Assimilation – in the 21st century?

What does “assimilation” (in its socio-cultural sense) really mean in an age of globalization, easy digital communication, international integration, migration, and recently in the wake of recrudescent nationalisms?

Source: “The Forced Assimilation of Native Americans,” Gwich’in Steering Committee

On a vary basic level, we know that assimilation refers to a process by which individuals of a more or less distinct group (perhaps indigenous, immigrant, or formerly enslaved) are integrated or subsumed – willingly or by force – into the identity of a larger society or dominant culture. As such it has long been a goal of many plural states, and also of many immigrant groups settling in different countries.

Beyond that, the meaning of the term seems to be assumed without much clarity as to what the implications are.

Many questions

The initial question gives rise to others. For example, what are the issues/differences of assimilation as national policy, as socio-cultural process, and as personal or community aspiration? Are there different kinds or degrees of assimilation at each level?

Does assimilation necessarily require sacrifice of identities? Who decides whether or not that is the case, and what is sacrificed?

Is some kind of assimilation necessary for full participation in a society? Is equal status conditioned on type/degree of assimilation? If so, at what point – if ever – might it confer status and rights equivalent to those of the rest of society?

Considering the racist and nativist streaks in at least some nationalisms, do their definitions of assimilation exclude some peoples a priori? What is the relationship between assimilationism and racism (recognizing that there have been different treatments of various racial, ethnic, and religious minorities)?

Example of racist imagery associated with assimilationism. Source: “Chinese Immigration in the Late 19th Century: Discrimination in Action – Assimilation,” LEADR, MSU.edu

What is the burden shouldered by willingly assimilating? Or the cost imposed on individuals, communities, and cultures by assimilationist policies?

What are the benefits and costs of assimilation to the society as a whole?

What do other related terms like “acculturation” and “integration” (in its socio-cultural sense) mean in this context, and how are they different? Such terms would seem essential for fuller understanding of, and clearer discussion about “assimilation.”

Assimilation 2.0?

These questions in turn bring up other issues, such as:

Does it make any sense to talk of assimilation as we advance into the 21st century? If so, how and in what ways? If not, is there another term/concept that is more appropriate and productive for the changing realities that peoples and nations are living today?

Are we now defining an “Assimilation 2.0”? Or perhaps more fortuitously, new ways of thinking about how diverse peoples come to live together in peace, and with mutual respect and amity?

______________

The text of this post is adapted from the description of an email list with the same title that I ran in the mid 2000s.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

New look

I’ve just changed the theme template of this blog to give it a different look. This is the first change of appearance since I started it just over 10 years ago.

The three columns are retained, though in a different arrangement. The rest of the blog is basically the same, though some minor changes will be necessary in the coming days to how some information is presented.

The change also represents an update to a theme that is actively maintained – a consideration for security reasons.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A chess game with 32 intelligent pieces?

Chess is a game designed for two players. All the experiments with ever more advanced computers playing either against humans or each other naturally conform to this assumption. But what if the game were changed so that each piece were artificially intelligent (AI), made its own moves, and the decision about which piece on a side were to move next were negotiated among the pieces on that side? What could this tell us about ways we can use distributed AI (DAI) or develop a complex swarm intelligence (SI), and whether and how the “wisdom of crowds” dynamic might apply to groups or teams of AI processes.

DrikybotThe idea presently ventured is not a computerized version of the “Wizard’s chess” in the Harry Potter books and movies, since like real chess, that is two-player game. The only similarity might be that each piece would indeed have its own opinion about its next move. It might be a bit more like a virtual chess version of the sci-fi drama Westworld, in that pieces interact (although not with people) and learn. In any event, the immediate inspiration for this line of thinking actually was sparked by an image (right) of a couple of robot figures on a chessboard* at the just concluded Future Fest 2018 conference in London.

