“Fuck you, I like guns.”

Edited to add: I can’t thank you all enough for interacting with this post. I am actually surprised that it’s become this popular. This is the first time more than ten people have read anything I’ve written here. I’m probably going to turn off commenting soon because everything that can be said already has been. In general, I’d like to point out that this is an opinion piece. I wrote it on a 15 minute coffee break and posted it unedited. It’s raw, and that’s the whole point. The tone, the language, and the style are intentional. This was written for people like my mostly conservative Army buddies who will never click an article that is titled “Gun control is your friend”, and tend to assume those who support such legislation have never seen a gun before. I’m not a professional writer, nor a particularly prolific blogger until about three days ago. I’m just a person trying to sort it out like everybody else. Thank you for stopping by. I really do appreciate every one of you. Please find us on FaceBook.BCMCarryHandleAR-15-3

America, can we talk? Let’s just cut the shit for once and actually talk about what’s going on without blustering and pretending we’re actually doing a good job at adulting as a country right now. We’re not. We’re really screwing this whole society thing up, and we have to do better. We don’t have a choice. People are dying. At this rate, it’s not if your kids, or mine, are involved in a school shooting, it’s when. One of these happens every 60 hours on average in the US. If you think it can’t affect you, you’re wrong. Dead wrong. So let’s talk.

I’ll start. I’m an Army veteran. I like M-4’s, which are, for all practical purposes, an AR-15, just with a few extra features that people almost never use anyway. I’d say at least 70% of my formal weapons training is on that exact rifle, with the other 30% being split between various and sundry machineguns and grenade launchers. My experience is pretty representative of soldiers of my era. Most of us are really good with an M-4, and most of us like it at least reasonably well, because it is an objectively good rifle. I was good with an M-4, really good. I earned the Expert badge every time I went to the range, starting in Basic Training. This isn’t uncommon. I can name dozens of other soldiers/veterans I know personally who can say the exact same thing. This rifle is surprisingly easy to use, completely idiot-proof really, has next to no recoil, comes apart and cleans up like a dream, and is light to carry around. I’m probably more accurate with it than I would be with pretty much any other weapon in existence. I like this rifle a lot. I like marksmanship as a sport. When I was in the military, I enjoyed combining these two things as often as they’d let me.

With all that said, enough is enough. My knee jerk reaction is to consider weapons like the AR-15 no big deal because it is my default setting. It’s where my training lies. It is my normal, because I learned how to fire a rifle IN THE ARMY. You know, while I may only have shot plastic targets on the ranges of Texas, Georgia, and Missouri, that’s not what those weapons were designed for, and those targets weren’t shaped like deer. They were shaped like people. Sometimes we even put little hats on them. You learn to take a gut shot, “center mass”, because it’s a bigger target than the head, and also because if you maim the enemy soldier rather than killing him cleanly, more of his buddies will come out and get him, and you can shoot them, too. He’ll die of those injuries, but it’ll take him a while, giving you the chance to pick off as many of his compadres as you can. That’s how my Drill Sergeant explained it anyway. I’m sure there are many schools of thought on it. The fact is, though, when I went through my marksmanship training in the US Army, I was not learning how to be a competition shooter in the Olympics, or a good hunter. I was being taught how to kill people as efficiently as possible, and that was never a secret.

As an avowed pacifist now, it turns my stomach to even type the above words, but can you refute them? I can’t. Every weapon that a US Army soldier uses has the express purpose of killing human beings. That is what they are made for. The choice rifle for years has been some variant of what civilians are sold as an AR-15. Whether it was an M-4 or an M-16 matters little. The function is the same, and so is the purpose. These are not deer rifles. They are not target rifles. They are people killing rifles. Let’s stop pretending they’re not.

With this in mind, is anybody surprised that nearly every mass shooter in recent US history has used an AR-15 to commit their crime? And why wouldn’t they? High capacity magazine, ease of loading and unloading, almost no recoil, really accurate even without a scope, but numerous scopes available for high precision, great from a distance or up close, easy to carry, and readily available. You can buy one at Wal-Mart, or just about any sports store, and since they’re long guns, I don’t believe you have to be any more than 18 years old with a valid ID. This rifle was made for the modern mass shooter, especially the young one. If he could custom design a weapon to suit his sinister purposes, he couldn’t do a better job than Armalite did with this one already.

This rifle is so deadly and so easy to use that no civilian should be able to get their hands on one. We simply don’t need these things in society at large. I always find it interesting that when I was in the Army, and part of my job was to be incredibly proficient with this exact weapon, I never carried one at any point in garrison other than at the range. Our rifles lived in the arms room, cleaned and oiled, ready for the next range day or deployment. We didn’t carry them around just because we liked them. We didn’t bluster on about barracks defense and our second amendment rights. We tucked our rifles away in the arms room until the next time we needed them, just as it had been done since the Army’s inception. The military police protected us from threats in garrison. They had 9 mm Berettas to carry. They were the only soldiers who carry weapons in garrison. We trusted them to protect us, and they delivered. With notably rare exceptions, this system has worked well. There are fewer shootings on Army posts than in society in general, probably because soldiers are actively discouraged from walking around with rifles, despite being impeccably well trained with them. Perchance, we could have the largely untrained civilian population take a page from that book?

I understand that people want to be able to own guns. That’s ok. We just need to really think about how we’re managing this. Yes, we have to manage it, just as we manage car ownership. People have to get a license to operate a car, and if you operate a car without a license, you’re going to get in trouble for that. We manage all things in society that can pose a danger to other people by their misuse. In addition to cars, we manage drugs, alcohol, exotic animals (there are certain zip codes where you can’t own Serval cats, for example), and fireworks, among other things. We restrict what types of businesses can operate in which zones of the city or county. We have a whole system of permitting for just about any activity a person wants to conduct since those activities could affect others, and we realize, as a society, that we need to try to minimize the risk to other people that comes from the chosen activities of those around them in which they have no say. Gun ownership is the one thing our country collectively refuses to manage, and the result is a lot of dead people.

I can’t drive a Formula One car to work. It would be really cool to be able to do that, and I could probably cut my commute time by a lot. Hey, I’m a good driver, a responsible Formula One owner. You shouldn’t be scared to be on the freeway next to me as I zip around you at 140 MPH, leaving your Mazda in a cloud of dust! Why are you scared? Cars don’t kill people. People kill people. Doesn’t this sound like bullshit? It is bullshit, and everybody knows. Not one person I know would argue non-ironically that Formula One cars on the freeway are a good idea. Yet, these same people will say it’s totally ok to own the firearm equivalent because, in the words of comedian Jim Jeffries, “fuck you, I like guns”.

Yes, yes, I hear you now. We have a second amendment to the constitution, which must be held sacrosanct over all other amendments. Dude. No. The constitution was made to be a malleable document. It’s intentionally vague. We can enact gun control without infringing on the right to bear arms. You can have your deer rifle. You can have your shotgun that you love to shoot clay pigeons with. You can have your target pistol. Get a license. Get a training course. Recertify at a predetermined interval. You do not need a military grade rifle. You don’t. There’s no excuse.

“But we’re supposed to protect against tyranny! I need the same weapons the military would come at me with!” Dude. You know where I can get an Apache helicopter and a Paladin?! Hook a girl up! Seriously, though, do you really think you’d be able to hold off the government with an individual level weapon? Because you wouldn’t. One grenade, and you’re toast. Don’t have these illusions of standing up to the government, and needing military style rifles for that purpose. You’re not going to stand up to the government with this thing. They’d take you out in about half a second.

Let’s be honest. You just want a cool toy, and for the vast majority of people, that’s all an AR-15 is. It’s something fun to take to the range and put some really wicked holes in a piece of paper. Good for you. I know how enjoyable that is. I’m sure for a certain percentage of people, they might not kill anyone driving a Formula One car down the freeway, or owning a Cheetah as a pet, or setting off professional grade fireworks without a permit. Some people are good with this stuff, and some people are lucky, but those cases don’t negate the overall rule. Military style rifles have been the choice du jour in the incidents that have made our country the mass shootings capitol of the world. Formula One cars aren’t good for commuting. Cheetahs are bitey. Professional grade fireworks will probably take your hand off. All but one of these are common sense to the average American. Let’s fix that. Be honest, you don’t need that AR-15. Nobody does. Society needs them gone, no matter how good you may be with yours. Kids are dying, and it’s time to stop fucking around.

For the new engineering grads

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Judging by my university’s Instagram last weekend, and the preparations at work for the impending arrival of interns (I’m expected to mentor officially this summer! That’s both exciting and concerning.) it appears graduation just happened. With that in mind, I want to talk to the new engineering grads for a minute about what I’ve learned in this field over the past few years. There’s a lot I wish I’d known going in, and maybe I can impart some of that. I’m new enough in the field that I remember my thesis defense like it was yesterday, but experienced enough that I’ve passed the PE exam, and some other people have passed it since I did. Career-wise, I’ve held three jobs, my current one being a promotion within the same organization as the last, and my salary has gone up 48% in three years due to strategic moves and promotions. As of two days ago, I’m officially in charge of a few people, which scares the shit out of me at this point, but I’ll get used to it. Anyway, that’s who I am, and I’ve got something to say to recent grads. Maybe some of this applies to non-engineers, too. I don’t know. Take what you will from it.

I had a shitty job when I was an EIT, and it’s ok if that’s how you start out, too.

Being that I was, at that time, a single parent, I couldn’t sit around and wait for my dream job to show up, so I had to take what I could get in the highly competitive city I needed to move to. I was an out of state applicant from a school most people hadn’t heard of, and while I brought with me an impressive paper count, glowing references, and an EIT certificate, I was still competing with the graduates of a huge program at a university that had been named, that very year, the top public research university in the nation, and the graduates of another well-known and nearby university that takes pride in graduating more engineers than any other university in the country. The deck was heavily stacked against me, and I knew it. I took what was offered, a contract position with a well-respected government agency, for a project that looked impressive on a CV. I knew going in that it was crap. It involved a part of my field that I wasn’t particularly interested in (and that was reaffirmed for me every day that I was there), the pay was horrible, and not having paid time off or health insurance was extremely unsustainable in the long run.

Yet, that job was exactly what I needed at the time. It put me in touch with hundreds of other engineers, government and private sector alike, and it did look impressive. I also learned a lot there. That’s an important thing to remember. Even the shittiest job in the world will teach you lessons that you are better off for learning, so focus on that part, and be positive. Know it’s not forever, be actively planning your next move, and take what there is to be gained from it.

Your employment needs may change quickly.

