## Saturday, December 7, 2013

### Oppression Olympics: a balanced perspective

"Oppression olympics" is a derogatory expression used to describe the argument that group X has it worse than group Y.  Oppression olympics is bad for several reasons:

1. When people want to argue that group Y has it better than group X, this often involves trying to minimize or ignore some of the problems faced by Y.
2. Oppression Olympics often obstructs discussing and solving smaller problems, as if larger problems were the only ones we should focus on.
3. Oppression Olympics often ignores or erases the diversity of experiences within X and Y.  For some individuals in group X, the biggest problems they face might be similar to those faced by group Y.

Take, for example, a recent essay by Chris Stedman, Atheism is not the "new gay marriage" (via Friendly Atheist).  Stedman complains about the constant comparisons between atheism and LGBT rights.  Stedman is in part obstructing discussion of some atheist problems.  For instance, how are we supposed to talk about atheists telling people about their atheism without an analogy to LGB "coming out".  Are we to develop the concept of "atheist coming out" from the ground up, rather than building on the perfectly good work done by LGBT activists?

Stedman is also ignoring the diversity of experiences within the LGBT community.  For instance, I'm lucky enough that I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I don't worry about hate crimes or housing discrimination.  I worry more about weird reactions from relatives and friends, which is a problem shared by many atheists.  A reductio ad absurdum of Stedman's argument is that I cannot analogize my experiences to those of LGBT people even though I am literally part of LGBT.  Further reductio ad absurdum: LG people cannot compare themselves to B people, who can't compare themselves to T people, who can't compare themselves to trans people of color.

On the other hand, Chris Stedman makes many correct and valuable points.  Despite the derogatory title, "Oppression Olympics" are in fact beneficial for several reasons:

1. If we never talk about it, people may tend to think group X and Y have similar difficulties, or similar levels of difficulty.  This could lead to ignoring or erasing problems that are not shared between the two groups.
2. If we compare the situation of group Y to the past situation of group X, then this tends to imply that the problems faced by group X are over.

Anecdotally, some individual atheists seem unappreciative of many of the problems faced by LGBT people as a group.  Sometimes, they only seem to be aware of a few LGBT issues, particularly the legal battles that get so much mainstream attention.  Sometimes they seem to think that the battle for LGBT rights will be over in a few decades (the continuing struggle for racial justice argues that it would take much longer).  Other times, it seems like atheists think LGBT issues will all but disappear when religion all but disappears.

What I'm trying to say here is that when people argue over the "oppression olympics", both sides are right, and both sides make valuable contributions to the discussion.  It seems like the two sides are disagreeing with each other, but much of it is a sort of pathological disagreement.

It's sort of like... trading cards.  When you buy trading cards, you often buy them in random booster packs.  Sometimes you find a really cool card in your booster pack, and you become attached to it.  Later, you argue with other people about how great this one card is, even if objectively speaking it isn't really any better than other cards you could have gotten.

Likewise, we get attached to arguments.  Lots of people think about Oppression Olympics, and depending on individual context and chance, we each think up some particular point to make about it.  We get attached to this one insight, and then we argue with other people that our insight is the best.  When really there are multiple correct insights to be had on both sides.

## Sunday, December 1, 2013

### Negative may be better than the alternative

This post was crossposted on The Asexual Agenda.

Earlier I saw a post by Anagnori expressing a sentiment I've seen several times before: Why do we have to define asexuality in a "negative" way, in terms of what asexuals don't experience?

The desire is there, but for the most part no one is really able to come up with a "positive" alternative.  So no one really knows what it would be like to have a "positive" form of asexuality.

However, I can analogize it to another "negative" label that has come up with "positive" alternatives: atheism.  Atheism is also defined as a lack.  But there have been many attempts by many groups to come up with "positive" alternatives.  Words like "humanist", "skeptic", "secularist", and "freethinker" are examples.  And even where these labels are not used explicitly, many "atheist" communities de facto have positive values--people not sharing those values are either pushed out or made to feel out of place.

This strategy has costs and benefits.  The benefit is a more coherent goal, and more power to achieve that goal.  The cost is divisiveness.

Division isn't really a bad thing in itself.  For instance, it's not bad that the atheist and asexual communities are divided, that just makes sense!  In terms of atheist communities, I don't really mind if supernaturalist atheists aren't part of my community--we don't have much in common anyway.  No, what's wrong with divisiveness among atheists is that atheism is not just a political cause, but also a minority identity.  (I developed this idea more in a post on my blog.)  Atheists can in principle have all sorts of political views, and yet they may still need community support by virtue of being a minority in a religious society.  If some people feel unwelcome in mainstream atheist communities, or worse, there are big clashes between different atheist communities, that's the price we have to pay.

