Donald Trump as President of the United States is the single biggest indicator of the enduring strengths and crippling weaknesses of the American democracy.

Trump campaigned against much of what the Republican party stood and had no establishment support during the primary, and yet he still won the nomination against a dozen other better qualified and more established candidates. He ran against a well-funded, organized, and established politician in Hillary Clinton who was reasonably expected and predicted to sweep the table.

What Trump did was to appeal to disaffected citizens in strategic states, and through that (and a surprisingly weak opposition) he was propelled to the White House, even without a majority of the popular vote.

That’s how American democracy works, and even if you disagree with him as President, the election of a non-politician to the highest office in the land should be viewed as a triumph of our constitutional system, at least in concept.

(of course, in our modern era of highly-targeted electioneering, there is a very real debate we should have about the role and structure of the electoral college, but that’s for another time)

So if Trump’s election is a sign of a healthy and functioning democracy, then how the heck did we end up here? Echo chambers, plain and simple. We all saw the echo chamber effect in action this weekend — on both sides.

Most of us don’t see white supremacists and neo-Nazis in our daily lives. So when we turn on the news and see them in the hundreds in real life, marching through the streets with torches, it’s a shock. We don’t seek out Nazi groups and sites and we don’t research white supremacy because it offends our collective values and we have no interest in what they have to say because it is morally repugnant.

We group with like-minded people, because that’s what’s comfortable. It’s easiest to chat with people we agree with, it’s easier to just avoid uncomfortable conversations. And the internet has made that simpler than ever — both to find people like us and to ignore others. We get our news from sources that reinforce our preconceived worldviews, we block or mute or unfriend people with whom we disagree, sometimes even people we consider to be our friends.

Echo chambers have long existed in the real world. Liberals will probably feel out of place in rural Alabama, just as a conservative will feel lost in San Francisco. But in these places we still come face-to-face with people who will disagree with us. That intrusion doesn’t happen online, and it’s something we can easily ignore.

The internet, for all of its amazing tools and unimaginable potential, has made it far too easy for us to isolate and insulate ourselves from disagreement. It’s given a megaphone to the most extreme among us, amplifying their hatred and vitriol to anyone who will read or listen — but flying silently under the radar to those that aren’t watching.

Racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, conspiracy theorists, anarchism, Islamist militancy, isolationism… it all thrives online. Often out of sight of those that would oppose it.

The vast majority of us don’t wade into these dark corners of the internet. We don’t read the Breitbarts and Intercepts and Daily Stormers of the world. We’re citizens of the amazing parts of the internet — we get instant news, running chats with friends, help from strangers, unbounded shopping, and unlimited pictures of cats and dogs.

The internet is a great, amazing tool. But some people are abusing this tool. It’s all too easy to virtually congregate with people that agree with us and ignore and dismiss those that disagree. People like to say that we don’t talk as much anymore, thanks to the internet. That’s false — we’re talking more than ever, and to more people than ever before. But because it’s easier than ever to talk to people that we think are like us, it’s also easier to avoid having uncomfortable conversations with those that don’t. And when we do, our stances and preconceptions about who we’re talking to are informed by the echo chamber in which we’re spending more and more time.

We’re all guilty of it. I’m guilty of it, and so are you. Somebody you know, somebody you love, somebody you work with says something outrageous? It’s easier just to change the topic and forget it ever happened. It’s easier to steer into the agreeable waters of sports or celebrity gossip or our kids and then retreat back into our bubbles. It feels safe and we get to keep our friends and avoid being upset by uncomfortable conversations.

But it’s not safe to just brush aside outrageous speech from people we know and love. Ignoring extremism is tacit acceptance of it as a valid point of view. What we saw in Virginia was the result of all of this. White supremacists, neo-Nazis, the KKK — they all brought their echo chamber into the real world, and it was horrifying.

Let’s be clear: a protest or a rally, no matter how racist or extremist, is protected speech under the 1st Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. It is the same protection that allows you to counter-protest, to speak your mind in support of or against our government, our politicians, and each other. Of course, these protections do not extend to violence.

And to be equally clear: I want these people out in the open. I want to see who they are, for the world to see who they are and the things for which they stand, so we can excise these ideas from our society. We need to acknowledge that these people exist and what they believe, and we need to emphatically reject those beliefs as unacceptable and incompatible with what our nation and society stand for.

This hatred isn’t natural. We aren’t born like this — it is taught, it is learned. And because it is taught, we can teach against it. We can talk to each other, understand the misconceptions that have led to these conclusions, and work to combat it. We cannot fix this is we don’t engage with those that disagree with us. It’s not easy, it’s not fun, and it certainly isn’t comfortable. But it’s something we have to do.

What happened in Virginia, in the 2016 election, and continues to happen today is what happens when we embrace and retreat into our own echo chambers and dismiss others. We must stand up and speak out for what is good and right in this world. This is no longer about politics; this is about our civilization. The people who were marching with torches and chanting Nazi slogans believe this is a fight for civilization, and on that point alone I agree.

We cannot fight extremism with more extremism. We cannot fight civil violence with more violence. This is a fight over ideas and ideals. Fists and clubs and bullets are not ideals. We should be appalled by those who exercise violence and those who speak with hatred on their minds and in their hearts — and those who speak in their defense.

But our horror must not lead to more violence. We must engage peacefully and forcefully and not allow these events and words to drive a wedge between us as Americans. I don’t believe that neo-Nazis and white supremacists and the KKK are representative of more than a small fraction of Trump’s supports — I don’t believe that anymore today than I did in November. Broad conclusions and generalizations that lump the worst in with the misguided are always counterproductive.

Ignoring the problem lets it thrive. Condemning all Trump supports as racists gives the real racists cover and sympathetic cohorts. It’s a tricky needle to thread, a needle surrounded by other legitimate needle holes of jobs, terrorism, healthcare, and more that are too easy to loop in. The people leading this movement have woven a complex and deluding web of blame for their perceived woes. We must untangle that web of lies, and the only way to do that is with rational facts and resolve to not accept this as normal or tolerable.

We must show that these despicable people are not in the right, that they do not speak for any portion of us, that we will not stand by and allow their hatred to go unchallenged. When they march, we must stand against them. When they speak of hatred, we must speak of love. When they attempt to tear apart our society, we must fight to mend our civilization’s wounds. When they try to hijack our democracy, we must make the stand at the ballot box.

We cannot allow those who stand for or excuse or minimize racism, fascism, sexism, isolationism or any of these other repulsive ideas to go unchallenged. These beliefs run fully counter to our ideals and principles as Americans and as enshrined in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. For we do believe that all people are created equal. We do believe that all are entitled to inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We do believe in freedom of expression, in the right to self defense, in justice, and in freedom from tyranny. We do believe in government of, by, and with consent of the governed.

I am fortunate to live in the greatest country on Earth during the most remarkable time in the history of our civilization. For all we have accomplished in the last 241 years, there is still much work to do to further the promise for all of the United States of America.

Somebody once said that “You can depend on Americans to do the right thing, only after exhausting every other alternative.” If there were ever a time for Americans to live up to that idiom, it is now. Anger and resentment and fear have fueled much of the lead up to this election and it’s time to reject that. The decision we face is to pick the lesser of two evils; I know that’s a phrase we bandy about every election, but it’s never been more true than now.

But these candidates are two different kinds of evil. On one side we have former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She’s deeply unpopular and untrusted, dogged by scandal and quite possibly the clearest picture of the corruption of modern-day Washington, D.C. She obviously and stupidly mishandled government communications, potentially putting our nation’s secrets and security at risk. Her proposed policies are a furtherance of the past eight years of Obama’s presidency, which while not the best eight years this country’s ever had, also haven’t been the worst eight years in our history — not to mention that a decent portion of the woes we’ve endured can be placed at the feet of a Republican-controlled Congress.

Of all the candidates the Democrats could have selected, Hillary Clinton is without question the most divise and compromised. One need only look at the rotating door between the Clinton Foundation and the governments of the United States and foreign nations (though it’s still worth acknowledging that the Clinton Foundation does good works). But in the long tradition of American politics, the party decided that it was her turn and did everything it could to ensure her nomination.

In an alternate universe the Republican candidate — a Bush, a Rubio, a Kasich, a Cruz — would have been mopping the floor with Clinton’s pantsuit for the past several months. But we live in the universe where the Republican primary electorate picked Donald Trump as their standard bearer. I can understand why — there’s no doubt that America and the world are changing in ways that can seem frightening and that the Republican party in Washington has been an absolute embarrassment on so many fronts. But the selection of Donald Trump was the party’s base cutting off their nose to spite the face.