At any given stage in your career, you’re going to need something different out of your workplace. At first, I needed a paycheck sufficient to cover rent, utilities, daycare, food, and the payment on a used Mazda3. After that, I needed a place that knew how to develop engineers from EIT’s to PE’s. Now, I need an environment that grants me the freedom to research and analyze in line with my own interests.

I can’t stress enough that early in your career, you need a boss who knows what to do with EIT’s. You need support at that stage, and one of the biggest lessons going from my first job to my second was just how much I couldn’t do this alone. When my state decoupled the PE exam from the experience requirement, I decided to take the exam ASAP. I told my boss at my first job this, and he was happy about that, but also had no idea how to support me in it. Nobody could tell me where to get the manuals I needed. There was no allowance for prep courses. There was no time given at work to study. Nobody knew what to do with an EIT in that place, and I’m glad I didn’t take the exam while working there.

My second job was the complete opposite. It was a PE factory. There was an established procedure. Our director would decide which two EIT’s would take the exam each time it was given, and we would be sent to a prep course during working hours, two days a week for three months. We were given all our manuals and an inclusive reference book, along with access to a database of practice problems and solutions. We were allowed several hours a week to study at work during the month prior to the exam, our workload was lightened, and we were given the week of the exam off work, free of charge, to study and rest. Not surprisingly, everyone from there passes. Nobody can remember a time when someone failed. I took the PE exam a year and a half after arriving at that job (I had to wait for it to be my turn), and passed with a respectable score on the first try. I do not think I would have passed on the first try if I had still been at my first job when I took the exam. Your first four years in this field are crucial. Spend at least half of it somewhere that knows how to develop an EIT into a PE. I am a drastically better engineer for coming up in a place like that for the majority of my EIT years.

Six months after I passed the PE exam, I was promoted and moved to a different division, one that doesn’t develop their EIT’s as intensively, but allows the intellectual freedom I need to be the kind of engineer I really am. There’s far less oversight, and it’s not nearly as structured or regimented, which means EIT’s are kind of on their own for seeking out development opportunities that exist within our organization. I no longer have a mentor. I am no longer sent on job rotations. I’m not encouraged to take field trips anymore. Yet, I’m allowed to do my own in-house research. I can recommend changes to policy, software, and procedure, and people listen and potentially implement it. This is where Anastasia PE can thrive. It isn’t that my second job was a bad place to work. It was actually a fantastic place to work. This place meets more of my needs at this stage than they did, though, and that’s why I was able to promote in this direction.

Be honest with yourself about what your needs are. If you’re a new EIT, you need a mentor. You need a development program. You need a peer group, and people just above where you are to tell you what the next stage looks like. I can’t recommend those things highly enough. It costs $350 to take the PE exam. You only want to do it once. This gives you much better odds.

Keep a journal of your projects.

This was told to me by my mentor on my first day at my second job. Since you’re going to have to write about all these projects when you apply for your PE license, you need to remember them very well. Keep a record of what they were, who else worked on them, and unique things about them. This will make the process of writing your Supplemental Experience Record (SER) far easier when the time comes. The time will come much quicker than you think it will.

You will quite likely make more money if you move around strategically.

I’m a government employee, and our salaries are public record. That means I know exactly how much my bosses and coworkers are being paid. As it turns out, I’m out-earning all my peers, and have nearly caught up to my non-management coworkers who have been with our organization for a decade longer than I have. It’s not because I’m a better engineer than they are. In fact, some of them are drastically better engineers than I am. The difference is, I’ve entered salary negotiations every 1-2 years. I switched jobs twice as an EIT, once being a promotion, and then the standard 10% PE raise resulted in two raises in a single year, causing an 18% pay increase and completely changing my salary trajectory. Those I am quickly closing in on have been in the same job since they graduated from college. They are excellent at their jobs, so I know why they stayed, but it has pretty clearly cost them.

If there is one thing the past year has taught me, it is that moving around is good for the bank account. Do a good job wherever you are, and always have your ear to the ground for news of new opportunities that suit you. If you make it clear to the people you apply with that you’re quite happy where you are, but you’re really passionate about the work that they do and would transfer over if the terms are right, they will make the terms right. You’ll have glowing references wherever you go, and decent raises every couple years. You’ll probably also do better work.

Yet, it’s important to be strategic. Don’t just take any old job that offers you a good paycheck. Make sure it puts you in line for where you actually want to be. Ask people who have been in the field for a long time what their experience looks like, especially those in jobs you yourself would like to have someday. Our profession is big on mentoring. People will advise you if you ask.

Be honest about what kind of engineer you are.

I remember my first trip to the state DOT. It was for a research symposium, and I was presenting. We were hoping for a million dollars more in funding, so a lot hinged on our success at this. We drove to the Capital, and rode the elevator up to the top floor of the state DOT building, and I just remember being impressed the whole time. The engineers we met there were brilliant. They asked tough questions, talked about exciting design projects that were in the works, and tossed around the most innovative ideas I’d ever heard as if they were not a big deal at all. These were state level engineers, and I wanted to be part of their world. For a long time, that’s what I thought working at the state DOT was. It was the only side of it I had ever seen.

I’m glad I saw the other side before I began applying for jobs. One day, a professor of mine invited a couple of local area level state DOT engineers to speak with our class about ongoing projects and their role in them. They talked about managing traffic control contractors, and pulling permits. They told us about heavy equipment issues, and how many times in the course of their career they had to pave the same road. They talked about the times they were called in because a culvert had washed out, and showed us pictures of ditch failures during storms. I came away from that seminar knowing that I wanted no part of that type of work.

Our field is huge. Sure, everybody pictures civil engineers as the people sitting at a computer with AutoCAD, drawing plans for a bridge. That’s a fraction of who we are. In fact, I don’t even like AutoCAD, and I love this field. Know who you are and determine what you want out of it. If you’re someone who thinks heavy equipment is cool, and you majored in engineering because your parents told you that you were too smart to just go work construction all your life, then you need to be in the field. You need to manage construction. If you’re one who joined civil engineering because the job market is better than it is in physics, but you’re really into that highly analytical side of things (this is basically me), then you need to find a position that will allow you to do extremely detailed analysis and preferably publish your findings. Maybe you’re one who thought architecture looked cool, but the closest your local university offered was civil engineering. You need to go design structures. You probably like AutoCAD, too. Freak. (I’m kidding.) My point is that there’s something for everybody in this field, and you need to figure out what aspect of it actually suits you so that you can move forward in that direction without getting stuck doing something you don’t even like. Just because you CAN do it doesn’t mean you SHOULD.

Lead when it is indicated.

I remember the first time someone said I had leadership skills. I was a TA, and had to take charge of something that I wasn’t really comfortable taking charge of, but I did it anyway because nobody else was stepping up, and it went really well. My professor commended me on my leadership skills. Later on, at my first job, I had to coordinate meetings sometimes between multiple government agencies, contractors, and engineering firms with conflicting interests. I always came into it with a goal of understanding all their needs and finding a solution that suited everyone. My boss received emails raving about my customer service and, you guessed it, leadership skills. In my previous job, I was asked to lead projects, and even serve on the board of a group for engineers under 40. Then I got hired in a position that requires me to serve as a team leader. I am not a person who craves power. It actually makes me super nervous when people look to me for the solution to things, but one of the most important things an engineer can do is get right with the idea that most of us will be expected to lead in some capacity throughout our career. Learn how to be the type of leader that people want to follow.

Understand our role in society.

This is the fun part. We have a really cool job to do. When you tell people you’re an engineer, they will often be impressed by that. They’ll think you’re really smart, and ask you a lot of questions. Engage with the community. We’re here to serve them. We have a duty to understand what they need and want from us. Yes, people are going to complain to you about their least favorite intersection, ask you why there’s so much traffic, and tag you in whatever pop-sci video the internet is obsessed with. Be patient, explain that no, we really don’t need solar roadways because asphalt is actually a really environmentally friendly material that works great for what we need it to do. Empathize with their concerns about traffic, and let them know the way to request an intersection analysis to see if that traffic light that’s driving them nuts is really working the way it should be. Get them involved. These are taxpayers. We need their support, and ultimately, we work for them.

Sometimes you’ll be asked to speak to groups of students. This is an opportunity you should cherish above all others. Some of these kids might become civil engineers because you showed them a side of the profession they had never seen before. Maybe they thought engineering was boring until you put a human face on it and told them about something cool you got to do. You might be the only engineer some of them have ever met. If you are a woman or a person of color, maybe you are the only engineer they have ever met who represents that. You may be the only person who has ever told any given child what it takes to become an engineer. They’re going to have a lot of questions. Answer all of them, even the silly ones, and be honored that that you’re the person who gets to do that. Sometimes the kids ask better questions than adults.

Be generous with your time. Judge the science fair. Do the volunteering event. Sponsor the youth basketball team. Advise the elementary school STEM club. Show your community that you’re more than the person responsible for the orange barricades they dodge on their way to work. People will trust your judgment more if they know you’re in this right alongside them.

Finally…

Four years as a working engineer go by fast, way faster than college did. One day, you’re a new grad, not sure what this will hold for you, and then one day, you wake up and you’re a PE with interns and EIT’s looking up at you like you’re the real deal they aspire to be. Make the most of it. Learn from everybody. Above all, enjoy it. It’s a real trip to get to do this. People are going to pay millions of dollars to build or research stuff that came from your head. Isn’t that wild?

Welcome to the world’s second oldest profession. We’re glad you’re here.

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On Imposters, and Ponds

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I said to my friend, as we walked back from the corner market where we buy coffee, “Do you ever feel like you’re supposed to have your shit together a lot more than you do, and that you probably never will? Like, do you feel like we’re supposed to know a lot about this, but that you don’t actually know enough to talk about the things people ask us about? I feel like that a lot.”

He laughed and said, “I can’t remember ever feeling any way but that. It hit me in grad school, and never left. It actually makes me extremely nervous that people listen to what I say about engineering stuff, like one day, they’re all going to realize I’m actually a total fraud.”

I said, “But you’re such a good engineer. You’re moving up faster than any of the rest of us who were hired together. I am not moving up as fast as you. Maybe in my new job, I will, but that would never happen for me here because I don’t have the aptitude for this subject.”

He looked confused, and said, “Anastasia, you’re a really good engineer. I don’t know why you think you’re not. OK, I do know, because we compare ourselves to each other, and to people nobody has any business comparing themselves to, but the thing you have to remember, and so do I, is that we are working at a level that only a tiny percentage of our profession will ever make it to. What are your college classmates doing right now? Just think about it.”

