The SQL NULL; How Computer Nerdery Can Ease Your Life

Bear with me while I fog y’all up with nerdiness. But trust me. It comes back around to giving you a concept that might make your life a little easier.

(Assuming you don’t have this concept down already, in which case, hey, it’s like putting on that “Greatest Hits” album of old favorites.)

Anyway. Computers store data. If you give a business your name, they’re going to want your address. If you give a business your address, they’re going to want a phone number to call. If you give them a phone number to call, they’re going to want an email address to spam you…

And so on.

When computers store that data, they can store the number you gave them: 555-555-5555. That gets plunked down into the “phone number” field in their storage.

Or, if you lie and say you don’t have a phone, you’re a homeless man who will never contact them again, they will dutifully enter a blank space in that field. That means, definitively, “This customer does not have a phone number.”

Yet if you’re a comp-sci major, you’ll remember the third value that can go in that field:


NULL means “We don’t know.”

Putting a NULL in the phone number means, “This customer might have a phone number, they might not, but we have no current way of knowing what it is.” A customer service rep might enter that if you didn’t answer all their questions, but they wanted to keep your address.

A “don’t know” is different than a “Doesn’t.” A customer rating a movie as “Haven’t seen” is actually different than a customer not having told us whether they’ve seen this movie or not. And if you’re doing queries of data, you often want to be able to look at what you don’t know.

And NULL “don’t-know” values get treated weirdly, particularly in math. What’s 2 + NULL? Well, if you turn that into 2 + “We don’t know”, the answer is obviously “We still don’t know” – which means that any equation that involves a NULL in it emerges as the mathematical equivalent of a shrug. We don’t know!

And the way this nerdery applies to ordinary life is that I said this on Twitter the other day:

“It’s always weird when total strangers tell me they’re disappointed in me. I only get worried when people I respect tell me I’ve fucked up.”

To which someone replied:

“Just because you don’t know someone doesn’t mean they don’t have a valid point.”

And I thought, “That’s potential NULL behavior.”

Admittedly, I phrased it wrong – I should have said “I only get worried when people I respect say they’re disappointed,” as the feedback of strangers can be of deep concern when they present valid reasons – but the mathematical point is that most people seem to think there’s only two ways to go:

1) The disappointment of these people I’ve never interacted with is something to be concerned about, or:
2) The disappointment of these people I’ve never interacted with *is not* something to be concerned about.

Me? I get by with a healthy dosage of NULL.

I don’t know these people. I cannot say whether their judgment is sound enough for me to be concerned about one way or the other by the withdrawal of their approval – at least not without research I’m not willing to do right now. I don’t have to cling to a binary judgment that this is good or bad – I can simply say UNKNOWN VALUE, and treat it as such.

NULLs are really handy in all sorts of places.

  • Is my ex-girlfriend a better person now? NULL. (I’m not willing to hang out with them and find out, but maybe they’ve improved. Who knows? They hurt me enough in the past that I’m unwilling to risk it.)
  • Is this person who said a dumb thing online truly as a bigot in every way? NULL. (They said one dumb thing, but everyone fucks up once in a while. Then again, maybe investigation would turn up a lot of other dumb things they’ve said that leads to a reasonable conclusion they *are* that bad. Yet with only one data point, all we can logically say is “They said this dumb thing for unknown reasons.”)
  • Is this blogger as good as they present themselves online? NULL. (As I know all too well, it’s easy to look good when you control the stage!)

And I think once you internalize a bit of NULL-ness, you relax as you realize that you don’t need to have a snap judgment on everything.

Fitting every unknown into a “yes” or “no” gets exhausting, anyway. You start to get attached to that answer. Once you’ve decided on your answer with your limited data, your mind starts to defend it, and then suddenly that unknown person who’s disappointed in you slots firmly into one category or another. If it turns out that someone who you’ve categorized as “not worth your time” starts following up with other good points, you fight the data (“This person’s saying things I respect!”) because you’ve come to a conclusion (“They’re not worth listening to!”) and everyone hates to be proven wrong.

Whereas with a NULL, I’m literally not saying whether the disappointment of someone I’ve never met is worthwhile or not. It could be either way. But I talk to a lot of strangers, and if I followed up on every unknown in my life, I’d never get anything done.

Leaving it unknown is fine. With the NULL, I can wait for further data to present itself, if it does, and then form other decisions from there.