Donald Trump’s not nearly as corrupt as Clinton, but he’s far from being an angel, let alone qualified or fit to serve. His populist campaign has entertained the worst racist, sexist, conspiracy theorist, future-fearing tendencies of an angry base. He has only recently started to exercise control over his message upon realizing that he was likely to lose the election and the best thing he could do with the latest Clinton email news was to keep his mouth shut and let it play out. His campaign staff had to wrestle away control of his Twitter account for the final week of the campaign, lest he go on another late-night rampage and blow their chances. And at every turn he has demonstrated a fundamental lack of knowledge about how the state and federal governments of the United States work, our relationships with our foreign allies and adversaries, and the role of the presidency.

I was raised in a Republican household and have voted for the Republican candidate in the three presidential elections since I came of voting age. I believe in what should are the espoused Republican goals of a government that is lean and efficient and stays out of the lives and business of the citizenry, promoting individual responsibility and success, and working to ensure that Americans are safe at home and abroad. Trump stands for none of that, or when he says that he does he fails to propose policies that will actually ensure those ideals. I’m not sure the Republican Party stands for those ideals anymore, either.

George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney are good men. They are men of character and principle and integrity and honor, but also politicians that understood how the system works and the compromises that you have to make to get things done. Donald Trump is not that kind of man. I don’t doubt that he’s intelligent or a capable businessman — you don’t build the kind of business that he has without some level of smarts — but he’s also a compulsive liar, woefully unprepared for the Presidency, and either frighteningly ignorant of or terrifyingly intent on destroying the democractic norms that ensure the functioning of our government, economy, and society through successive administrations.

Look, I get what led to the nomination of Trump. I really do. The media delights in highlighting the worst among his supporters — the obviously racist, the blatantly sexist, the clearly backwards — but I personally know many Trump supporters (many reluctant) that are far from those things. Trump is confirmation bias incarnate — he says what you want to hear about the problems you face, even if that’s not what you need to hear.

You’ve been let down by a Republican-controlled Congress that’s only managed to stymie Obama’s agenda but failed to execute on many of its promises, such as repealing, defunding, delaying, or otherwise crippling the Affordable Care Act (though it’s worth noting that they have voted to do so more than 50 times, but never had a large enough majority in Congress to override Obama’s obviously predictable vetoes).

You’ve been let down by an economy that’s struggled to recover quickly from a recession that was purely the result of poor governance and the the revolving door of corruption between Wall Street, K Street, and Capitol Hill. You’ve watched as manufacturing jobs have disappeared and wages have stagnated and the world changes at an ever faster rate.

You’ve been let down by a media that, despite an earnest effort to present a balanced take on things, is still run by humans that have sincere difficulties actually relating to and understanding what life is like outside of big coastal cities and seeing past their own liberal biases.

And then along comes Donald Trump. He’s not a corrupted politician and he’s saying things that seem to make sense. But if you really and truly think about it, they don’t make sense. We could talk all day about the terrible things that Donald Trump has said about women, Mexicans, Muslims, his opponents, and pretty much every person on the planet not named Trump or Vladimir Putin. But I want to instead talk about what Trump has promised to do and what will happen as a result.

There are two centerpieces to Trump’s campaign, immigration and international trade, and they are inextricably intertwined and basically boil down to economic protectionism. Trump wants to build a wall along the Mexican border to halt illegal immigration (and somehow get Mexico to pay for it) and levy hefty tariffs on good imported from Mexico and China (our second and third largest trading partners).

Trump loves to cite our trade deficit with these two countries, and it is true that the United States imports more from Mexico and China than it exports to them. But there’s a simple reason for that: we’re a very rich country full of comparatively very rich citizens that like to buy things, and China and Mexico are comparatively poor countries full of poor citizens that make up the cheaper workforce that builds these things at lower prices than American workers ever could.

These high-profile instances of foreign manufacturing of “American” goods like a Ford Focus from Mexico or an Apple iPhone from China disguise the fact that manufacturing still accounts one eighth of America’s GDP and nearly ten percent of workers — with 800,000 manufacturing jobs added in the last few years. The vast majority are employed by smaller firms, and the average earnings are over $80,000 when you include benefits. While the rise of manufacturing abroad has cut into the American workforce’s participation in the same industry, the bigger driver of manufacturing job loss is automation. The largest factories are today run by fewer people than ever and yet still produce more and better quality products than ever. China may have taken some jobs, but it’s the computers that are going to take them all.

The decline of workforce participation in manufacturing has occurred over the past several decades, but we’ve been through a similar transition before: go back just one hundred years and the majority of Americans were employed in agriculture; the addition of machines to farming has dramatically cut the number of workers needed to plow fields, and automation will only continue to do so — all while producing greater crop yields than ever before. Somehow, the vast majority of people are still employeed even though we’re not needed in the field anymore. That’s because Americans are resourceful and driven and creative; it’s America that drove the industrial revolution and America that’s led the way through the ongoing computer revolution. The failure isn’t in protecting the jobs of old industry; it’s in not preparing for the jobs of the next industry.

Free trade is essential to not just our economy and the economies of nations with whom we trade, but also for global security. Despite the transitioning of some jobs to other nations and even more to automation, American exports have quadrupled over the past 25 years, in large part thanks to free trade agreements like the unfairly reviled NAFTA. The globalization of manufacturing and trade has brought unprecedented security for the United States; as much as we might have a trade imbalance with China, our intertwined trading relationship means that the likelihood of a shooting war is incredibly low due to the enormous and immediate damage it would deal to both our economies.

Trade defecits are driven by us, the citizenry. We demand that the goods we purchase be cheaper than American workers can produce and we reward companies that lower their prices through overseas production and automation by buying those products. In the end it all comes down to your wallet, and we overwhelmingly vote by buying what we see as the best value, regardless of where that T-shirt was sewn or that computer was build or where that car was assembled.

There’s only one way for the government to “fix” a trade defecit, and that’s through tariffs on imports. Trump as proposed an incredible 35% tariff Mexican imports and an eye-popping 45% tariff on Chinese goods. If you’re interested in protecting American manufacturing, that might seem like a good idea, but here’s the problem: when you levy a tax like that on imports from a country, you can expect that they’ll do the same in response for our exports. All you’ve done is start a trade war that’s going to make everything more expensive for everybody.

And then, of all things, Trump rails against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal as being good for China. China’s not even a signatory; the TPP is actually bad for China. It’s designed to strengthen the United State’s trading relationship with a number of Pacific Rim nations, including such antagonists as Japan, Chile, Australia, and Canada. TPP was designed from the start in a way that would lead China to exclude themselves; it demands too much in transparency, tariff reduction, and labor force protections for China to agree. In the process, it will dramatically improve the influence of the United States in nations like Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia — nations that would otherwise be ripe for Chinese domination.

Trade is good. It opens up the American workforce for higher-paying jobs while bringing down the price of the good we buy; it opens up new markets for American goods and services; and it enhances American influence abroad in a way that isolates our rivals and reduces conflict by ensuring everybody has too much to lose. Sure, it means that fewer Americans are working in factories today, but trying to fight that will only hold us back.

Speaking of holding people back, let’s talk about Trump’s wall on the Mexican border. The conceit of the wall is that it’s supposed to stop illegal immigration; but that won’t do it. The vast majority of illegal immigrants in the United States didn’t get here by running across the desert border — they came through a border checkpoint legally, and then stayed. They came to work jobs that we won’t work for pay that we wouldn’t accept. I’m not saying it’s right, but they’re not here to “take our jobs”. Unless manual labor in a field or kitchen was your idea of a promising career.

Trump is obviously wrong when he says that the Mexican government is sending rapists and murders to the United States, but he’s not wrong in saying that criminals are crossing the border in an illegal fashion. And sure, a wall might help with slowing that flow, at least temporarily. But it’s addressing a symptom and not the cause. It’s not Mexico sending their worst, it’s us, the people, inviting the criminals through our illegal drug addiction and the subsequent flow of narcotics from Central and South America into our nation. The crime perpetrated by Mexican cartels on American soil (and the literal war happening in Mexico between the government and the cartels) is our fault, and we’re doing nothing to fix the source of the problem here. But going after the visible symptoms and not the root cause is actually par for the course for politics.

The vast majority of illegal immigrants aren’t here to rape and pillage, they’re here to work and build a better life for themselves and their families, just like you and me. They’re contributing members of our society, and spending hundreds of billions of dollars to round them up and deport them would be counterproductive — even estimates from conservative analysts and think tanks project an instant hit of at least a trillion dollars to our economy if this plan were to ever be put into action. Trump denies all of these costs, of course.

Yes, people that are in this country illegally are breaking the law, and we need to figure out what to do about that. But the mass deportation of 11 million people would be tremendously damaging on an economic level. It should be a non-starter on those grounds, let alone from a humanitarian perspective.

