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Fast Car

These driving tips are compliant with the 2023 NYS driving examination, and there are no philosophical implications hidden within them… Or are there??

A. Leaving Curb

The greater part of your first battle involves an acclimation to moving faster than humans were meant to move. Cars really threw everything off, didn’t they? A deer’s instinct to freeze and then dart away worked great against its natural predators, but now their headlight-seduced gaze is synonymous with catastrophic indecision.

I say this because you have much to learn about driving, and we will get to it all. But before we even leave the curb, I want to talk about a couple of things.

First, the body has many reactions to stress—potentially including rapid, shallow breathing. This panicked state is no good for anyone. So if you feel your heart thumping with uncomfortable urgency, there is a specific breathing technique which can get things under control. It’s called box breathing—and the rules are quite simple: Breathe in for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds, breathe out for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds, and repeat.

Now, as you get ready to drive off, I want you to know that it’s also ok to feel overwhelmed. Box breathing might help mitigate some of the natural reactions we have to scary new experiences like this, but ultimately it is only patient practice which will make driving as easy for you as walking.

That practice, I should mention, creates a specific effect called “chunking”. Let me read you an insightful quote.

“[Chunking involves] taking ‘small’ concepts and putting them together into bigger and bigger ones, thus recursively building up a giant repertoire of concepts in the mind… Experienced chess players chunk the setup of pieces…into small dynamic groupings defined by their strategic meanings, and thanks to this automatic, intuitive chunking, they can make good moves nearly instantaneously and also can remember complex chess situations for very long times… I speculate that babies are to life as novice players are to the games they are learning—they simply lack the experience that allows understanding (or even perceiving) of large structures, and so nothing above a rather low level of abstraction gets perceived at all, let alone remembered in later years. As one grows older, however, one’s chunks grow in size and in number, and consequently one automatically starts to perceive and to frame ever larger events and constellations of events.” - Douglas R. Hofstadter

So you see, you are as a player who is brand new to a game. Your moves lack fluency because you are arduously attending to minutiae. But, via what we generally call “practicing”, and what is more specifically “chunking”, you will slowly start to find relaxation techniques like box breathing unnecessary. You will find instead a calmness resulting from having chunked many “small concepts”, like checking your mirrors and using your turn signals, into larger concepts like “pulling away from the curb”.

B. Turning & Intersections

You know, this is going pretty well. We’ve been driving for a few minutes and we’re still alive!

We’re coming up to a 4-way stop. Remember, it’s “FIFO”—first in, first out.

Well, yes, I realize we can see that there’s nobody else at the intersection, nor anywhere nearby. But that won’t always be the case.

I see why you’re tempted to just zip through the intersection, seeing as how nobody is around, but all actions are interactions, no matter how isolated they may appear. Consider a slightly different scenario: You are driving up to an intersection with stop signs in all directions, and you see another car coming up on the perpendicular road. You see the car slowing and getting ready to stop at the intersection. And so you can predict with great likelihood that the other car will stop and that you can safely pass through the intersection without stopping. This will save you time, and even money since it’s less gas-efficient to come to a complete stop and then accelerate again. Would you do it?

This constitutes a kind of “dilemma” of the kind found in game theory—as in the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma. In our intersection example, each driver may reap one of the following payoffs corresponding to each possible interaction:

As you can tell, running through a stop sign carries a small benefit—as long as you are the only one to do it. Not knowing what the other driver might choose is what turns this situation into a dilemma. Given the danger of a collision, most will choose to stop at stop signs, even when they are pretty sure they could get away with running through them.

This is a many-sided subject, don’t you think? When I stop because you stopped because you expected me to stop because I expected you to stop, it is our reciprocal dance of counterfactuals which pushes the whole system of drivers towards an “always stop at stop signs” attractor state instead of the much more dangerous and unstable “always run through stop signs” attractor state.

Would we have roads at all were it not for those critical moments when we choose avenues of cooperation? The Free-rider Problem states that actors in a system of interaction (a game) will tend to accept opportunities to extract value from the system without contributing what is necessary for that very system to survive. The reason for this is that it only takes, for example, 95% participation to maintain a given system, so everyone in the remaining 5% may share in the wealth without putting in the work. Similarly, we often perceive that we have an incentive to steal from the future (the truth of this tradeoff is more complicated). This is known as discounting.

Something related happens with the carbon emissions being released from the exhaust of this car. We are paying for the market value of gas, not the long-term costs associated with burning it up.

“Gas contains an amazing amount of energy. You would need to bundle 130 sticks of dynamite together to get as much energy as a gallon of gas contains... Gasoline is also remarkably cheap... In addition to milk and O.J., here are some things it is less expensive than, gallon for gallon: dasani bottled water, yogurt, honey, laundry detergent, maple syrup, hand sanitizer, latte from Starbucks, Redbull energy drink, olive oil, and the famously low-cost Charles Shaw wine that you can buy at Trader Joe's grocery stores. That's right, gallon for gallon, gasoline is cheaper than ‘two-buck Chuck’.” - Bill Gates

There was an economist named Arthur Pigou who suggested a solution to this. He wanted to tax “externalities” so that we would always be accounting for the full price of our actions. Markets are not oriented towards recognition of such complex webs of interconnected value—which span quantitative, qualitative, and temporal horizons. And so we end up with situations like the one described above, in which the cost of a gallon of gas is comically underpriced (at least in a more “holistic” view).

To stop or not to stop may seem less momentous than these other cases, but in each we can see similar underlying patterns. At every moment, we reach consequential forks where we must make irreversible decisions. And if you consider how running a stop sign is like “defecting” in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, it is not hard to see that we are dealing with patterns of profound importance.