Learn to love the NULL. You do not have to possess an answer for everything. And your life gets a lot easier when you realize, “Hey, I don’t know, and I may not necessarily have to know, and this ambiguous state is okay.”  You can free up a lot of cycles withholding judgment, enabling you more energy to go investigate the things that do matter deeply to you.

And you can do things without having to have a foregone conclusion. As I write this, is this a really obvious thing to say? Or is it something that might be of use to enough people that it’s worth publishing?

As I hit the submit button, my answer is NULL.  And that, too, is okay.

A Comment So Dumb, I Had To Memorialize It

So here’s my dirty little secret: nothing I do over here on this little corner of the web causes much fuss, these days.

Which is not to say that I don’t post my Social Justice Warrior-style essays – but I’ve been doing this schtick for so long that people have come to know what to expect.  I hear some of my friends going, “My Facebook, oh, it’s so filled with angry conservatives!”  Whereas I’ve been posting for so long that either the conservatives have learned to live with me, or they’ve fled.  And I’m not popular enough that the opposition will come over here just to make fun of me.

So occasionally I’ll write a piece like “Why Straight Dudes Don’t Get As Offended As Normal People Do,” and it’ll get linked around, and maybe I’ll get a few extra thousand hits – but my comments section looks pretty much the same.  I am, largely, preaching to the same choir.

But on FetLife…

I cross-post some of my political essays to FetLife, where it often reaches their “Kinky and Popular” front page, and hooooly shit do I get some frothing opposition.  Which is good!  Meeting opposition is where you have the potential to change minds!  So most of my spirited debates are over on FetLife these days.

And posting my “Straight White Dudes” essay has been a cauldron of amusement.  People started keeping a tally of the number of straight white cis guys who posted comments without even bothering to read to the end.

And it was there, my friends, that my favorite comment ever originated.

One particularly strident dude took me to task at length for being a sad windbag.  When do words ever change anything?  You’re just a sad sack couch potato, your side doesn’t have any effective protests, you’re useless and worthless and you name it.

I commented back.  I got two private emails from people warning me “DO NOT ENGAGE WITH THIS BOZO, HE NEVER SHUTS UP.”   And lo, he didn’t, going on at further length about the things I did and didn’t do.  (It doesn’t help that I wasn’t arguing my case as well as I could have.)

Eventually, he unleashes this gem:

“In full disclosure I make a lot of money. So I BUY the trappings of privilege, I didn’t inherit it and it wasn’t given to me. When I started my business I didn’t have two nickels to rub together. And I had exactly ZERO privilege to trade on. I didn’t make it because I was White or a man, or had a wife that was born female. I did it because I was willing to do what other people wouldn’t. Got my hands very dirty and handled some truly disgusting shit, but it paid well.

“And then I risked everything I had and took risks. I got lucky, but I worked very, very hard. There were no springs in my boots as I’ve heard used as a common metaphor. And among almost all the small business owners I know the story is pretty similar.

“We rose by our own hands. Yes we had employees. Capitalized on opportunities where we could and now we get to be told that we are to blame for your missed opportunities in this life.”

And actually, even though I hadn’t discussed privilege at all with him, nor had I blamed him for any missed opportunities, I actually did feel some connection with the dude.  I feel that a lot in discussions of privilege – people going, “I worked hard, this is mine, how dare you say I had it easy?” Because hell, I worked hard to get where I am, I could see how people can feel a sense of that pride ripped away from them.

So I wrote a long and rather heartfelt comment that was a reiteration of my essay “If It’s Not Privilege, What Is?” I talked about how I was a depressive, and had twenty-five years of struggle to get my novel published, and I missed out on parties and lost girlfriends and wrote for three hours a night to fulfill my dream –

– and yet despite all that hard work to get where I was, I still had to acknowledge that women have it harder, people with chronic illnesses have it harder, poor people have it harder.  And that’s why I believe that “You worked hard to get what you got” and “Others can have it harder” is not a contradiction.

And despite the fact that a link to my book is literally the first thing on my FetLife profile, this was my favorite comment of all time:

“Then I guess you have to keep hustling don’t you Ferrett. I left that part out. I got up today and knew I had to keep running to stay ahead of the crashing wave.

“See there is no resting on your laurels. It doesn’t work like that. Sorry bud there is no case of bud lite waiting for you after you type another 500 words. You have to be able to sell something.