The other boogeyman that fuels the demand for an enormously-expensive border wall is terrorism. Don’t get me wrong: terrorism is a threat and we need to be vigilant, but to tie it to border security is absurd. Terrorists that are trained and come to the United States to carry out destructive acts aren’t going to risk being caught crossing the border illegally. They’re not stupid. Every foreign-born terrorist came to the United States legally, be it as an immigrant, student, or tourist (they may have overstayed their visas, but that’s another story).

That’s not even touching on the most ludicrous part of the border security and terrorism argument: they have to go through Mexico first, and then cross the US border, avoiding interception by border patrols on both sides of the border, and then get to a city, establish themselves, and prepare for whatever attack they’re going to carry out with the added complication of employment, purchases, and basic movement being hindered by their illegal status. What’s easier: apply and wait for a visa and then cross the border legally at Customs in the airport, or risk getting caught by police while running across the desert after going over, under, or through a fence?

The same logic applies to Trump’s vitriol directed at Syrian refugees. It is absolutely true that Syrian refugees would be coming from a country that’s grappling with a very serious terrorism problem. But, again, it’s far easier to apply for and receive a tourist visa and just stay than it is to attain refugee status. In fact, it’s a two-year process involving multiple UN and US government agencies (including screening by the FBI, DHS, TSA, and State Department), several thorough interviews, background checks, medical screenings, and more.

Only 1% of refugees are even recommended as candidates for resettlement by the UN to begin with, and they require identifying documents and biometric scans for anything to even happen. It is true that many refugees don’t have these documents, and without them the resettlement process never even gets off the ground. Any terrorist trying to sneak in as a refugee is wasting his time — it takes a very long time and there are dozens of stringent steps where he risks being caught.

Could a terrorist slip through the refugee process or over the border with Mexico? Sure, it could happen. But the likelihood is extremely low.

But the likelihood of Iran restarting their nuclear program if Trump tears up the nuclear deal? One hundred percent. We can bemoan the payments that Iran has received as part of the deal (it’s worth noting that all of these payments are either the return of Iranian assets seized in 1979 or repayment with interest for broken arms agreements, even if the timing is suspicious and the process convoluted thanks to still-on-the-books laws) or that it leaves the door open to Iran restarting their nuclear weapons program from square one (though not zero) after restrictions are lifted in 15 years.

But what we can’t deny is that it has stopped and dramatically reversed the Iranian nuclear program today and by all accounts Iran is abiding by the agreement — they have too much in sanctions relief riding on it to not go along. The only reason the negotiations succeeded was because of how effectively the sanctions were crippling the Iranian economy. While the nuclear program has been a point of pride for the Iranian government, all the pride in the world won’t do you any good when your citizens are on the verge of uprising over your crumbling economy.

Iran is still the leading state sponsor of terrorism and the chief state antagonist in the Middle East. I’m not happy with the nuclear deal, but we also have to recognize that it’s the best we were ever going to get — and better than most experts expected. Saying “no deal” would have simply encouraged Iran to continue on with nuke development, if not accelerate it. While we had the leverage of economic sanctions, having the leverage of a nuclear bomb changes the game. Just ask North Korea. And many sanctions still remain on Iran, thanks to their ballistic missile program and terrorism sponsorship.

America’s alliances are what keep us and the world at large safe and peaceful, even in the face of antagonists like Iran. Agreements like NATO are vital to ensuring not just American safety, but safety around the world. Trump likes to argue that the United States is getting stiffed by other countries on NATO, spending “billions and billions”, but in reality it’s less than $500 million a year in direct expenditures, or 22% of NATO’s costs. Trump is right that some smaller NATO countries aren’t spending the agreed-upon minimum 2% of their GDP on defense, but that’s not the point of NATO. (For the record, the United States spends 3.5% of its GDP on defense, but is far and away the largest defense spender at $597 billion — more than the next 10 nations combined.)

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a mutual defense pact designed to hem in Soviet, and now Russian, aggression. It’s possibly the most successful such agreement in history: in the nearly 70 years of NATO’s existence it’s been strong enough to dissuade Russian aggression against any member nation. In fact, the only time NATO’s been called on in response to an attack on a member nation was in the defense of the United States after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

But Trump’s insistence on casting trade and defense alliances in purely monetary terms reflects his ignorance of the purpose, effectiveness, and details of these agreements. Further, weakening these pacts by insisting on parity that is nigh impossible given the overwhelming economic and military power the United States wields only serves to diminish these relationships and risk isolating the United States.

America is the anchor of the current global peace. Since the end of World War II we’ve managed to avoid large-scale war thanks to the projection of American military might around the globe. It is the presence of United States Army bases in Europe that keeps Russia at bay. It is the fleet of the United States Navy and outposts of the Marine Corps in the Pacific that keep China in check. We do this in part to protect and support our allies, yes, and in doing that we’re helping ourselves. Just as trade deals help to ensure the global peace, so too does the American military’s presence around the globe. It’s not cheap, for sure, but it costs less in blood and treasure to maintain a base in Germany or Japan than to wage a ground war across Europe.

But in threatening to upend these vital alliances over who is or isn’t carrying their own weight, Trump is threatening to upend the entire American-led global order, leaving it open to one led by China or Russia. You might think that’d be great, them taking up the burden instead of us, but that comes at the expense of trade, and freedom, and democracy around the world. A world that is less free and less democratic is less amenable to American interests, and thus more expensive and less safe.

Ronald Reagan cited the shining city on the hill in his farewell address, describing America as a beacon of freedom and strength for the world. Trump would have us give up that mantle because he’s ignorant of the far-reaching societal and economic consequences at home and abroad of American global leadership. Trump sees the world in black and white and dollar-bill green when the world is anything but. It’s every shade of gray, and understanding that is what prevents everything from being stained crimson with blood.

And make no mistake, Trump will be out for blood regardless of how the vote ends up. Win or lose, vengeance for those that he thinks have wronged him his high on mind. Republican officials that refused to back him, judges that dare to hear cases on his businesses, the women that have accused him of unwanted groping and touching, the media that’s aired all of this and granted him an absurd amount of unfiltered coverage, and even the thoroughly investigated Hillary Clinton — all will be in the firing line. This is unprecedented and should send shivers down your spine.

Trump has made his ethos of revenge clear for years: somebody wrongs you, you hit back ten times harder. More than anything, this is an incredibly dangerous mentality of escalation for a President. It’s one thing in the arena of business or politics. It’s another when you wield the mightiest military the world has ever known.

So when you step into the voting booth, I ask you please don’t vote for Donald Trump.

I get that you despise Clinton and that the system needs to be shaken up, but Trump is not the man to do that. We need a leader who understands how the government and the world works and is willing to shake up the status quo, but also embraces the nuance and reality of this world we live in. Not one that’s coming in with a sledgehammer and no idea where to swing it except for at everything.

Trust the part of your conscience that’s screaming at you that Trump should not be handed the keys to the White House. You don’t have to vote for Clinton or Stein or Johnson, just don’t vote for Trump. Vote for every other Republican, elect a conservative Congress to balance Clinton’s liberal agenda. For the good of your family, our nation, and the world, just don’t vote for Trump.

America, make the least bad choice. We’ve exhausted every other option, now it’s time to do the right thing.

Yesterday a great man died. Chuck Lawson was more than just my high school orchestra director for four years. He was, as many of his former students have and will say, a major influence on my life.

High school is a rough time for everybody. We’re all going through a state of transition while having to make our first real decisions in life, take on more responsibilities, and deal with tests, coming of age, and all that nonsense. Parents are obviously important in guiding us through this time, but teachers play an important role as well.

Mr. Lawson was my teacher. I was only a visitor in his orchestra room, bringing over my clarinet a few times a week to join the strings, but I never felt like I didn’t belong. It was in the orchestra room that I was for the first time challenged by music my school, but more importantly, it was in that rehearsal space that I found my love for music.

Before then, music was just something that I did. I did it because I had started playing music before I was old enough to make any real decisions, because it was something that was expected in my family. I went to band camps, which I enjoyed, but those were just temporary respites from an underwhelming experience through middle school.

But in Mr. Lawson’s orchestra room, music came alive. It was in there that my love for music was ignited, it was under his direction that I first saw how music could move people.

Beyond that, Mr. Lawson showed me how to be my true, authentic self. He wasn’t a perfect man, none of us are, but he wore his heart on his sleeve. He wasn’t afraid to be upset or excited. He wasn’t afraid if people knew that he loved Star Trek, that he was a quintessential nerd; no, he embraced it.

He set an example for me on how to be who I truly am, to embrace what I love, and to love living life. To not be afraid of who I am, my emotions, or my faults. To embrace my true self.

I can count on one hand the teachers that had a lasting impact on my life, whose names and face I will never forget. Chuck Lawson is one of them. He helped me learn more than just music; he helped me learn life.

I will always carry the lessons from the Mount Vernon High School orchestra room with me. I’ll never forget what Mr. Lawson did for me and thousands of other students through his decades of service in education. I can’t fathom how many young men and women he helped mold.

