All In the stacks 

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Although I've been aware of Stack Exchange (www.stackexchange.com) for a long time, I've always assumed that its primary audience was programmers. I was right in a way — programmers of all kinds are huge Stack Exchange users — and Stack Overflow, www.stackoverflow.com, which was created as an online forum/bulletin board for the exchange. But I was also very, very wrong; Stack Exchange is many things to many people, a place where experts go to share knowledge and non-experts can tap into that knowledge at any time.

I only recently became aware of Stack Exchange's full range of uses with the recent announcement that the U.S. Patent Office was creating an exchange for patents, allowing the public to review and comment on patent applications and approved patents. The goal is to reduce the number of unique high-tech patents awarded, and the flurry of patent-related lawsuits that are all but crippling innovation, by allowing people with a diverse range of knowledge to determine if the applications are accurate — and whether any prior art may exist that would void or reduce the scope of patents. It was a stroke of genius, giving an organization with a limited staff the ability to access to a massive pool of knowledgeable volunteers.

The average person probably won't be browsing Q&A stacks devoted to programming and patents, but there's a lot there for the average person. There are stacks for photography, home improvement, gardening and landscaping, blogging, personal finance, bicycles, cooking, technology, writing, fitness, motor vehicle maintenance, travel, parenting, musical performance, religion, philosophy, linguistics and languages, movies and television, sports, academics, math, chemistry, sales training and more.

Any of these stacks can be browsed at any time if you're curious, but where Stack Exchange truly shines is when you have a question to ask. Let's say you're digging out the winter tires and you notice your winter rims are a little rusty – do you leave them that way, or strip the rust and buy some rust-proof paint? What's the best way to do it? Ask that question in the Motor Vehicle Maintenance stack and you'll probably have an answer quickly. Like, within hours.

How quickly? I just so happen to have a set of rusting winter tire rims for my car. So I asked the question at 1:07 p.m. on a Saturday and had three answers by 4 p.m. (Grind down to the metal, then two or three coats of paint.)

A lot of time gets wasted on the Internet, but Stack Exchange is one of things that make the web genuinely useful.

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