Lawyers, Guns & Money…

lawyers, guns & moneyI have a confession to make: I like guns. I do. As a Special Forces veteran and someone who has paid the rent by repossessing cars in Watts-Willowbrook-Compton-Inglewood (the ’hood affectionately known within the craft as “Inglewatts”), as a former editor of and freelance contributor to various and sundry military hardware journals (both consumer and defense industry), as a historical interpreter of many periods, and as a qualified historian, I am no stranger to firearms (from matchlocks to submachine guns) or the concept of a “well-regulated militia.”

I have always been a responsible firearms owner (though I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of the NRA), and while I have been trained to kill with a variety of “weapons” (any object—including your hands—becomes a “weapon” only when employed with intent to do bodily harm), I have deep misgivings about the escalating gun-related violence in our society. I say again: I am not “anti-gun”—far from it; however, I am “anti-violence,” and I have a real problem with sociopaths being armed to the teeth.

I’m really tired of hearing the old saw, “assault weapons only have one purpose—to kill people.” As a civilian, I’ve owned a good many of these semiautomatic firearms, and all I’ve ever “killed” with ’em was paper targets and the odd tin can. Target shooting and plinking are perfectly legitimate hobbies, so get over it. I have no desire to hunt; it just doesn’t seem sporting to shoot at living things that can’t shoot back.

Please understand that assault rifles (note that I did not say “weapons”) are not the source of our current national hand-wringing malaise. They’re just semiautomatic rifles that have unique cosmetic features (like pistol grips and synthetic stocks).

Remington Nylon 66

My first rifle was a Remington Nylon 66—it was a .22 caliber rimfire semiautomatic; it had a synthetic stock, and it was most definitely not an assault rifle!

Testosterone patch

However, the shift to the modern suburban lifestyle with its attendant decrease in physical activity and increase in desk-bound professionals with Buddha-bellies and glazed eyes has offered manufacturers a golden marketing opportunity, and in fine capitalistic style they’ve seized on it with a vengeance.

Bushmaster, the makers of the weapon used in the Newtown massacre, manufacture and sell modified AR-15 rifles under evocative pseudo-martial nomenclature like “Adaptive Combat Rifle (ACR)” and “Magpul Original Equipment (MOE)” and the “M4-A2 Trpe Patrolman’s Carbine.” And if that’s not enough to get the ol’ testosterone a-pumpin’, the flacks at Bushmaster confidently assert that after your purchase of one of these Special Ops wannabe firearms, you can “consider your Man Card reissued.”

I don’t know about you, but that really puts my mind at ease. I’ve been meaning to get my Man Card renewed…

Prove it!Now, this isn’t some metaphorical reference to your male plumbing; rather, Bushmaster will issue you a real live Man Card that “confirms that you are a man’s man”—you know, just in case you weren’t quite sure…

Not sophomoric enough for you? Then try this one on for size: You can actually snitch on weenies who have committed acts that warrant rescinding their Man Card. So nanner-Man Card revoked!nanner. (You can view this stupid ad campaign here.) You just fill out a form identifying the infraction and the wimp in question, labeling the perp as a “Cry Baby,” “Cupcake,” “Short Leash,” “Coward,” or the ever-popular catchall “Unmanly” and shazzam! Man Card revoked! Fortunately, reclaiming your dick—er, Man Card—only requires that you go out and buy yourself a heapin’ hunk o’ throbbin’ camo-clad Bushmaster.

Apparently even Bushmaster was ashamed of this silly Freudian stunt in light of its association with the ill-timed Newtown slaughter of schoolchildren, so it pulled down the Man Card website pronto. Guess I’m gonna have to find some other way to call them out as a “Coward” and have their Man Card revoked.

‘Little Alex’ would be proud

In truth, the (most recent) mass shooting is only a symptom of a much more deeply rooted problem in our society: America is suffering from an addiction. We deny all the evidence, we dance around it, and all the while it is literally killing us. We are addicted to violence.

commando wannabe

‘Call of Duty: Black Ops’ game

We ritualize it, we celebrate it, we worship it. Our entire culture—our favorite sports, music, TV programs and movies, video games, politics, foreign policy, even our religion—encourages and condones violence. We make war on oppressive regimes, we make war on poverty, we make war on drugs, we make war on cancer, we make war on terror (not terrorism, mind you). We just plain like to make war.

So how’s that workin’ out for us? How many of these righteous wars have we won? Never mind; it’s a rhetorical question…

We can’t fix this insidious epidemic of violence by banning assault rifles (as President Obama would have us do) any more than we can by placing armed law enforcement personnel and military guards in every school and public venue across the land (as Wayne LaPierre, vice-president of the NRA suggests). Prohibition—as we certainly should have learned—doesn’t work; it only creates a black market for the naughty stuff while driving it underground. And turning the country into a police state would be a less than desirable outcome (though it would create jobs, which should make the conservative legislators happy).

We’ll never entirely rid ourselves of guns, nor have enough psychiatrists or psychologists to identify and intervene with all of the mentally disturbed students (or returning combat veterans, for that matter). We haven’t got the will and the Teapublicans (or their patron saint, Grover “Who elected that asshole?” Norquist) wouldn’t allow us to spend the money.