He was right. We are, objectively speaking, high level engineers, and since we live in this world every day, we tend to forget where we fit in the food chain of our profession. We design projects we never dared to dream of until we were here. We have published our research worldwide. We have reluctantly reached a station in life and in society, such that when we speak, people tend to listen, and when we show up on a project site, or to a seminar, or a community outreach event, people ask us the questions everyone wants answers to. We’re just in our 30’s, and know we have far to go from here, but people treat us like we’re already there.

None of our superiors are unclear about it. We’re on one of the paths that makes directors, tenured professors, deans of research, and other people with intimidating sounding titles. So we chug our coffee, and we design, and we move into positions that suit our skills, him within this division, and me, as of two weeks from now, at a different facility, with a different group, one which has promised me that I can do research again, and we strive, because we’re just in our 30’s, and we’re not done yet, and we have no idea how this ends for us.

Due to my current foray into the design side, I haven’t published in three years, and I die a little inside when I consider that if I stayed here, I may never publish, or even conduct research, again. And then I think to myself, who even considers publishing, or conducting funded research for that matter, a necessity? Who actually gets to design cool stuff like this, and then presumes to say, “OK, that was fun, but I want to do something different now because I like it better.”? For most people, the salary in this place alone would be enough, the nice people a serious bonus, and the retirement plan a true blessing. For me, while I am grateful for all of that, I know I can do more if I return to the side of our profession where my strengths lie, and so I am. It helps that it’s an internal transfer, and comes with a raise. Otherwise, I’m not sure I could leave a good job like my current one.

My friend understands this completely. He nods and says if he hadn’t been chosen for his current job, he would be feeling restless, too. We met during what amounts to a rite of passage for those who succeed in this field, time spent as design engineers in a place with a name people recognize. Then we both applied for a position within our department that is half design and half research. They interviewed us both, and chose him. His PhD is relevant to it. I would have chosen him, too. So to the other side of the office he went, and I stayed put, in my windowless cube, to continue designing, knowing that the experience would benefit me in the long term, but knowing on some level that it wasn’t forever, while telling myself I would be fine if it were.

I waited another year, and then my opportunity came a month ago. I was hired day before yesterday. It isn’t real yet. For the past two days, everyone at work has been telling me how surprised they are to hear that I do not think I am a good design engineer. They all emphatically disagree, but wish me well on my return to the field of my research, reminding me that if I ever want to come back, I’ll be welcome. It is comforting, in a way, to know that they see me better than I see myself. Maybe I am a good design engineer, but I know I can do more in my new role, and I would regret for the rest of my life if I let it pass me by.

Today, a comment on another friend’s status made me conscious of how I relate to life, and especially work. I was talking about how tough the housing market is in cities where young professionals need to be in order to work to our potential, how it’s easy to get a cheap house in a place with limited opportunities, but if you want to do high level work in STEM, you have to go to certain cities, which tend to be hot markets. His reply was, “Better to be a big fish in a small pond.”

I have always disagreed with that sentiment. I get uneasy when I am the most knowledgeable person in the room. There’s no way to grow in that environment, and I’m not done growing yet. I can’t be a big fish in a small pond. I have been in that situation in the past. In fact, it almost completely describes my first marriage, and my entire life until 2013. I was restless, snippy at everyone, and miserable, because I knew I wasn’t going to reach my potential in those surroundings.

The past couple years, however, I’ve been a tiny fish in a big, ocean sized pond with unfamiliar terrain and strong currents, and that was almost as anxiety inducing. While I could theoretically work to potential in this environment, my barrier to it wasn’t external anymore. It was internal. When I am in the company of 50 engineers who can do any given project better than I could, who can understand the relevant concepts in half the time I can, and who will extrapolate things from it that I never would, there exists the overwhelming knowledge that I would never move up in this place.

My boss tells me how much she appreciates my positive attitude, grace under pressure, and willingness to do any project I’m assigned. But I can’t help but notice that my projects aren’t moving up in complexity along the same trajectory as my peers’ projects are. I will top out here relatively quickly. I can do well enough to score decently on a performance review and pull my weight as a team member, but I know I can do more than just tread water. The pond may be too big, I may be too small, or maybe I just relate to the eco-system differently than my fellow inhabitants.

When I think back on it, my former lab, which was a perfect fit, isn’t a smaller pond than my current workplace. It just has different attributes. I can move freely in that pond. I don’t feel that I’m running into a wall built of other people’s limitations or my own. I can lead. In my new capacity, I’ll be required to. I can publish, and people will want to read my work. I can influence, and I can do it without feeling like as much of a fraud as I so often do here because I will be working within the area of my strengths again. I don’t need a smaller pond, I just need the right large pond.

My boss brings up another point often. We only understand how small our knowledge is compared to the vastness of our profession because we have enough education and experience to see the reality of it, and put that in perspective. We could live to be 100, and never know enough to consider ourselves knowledgeable, but that’s why there are a lot of us. We each know something different, and we share that knowledge as necessary. It is, however, easy to lose sight of that in our relentless pursuit of further understanding and innovation, and take every small failure and setback to mean we are actually not that good at this. We compare our outtakes to our colleagues’ highlight reels.

I would say, of all the things I have done as an engineer, more than anything I have designed or published, I am proud that every place I’ve worked would gladly hire me back if I decided I’d made a mistake by leaving. I suppose that, of all things, reassures me that when it comes to my work, the good outweighs the bad, even when I know I am not working to potential, and that is worth something. Even so, I think this new endeavor of mine will turn out very interestingly.

So here’s to engineering, and imposter syndrome, and ponds with all the right traits. To new opportunities, valuable experience, and continued research. To big mighty structures, and tiny little molecules, and every one of us who lives on the precipice of the vast unknown.

A Lesson on Voting, Courtesy of a Hotdog

ballot_box_1

The year was 2009, and it was fall in west Texas when a hotdog changed my entire perspective on life.

My kids and I had been attending one of those Army events that people refer to as “mandatory fun”, the ones where the commander shows up in cargo shorts with his impeccably dressed wife and children, and talks about making memories, the kids run themselves tired on the playground, officers and enlisted play football against each other, and everyone pretends the imminent deployment orders don’t exist. So there I was, minding my own business on the sidelines of that football game when my eyes wandered to the left, and I saw it. Someone I sort of knew was giving their son, who couldn’t have been two years old, a hotdog. I was instantly horrified. The choking hazard! The nitrates! What part of what animal is that even made of?! Who eats that?!

When I got home, I did what any judgmental internet mommy would do, and I hammered out the rant to end all rants about “people feeding their kids garbage”, on a message board whose focus was cloth diapering, babywearing, and breastfeeding. The final sentence of that rant was, “What planet are these imbeciles from that it’s ok to feed small children a hotdog?” I hit “post”, and sat back as smug as a South Park resident who just bought a Prius, waiting for my vindication. I was absolutely certain everyone on that site would see this my way. I was dead wrong.

The comments were about 90%, “Well, I feed my kids hotdogs. What’s wrong with that?” and “You really need to chill and stop judging other people’s food choices.” Apparently, to the vast majority of people, hotdogs are a pretty valid food choice at nearly any age. Having never eaten one in my entire life because my parents raised me to believe that processed meats are disgusting and never to be consumed, I had no idea that most people actually kind of like them. What’s more, a lot of those people cannot imagine why I would eat something like tofu. To them, it’s nasty! After the knee jerk cognitive dissonance wore off, I had to recalibrate my thought process. What if it’s all just food?

I have still never eaten a hotdog, nor have I fed one to my children, but the lesson I learned from the hotdog incident has stuck with me. We all come to situations thinking our life experience is the default setting, that we’re the normal ones. Some people do this to a greater extent than others, but we all do it to some extent. When we are conscious of this fact, we can adjust our actions and reactions accordingly, and things can be very different than they are.

Consider that all of us are working with an extremely biased sample. Ask ten people to finish the sentence, “Everyone I know thinks…” and you’re going to learn a lot about what kind of people they surround themselves with, where they come from, and what influences them. The real eye-opening part of this exercise is that there is actually no right or wrong answer. It’s all perspective.

I may say, “Everyone I know thinks Bernie Sanders would have made a great president.”

Another person might say, “Everyone I know thinks that socialism is a way to subjugate the people.”

This is where division happens. We’re a tribal species, and we all think our tribe is the normal one because it’s the one we know best. If we had been born into different circumstances, a different tribe, we would think something else was the normal way. It’s also part of how we end up with surprising outcomes, the sort of thing 2016 seemed full of. Follow me on the Bernie example.

What if I told you that a huge reason Bernie didn’t win the primary is because people like me didn’t show up to vote for him (I voted for him, but most of my generation didn’t show up), and that a huge part of the reason for that is because, according to us, everyone we knew was voting for him? The algorithms on social media that intentionally create echo chambers contribute to this phenomenon as well, but the fact is, a lot of us were in a situation where we didn’t really know anybody who wasn’t voting for Bernie. This made going to the polls seem a lot less urgent than it really was, so a lot of people simply didn’t. If we had been conscious of the fact that our tribe where everybody was voting for Bernie was actually not a resounding majority of the population, this probably would have changed attitudes toward voting quite substantially, and maybe we’d be talking about President Sanders right now.

You can even extend Hillary Clinton’s loss in November to the same sort of mentality. In other words, we didn’t learn our lesson. Sure, Hillary wasn’t many people’s dream candidate. She wasn’t mine either. When a Democratic Socialist was an option, it’s hard to look with favor upon a mainstream Democrat, even for someone like myself, who has voted for countless mainstream Democrats prior to 2016. Even so, everyone I knew thought Clinton would mop the floor with Trump. Even Nate Silver, whose analytics are usually on point, had her winning by a wide margin going into Election Day. “Everyone we knew was going to hold their nose and vote for her.” Or “Everyone we knew wore pants suits and said #ImWithHer.” Depending who we ask. The problem is, of course, that even people who are generally fantastic at analytics totally underestimated the limited scope of “everyone we know”. Voter turnout was horrible. I don’t think that would have been the case if we hadn’t thought, and even been fed by the media, that everyone was already voting for her.

The lesson here is, always show up. If you believe in someone who’s running for office, show up for them even if you think everyone else in town is going to vote for them and your vote won’t matter. If 2016 taught us anything, it is the lesson of the hotdog. We may not be part of the majority we think we are. Vote as if your preferred outcome has a chance, but that every vote is important to fulfilling it.