When I apply these costs and benefits to asexuality, it just doesn't make sense to turn asexuality into a more "positive" label.  Is there a particular need for a more coherent goal?  Is it worth the divisiveness?

Asexuality serves more as a minority identity than a political cause.  If you find an alternative positive meaning, it will exclude people.  For example, you could create a definition in terms of queerplatonic relationships (ie strong relationships that are neither friendships nor romantic), but personally I'm not interested in those relationships.  I'd be willing to politically advocate for their legitimacy, but not to participate in them.  If asexuality were a political cause, that would be fine.  But since it's a minority identity, it's not fine, it's exclusionary.

Another example: A lot of asexuals (especially in the blogging community) are very pro-feminist.  Feminism--there's a positive value for you.  But do you feel comfortable with branding asexuality as a kind of feminism, perhaps the kind of feminism that emphasizes sexual diversity, loves reductionism, and has sophisticated views on "sex-positivity"?  Those things are great, but given how often asexuals feel their identities delegitimized, I'd like to reduce the pressure on asexuals to be anything in particular.  (In contrast, I'm just fine with atheist communities where atheism is closely associated with feminism.)

So based on my experience, I just don't see a "positive" definition of asexuality as being a good thing.  I think it would lead to misery.

Of course, arguments from analogy are always sketchy.  Would we come to the same conclusion if we considered other analogies?  There's probably something to be learned from non-binary people, for instance.

## Saturday, November 30, 2013

### The Bible is boring

Because I hang out with atheist student groups, the Bible comes up every so often.  My official position on the Bible is that it's more boring than The Lord of the Rings.  I tell people this as a way of changing the subject--many atheists just won't let go of the implication that The Lord of the Rings is awful--and as a way of reminding people that there is no accounting for taste.

Oh, but underneath the talk, there is accounting for my taste.  I know why I feel the Bible is boring.  It has to do with my Catholic upbringing.

Catholics are known deemphasizing the Bible, as compared to protestants.  This makes historical sense, since Protestantism was caused by the printing press and mass literacy.  And I think it's generally true today, or at least it's been true in my experience.  I never owned a copy of the Bible.  As a kid, I never read it.

As a kid, I only ever heard Bible readings during the Catholic Mass.  Catholic Masses are said to be particularly boring among Christian services.  I myself was so bored by Mass that eventually I refused to go against the will of my mother, many years before I quit Catholicism.  It didn't help that when I was young I had auditory processing difficulties, made all the worse by the echoing acoustics of a Catholic church.  I could maybe understand the Bible readings if I focused really hard, but what was the point?  It was all so boring and pointless, like the rest of Mass.

When I was older, I did read parts of the Bible.  I went to a Jesuit high school, and we had a class in scripture.  We didn't read the whole thing, just bits and pieces considered important in Catholicism.  For the most part, we learned about the general structure, and what various books were about.  I don't remember much of it.  I remember the motivations of the different gospels, and I remember a few of Jesus' parables.  Mostly I remember it being incredibly boring, just like nearly every other book we read in high school.

Dear readers, did any of you have the same experience of hating nearly every book you read in high school?  It seems to be a common experience, though I'm not sure why.  Is it because teenagers just don't appreciate the kind of books that English teachers think are edifying?  Is it because the reading is forced?  Whatever the reason, I felt that way about the Bible.  This isn't entirely rational, of course.  I'm sure there are some books I read in high school that I could read again and discover that they were quite decent all along.  But in the Bible's case, I'm sure I would still find it terrible.

For one thing, I know that what I saw in high school were the "good" parts of the Bible.  It can only get worse from there

For another thing, what I know about the Bible just doesn't line up with my taste in reading.  I don't like reading "so bad it's good" stuff.  I generally don't like "classic" literature.  I don't think it is important to recognize cultural references to classic literature (what good does that do for me or for society?), and anyway I already recognize most Bible references because of my education.  What I like in a book is willingness to criticize itself and its own messaging.  I also like books that focus on the subtleties and ironies of modern social interactions--not really the kind of thing that translates across millenia?