All of this is to say: I’m glad you stopped at that intersection back there, and I hope you continue to do so.

C. Parking, Backing & U-turn

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: That was not the best parking job I’ve ever seen. But you’ve never done it before, so that’s to be expected. Let’s review how you can improve.

It’s all about a feedback loop involving prediction, and action, sensation—together known as free-energy minimization. Making predictions is one of the most fundamental undertakings in life. And failure is an illusory shadow aspect of a gradient ascent towards the value which prediction scries.

So that terrible attempt at parking just now can be seen as an action stemming from bad predictions. The sensation and integration of that data comes full circle and informs the next prediction. Today was therefore a success, because it was a necessary step in a process which minimizes surprisal and, equivalently, maximizes expected value. There are many forms of value to which this cycle may be oriented. Today, it was set on good parking. Your predictions were off, but they’re getting better on each attempt.

D. Driving in Traffic

Happy to be moving on from parking and K-turns? Those repetitive exercises can certainly strain one’s patience.

You’re doing great on this road, but the speed limit is 30MPH here and you’re going 36MPH now. Numerically, it’s not such a huge difference, and you may wonder why I’m pointing it out at all. For one, I’m trying to help you pass your test, and speeding is a quick way to lose points. But there’s another important reason that so many towns and residential areas have a 30MPH speed limit.

This might sound grim but it has to do with fatal accidents. At 30MPH, there is only around a 20% chance that a person struck by that car will die. But at 40MPH, there is about an 80% chance. And something peculiar happens on this journey between 0 and 40MPH: it takes the first three-quarters of this amount to produce a 20% fatality rate for accidents, while the rest of the 80%-rate comes during the comparatively short leap of the final quarter. Our world is full of these nonlinear dynamics.

Small changes can sometimes produce huge effects. This relates to the famous idea of the chaos butterfly. Drive with care, and know that even a seemingly minuscule decision can have disproportionately far-reaching consequences.

But really, every choice you make as a driver is heavy with obligation. An action need not be associated with a nonlinear effect to be considered significant. To understand what I mean, I want you to picture ants. Did you know they have highways and bridges, too? They achieve great things by working together, even though not one of them knows exactly what they’re working on.

I know, it’s amazing! And it all happens via a process called stigmergy, which is a coordination mechanism driven by indirect (mediated) interactions: An action leaves a trace in a shared medium, and that trace is picked up by another actor who is influenced by the traces left by previous actions.

“The concept of stigmergy has been used to analyze self-organizing activities in an ever-widening range of domains, including social insects, robotics, web communities and human society… Stigmergy enables complex, coordinated activity without any need for planning, control, communication, simultaneous presence, or even mutual awareness. The resulting self-organization is driven by a combination of positive and negative feedbacks, amplifying beneficial developments while suppressing errors. Thus, stigmergy is applicable to a very broad variety of cases, from chemical reactions to bodily coordination and Internet-supported collaboration in Wikipedia.” - Francis Heylighen

A bridge may be beyond an ant’s understanding, and so can only be constructed through simple, locally-coherent actions—which, though lacking a structured thought-process of if-this-then-that causality, are nevertheless the alphabet of magnificent emergent behaviors. Is the creation of a pencil really so different?

As we continue down this road, which we daily take for granted as a feature almost as fixed as the dirt and trees which surround it, perhaps we can appreciate it in this new light. You may swerve the wheel haphazardly to the right, and carve your own path through the woods—although I’d really prefer if you don’t, and can assure you that you will not pass your driving test if you do. The paved road guides and suggests and nudges, but it does not necessitate. That is the nature of stigmergy. The asphalt, as trace, acts upon the shared medium of space, and rather strongly invites us to drive between certain lines, but not others.

E. Vehicle Control

Have you seen any of those classic martial arts movies like the ones with Bruce Lee?

I know there’s a lot going on right now and you’re trying to focus, but I see you focusing in a way which could actually be detrimental. And so I promise my question about karate is relevant. I’ll make it quick so I don’t distract you any more than necessary.

You’ve heard the phrase “tunnel vision” of course. It is an overly-narrow focusing of one’s field of vision at the expense of the periphery. When you’re driving, it’s crucial that you take in your whole surroundings, and not just whatever is directly in front of the car.

A narrow gaze is a common problem with new drivers, and the martial arts have something to say about the solution. You see, there’s no way Bruce Lee could fight off multiple opponents at once without what is sometimes called “soft eyes”—which is essentially the opposite of tunnel vision. Compared with, for example, focusing on that sign up there to read what it says, soft eyes would make that sign seem a bit fuzzier, but the amount you are taking in with the rest of your vision is enhanced.

“An important neurological state for healthy driving is soft-eyes. In a relaxing way it allows one to see the whole picture, rather than hard-eyes — staring or fixing the eyes at the car or road ahead, with higher body tension. Soft-eyes allows for the comfortable scanning of a wide angle of vision in front, the easy glance in rear and both side mirrors, including peripheral vision, helping to increase visual awareness all around.” - Dr. Phil Maffetone

Less literally, I think the “hard” and “soft” gazes share much in common with two modes of thinking: analysis and synthesis. The hard, narrow focus is like the tendency to reductively analyze something based on its most elementary parts. While the soft, broad focus is like the synthesis of elementary parts into a coherent whole. The two can be at odds, or they can be complementary. Our goal is to use the right tool at the right moment—knowing when to harden and when to soften one’s eyes.

Driving Home

Alright, turn left. That road will take us back the way we came.

I have the perfect song for the ride back. No more lessons for today. Let’s just listen to it and enjoy the drive.


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