So why doesn’t this apply equally to the other side? Why do they seem to show up in droves no matter what? I think the explanation lies in neuroscience. Studies have shown that conservatives have an enlarged amygdala compared to liberals. The amygdala is the part of the brain that manages the fight or flight response, and all things fear. To put it simply, conservatives are scared. Of what? That depends who you ask and what everyone they know has observed going on in the world that is concerning, and frankly, the details are really not important in this context. The important part is that that fear stemming from their large and active amygdala, propels them to show up for every election. Large turnout favors the most liberal candidate. Low turnout favors the most conservative. This means we have to count on the fact that most of the conservatives will show up.

We have to counterweight that by appealing to liberal logic. There are more of us. That’s not just what everyone I know says. That’s what polls show. We could elect candidates who will truly serve the people to every elected office. We can’t do it if we don’t show up, though. Everyone you know may be voting for the good guys, everyone I know may be, too. Let’s all remember we don’t know many people, relatively speaking, and show up in November. They’ll be there. It’s on us to determine how much influence they’ll have.

Ex-wives, the IRS, and Software

money-bags

I am a divorced person. My husband is also a divorced person. Maybe you are, too, and you know exactly what that’s like. Maybe you’re not, and you think we’re a little questionable because of it. Maybe you’re just curious about what went down. One thing I’ve learned is that being a pretty unapologetic divorced person often gets a reaction. I don’t think it’s anything shameful, or tragic, or mysterious. It’s just a societal custom that a pretty significant percentage of us take part in at some point, some more than once. It doesn’t have to be awful, although it certainly can be, but whether or not it’s awful, it’s always interesting.

One thing I have learned in my half decade or so as a divorced person is that divorce is kind of a taboo, even though it’s so common, and because of that, we divorced people tend to get blindsided by a lot of weird stuff. This keeps happening to me, even though I come from a family that has been divorcing one another with reckless abandon, much to the Catholic church’s chagrin, since long before it was cool. (Oddly, my own parents have been married 47 years, and happily from what I can tell. Yet, my sister and I are both divorced. It’s a family tradition, even if they choose not to partake.) Even these people do not talk about the day to day weirdness that comes with existing in the world as a divorced person, and I really wish they would.

Anyway, this morning, I was blindsided once again by some weird divorced person juju that the once-and-done married, happy singles, and never making it legals could not conjure up in their wildest imaginations. I am absolutely certain we are not the only people this has happened to, but it’s the first time I’ve heard of it, so I want other people to know about this because it can happen.

It all started a month ago when my husband and I got a letter in the mail from the IRS. Nothing you ever wanted to hear began like that, but we soon realized they just wanted to verify our identities. We were told it was probably due to a breach of Equifax data the year prior, and assumed it was a technicality. We were annoyed, but what choice did we have? We needed our tax return processed, and this was the way that was going to happen. I grabbed a snack, the documents they wanted, and messaged with some friends whose meme game is strong while I sat on hold for 58 minutes. When someone picked up, I cheerfully explained that I just wanted to verify my husband’s and my identities because we got a letter in the mail saying that we needed to do that.

It was all going great until she asked me for my name, social security number, and birth date. I told her these things, and her entire tone of voice changed to the one you’ve probably only heard from the campus police they caught you double fisting Pabst Blue Ribbon at Kappa Sigma while being not a day over 18. Anyway, she said in the campus cop voice, “Are you a third party or something?” I said, “No, I’m Anastasia. This is mine and my husband’s tax return. I’m listed as spouse.” Continuing in the campus cop tone of voice, she said, “You’re going to have to verify your identity in person, Ms. Bernoulli.” (nonverbally adding, “if that IS your real name”) and transferred me to another department.

They were much nicer, scheduled us for an appointment a month out, and told us the giant stack of documents to bring with us to it. We mulled it over for that entire month, wondering what the problem was. Were we compromised in the Equifax breach even though Equifax told us we weren’t? Was there another data breach at the VA and my information was leaked this time? Was it because we have different last names? Was it because my husband is an immigrant? Was it because this is our first year filing together? Nothing made sense, and we did a great job of driving ourselves crazy over it.

This morning, we walked into the IRS office with our giant stack of documents, well dressed and looking as official as we could ever be capable of. They called us back immediately, and started asking for ID’s and various other things. Lucky for us, the agent was much nicer than the people on the phone were. About five minutes into this, she asked me, “When did you change your name?” I was confused. She said, “You had a different name last year. When did you change it?” I showed her my tax return from last year, showing that I had the same name. I was still confused. Then it hit us like a wrecking ball what had happened.

My husband spoke up, “Is the birth date May 4, 1976, and is the name Mary? That’s my ex-wife. How did she even get on there? This is Anastasia. She’s my wife. We filed together this year for the first time. We got married last June.”

While the agent could not confirm what was on her screen, we knew that’s what it was because she had a major lightbulb moment right about then, and started working at sorting it all out so our return could move forward. It wasn’t easy, and required multiple system overrides, but as far as we are aware, this issue is now taken care of. We were in the IRS office for about 45 minutes from start to finish, which is better than I was expecting.

The takeaway lesson from all this was that since his ex-wife’s information had been in my husband’s Intuit account when he filed taxes in years past, it somehow repopulated in some of the pages when it was being transmitted to the IRS, but my information was on other pages, so there were massive inconsistencies. It was not like this when we assembled the return. We checked every page multiple times before submitting it, and only his and my information were in there. This was very unexpected. It never happened to me when I got divorced because I got my own Intuit account after separating from my ex-husband, and had never filed taxes with him from there. There were no wires to cross, whereas my husband used his same account, removing her information and adding mine. We had no reason to believe this would cause a problem, but it did.

While I don’t expect this is a broad sweeping problem, our case proves it can happen, and I want people to know about this. In fact, I want people to know about a lot of the weird and unexpected things that happen when you’re divorced, especially the things that can come up years later, the stuff nobody ever tells you about. This is one example, but there are many others. Maybe I’ll write a book on that one day. In the comments, if you’re also a divorced person, why not tell me something unexpected that happened to you.

Let’s Talk About Bridges

highway-overpass

As the Civil Engineer Friend to many, people often talk with me about infrastructure. This is cool. I enjoy being able to inform, debunk, and even foster enthusiasm for a topic a lot of people never think about until a disaster hits the news. I have seen a lot of misconceptions floating around, though, and I want to address a few of them today. The Miami bridge collapse is on everybody’s mind lately, and people wonder if they’re safe on the bridges they use daily, so grab a cup of coffee and let’s talk about bridges.

Misconception 1: The Romans built better bridges than today’s engineers do, and if we funded our state DOT’s better, maybe they could build us things as good as what the Romans had.

While I’m not one to turn down funding, this isn’t what we need it for. In fact, due to advances in Ultra High Performance Concrete (UHPC), we could build bridges that last as long as the Roman ones do, maybe longer. There are materials out there so strong that demolishing them when needed is actually a real challenge. So why don’t we build entire bridges out of that, and just use them for centuries on end?

The answer is pretty simple. When I sit down at my desk to design a bridge, I have a challenge that the engineers of Ancient Rome did not have. The population is growing at a much faster rate than it was back then, and I have to consider traffic projections. Today’s bridges reach functional obsolescence long before structural deficiency. If we spent the money to build an entire bridge out of UHPC, everybody would be demanding for it to come down within 40 years because it would be too small for the demands of those times. Who cares that it would have probably lasted for centuries? If it isn’t serving its purpose, the extra construction costs were a waste.

With the way populations are rising in most major cities today, we need to be focusing more on taking the focus off car commuting, and expanding public transit, including light rail, than on showing each other pictures of Roman bridges and saying, “Why can’t our engineers do this anymore?” We can. You don’t want us to. Trust me.

Misconception 2: Accelerated Bridge Construction means “build a bridge fast”. It’s far better to take our time and do it right.

Everyone is talking about Accelerated Bridge Construction (ABC) ever since last Friday when an ABC bridge dropped a span in an open street in Miami. While I’ll refrain from speculating on the cause of that collapse, I will say, without hesitation, that ABC technology was not to blame for it. ABC is not just building a bridge faster than usual. It is an entirely different set of methods for construction. Things that would normally be cast in place are instead precast, and moved into place in large units (girders with the deck already on, entire abutments, etc), held there by UHPC, like a giant Lego set. It’s actually an amazing process that we should be fascinated with, not fearful of.

There are numerous reasons to use ABC. Some bridges go through the habitat or migration path of protected species, meaning long lasting construction projects are not an option without severe environmental consequences. ABC can allow a bridge to be replaced for the good of the human users without negative effects to the local wildlife. The same can be said of fragile marshes. In some areas where the ground freezes, bridges through protected marsh land have been replaced through ABC during months when the ground is frozen, allowing the construction to be completed with no disturbance to the marsh. ABC is a more environmentally friendly way to replace a bridge.

Economics are another important reason that we should be using more ABC, not less. A major roadway that’s shut down or restricted for months to years on end for a standard bridge replacement, costs millions in commerce and productivity. Plus, in states where construction cannot happen year round, this can be exacerbated further, and the benefits of ABC become even more substantial. ABC is more expensive than standard bridge construction, but when costs to society are factored in, it’s practically a steal in many cases.

ABC is safe. There are countless guides, methods, checks, and balances for how to do this, and how not to do it. More contractors are beginning to understand it, and there are nationwide initiatives to educate engineers and contractors about it (I attended a seminar on it earlier this month, in fact!) We cannot let one bad incident detract from use of a technology with such an otherwise positive history. There are ABC bridges all over the country. You’ve probably driven on one, maybe more. You were fine.

Misconception 3: Someone from the state DOT said there are 60 bridges in my city that need repairs! What are you people even doing?! I can’t possibly drive on a bridge that needs repairs!

Bridge repairs are one of my favorite things ever. Given the choice, I’d rather fix an old bridge than design a snazzy new one any day of the week. (I do both, but I really love old bridges that look like lost causes.) Let me tell you about the most common repairs that I do:

Rail retrofits are far and away the most common repair request we get. What this means is that the rail on a bridge is functionally obsolete. Usually, they’ve put a lot of asphalt overlays on the bridge, causing the rail to be a couple inches shorter in relation to the roadway surface than it was when installed, so it doesn’t meet today’s standard for height. Sometimes the rail is just old, and a style the district engineer does not prefer. Sometimes it’s had a lot of vehicle impacts and looks nasty. We then retrofit a new rail that meets today’s standards, and will hopefully be good to go for decades to come. The old rail probably wasn’t unsafe, but the new rail is better.

The next most common repair that I design is surface repair of concrete. What this means is that over the years, usually when the bridge is around 50 years old, the concrete starts to delaminate in certain places. This doesn’t mean the bridge is bad or that you’re going to fall through it. It just means we need to chip away that delaminated concrete, clean the reinforcing steel in some cases, and replace it with new concrete that is of better quality. This is far more common in some districts than others since concrete composition is highly regional, deicing salts are not used everywhere, and some bridges are in marine environments, but overall, it’s an extremely common repair.

