JEDI Mind Tricks: Amazon versus the Pentagon and Trump

Amazon is one of the largest companies in the world, boasting revenues of more than $230 billion last year. But last month the company sued the US Department of Defense over a paltry potential $10 billion spread over ten years.

Amazon lost out to Microsoft in bidding for the Pentagon’s Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (yes,  JEDI, because the most important part of a government program is coming up with a cool acronym) cloud computing program.

Amazon claims it lost the contract due to, well, JEDI mind tricks — “improper pressure” and “repeated and behind-the-scenes attacks” —  played by US president Donald Trump on the Pentagon to set its collective mind against his perceived political opponent, Amazon president (and Washington Post owner) Jeff Bezos.

If so, Trump’s mind tricks pale next to the mind tricks used to justify the notion that the Pentagon needs a billion dollars a year to buy its own specialized, proprietary cloud computing system — one that the DoD’s own fact sheet boasts is  merely ” one component of the larger ecosystem that consists of different cloud models based on purpose” — from Microsoft, from Amazon, or from anyone else.

The great thing about cloud computing is that it’s a 50-year-old concept, generally available for years now in numerous off-the-shelf versions. The Pentagon doesn’t need its own cloud computing system any more than it needs its own brand of staplers.

Some JEDI knights might protest that the US armed forces need sturdier security than the everyday user, justifying a proprietary system. Per the fact sheet, “NSA, CYBERCOM, and the intelligence community provided input into JEDI’s security requirements.”

I suspect we’re talking about the same NSA, CYBERCOM and intelligence community we’ve listened to whine for the last 30 years about how civilian encryption technologies and other privacy protections are just too darn good and should be artificially hobbled to make them easier to crack.

Global Firepower lists 2019 defense budgets for 137 of the world’s countries. Of those countries, 61 — nearly half — spend less than $1 billion per year on their entire armed forces. That is, less than the Pentagon wants to spend per year on a single computing system.

It’s not Amazon who’s getting screwed here, it’s the American taxpayer. JEDI is Pentagon budget padding at one end and corporate welfare at the other, not an essential element of a robust national defense.

In other news, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper still hasn’t found the droids he’s looking for.

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3D-Printed Firearms and Defense Distributed: A Guide to Understanding “Ghost Guns”

Disclaimer: This guide is intended to be informational only surrounding the topic of ghost guns and 3D-printed firearms. It is not legal advice.

Ever since the landmark ruling on 3D-printed firearms, outrage and moral panic have surrounded so-called “ghost guns.” Whether you’re a proponent of Second Amendment freedoms or just doing opponent research, it’s important to have the facts about what a ghost gun is and what it is not.

It’s also important to know other related terms in the world of firearms – like how is a ghost gun different from a 3D-printed gun? And what is an 80-percent lower? This guide will answer all of your ghost gun questions, and will separate fact from fiction surrounding this polarizing topic.

What Is a Ghost Gun?

Put simply, a “ghost gun” is a catchall term for any firearm without a serial number. There are a variety of ways a person can come to own a firearm without a serial number that do not involve breaking federal law, which generally prohibits the removal of serial numbers but not, however, the ownership of a firearm without a serial number.

It’s not a loophole in the law. The law is specifically written to exclude professional gunsmiths and hobbyists. Even if you own a ghost gun – that you must make yourself – you’re never allowed to sell or transfer it without getting a serial number. In fact, there are a number of procedures in place allowing for amateur gunsmiths to get a serial number for their homemade firearms for precisely this purpose.

What Is a Gun?

To understand the law behind so-called “ghost guns,” it’s important to understand what a gun is under the law. This relates back to the Ship of Theseus problem in philosophy: In this thought experiment, one considers a boat. What about a boat makes it a boat? How much of it may we replace and still be talking about the same object? Does a mast make the boat? The sails? The deck? The hull?

