The MBTA Map, and Unexpected Detail

If you live in the Boston area, I have a geographical mind-jogger for you.

Considering only light and heavy rail stations (so, including the five colored lines, but excluding buses and the commuter rail):

1) Which station is the closest to the geographical midpoint between Alewife and Braintree?
2) Which station is the closest to the geographical midpoint between Forest Hills and Oak Grove?
3) Which station is the closest to the geographical midpoint between Lechmere and Riverside?
4) Which station is the closest to the geographical midpoint between Bowdoin and Wonderland?
5) Which station is the closest to the geographical midpoint between Chelsea and Dudley?

And you could look at the map above, because it won’t help you much.

If you’re familiar with several metro/subway maps, you probably know by now that they aren’t drawn to scale. The MBTA, however, has a feature that several other system maps also have that might make one think the map is remotely to scale: it depicts bodies of water in the system area.

And not only does it bother to depict the water, it bothers to depict it with substantial accuracy: the shape of the waterways on the map really do resemble the actual geographic shapes of the coastline and the rivers to a surprising level of detail. It even bothers to clarify the lagoon at Castle Island.

On the other hand, the actual rail lines are nowhere near that straight.

So here’s a question: does the accuracy of water details give the map reader a false impression of geographic accuracy in the rail lines depicted?

In any case, it’s quite impressive that one map manages to juxtapose such a careful attention to accuracy in bodies of water with such a bare-bones depiction of the system lines, a discrepancy in detail that feels like a challenge to achieve.

To what degree of discrepancy? Well, here’s the answers.

1) Fields Corner is closest to halfway between Alewife and Braintree.
2) Kendall is closest to halfway between Forest Hills and Oak Grove.
3) Boston College is closest to halfway between Lechmere and Riverside.
4) Wood Island is closest to halfway between Bowdoin and Wonderland.
5) Haymarket is closest to halfway between Chelsea and Dudley.


The Passage of Time

There will be adults that were born after it happened.

There will be adults who have been alive shorter than American military involvement in Afghanistan.

There was once a time when you did not have to sacrifice your dignity every time you took an airline flight. There was once a time when one’s tax dollars weren’t funding this indignity. But there was never a time when this sacrifice of your dignity gained you real protection.

There will be adults who never remember that time. Keep the memory alive. Keep and pass on the mindset that this shouldn’t be normal. It should never have been normal to overreact to this degree, both domestically and internationally, to a cause of death this much more infrequent than causes of death that don’t get nearly this level of responding action.

Respects to the victims of the September 11 attacks, and also respects to the far greater number of victims of America’s response to the September 11 attacks.

A Geographical Puzzle Based on the Electoral College

Find a set of states of the US such that:

  • No pair of them border each other.
  • Their electoral votes combine to at least 270, the quantity needed to win a presidential election.

This is actually very difficult. I’d be extremely impressed if anyone can do this without looking at an electoral college map.

This puzzle somewhat demonstrates the unusually decentralized and relatively evenly distributed nature of the US’s population, as well as the dampening effect of voting power imbalance prescribed by the electoral college.

David Koch is dead. I’m glad he’s gone.

When Richard Daley died, Harold Washington said he was glad he’s gone. Specifically, he used the words “I’m not glad he’s dead, but I’m glad he’s gone.” When Steve Jobs died, Richard Stallman had the same words to say.

I’m somewhat sympathetic to Washington’s evaluation of Daley, and I actually disagree with Stallman and personally consider Jobs still worthy of recognition as a hero despite my belief that some of his business values and actions are condemnable. But I do think “I’m not glad he’s dead, but I’m glad he’s gone.” is a good set of words to express a certain important sentiment: the sentiment that while one still believes in restraining oneself from taking glee over another’s death in and of itself, one believes that particular person to have proven to be enough of a consistent and persistent threat to society that one could be happy for the world that that person’s death has paved the way from them to no longer be directly damaging it.

I personally believe in an essential, fundamental, and intrinsic value to life itself, and in each and every instance of life itself. I believe I will never say I’m glad anyone is dead, in that I am happy about precisely the death and not its effects, although the progression of humanity’s actions over the years have managed to cause me to begin this sentence with “I believe I will never say” rather than “I will never say”. If I’m particularly angry in the moment, I might say I’m glad someone died, but what I would mean is that I’m glad they’re gone. There are humans that have terribly, terribly ruined this world, but my belief in the undiminishable base value in each life requires me to at most find value in lives not ruined as a result of a death, and not just the death.