Some atheists will argue at length about what is the "correct" interpretation of the Bible, mostly so they can accuse various Christians of not following it.  Sometimes I think these arguments are a bit sketchy (but no more so than Christian interpretations), but mostly I just don't care. There may be some utility to such an argument, but since I have no interest in investing the time, I prefer to argue that it doesn't matter.  The Bible isn't an authority on what's right, nor on what's wrong, so a person's degree of faithfulness to the Bible is irrelevant to my moral approval.  I don't even consider faithfulness to the Bible to be a measure of religiosity or Christian-ness.  After all, I came from a Catholic background, where the Bible was deemphasized, and I don't think Catholics are any less Christian for it.

## Thursday, November 28, 2013

### Why video games are so flammable

With Black Friday upon us, the flame wars over next-gen gaming consoles have really been heating up.  Which will win: the Wii U, XBox One, or PlayStation 4?  No one truly knows, but gamers everywhere agree that everyone else is wrong and should feel bad about being so stupid.

While I don't intend to make a habit out of discussing economics, I do think that video game flame wars can be understood within economics.  The problem is twofold:
1. There is limited space for video games and video game consoles, and everyone knows it.
2. Video games are in a state of monopolistic competition.
Video game producers are most efficient when they make fewer, larger games, for many reasons.  Developing a game is a one-time cost, while actually manufacturing the game is cheap.  Selling more copies of a game is not a matter of paying for more manufacture, but paying for better advertisement and development so that more people want to play.1  Note that it's much easier to advertise one big game than to advertise many little ones.  The main reason to have more smaller games is to better cater to different tastes (e.g. see the indie game industry).

Video game console producers have even more reason to be large.  Besides the large development costs of video game consoles, gamers also want consoles with games on them (especially games exclusive to that platform).  Consoles won't get many games unless there are many consoles to go around.  Whenever game developers port a game to a console, or make a console-exclusive game, their market is restricted by the number of console owners out there.2

The important number here is the ratio of the optimal size of the video game industry to the optimal size of a video game or video game console.  For consoles, that number appears to be 3-5.  For games, it's much larger, but still noticeably discrete if you focus on major companies.

The second problem is that video games are in a state of monopolistic competition.  That means that the products of different companies are all different, and are not perfect substitutes for one another.  Thus different consumers might have different preferences.

This puts consumers in a sort of Battle of the Sexes game.  The best outcome to a consumer is if they buy the games and consoles they want, and everyone else follows even if it's not what they most want.  But if everyone buys something else, the consumer has to choose between buying what they want (even though a worse-selling product will suffer in value) and buying what everyone else is buying.  People don't like being in this situation, and it's clear whose fault it is: other consumers!  Flaming those people may vent anger, and also persuade more consumers to one's own side.

There are, of course, other causes as well.  Video game consumers are particularly well-informed.  Also I think people just like flame wars.

It will be interesting to see how the games industry changes over time.  Development and advertisement costs may go down.  The market may expand to include a wider array of consumer tastes.  Porting games between platforms may get easier.  How will this affect the number and size of video games?

------------------------------------------------

1. In a list of the most expensive video games, older games spent a lot on manufacturing, but more recent ones spend on development and advertising.   For example, GTA V (2013) spent 51% of its budget on development,, 45% on advertising, and only 3% on manufacturing.
2. Any smaller consoles face these difficult problems.  This is why people often mock consoles like the Ouya or Mojo.

## Thursday, November 21, 2013

### Tuberose

Meenakshi Mukerji's Tuberose.

This is one of the prettiest models I have.  Each module, rather than being a flat polygon, is a spiky flower shape.  It works especially well with Harmony paper, which is a brand of origami paper produced by Grimmhobby that has color variations across the paper.  There is no coloring pattern: each of the twelve modules is uniquely colored.

If I may ramble about my origami paper, I have a few different brands, and it's surprising how different they can be.

Harmony paper is great, but the color scheme doesn't work for just any model.  It also feels like the paper is slightly rectangular (!).  Grimmhobby's washi chiyogami (seen here) is very pretty, but noticeably thicker than other paper, which makes it hard to fold.  I have some paper made by Daiso Japan (seen here) which is easy to fold, but has a noticeable grain in one direction.  And for some reason it's harder to reverse folds.  Lastly I have paper from a German company, Folia Bringmann.  The colors are very bold (and both sides are colored), but I'm sorry to say that the colors fade over time.

These are things you start to notice when you make models out of thirty squares or so.  If I had to buy more paper I'm not sure what I'd buy--they all have their strengths and weaknesses.