While being quite aware of the advantage of a single mind or computer directing a side in chess, I’ve also become interested (as a non-expert in the field) in how intelligent agents with different though perhaps complementary goals, might interact in a defined environment towards a particular goal. Since so much work has been done with computer/AI chess in the standard 2-player mode, I wondered what might be possible with AI on the level of all the 32 individual pieces on a virtual chessboard.

Autonomous pieces work out the moves

According to the scenario I’m imagining, there is no overseeing player controlling the pieces on a side. Each AI chess piece:

  • is autonomous
  • knows the rules of the game and cannot break them
  • knows the main object of the game
  • plans its own moves and will normally avoid a move resulting in its being taken
  • can communicate with all the other pieces on its side (but not the other side)

Another design parameter involves a choice: Either each piece would know no more than the above, or would be given data on how it has (been) moved throughout many actual games. In the latter case, it would have a repertoire of possible moves in various situations to choose (or depart) from, but not a generalized overview of the games.

The communication among pieces on a side prior to a move would be a critical aspect, of course. For the opening move on each side, there are only 10 of the 16 pieces that can move, and each has exactly two (2) choices, for a total of 20 potential moves. Beyond that, the numbers and combinations – and hence complexity – increase significantly. There have been experiments where AI bots have interacted, but this 16 sided interaction would be significantly more complex.

With each piece being able to consider its own possible moves plus not moving on each turn – even given a specific arrangement on the board after each previous move – there is no one obvious decision for the side from the point of view of the individual pieces (except where a piece wants to escape being taken, or if the king is threatened). Unless instructed in the set-up how to arrive at a decision, the pieces would have to develop their own criteria or method for choosing which piece on the side will make the next move. Some protocol for communication would likely be necessary, especially to facilitate human study of the decision process.

Learning from learning chess pieces

Chess boardIf we treat the AI chess pieces as learning programs (like AlphaZero and Leela Chess Zero), then each piece would probably best always be in the same position – such as e2 white pawn or b8 black knight. That would simplify reference to past games if we choose to give pieces that data, and would in any case presumably facilitate learning the role of the piece over many games.

One could also try various experiments such as switching the position of a piece (that e2 white pawn to, say, h2), or putting a veteran piece on a rookie team to study how it affects the team function.

It would be interesting to evaluate how much computing power is needed for each AI piece and whether/how much that varies by type of piece or position. And naturally also what the aggregate of those demands are per side.

As with AI in the 2-player game, one would watch for unexpected outcomes in the 32-player (but still 2-side) game. Would for instance pieces develop the willingness to sacrifice themselves in scenarios that might lead to their side winning?

Although the object of such an effort would not necessarily be to develop a “team” of pieces that could win against accomplished players, it might be useful at some point to play against single players – human or computer – for the AI pieces to learn in different settings, and also to measure the effectiveness of their “teamwork.”


* Drikybot, the creation of Audrick Fausta, dancer and engineer in mechatronics. Image was copied from Twitter. The caption on the tweet that triggered my thinking on this was something like “what are their thoughts?” – unfortunately I was unable to retrieve that specific tweet for this post.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Reframing “renewable energy” & “bioenergy”

Popular usage of the term “renewable energy” is problematic, because it includes two distinct classes or sub-categories of energy sources: On the one hand, forms of bioenergy that serve as fuels for vehicles, feedstock for power plants (i.e., biomassbiofuels, etc.), and all the way down to firewood for cookstoves; and on the other hand, a set of technologies that in effect harvest energy in nature (solar, wind, wave, hydro, and geothermal, along with smaller scale energy “scavenging”). The common opposition of renewable energy vs. fossil fuels obscures this important distinction. The various forms of biomass and biofuels that are generally considered as renewables are burned – or combusted – to release energy (along with pollutants and carbon dioxide), just as are the fossil fuels they are intended to replace.

It is important to point this out at a time when headlines tell us that various countries are marking new “firsts” in replacing fossil fuels with renewables – e.g., Costa Rica, Portugal, and Britain.  It is also essential to be clear on this as we plan our energy future.

