Bullets & Lighters

I came home from my swim this morning and as I was walking by my front patio, I noticed that I’d left a lighter sitting on the table. It’s fairly common practice for me. Although I usually carry a Zippo in the coin pocket of my jeans, I usually work from home and sometimes I’m wearing house clothes when I go out for a smoke break. The lighter is a convenience for me.

I do live in a fairly safe neighborhood. There’s a gate around my apartment complex. But there are children and it’s summer. The children yell and scream and make noise but they’re out playing, just as I used to when I was younger. An exposed lighter, unprotected, visible, unattended, not locked up… it’s… a liability.

For decades in the US, people left firearms out around their homes. They also wore them on their hips and carried them in their vehicles (or on their horses, I guess). In parts of this state, people still do. The other day, I saw a guy at the gas station with a 1911 on his hip. It seems to me now that for a while it was a fashion statement as much as anything else. If you were a male of a certain age, you’d almost be expected to have a single six on your hip. If you were a female alone in your home, people might thing you odd for meeting a visitor without a rifle in hand.

We didn’t collect all sorts of skewed statistics on gun, “violence,” back then. I’m going to venture a guess that there wasn’t some enormous spat of mass shootings that broke out occasionally or a great deal of suicide-by-gun. More firearms, less shooting. It happened. It doesn’t seem to work that way anymore.

What changed? Society changed. The, “guns don’t kill people, people (or bullets) kill people,” argument may be cliche but it’s as true as ever. The firearm was there, just like my lighter is there. It’s an inanimate object. Design flaws aside — firearms were less reliable mechanically 200 years ago in general — a firearm doesn’t fire on its own. Properly kept, unloaded a lot of the time, and pointed in a safe direction, a rifle will never shoot a person accidentally. (I’ve heard arguments to the contrary but I’ve yet to see a single credible example of a case where a firearm accident wasn’t due to user error.) My lighter is much more likely to start a fire on its own.

But what changed? I suspect that someone may one day try to make a case that having my lighter sitting around where a neighborhood could pick it up and use it to start a fire, would be my fault. At least, I may be partially culpable. After all, said child’s mother knows that their child is a good kid and wouldn’t ever do something like that. It must be someone else’s fault. Similarly, when someone shoots someone else, it’s because there are too many firearms around. Or it’s because firearm manufacturers are irresponsible in selling their products. Or because people are allowed to have firearms. Anything but the fact that someone did something wrong, stupid, immoral, and illegal: they shot someone.

Texas recently signed a bill preventing preemption of local laws in the state from barring people from carrying edged tools, like knives and swords. I heard some discussion about how this violates public safety, that it makes our streets more dangerous. Nowhere in that discussion did the point come up that parents should teach their children that knives are tools that can be dangerous. Swords are… well… if you see an adult carrying a sword, you should probably take a moment to survey where you are and how you got there. A friend of mine was told this on her first driving lesson from her parents: there are tons of metal around you and you’re in control of it, so be careful. I was never taught that as a young driver and I learned it the hard way. I was, however, guided through lessons on sharp objects, hot things, using my words carefully, and other hazards.

There’s a bill in the legislature that specifies self defense as a legitimate use of firearms, with respect to the Second Amendment. I laud the effort; somewhere, society brainwashed itself into using, “sporting purposes,” as the sole criterion as to whether a firearm should be legal for ownership in the US. This is somewhat like legislating that lighters should be able to be used for lighting things on fire, like cigarettes. Guns were invented to shoot things, mostly living things like animals while hunting and people when necessary to defend oneself, such as during war or when cornered. By all rights, we should require legislation that specifies causing heart disease is a legitimate use of french fries. It’s almost the same thing.


How to answer a question on the Internet

Lots of people get answers to their questions on the Internet these days. A corollary of necessity to this is that lots of people answer other peoples’ questions on the Internet.

Just the same, many people do it incorrectly.

Here’s the first and only truly important rule: don’t start with why the asker of the question shouldn’t do what they’re doing.

A much better game plan for answering is to answer their question. This may seem obvious but I don’t see this too often. When you’re done answering their question, you may suggest a better option.