Chuck Lawson, I bid you a fond and tearful farewell. You will be missed.

Back in the day I was a huge Trekkie. Who am I kidding? I still am – I just don’t have a weekly feed of new Star Trek coming in from my television. I watched Star Trek on TV, I saw the movies when they premiered in theaters, and I checked out the latest novels from the public library (even if they didn’t count in the official cannon of Star Trek). I was, and still am, a nerd. As if living Star Trek weren’t enough, I also had to breath it. I started at a young age, probably around ten or eleven, attempting to write Star Trek.

My first attempts, like anybody’s first attempts at serious creative writing, were clumsy. I wasn’t a good writer, and my ideas weren’t exactly great either. Eventually I’d hit a wall of “where now?” in my only partially-formed story idea, and have no clue where to go from there. I vaguely recall one attempt from the sixth grade: it was the story of undefined alien Starfleet Captain Sharaan Attentha (or something like), and he was leading a mission to explore the Andromeda Galaxy, via a quantum slipstream (that’s the only way I can accurately date the story; I tended to seize onto a cool idea from a recent episode, and the quantum slipstream was debuted in the 1998 episodes of Star Trek: Voyager, “Hope and Fear” and “Timeless“). There are sixth-grade social studies text books with my Star Trek margin doodles in them somewhere.

After numerous fits and starts, including a handful of not-good short stories and numerous doodles and some more serious drawings of Star Trek starships, by my junior year in high school I’d managed to conjure up a more organized process for fiction writing. While I had numerous ideas spinning through my head for stories, I finally knew better than to just dive in. In the first story or even the first few stories the characters are never fully revealed to the reader. But the writer should know them inside and out, should understand their motivations, hear their voice, and see their mannerisms. So I began drafting character outlines and bios, creating a new cast of characters and a new ship for them to crew.

Why not write a story featuring Captain Picard, Sisko, or Janeway, you ask? What about Archer or Kirk? Put simply, those stories can’t be as interesting. Unless I wanted to split off into an alternate timeline, nothing permanently bad or good can happen to the characters – they and the ship all have to be good and ready for the next story as if this one never happened when all is said and done. It’s the magic reset button. It got a good workout during Voyager, and it was liberally exercised after the end of every Star Trek novel at that time. I didn’t want that.

So by creating my own ship and crew, I could do my own things. There could be lasting damage and enduring triumph. And unlike the happy-go-lucky Next Generation-era Star Trek series, I could create characters that were more flawed. When creating Star Trek: The Next Generation, Gene Roddenberry said that he didn’t want interpersonal conflict amongst the crew, that humanity had grown beyond that. I always found that to be a naively optimistic view of some utopian future where everybody’s happy and has no reason to be upset with their peers. We, the human species, have enough trouble getting along due to purely self-imposed geographic borders, religious and political differences, and – the silliest of all – the color of our skin.

While I am hopeful that we as a society will move past those differences in time (Roddenberry was very forward-thinking in putting a African American woman in Nichelle Nichols on the Enterprise bridge in 1966, even if her ground-breaking role on the original Star Trek was primarily that of glorified telephone operator for all the powerful white men of the Enterprise), it’s silly to think that there wouldn’t still be personality conflicts between members of the crew, especially when you start mixing in other species.

And so, Star Trek: Aldrin was born. I was surprised by how long the first draft turned out to be: ninety two thousand words. That’s very solidly in novel territory (which is an admittedly vague range, but seems to start at around fifty thousand words; ninety thousand words formatted at the size of a paperback novel equals four hundred pages, on normal 8.5×11 it was one hundred twenty pages). I printed it out ten or twenty pages at a time using the library printers at the high school (my apologies to Mount Vernon High School for burning through all that paper).

I thought it was good. Nay, I thought it was awesome. Star Trek: Aldrin, book one: The Enemy Within. Despite my being an avid Trekkie, at the turn of the century it was difficult for a barely-employed high schooler like myself to gain access to Star Trek: The Original Series, so I wasn’t aware that “The Enemy Within” was also the title of the fourth episode of the original Star Trek. Nevermind that I owned the second edition of the Star Trek Encyclopedia, which dedicated a hundred words to the episode where the transporter splits Kirk into naively good and exceedingly evil halves.

I shared that paper copy of Star Trek: Aldrin with my friends, who were mostly unanimous in their praise, though they may have been impressed by the accomplishment of writing such a lengthy work while still in high school. Fun fact: a good portion of that first draft was written using DocumentsToGo on my Palm Tungsten T3 PDA.

Having a completed manuscript in my hands, I looked into getting it published, though the only way to do that was through the official licensed Star Trek fiction partner of Paramount Pictures: Pocket Books. And Pocket Books had rules, oh did they have rules. Those rules are still largely in place today (though no longer online, here’s a copy), and boil down as such: the magic reset button must be pressed by the end of every novel, and only experienced Star Trek authors are permitted to write stories about new crews (like Peter David’s Star Trek: New Frontier series). Not one to be deterred, I reached out to a few publishing houses, or at least those that I could find through a search on Yahoo, but was rebuffed by them all once they understood what I was pitching them. Thankfully it never got to the point of a phone call – all discussion was held over email – or else they probably would have laughed my naive seventeen-year-old ass off the line.

It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I was able offer Star Trek: Aldrin to a wider audience. At that time, Star Trek: Enterprise was in its fourth season and its chances of renewal on UPN were looking slim. I got involved in an organization called TrekUnited, a successor the Save Enterprise movement that helped motivate Paramount to produce the fourth season in the first place. While Save Enterprise was a pure fan-driven movement, relying on tried-and-true tactics like an extensive letter writing campaign, TrekUnited aimed to try something unique and very very different: raising funds to help co-finance the production of a fifth season of Enterprise. To a degree, the campaign was successful to a degree, as TrekUnited was able to raise $143,000 from fans and supposedly secured a pledge for $3 million from an anonymous source in the aerospace industry (I was only involved in the forums at that point, so I can’t personally verify anything, but my money’s always been on Richard Branson as the pledge source – he’s enough of a Star Trek fan that the first ship in his suborbital Virgin Galactic fleet is named the V.S.S. Enterprise).

I’d been an occasional visitor to some StarTrek.com chat rooms through high school, but TrekUnited opened me up to a much wider community of Star Trek. I made a lot of good friends, many of which I regret having fallen out of communication with in recent years. But I also got a new audience for Aldrin and was introduced to the concept of “fan fiction”. It’s what I’d been writing all along, my own stories playing in the universe of somebody else’s creation. I’d long accepted that Aldrin was never going to be formally published, and it made no sense to me to sit on the full novel that I’d written. Some suggested that I get around Pocket Books’ restrictions by rewriting Aldrin in a non-Star Trek setting, but that ignored the fact that the story was heavily reliant upon the existing mythos of Star Trek, and that I wanted to write Star Trek. If that meant that was something I was going to do as a labor of love with no chance of ever making money off of it, then so be it.

So I published Star Trek: Aldrin, book one, The Enemy Within on the TrekUnited Forums, starting in April 2005, uploading one chapter a day. The process of formatting The Enemy Within for BBcode allowed me to make some edits, but I only tweaked things and fixed errors. I never really re-read it. It hadn’t been that long since I’d written it in the first place, so I didn’t have the separation needed to approach it as a more mature writer. The Enemy Within was published onto the TrekUnited Forums pretty much as I wrote it two years prior.

To my surprise, Aldrin gained a quick and excited following amongst the TrekUnited community. To this day it still ranks as the second-most-viewed thread in the TrekUnited Fan Fiction forum with more than fourteen thousand, topped only by the thread for the second Aldrin novel – Diplomatic Protocol – with fifteen thousand views. I dove even deeper into my little Aldrin subset of the Star Trek universe, making new drawings, modeling the starship U.S.S. Aldrin in 3D with Cinema 4D, and Photoshopping images of the crew. And, of course, I also worked on the second and third Star Trek: Aldrin books, Diplomatic Protocol and Shadows in the Darkness. That third novel was where I really started to push the boundaries of that magic reset button – not everything was okay at the end, and there would be repercussions in the coming novels.

Then life got in the way before I could finish the fourth Aldrin novel, titled The Other Shoe (as in ‘drops’). By that time I had risen to be the chief forum administrator for TrekUnited and was also in charge of managing the site’s news page. And by in charge, I mean I was the only one, and the well-connected newcomer TrekMovie.com was eating ours and all the other established Trek sites’ combined lunch. I was also still a full time college student and not doing well at that, and had just started writing for PreCentral.net.