How the dual nature of bioenergy fits in the energy picture

The range of biomass and biofuels that we burn like fossil fuels, are considered renewable, unlike those fossil fuels, due to the calculation that their production and use is “carbon neutral.” That is, the carbon released in burning (most significantly as carbon dioxide) is considered to be offset by the carbon taken in by the growing of plants comparable to those burned. (There are important debates about how carbon neutrality is calculated, and whether externalities are or are not accounted for in the equations, but for purposes of this article, these will not be discussed.)

Rather than renewable vs. fossil fuels, we might just as easily discuss “pure renewables” (for lack of a better collective name for solar, wind, etc.) vs. “energy from burning/combustion,” which would separate biomass, biofuels, etc. from other renewables and group them with fossil fuels. That would also reflect the substitution aspect of bioenergy with respect to fossil fuels.¹

It would be more productive, however, to think of the two broad categories of renewables and energy from burning as partially overlapping categories or sets. This can be illustrated in a Venn diagram, with biomass, biofuels, etc. in the overlap (brown region).

This portrayal highlights the unique position of these forms of bioenergy. It also raises the question as to whether we really should be talking about three categories of energy rather than two. I will come back to that but first will expand the context.

Subcategories of bioenergy & the place of nuclear power

In considering bioenergy in a broad sense, it seemed useful to account for a batch of relatively smaller inputs into the overall energy system that do not involve conversion of living matter to fuel or burning it: animal draft power (which was centrally important in the pre-industrial age, but only locally important in some regions today); human physical labor (never insignificant, even given the integration of the 20th century cohort of automation technologies into the economy); and harnessing microbial processes (from age-old use of micro-organisms for fermenting foods and beverages,² to newer technologies like industrial microbiology, biomining, and microbial fuel cells).

However, I am proposing to adding a twist in that the work of “organisms” (so as to put these diverse sources under one heading) is not treated as conversion of caloric sources (food as “fuel”),³ but is rather seen as a utilization of their energy and effort, which would have been otherwise expended had it not been harnessed or employed to accomplish some defined work. The difference here is that a machine doesn’t need energy to exist (once created), but then it cannot do anything without a source of energy. Organisms on the other hand exist (continue to live) because they are already consuming calories, and may be engaged in work from that state (although greater effort will require them to consume more to sustain the increase in activity). I’ve tentatively added these as a subset of renewables in the following diagram (the yellow circle).

So to review, there are in effect there are two sub-categories of bioenergy:

  1. One from plant matter (to include algae) burned as fuel, directly or after conversion into a more convenient form. This is the main or exclusive meaning used in most discussions of bioenergy, and it is the one I am contending should be thought of as being at the same time both renewable and burnable/combustible.
  2. Another more limited one, which involves in effect the (figurative) harvesting of work done by organisms. This accounts for only a small percentage of overall energy in industrial and post-industrial societies, and cannot yield the amounts of energy needed for massive industrial or consumer needs. Nevertheless, it is locally significant and helps us expand our thinking about energy sources and categories. (Also, development of intelligent autonomous robots with some means to sustain their own energy budgets might add another level of meaning to this sub-category.)

In this diagram I’ve also added nuclear power, although at this point it is treated as somewhat of a special case, not groupable with anything else. (Hydrogen fuel is not included here as it is more of an energy carrier than a primary source of energy.)

In the following diagram, the components of the preceding diagram are rotated and separated, to show five (5) categories of sources of energy (rather than three). These are of unequal importance, but the relative size of the elements in the diagram has no special significance.

Having disaggregated these categories, we can organize them by other criteria.

“Fuel-based” energy vs. “harvest-based” energy

In the following diagram I regroup the above categories in several ways without relying on the two main categories or sets discussed above “renewable” and “burnable”). The fundamental difference that emerges from this collection seems to be that between fuel-based (converting some kind of fuel into energy; this term is not new, though it is usually seen prefixed with “fossil”), and harvest-based (harnessing or employing energy not bound up in a fuel; this term, which is rare in this context, is not to be confused with the agricultural harvest of crops which may be converted into a biofuel or biodiesel).