## Tuesday, November 19, 2013

### In which I think about monopolies

This is part 2 of my previous post.

Why, in a competitive market, are the quantity and price at the intersection of supply and demand?  The answer is that buyers and sellers are not monolithic entities.  As long as the price is above the intersection, a new seller can make money by producing new goods at the marginal cost and selling at the marginal value, even though this lowers the price, resulting in net losses for other sellers.  As long as the price is below the intersection, a new buyer can produce value by paying more for goods, even though this makes it more expensive for all other buyers.

On the other hand, if sellers really are a monolithic entity, then we have a monopolistic market rather than a competitive one.  Under monopoly conditions, the single seller may not wish to sell as much, since whenever the prices decreases, they eat all the losses themselves.

The single seller is free to set the price such that their utility US(p,q) is maximized.  The constraint is that they cannot sell more than buyers demand.  US is defined for all p and q, but we want to determine the maximum US specifically along the demand curve (which as I explained previously, is the same as the marginal value curve).1 $\frac{\mathrm{d} \text{US}}{\mathrm{d} q}|_{p=\text{MV}(q)} = 0$ $\frac{\mathrm{d} \text{US}}{\mathrm{d} q}|_{p=\text{MV}(q)} = \frac{\mathrm{d}}{\mathrm{d} q}(\text{MV}(q)*q) - \text{MC}(q)$ $\text{MV}(q)*q$ is the seller's revenue, the price of goods times the total quantity sold.  $\frac{\mathrm{d}}{\mathrm{d} q}(\text{MV}(q)*q)$ is therefore the marginal revenue.  So in a monopoly, the quantity of goods is at the intersection of marginal revenue and marginal cost.  The price of goods is set to the maximum that demand will allow.  Let's look again at figure 1.

Figure 1: Monopoly

In a competitive market, the quantity and price are given by the intersection of supply and demand, or marginal cost (MC) and demand (D).  In a monopoly market, the quantity is given by the intersection of marginal cost (MC) and marginal revenue (MR), and the price is given by the demand (D) curve.

Figure 2: Monopsony

I've left out analysis of a monopsony, because it's exactly the same.  Instead of a single seller, there is a single buyer who chooses the price to maximize UB while constrained to the supply curve.

In the previous post, I said it was confusing that the "marginal cost" in figure 2 means something completely different from the "marginal cost" in figure 1.  In figure 1, the marginal cost is the cost to the seller to produce one more unit.  In figure 2, the marginal cost is the cost to a single buyer to buy one more unit (including the additional cost from prices being raised).

Next I want to discuss "deadweight loss", which is the sum total utility (of both the buyers and sellers) lost compared to a competitive market.  When people trade goods for money, both the buyers and sellers benefit.  For the buyer, the goods have more value than the money paid.  For the seller, they are paid more than it cost to produce the good.  I already showed this in my previous post when I gave expressions for utility functions UB and US.  However, it helps to have a graphical interpretation of the utility.

Figure 3: Visual representation of utility to buyers (a) and sellers (b)

First, consider the buyer (figure 3a).  The total value of the goods to the buyer is given by the area under the marginal value curve (red).  But to get the total utility we must also subtract off the price paid for the goods (blue).  Next consider the seller (figure 3b).  The cost of production is given by the area under the marginal cost curve (green).  The utility to the seller is equal to the total price paid to buy the goods (blue) minus the total cost to produce them (green).

In figure 1, the utility to buyers is shown in red (consumer surplus), while the utility to sellers is shown in blue (producer surplus).  Relative to a competitive market, a monopoly has two effects.  First, the producer gets more utility while the consumer gets less.  Second, the sum utility is smaller, by an amount shown by the yellow "deadweight loss" area.

Now that I've learned about the concept of deadweight loss, I understand a bit why some people think a "free market" is best (although clearly there need to be restrictions on monopolies, so I think "free" is a misnomer).  But given that this is only the simplest market imaginable, it's not clear that it generalizes to more realistic markets.

Even in this simplest case, I question the meaningfulness of the "total utility".  I think, for instance, there is some intrinsic utility to a more fair or more even distribution of wealth.  The distribution of wealth that results from a competitive market basically bears no relation to what is fair.