Other repairs that should never ever scare you include heat straightening of steel girders due to vehicle impact, addition of a drainage flume, shot blasting a deck to apply a new overlay, addition of new riprap at slopes, cleaning and resetting of steel shoes and bearings, cleaning and sealing of expansion joints. I’ve designed all these repairs and then some, and every single bridge stayed open to traffic, never had a questionable load rating, and nobody was ever unsafe on them.

We do these repairs so the bridges won’t become unsafe. All of those bridges needed repairs so they wouldn’t pose a hazard to anybody. They didn’t need repairs because they were already a hazard. We do everything we can to keep them from getting to that point, and there are programs that exist that prioritize exactly that (these are my favorite programs to participate in at work).

That’s not to say there aren’t some repairs that are more concerning, and some that result in dangerous situations. There are. You wouldn’t be allowed on those bridges. We risk our licenses on keeping the people safe and we’re extremely picky when it comes to what bridges we allow to stay open for that exact reason. We have boots on the ground on all of our roadways every day, and when something concerning is observed, we don’t hesitate to close a bridge. If you get hurt, we never practice again. It’s really that simple. We have a huge interest in keeping you safe.

Oh, and one last thing on this one. Sometimes there’s something that looks really scary, but actually isn’t, like a big hole in the concrete (Riprap) slope under a bridge, or a cracked wingwall, really ugly stuff that makes it look like the bridge is falling down. The only way that could hurt you is if you fell in it or tripped over it. It’s not a structural problem with the bridge. There are numerous other things that look scary, but really aren’t structurally damning. However, I have been part of a team that closed a bridge permanently over a pattern of cracks that we could not see until we got out of the truck and walked the deck slowly. The really scary stuff, you probably can’t see as you drive by. That’s why bridge inspectors are out there doing their job every day, and bridges are on a schedule of inspections that allows us to catch problems before they become dangerous to users.

Bottom line:

I’m glad we’re talking about infrastructure. This is something people need to take more of an interest in, not just when there’s a disaster and it becomes cool to criticize engineers and weigh in on our chosen methods, but every day. It’s like anything else, there are a ton of misconceptions. It isn’t that people tell lies about us, but that most members of the media don’t really understand what goes into designing things that are meant to be used by every person in society. It’s a big job, and I’m glad to do it, even on the days when it seems like everyone has an opinion on how it should be done better. If I can ask one thing, I would want everyone to keep focused on facts, research, and expert accounts, and not to get sidetracked by sensationalism and pithy memes. We can appreciate our Roman heritage without thinking we should go back to their methods. We can acknowledge a tragedy without scrapping everything associated with it. We can, and we should, keep all things in perspective in order to do our best work.

Aliens, Flat Earth, and Conservative Army Buddies

flat-world

 

When I was 10 years old, I stood in the supermarket checkout, astounded. There, on the cover of a newspaper, was Bill Clinton shaking hands with an alien. “Dad!”, I said, practically ecstatic, “Bill Clinton knows an alien! Look!” I was obsessed with aliens and UFO’s at the time, and we were Democrats, so this was basically my dream headline. Our president had convinced the aliens to talk to us. My dad laughed, and said, “That newspaper is what we call a tabloid. They report things that aren’t true to get people’s attention, just like they got yours. If Bill Clinton had met an alien, don’t you think we would have seen it in the New York Times or on the News Hour?” I realized he was right, and was slightly disappointed because I really wanted the aliens to visit us.

Years later, Men In Black came out, and my sister and I went to the theater to see it. In one scene, Agent K goes to a newsstand, and buys up all the tabloids, explaining to the newly minted Agent J, that that’s where all the real news is. Everyone in the theater laughed because we knew it was ridiculous. I was reminded of that moment in the supermarket checkout years prior. The entire premise of the movie was that there’s a whole alien eco-system hidden in plain sight, which is a lovely thing to think about, to me anyway. Of course, we all knew it was the stuff of, well, supermarket tabloids and Hollywood creatives.

Within my lifetime, the line between journalism and farce has become so blurred that people seem to have no idea what to believe anymore, and conspiracy theories have taken over. The internet has successfully allowed anybody to publish their views to a wide audience in seconds. While this has been important to society in some ways, like the ability to live stream police brutality or crimes, and a real trip in other ways, like how some seemingly random things go viral, it has also provided a means for conspiracy theorists to be placed on more equal footing than they were before. The New York Times was not generally placed next to The National Enquirer. It sat next to The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. There was a visible and clear demarcation. This is journalism. That is just for fun. That line doesn’t exist on the internet, though. A blog is a blog is a blog. Of course, there are wonderful and credible sources online as well, but a person really has to know how to sort them out from the rest.

We can’t talk about this without talking about the recent trend toward declaring anything that doesn’t fit one’s preferred narrative to be fake news. I remember explaining what fake news was to a friend’s cousin who was insisting that The Washington Post was fake news because it publishes a lot of things he doesn’t agree with. He showed me some evidence for his claim. It was the Opinions page, and featured an analysis of a recent issue written by a Democrat Congressman, and an analysis of that same issue written by a Republican Congressman. He said, “Look! It’s fake news! They run stories that contradict each other!” I pointed to the byline at the top that said “Opposing Views”. I explained that an opinion piece cannot be fake news because it is presenting someone’s opinion on an issue as their opinion, not reporting it as fact. I also explained that representing both sides of an issue is balanced reporting, not indecision. This, along with the fact that it wasn’t the first time I’d had this conversation, lead me to one conclusion. The ability to evaluate a source has become scarce in society, and that probably goes a long way toward explaining the rise in conspiracy theories. Increasing numbers of people deny the validity of a source that goes against their own bias, so if The Washington Post can be fake news, then Green Med Info, David Avocado Wolf, InfoWars, or any given YouTube channel could be the real deal as far as they’re concerned. I have found that in most cases, these same people are not open to logic and reason. My friend’s cousin still thinks The Washington Post is fake news, and says so every chance he gets.

I will never forget the day I came home from work to find my husband tapping away furiously at his laptop keys with the same look on his face that he gets when his ex-wife sends a particularly rude email. As I walked into the bedroom, he said, “Come here. You’ve got to see this. Some guy thinks the earth is flat and has been arguing with me for an hour about it.” My first thought was that a master level troll was messing with him. My husband is no stranger to the internet, and doesn’t fall for just any troll, so I figured this must be a really good one, the sort of troll you have to appreciate for their raw skill even if you think trolling is pretty annoying in general. I was wrong again. It wasn’t a troll. This was an actual person who thought the earth was flat, and they were certain they were going to convince my husband, who has an above average grasp of scientific principles, to believe them.

Our curiosity was piqued. How could any functional adult believe something that was the complete opposite of everything we learned in Kindergarten? The earth being round is pretty much the most basic scientific fact that exists, and these people deny it. How? We grabbed a couple of ciders and started Googling. We had no idea what a rabbit hole we were going down when we started, but there’s basically a whole conspiracy theory community out there who are convinced of everything from the earth being flat, to Australia not being real, to the moon landing being faked, to the illuminati being a thing that exists. There aren’t enough minutes in ten lifetimes to delve into all of it, so flat earth seemed like a place to start, especially since it’s so obviously and objectively wrong. The biggest thing we wanted to know was why these people think the earth is flat in spite of so much evidence to the contrary.

Most of the flat earthers’ arguments seem to be religiously based. They go by a drawing that was included with the Old Testament that described a flat earth with a firmament filled with the atmosphere as we know it. They think this entire assembly is floating in water, and that the stars are fallen angels who come to earth to procreate with human women. I wish I were making this up, but I’m not. That’s what they think.

But aren’t they aware that the Bible was written a long time ago, before Kepler defined orbits, before Galileo determined our orbit in particular to be heliocentric, before Newton defined gravity and figured out how it works? I’m not here to criticize anyone’s religious beliefs, but surely one can understand that the people who wrote the Bible weren’t exactly going to pass today’s peer review process with their understanding of science. The answer is yes, they are aware of that, and they don’t care. They’re right, we’re wrong, and we can take our peer review and shove it.

But how can they believe these things in a world where we have sufficient numerical analysis to prove the shape, size, and other properties of our planet? Anyone who’s been to engineering school remembers those first few courses in Newtonian physics, statics, and dynamics, the courses that taught us how matter behaves on this planet of ours. Our first equations, and some of our subsequent ones, made certain assumptions. All weights were on a Teflon track which provided no friction. All projectiles were spherical and encountered no air resistance. Bodies were uniform in density. Loads were always applied exactly at easily determined points. These completely unrealistic assumptions helped us to learn the concepts of motion, and add in the other factors as we went. Sometimes those other things are negligible, and there are methods for determining that. In any case, the general equation governing an event is important, and usually based on assumptions that do not represent reality.

Apparently, no flat earther ever went to engineering school. Please try to hide your shock. Anyway, they found an old equation in a public NASA archive from 1984, the explanation for which includes the words, “Assume a flat earth.” It is a formula for a general equation that can be used for aeronautical calculations on any landing surface, whether the earth, the moon, another planet, anything. When it comes to engineering calculations, you can always add another term or coefficient to narrow down your results, but we start with the general equation, flat surfaces, Teflon tracks, and spherical chickens with no air resistance launched from cannons with exactly known blasting loads. These are the ingredients, and everyone who survived even to sophomore year of engineering school knows it.

But how do people deny the earth is round when there are pictures of it taken from space? They claim it’s all CGI, that NASA is a giant conspiracy made to trick the people, and that all of it is completely made up by the government. Why would the government want to do this? Your guess is as good as mine. As a longtime government employee, I have no idea where the funding for that type of cover-up operation would come from, and I really wish they’d give me some of it to improve our infrastructure. That’s what these people think, though. That’s the bottom line. They think the earth is flat, and Big Science has some covert interest in keeping that information from the people.

I’m not concerned with what these people think. I’m more concerned with the fact that we live in a world where something so patently ridiculous that most people dismiss it as a joke the first time they hear it can gain enough traction that the average netizen is aware of it. This is more than just some internet rumor we can laugh about on FaceBook. Shortly after my husband and I discovered that flat earth theory exists, we made the extremely unfortunate and maddening discovery that many of the same people who are convinced that we’re floating through space on a giant Frisbee are also spreading rumors that the Parkland students who are currently rallying for common sense legislation to keep our kids safe in schools, are paid actors, and that the entire deadly incident at their school was a ploy by the government.

A quick search turns up hundreds of memes showing pictures of the Parkland students, photoshopped into movie posters, with sayings superimposed over them about how they got paid, and other things that are completely vile to do to a bunch of teens who have been through enough already. They will latch onto anything. Because one of the students posts a lot of YouTube videos from California, they insist he actually lives there, and was flown into Florida to be a paid crisis actor in Parkland. Even after he explained quite publicly that he is from California, and moved to Florida a year ago, these people did not let up.

Upon searching a little further, we find that they did this to the Sandy Hook kids’ families as well. They accused them of being paid actors, of participating in a government operation to subjugate the people in some way. How, I’m not exactly sure. Why the government would even want to do something like this, they never can answer. They are just determined to believe that people are not who they say they are, and it’s all a massive conspiracy.

If the 2016 election taught me anything, it’s that we can’t ignore the parts of our society we think are fringe like we once could. We simply don’t have that luxury anymore. I remember one of my Army buddies telling me in 2013 that the Tea Party was a big deal, and that the GOP was going to move significantly to the right because the base was energized. I didn’t think much of it because he is extremely biased on the subject, and having been in the pub for several hours at that point, we weren’t exactly sober. Given the circumstances, I did what every other university-educated, major city dwelling liberal did when confronted with ideas like that, and dismissed the concept as illogical, because objectively, it was. If they couldn’t even elect McCain or Romney, then how the hell would they elect someone as crazy as Palin on their own? Then a few years later, we got blindsided when those exact people showed up in droves, and elected Donald Trump, who makes Sarah Palin look like a lady and a scholar by comparison.

My lesson was that these days, you can’t brush off the drunken ramblings of your conservative Army buddy. Similarly, we cannot just dismiss these conspiracy theorists as crazy people who will go away. They will not go away. They create tons of content, disseminate it widely, and have a bigger following than most of us know. They prey on people who don’t know how to evaluate a source, who are disenfranchised in society, who don’t have access to the formal education that would debunk their ideas off hand. They are a symptom of a major problem with our society. They exist because people don’t know how to evaluate a source. They proliferate because people are trying to make sense of things they can’t explain.

The cure is information, not for them because they won’t have it, but for our children and others in society so they never fall into these traps. We knew we had to protect our kids from traffickers on the internet. We knew we had to protect them from for-profit university scams. We need to protect them from conspiracy theories, too. It’s not funny, it’s not cute, it’s not a phase. It’s harmful, and it’s causing problems in society. In today’s world, we have to fight for science and for reason, and this is one of the ways we have to do that. Talk about reality. Speak the truth. Talk about science. Do it every day. Make it second nature. Then these people and their bad information won’t stand a chance.

Maybe then, the aliens will want to talk to us.

Talk About Money.

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My husband can pinpoint the exact week the financial crisis hit California. He received more bad checks from clients that week than he had in 20+ years of business combined. As the owner of a sole proprietor business that relies on people having disposable income, he’s the canary in the economic coalmine. His business follows a predictable pattern throughout the year, with high and low months being fairly consistent over time.

February and March are usually high months. This February, he didn’t sign a single new client, and March is looking only slightly better. Nothing changed about the way he does business. His website is working fine. He still has a fantastic reputation. Clients just didn’t call. We were obviously concerned, and did what anyone would do. We began to investigate. We already knew the stock market was low, but that hadn’t affected his clients much in the past, so we put that aside. It wasn’t long before we found the answer, in our mailbox, of all places.

We submitted our tax return on January 29, the first day filing opened, and on March 2, the IRS sent us a letter informing us that they could not finish processing it until we verified our identities. They thought we could have been compromised by the 2017 Equifax breach, so they wanted to make sure it was us before moving forward. We were annoyed since we’d already taken care of this with Equifax when the breach happened, but my husband gathered all the documents the letter said we needed, and I called the IRS. I was on hold for 58 minutes.

When someone answered, I was cheerful and polite, and gave her all the information she asked for. Abruptly, she became rude, and said, “Are you a third party or something?” I replied that I was not a third party, that this was my husband’s and my return. She said that we would have to verify our identities in person, and transferred me to a different department. They were nicer, and set me up with the soonest appointment they had in our city, exactly one month out.

For those keeping score, our tax return was filed on January 29. It will not proceed until after we have verified our identities in person in April. It probably will take a couple weeks after that to fully process, so mid-April. Normally, people who filed when we did could expect a refund in mid-February. A quick Google turned up reports that this identity verification was being asked of millions of people, and millions of others were asked to send verification of health insurance coverage. That means many millions of tax refunds are delayed. This explains my husband’s low revenue February. A lot of people use their tax refunds to pay for his services.

I had questions, though. Namely, why are we not seeing thousands of social media posts about this? I realized that I hadn’t seen any posts about people getting their tax refunds. I usually do see posts about that this time of year. This year, there has been none of that. This substantiates, at least anecdotally, that lots of people have delayed refunds. Why, then, are people not talking about how refunds are delayed? For every person who uses their refund for Disney tickets, there are probably three or four who use it to catch up on bills, pay off credit cards, or get a much needed vehicle or home repair. These people, a noticeable percentage of Americans, I would guess, are likely suffering due to the delayed tax refunds.

For us personally, we managed a small refund this year, mostly due to the fact that we got married, and I’d had taxes withheld as single, so we’re getting most of that back. Between my husband’s business being low and our refund being delayed, we’re not in a great place at the moment either. We’ll be ok. Our bills are paid and we’ve got plenty to eat, but our credit cards are higher than we’d like them, and every day that refund is delayed, we accrue more interest. Every day everyone else’s refunds are delayed, his business stays low. It’s a vicious cycle for us, and I know we’re not alone in that.

The question, once again, is why people in this giant boat, myself included, are not posting about this on social media. This is happening to a lot of us, none of us like it, yet, we’re not talking about it. I had to think about why that is, and while I’m sure there are many components to it, a huge part is America’s taboo around talking about money. Another huge part of it is how our society demonizes people who admit to not having enough money. Our culture openly despises the poor, but you don’t even have to be poor to catch hell for your financial practices, even if you did nothing wrong. Think about it. What would happen if you posted about having a hard time financially? You’d get a few people who were empathetic, and at least as many who gave either the worst advice in the world or some backhanded comment that implies you deserve it somehow. Where did this start? Why are we like this?

Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but the rich have a tangible interest in the common people being divided and distracted by in-fighting. This allows the politicians they pay with lobbying money to pass bills that don’t do anything for the majority of us, and shift wealth in directions that benefit only approximately 1-5% of Americans. If we shush each other about our hardships, or smack each other down with trite advice and backhanded comments, we are doing this work for them, preventing ourselves from coming together and addressing the real issues that exist, the things that would have to change to make our government work for us. This is why we can’t seem to vote these bought and paid for politicians out. They have divided us well enough that we can’t seem to come together and agree that they’re the problem for putting us in this situation in the first place.

Anyway, this seems to have started in the form of distrust and dehumanization of the poor. In 1976, Ronald Reagan gave a campaign speech about a fictional woman in south Chicago who lived richly off government benefits, epitomized every racist stereotype of black people, and was definitely someone hardworking people should be mad at because as far as he was concerned, she was picking their pockets. While he never used the term itself, this became the myth of the welfare queen, the foundation for American distrust of the poor. This was almost coldly comical coming from the person who brought us trickle-down economics, which shifted more wealth away from the common people, thus creating more poverty, than nearly any other economic policy in our nation’s history.

Make no mistake, though, the myth of the welfare queen was an absolute game changer in the way our culture relates to its most vulnerable citizens. It gave people license to judge the purchases and practices of those less fortunate, and self-appoint as judge, jury, and executioner over who was deserving of help, and who wasn’t. After all, they’ve been told that they pay their taxes, and those people are just living off them. This divided people, and caused a profound loss of empathy on a societal level, not to mention a complete disregard for the facts surrounding social welfare programs and poverty in general.

While all this was happening, wealth was being shifted away from the common people, and toward the rich. Things have become drastically more expensive, and we’re not allowed to admit we’re struggling, lest we cop to being “the poor”, and open ourselves up for the judgment thereof. As a person who temporarily experienced poverty, I can attest that otherwise decent people are awful to the poor. You get the worst, most useless, advice ever, and everyone looks for ways that your own failures as a human being put you in that position. Nobody ever says, “Yeah, this economy is awful. Sorry you’re getting the worst of it right now.”, and leaves it at that. I think this is mostly to convince themselves it couldn’t happen to them, but I’m no psychologist.

As a society, our reaction when someone is struggling is to blame them, not look at the circumstances. This isn’t just a conservative thing either. People all over the political spectrum do this to varying extents. My parents, who have always voted Democrat and think Reagan’s economic policy sucks, are the worst offenders I know when it comes to this. It took until I was in my 30’s before I realized the hardship I’ve experienced at times is actually not the result of me being stupid, the economy is just brutal. That’s why I have student loan debt, why I rented for so long before buying, why I live a more modest lifestyle than engineers did in the 90’s.

People have been trained to assume the worst of one another. “They don’t have money. Must be gambling or alcohol.” While addiction is certainly a legitimate problem, it’s far more likely to be some combination of crushing student loan debt, medical bills, a savage job market, and runaway housing prices, which we absolutely could do something about if we could just come together and agree that they’re a problem for the majority of us. Nothing will get done as long as we’re insisting that we don’t have these problems, and that if those people over there just did whatever financial program is popular now, they wouldn’t either. (These programs work for some people, and that’s great, but they’re not a substitute for fixing the ways in which our economy isn’t working for the average person.)

In order for this change to happen, we have to talk about money, and not just bragging about all the nice stuff we just bought. We have to talk about how we put a month of daycare on a credit card because our ex-spouse was late with the child support, and we rely on that money. We have to talk about how we actually kind of wish we got free lunch for our kids at school, like our chronically unemployed cousin gets for their kids, because pretty much everyone would benefit from giving this across the board. We have to talk about how scary it was when we experienced a layoff, an injury, a corporate restructuring, and nearly lost our house because we missed a paycheck or two. We have to stop pretending we all have a cushion in savings, and be honest about the fact that most of us don’t anymore, if we ever did.

Above all, we have to stop judging each other for this. It’s ok to be mad because the government is taking too long with your tax refund. Please tell that Baby Boomer who thinks you can save for a house by forgoing your weekly Starbucks that they’re full of it. Avocado toast is delicious, and totally not the reason you’re in debt (seriously, avocados are like 39 cents at Aldi). Tell people who insinuate that your smartphone is the problem that it’s actually the reason you have a job, and selling it probably wouldn’t even pay off one credit card. Talk about money. Talk about your debt. Reply to trite advice by explaining logically why that won’t work. Do it enough times that the message gets through.

Then vote. Vote for people who won’t accept money from those who want to buy politicians. Vote for people who know what it’s like to be middle class or poor, and to raise a family like that. Vote for people who remember who put them in public office in the first place. Vote for millennials! Vote for people who see that most of us really aren’t ok by the standards previous generations knew. Vote for those who agree that it’s maddening that these politicians keep moving the goalposts like some kind of 4chan troll in a comments section. Be honest. This isn’t working for you any better than it’s working for me.

I’m Anastasia. I’m an engineer, and I live in a major metro area that is considered a great place for young professionals to accomplish things. I’m a millennial, a wife, a mom, and a homeowner. I have debt, not because I’m stupid, or because I love avocados and La Croix, but because education and housing are expensive! My husband and I pay about $10k/yr in state and local taxes. We are contributors to society, like everyone else. We want our tax refund, and for his business to pick up because everyone else got theirs, too, and that’s not a personal failing of ours. We won’t be shamed, and if you’re mad about this, too, you shouldn’t be either. The government isn’t functioning well, and we are seeing the results of that.

When the common people have money, the economy flourishes because we spend it. When it’s withheld, the economy lags. Let’s talk about money, let’s fix this for all of us, and let’s stimulate the economy.

Are You a “Responsible Owner”?

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At work, we have to do something called Smith System Driving classes. It’s like Defensive Driving, but really detailed. I learned recently that UPS uses the same program for their drivers. Apparently, since we drive vehicles owned by our employer, sometimes for very far distances to visit project sites, the cost-benefit analysis weighs out in favor of sending us through this really expensive driving class every three years.

I took it for the first time last September, and after making about 100 jokes about how engineers are rich and awkward, the instructor asked each of us to rate our driving ability. Two older admin specialists said they were above average drivers by reason of experience. I was next. I said, “I know of no rubric for analyzing how I stack up against other drivers. However, since I’m relatively young, I have quick reaction time, and my vision is fantastic, but I’m also often tired, which can reduce reaction time” (I showed equations for all of this. There was a marker board. Never give an engineer a marker.) I continued, “I’ve never been tested on my actual skills as a driver, only on my ability to follow basic laws, so I have no idea how my technique stacks up against my peers. I posit that we can probably consider driving ability to be defined by a normal distribution, and that the best odds are I’m within one standard deviation of the mean, so I would classify myself as average.”

The other engineer in the room concurred with my analysis and reasoning, and classified himself as average, too. I was, admittedly, being pedantic about it, as the preceding hour had basically been one long joke about engineers, so I decided to be as stereotypical of an engineer as I could about answering, but my point was solid. Most people are average drivers, if we consider “average” to be within one standard deviation of the mean, by whatever numerical standard we might use to quantify ability in this respect.

The instructor looked at my coworker and me, dumbfounded, and said, “I’ve been teaching this class for five years, and nobody has ever said they’re an average driver until you two.” That’s engineers for you, always the odd ones out. He made a good point, though. Most people consider themselves above average drivers. Ask 100 people how good they are at driving, and your experience is going to be similar to his. Everyone will tell you they’re a good driver, and they’ll also probably tell you that everyone else on the road is a blithering idiot, and most traffic problems are due to that fact.

For extra credit, do this at a military base, which has people from everywhere all living in close quarters, and see how many people you can get to tell you that people from everywhere but their hometown can’t drive. You’ll find a lot of people like that. Driving is a tradition in this country, and people have strong ideas on how it should be done. Most people are convinced they’re doing it right, and better than other people. This is statistically improbable, but nearly everybody in society believes it. Look at how many memes exist about bad drivers. Nobody sharing them thinks it could possibly be them, and they have absolutely no basis for that position.

I don’t want to talk about driving, though. When people talk about privately owned weapons of any type, they always talk about being a responsible owner. What does that even mean? “Responsible owner” is an arbitrary term like “good driver”. It means something completely different to each person, and we have no unified standard available to the average person for any of it. Consequently, everyone is a responsible owner by their own standard. In every aspect of life, we all cut certain corners, and we justify to ourselves why those corners were acceptable to cut. The problems come when those cut corners begin to affect other people, as is the case with cars and deadly projectiles. That’s when it becomes everyone else’s business.

I know someone who keeps their deer rifle in a safe with three locking mechanisms, and their ammo at their brother’s house. I know someone who keeps a loaded .375 in a boot on the top shelf of their closet. I know a lot of people between these two extremes. The one thing every one of them has in common is that they’ll all tell you what a responsible owner they are if you ask, even my friend with the loaded .357 balanced precariously in a boot. He has looked me right in the eye and told me that’s safe practice, and given me reasons why he thinks that. I don’t agree, of course, but at this time, there’s no way to disagree officially with things like this. By and large, it’s left to the judgment of the individual.

When I was 10 years old, I was in a crowded farmers’ market, selling produce my family grew, and I heard the loudest sound I had ever heard in my life about 20 feet from me. Everyone gasped and then started yelling and running. It was mayhem for a solid ten minutes until a farmer across the aisle from my family’s table figured out what happened. A 7-year-old had gotten her dad’s .45 out of the glove compartment of the truck, and fired it. Luckily, the round lodged in the engine block, and while I don’t think that truck was much good to anybody anymore, nobody was hurt. When my dad later talked with the farmer whose daughter was involved in the incident, he assured him that he’s a responsible owner, that this was a fluke, that the glove compartment had been locked, and his daughter had gotten ahold of the keys, which normally never happens. My dad, of course, was not pleased with this, and proposed a no weapons policy in the market from there forward since it could have ended horribly if she’d fired it into the crowd rather than into the engine. The board of directors unanimously denied his motion to amend the policies, most people choosing to believe this could happen to anybody. If you think about it, that tells a lot about what responsible ownership consists of to the average person. That’s not reassuring.

Years later, when I joined the Army, my Drill Sergeant asked us one day, about 4 weeks into basic training, “Who knows a lot about marksmanship, hunting, or anything related? Who’s been doing this all their lives?” A few people raised their hands, fully expecting to be made leaders of something rifle related, no doubt.

He said, “You idiots are going to have a much harder time learning the fundamentals than everybody who’s coming into this cold, because you’ve had a whole lifetime to develop terrible habits, and you’re probably going to make me sick when I look at your form on the range.” (He is a Drill Sergeant. Insults are part of the job.)

Look past his words, and you’ll see that he actually highlighted a major issue with private ownership of firearms in the US. People do unsafe things because it’s the way they’ve always done them, because that’s the way their dad taught them, and the way his dad taught him, and so on. We have no federally legal way to tell them to do otherwise, so they continue doing what they’re doing, and when horrible things happen, usually by accident, they tell themselves and the world that it was a fluke, that it could happen to anybody, and that nothing else could have been done to prevent it. This is false, harmful, and we can change it.

We have changed a lot about our laws to reflect new knowledge about safety practices in other areas. Children have to use carseats until a certain age now, and there are laws governing how that’s done in each state because we know now that they prevent death and injury in car accidents. Every landlord is now required to provide smoke detectors at certain places in every unit they lease because we know that they save lives in the event of a fire. We change building codes when areas start getting more hurricanes because hurricane anchors drastically reduce the number of rooves that fall on people’s heads. Laws like this work. People are dying less of things that used to kill almost everyone in that situation.

With that in mind, as a part of responsible firearm legislation, can we quantify what it means to be a responsible owner? Can we debunk some of the traditions that are resulting in accidents, and even weapons falling into the wrong hands? We desperately need the CDC to study the effects of firearms in society, on injuries, deaths, accidents, etc. We need an immediate repeal of the laws barring them from conducting this research. I would like to see legislation on what types of safes are required, how ammunition is stored, and where in the homes these things can be kept. I want to see studies on how accidents happen, and a detailed analysis on what could minimize that.

Mostly, can we be honest about the fact that most people need a class on this stuff? I don’t think anyone would argue that defensive driving classes are a bad idea. Like it or not, most of us are average drivers, and we benefit from that sort of thing. Why, then, is ownership of a device that launches high speed projectiles in a split second, often with deadly, injurious, or damaging results, considered more intuitive than driving? Most people are not responsible owners, just as most people are not above average drivers. Most people are average owners who would benefit from a class. It’s time we required one, just as most employers do for anyone who expects to drive their vehicles. The benefits outweigh the costs.

Arm the Teachers

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Picture it, senior Calculus Seminar, 2019, Any High School, USA. It’s April, the warm breeze is blowing through an open window, and your teacher is explaining a type of integral you know you’re going to use in real life because you just got accepted to the College of Engineering at the State U. As you fantasize about the labs you’ll be working in next year and how beautiful the people there with you will be, your teacher reaches up to write something on the Smart Board, and her blazer moves just slightly, revealing the handle of her Glock 19, lovingly carried in a purple shoulder holster that matches her blouse. Without a moment’s hesitation, you continue taking notes, and she continues teaching. It’s just another day in America. “I’m glad she’s armed. Nothing can happen to us like this.”, you think to yourself.

OK, enough. Apparently, there are a lot of people in this country who think like this. I know a bunch of them personally, and apparently, people elected quite a few to public office. I keep hearing these ideas discussed, and subsequently denied on Twitter by a certain 45th president, and I have no idea why people can’t see what an objectively horrible idea it would be to arm teachers. Leaving aside our ideals about schools being safe places, and any emotional reaction we may have to guns, there are multiple practical reasons we should take this idea off the table for good, and instead focus on legislation that will help in other ways.

First, let’s think about equipment and its capabilities. This is the one that really jumps out at me. Even if you love guns, this idea makes no sense. Actually, anyone who loves guns and knows anything about them, and still proposes this is being deliberately disingenuous because they know damned well that it won’t work. Mass shooters in recent years tend to use AR-15 rifles, as we have established. One reason they tend to prefer these is because they’re accurate from a long distance. In the Army, we qualified on targets up to 300 Meters with our M-4’s, which are a military grade AR-15 equivalent. If you have good vision, it’s not even difficult to hit those long targets. This rifle is fantastic for picking off targets at a distance. That’s exactly how mass shooters use them, and why they’re so deadly. Nobody can get close. The most recent shooter didn’t even get taken down. He stopped shooting when he decided he was done, and walked away. That’s the kind of prerogative a long range rifle buys a person in that situation. Every proposition I’ve seen has suggested that teachers be armed with handguns as concealed carry permit holders, and right there is where you should stop and declare this idea ineffective and tactically unsound.

In addition to other weapons, I had the opportunity to qualify a couple times with the 9 mm Beretta when I was in the Army, and the first thing I noticed was that the targets were much closer than what I was used to seeing on the M-4 and M-249 ranges! Instead of the closest target being 75 M away, it was more like 5 M, and part of qualifying was firing while walking toward the targets. The reason many staff officers carry 9 mm’s rather than M-4’s, is because they don’t do patrols, and if they need to shoot an enemy, it’s because the wire got breached, a lot of enlisted soldiers with M-4’s got taken out, and they’re going to be in close contact with those combatants. Handguns are for close range. That is what they’re designed for. They are extremely inaccurate at long distances. Arming a teacher with a concealed handgun against a shooter with a long range rifle would not achieve the desired results even if they were an expert marksman, which the majority of teachers are not. It is a gross imbalance in equipment capabilities.

Speaking of accuracy, I read a statistic yesterday that didn’t surprise me a bit. The NYPD has a hit rate of 18% of their targets in live fire situations (the streets, not the range). This doesn’t mean they’re bad shots. They aren’t. They’re well trained professionals who visit the range on a regular basis. As far as accuracy goes, they’re pretty much the best case scenario. They hit 18% of their real world targets because live fire situations are always messy. A suspect doesn’t stay still and wait for the police to shoot them. They run around erratically, seek cover, and you can bet they return fire, necessitating that the officer seek cover as well. The odds of getting a good shot are slim.

Let’s also acknowledge the obvious byproduct of the above situation. 18% of rounds fired by NYPD officers hit their mark. What do you think the other 82% do? They don’t just disappear into thin air. They hit something. With luck, that’s a building, or a tree, or something else inanimate, but in these situations, people are afraid and act unpredictably. If it’s a crowded area (as schools are), then you can just about guarantee that a certain percentage of those rounds are going to hit innocent people. Fortunately, a majority of people who get shot in error don’t die, but they do suffer injuries, sometimes severe, sometimes life limiting. This isn’t a small risk. It’s a reality of gun use in public.

The risks to bystanders drastically outweigh the slim chance an armed teacher could actually get close enough to the shooter to be in range with their sidearm, and get that 18 in 100 shot that takes them down. Chances are, the shooter would take them out before they could get close enough for those 18% odds to even come into play, and that’s assuming the teacher in question is as well trained as an NYPD officer. Since they probably would not be, because they’re teachers, not police officers, the odds are actually much worse.

Next, let’s look at the tactics of an active shooter situation. Anyone who’s ever had training in military or law enforcement knows what a combatant is. Basically, it’s someone with a weapon who looks like they might use it. When you are clearing a room, you take down all combatants you come into contact with. You don’t ask them a bunch of questions about whose side they’re on, and then deliberate on what you should do about it, because if they’re not on your side, they’re going to shoot you while you sit there trying to figure out if you should shoot them. You have to make a one second decision on whether that person is a combatant or not, and then act. In an active shooter situation, when law enforcement enters the building, they are looking for someone with a gun. If you have a gun in that situation, you are going to get shot because you look like a combatant. The only good guys with guns in this scenario are the police. Armed civilians just end up dead. This is a recipe for more dead teachers. Who would actually advocate for that?

There are numerous other reasons this is a bad idea, including cost, training, freak accidents, and it simply not being the job of teachers to take something like this on. We could talk about these aspects of the issue for a week given the chance, but at the end of the day, this is a practical and tactical disaster waiting to happen, and we need to put it out of our minds immediately. I’m disappointed that so many people in this country value guns over human life to such an extent that they would actually propose an idea that would cause more death, and not address the issue at hand in any respect, rather than taking the hard step and coming to the table to create common sense bipartisan legislation to keep our youngest citizens safe in school. We have to demand better than this.

The Kids are All Right, and the Revolution Will Be Televised.

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It’s still a mess out there. Trump’s photo-op with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting survivors went just as one would expect (I say photo-op because it can’t really be called a visit, can it? That would imply some meaningful interaction.) and the comments section on my previous post clearly shows that a lot of people in this country would rather cling to their guns than keep our citizens safer. My husband and I watched these things happening over the weekend, and shook our heads. He asked me, in his very British way, “Why are so many Americans like this?” I honestly didn’t know what to say, because even though I’ve been American all my life, and love a lot of things about this country, I don’t get it either. A lot of us don’t. It is so easy to feel like we’re just beating our heads against a wall trying to talk empathy and common sense into people who are set against understanding things like that. Amid all this, however, I have hope, and lots of it.

People, have you seen the Parkland students?! They are all over Twitter, calling out these politicians and pundits by name, replying to their tweets and platitudes, calling BS on their thoughts, prayers, and refusal to act. Conservative news anchors, they hear your comments about how this is not the time and we shouldn’t make this political (in other words, “please let us sweep this under the rug, keep our guns, and funnel the politicians NRA money”) and they are refusing to be silenced. They’re telling us that yes, this is the time, this is the place, and it absolutely is political. They are right, and their words matter.

I hope everybody saw Emma Gonzalez’s powerful speech at the rally for gun safety. If you haven’t, drop what you’re doing and watch it now. As a born and raised Floridian, as a citizen of the United States, and especially as the mom of a student just a couple years younger than she is, I was so proud of her. The world was watching, and she did a better job at delivering the message that needed to be delivered than any adult, and especially any politician. Nobody deserves to be in the situation these students are in, especially at a young age, but they aren’t accepting the role of victim. They are reframing themselves as change makers. As it turns out, the revolution will be televised.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas students aren’t alone in their efforts, as teens across the nation are staging protests, including one outside the White House over the weekend, and planning school walkouts to send a powerful message to politicians that they demand action. I strongly recommend all politicians of all parties shut up and listen. These aren’t kids. These are people who are going to vote you out of office very soon if you don’t do something. Probably ¼ of the students who survived the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting will be 18 in time for the upcoming midterm election, and probably half of them by the 2020 general election. Politicians, meet your constituents. Aren’t you lucky? They’re telling you exactly what you need to do to get the votes of their generation (and their generation is huge, so you really want their votes).

I know a lot of people are wondering what was different about this one, why these students are so much more vocal about fighting back than the survivors of previous school shootings. To be clear, I’m not criticizing the response of any survivor. Everyone copes in their own way, and it’s all valid. Even so, we have to admit, this time is different. This isn’t the first time school shooting survivors have had Twitter, or microphones, or intelligence, or anger. None of that is new. Maybe this was just a long time coming. Maybe we’re already so angry as a nation about the horrible (elected) situation in DC that we were sitting on a powder keg for action, and this was one hell of a catalyst. Whatever the reason, I think we are finally going to have the national conversation we’ve been needing, and hopefully affect change at the ballot box in a few months, and again in a couple years. These students and their courageous activism are going to be a game changer.

As I watch these students find their voices and their power, I remember Columbine as the event that changed everything. I was a student at a different Florida high school at that time, and I remember how it shook our community even though we were half a continent away. I remember my school receiving bomb threats in the days following, and how the deans tried to figure out security, which was nearly impossible since the school consisted of a large sprawl of small buildings with outdoor hallways, surrounded by large fields owned by the school’s Agriculture department. Since metal detectors would have been largely pointless, the goth kids all got questioned because they wore trench coats, we all had to buy clear backpacks, the Sheriff’s Department searched our cars and lockers a few times, and our Resource Deputy worked overtime, trying to keep his finger on the pulse of the school, and learn of any potential threats.

Consider now, that many of today’s high school students were born in the years immediately following Columbine. Some, if their parents were young, were born to people who remember this from the perspective of a student. (My oldest is the same age as the younger Marjory Stoneman Douglas survivors. I was in high school during Columbine.) These students have never known a world where mass shootings in schools are not a thing. They have grown up in a nation that teaches Kindergarteners which alarm means vacate for fire drill and which one means hide in closets and bathroom stalls for a lockdown drill. The world they grew up in is so jaded that the “smaller” school shootings barely make the news, and the most dystopian headlines ever, things like, “There were only 8 school shootings in the past 6 weeks, not 18”, get shared widely as if they represent the voice of reason, as if we’re doing kind of ok despite the fact that we have school shootings on a regular basis, and the rest of the world is actually pretty horrified with us.

They live in this reality, but go home to parents who remember when it wasn’t like that. I don’t know anybody who’s not completely gutted by the fact that their kids, all the way back to Kindergarten, have rehearsed what to do in the event of a mass shooting. We tell our kids that it doesn’t have to be like this. We tell them that we can do better. Say what you will about millennial parents, but we are raising our kids to know they can make a difference. We grew up on girl power anthems by Gwen Stefani, TLC, and the Spice Girls. We were told we could do anything we wanted in life, and that the technology we were raised with would allow us to innovate more than any other generation. (The fact that a lot of us were hobbled to some degree by the economy has limited this, but our mentality is still influenced by the optimism we came up on.) We danced around the living rooms with our toddlers to Beyonce, and dressed them in shirts that said, “Strong like mom” and “Kind like dad”. We turned gender roles on their heads, with dads happily taking on more of the parenting duties than ever before, and moms contributing in the workforce and politically more than any previous generation. We took our kids to see every Marvel movie, where the good guys always win and diversity is celebrated. We send them to schools that have metal detectors and lockdown procedures, but we fill them with optimism even though we have had a lot of it sucked out of us by the world in recent years. Most of us, at our core, are pretty sure the only way we’re going to change the world is to raise better people. Whether the parents of these students are older millennials, Gen-X, or somewhere in between, they did exactly that, and I’m so proud of them.

We’re a young country. I have to wonder if all this upheaval is part of our growing pains. Maybe the combination of young people with empowered upbringings, Twitter accounts, and anger at the nation that elected the most inept, unhinged, and out of touch presidential administration in history, is what will finally push us in the progressive direction that we’ve been needing for a long time. I don’t think this would have happened if Obama were still in office. I like Obama just fine. Most people do. That’s kind of the point. Maybe because we don’t like our government’s face anymore, we’re finally able to get angry enough at them to affect change.

There’s always been corruption. There’s always been inaction. There have always been policies and decisions that every sensible person should disagree with. This stuff was true no matter who was in office. It was really hard to get mad at Obama, though, because he was a decent person. You can say the same, to some degree, of Bush, Clinton, and if you remember other presidents, probably them as well. The current regime is different. They are not decent people. They are very easy to get justifiably angry at. Maybe it wasn’t solely this massive shooting, but the combination of the vileness of our current political status, the number of victims, and of course the universal availability of Twitter, that created this tide of activism.

Whatever it is, I’m here for it, and you should be, too. Things may seem bleak, but election day is coming. Let’s join with the Parkland students, and give ‘em hell.