These are knee-jerk extremist positions, and as Jim Wright points out in his Stonekettle Station blog, “Extremism by definition is a position adopted by people who know they are wrong, but refuse to concede, refuse to compromise, refuse to reason, refuse to admit that they have a problem.”

“Refuse to admit that they have a problem.” That’s the whole thing in a nutshell. We can point fingers back and forth ’til we’re blue in the face, but nothing will change until we admit we have a problem. That’s the first step in treating any addiction.

Also, when we wanted to curtail smoking, we took action to alter the public perception that smoking is “cool” or “sexy.” And that’s been a huge success. Yes, there are still some boneheads who are dumb enough to voluntarily commit incremental suicide, but they are a dying breed (pun intended).

Suggestion for next ad campaign.

Suggestion for next ad campaign.

Now we need to replace the cultural imperative to compensate for our sedentary lifestyles by embracing some macho fantasy with a new message: It is lame to be a closet commando.

On the societal level, addressing our national fixation on employing violence to make our point will take a good deal more effort (and that’s above my pay grade).

Let’s get real

And then there’s that pesky Second Amendment thang. It was included in the Constitution to ensure that Americans could defend themselves against a tyrannical or despotic government (not foreign invaders—that’s the army’s job). The framers had the benefit of a little Real World experience in their rear-view mirror.

It’s not as far-fetched as it may seem: even as I write this, Congress is considering legislation that would suspend the writ of habeas corpus, thus denying US citizens their right to due process and enabling the government to indiscriminately imprison citizens without charging them with a crime. We have good reason to be circumspect.

We can debate the semantics of prose penned in the 18th century (when “militia” meant every able-bodied adult male and a musket was an “assault rifle”), but the intent is clear—as my friend John Wickett opined, the Second Amendment was not drafted “with tweed-clad quail hunters (shotgun broken over a dapper forearm) in mind.” In the 21st century this poses a conundrum, I’ll grant you.

There are perfectly logical and rational arguments to be made on both sides of this debate. Perhaps we need tighter restrictions on certain types of firearms (and their attendant accessories—like high-capacity magazines and grenade launchers); surely we should give some consideration to beefing up our mental health programs; surely we can agree to tone down the ultra-violence that has become nigh-ubiquitous in the media (commercial and social) and the entertainment industry. I’m thinkin’ the answer is ‘E – all of the above.’

As President Obama indicated, it is a complex issue, but I firmly believe there are enough intelligent, reasonable people in the country to have an open and honest dialog about how we should proceed. It’s not unlike the debt crisis negotiation; which is to say, once you get past the emotion-charged rhetoric, all sides have to give a little to achieve a workable compromise.

Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

The Science of Coffee, Part Two

London coffeehouse, ca 1660 – idea incubator

A major cultural shift took root in the city of Oxford, England in 1650. It manifested itself in a shop called The Angel. This establishment was a coffeehouse, and Oxford was a hotbed of intellectual activity. It was a match made in heaven. The fruit of the bean was a vestige of eight centuries of Moorish rule on the Iberian Peninsula (the last Moslem stronghold, Granada, fell to the Christians in 1492—a very good year for Ferdi and Bella).

You see, up to that time, Britons—who, unlike the Mohammedans, did not suffer from a religious ban on alcohol—guzzled booze like it was water. It wasn’t so much that they were lushes; rather, it was because the water wasn’t fit to drink. This did not prove conducive to creative thought and civil social intercourse. Fortunately, The Angel intervened and coffeehouse culture soon flourished in raucous London as well. And when caffeinated beverages (tea and cocoa were also popular) began to replace alcohol as the social lubricant of choice, a strange thing happened: innovation flowered exponentially.

Coffeehouses became the locus of philosophical banter, political discourse, and gossip. Some historians posit that supplanting a depressant with a stimulant and serving it up in a congenial atmosphere was a prime mover in the rise of the intellectually fertile period known as The Age of Enlightenment.

My point being that coffee is a good thing.

Gaggia Classic

If your taste buds yearn for that concentrated essence of liquid bliss known as espresso (and as your editor, I urge you to note that there is no ‘x’ in espresso), you should consider investing in a midrange semiautomatic machine with a proven track record, such as the Gaggia Classic. It lists for $599, but it’s currently available for under $400 shipped (you can snag a refurb for $299 shipped). Of course at this time of year, you may find an even better deal by doing due diligence.

As the moniker implies, the Classic has been around for a good many years; it’s built like a tank and highly reliable. Spare parts are readily available, and minor repairs or upgrades are well within the purview of anyone with a modicum of mechanical skill. And this is important: there is a ton of helpful data online about the care and feeding of the Classic, and a vibrant community of users who are more than willing to help if you have a problem (the Yahoo! Gaggia Users Group is my favorite).