This distinction having been expounded upon, David Koch is a person who very clearly falls under this category. I am not glad he’s dead because I am not glad anyone is dead, but I am so, so glad he’s not around anymore to screw America up further. He is a case of “I’m glad he’s gone” that causes me to almost have a concept of “I’m glad he’s dead”.

The ethically unacceptable actions that David Koch has taken are numerous. His company stole resources from Native American lands. He has tirelessly fought Social Security. And he has been a paragon of the disproportionate influence those with excessive money have on politics.

And it is in this last item that Koch’s most damaging mark on mankind lies: his work in climate change denial. The degree to which he dedicated his dozens of billions of dollars in wealth to obscuring the scientific facts of climate change for the protection of his oil industry is remarkable. Even the GOP used to believe that climate change was a serious issue, several decades ago. Koch bought the GOP enough that pretty much the entire party has reneged. Now, the United States can’t make environmental progress because such a powerful billionaire has built a political empire capable of actually stopping science and facts in its tracks.

We that have to inherit this sickly planet infected by David Koch’s work in disinformation should all be glad that he is gone. And because of him, this place’s future is a lot more grim than it should have been, if we had taken care of it during the most crucial window of its time. His life has taken an incredible toll on the other lives around and the lives there are to be. There is so much more work we must now do to keep this planet livable, but at least, now, David Koch is gone.

Suggestion: Stop Using Latin Names of Biological and Medical Terms

In the English-speaking world, we often see the Latin or Latin-derived name of a biological or medical entity as the most formal or correct term. This goes from conditions, like folliculitis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, to anatomical structures, like humerus or serratus anterior, to binomial nomenclature, like Felis catus or Homo sapiens sapiens. What I’m suggesting is that we drop that. Even academically. But at least to lesser and possibly more realistic extents, definitely.

There’s several reasons for this, generally relating to raising the accessibility of levels of medical and biological literacy and understanding.

What does one actually accomplish when they choose to use a Latin term for what can be accomplished with English, when they say “humerus” instead of “upper arm bone”? In this case, there’s the savings of one syllable (but oftentimes the Latin doesn’t even accomplish that or fares worse). Someone versed in English could figure out what “upper arm bone” probably refers to, but “humerus” requires more memorizational effort. If you took a high school biology class, chances are there were several sessions where all you were doing was memorizing the formal biological terminology for many entities the English language was definitely powerful enough to describe. MIT’s introductory biology class, to its credit, makes a commendable effort in trying to weed out as much of necessary memorization as possible and focusing on concepts and connecting content, but one could definitely still feel the effects of the communicational encumbering of Latin-derived terms. What if biology didn’t involve the time and mental effort spent learning another set of names for entities in a language that should be dead, and was able to jump to the concepts and ideas, described in terms of a formalized set of English names for biological and medical entities?

Here’s what the Latin does accomplish. It makes it harder to learn biology, providing artificial hurdles on the path to knowledge. It makes it harder to understand one’s medical situation, which could at times be something one wants to understand very fast. At the worst, Latin terms are used by someone to demonstrate (or give the pretense of) how intellectual they are. Obfuscation is the shield of choice for bullshit, and the degree of implementation of the obfuscatory nature of Latin terminology in a field is the degree of ease with which folks without any idea of what’s going on can deceive those seeking information.

But what about terms that have a name in Latin but no name in English?

Certainly a language of the modern day shouldn’t be less capable of expression than a language of antiquity. In fact, the Latin names for many newly discovered entities are totally-not-Latin terms pretentiously twisted to sound Latin. If it’s okay to make up Latin, certainly it’s okay to make a new English term for new ideas. But now the term is formed with English word parts, so anyone acquainted with the English language can often figure out what something means.

But what about how Latin provides a common language for communication among scientists from different countries?

Great, so now everybody needs to learn another set of terms. But doesn’t that make things fair? For one, not a good reason to compensate for the barrier to knowledge. But further, it makes things some level of fair for the Eurocentric world in which Latin could fairly be called the parent of all languages, to which Latin is much closer to what one’s used to than those whose native tongues are not descended from Latin.

We humans are all biological structures. We deserve that the knowledge to understanding our own bodies and functions be presented to us in a fashion not artificially complexified. In the English speaking world, where we’ve already learned English (good grief?), we should communicate these concepts with each other in English terms, not in a different tongue that may sound cooler but adds no insight to the subject matter. One doesn’t become more knowledgeable or enlightened when they learn the word for this is an odontoma.

