A Civil Discourse of Personal Affront

Because the world needs another armchair sociologist to diagnose what’s wrong with society, I’m going to tell you a difficult truth: When something bad happens in the world, it’s not about you. When someone posts a critical meme, it’s not about you.

What regularly happens on my social media is that someone posts a meme or link to an article or a news report and people lose their minds. They are offended or outraged or triggered. Here’s a real world example: “Your great-grandparents had eight kids. Your grandparents had four. Your parents had two. You had an abortion and a dog.”

Now, that’s rude. It’s trying to make a point—and maybe a good point about demographic changes or a lack of openness to life or something similar—but it fails because it’s wrapped in an outer layer of judgmentalism and lack of tact.

In a civil society, we would note that it’s rude and then move on. We ignore it and don’t grace it with a response.

In our current society, we take it personally. We fire back in the comments. We mock. We spit vitriol and fire. We declaim that in our case we haven’t had multiple children because of fertility issues and how can you be so hurtful? Or we haven’t had children because we’re not ready to make that leap. Or we love our dog. Or my grandparents had one child and so you’re attacking my lovely grandma who was a saint.

A civil society functions not because everyone is nice to everyone else all the time. Given human nature, that sort of place can’t exist. Civil society functions because we let occasional failures in social graces and basic kindness pass by unheeded. We smooth out the bumps in social discourse, perhaps by giving the benefit of the doubt or silently—silently!—resolving to not give that person the opportunity to be rude again.

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The Tech Press is Sad So Everything is Terrible

The tech pundits are sad and it shows in their reporting.

It’s fairly evident that most tech pundits writing for the big blogs and publications and making podcasts and videos lean left in their politics. Most of them are based either in the Northeast or on the West Coast where the liberal bubble is the strongest. If you have read The Verge or Engadget over the past couple of months, for instance, their disdain for Donald Trump and Republicans have been quite clear. (Heck, even non-tech blogs, like Food52 and TheKitchn food blogs, have engaged in the misery-making.)

And so, ever since the election on November 8, much of the tech press has sounded like a bunch of emo teens whose future prospects include unemployment, student loans, and their parents’ basement. Everything sucks.

The new Apple MacBook Pros suck. Amazon’s Echo sucks. New videos games aren’t very good. Smartwatches are done. There are no more good gadgets being developed. Fitbit buying Pebble is the end of the scrappy Kickstarter success stories. Samsung’s phones are exploding (okay, that one is true.) It’s an unrelieved pottage of doom and gloom.

Plus, these supposedly tech-focused publications seem to veer off into pure politics an awful lot, editorializing on US national politics that have nothing to do with tech, perhaps in an attempt to make themselves feel better.

This is connected to the now-tired meme that 2016 is the worst year ever because, I guess, Donald Trump is president instead of Hilary (and less often now, Bernie Sanders) and because a bunch of famous people died. Not that famous people didn’t die in other years, but these are famous people important to Generation X and we have now replaced Baby Boomers as the most self-important generation.

Sometimes I want to just shake them all and tell them to snap out of it. I’ve already taken a break from several podcasts, like MacBreak Weekly, which has descended into a purgatory of “Apple is doomed” rhetoric, where all of the hosts spend their time taking about which non-Apple gear they’re switching to. Instead, I’m spending my time on podcasts like Mac Geek Gab and Mac Power Users, where I can actually learn something about how to use my gear to be more productive and make my life better.

I get being disappointed after an election, but a whole industry going into a funk over it? That’s a bad sign of an industry that may be a little too monolithic in its composition.

If Only We Could Drive the Speed Limit

This is a bit of media criticism and a bit of political criticism. First the politics. The Boston City Council and the mayor have decreed that the default speed limit in the city will decrease from 30mph to 25 mph starting January 9. Their stated purpose is to reach their goal of eliminating traffic fatalities by 2030.

Whatever the practicality of that goal (I think it’s a bit naïve to think you can eliminate traffic fatalities in a city this size), the fact that they believe lowering the speed limit will accomplish their goal is astounding. No obeys the speed limit now, so why do they think lowering it 5 miles per hour will make anyone obey it more than they do today?

Then there’s the reality that traffic in Boston rarely moves at the speed limit anyway because it’s always so congested.1 Even the photo the Globe uses to illustrate its story (click the link), shows standstill traffic on a 30mph road. Yet, this is the basis of their claim.

At least 17 people have died in car accidents this year on Boston’s streets — 12 of whom were pedestrians. In a statement, Walsh’s office expressed hope that the stricter rules would lead to fewer deaths, because crashes become more deadly at higher speeds.

However, as I think of all the auto vs. pedestrian fatalities I recall from reporting, most have been due not to speeding vehicles, but from large vehicles trying to maneuver through congested intersections, like the truck that took out a bicyclist in Allston or the Duck Boat that took down the scooter on Beacon Hill.

In fact, it would be helpful to know just how many traffic fatalities in Boston were due to speed as opposed to other causes. It might even be something an enterprising reporter could find out. Unfortunately, and this is my second complaint, the reporter didn’t bother. All too often, journalists fail to ask the basic questions of fact that help us understand a story and put it into context. We’re often left with more questions than we began with. So the journalists fail their basic task.

Eliminating traffic fatalities is a laudable goal, but Pollyanna-ish, ineffectual gestures are’t going to get us there. Would that journalists would help hold politicians accountable for making them.

  1. Roads where traffic travels faster at times aren’t city roads, but state or federal highways, like Storrow Drive or the Central Artery.

Complexity

This article discusses Apple’s manufacturing process for nearly all of its products, machining aluminum at a scale unlike any other company in the world. It is a fascinating discussion of Apple’s fanatical attention to detail and the amazing enormity of the scale at which it works.

I bring it to your attention not simply to praise Apple or its products, but to bring up a different point, namely that nearly everything is more complicated than you think it is. You see, the impetus for the linked article was a claim that the iPhone 8 would be made of industrial ceramic, like the new Apple Watch Edition, instead of the current machined aluminum. But the author of the post points out all the reasons why that can’t be so.

Many of those reasons are things that only someone involved in the world of industrial-scale manufacturing would know. But they are very real limitations… or at least challenges. But unless you inhabit that world, you wouldn’t understand.

I’ve found this to be applicable in nearly sphere of life. I’ve been on the inside of a number of organizations, including a few with controversial public faces. And almost invariably I have found that critics and kibitzers think they know what’s going on when they really don’t. They imagine motives and capabilities and options that are mere figments of their own imaginations and wishful thinking.

So the next time you (or I) are tempted to say, “Of course they should do X because this is what they’re thinking,” pause for a moment and consider that may be they shouldn’t because maybe they aren’t because probably you don’t know.

Facebook as Global Censor

The editor of a Norwegian newspaper has written an open letter to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg after Facebook removed a famous documentary photograph from the newspaper’s Facebook page.

The photo in question comes from the Vietnam War and shows a young girl, naked, running in terror from a bombing. It’s horrifying and disturbing and was a key to ending US involvement in that war. Facebook called it child pornography.

The newspaper editor says that Facebook’s standards, written in a California conference room, should not be applied in a blanket way to a global audience.

On the one hand, I can see that there is content that I would find highly objectionable that others would defend posting on the same grounds of diverse opinion and free speech.

On the other hand, I am afraid that a global communications platform used by more than one-seventh of the world’s population (and growing) unilaterally decides what is appropriate and what is not.

Whether it’s deciding that clergy and religious cannot be identified by their titles or declaring certain sensitive topics out of bounds, Facebook as a corporation has too much power.

We used to worry that Google’s control over search results could be used to manipulate the public (and still do). We should worry that Facebook’s censorship could be used to do the same thing.

The “Objective” Media

When the mainstream media is accused of being biased in favor of the Democrats, many journalists vehemently deny that such is the case. Perhaps many journalists are in fact unbiased reporters. In that case, when we have obvious cases of collusion between a prominent political reporters and the Democrat National Committee, like this one, we ought to hear cries of outrage and demands that their colleague be censured or fired for bringing shame on their profession.

What do we hear? Crickets.

Is Texting and Driving Really That Bad?

texting and driving

I’m not going to propose that texting and driving is something we should all do, as if it doesn’t affect anyone’s ability to drive safely. But like many cause célèbre, the way it is portrayed in the mainstream media tends to distort the reality in favor of a preferred outcome.

The Boston Globe reports today that drivers in Massachusetts are receiving more tickets than ever for texting and driving since the law against it was passed in 2011. The article and the people interviewed for it seem to suggest that increased application of the law is its primary benefit. But is it?

The report says that in 2015, Massachusetts police wrote 6,131 tickets for texting and driving compared to 1,153 in 2011, the first full year of the law. It then says:

The habit has had a devastating effect: Nationally, distraction-related crashes killed 3,179 people and injured an estimated 431,000 in 2014, the most recent year for which data was available, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

There’s no doubt that the deaths of those 3,179 people was devastating to them and their families, but notice that it does not offer a context for those numbers to tell how devastating it is on a wider scale. In fact, in 2014, there were 32,765 total motor vehicle deaths in the US. That means distraction-related deaths accounted for less than 10% of all motor-vehicle deaths.

Oh, but is a “distraction-related” crash the same as a “texting and driving” crash? Not according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which compiles these reports. In fact, only 13% of the distraction-related automobile deaths were reported to have involved the use of a cell phone. That’s about 1% of all automobile-related deaths.

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