Something had to give, and that something was Star Trek. While I remained a fan, I severely scaled back my Trekking. I didn’t have the time to be running TrekUnited almost single-handedly (at that time the forum was still incredibly busy, and purely a community of fans), and I kept running into roadblock after roadblock in my stuttering attempts to resume writing The Other Shoe. So Star Trek: Aldrin got shuffled away into a folder in the Documents folder on my Mac, sitting there staring back at me every time I went to work on something else. I still went back to the U.S.S. Aldrin, at least mentally, every now and then, entertaining the idea of getting back into writing it and finishing out the several novels I had planned, but nothing ever came of those meandering thoughts.

For several years now, November has been marked by two things: Movember for growing mustaches in support of mens health awareness, and National Novel Writing Month to challenge amateur and professional writers alike to put fifty thousand words of a new novel to the paper. Both are fun and worthy causes, but thanks to my job in the military funeral honors program requiring that I be out in the public as a representative of the United States Army at funerals, growing a mustaches has been out of the question. Plus, my father has had a mustache for forever, and as much as I respect and admire the man, we don’t need people drawing even more comparisons.

I first became aware of both Movember and NaNoWriMo in 2010, and I didn’t do much with either that year. In 2011, I decided that I was going to participate in NaNoWriMo. At first my inclination was that I could finish The Other Shoe (it was about half-way done, with some forty or fifty thousand words to be written), but then I went back and started rereading the previous Aldrin novels to reacquaint myself with the details of my own work.

At that point it had been seven years since I’d first started writing Star Trek: Aldrin. In that time I had grown to be a much more competent writer, thanks in large part to being employed as a writer for TrekUnited (on a volunteer basis, that is), PreCentral/webOS Nation, and the Army, plus the veritable reams of paper that you’re required to fill with words as a college student. And rereading The Enemy Within, I realized it needed to be heavily and severely edited. The concept was good, and the story was good, but the writing was not up to my apparently heightened standards.

The edits wouldn’t just be to make it ‘better’, but also to better set up future stories, even those much further down the line. And like when I decided that I was going to tweak and refine my 3D model of the Excelsior refit, all pretenses of editing were quickly abandoned as I dove in and began a complete and utter rewrite. As I went I gained a great appreciation for how far I’ve come as a writer over these past several years. I’ve put down millions of words for Star Trek, webOS, and Mother Army, and I have no desire to stop writing any time soon. It’s an awesome creative outlet for me, I can be much more precise, specific, deliberate, and descriptive when writing than I can when speaking. Plus I can edit things, which is much harder to do when speaking.

As with nearly all of my plans, rewriting The Enemy Within didn’t go as well as I’d planned. There was the matter of webOS, which at the time was severely in limbo following HP’s cancellation of webOS hardware a few months prior. And I was also still in the process of renovating my house at the time, and working full time for the honor guard (thankfully being a student was no longer on my plate, turns out I’m not good at that, though that’s a discussion for another time). And so I probably got fifteen or twenty percent of the way through my rewrite before it fell to the wayside, sitting in the bottom right corner of my desktop (an almost always visible corner on my screen) as ‘Star Trek Aldrin 1 – The Enemy Within REV.doc’. And it sat there untouched for months before I opened it back up in the spring and made some progress, and then again in the summer when I made some more progress, getting to about the halfway point in July.

It wasn’t until September of 2012 that I really buckled down and powered through the rewrite process, finishing in early November with a hundred-thousand-word draft. In the process several extraneous scenes had met their end, and many plot points were massaged to be more, well, better. The dialogue is more natural and the exposition more explanatory. I tried to gear it such that you wouldn’t have to know Star Trek to be able to understand and follow Aldrin, though that’s clouded through my lens of already having an intimate relationship with Star Trek, so what do I know?

The end result is a Star Trek: Aldrin that is more mature and flows far better. It’s a novel, that if not for Pocket Books’ rules about what they’ll accept for first time submissions, I like to think would rank highly among Star Trek novels. Alas, my vision of the continuing twenty-fourth century narrative varies radically from the course that Pocket Books has steered with their raft of veteran Star Trek authors. I’m not going to spoil any details of what happens in the official unofficial novels, but I will say that I am not at all a fan of the destructive direction in which they’ve taken the Star Trek universe.

While Aldrin never was, and certainly isn’t now, a happy-go-lucky Star Trek story, I’ve always tried to maintain an air of hopefulness amongst the despair. Pocket Books, meanwhile, saw fit to practically obliterate the Star Trek we came to know and love. I have no interest in making Aldrin fit into that universe. Thankfully, as Aldrin is classified as fan fiction and the Pocket Books novels, though officially licensed, do not factor into the official Star Trek cannon, I don’t have to fit with that universe.

Eight years after I first started putting together the story of the crew of the U.S.S. Aldrin, I’m thrilled to be able to release the completely rewritten first book in the series, the completely rewritten Sic Semper Tyrannis. As with all fan fiction, this is purely a labor of love, with no expectation of making any money off of it. I offer Star Trek: Aldrin, book one, Sic Semper Tyrannis to Star Trek fans, free of charge, for their own enjoyment. Sic Semper Tyrannis is available in multiple formats at the new Star Trek: Aldrin website, though I ask that you please do not redistribute them yourself (even if they are DRM-free).

I’d like to recognize my friend and fellow tech-editor Rene Ritchie for heroically serving as my volunteer editor and sounding board for Sic Semper Tyrannis.

Whether or not you enjoy Star Trek: Aldrin, or even bothered reading it, to please consider making a donation to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum to help preserve our world’s space exploration heritage so that it may inspire the next generation of explorers for the final frontier.

Live long and prosper, friends.

Starfleet Insignia

Second only to to the first amendment prohibiting government from preventing the free exercise of speech, the press, assembly, and petition, the second amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America is the most debated in our modern society. The debate surrounding the first amendment is mostly a philosophical one, revolving around whether or not the government is interfering in the exercising of said rights. The second amendment, on the other hand, has much more tangible consequences, as seen recently by the horrifying massacre of teachers and young students in Connecticut.

The debate over the right to bear arms has raised its ugly head far too often in recent years. The senseless mass shooting at a congressional campaign event in Arizona. A crazed lunatic opening fire inside a movie theater in Colorado. And now a disturbed young man walking into an elementary school and killing kids. I don’t have children of my own, but it still breaks my heart to see the news reports coming out of Newtown.

This debate over the rights of gun owners is a good one to have. The Bill of Rights is an important document in our nation’s history, but it and the rest of the Constitution are not above reproach. The Constitution and its amendments at points in history turned a blind eye towards slavery, said that only white men could vote, and for some inconceivable reason banned alcohol. The Constitution is a living document, open to debate and alteration. We should respect it, but we should also question it. It is not the be all, end all, of American governance.

So, let’s talk about the second amendment, shall we? “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.” That’s it. The question about what exactly the framers of the Constitution meant by this oddly-worded passage is, well, debatable. Those first four words – a well regulated militia – stand out to me. The well-regulated militia of the United States has evolved into what we know as the Army Reserve and the National Guard, and as a member of the latter organization I can tell you it is quite well regulated.

But how many gun owners in the United States are members of those or any other well regulated militia? A relatively small portion, it appears. There are just about as many guns in the United States as there are people, and to be fair, for every crazed man afraid the g-men are going to come and get him there are people who merely collect guns with no intention of using them on another person. And there are a lot of people who simply own a small handgun for the purposes of self defense. I know a lot of people that do, though I personally do not. As much as I enjoy the rush that comes from pulling the trigger on an M-16 once a year for qualification purposes, I’m not entirely comfortable with the thought of having firearms in my home. And, again, I live by myself.

The question of gun control is always a prickly one, and as with most issues I tend to fall somewhere in the middle. I can understand and comprehend both sides of the debate, and both make sense.

There’s the side of the gun rights supporters, backed up by the millions of members of the NRA, who believe that bearing arms of all types is an unassailable American right (I’m going for the fringe for the purposes of making a point here, so don’t jump on me). They point to hunting, sport, and self defense as the need for having their own firearms. They, quite rightly, point out that this country was born and these very freedoms secured by men with rifles willing to take up arms against a government they viewed as oppressive.

And there’s the side of those that view guns as weapons of violence and murder. They point out that America’s murder rate is far higher than any other first-world nation, that thousands of people die every year in firearms accidents, and to incidents like the abhorrent murder of twenty children in Connecticut, for reasons that are still unknown.

Let’s be perfectly honest, guns were created for one purpose and one purpose only: killing things, be they people or prey. Guns are weapons made for killing, and there’s no ignoring that fact. There are plenty of people that use guns for sport that wouldn’t fathom turning that pistol or rifle on another person, but that’s not why Smith & Wesson, Winchester, Browning, Remington, and the dozens of others that build firearms got into business. Guns are made to make killing easier, plain and simple.

When people bring up banning or limiting firearms in the wake of incidents like these, far too often the rebuttal is that the crazed individuals that perpetrated these heinous acts would still find a way. And they probably would try, there’s no doubt. Crazy is crazy, and access to firearms don’t make crazy want to kill. But access to firearms does make it innumerably easier for crazy to kill. Build and planting a bomb to kill dozens of people is difficult, as is setting a fire that will burn quickly enough to have the same effect. And forget knifing people to death – just the other day a man in China went on a stabbing spree and injured more than twenty people, but didn’t manage to kill a single one.

For complicated and very good reasons, the second amendment will not be repealed any time soon. This is a nation born of violent uprising, a nation that owes its existence to firearms. This is a nation that came into being when its residents turned their rifles against the might of the British army. This legacy of overthrowing oppression drives a great many American ideals. It’s why we cheer on the popular rebellions in Africa and the Middle East, we see them as following in our footsteps.

Many Americans live in fear that the federal government could someday need overthrowing by popular revolt. Thankfully the political system we’ve established has enough checks and balances that such an event is highly unlikely, but it’s still disturbing to see the amount of unchecked power the government has accrued for itself. But we the people still have the power of the vote and the right to free speech and freedom of the press and assembly, which is far more powerful than any bullet, but bullets have been proven necessary throughout history to maintain those rights for ourselves and others across the globe.

Let’s be honest, though, while the British Army of 1776 was well-trained and well-armed, they weren’t a vastly superior force in comparison to the Revolutionary Army led by General Washington. Both had access to the same comparative firepower, and both were limited by the technology of the day. Those muskets they fired at each other were loaded by hand between shots. I have no doubt that the framers of the Constitution had no inkling of the kind of weapons technology we would possess just one hundred years later, let alone two hundred plus years later.

The British Army of 1776 would stand no chance against the arms available to today’s citizens, but today’s citizens stand absolutely no chance against the United States military. The Air Force has missile-armed robots that roam the skies. No AR-15 is going to defend against that, as many deceased members of Al Qaeda would tell you, if they weren’t, you know, deceased. (yes, the military has not achieved total victory in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan, but keep in mind that the rules of engagement did not allow for the scorched earth tactics last used in World War II, and don’t think that a government intent on suppressing its people would be hesitant to make use of those same tactics – hypothetically speaking here).

No matter how many legally-obtained firearms the people of the United States have at their disposal, there’s no way we can defend ourselves from stealth bombers, tanks, drones, and nuclear submarines. But does the overwhelming firepower that the United States military possess mean that the people shouldn’t be permitted to obtain and maintain the tools to defend their rights and property from government interference? That’s part of the question we have to ask ourselves here.

We also have to ask ourselves what kind of firearms the citizen should have access to. Putting aside the unlikely event of a second American revolution, what Earthly reason is there for the average citizen to own an assault rifle? I can’t fathom why, despite knowing several people who do own AR-15′s and similar weaponry.

Even if we were to ban assault weapons, we have to accept that we are at the point of no return when it comes to the possession of weapons in the United States. There are too many guns and too many gun owners for there to be any meaningful repeal or restriction on gun ownership. Guns are not going away, plain and simple. Gun ownership is a fact of life in the United States, where there are nearly nine guns for every ten residents, double the rate of the closest first-world nation. That nation is Switzerland, with between four and five guns per ten residents.

It’s popular amongst gun right advocates to claim that Switzerland and Israel have high gun ownership rates and low levels of violence, so guns must not be the problem. In Switzerland every citizen is a member of the army, and while they used to keep their issued weapons at home, that’s becoming less-and-less the reality. In Israel the gun ownership rate is below ten percent, and only those that live in the settlements, work out in the settlements, or are likely to face violence as part of their job, and higher-ranking military personnel are permitted to own firearms. Israel, a country of nearly eight million, has only around five hundred thousand firearms owned by its citizens.

The arguments of Switzerland and Israel, however specious, are used to back up the claim that an armed citizenry is a safer citizenry. The tens of thousands of gun deaths in the United States versus the rest of the world would beg to differ. In a country where, statistically speaking, there are eight guns for every ten potential gun owners, we suffer from the highest rate of gun violence by far (excluding Mexico, who thanks to their ongoing literal drug war is excluded from this discussion). That’s by all possible measures, including adjusting for population and gun ownership rates. Having more guns has not made us safer by any measure.

Note that I said “by all measures”. While access to firearms obviously makes it more likely that gun-related violence will happen, even when you adjust for the gun ownership rate in the United States our gun violence rate is still highest in the developed world. And not by a little bit – the United States throws the curve when it comes to global gun violence, we’re so far and away overachieving in our gun violence rates.

They say that if everybody was armed, then everybody would be safe. The statistics say otherwise. Even with the highest level of gun ownership in the world, the United States is by far the country where you’re most likely to die of a gunshot wound (again, excepting war-torn Mexico). Yet, despite this level of gun ownership, how many crazed madmen firing indiscriminately into crowds have been stopped by a citizen bearing arms? Having trouble thinking of even one, aren’t you? It could be that the kind of people that are likely to go for the concealed carry license aren’t the type to go into crowds anyway, but then the people that go into crowds aren’t likely the type to want the responsibility of carrying a firearm.

When it comes to home defense, I understand the appeal of owning a firearm. But by the same token, we’re advised that for our own safety and especially for the safety of our naive children that we should keep our weapons safely locked up and separated from the ammunition. I’m in the military and we don’t even leave loaded weapons just lying around, even in combat zones where you’re far more likely to have somebody trying to shoot at you. I don’t know about you, but I’m highly uncomfortable with the idea of keeping a loaded weapon on my pillow. Too many things can go so horribly wrong.

The United States has a frightening culture of violence. It bears repeating, violent overthrow is how this country came to be. But our culture has come to glorify violence in many disturbing ways. The top-selling rappers record tracks about gun fights and pimping and drug use. Our top-selling video games are centered around warfare – Call of Duty alone has more than twenty titles devoted to warfare, all released in the last ten years. The most popular dramas on television are about crime – the top drama of the past few years is about crime and the military. The biggest movies are about violence, well, more accurately about fighting violence, but violence is still central to the premise. And this is all, more or less, about fictional violence.

Turn on the TV and watch the news and you’re inundated with violence. Reports of murders headline the local news, and the uniquely executed ones or those that involve pretty white girls make the national news. The shooting in Newtown has dominated the past twenty-four hours of the news cycle, and since the rise of the cable news channel that means it’s been constantly on since the first word broke.

We glorify violence, even the most appalling violence. How many of us remember the names of the thirteen killed in the Columbine High School shooting in 1999? Do the names Rachel Scott, Steven Curnow, or John Tomlin ring any bells? How about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold? I’ll admit, I had to look up the names of those three mentioned victims from Columbine, but I didn’t have to think at all about the names of the two perpetrators. And this is something that happened when I was just thirteen-years-old, and I can remember then that the media coverage was intense.

Today, thirteen years later, the media coverage is obscene. Reporters were interviewing elementary school students who survived the shooting. Seriously, they’ve just been through one of the most traumatic experience a person could possibly face, and they’re children that aren’t even ten-years-old? How far have we fallen when our journalists are willing to interview the stunned and frightened and probably permanently scarred children who just survived such a horrific event? And we can’t blame it entirely on the media – they are, after all, serving up what they think we want to see, and the viewership ratings for incidents like this back up this sort of journalistic overreaching.

Adam Lanza’s name is going to go down in our memories. He’s going to be in the news for weeks upon weeks as investigators try to piece together his motives, rebuild in excruciating detail what happened inside Sandy Hook Elementary, and figure out how best to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again while trying not to upset the advocates on either side of the gun rights debate.

We can all agree that this was a tragedy and a failing of our society. Well, all of us excepting the nutcases at Westboro Baptist Church, though they’re a discussion for another time. But what are we going to do about it? How are we going to fix our laws and our society to prevent this from happening again?

A debate we should be having alongside the gun rights discussion is that of mental health in our country. It seems more and more like the crazies are coming out of the woodwork, either bearing rifles or making their way to political pulpits. It’s possible that we aren’t any crazier than we’ve ever been, but that the machinations of our modern society make crazy easier. We’re all too busy with our iPhones and our Facebooks and our texting to look up and recognize the crazy in the people around us.

Nobody just ‘snaps’ and loses it. There’s always a build-up to the activating event, there’s always somebody who looks back on it and goes “oh…” upon realizing that they saw the signs of a human being deteriorating and did nothing about it. We like to think that our modern technologies have made it easier than ever to stay connected to our friends and family, but this constant connection is almost always merely superficial. By plugging in, even to social media, we’re checking out from real life. I’m fully guilty of that, I have fewer meaningful real life relationships now than at any point in my life because I’ve let the internet supplant my real life. I’m not blaming the internet for this or any other shooting, mind you, but the way that our society has taken to so-called social networking is indicative of the decay we’ve allowed to permeate our society.

This is the point where some would claim that this degradation of society and the emergence of the crazies is because we’ve allowed god to leave our society. And that’s an absolute crock, as anybody willing to look at the numbers can tell you. The American population is highly religious, with eighty percent of adults claiming a religious identification of one sort or another. Forty percent of Americans regularly attend religious services, with only a handful of countries notching a higher percentage of churchgoers. The religious are far from some persecuted minority in the United States, and the belief in god or some other divine power is far from absent in our society. Has religion become less important in the United States? Yes, it has. But when it comes to religious identification and how important religion is to citizens, we are still far ahead of other nations with much lower crime and gun violence rates.

I’m not going to advocate that we take away all guns. That’s a nonstarter, and frankly not something I’d support anyway. I’m also not going to advocate that we start arming teachers and movie theater ushers and every citizen, as that’s a recipe for complete and utter disaster. Would you trust your elementary school teachers with guns on the statistically insignificant chance that somebody is going to barge into the classroom with a semiautomatic rifle? That’s just a bad idea right there – while the thought of armed teachers might be enough to deter that sort of violence, it’s opening up the door a whole host of potential tragedies.

More guns are not the answer to a gun problem. More guns mean more gun problems; the statistics do not lie. But guns are not going away. So what’s a nation obsessed with guns and violence to do about its problems with guns and violence?

I believe it’s going to have to come down to education and awareness. Thousands of people are injured or killed every year because of carelessness with firearms, and there’s absolutely no reason for a single person to die of an accidental weapons discharge. Guns are machines meant for killing, and they shouldn’t ever be pointed at anything ever that you don’t fully intend to kill, regardless of whether or not you believe it to be not loaded. Period. Guns and ammunition should be stored separately in locked containers, with guns having additional trigger locks. Period. If you’re going to put a gun out on display, remove the firing pin or other vital mechanism and lock it away. Simply, don’t leave a functioning weapon out in the open.

We also have to be fully aware of our surroundings and the people in it, especially those closest to us. If you live with somebody with deranged tendencies – you know if you do, because you worry about them – don’t have deadly weapons on the premises. And make sure your disturbed relative or friend gets help. Listen to that nagging voice at the back of your head.

We’ve gone so far down the road of everybody is special and everybody is a winner that we’ve lost track that there are people in our society that genuinely need help that parents and the schools cannot provide. Not everybody can be fixed, and we’re so much in the business of ignoring flaws in our fellow humans that we can’t even see them anymore. I’m not sure when or how it became a rule that teenagers get their own computers and televisions in rooms that are their own private sanctuary free from the interference of their parents, but I can’t help but believe that this sort of “give them everything they want” attitude is what’s leading us down this path.

I had a laptop when I was in high school, but it was a laptop I bought myself, and I wasn’t allowed to use it with my bedroom door closed. Parents seem to be more and more allowing the television and the computer to be their babysitters, as if a child occupied by a glowing screen is a child that isn’t in need of monitoring. To be fair, a lot of these parents are also obsessed with their glowing screens, leading to this horrifying lack of awareness in the world and people around them – people that should be the most important thing in their world.

The second amendment is not going to go away, and it shouldn’t. The right of the people to defend themselves against each other and the government should not be infringed, though we should give greater thought to the idea of the well-regulated citizen militia. But we have to give more thought to how we treat guns and violence in this nation. Guns are instruments of death, that is their reason for being, and there’s no point in denying that.

We need to acknowledge that pistols and rifles are tools meant for killing, even if we have no intention of using them as such, and treat them with the respect and caution that they deserve. You wouldn’t leave a stick of dynamite lying out, even if the matches and fuses are tucked away in separate cabinets, and you shouldn’t do the same with guns. We need to do more to educate our citizens on how to handle and behave around firearms, and we need to be cognizant of who we allow around firearms.

America is failing when it comes to our attitude towards violence. Our constant exposure to it through the all forms of media, both voluntary and forced, has numbed us to the horrors we inflict upon one another that it takes an outright appalling tragedy light the senseless slaughter of twenty innocent children and six of their teachers for us to have this conversation on a national level.

We can do better.

We have to do better.

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes.

The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.

About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward.

Maybe they have to be crazy.

How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written? Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels?

We make tools for these kinds of people.

While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Thank you, Steve Jobs, for everything you’ve done for the technology industry and society at large. The products of Apple not only have been beautifully designed and envelope pushing, but they’ve also changed the way that we interact with each other and the world around us. The world is a different place because of your work, and you will be missed.

TiPb: Steve Jobs resigns as CEO of Apple, becomes Chairman of the Board, Tim Cook becomes new CEO

Most of you who are reading this are aware of my position an editor at PreCentral.net. It’s a great job, and I get to work with awesome people doing superb work. But PreCentral is my “night” job. My “day” job is a strange one, and it’s one that I don’t go into a lot of detail about, but after today’s work I feel the need to put it down in words.

As many of you are aware, I am a member of the Ohio Army National Guard. I have two jobs within that. There’s the standard “one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer” reservist thing where I’m a Specialist in the 122nd Army Band, based out of Columbus, Ohio. The other 28 days of the month I’m a member of the Southwest Ohio Military Funeral Honors team, ensuring that those who served in the military of the United States of America receive the final respects they deserve for having sacrificed for their country with honor and distinction. I put on my dress uniform almost every day and head out to the cemeteries of the Cincinnati-Dayton area (and beyond) to sound Taps, fold the American flag, and present it to grieving loved ones. On occasion, pall bearing and rifle salutes are included as part of the ceremony (due to personnel constraints, the “full honors” is typically reserved for those that have retired from the service or were killed in action).

It can be an emotional job, but in the three years I’ve been doing it I’ve learned to separate myself from what’s going on. It can seem cold, but I’ve been told several times by family members that they appreciate the stoic and calm that the presence of an emotionally-detached honors team brings to the funeral service. I regularly see people at one of the worst moments in their life: the loss of a parent, or long-time spouse, or life-long friend. It can be tough, but there’s almost always a sense of closure that the funeral service brings to these families. It’s the end of what was usually a long and rich life for the deceased, and often the end of a physically and emotionally painful decline at the tail end of their life. I hear often that the deceased is now free from the pains of his Earthly body.

While I don’t believe that the consciousness that once thrived in the body in the casket or urn before me has gone anywhere (that’s a discussion for another point), it’s comforting to know that whether the “soul” goes to a great beyond or just ceases to be, the suffering inflicted by cancer, Alzheimer’s, dementia, and advanced old age is at an end. And the suffering that is watching the decline of their loved on is at an end for the family and friends. There’s closure, and it has nothing to do with the afterlife – it has to do with the end of a long and quiet suffering here in this realm.

What makes that closure become realized is that the family knows it’s coming. We all know we’re eventually going to die. Most of us are going to succumb to a disease of old age, be it the end result of the habits of our lifestyle or just a ticking time bomb in our genes. But we know it’s coming, and when we’re relatively young, it seems to be a long way off. When we start that decline, we have time to prepare ourselves and our loved ones for the inevitable. Hopefully by the time we reach that point in our lives, we’ve been able to live a rich and rewarding life and have an appreciable impact on the lives of the people we love.

That encapsulates what I encounter on most days of my job. Resignation, closure, and relief. It’s the end of suffering.

Sometimes, my job forces me to see the beginning. Today was one of those days.

This morning I reported to Cincinnati’s Lunken Airfield to welcome home Army Private First Class William Blevins. PFC Blevins was serving in the Kunar province of Afghanistan when he was killed by an IED on May 23rd. He was 21-years-old. Three of his fellow soldiers – SSG Kristofferson Lorenzo, PVT Krippner, and PVT Allers – were also killed in the blast.

All families of service members know that should their loved on be deployed to a combat zone, there’s the chance they could not come home alive. But nobody actually expects for their child, spouse, or – worst of all – parent to not come back alive. We always expect for the worst to happen, it’s instinct, but we don’t actually plan for the absolute worst. Our loved ones are supposed to come back home after a year with a smile on their face, a few medals on their chest, and some interesting stories to tell. Not in an oak casket.

From the honor guard perspective, what I did today is coldly called an HTR – an Honorable Transfer of Remains. In the simplest terms, a six-person pall bearing team carried PFC Blevins’ casket from the chartered transport jet to the hearse, and then from the hearse to the funeral home. As far as sequence and steps go, it’s a simple job: we’re moving a casket from A to B in the most dignified manner possible. Unfortunately, we’ve had a lot of practice doing this, so we’ve gotten to be quite good at it.

What makes an HTR difficult is the emotions. With two exceptions, every HTR I’ve participated in was for a fallen soldier that was younger than me. I’m 24, and I don’t anticipate my life ending any time soon. I’ve accomplished a lot, but there’s still a lot I still want to do with my life. Those two exceptions I mentioned, those were for the recovered remains of soldiers from WWII and Vietnam; the emotions of the small family contingents on the tarmac were almost entirely relief – they long ago accepted that their loved on wasn’t coming home.

Today was not like that. PFC Blevins came from the town of Sardinia, population 826. On hand to honor the return of his remains was myself and six of my honor guard colleagues, at least three dozen members of the motorcycle-riding funeral escort group the Patriot Guard Riders, members of the Cincinnati police and fire departments, and the Blevins family, having traveled the hour from Sardinia to Cincinnati. The press was kept off the airport grounds, providing coverage from outside the tarmac fenceline.

The notes of Taps often elicit weeping from mourners at the funerals I participate in. Military honors typically take place after the conclusion of the religious service, and as Taps signifies the end of the duty day on military posts around the world, it also signifies the end of the “day” for the body we’re laying to rest.

There is no sounding of Taps at an HTR. There’s no presentation of the flag to a grieving widow or the report of three rifle volleys. There’s only silence, barely punctuated by the sound of the quiet commands given amongst the honor guard team. Service members killed in action in Afghanistan and Iraq are first flown to Germany, and then to Dover, Delaware. From there, a contracted jet specially outfitted for the sole purpose of transporting the remains of fallen veterans, flies directly to the closest airport to the family. When that jet lands, it has a pilot, co-pilot, an escort officer, and the flag-draped casket on board. Nothing else, save the lift used to bring the casket down to the tarmac (it’s far preferable to the airport tarmac conveyer belt that used to be used when caskets were shipped as freight in the cargo hold of commercial passenger airliners). The crew of the transport jet works quietly and professionally getting everything set up to bring the casket out. They’re good people doing a righteous job.

But as soon as the casket is pushed into view the silence is broken. Not by Taps or the sound of synchronous rifle shots. Not by honor guard commands or a minister’s prayer or a humorous story that encapsulates the spirit of the deceased in a eulogy that brings tearful smiles to the faces of the mourning.

It’s the sound of crying.

Sometimes it’s a muffled sob. Sometimes it’s a yell of anguish. It comes from mothers and fathers, girlfriends and wives, children and life-long friends. And it’s always painful. I’ve built a wall between my emotions and my actions, I know that if I think too much about what it is that I’m doing, then I’m likely going to start crying myself.

This family didn’t have the warning to prepare for this day. Less than a week ago their loved one was alive and well, fighting for what he believed in in a land far from here both physically and mentally. And then, in an instant, that life was snuffed out. What I see in my job is only a part of the grieving process, and I can’t imagine how much pain these families have endured in just a few day’s time.

Our job is to transport the casket from the plane to the hearse. With that done, we render one final salute and leave the area. It might seem cold to just up and leave, but we do it to give the family space and so that we don’t serve as a distraction. From the airport we drove out to the funeral home in Russellville (just a short drive down the road from Sardinia) so that we could be ready to transfer the casket from the hearse into the funeral home, where it would be prepped for a viewing later that night at the local high school (the only local venue large enough to hold the anticipated crowd).

We were at least five miles out from Russellville when I noticed the yellow ribbons. They were placed on sign posts, mail boxes, power poles, guard rails, and trees. When there was nothing within a few yards to stick it to, a post had been put into the ground for the sole purpose of displaying that ribbon. Once we got into Russellville, we saw the American flags hanging off every streetlight. What was more impressing, however, were the people. Our honor guard group arrived about thirty minutes ahead of the funeral procession, and the residents of Russellville and Sardinia had already lined Columbus Street to pay their silent respects to PFC Blevins and his family.

When the procession made it to town, they had a six-car police escort at the front and a few dozen Patriot Guard Riders on their thundering motorcycles, each flying a large American flag. It’s an impressive sight, and an impressing experience. It sticks with you. But what I think might stick with me even more was the reaction of the crowd that had gathered along the street. They stood quietly and solemnly, some holding each other, some holding their hand over their heart. All somber. All grieving for their community and the Blevins family, even if most of them didn’t even know William.

Most days I’m able to do my job with minimal emotional involvement. You can develop a morbid sense of humor on the job, and I’ll admit I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about how I want my own funeral to be conducted. I’ve heard many great stories about great people, and been there to serve as that solemn rock when a grieving family needed it.

But days like today, filled with outpourings of grief, pride, sorrow, support, and the unmatched pain of the sudden loss of a dear loved one… days like today can get to me. Days like today are why I do what I do. I’m not likely to find myself in Iraq, Afghanistan, or any other military harm’s way anytime soon. I fire a weapon once a year only for qualification purposes, the rest of the time I play a clarinet and make graphics and spreadsheets on a computer. I can’t measure up to those that have laid down their lives in defense of their country, their friends and family, and their ideals. What I can do is make sure their sacrifice is honored. That those that have given that last full measure of devotion are laid to rest with the dignity and respect that they so deserve.

Cincinnati.com: Fallen soldier returns home for burial
WLWT: Fallen Soldier Reutnrs To Tri-State

Apparently the U.S. government is considering taking an $11 billion loss by selling the 26% stake it has in GM shares so that President Obama doesn’t have to deal with the ramifications of owning 1/4 of a struggling automaker while campaigning for reelection. Despicable.

If you’re wondering what I mean by struggling, don’t think for a moment that GM is doing well. All the reported good news over GM has been whitewashed to make it look like the American auto industry is back on their feet and doing well, when really only Ford is the one running a competent business operation. GM’s profitability is dependent upon a series of tax breaks on massive losses that it suffered pre-bankruptcy. And no, it’s not kosher to claim tax breaks on losses and debts that are no longer on your books because you underwent a federal-expedited bankruptcy that shunted all of those losses and debts over to a shell of a company designed to absolve GM of all its troubles.

In  a little reported part of GM’s bankruptcy reorganization, the “Motors Liquidation Company” was formed, taking on all of GM’s debt and all of the public shareholder’s stock. Suppliers, banks, average Joes with a few shares of GM stock; they all got hosed. And despite this hosing, GM still hasn’t managed to get its act together. But that’s for another post some other day.

In the here and now, the Federal Reserve is playing politics with the American taxpayer’s money. Taxpayer funds supplied $50 billion to ensure that GM wouldn’t fail, and it did regardless. That $50 billion netted the US government a 61% share of GM (with the rest split by Canada and bond holders). After GM’s public IPO, the federal government’s ownership in GM was reduced to 26.5%. GM stock re-debuted on the New York Stock Exchange at $33-a-share, and has since dropped to $29.93.

That’s not a horrible drop by any measure, but it’s nowhere near the $53-a-share that the US government needs to break even. Instead we’ll just take a multi-billion-dollar loss just so Obama can claim it as a successful instance of government intervention.

Wall Street Journal: U.S. Hurries to Sell GM Stake

Hi.

Derek Kessler here.

You might be wondering what it is you’re looking at. Well, friend, this is Derek’s pitiful attempt at a blog. And yes, I’ve modeled my design after that of Daring Fireball. Great artists steal.

Assuming I can remember to consistently update this blog (it only took me 19 months of having this domain to finally get around to putting up something other than “coming soon”), you’ll see a mix of content. This is bound to become my outlet for all things random, so you can expect topics to bounce between technology, politics, cars, science fiction, military stuff, graphic design, and likely much much more. And you are correct, there are no comments here.

A little bit about myself, in case you don’t know who I am: I have two jobs. My “day job,” if you can call it that, is as a Specialist E-4 in the Ohio Army National Guard. Within the Guard I actually have two jobs: there’s the standard ‘one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer’ that I do as a clarinetist in the 122nd Army Band, where I make music, graphics, announcements, and computers not suck quite as much. During the rest of the month I’m a member of the state Military Funeral Honors team, which has me out nearly every day performing final military honors (flag folding, sounding taps, rifle salutes, the whole shebang) for veterans that have served our country with honor and distinction.

My other job is as the Managing Editor of PreCentral.net, the leading HP webOS news site and community on the internets. In that job I manage the site’s news content (writing some of it myself), to include news posts, device and app reviews, editorials, and the like. PreCentral actually takes most of my time, and I’m okay with that.

I’ve been a native Ohioan my entire life, currently residing in Cincinnati where I’m renovating a house designed by an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright (Wright-style, but without the multi-million-dollar premium). I should mention at this point that I likely qualify as an architecture buff. I studied architecture at the University of Cincinnati and The Ohio State University, but in the end it turns out I’m just not that good at being a student. I’m a doer.

I’m also a rambler. So let’s wrap this up, shall we? I am on the Twitter (@dkdsgn) if you’re into such things. Chances are that’s how you found this blog. If you’re looking for the RSS feed for my ridiculous blog and it’s not appearing in your address bar. here you go: http://dkdsgn.com/blog/feed/

So that’s that. I’ll see you around.