagram, or sacrificing goats. Vampires don't have anything to do with that. And if someone is going to say that Twilight is of the occult, where do we draw the line? I mean, Sesame Street has a vampire, The Count.

Vampires are not real. This is all just a fantasy story. Lara Croft isn't real either, neither is Luke Skywalker or Bilbo Baggins or Harry Potter. Yet all of them have had "cult" followings similar to Twilight. I know that Harry Potter has been accused of being occultish, but Hobbits and Jedi's and Angelina Jolie?

Vampires haven't even been around that long. It wasn't until Bram Stoker's "Dracula" that we get the modern incantation of vampires with the cape and fangs and crosses and garlic and wooden stakes and such. Naturally, being completely made up creatures everyone has their own version of it from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the Munsters. Surely all of these can't be occult too?

So, maybe instead of trying to see the "evil" in everything, you should look at it for what it is. Its a love story written by a women for young girls who happen to like love stories. Besides, the author of the Twilight series is a self described devout Mormon, hardly the type of person who would be associated with the occult. Unless of course you belong to a church that believes everything from Jehovah Witnesses to Catholics are cults. But I digress. My guess, the movie would be incredibly boring for me, I really don't care for love stories. So perhaps if the cable channels were smart they would do this:

Let the theaters have their Twilight extravaganza. Let all the women of the world go to the theaters and be swept away by the romance. That will leave us guys at home to watch real vampire movies in peace. Dracula: Dead and Loving It, the Blade Series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Van Helsing. And lets not forget the greatest vampire movie of all time: Underworld. Vampires, werewolfs, guns, swords, other cool weaponry, explosions, and Kate Beckinsale in skin tight black leather.

UPDATE: Wife says the movie was very confusing and didn't make much sense (probably because she hasn't read the books or seen the first one). She did say that there was no need for Vampire-boy to take off his shirt, although she enjoyed the shirtless Wolf-boy. Now I don't feel guilty about the Kate Beckinsale comment.

Blood, Drugs, and Greed

Greed is considered a bad thing and in many cases is equated with capitalists like myself. Yet, it is that very greed that not only allows a home computer possible, but then also allows those who profited from it (i.e. Bill Gates) to dispense the largesse which they couldn't possibly spend themselves. One of the greatest philanthropists in the world, Andrew Carnegie became incredibly wealthy through steel, a product which has greatly enriched our lives. Acquiring wealth by force has never been a secure way to maintain it. Many of the rich nobles of the European middle ages and renaissance were actually deeply in debt to the bankers who financed their operations. The bankers were rich, the nobles just had the airs of wealth.

In spite of the proven track record that greed has in benefiting people, we still don't embrace it in many aspects of our lives. Drugs and blood are two areas where we just have not gotten it in this country.

The FDA regulates blood donations in this country. Blood can be donated by people, it cannot be sold. Is it any wonder that we have shortages all the time? Meanwhile, plasma (a component of blood), can be sold. I looked on line for stories of plasma shortages and the most recent one I found was from 1995. How much money can you get from plasma? Looking on the internet it appears that somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 to $35 per visit. And you can go twice a week, every week of the year. So between $2000 and $3600 per year. Suprisingly, prices have not gone up significantly over the last 20 years. So why not pay people for blood? What is the hangup we have in this country? Hospitals charge you somewhere in the neighborhood of $250 for a pint of blood that is used during surgery. So would the price of blood charged change if we started paying donors for the blood?

Not necessarily. The majority of blood is used in large urban centers. Unfortunately, these are also the places that have the lowest rates of donation. So, the urban centers have to buy their blood from an outlying area that takes in more blood than they need (you didn't think these non-profits would just give them the blood did you?) . In some cases, blood that is donated in Bismark, ND may be sold to Tulsa, OK and then to Memphis, TN, and then to Atlanta, GA, and finally provided to a hospital in Tallahassee, FL. Just like with any product, each stop gets an increase in price. So, if people were paid $50 (or $100) for a pint (which takes about 1 hour), there would be an increase in the supply of people. Whereas before, blood banks rely on people donating their blood (and time) out of their generosity, now, they can lure in the segment of population that is driven by a profit motive. Most people in this country don't make anywhere near $50 an hour, so in deciding whether to work a few extra hours or lie on a bed and read a book and get the same amount of money, I'll choose the lieing on the bed option.

Statistically, city dwellers are less generous monetarily than rural folks. That may be why cities take in less blood than they use. However, if now it wasn't a matter of generosity, but greed, cities which have a much higher percent of non-generous people than the rural areas will see an immediate increase in the amount of blood brought in. Hence, no need to buy from somewhere else. Which means that the four or five markups (from $50 to $200) is available to pay the people giving the blood.