I’ll run down some reasons why people don’t do this:

  • “There’s a better way that I prefer to accomplish what you’re trying to do.” Okay, thank you, but go away. People who do this generally believe that they’re smarter than the person who asked the question. Perhaps they are. Then again, perhaps they aren’t and they just think they are. As a long-time consultant, I learned to ask about constraints before answering questions. If your boss told you that you must do it that way, people telling you to do it a different way is pointless.
  • “I think that what you’re doing is a bad idea.” Once again, thank you and go away. You may also notice that I didn’t ask if it was a good idea to do it this way.
  • “That question has been answered somewhere else.” Fantastic, but where? If it’s all over the Internet, the task of finding an answer to the question and linking to it in your answer should be very easy, so do that. If it’s a difficult answer to find, I’d say it’s pretty clear why someone’s asking the question again.
  • “I don’t think you should be doing what you’re doing.” If the asker of the question is trying to do something that’s clearly out of bounds of what society accepts, report them to the correct authority. If it’s not, save your opinion for someone who cares because this person most assuredly doesn’t.
  • “Someone else thinks that you shouldn’t do that.” Thank you and are you sure that I’m not the, “someone else,” to whom you’re referring? I once saw a question answered in this way with a bibliography of sources explaining why it’s a bad idea. The question poster was one of the authors of one of the sources. Doing this is a declaration that you’re competent at compiling sources of people who you think are smarter than the asker, or know something the asker doesn’t. You’re way out of your league, telling someone you know nothing about, that some other people whom you know nothing about, are smarter than they are.
  • “I don’t know the answer to your question so I’ll just answer another instead.” I get this a lot from technical support, especially the first-touched tiers. My response is usually thanks with a request that they refer back to my original question, re-read it thoroughly, then try again.
  • “I don’t like your question.” Wonderful, but I don’t care so go away. Probably if you think the question is stupid, either you’re an elitist snob, you don’t understand the question, or both.
  • “I don’t want to answer your question.” Excellent, join the masses on the Internet who feel the same, you’re not special. You’re acting like a moron because you took the time to say that. The easiest way to not answer someone’s question on the Internet is by, well… simply not answering it.

Before answering a question, think about whether you truly know the answer to the question. If you don’t, move on. If you do, answer it as it stands, then if you feel as if you have an opinion to add, do so in a way that expresses clearly that it’s your opinion. If you’re trying to change someone’s mind, this will give you the highest chance of accomplishing your goal.


Why no Facebook?

Facebook started out as a super-useful online tool to satisfy a particular need. Way back when, it was the online version of something that existed offline: a way to find people who were all part of a specific community. The, “people,” was students and the, “community,” was at a particular school (Harvard).

This isn’t FB anymore. It has become something else:

  • Facebook is unmanageable. Through no fault of the creators, owners or staff of FB, it has become a gigantic, unmanageable jumbled mess of people. This is much to FB’s credit: so many people use it that they are no longer able to reasonably manage day-to-day community operations.
  • Facebook is authoritarian. To compensate for their inevitable overload, FB decided to become authoritarian. Authoritarian figures in a community — FB is the de facto community manager since they created the vehicle for the community to collaborate — need to earn respect, which FB never managed to do in so many of the communities that it now serves.
  • Facebook is generic. One-size-fits-all works sometimes and doesn’t work others. It doesn’t work for communities. While FB is a reasonable tool for collaboration in every community, it’s not a fantastic tool for collaboration in almost any community.
  • Facebook lumbers. Once again, through no fault of the staff who works on it, FB has become too big to serve its constituents. It started out nimble but FB can no longer keep up with technology. FB’s staff has made a heroic effort of trying and they’ve paved so many new roads in the world of online technology but at this point they’re rearranging chairs on a sinking ship.

Here’s a key case to outline what’s happened: imagine Wally, 23 years old who just graduated from his state school with a degree in South American literature. Wally wants to post some pictures of his friends out at the pub last night. While logged in, he joins a group of folks in his area who get together once a month to discuss literature. While reading some recent posts, he disagrees with a political opinion and writes a comment to the author. Wally’s next stop on the Internet is an online application for a grad program.

FB did its job: it hooked up Wally with this literature group that he would otherwise have had no access to. Unfortunately, it’s got no way to separate political discussion from a literature group (it is generic). The community of literature folks can’t bar the political discussion from literature discussions (it is unmanageable). Wally can’t separate his work profile from his personal profile because there’s no technology to do this, or even decide who sees what (it lumbers). When his grad school sees his drunken pub pictures and his differing political opinion, FB will silently deem that they’ve done their part correctly (it is authoritarian) and Wally’s application will be denied. No grad school for Wally.

This sort of scenario has happened too many times to count with consequences that are too severe. FB’s official stance is that they’re just the medium and they decide the rules. I’ve seen this happen too many times in too many ways, so I’ve decided to stop using FB.