Now apply this to firearms. Is a barrel a weapon? What about a stock? What about the two of them together, but no trigger? Is the trigger alone a weapon? There are a number of combinations to this question: At what point does something stop being a hunk of metal and start being a firearm?

And the various combinations have one answer: A “gun” under the law is a part called the lower receiver. This ceases to be a hunk of metal when it is more than 80 percent finished. Up until that point, you just have a hunk of metal.

What Is an 80-Percent Lower?

Taking the above, we can extrapolate that it is perfectly legal to purchase a hunk of metal that also happens to be an 80-percent finished lower receiver. In fact, there is a small cottage industry dedicated to selling people this very object in an easy-to-process form. These are also known as “unfinished receivers” and “blanks.”

If you want to sell or otherwise transfer the receiver once it’s been finished, you’re going to need a license. However, if you just want to make yourself a weapon – either because it seems like a fun way to spend an afternoon or because you want to own an untraceable weapon – you don’t have to jump through any hoops other than purchasing the lower and finishing it. You don’t have to register it, you don’t have to get it a serial number. You don’t even need to pass the same background check you might otherwise have to.

Unsurprisingly, those selling 80-percent lowers tend to make them as easy as possible for the most amateur of amateur gunsmiths to complete. In fact, many of the same retailers selling 80-percent lowers likewise sell complete kits with everything you need to transform what is legally just a hunk of metal into a complete firearm by doing the remaining 20 percent of the work. You’ll still need to have some proficiency with machine tools to finish the weapon, but not nearly as much as what would be required to complete a lower from a raw piece of metal. A drill press or rotary tool are enough to finish most 80-percent lower receivers. The time required is between one and seven hours, depending on the skill level of the operator.

Continue reading 3D-Printed Firearms and Defense Distributed: A Guide to Understanding “Ghost Guns” at Ammo.com.

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Federal Gun Control in America: A Historic Guide to Major Federal Gun Control Laws and Acts

For Americans, the crux of gun control laws has been how to disarm dangerous individuals without disarming the public at large. Ever-present in this quest is the question of how the perception of danger should impact guaranteed freedoms protected within the Bill of Rights.

Not only is such a balancing act difficult as-is, but there are also two additional factors that make it even more challenging: America’s federal government is constitutionally bound by the Second Amendment, and politicians notoriously take advantage of tragedies to pass irrational laws when emotions are at their highest. As President Obama’s former Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, once famously remarked:

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

This line of thought is not new to American politics. From the emancipation of enslaved Americans and the organized crime wave of the 1930s to the assassinations of prominent leaders in the 1960s and the attempted assassination of President Reagan in the 1980s, fear has proved a powerful catalyst for appeals about gun control.

Below is an overview of the history behind major gun control laws in the federal government, capturing how we’ve gone from the Founding Fathers’ America of the New World to the United States of the 21st century.

Second Amendment in America’s Bill of Rights: Ratified December 15, 1791

Congress added the Bill of Rights to the Constitution of the United States specifically “to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers.” The Second Amendment is the foundational cornerstone of every American’s right to bear arms, stating:

“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 right to bear arms was second only to the first – the most vital freedoms of religion, speech, the press, the right to assemble and the right to petition government for redress of grievances. Meanwhile, conflicting views have left government and personal interest groups struggling to reconcile technological advances, isolated but significant violent anomalies and the constitutional mandate protecting the natural right to self defense and this most basic aspect of the Bill of Rights.

First and Second Militia Acts of 1792: Passed May 2 and 8, 1792

The U.S. Congress passed the Militia Acts of 1792 less than a year after the Second Amendment’s ratification. The first act’s purpose was “to provide for the National Defence, by establishing an Uniform Militia throughout the United States.” This measure established the need and command structure for a state-based militia. The second act defined conscription parameters for those militias, limiting armed service to “each and every free able-bodied white male citizen” 18 to 45.