Nuclear, fossil, and the biomass, biofuels group are fuel-based. Except for nuclear power, these are also carbon-emitting. The use of nuclear fuel, of course, has its own waste issues. Fossil fuels and nuclear material are extracted resources, which like other extractive industries have various economic and environmental implications. The fuel-based bioenergy sources include major use of land/soil and water resources – as well as energy – to produce plants for biomass or biofuels production.

The broad class of bioenergy, as discussed in the previous section, bridges the fuel-based/harvest-based categories. By far the main harvest-based energy sources, however, are solar, wind, hydro, wave, and geothermal.

Our usual distinction between “fossil” and “renewable” – and even my alternative of overlapping “burnable” and “renewable” – might appropriately and productively be replaced with this “fuel-based” and “harvest-based” distinction. Fuel-based systems in general seem to have a different set of constraints and possibilities than harvest-based, and to involve a different kind of infrastructure investment and commitment. Their cycles of use involve: extraction or production; refinement or conversion into fuel form; storage and distribution; machines to convert fuel to energy (which may be mechanical energy as in an internal combustion engine or the generation of electricity); and finally waste. There is also the demonstrated potential for environmental damage throughout the entire cycle of use of fuel-based energy sources – some systemic (such as ongoing carbon dioxide pollution) and some due to the possibility of error, accident, or natural disaster creating catastrophic scenarios.

Harvest-based systems (leaving aside the bioenergy subset of animal power, etc.) also involve various types of machines and infrastructure, but almost all these days produce electricity. With the exception of dams connected with hydropower, these energy sources do not carry the systemic or potentially catastrophic potential of fuel-based systems. The complexity and potential externalities after the point of harvest (solar panel, wind turbine) are much less than in fuel-based systems.

Fuel-based systems are not without advantages, and harvest-based ones do have down sides. But the emergence of increasingly efficient and cost-effective forms of harvest-based energy generation (and the storage technologies used in tandem with them) would seem to have the long-term upper hand. Solar cells and wind-turbines almost literally pull energy out of thin air – so what if rates vary with the hour or the weather?

Fuel-based bioenergy vs. harvest-based renewables?

Fuel-based bioenergy – outside of the interesting potential to turn waste into energy sources – would occupy increasing amounts of our agricultural potential in order to produce the biomass needed to replace fossil fuels. And it probably will also involve increased genetic tinkering along the way (it’s already being tried with trees). That’s an increasingly convoluted and costly game plan to keep fuel-based systems in play – systems that still put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere even if that is considered to be offset. All this seems hidden in the folds of the renewable energy vs fossil fuel dichotomy.

Harvest-based renewables (solar, wind, etc.) may not be a cure-all – the “future of energy” may indeed need a complex of sources. However, the implications of harvest-based approaches for infrastructure and a whole range of transportation and industrial technologies are different than those of fuel based, and at a certain point sooner or later, the decision will have to be made regarding shifting the dominant paradigm away from fuel-based energy of any sort.


1. Substitution depends on the context. Broadly speaking, one can say that all energy forms are substitutable given the means to convert the energy source to a particular use. The sense intended here is narrower: ethanol can be used instead of gasoline, partially or completely (though in the latter case some re-engineering might be needed), to run a car; and wood pellets can be substituted for coal to fire electricity generation (though some retrofitting of the systems may be necessary). But electric powered vehicles have a different kind of motor altogether; and solar or wind generation of electricity are different processes than that in a fossil-fuel or biomass fired energy plant.

2. The complex process of converting corn into ethanol actually uses this form of bioenergy (work of yeast for fermentation) to create the other form of bioenergy (a fuel that can be burned).