Now, I wouldn't regulate the compensation at all. And what you would find is in less than six months, the market would be normalized. Sure AB- blood in New York City may command a premium of $200 to the person, while common types like A+ in Des Moines, IA were only paying $35. Shortages would vanish. Blood banks would get to become more choosy (thereby putting downward pressure on prices) because the number of people willing to sell their blood is much higher than those willing to donate their blood.

Does this work in real life? Yeah, there is no shortage of plasma. Another example would be sperm and eggs. You can get them in any variety you want, and the market has made it such that you can choose the socioecomomic background, intelligence, and athletic ability of the sperm or eggs. If the free market was allowed to control the blood supply, you would be able to choose to have blood that only came from non-smoker females who breast fed their kids if that is your desire. Government mandated generosity can't even keep up with the demand. We should be allowed to sell organs to. Since we don't there is and always will be a shortage. By the way, I still give blood, although it would be a lot easier to remember every two months if there was a financial incentive.

Drugs are another aspect that the government goes schizophrenic on. There are drugs that are herbs, non-drugs (alcohol, tobacco, caffiene, etc), good drugs (tylenol, advil, etc), strong good drugs (prescription drugs), and bad drugs (marijuana, cocaine, heroin, etc.).

Herbs are labeled as "food supplements" to avoid the regulation as a drug, but sold as "remedies" for all kinds of things that normally one would associate with good drugs. All said, the actual ingredients of herbs are rarely known or labeled and any doseage is unscientific at best - two plants growing next to each other could have drastically different levels of desired chemicals. The herbal market is big in the United States and periodically companies get in trouble when they cross the line between "food supplement" (little to no regulation) and good drugs (which require regulations that the herbal companies haven't met).

Non drugs are the most ridiculous things we have. They run the gamut of caffiene which isn't regulated and freely available to everyone, to alcohol which is restricted but still allowed to advertise, to tobacco which is legal to buy but has become a scarlet letter if you use it. Our country tried banning alcohol once, with disasterous results. We're slowly progressing to a tobacco ban (which guess what...will have disasterous results). We don't like to call these drugs because they are substances that millions of people use (and are dependent on) every day. It doesn't change the fact that they are indeed drugs.

Good drugs are here to stay. Although sometimes we get a little too hysterical when one of them (Sudafed) is used to make a bad drug (Methamphetamine). Then we start doing stupid things like writing down your name and address everytime you buy a box. Do we do that for all of the other ingredients needed to make Meth? No, just Sudafed. What irks me most about it is then they have to come out with pseudoephedrine free Sudafed. That stuff is another drug that doesn't work as well or last as long. Just let me buy the good drugs in peace so I don't have to let my nose run all over your store. Another part of where we get a little goofy is when we let the government say what is good for us. Claritin was a prescription drug that was moved to over the counter because it was so effective. Did it cut into the profits of the company that made it, you bet.

Finally there are the bad drugs. These are still used in research and even in medicine in controlled manners, but the government has decided that the average person should not get their hands on them. So we have a ban. And guess what, it isn't working out to well. You might even say that it is a disaster.

All things are subject to supply and demand. Bans merely exacerbate the problem on certain things. The first thing that bans do is attempt to limit the supply. Since demand hasn't decreased, prices go up. When prices go up, there is more potential for profit and all sorts of undesirable people get into the business. So the "businessmen" find ways to meet the demand. As with any business, disagreements will come up. In the legal business world, these would be solved through mediation and litigation processes. In the illegal world, those options are not available, so disputes are settled by coercion and force.

If drugs were legalized, the crime associated with them (between the gangs and cartels) would go down, because the profit margins would decrease since the costs of smuggling would no longer be part of the street price. Would there still be people robbing stores or breaking into homes to get their money for their fix? Of course, but it wouldn't be any more than it is now. We already have a 200 year history of regulation for alcohol and tobacco. We know that banning them doesn't work but actually creates more problems. So why do we do this with marijuana, cocaine, and heroin?

If you believe that making drugs legal would somehow cause a bunch of people to start using them, you're delusional. Prohibition did nothing to decrease the number of people drinking, it only changed the location where they obtained their alcohol and where they drank it. Repeal of prohibition did not increase the number of drinkers, they just did it in the open. The consequences of drug use are known. More people die from alcohol and tobacco than all of the other drugs (illegal and legal) combined. This is probably a result of the government trying to tell us that alcohol and tobacco are not as bad, so some people act stupid and use them to excess.

Let me make one thing clear. I think recreational use (and definitely unecessary dependent use) of any kind of drug (from caffiene on up to Meth) is stupid. I think the US is even more stupid for trying to blur the lines as to what drugs are OK and not OK. Its OK to ban heroin right now, because Sam Adams didn't cook some up in his home. Maybe instead of focusing on trying to limit the supply of some drugs (which isn't working), the US should focus on addiction recovery for those that want it for all drugs. In the end, you have to admit that there will always be some small segment of the population that are willing to destroy themselves to get a high. No amount of bans or legislation or intervention are going to prevent that. Greed won't allow it. (It also is the reason bans don't work for anything.)

Monday, November 9, 2009

Reactive Targets

Several months ago, I wrote a post on the different types of gun owners. One of the things I have never understood is how someone can go to the range, shoot 2-5 shots from one gun and then pack up and leave. What is even more baffling to me is the people who take 2-4 hours to do this. I usually judge how well a trip to the range went based on how much ammo I return home with. One or two boxes, that was a good trip. Four to ten boxes, it must have been busy and I wasn't able to do all of the shooting I wanted. Zero boxes means that I had a blast (pun very much intended). No one was there and I had no obligations at home that would make me need to leave before the ammo ran out.

Some may ask how much ammo I take to the range. Well, usually on the order of 500 to 2000 rounds. This is spread between as many as six different calibers depending on how many firearms I took. A few days ago when I went, I was trying out some various ideas for reactive targets. For those who get a thrill out of putting a little hole on two intersecting lines, I ain't one of you. Sure, when I have the patience to sit down and take my time, I can put holes in an 8 inch circle at 200 yards with iron sights. However, to me that isn't gratifying for more than about 5 minutes.

Now there is a myriad of reactive targets that one can buy. Tannerite being the foremost among them, however at $5-10 per shot, it can get a little pricey if you are trying to do it 500 times. Steel targets that are designed for target shooting (basically a thick steel plate) are fun as well and quite economical at around $20 per target. Being the frugal guy that I am, I like to find a variety of things that are enjoyable to shoot and cost effective. Looking at the list below, you might notice that anything with the possibility of an explosion (however small) is a good option for me. If you do want to delve into the world of explosive targets, please don't be stupid about it. Explosives can and will hurt you without taking a second thought. Start out with someone who knows what they are doing, as you gain experience then you can venture on your own. So, without further ado, here is the list of inexpensive reactive targets I have used along with my review of them. I included a video of several of them for your viewing pleasure.

Pots and Pans: Price - Free to $3-4. Good for about 100 shots. These are an excellent taget for any distance type of shooting. Try to find ones with a handle (to stick in the ground) and a shiny back side (which make them easier to see). At 100 yards the report is audible with hearing protection on - a nice THUNK! At 200 yards you have to be paying attention to hear it. At 300 yards, you probably won't be able to hear it. Since pans come in a variety of sizes, it is also nice to be able to know that you are shooting at a 6 in, 8 in, 10 in, or 12 in target. .22LR will easily go through most common pans (aluminum and stainless steel) even at 300 yards (so any centerfire will as well). Be sure to ask your wife or mother if it is OK to use the old pans, because if you are a halfway decent shot, they won't be good for cooking when you're done. Cast iron cookware can be used as well. Just don't use it up close (less than 10 yards) to avoid richochets.

Fruits and Vegetables: Price- Free to $5. Good for 1-100 shots depending on caliber and type. This tried and true standby is especially good with high powered hollow points (read rifle/hunting ammunition). The high water content should cause good expansion which tends to show the exploding effects. If kids are watching, be sure to match the caliber with the size of fruit or vegetable to give them the maximum show. Thin skinned apples are obliterated by anything over 9mm (use thick skinned oranges or grapefruits instead). Tomotoes are great for .22LR. Melons of most types are good sized for 7.62x39 through .30-06. Lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower, and brocoli just eat up bird shot. Some stores might be willing to sell (or give) you their old produce at a steep discount. I usually just use what we forgot to eat from the fridge.

Milk Jugs: Price - Free. Good for 1-100 shots. These are great when filled with colored water. Better still, if the range day is going to be, fill partway (2/3) with water and then put it opened in the freezer. Take it out when the temperature of the water is just above freezing and cap it immediately. As the air and water inside warm up, they will both expand, creating a low pressure target. The great thing about this is you can still recycle the jugs after blowing them apart. Who new being green could be so fun!

Cans: Price - Free. Good for 1-100 shots. This standby is invaluable. With BB guns, you can make a dent and not continuously punch holes through them. With a .22 you can see how good aim you are by slicing one in half. Then there is the setting cans up on a ledge/table and shooting them off cowboy style. Its plain to see why this cheap alternative has been a mainstay for plinking for more than a hundred years.

Phone Books: Price - Free. Good for 100-1000 shots (depending on if you mulch). Whenever you think there is not enough paper in the world, the phonebook company prints another one. Thousands of companies print catalogs that they will send you for free too! Paper is actually a pretty decent stopper of bullets compared to the price of the materials. The reason they don't make paper bullet resistant vests is because you still would need 7 inches of it. That being said, tape some of these big books together and you can trap all sorts of bullets. Frankly, it would make a great science experiment for a young shooter (if his or her school doesn't go ballistic about the proper handling and use of firearms). Close range with birdshot is also a great way to turn a phone book into confetti!

Shoes: Price - Free. Good for 100+ shots. Shoes wear out eventually. The nice thing about shooting them with larger caliber weapons is they will jump. Kids love to see shoes jump (especially with no one in them). Steel toed or shanked boots have the advantage of a muffled but still audible report.

Old office equipment: Price - Free. Good for 100+ shots. Had a bad day at the office? Is your company getting rid of an old fax machine? Go Office Space on it! Be sure to get permission from your company before taking the old office equipment. One thing you will quickly learn as you shoot up office equipment, Hollywood has no concept of ballistic penetration.

Balloons: Price - 2-3 cents. Good for 1 shot (unless you miss). Balloons are very versatile. You can shoot them plain. Shoot them with powdered substance inside. Shoot them with a liquid inside. Or shoot them with a flamable liquid inside and an ignition source nearby for great fireball creation. Balloons are very good for long distance shooting (300+ yards) - the colors will usually contrast with the surroundings, you can make them almost any size, and you definitely know when you have hit one.

Pressurized Bottles: Price - 1-25 cents. Good for 1 shot. No I do not mean propane cylinders. I am talking about plastic coke bottles which you pressurize with dry ice or baking soda and vinegar. The goal here is to get the bottle near the rupture point (50 psi - 250 psi depending on the thickness) and then hitting it with the bullet to make a nice report. I am still in the experimentation process of figuring the correct amounts of vinegar and baking soda (remember the goal is maximum pressure without it exploding prematurely) for various types of bottles. The fact that materials science keeps getting better (and bottles are made with less plastic) compounds the problem and makes me believe I'll be experimenting my whole life, which I am OK with.

Paintballs: Price 1-3 cents. Good for 1 shot. These are great for .22LR through a pistol or a rifle. They provide a small target (about 3/4") that leaves a satisfying mark when hit. The only problem I have is a quick way of attaching them to the target. Currently, I pull a line of tape and then put one on every 2 -3 inches as I apply the tape to the cardboard. I am open to any other quick methods of putting these up.

Shotgun Shells: Price - 20 cents. Good for 1 shot. I'm not sure why I hadn't thought of this sooner, but a friend told me about it a month ago and I had to try it. I used .22LR shooting at 12 gauge bird shot (no sense wasting the money for buck or slugs). I put the shotgun shells in three different setups: 1) through drywall, 2) through 2x4, and 3) implanted in 2x4 (i.e. no through hole). The drywall was nice, I was hoping for a bigger hole though. The 2x4 also was OK, I was still wanting more. The encased 2x4 was great! It splintered out the end of the wood. If you are going to try this, use a 3/4" spade bit to make your holes (at least 4 inches apart). Push (don't pound with a hammer) the shells into the hole. Keep the targets at least 25 yards away.

Muzzleloading caps: Price - 5-10 cents. Good for 1 shot. Think of these as a smaller, cheaper version of shotgun shells. The targets are now only 1/4" diameter at most. Which leads to my favorite idea so far...

Muzzleloading caps w/ black powder: Price - 5-10cents. Good for 1 shot. There is unlimited potential with these. How big of a blast is dependent on how deep and wide your hole is and how high you fill it with black powder. The large puff of smoke from ignition is unmistakable and seeing a sturdy 2x4 obliterated has a satisfaction all its own. I'll definitely try different shapes of combustion chambers and maybe add some fireworks chemicals in the future to create a pleasing display.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Great Halloween Candy Swap

Halloween has come and gone and in our house Operation Candy Swap was a rousing success. Let's start with some background information.

Candy is a child's delight. While each child has their favorites, they are usually willing to consume any kind of candy. However, as we reach adulthood, our preferences end up having more prejudice. My wife and I have moved in the same direction. It has to be chocolate. Sure when I was younger, I would do stupid things with my friends like suck on multiple Atomic Fire Balls or see how many Sour Patch Kids I could tolerate at once. Those days are long gone. Now when the candy urge hits me, I want chocolate, and Lifesavers just won't do.