Here’s what I will try to do. I will try to phase out Latin-derived terms from my vocabulary when speaking about health. Like any effort towards language reform, this is going to be hard and I’m probably going to often still use Latin terms without realizing it, but I’ll try to keep an ear out. I will try to use terms like “flesh-eating disease” instead of “necrotizing fasciitis” (as much as that has become one of my favorite gnarly conditions to reference), where the nature of the concept being described is more evident to a standard English speaker. Additionally, I’ll try to find English descriptions fit for medical terms that don’t seem to have an English descriptor yet. Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva? How about progressive bone transformation? If necessary, I could mention what a concept’s formal medical term is for reference. I will also try to encourage others to participate in an effort to help demystify, make less scary, and make more accessible biological and medical terms, because understanding ourselves is the worst place to have fun making things harder.

Americans want Scientists more involved in Political Discourse, until Facts from Scientists make them Uncomfortable

Americans increasingly want scientists involved in discussion of policy, something that would be great if wanting them also involved listening to them. The American pastime that is still true today, though, is selectively endorsing what scientists have to say when the truth is convenient.

This phenomenon is recently well exemplified by public outrage over a statistics-delivering tweet by one of America’s finest voices in science, Neil deGrasse Tyson. An online tsunami involving multiple Twitter-verified people condemned Tyson’s tweet as insensitive and tone-deaf, many claiming Tyson does not deserve respect due to his tweet.

Terrorism Panic Returned

One of the top tweets in response to Tyson’s post is this post relating the issue to America’s reactions to terrorism, speaking as if how America completely altered airport screening in response to terrorism was a good thing. This is incredible: I thought for sure America has learned from the TSA, the NSA, and their various unsavory paternalistic friends how incredibly costly it is (in both money and human dignity) to act on overreaction to the horror of well-media-covered terrorist acts when a nation has many more quiet problems claiming far more lives. Yet here comes this esteemed post asking that this reactive yoke on American wellbeing that hasn’t even left us yet be brought back. The sort of people that would’ve told the few congresspeople who opposed the Iraq War that they’re being insensitive towards the victims of 9/11 are still here.

Too Soon?

Criticism that it was insensitive or tone-deaf for Tyson to post these statistics in the wake of the El Paso and Dayton mass shootings is very unfounded. Whereas Tyson went out of his way to make it clear he thinks this country should not have to deal with mass shootings (except to people who think use of the word “horrifically” sometimes applies to acts they’re okay with), most commenters are explicitly denouncing the bringing up of medical errors, disease, suicide, accidents, and other gun deaths. This reaction to the far more people who died of the other causes is vastly more cold than Tyson’s actual acknowledgment of the problematic nature of the commenters’ tragedy of choice. If anything, those criticizing Tyson along these lines have a shortage of empathy for the people who died of medical errors, disease, suicide, accidents, and other gun deaths as recently as those that died in the mass shootings did. Many that responded went so far as to silently remove “other gun deaths” from the list of death causes Tyson cited to claim that there’s an important difference between intentional tragedy and accidental tragedy, a doubly-faulted claim that was maliciously framed to cherry-pick the items from the list they could feasibly apply their ill-conceived argument towards.

This case demonstrates a frequent trait of the sort of people that cry tone-deaf: they only care about the tone of those speaking against their favorite issues. Their often-worse personal insensitivities are defects they choose to remain oblivious to. And unfortunately, the internet outrage machine enables these people to effectively carry out their anger, when the time is right.

Emotions Should Matter

Emotions should matter. Most of us, if not all, can agree that emotional wellbeing is important to the human. It’s good to be aware of how to phrase things in ways that don’t rub off badly.

But from reactions, it’s clear that there’s no way this information could’ve been phrased in a way the public would’ve been happy with. What was attacked was the information’s presence itself, when Tyson clearly put an effort into phrasing the statistics in a way that acknowledged recent tragedy. No one is forced to read Tyson’s tweets, but the bringing of facts letting people know of many more people that are often overlooked was considered just too much to even see the light of day.

And this is where emotional reaction oversteps its appropriate bounds: when emotion guides our actions and decisions in ways that turn out to be the more harmful choice, when it screams “say no to facts”. And this is precisely the problem Tyson was trying to bring attention to.

And in the end, Neil deGrasse Tyson ended up apologizing for bringing facts to the public. Why aren’t there more scientists involved in policy? Oh right, because it’s an environment hostile to scientists.

Leading H

hat, hay, hell, hint, honey, horrible words I’ve only ever heard pronounced with the h sound
historic, huge, human words I’ve almost always heard pronounced with the h sound
herb, homage words I’ve heard pronounced both ways with fair frequency
“h” (name of the letter), heir words I’ve almost always heard pronounced with a silent h
honest, hour words I’ve only ever heard pronounced with a silent h

Pretentious Sophisticated spelling tip: Use “lit half”.