“Maybe if this isn’t working you should try something else. I realize that sounds harsh, I don’t mean to say you aren’t good at it, but maybe there is no market for what you are selling?”

Wanna know what it looks like when a dude loses an argument?

It looks like that.  And oh, it’s the best feeling in the world.

Despite the fact that he’d made whole posts about who I was and how I acted and how he knew my kind, he didn’t even know I’d sold a book.  (Or two, if you count the sequel dropping in six weeks.  Or, if you’re really into that sort of thing, three books, as I just sold the third in the series.)

He didn’t even read the first paragraph of my profile.  Hadn’t Googled me, hadn’t checked, just assumed that because I was an SJW I was a failure.  (In the way a lot of straight white cis dude are claiming I make assumptions about them, even though I acknowledged those stereotypes were unfair in the essay itself.)

So yeah.  It’s the best feeling in the world for me, watching him now twist and turn, attempting to say things like “I didn’t read your profile because I didnt think enough of you to spend much time researching your life” and accusing me of a “clumsy attempt at a trap” and…

Doesn’t matter.  He just lost the game.  All his authority, dribbled away.

You rarely get to watch such a magnificent foot-shooting, but there we have it!

Why Straight White Dudes Don’t Get Offended As Often As Normal People Do

“You know, I get insulted, too,” the straight white cis dude says.  “I read articles that mischaracterize my experience as a straight white cis guy.  And when that happens, do I bitch about it on the Internet?  No!  I just suck it up and move on.

“So I guess,” the straight white cis dude concludes, “I’m not easily offended.”

Hold on there, hoss.  Lemme suggest another potential conclusion:

It may be that you’re not insulted nearly as much.

I’d guess that as a straight white cis dude, I’d guess that your experience in things means that your very existence is not routinely forgotten. Nobody in the majority cultures goes, “Another movie consisting exclusively of male leads has hit #1 at the box office?  How could this happen?  Is there really a market for male movies?” And then, weeks later, forget that this trend of “male movies” has been ongoing since, oh, the 1960s.

Nobody in the mainstream cultures goes, “Oh, yeah, fuck, I guess you might be attracted to women, sure.  People do that.  But are you sure you don’t want this dick?”

Nobody in mainstream cultures just assumes you’d like to have transition surgery and that your dressing in men’s clothing is some form of weird attempt to fit in.

What I generally find people saying when they say “I guess I’m not easily offended” is actually closer to “I don’t actually have that many people who offend me.” In general, what these dudes are actually saying is “Ninety-time times out of a hundred, people acknowledge and support me, and I quietly assume that as my birthright. And that hundredth time someone doesn’t acknowledge me, well, that means I’m not easily offended!”

Which is a lot like a five-foot-ten guy saying, “Well, I’m not picky about my furniture.  I can sit anywhere.”  Which may be true, but it’s overlooking the fact that as a guy of average height, most furniture is made to fit you.  If society had quietly decided that the average person was four-foot-ten, or six-foot-ten, then you might spend a little more time in the furniture shop finding something comfortable.

Or not.  There are genuinely some dudes who can fall asleep on rocks.  Just like there are some gay trans black women who can sleep through bonfires of Internet hatred. Some folks are, in fact, genuinely not easily offended, and maybe that’s you.

But my point is, it’s kind of difficult to say whether you’re easily offended when you have an entire society dedicated to reaffirming your existence.  You don’t get erased in 99% of the circumstances.  You don’t get stereotyped.  You don’t have people pigeonholing you.

Yet when I talk to not-easily-offended straight white cis dudes like this, you know what really pisses them off?

Essay titles like “Why Straight White Dudes Don’t Get Offended As Often As Normal People Do.”

A lot of these very same dudes who are all “It’s not important to put gay/minority/trans representations into things!” and “That was just a joke!” when it comes to pointing at other people get veeeery angry when you stereotype them.  “I really fucking hate the way you make ‘straight white cis dude’ sound like an insult, Ferrett,” they’ll say, frothing at the mouth.  “We’re not all that way.  I’m not this parody you’re writing about!”

Well, shit, bro, are you not easily offended?  Or are you simply not easily offended when things are generally not aimed in your direction?

Hell, you’ll see a lot of straight white cis dudes getting angry by the mere fact of being called straight white cis dudes, because they hate the label, don’t you realize we’re people, you’re racist for labelling me.  And that’s a funny thing, because you are straight, you are white, you are cis, you are a dude, and I’m gonna suggest the reason you hate having your whiteness and your cisness and your straightness called out is because up until now, everyone quietly assumed all those things were normal.