My parent's didn't care for Halloween much and while we got to go Trick or Treating until 12, we didn't do that much and therefore, didn't have a whole ton of candy to show for it. This was also back when everyone was paranoid about razorblades in candy so you only went to people you knew. Myself, I am indifferent towards the holiday, if it didn't exist, my life wouldn't change much at all. However, this year, my wife hatched a plan to net up as much chocolate as possible for as little financial outlay to us.

Phase 1: We didn't buy any candy. This created a net expense of $0. But we still had to give out candy to the neighborhood kids. Which led us to ...

Phase 2: This past week we attended two halloween parties where our kids were showered with goodies. We didn't have to bring any because A) my wife made great costumes so we didn't guilt ourselves into bringing candy to make up for our lack of participation in the costume department and B) we were chasing our gaggle of children each night (which as you know each child has a mind of their own and rarely do the minds coincide to the point that they want to go in the same direction). At the Wednesday party, I spent half the time scanning the area looking for Barney the Purple Dinosaur (my youngest). Which was good since she kept her clothes on. On Monday, she kept taking them off. So by Saturday, we had a large bowlful of candy.

Phase 3: As mentioned before there are two types of Halloween candy. Good candy which consists of chocolate, baked goods, and licorice. And trash candy which consists of Smarties, Sweet Tarts, Jolly Ranchers, and Pixie Sticks (also known as crack in a tube for kids). I sorted the bowl of candy into the two categories. The good candy we would save and the trash candy we would give away.

Phase 4: You have to understand the neighborhood we live in. There are a lot of older couples who have grandkids and only three families with kids on our street. The next street over has only two families with kids. The couples are all really generous, perhaps to invoke the good karma so that their grandkids do well on Halloween night. As such, I have noticed that the caliber of candy given out has increased. For instance, if you know that your are going to only have 8-10 kids total come to your house, you might as well go all out and buy the full size candy bars. Likewise, even the fun size bars are more prevalent in our neighborhood and houses will give out two or three per trick or treater (making them in some instances MORE than a single full size candy bar). So my wife took our kids out to the streets to gather in as much chocolate as possible. They started early at 6pm so that they could be back in time for Phase 6.

Phase 5: I stayed home with the trash bowl of candy. Now, since Halloween is basically about extortion, I do have a little twinge of guilt about soaking the neighborhood to indulge my wife & I's chocolate cravings. But it is just a little twinge and easily assuaged. Since I know that there are only going to be 8-10 trick or treaters over the course of the night, and I don't want to have too much trash candy left over (usually it gets thrown away around February), so I give out big handfuls of candy. Now, I make sure the bowl is low enough so that the kids can see how generous (with free candy mind you) that I am being. The kids go away happy because my house gave them more than anyone else, I am happy because I got rid of the candy that wasn't going to get eaten anyway (yes, I let my kids eat candy, I just don't let them consume whole bagfuls in one sitting), the environment is better off since 5 lbs of candy will be in some kids stomachs rather than the landfill, the candy companies keep making money (which benefits me as well), my guilt is assuaged, and most importantly, dentists will have plenty of business for the next year. That is what I call a win-win-win-win-win-win-win situation. And now on to ....

Phase 6: Since my kids went out early, they are back by 8pm. This is a good thing, because the trash candy is running low from my generosity. My wife sits the kids down at the kitchen table to sort through the candy. Chocolate is saved and the kids are allowed to pick a few pieces of the trash candy to keep. The rest of the trash is used to replenish the bowl. And just in the nick of time. Naturally, as the night wears on I become more generous. When the last trick or treater came by at 9pm, I doubled the amount of candy he had in his helmet (he was a football player).

Phase 7: We netted around 30 pounds of chocolate. I divided this into 5 bags and labeled four of them January, March, May, and June. These we put in our freezer so that we don't just horde it all in one day. (I may still have to check periodically to make sure my wife isn't sneaking all of the Milky Ways).

So, we considered Halloween night a success. This strategy can only keep up for so long. I imagine over time some of the kids will tell their friends about the house that gives out handfuls of candy, which will increase the number of Trick or Treaters, therefore, economics dictates that the quality of candy will go down. Frankly, I give it 3-5 years before the neighborhood payout of trash candy exceeds the payout of good candy. In the meantime though, I'll milk it. If you do want to get a bunch of trash candy, come to my house on Halloween at around 9pm. And for those who think this was a well thought out plan hatched between my wife and I, you're wrong. It was more of a Friday night, Saturday morning type of thing where my wife mentioned that she didn't buy candy and just planned on giving out the candy from the parties. The hoarding of chocolate came naturally for both of us.