A stock Classic can pull a very respectable shot if properly adjusted (assuming fresh beans of an appropriate grind and proper barista technique). You can improve its performance considerably by adding a proportional integral derivative feedback device (PID). Fear not, this is just a diminutive (about the size of a computer mouse) electronic unit that insures a constant, proper temperature throughout the shot cycle. And if you’re going to make drinks requiring steamed milk (like cappuccino), you should also replace the stock steam wand with this one. You can perform both of these mods for under $200. There are also folks who upgrade Classics with all these features for resale in the $500-550 range (hint: it’s a good idea to join the Users Group, as they often pop up there…).

Cunill Tranquilo

Actually, it’s the grinder that is of paramount importance. Or as the Yahoo! Gaggia Users Group moderator Tex Harmon quips, “The espresso machine is an accessory to the grinder, not the other way around.”

I don’t care how nice your espresso machine is, if you’re not feeding it uniformly ground beans of the correct granulation (and this requires a bit of fine-tuning), it will not be capable of producing exquisite shots. So plan on buying a quality consumer-level burr grinder or picking up a clean used commercial behemoth on the ’bay or Craigslist. In any case, you can count on laying out somewhere around $300-$500 for an espresso-worthy grinder. If you paid less than that for a new grinder, don’t expect good results. Trust me on this.

Now, if you really want to go all-out, you can step up to a prosumer-class machine, such as the Expobar Office Pulser (+/- $1,100) or the Quick Mill Andreja Premium (+/- $1,700). Any machine in this class, including the Gaggia Classic, is capable of producing espresso that surpasses the best you’ll ever get from an untrained barista using automated equipment of dubious cleanliness in a chain espresso bar.

To summarize: If you land a good deal on a new Gaggia Classic, tweak it a bit, and pair it with an espresso-worthy grinder, you can be in business for around a grand. If you go hawg-wild and pick up a nice prosumer setup, you’ll probably up the ante by another grand or so. The long and short of it is that you can score a truly kick-ass espresso setup for under $1,000. Now that may sound like a lot, but when you begin to add up what you’re paying for sub-par shots down at the local, you’ll find that you’ll recoup this investment in short order.

This covers (albeit briefly) the semiautomatic class of espresso machines. Don’t worry, there will not be a quiz.

The Not-So-Superautomatics

If you really don’t have a very sophisticated palate—which is to say, you are perfectly satisfied with the frou-frou concoctions they serve up at *$—and you covet trendy labor-saving kitchen appliances, you are the ideal candidate for a superautomatic espresso machine. Wired magazine calls this class of whiz-bang gadgets “amazing pieces of engineering” because they do everything for you at the touch of a button—from bean to cup. Kinda Jetsonesque. They also produce mediocre to awful espresso (if you are concerned about such things).

Saeco Xelsis Digital ID

The Saeco Xelsis Digital ID is the latest entry in this crowded field of hip department store bling. But it may qualify for a new category all its own: the hyper-superautomatic—in fact, the promo lit calls it a “cutting edge technological marvel.” That’s because the $4,000 Xelsis D-ID trumps its space-age brethren by mating its built-in grinder with a detachable milk reservoir and a self-cleaning cycle; further, it sports a dazzling touchscreen digital interface (ooh!) that stores pre-set profiles for up to six unique users, and initiates its operation by being prompted with the latest in biometric technology. Yes, you heard right—it has an integrated device that reads your fingerprint so the machine will dispense exactly the right beverage, pre-approved and personalized for your discriminating taste.

Of course, you’ll also need the optional decoder ring (I made that up). Word on the street has it that the next-gen model will require the user to be microchipped (I made that up, too). As the scribe who produced the amazingly shallow Wired fluff piece admitted, “There are a lot more features that I don’t have the technical ability to explain well.” That one I didn’t make up. But in all fairness, the dude’s blog (Geekdad) is tabbed under “toys and technology.” You do the math.

So just how good is the espresso produced by this Rube Goldberg contraption? I’m glad you asked. I tried to find a legitimate review of this machine by a respectable coffee forum or blog, but failed. Hmmmm… All Google coughed up was a list of tech-toy blogs and news aggregators that obligingly regurgitated the press release verbatim (or a slight paraphrase thereof).

A few early adopters posted their initial experiences on amazon.com noting difficulties in programming the thing, a problem with the beverages being too cold, and opining that the reservoirs for water, milk, and used coffee grounds are too small, thereby requiring more fiddling than they expected to have to do with a high-zoot set-and-forget device.

One online purveyor of espresso equipage posted an amateurish youtube video that painfully exposes the limitations of the machine. I assume this was not their intent. In a real face-palm moment, the demo hostess couldn’t even get the machine to recognize her fingerprint. A well-respected Saeco distributor and fan of superautomics actually counsels against buying this product, stating unequivocally: “Expensive model. Not worth its looks or the Bells & whistles used to promote it.”

Why do you s’pose the rest of the world thinks Americans have too much stuff? Just talking about this makes me feel a little embarrassed. Now if the Xelsis (don’t you just hate the cutesy neologisms that marketeers dream up for product names?) doubled as a Transmogrifier, I’d be sold. But of course with a little imagination you can whip up a Transmogrifier out of any old cardboard box (which is sort of the point).

My advice? Espresso machines don’t multitask any better than humans; beware of any product that attempts to be all things to all men (or women, as the case may be), as they often wind up being nothing at all…

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.