Having your central identities marked as different makes you feel freakish and othered, and you fucking hate it.

So again, are you not easily offended?  I’d argue that maybe you are easily offended.  Maybe you’ve just not had to experience what a lot of marginalized communities endure on a regular basis.

Maybe you should take this offense at the way “straight white cis dude” does, in fact, strip off layers of who you are to replace them with a stereotype – and instead of using that anger to defend your domain, maybe you could look at how other stripes of people are more routinely erased, replaced, and debased, and start asking, “Shit, how can I not do that to them?”

And even if you are not easily offended, that doesn’t necessarily mean that “everyone should not be offended” is a great way to be.  I myself have such a tremendous pain tolerance that I walked around for four days with a burst appendix and thought it was a tetchy stomach virus.  But I would be a stupendous dick if I went, “Well, I don’t experience that much pain, so why do we need all of these painkillers?  Just suck it up and deal, like I do.”

And even if that was something we wanted to do, would it be wise?  Sometimes being stoic doesn’t fix the problem.  Like me.  I was very stoic to an illness that was actually fucking killing me – I am lucky to be alive – and maybe complaining is the proper method to fix problems like, I dunno, people forgetting that entire alternative existences exist.

If you’re really not easily offended, then maybe you should demonstrate that  invulnerability by going, “Huh. I wonder if they have a point” when someone unloads on you instead of frowning and saying, “Complaining is bad!”  Maybe you could use that amazing superpower to better other people’s lives instead of shrugging off potentially valid complaints as some form of weak whining.

You’re in a position to do some real good, if you’re not that easily offended.  You can make a positive difference.

I’d like to ask you to think about how to do that.


A Moment I Should Stop To Savor: A Reprint Sale.

Last night, I signed a contract authorizing the reprint of one of my stories.  I signed it, went, “That’s nice,” and went back to writing my novel.

About half an hour later, I realized that the magazine I had signed the reprint contract for was one of my goals when I graduated Clarion in 2008.  I burned to be in that magazine.  And I wrote story after story, each time convinced this would be the one that got through, and piled up at least twenty rejections.

I remember staring at the page, thinking You’ll never make it.  You’ll never have a professional sale.  And if you do, you won’t have it there.

A novel seemed unattainable. Getting 3,500 words of mine into a magazine?  Seemed like the biggest challenge in the world.

And it was for me, back then.  I had to write for another four years, smashing my heart into the keyboard night after night, asking people to rip my stories to shreds so I could ruthlessly excise any part that did not function, before I eventually sold a story to them.  I worked so hard to get there.

That first professional story sale? I took the night off from writing. I poured myself a celebratory drink. I took Gini out to a dinner, I texted all my friends, I did a big post with photos showing my triumph.

Now?  Years later, I have my first novel out – and it’s done well, not breaking any sales records or anything, but it’s got some nice reviews and some people really excited about the sequel dropping in October.  And when I got an editor asking, “We were thinking we wanted a story from you, do you have anything we could reprint?” it was nice – very nice – but it was “Wow, that makes my evening,” not the sort of thing where I stop everything and tell Gini “We’re going out to dinner and getting a bottle of champagne, this deserves A Moment.”

That’s how publishing works. Sell a story? You haven’t gotten nominated for an award. Got nominated for an award?  You haven’t sold a novel. Sold a novel?  The reviews weren’t good.  You got good reviews? Well, it wasn’t a bestseller.  A bestseller? Well, it wasn’t a real bestseller, there’s no movie option….

You wonder why authors are so fucking neurotic.  It’s because the moment they climb the ladder, the rung beneath them ceases to exist.  There’s only the rungs above them, and they’re ridiculously high, and you may never get there.

This is always true of every rung.  Publishing’s a lot of skill and a lot of luck, but you can only control the one.  So you max out on skill and hope the dice roll your way.  Hell, I could submit a story to them now and still get it rejected for various reasons – maybe I wasn’t “on” that day when I wrote that story, maybe they just bought a similar one, maybe the tale doesn’t fit the image they’re trying to sell.  It’s still a struggle for me to sell a story.

But it is no longer an unattainable thing. It’s merely something that’s difficult.

