The argument from “code words”

Charles DarwinThe argument from code words fascinates me. You can use it to prove anyone is saying anything. Just say X is a code word for Y. This post may be an encoded call for terrorism; just declare that “the argument from code words fascinates me” is code for “Let’s nuke every major city in the US.” (They do things like that in spy novels!)

A while back, I saw a claim that Betsy DeVos is a creationist. Having no idea whether this was true or false, I did a search, which led me to an article on
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The illusion of regress

An article in USA Today, which seems reasonably objective, says that while the lead levels in Flint, Michigan are bad and reflect serious indifference and ineptitude, they would have been normal not long ago. This isn’t the only case where reports of disaster hide long-term trends of improvement. Crime rates have gone down over the years, though people think they’re getting worse. The number of people living in poverty has gone down as the world population has gone up.
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Dropping out of (the) race

My last post really infuriated the “Con or Bust” bunch on Twitter and almost broke this blog’s (rather small) record for views in a day, so I think I’m on to something. Let’s push the envelope some more.

In the 1860s, slavery was abolished in the USA. In the 1960s, most laws mandating racial discrimination were struck down or repealed. By the 2060s, I hope the very idea of race will be on the trash heap of pseudoscience along with creationism and astrology. Sooner would be better.

My first encyclopedia claimed that the human species is divided into the Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid races and a bunch of sub-races. It rejected notions of racial superiority, but the biological subdivision of Homo sapiens was a scientific “fact.” Since then, scientists have found that there’s far more genetic variation within “races” than between them. The differences that supposedly define races are superficial things such as skin color and facial features.

In spite of this, many people have a deep investment in the notion of race. At most big companies, you’re expected to disclose your race, though you’re told it’s optional. When I worked at Harvard, there was an online form with a supposedly optional question about my race. I unchecked everything, and the website wouldn’t accept the form because I hadn’t answered the “optional” question. I reported this as a bug. As far as I know, it has never been fixed.

However, the form didn’t stop me from checking all the boxes, so I did that. Under the “one drop” theory of race, it’s almost certainly true that I belong to every “race” there is.

I try to avoid racial terms, though sometimes they’re an inescapable shorthand for appearance. But think about it: Have you ever seen a person whose skin is actually white or black and isn’t a corpse? Have you ever encountered anyone who isn’t a person of color? It would have to be the Invisible Man.

There are people who want to keep the idea of race alive because they think they’re the Master Race. They’re living rebuttals of their claim to intellectual and moral superiority; rebutting them is like beating a zombie horse that refuses to die. Then there are the people who push the notion of “racial identity”; they see people as representatives of their race rather than individuals and think that the most important form of diversity is diversity of looks. They manage to get a degree of intellectual respect, but it’s the same old poison in a new sugar coating. If you think you know what people are by looking at their skin, you don’t know them at all.

It takes work to break free of ways of thinking that pervade a culture. It can be hard to stop making assumptions about people based on their skin, but it allows discovering things about them that are much more interesting than their albedo.

So when they ask your race, just say “human.”

Traffic shock waves

Yesterday it took me over two hours to get from Framingham to Haverhill, a trip of about 60 miles almost entirely on Interstates. This isn’t unusual at rush hour on Friday, and it gave me lots of time to think about traffic congestion. Why does traffic slow down periodically and then suddenly speed up again with no apparent causes? I started forming a hypothesis that involved considering the events as shock waves, and today I searched for “traffic shock wave” to see what thoughts experts have had on the idea.

Sure enough, it turned up quite a few relevant hits. The idea is fairly obvious: When traffic is dense enough, any slight disruption in the flow of traffic can propagate backwards, forcing many drivers to slow down. People can speed up again at the head of the jam, since the slowdown has created a relative vacuum ahead of them, but others are caught in the tail. By the time the congestion dissipates, the driver who caused it is long gone. This has been confirmed in simulations and on a test track.

A refinement to this idea which I haven’t seen, maybe just because I don’t know the keywords to look for, is that once the effect starts, it should be prone to positive feedback. If a driver changes lanes in dense traffic, others must slow down to maintain distance. As gaps get smaller, people will have to brake more when someone cuts in in front of them. This makes the traffic still denser, so the next lane change has a stronger effect. If you’ve ever seen an idiot cut across three lanes in heavy traffic to get to an exit, you know just how strong it can be.

Each lane change may only cost a couple of MPH, but the cumulative effect can bring traffic to a standstill.

If this hypothesis is valid, you’d expect such jams to be especially common in areas where tailgating is the rule and drivers rush into any opening in a lane. Los Angeles, at least by reputation, confirms what I expect.

If anyone knows of any work that’s been done on this notion, I’d like to hear about it.

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World Alzheimer’s Day

The reactions I get from some people when I talk about supporting Alzheimer’s research are odd. They seem to say that God meant our brains to suffer debilitating damage after a certain number of years, though they don’t put it in religious terms. If you talk that language, “God” also “meant” most of us to die by the age of forty. That hasn’t stopped people from doing medical research and promoting sanitary practices that have brought us close to double that figure. There’s no more reason for us to accept the inevitability of our brains’ shutting down while our bodies are still going.

September 21 is World Alzheimer’s Day, and it’s a day for reminding people how much misery the disease causes and what can be done to make it preventable or curable.

Research on treatments hasn’t offered much. There’s some information on prevention; basically, if you live a healthy lifestyle and keep your mind active, you improve your odds somewhat. When we consider that the amount of money spent on Alzheimer’s research has been tiny compared to heart disease, cancer, and the like, the shortage of progress is no reason to give up. It’s a reason to put in more resources, to donate more money. My totally uneducated guess is that the best hope lies in medicines that will prevent the accumulation of amyloids before cognitive symptoms can show up.

Alzheimer’s is counted as the number five or six killer of Americans among diseases, and it’s possibly the most trying to deal with (though strokes certainly give it competition). Cancer and respiratory disease at least allow some dignity to the end. The idea of having my brain gradually turn to mush scares me more than a painful end from cancer.

We don’t know what it will take to reach a breakthrough, but given what’s been accomplished with so many other diseases, there’s every reason to believe medical science can find ways to cure it or at least significantly slow its progress. (Remember when a diagnosis of AIDS was a death sentence?) I recommend supporting the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation. With advances in research, fewer people should have to face the prospect of having their minds go first or seeing it happen to someone in their family.

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