My car, my ride, myself

At Man School they teach you that it’s your job to get the car in the pouring rain so that she doesn’t have to get wet. It’s also your job to drop her off at the restaurant and go find parking in the dark city center. Then make the long walk back. And I don’t mind this so much. But even so, I’ll be happy to hand this work over to my robotic smarty-car. Think about it… from your point of view, every destination will have valet parking. It really doesn’t matter how far away the parking lot is. Mr. Smarty-Car will take himself there while you’re ordering appetizers.

Driverless cars are back in the news following recent legislation in California. Somewhere in the links related to that news item, I came across Brad Templeton’s list of ways that driverless cars can be different from driverful cars. Among his observations are these: range, speed, and acceleration become much less important.

Why is that? I had to scratch my head.

It’s because being a rider is vastly different from being a driver. A rider, particularly one who is reading or writing, wants smooth, predictable comfort. This has a big environmental payoff. A driver, on the other hand, wants… what? Speed. Acceleration. Tight suspension. The sleek lines of a gazelle. A taut, muscular, candy-apple red machine, belching fire, pawing impatiently at the starting line, ready to roar into the waiting darkness.

This is not so good for the environment.

Why the big difference? The big difference is that my ride is just another way to get to work, but my car is a projection of my ego. It’s ME. So if I buy a car, if it’s my car, then it can’t be too wimpy or too pokey or too dull. What would people think of me? But if I can just think of it as my ride, if I can break the link of personal identification, then maybe I don’t need a guzzling muscle car or a tricked-out SUV. Maybe I can buy a share of something more reasonable and think of it as just a ride instead of me. Buying a share of a car sounds like a pain until you consider that the car can ferry itself between destinations. Instead of saying “I need to use the car on Friday night, so you can’t,” you can just arrange drop off and pick up times that fit together. The car doesn’t mind the extra driving.

I think it’s a winning scenario. It’s an example of the hard-to-predict secondary effects of a dramatic shift like a driverless car. Technology is the easy part. What about the culture? To turn the Volkswagen ad campaign on its head: “Riders wanted.”

Jay’s Team walks again

Hey, look at this. This is my son.

That’s a good looking boy, am I right? He is an active boy, restless and noisy. He wakes up much earlier than I like to wake up. He’s thirteen years old. His name is Jay. But he is most defined by the traits that swirl around in the wake of his autism. He can’t talk. He can’t dress himself. He doesn’t acknowledge the comings and goings of his mother, his father, or his sister. Or you for that matter. Sorry, but it’s true.

We’d like to be able to converse with Jay in a direct and natural way. That’s not possible now. But over the years a number of autistic individuals have learned to pierce the veil of their condition and tell us what life is like on their side. Listen as Jay’s mom Wendy describes some of these people in her annual fundraising letter. Because this Sunday is the day we walk with Jay and thousands of others around the Suffolk Downs race track in order to raise money for Autism Speaks. Please give!

Continue reading “Jay’s Team walks again”

Allergies and trolls: we have met the pathogen and he is us

An allergy is panicked reaction to an intruder. THERE’S AN ALLERGEN IN THE HOUSE! OHMYGOD OHMYGOD OHMYGOD! I HATE THOSE THINGS! The immune system gets alerted and promptly freaks out. Like shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, the protective reaction (stampeding for the exit) can cause far more damage than the original trigger (a small fire). The stampede in the body might be something as violent as a cytokine storm or anaphylactic shock. Bad news.

We’ve had millions of years to evolve healthy bodies, and yet immune disorders are among the most persistent, puzzling and difficult to manage illnesses. By analogy, this suggests to me that violent over-reaction is going be very hard to eradicate in human culture.

The video being blamed for the trouble in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere is, of course, not exactly the root cause. It’s an allergen, and sure enough it has provoked a world-class immune response. As with any allergic response, we can solve the problem by removing the allergen or by trying to make the overall system less sensitive. Trolls and free speech mean that an allergen-free environment isn’t going to happen. That leaves us with managing sensitivity. And here we might learn something from internet culture. Online it’s common knowledge that the best way to deal with trolls is not to respond to them. Or, as they say, “Don’t feed the trolls.” A well-fed troll will never go away. The problem is that the aggrieved party has to come to this conclusion on their own, and this can take a long time.

If we consider humanity as a whole, we might even call the current dire reaction an autoimmune disorder. All the cleverness of the species is channeled into harming the species. Autoimmune disorders are particularly nasty because they can deploy the strengths of the body against itself. You can’t just shoot the pathogen, because the pathogen is you.

It’s draining men (white men, that is)

Here’s a question for you. I believe, but am not completely certain, that Barack Obama is the first person to win the presidency while losing the white male vote. That is, up until 2008, people other than white men were allowed to vote, but white men always got the man they wanted anyway. Do you know if that’s true?

I do know that Obama did not win the white male vote in 2008.

This leads to an interesting conundrum for the Republican Party. The island of white men, once dominant, is rapidly shrinking compared to other groups. So if your election strategy depends too much on white men while alienating other demographics, then in the long term you’ve got a losing strategy. It is, to paraphrase Clinton, simple arithmetic. Some Republicans see this coming, as shown in this revealing quote: ‘We’re not generating enough angry white guys’.

Similarly, even as the demographics shift, the attitudes of the demographic groups are shifting. The Pew Research Center found that all demographics are increasing in their approval of gay marriage, with the youngest age groups solidly in favor. It’s easy to see that playing for the anti gay marriage vote is also, in the long term, certain to be a losing strategy.

None of this guarantees what happens in November, but it is eye-opening to look down the road and realize that these new realities are coming, all spluttering rhetoric to the contrary. I think a lot of GOP posturing in this election is what the behaviorists call an extinction burst. Just before an old behavior is eliminated, it can dramatically increase. This may lead to, as in North Carolina and California, some referendums that seek to limit gay marriage. I think there is no question that these measures will be overturned in the coming years.

Diffing Bill Clinton

One of the more important tools used by programmers is the so-called diff tool. “Diff” stands for difference, and the tool is used to spot the differences between similar versions of the same program. This problem comes up more often than you might think, especially when two or more people are messing around with the same group of files. Here’s an example.

Typically the text on the left is considered the original file and the text on the right is considered the modified file. Lines with white backgrounds on both sides are identical. New or modified material in the right side gets a green background. Old or removed material on the left side gets red. All this helps your eye spot the changed areas. As you can see, someone has taken some serious poetic license with this rhyme.

This tool that was invented for programmers can be used with things other than programming code. It can dissect variants in a poem, as above. Or it can be used to visualize the evolution of a speech.

Last night Bill Clinton gave a 49 minute speech at the Democratic National Convention. That’s a short speech compared to the stem-winders of yesteryear, but long by modern standards. And not only that, he terrified his handlers by departing from his prepared text for long stretches. How far off? Software to the rescue! Here’s a nice piece in the Atlantic that spells it out for you, using the same kind of diff tool I describe above.

What Bill Clinton Wrote vs. What Bill Clinton Said.

In the judgment of many listeners, his ad libs improved the speech considerably. My favorite insertion: I’m fixing to tell you why. I reckon that little feller wasn’t in the prepared text. Say what you will about his politics, but that boy got a big ol’ head on him to keep all them little words up there.