And because of that, I am going to pause for a moment now and ponder this sale.  I’m going to consider the fact that, at least to some subset of professionals, “A Ferrett Steinmetz story” is a desirable genre.  That they’d sought me out to ask for this.  That this awesome magazine, which I’ll announce in time, will be reprinting a tale of mine – and it’s one of my favorites.

Ferrett of 2008 would never have imagined this happening.

Ferrett of 2015 is going to take a moment to be Ferrett of 2008, and break open a little bottle of champagne.

Or at least a root beer.  But this celebratory root beer will be savored.

My Amazing Avengers Nails! (Plus The Last Set of Nails, Which I Forgot!)

So as usual, Ashley my mad manicurist worked her magic the other night.  I told her, “Do X-Men nails,” but the designs for X-Men nails we skimmed through were kiiiinda boring.

But Avengers nails?  Much more impressive.


The little chibi Iron Man is, I find, particularly adorable.

I also forgot to mention the last set of nails I got, which were my “Music Mama” nails:


These nails I liked, but in retrospect her choice of light blue for the music notes on the staves muddied the composition. People knew my nails were pretty, but the piano thumbnails were the only clue this was music until they looked closely.  (And that’s a G-cleft heart in red on the highlight nails.)

Still, with my fabulous glittery Broadway nails, these were the gayest nails I ever had. I felt fabulous.

A Signal Honor: Presenting At Beyond The Love

I’ll be presenting at Beyond the Love in November – which I’m super-stoked about. Beyond the Love is considered one of the best polyamory conferences in America, and I’ve heard nothing but excellent experiences from the folks who’ve attended.  To even be asked there is an extremely flattering compliment to the work I’ve put in analyzing polyamorous relationships.

But I’ve also been asked to give the keynote speech to kick off the convention, which is… really quite humbling. It’ll be a short speech, but to be entrusted to set the tone for the conference is something I take quite seriously.

If you’re interested in attending, it’s held in Columbus, Ohio on the weekend of November 13th.  I’ll be giving talks on troubleshooting broken polyamory, and on how to break up like a goddamned grownup.  I’d be happy to see you there.

(And as a separate disclaimer, if y’all want me to talk in your town, I merely ask that I don’t lose money on the experience. Talk to your con holders about travel expenses and putting me up. Particularly, you know, if you live in Australia.  I really wanna go to Australia some day.)

The Dumb Crimes I Want To See In Fantasy And Sci-Fi

In speculative fiction, there are only three objects, moved from place to place, to commit nonviolent crimes:

  • Bread, stolen to feed your family;
  • Drugs, smuggled to demonstrate your ability to evade the law;
  • Gold and/or jewelry, removed from their vault in a fantastic heist and/or bank robbery.

That’s it.  That’s all the nonviolent crimes there are in fiction.

But when Robert Bennett and John Chu recommended the fantastic Planet Money podcast to me, they forgot to tell me that this podcast’s secret name was “The Fantabulous Compendium Of Immensely Stupid Crimes.”  I’ve only been listening for a few weeks, and already I have heard the hubbub over the following crimes being committed:

  • The man who defied the Raisin Administrative Committee to illegally box his raisins, which triggered a Supreme Court case;
  • The man who told the mayor of Boston “Fuck you, I can too auction off parking spaces,” and promptly discovered why telling Boston politicians to go fuck themselves is an unwise maneuver;
  • The man who went to jail for not watering his lawn, in perhaps the best episode title ever: “Lawn Order.”

And the more you listen to The Fantabulous Compendium Of Immensely Stupid Crimes, the more you come to realize that a) there are a lot of ways to make money by selling things, and b) there are a lot of businessmen and lawmakers who want to stop people from selling things, so c) there are a stupendous amount of absurd crimes involving obscure edge cases that people’s lives literally depend on.

And yet I can’t remember the last time I read a fantasy novel that revolved around something as simple as smuggling (perfectly legal) cigarettes to avoid taxes.  Or growing yams in your basement because the King’s Yam Council had seized all your spare yams.  Or even escorting illegal elves across the border.

Point is, the world is filled with such a variety of bizarre crimes, and yet our templates in fantasy are so goddamned small.  Where are the money-washers?  The illegal slakemoth-breeders?  The guys who sell chimera pelts to sad old men who think sniffing the pelts will help them get it up?

I want so much more from fantasy, and yet we’re always returning to the same three scenes and a mugging.  Think big, fantasy. Think big.