3. For example, Adam J. Liska and Casey D. Heier frame bioenergy in this context this way: “For more than 10,000 years, the foundation of society has been bioenergy in the form of grass, crops, and trees for food for humans and other animals, as well as being a source of heat.” (2013, “The limits to complexity: A thermodynamic history of bioenergy,Biofuels, Bioprod. Bioref, 7: 573-581.) I am departing from this apparently standard definition, distinguishing between food and feed “burned” as calories on the one hand, and vegetative matter literally burned (in whatever form) on the other hand. And in the former case, I shift the focus to the organisms whose effort (however fueled) is being used.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

“Dangling this” drip torture, or the “poor man’s clickbait”

It may not rise to the level of “torture,” but it sure is annoying – the constant resort to a “dangling this” in hyperlinks intended to entice readers to click on them. What comes to mind, especially after observing its use, is the water drip torture – often referred to as “Chinese water torture” or “Spanish water torture” – which consists of a steady drip of water on the forehead.

This . . . , This . . . , This . . . ,

Clickbait can be a little more low-key, or it can be more raw – “weird trick” “jaws dropped” “you won’t believe what happened next” …. If you’ve surfed the web even a little, you’ve probably seen it all. A lot of clickbait just assaults your curiosity.

The “dangling this,” on the other hand, is a kind of shortcut – a crutch word in the web content world, perhaps, or maybe the poor man’s clickbait. But once you notice it, dangling-this clickbait becomes quite irksome, and arguably more insidious in its approach to enticement than the frontal attack of most other clickbait.

“Some clickbait headlines leave out a key element to lure in the reader.”¹

Poor man’s clickbait gives you just part of what might be some legitimately useful information. Rather than try to lead you on through choice of wording (clickbait has a lingo of its own), the tactic is to deliberately omit a central piece of information, which is most easily replaced with a “this…”

Devolution of headline writing under clickocracy

Attention as measured by views, and views as generated by clicks, mean money. So a lot of talent, resources, and effort are put in to getting and keeping people “engaged” in web content. And that has given rise to a whole new set of ways of inciting curiosity.

In a way, clickbait is a descendant of old-fashioned newspaper headline writing. but with some some variations. The headings for articles are composed with a particular style due to space limitations (especially in print) and a desire to catch the reader’s interest. But they invariably give the reader a whole idea of what the story is about. Or at least it used to be that way.

“Headlines need to be accurate, first, and to fairly reflect the theme of the story.”²

Dangling-this clickbait deliberately departs from that practice, and sometimes it’s as simple as a swapping out:

  • Headline: “Vermont will pay you $10,000 to move there and work from home” (CNBC)
  • Clickbait: “This state will pay you $10K to move there and work from home” (WAAY)

Worth noting that (re)writing the heading this way is not done to economize space. It’s just a cheap way of getting the reader to open the link to fill in the blank (“which state is that?”).

One newsletter’s many “dangling this’s”

I’ve been subscribed to Ladders‘ newsletter mailings for quite some time – they sometimes have some interesting content – but late last year I began noticing an increasingly clickbaity tone of the newsletter headlines featured in its emails, many of which used the dangling this. Rather than unsubscribing, I left all their emails on my server beginning in January to see if there were a pattern. I’ve extracted all the clickbaitesque uses of “this” in titles over the 5+ ensuing months in the following list (which is sorted alphabetically).³ There are over 40 instances, not counting repeat use, making approximately 2 dangling-this headings per week (drip, drip, …). The list illustrates the extent to which one organization – certainly not the only one⁴ – is relying on poor man’s clickbait to present its content via email and on its website.