Colonial Gun Regulations

Even today, the majority of firearms laws are state-based and vary considerably. While CaliforniaConnecticut and New Jersey have the most restrictive laws, ArizonaVermont and Kentucky have some of the least stringent. For more than a century, the young United States relied primarily on “state” laws:

  • The earliest came from Virginia, the result of fear of attack by Native Americans. The 1619 law imposed a three-shilling fine on able-bodied men who failed to come armed to church on the Sabbath.
  • By 1640, slave codes in Virginia prohibited all “free Mulattos and Negroes” from bearing arms. In 1712, South Carolina enacted a similar law.
  • During this time in Virginia, gun laws for Native Americans were similar to those for white men – as they were not barred from possessing guns (unless they were gathering food on land held by white men). There were, however, prohibitions against providing “Indians” with weapons and ammunition. Native Americans could own weapons, but there were strict regulations on how they could obtain them.
  • Throughout the Antebellum South, LouisianaFloridaMarylandGeorgiaNorth CarolinaMississippi and even Delaware all passed multiple measures denying guns to people of color, requiring court-issued permits, and allowing search and seizure of weapons as well as punishment without trial.

Continue reading Federal Gun Control in America: A Historic Guide to Major Federal Gun Control Laws and Acts at Ammo.com.

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Jojo Rabbit: A Choice Between Authentic and False Community

“You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a ten year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.”

Jojo Rabbit

“Love is the strongest thing in the world.”

“I think you’ll find that *metal* is the strongest thing in the world, followed closely by dynamite, and then muscles.” 

Jojo Rabbit

You know it’s a good movie when you clap spontaneously, laugh like a maniac, and feel your heart torn to shreds in the same two-hour stretch.

Jojo Rabbit is that movie.

Saw it last night and have a lot to say about it. If you haven’t seen this wonderful movie, stop reading, watch the trailer, and get your tix. If you have seen it and want to discuss, keep reading.

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SPOILERS BELOW

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This is a movie about the choices between authentic living and belonging and the false kinds of life and belonging offered in conformity to the mass. In this case, that mass is totalitarian Nazi Germany’s obedience and death cult.

The Default: Belonging to the Mad Collective

The movie starts with young Johannes (Jojo) heading off to summer camp to “become a man,” (despite not being able to tie his own shoes) sprinting away to the delightful tunes of The Beatles “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” in German.

Turns out summer camp is more like a Hitler Youth training camp for 10 year-old soldiers. The sad (and hilarious) absurdity of the Nazi’s doomed experiment is quickly apparent, even though Jojo tries to go along with it all.

But he refuses to do one thing: when ordered to kill a defenseless rabbit, he refuses. That earns him the nickname “Jojo Rabbit” from the older Hitler Youth bullies in one of the first scenes of overt monstrousness. In an attempt to strike back, Jojo decides to double down on the “brave Nazi warrior” thing and wounds himself with a grenade.

We see that Jojo is evidently different. He is gentle. He is sincere (if sincerely brainwashed). And he isn’t exactly fitting in – he has precisely one real friend.

Did I mention his other friend is an imaginary version of Adolf Hitler?

Jojo heads into this story longing for acceptance and belonging in the suicidal death cult that is his culture. It’s hard to imagine that so many other kids shared the same backdrop for growing up, but that’s why this film is so important.

The Choice

We soon learn about one big reason for Jojo’s decent heart.

His mother Rosie (played by Scarlett Johansson) is a woman of kindness, independence, ferocity, humor, and imagination. In other words, she is everything the Nazis are not. Humor and imagination are bulwarks against tyranny in Rosie’s home, and her playful, loving interactions with Jojo are some of the most touching moments in the film.

We also learn that Rosie is part of the German resistance, and (much to Jojo’s horror) she is hiding a young Jewish girl in Jojo’s deceased sister’s bedroom.

Determined to write a book on Jewish people (all the better to defeat them, to his mind) Jojo begins to get to know the young woman, whose name is Elsa. Terror turns into curiosity, curiosity turns into tolerance, and tolerance turns into friendship – and later a serious crush.

As Germany falls apart in the latter days of the war, Jojo experiences a central transformation: from imaginary friendship (with Hitler) to his true friendship with Elsa. He finds true belonging in a human relationship with an unconquered individual with a rich inner life. At the same time, the false sense of belonging in the world of Nazi-dom loses its luster.

Then Rosie is hung for her participation in the resistance, and the Nazi dream (nightmare, rather) of Germany is falling apart all around Jojo’s ears. Kids, civilians, and old German shepherds (actual shepherds, not dogs) are conscripted to defend the city in a last desperate fight. Little boys who stayed in the “club” of the Hitler Youth are used as cannon fodder – a horrifying look at where inauthentic “belonging” ends up.

Authentic Living and Belonging

When the dust settles, Jojo and Rosie have each other. And though Jojo is afraid, he makes the decision to set Rosie free.

Before he does so, a brain-spattered Hitler – once his imaginary friend – warns him that unless he chooses the totalitarian way, he will end up in a “desert of insignificance.” It’s notable how the affable and goofy Hitler of Jojo’s earlier imagination has become something truly worthy of hatred and resistance.

Jojo responds appropriately: he kicks imaginary Hitler out the window with a well-placed foot to Nazi nuts.

In a perfect closing of a loop, he ties one of Elsa’s shoes for her as she prepares to step outside.

And then they dance.

Jojo goes from being his society’s false idea of “being a man” to “doing what he can” (as good a definition of true manhood as any).  Elsa, who had a childhood denied to her, found her imaginative inner life in Jojo and now takes a step into free womanhood in the outside world.

But more importantly, both found what it meant to live authentically and to belong authentically.

This movie shows life’s resilience and beauty despite tremendous evil. Rosie knew that:

“As long as there’s someone alive somewhere then they lose.” 

When evil seems most powerful, we all have to remember to keep our inner lives alive, as Rosie did, as Elsa did, and as Jojo did.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Guns and History

I don’t understand the desire to have governments take complete control of guns.

Familiarity with history and human nature unequivocally demonstrate just how ominous this is. The enslavement, oppression, torture, genocide, forced starvation, concentration camps, and wholesale mass murder wrought by governments on unarmed citizens utterly dwarf by orders of magnitude harms, crimes, and accidents done by armed citizens to one another throughout history. Armies of one government slaughtering helpless individuals living under another in war. Armies of governments slaughtering helpless unarmed citizens of their own. These account for hundreds of millions of deaths and far more in suffering the last century alone. It is the greatest human tragedy in history and always has been.

Complete government control of guns leads to an incredibly obvious and horrific lopsided condition: the worst, most dangerous people gain a tremendous physical power advantage over every decent person. Unchecked governments, organized crime, and unorganized thugs get all the guns. They will always find a way. Good people have nothing. To enact a policy that concentrates all physical power in the hands of all the bad people and takes any defense away from the good people is suicidal. It’s hard to imagine anyone seeing this as a good idea given human history.

The freedom for individuals to access and own weapons is on a very real level the most fundamental freedom of all and the final backstop against all of the worst horrors of human mobs.

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Clashing Values

Different people have different values. It’s not that anyone’s values are necessarily wrong for them, it’s that when you impose a “win/lose” system someone is going to be on the losing side.

Just a couple of examples–

Compassion for refugees vs defense of “your culture”.

Compassion for LGBTQ vs respecting the rights of those who aren’t.

Compassion for rape victims vs compassion for the falsely accused.

Values clash. Or they can seem to if you think it has to be either/or.

But anytime they appear to clash, liberty is the solution. Respect for everyone’s life, liberty, rights, and property. It’s where the balance lies; how you respect both sides without enslaving either one to the other. Anything less is uncivilized.

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