And there's another problem that comes from the initial uneven distribution of wealth.  The utility to the consumers is not measured directly, but implied by how much money consumers are willing to spend.  But if you think about why some consumers are less willing to pay for a good, it's not necessarily because they derive less value from the good.  Often it's because they are poorer, and therefore place a higher utility value to the dollar.  Thus the utility to the buyers is not equal to the amount of money they would pay.  It only seems that way if you convert utility to dollar units, ignoring that dollar units are larger to some people than to others.

One way you can fix the problem is by redistributing all wealth evenly.  I think there might be a few kinks in that particular solution though...

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1. This illustrates a mathematical distinction between derivatives and partial derivatives.  When we have a function of two variables, like US(p,q), the derivative isn't uniquely defined unless we specify a particular direction in the (p,q) plane.  So we restrict the (p,q) plane to a particular curve, and find the slope along that curve.  The partial derivative is the slope along a p=constant curve.  But here I take the derivative along the demand curve.

## Sunday, November 17, 2013

### In which I think about supply and demand

Note: this post makes use of $\LaTeX$.  That means it requires javascript, and cannot be viewed in a reader.

Earlier, I was entertained by learning a little bit about monopoly and monopsony.  I know I am very ignorant of economics, and that this is pretty basic stuff.  But perhaps readers can gain some insight by watching me learn things for the first time.  Or if there is no insight to be gained by my readers, at least I benefit from the writing.

I read about monopoly and monopsony on Wikipedia.  My instinct as a physicist is to (initially) ignore all real-world details and understand the simplest and most abstract problem.  So of course I go straight to the graphs.

Figure 1: Monopoly

Figure 2: Monopsony

These graphs were very confusing when I saw them for the first time, for several reasons:

1. It seems the axes are backwards.  It seems like prices are the independent variable, and the quantity of trades is the dependent variable, yet prices are on the vertical axis, while quantity is on the horizontal.
2. I thought a "competitive market" leads to the quantity (Qc) and price (Pc) at the intersection of the supply (S) and demand (D) curves.  And yet in Figure 1, it's at the intersection of marginal cost (MC) and demand (D), while in Figure 2, it's at the intersection of supply (S) and marginal revenue product (MRP).
3. Under monopoly conditions, the quantity (Qm) is instead at the intersection of the marginal cost (MC) and marginal revenue (MR).  Under monopsony conditions, the quantity is at the intersection of marginal cost (MC) and marginal revenue product (MRP).  What's confusing is that marginal cost (Fig 1) and marginal cost (Fig 2) are completely different, even though they have the same name.

Explanations from Wikipedia were not forthcoming, because for some reason there's more emphasis on real world examples rather than mathematical abstractions.  It's cool though, because I can do the math myself.

Perhaps more fundamental than the supply and demand curves, are the utility functions of the buyers and sellers, which I'll call UB and US respectively.  These are functions of both quantity (q) and price (p).  US is related to the cost of producing q units, which I'll call C(q). $\text{US}(p,q) = pq - C(q)$ Similarly, UB is related to V(q), the value of having q units. $\text{UB}(p,q) = V(q) - pq$ The supply curve tells you how many products the industry is willing to sell, given a certain price point.  Basically, the supply is equal to the quantity such that US is maximized.  The demand curve tells you how many products consumers are willing to buy, given a certain price point.  Basically, the demand is equal to the quantity such that UB is maximized.  In mathematical terms,
$S(p)=q|_{\frac{\partial \mathrm{US}(p,q) }{\partial q}=0}$ $D(p)=q|_{\frac{\partial \text{UB}(p,q)}{\partial q}=0}$ from which we can derive $\frac{dC}{dq}(S(p)) = p$ $\frac{dV}{dq}(D(p)) = p$ $\frac{dC}{dq}$ is of course the marginal cost (MC in figure 1).  So that means the marginal cost function is the inverse of the supply function.  If you plot them on the graph, they will be the same curve.  (People who aren't math purists might say they are in fact the same function.)  $\frac{dV}{dq}$ is the marginal value (which in the context of employers buying labor, is called marginal revenue product, MRP in figure 2).  Since the marginal value is the inverse of the demand function they will also be the same curve on a graph.

This solves my confusion on points 1 and 2.  While supply and demand are naturally functions of price, marginal cost and marginal value are naturally functions of quantity, so it makes sense to put quantity on the horizontal axis.  And in both figures, the competitive market rate is in fact at the intersection of the supply and demand curves, even if the curves are not labeled as such.

This post is too long, so I will break here.  Next time, I will talk about why a monopolistic market is different from a competitive market, and also "deadweight loss".