  • A 75-year Harvard study says this is the key to life
  • Abusive bosses do this weird thing after being mean
  • Amazon’s Jeff Bezos says this phrase will destroy your career
  • Doing this in the first five minutes of networking is a game changer
  • Learning this language could make you some serious cash
  • New science says this can fix sleep deprivation
  • No one’s naming kids this anymore because of Amazon
  • Richard Branson says this is the most important thing he looks for in an employee
  • Science says this weekend sleep trick can save your life
  • Sending a job application at this time of day will murder your chances
  • Stop doing this at work immediately if you want to succeed
  • Stop making this huge mistake on your resume
  • Studies say drinking coffee can be good unless you’re doing this
  • This age is the latest you can start a new career
  • This algorithm can figure out when you will die
  • This behavior by Millennial bosses drives some employees crazy
  • This behavior by your spouse may be sabotaging your career
  • This city has the most burned out workers in America
  • This common employment practice may be shutting out older workers
  • This high-paying job has the worst divorce rate
  • This is the loneliest profession in America
  • This is the most stressed state in America
  • This is the No. 1 reason your interviewer won’t like you
  • This is the one email mistake that’s unforgivable
  • This is the profession most likely to cheat on their spouse
  • This is the quote Jeff Bezos has taped to his refrigerator door
  • This is the single dirtiest place in the airport — and it’s not the bathroom
  • This is the surprising thing that has people most stressed at work
  • This is the top reason employers expect more people to quit this year
  • This is the unhealthiest job in America
  • This is what your pre-bed routine says about you
  • This is why ‘very unattractive’ people earn more money
  • This job is seeing its salary shrink the fastest
  • This job listing may make you very angry
  • This morning routine can save you 20 hours a week
  • This profession attracts the highest number of psychopaths
  • This simple life hack will make you much happier
  • This sleep trick can add years to your life
  • This state will pay you $10K to move there
  • This surprising thing about your appearance may be killing your career
  • This surprising thing is a sign that you have high intelligence
  • This weird office phrase can reveal more about you than you may realize

The solution to dangling-this clickbait?

Personally, I try never to click on clickbaity headlines – I didn’t open any of the above links for example – so as not to encourage their use. In the rare case the topic seems interesting, one can do a quick websearch to find a link with a more complete and informative title. Treat your clicks as a votes of approval for the approach used.


1. “The Weird World of Clickbait: It’s Today’s Yellow Journalism,” ThePilot.com, 6 Feb. 2018

2. “Writing headlines for print” (Based on a lecture by Ross Collins, professor of communication, North Dakota State University)

3. This list was simple to generate: Searched for The Ladders newsletters in Gmail; copied over the list, screen by screen, to one file in my go-to text editor (EmEditor); then, since items in the text were tab delineated, copied all that and plopped it into Excel; then sorted and manually deleted batches of rows to isolate the group of titles; then copied the list back into EmEditor to manually delete extraneous text; then copied it over here and bulletized.

4. Surprisingly, even the respected Smithsonian Magazine resorted to dangling-this clickbait for an article about the town of Liberal in rural southwest Kansas: “This Town In Kansas Has Its Own Unique Accent.”

Image elements adapted from tcea.org (fish & hook), & 123rf.com (bait).

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Zipper-merging & traffic as a system

Texas DOT, San AntonioNorthbound on US Interstate 75 near the Ohio-Michigan border last week, I came to a stretch of highway where road repairs necessitated closing all but the right lane. Cars in front began finding openings in the already slowing lane to my right, and all of a sudden I found myself alone with an empty lane stretching perhaps a half a mile ahead. “Uh-oh, they don’t do zipper merges here.”

The problem of merging traffic

Many years back, I observed that when two backed up lanes of traffic are merging into one lane, it is always the merged-into lane that moves the slowest, not the lane that is ending up ahead. One might expect the opposite: that the line of cars in the lane that is ending would move more slowly as drivers try to move into the active lane of traffic. But what in fact is happening is that everyone in the ending lane is trying to merge early at different points in the active lane. And that seeming politeness or prescience actually helps slow the whole process down for everyone.

Car traffic is a system – a fairly linear system, so not too complicated in how it works. However it has properties beyond what the individual driver in its midst can see, and which are unknown to him/her. For example, in heavy but moving highway traffic, if one driver slows by stepping on the brakes, all the drivers following will also have to touch their brakes at that same location for a period of time – even though the reason for the first driver tapping their brakes has long since passed. One name for this is a “traffic wave” (a simple interactive model online shows how it works). I witnessed that phenomenon from an office building overlooking US Interstate 5 one early evening in late 1978. Once you see traffic movement from well outside the driver’s point of view, driving it is not the same.

