Guns versus cars

I’m one of those annoying people who always responds to any suggestion that we “do something” about gun violence or terrorism by pointing out that we allow 40,000 motor vehicle deaths per year, and that maybe we should do something about that problem first.

I don’t do this for tactical reasons. (I recognize that, as a tactic, this argument is a dead loser.)

I do it because I really, really care about motor vehicle deaths—given my lifestyle, I figure they’re the most likely cause of my own premature death.

I walk a lot, and a lot of my walking is along roadways. I also bicycle a lot, and a lot of my bicycling is along roadways. (I walk and bicycle for transportation, not merely for fitness. If you’re walking or bicycling to get somewhere, you’re going to end up going on the roads that lead from where you are to where you need to go.)

The number of people who die of gunshot wounds in the US is high, but very few of those deaths are random. A majority are suicides. The overwhelming majority of the remainder are criminal-on-criminal homicides.

It’s easy to reduce your risk of being shot to a level so low as to be statistically insignificant, and the steps you need to take are all perfectly sensible things that everyone should do anyway:

  • Seek treatment if you’re suffering from depression
  • Don’t commit crimes
  • Don’t do business with violent criminals
  • Don’t hang out with violent criminals

Do those things and your risk of being shot drops to the level of other risks that you largely ignore, like the risk of being struck by lightning or the risk of being gored by a bull.

There is no similar set of things you can do to similarly reduce your risk of being killed or injured by a motor vehicle. (If anyone can provide one, I’d be delighted to hear it.)

Besides the fact that I (apparently perversely) view motor vehicle deaths as the larger problem, I also don’t see any good, simple way to reduce firearm deaths. (Except, you know, the way I just mentioned which is highly effective at reducing them on an individual basis.)

I think a lot of people would be glad to see guns disappear (as has largely happened in Australia) or at least be very strictly limited (like in the UK or in Canada)—but that’s not going to happen. In a democracy such major changes require not just a majority vote but a broad consensus in society.

At a minimum, a lot of people suggest, if we’re going to allow people to own firearms, there should at least be some “reasonable regulation,” like there is with cars. I object to such schemes, on the grounds that there’s no way to enforce them without using police-state tactics.

It is not, I wish to emphasize, just about firearms that I feel this way. I object to any scheme where citizens are required to keep their papers in order, or are required to show their papers when demanded by some official. The immigration debate raises the same issues, and I feel the same way in that case as well.

Such objections may seem like a weird fantasy of an America that never was, but that’s not the case. Until quite recently, it was entirely possible to get along in the United States without any sort of government-issued ID. Even now it’s possible, although it requires giving up things that are tough to get along without.  (It’s tough to open a bank account or to get a job without ID.) But that’s a problem to be fixed, not an excuse to go on adding to the list of things that require papers.

I don’t just complain about this stuff. I’m active locally in the community of people advocating for better bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure. I work to improve the laws to make things safer for bicyclists, and I work to educate both bicyclists and drivers on safe riding and driving.

I would encourage you to do so as well. Even if you’re not a bicyclist you know some, and everyone’s a pedestrian.

If you do—if you’re one of the many people who’s making significant and ongoing contributions to bicycling and pedestrian safety—I promise to listen thoughtfully and give serious consideration to anything you’ve got to say about reducing gun violence.

Rolling my own coworking space

Over the course of my career as a software engineer, I only accepted job offers from employers that provided their software engineers with real offices, because I expected I would be less productive in a cube. When my last employer moved us from offices to cubes, that expectation proved correct. However, the situation turned out to be more complicated than that.

For certain kinds of work—certain phases in code generation, certain phases in prose generation—I need large blocks of uninterrupted quiet. That was hard to come by in a cube. When I spent the hour from 9:00 to 10:00 building the necessary state in my head to be able to generate code to solve a particular problem, and then had my manager come by at 10:10 to ask whether I was on schedule, I could quite literally lose a whole morning’s productivity—there was no point in starting over at 10:15, knowing that I’d want to break for lunch at 11:30.

For large blocks of uninterrupted quiet, an office with a door that closes is very much to be preferred.

Because I knew I needed an office—which I have in my apartment—I was surprised to find myself taking an interest in coworking. But it turns out that many phases of my work don’t require large blocks of uninterrupted quiet. In particular, when I pretty much know what I want to write, and it’s just a matter of sitting down and typing it out, a certain amount of activity in the surroundings actually makes it easier to get something done.

I have a few theories about why some surrounding bustle helps:

  • I think it’s good to have other people around me who are also working—modeling good working behavior.
  • I think a little activity makes it easier to just get a first draft down—making it easier to get past my internal critic that would otherwise insist on perfection.
  • I think a little stimulation makes it easier to be creative—providing some randomness that my brain can use to generate new ideas and make new connections.

Whatever the reason, sometimes I want to work in a place where other people are working.

There was a coworking place in Urbana a couple of years ago, called Collective Turf Coworking. I don’t know if they’re still around or not (their website seems to be down just now), but they were much too expensive for me.

Fortunately, there are a bunch of local public spaces that serve the purpose very well.

Both the Champaign Public Library and the Urbana Free Library provide a wide variety of spaces where work can be done:

  • Coffee shops
  • Large tables in the main library area
  • Divided workspaces in the main library area (Champaign Library only, I think)
  • Quiet rooms
  • Four-person study rooms

In my experience, the quiet rooms are quiet enough for me to be productive even on things that require quiet, the spaces in the main library area are only a little noisier, and the coffee shops are pretty noisy. The 4-person study rooms are great when two or more people want to work either individually or together.

The other place I’ve used to roll my own coworking space is the University of Illinois. Its various libraries provides an array of workspace options similar to those in the public libraries, but the main place I like to work is the Illini Union. It offers spaces ranging from the Pine Lounge (a very quiet place with desks and chairs), the South Lounge (just a couple of desks, but many chairs and sofas), the vending machine room (a bunch of long tables with chairs), and a very large Espresso Royale coffee shop.

Both libraries and the University offer free WiFi to the public. The University also offers secure WiFi to anyone with a NetID (which I have through OLLI). Not every space has power, but there are plenty that do. (The Pine Lounge has power at every desk, as does the quiet room in the Champaign Library.)

The main downsides are:

  1. Spaces aren’t reservable. On a day where there’s high demand, it’s entirely possible that all the prime spaces will be in use when you show up.
  2. Spaces aren’t secure. I’m unwilling to leave my computer and other stuff unattended even long enough to go to the bathroom and get a cup of tea.
  3. No off-hours access.

Those issues aside, each of these venues actually offer more options than any but the best coworking space is going to, in terms of a full spectrum from quiet space for individual work, meeting spaces for collaborative work, a coffee shop, outdoor spaces, and so on.

Public art in Chrysler’s Detroit ad

As a big fan of public art, I was particularly impressed with the fragments of public art featured in Chrysler’s “imported from Detroit” Superbowl ad:

There’s a lot to like here. There’s a lot of art deco, and I like art deco. There’s a lot of different kinds of art—murals, sculpture, architecture. And the spot features the sort of public spaces that are being phased out these days (in favor of commercial spaces that are technically only open to customers). The public square is important, and neither the mall nor the parking lot of a strip malls is an adequate substitute.

Anyway, one of the good things about public art on display in public places is that it’s available for use in spots like this. It’s part of our culture.