Zipper merge, aka late merge

Minn DOTI never really thought more about merge dynamics until having to deal daily with one particular highway merge – where Virginia State Route 267 eastbound joins US Interstate 66 – on a commute home in late 2010 and early 2011. The heavy traffic would always be backed up more or less as the two lanes from the 267 spur fed into 66, and the rightmost of those lanes ended.

Of course the same phenomenon mentioned above reproduced regularly, with the merge-into lane – the left one in this case – moving slowly and people trying to pull their vehicles into it at the first opportunity. Except, that is, for a few cars zipping along down the empty right lane and merging up ahead.

Knowing this particular road, I tended to “precrastinate” and be in the left lane well before the merge dynamic began. Then I noticed that if I let someone in early, I might also have to let someone in later on. And there were other dynamics one observed, like the driver ahead letting everyone in in front of him/her. Or in the right lane someone fully stopped well before their lane ended, with their blinker on and a tail of stopped traffic behind them.

I ultimately adopted the tactic of letting no one merge in front of me until the right lane ended (by managing distance, one reduces the perceived opportunity to merge), and then always letting someone in at the merge-point. It was later on that I learned this late merge dynamic has been dubbed the “zipper merge.”

Turns out that in heavy traffic, zipper merging – cars using both (or all) lanes and alternating where one lane ends – can “reduce traffic backups by as much as 40 percent.”

Who’s being polite?

In the US, waiting your turn in line is part of the culture. Cut in a line of people waiting to get to or through something, and folks disapprove, grumble, and maybe publicly mutter their opinion of your action or character. This social norm is functional in many situations such as ticket windows and cafeteria lines.

Highway traffic is different because you can’t do a U-turn to go back to your proper place at the end of the line and wait your turn (imagine the traffic consequences). So drivers tend to want to do the next best thing, which is to merge into the line in the first opportunity. At least that’s better than trying to cut in at the head of the line, right?

For their part, the drivers in the merge-into lane accommodate early merges – after all that seems reasonable and they’ve been on the other side too.

So what you end up with is the dysfunction I observed already years ago: the merge-into lane moving more slowly, and the merge from lane mostly empty except for cars slowing down to merge a soon as they can. And the occasional vehicle zooming down the merge-from lane and out of sight.

Minn DOTThat dysfunction is heightened to the degree that early mergers feel offended by the seeming impoliteness of late mergers (for example, see discussions from 2016 & 2017), and compelled to enforce denial (blocking at the merge point or straddling lanes). This was the potential scenario I had to consider on I-75 the other day, having already passed a lot of early mergers already.

Flipping the norm

Some of the online content about zipper merging plays off the dominant notion that it seems rude:

Apparently efforts to re-educate drivers on this point are having mixed success, at least in the US. My impression is that zipper merging is gaining some traction in the Washington, DC area, but it clearly was not used on the road to Detroit. (A 2016 Business Insider article highlights the experience in Missouri, Kansas, Washington, and Minnesota). From a cursory look at info on other countries, it’s not clear that people in general take that readily to the concept.

Aside from public education, improved signage (either promoting zipper merge or simply not indicating which lane will be closed until later), there are even some efforts to educate children (future drivers). It may take a while to change prevailing attitudes, but it might help to frame the issue in terms of traffic as a system, with dynamics you can best understand by stepping outside of your role as a driver (incidentally the kind of perspective that would inform programming of self-driving vehicles). In the meantime, unfortunately, one can’t expect that trying to use the more efficient zipper merge will necessarily be met with approval.

So on that stretch of I-75, I ultimately played it safe and found a gap in which to semi-early merge. Then one other vehicle sped past to the merge point – and I may have been the only one who didn’t mind.


Sources of images: Texas DOT, via Blogspot (top); Minnesota DOT, via Reddit (middle); Missouri DOT, via Twitter (lower)

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail