Friday, March 27, 2015

Even if capitalism has problems, consumerism is fine

I've heard a few people complain about "consumerism", identifying it as one of the evil consequences of capitalism.  For example of this mentality, see here:
People in consumerist societies live by the influence of advertisements, and often methodically buy things they do not need, and in most cases, cannot afford. This, in turn, leads to greater economic disparity, and despite having the most or latest products, consumerists have a feeling of unfulfillment due to spending a lot of money yet having nothing of personal importance.
Even as I agree that capitalism has some problems, I do not agree that consumerism is one of those problems.  Furthermore, consumerism mitigates economic inequality, rather than exacerbating it.

My problems with capitalism are summarized as follows:
1. Whenever returns on capital exceed economic growth (which is the typical state of the economy), capitalism leads to increasing economic inequality.  That's the thesis of Capital in the 21st Century, one of the most important books of our time.

2. As I've previously observed, even an ideal free market only optimizes for the sum utility as measured in dollars.  In the presence of economic inequality, this skews the market against poor people, who have a lower dollar-to-utility conversion factor.
My understanding is that "economic growth" is a measure of the rate of increase of consumption.  So if people consume more, that will lead to less inequality.  This is easy to understand if you consider the alternative to consumption: investment.  Investing money produces returns, and the people with the most wealth are the people who get the most returns.

It is true that I've previously expressed a desire to consume less.  However, that's partly a matter of personal taste, and it's partly a matter of labor politics.  I advocate reducing the 40 hour work week because I would rather consume my leisure time than have an increased ability to buy status goods.  In other words, I'm just favoring one kind of consumption over another.  Or put another way, I advocate that leisure time is allocated more sensibly, with unemployed people having less leisure (ie by being employed), and employed people having more leisure.

I think people who complain about consumerism might be trying to express a similar sentiment about not buying status goods.  But ultimately I feel they've botched the point with a poor understanding.

The consumption of goods is one of the most fundamental of goods in society.  If it happens to be true that capitalism leads to increased consumption, that would be one particular point in capitalism's favor.


I just wrote this as a personal reaction to things I heard "on the street".  However a brief google search revealed that many people have said things that are very similar.  I will look into these and post a follow-up if I find anything interesting.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Novels are a strange medium

Regular readers may have noticed that I stopped posting monthly updates about the novel I am trying to write.  I'm still writing the novel, at such a crawl that I may never finish.  That's fine with me.  However, I decided I didn't want to do further regular updates.  The updates make me feel like I'm fulfilling an obligation.

I'd still like to talk about fiction, without focusing on my writing in particular.  Specifically, I've become more aware of how strange novels are, and stories more generally.
I used to think that writing a story was like wandering an open street.  You could go in any direction you please, and see whatever you want.  Instead, writing a story is more like wandering an open galaxy.  You can go in many directions, but you have to build a space ship first, and the vehicle proceeds to limit your perspective.

I'm talking about some really basic constraints:

-You can't have too many well-developed characters.  And if you do have lots of characters, you can't introduce them all at once.

-Stories need a conflict and resolution.  You can have a conflict without a resolution, but it feels much weirder than it does in real life.  If you don't have a conflict, it's not a story, it's an essay.

-Pacing is counterintuitive.  We want to tell the details of the story which are interesting, and skip the details which are uninteresting.  For most stories, this requires zooming in and out a lot, but if you zoom in and out too much it feels jerky.

-Many novels have the conceit of a narrator character.  But why would a sensible person talk like a novel, or even write about their experiences like a novel?

-Vivid descriptions are a strange concept.  Why do we like them?  Do we all in fact like them?  Do descriptions need have anything to do with the rest of the story?

-A story has a beginning, which is disorienting.  I find it telling that in video games, which are often in second person, so many stories begin with the protagonist waking up or having amnesia.

-Readers don't automatically care about characters.  If you have characters do something important before readers care about them, then the readers might miss its importance entirely.

-A story has an ending.  The sheer weirdness of having an ending is most obvious when we see sequels to stories where a sequel wasn't originally planned.  It especially screws with character development, because how do you have a character achieve enlightenment repeatedly?

-Fiction can have a message, but is severely limited in its ability to argue the message.  You can't really say "X is wrong because people in my story did X and it led to bad things."  Actually, lots of fiction makes that kind of argument anyway, but I'd personally rather not.

Can you think of any other constraints in the novel or story medium?

Saturday, March 21, 2015

"Nothing is sacred" is cheap talk

I had an incidental disagreement on Tumblr the other day.  I said that atheists have the value that "Nothing is sacred".  Another person* replied that some atheists do in fact hold certain things sacred, and that's what makes atheist culture so racist and misogynist.

*I'd provide links and names, but the details aren't really important, and they're welcome to identify themselves if they wish.

I totally agree that there is widespread racism and misogyny in atheist culture, and that criticizing it is a worthwhile endeavor.  However, I disagree with this particular critique.

"Nothing is sacred" is just a slogan.  It has some meaning in the context of religion, where people feel that certain ideas are off-limits.  But when you get down to it, I'm really not sure what it means for something to be sacred.  Does it mean that people hold to the idea despite counterarguments?  Does it mean they don't like when people make counterarguments?  Does it mean that social pressure plays a role?  You could say that about every ideology ever.

And I'm sorry to say that this is exactly what atheists do sometimes.  They'll criticize anything, and if someone tries to defend themselves, it must be because they're holding the idea sacred, and off-limits from criticism.  So if I say that sexist jokes contribute to sexism, and cite studies saying the same, clearly the only reason I came to that conclusion is because I refuse to hold political correctness up to the bright light of science.

There's a major hearsay problem.  It's very easy to say that you know such and such person who just refused to see reason, and acted like you were wrong to even criticize them.  Yeah, I believe that's how you perceived the argument.  But that's practically every argument ever, from everyone's perspective.  I wasn't there, so I can't tell.

Yes, there are some cases where people hold a belief too close, and use "unfair" means to discourage criticism.  For instance, I've criticized Christianity for discouraging doubt.  But the critique must be precise to be valid! I needed to provide examples of specific Christian narratives which were contributing to the problem.  If I merely waved my hands around, saying Christians are so dogmatic, and this one time I met a Christian and they were just so offended when I gave them hard evidence against God, you could rightly dismiss it as cheap talk.

If you criticize atheists for holding certain beliefs sacred, you're just taking one of the lowest quality atheist aphorisms, and turning it around.  You're not helping.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Making sense of existence

This is part of my series on debugging the ontological argument.

In a previous post, I explained why existence is a meaningless predicate in First-Order Predicate Logic (FOPL).  If E(x) is a predicate that means "x exists", then E(x) is true over its entire domain, since the domain consists of exactly those things that exist.

On the other hand, even singing socks can think of things that don't exist.  What gives?

To some extent, we can understand "things that don't exist" with quantifiers.  For example, the fact that there are no monks singing chants in tight leather pants can be stated as follows:
$$\lnot \exists x F(x)\tag{1}\label{ref1}$$
where F(x) means "x is a monk singing chants in tight leather pants".  However, the logical language seems rather constrained compared to normal language.

This raises the question, is there some logical system that provides better ways to talk about things that don't exist?  Indeed, I will suggest two ways.

Second-Order Predicate Logic

Second-Order Predicate Logic (SOPL) is distinct from FOPL because we can now apply quantifiers to predicates.  For example, we can now have statements like:
$$\exists T ~\forall x ~T(x)\tag{2}\label{ref2}$$
This means "There exists a predicate T which applies to all objects."

Furthermore, we also have second-order predicates.  A first-order predicate takes a variable and outputs a proposition.  A second-order predicate takes a first-order predicate, and outputs a proposition.  In particular, let us define the second-order predicate S:
$$\forall F~ [S(F) \Leftrightarrow \exists x F(x) ]\tag{3}\label{ref3}$$
Basically, the predicate S(F) means "There exists some x for which F(x) is true."  S, in other words, is the existence predicate.   But it's not a first-order predicate, it's a second-order predicate.

We can now attempt to translate the DOA into SOPL:
$$\forall x ~[G(x) \Leftrightarrow P(x)]\tag{4a}\label{4a}$$ $$\forall x~ [P(x) \Rightarrow S(=_x)\tag{4b}]\label{4b}$$ $$\exists x~ G(x)\tag{4c}\label{4c}$$
Here, $=_x$(y) is the predicate that means "x is identical to y".  So \ref{4b} means "For all x such that P(x), there exists an object that is identical to x."

Unfortunately, \ref{4b} is tautological,1 and the conclusion, \ref{4c}, does not follow, and the proof is invalid.

The conceptual ontological argument

Another solution to the problem is to consider a larger domain.  Previously, the domain of the predicates was the set of all things that exist.  What if we expanded the domain to include some things that don't exist?  We can now define the predicate E(x) to mean "x is part of the old domain", or "x exists in the real world".  In our new expanded domain, E(x) is no longer true for every object.

This leads to a new version of the ontological argument, which I'll call the Conceptual Ontological Argument (COA):
$$\forall x ~[G(x) \Leftrightarrow P(x)]\tag{5a}\label{5a}$$ $$\forall x~ [P(x) \Rightarrow E(x)\tag{5b}]\label{5b}$$ $$\exists x~ [ G(x)\wedge E(x)]\tag{5c}\label{5c}$$
This proof is almost enough to prove that God exists.  We need just one more premise:
$$\exists x G(x)\tag{6}\label{ref6}$$
Premise \ref{ref6} does not assume that God exists, since recall that we are using an expanded domain of objects.  For the moment, let's call the expanded domain "foo".  So the premise of the argument is merely that God is foo.  But what does that mean?

There are in fact some constraints on what things are foo.  For instance, you cannot have a foo object which is both red and not red.  And maybe there are other unknown constraints.

One philosophical interpretation of "foo" is that objects which are foo are "conceivable".  Of course, the meaning of conceivability is extremely contentious among philosophers.  For example, in a survey of philosophers, they found that 59% of philosophers believe p-zombies2 are conceivable, 16% believed them inconceivable, and 25% said something else.  And if you look up conceivability, you find modern philosophical articles explaining all different kinds of conceivability.  This is a problem I cannot hope to solve!

Nonetheless, interpreting "foo" as "conceivable" provides some framework, however ambiguous, to understand the COA.  With this interpretation, the argument seems to say, if we can merely conceive of God, then God exists.  Isn't that interesting?

The objection I raise is, suppose we conceive of some object x.  x has all the properties we typically ascribe to God.  He created the world, he talked to a few prophets, he sacrificed his son, etc.  Last but not least, in our imagined version of the real world, this x exists in all his glorious ontological power!

It seems reasonable to conclude that the object that we are conceiving is in fact God.  But let's actually check whether G(x) is true.  If G(x) were true, then x would have all the perfections, and one of the perfections is that x exists in the real world (and not merely that x exists in our imagined version of the real world).  To check if this is true, we have to look at the real world and see if x exists.  Until we verify the existence of x, we can only say that x is very god-like, not that x is God in the sense of G(x).3

We're used to conceiving things, and the things we conceive of have exactly the predicates we conceive them to have.  But it is not true that given any predicate, we can automatically conceive of an object with that predicate.  In particular, it seems that we don't really have control over the predicates related to existence.

Here is another predicate H which may or may not be conceivable:
$$\forall x~[H(x) \Leftrightarrow \exists y [F(y) \wedge E(y)] ]\tag{7}\label{ref7}$$
Statement \ref{ref7} defines H(x) to mean "There exists in the real world a monk singing chants in tight leather pants."  This is an odd predicate, since H(x) just means the same thing no matter what x is. H is a completely sensible predicate, and has no contradictions.  But is H conceivable?  We cannot know, until we demonstrate the existence of the monk.

Similarly, in order to show that a god exists, we first need to show that a god exists.


1. In fact, \ref{4b} is equivalent to statement (3b') from the previous post.  It seems that going from FOPL to SOPL really didn't help at all.

2. A p-zombie is a philosophical zombie, a being which behaves like us but which does not have conscious experience.  It's not remotely relevant to ontological arguments.

3. One possible resolution is to simply reject the equivalence of G and God.  But the ontological arguments are only valid if we use the predicate G, so this amounts to rejecting the ontological argument.

Monday, March 16, 2015


I seem to have broken Disqus.  So for the moment, all comments are reverted to the Blogspot comment system.  Because of the way Disqus works, it now appears as if all comments from the past couple years were made by me.

I'm sure I'll figure out how to fix it soon enough, but in the meantime if comments are super funky that's why.

Incidentally, I also have another problem.  Someone told me that I'm missing the "subscribe by e-mail" option.  I could have sworn I had a widget, but it seems to have disappeared.  I can't add a new one because Blogger claims that I already have one.

ETA: Never mind I fixed Disqus, although the other problem continues.

ETA: There is now a link on the right that says "Subscribe by e-mail".  I had to add it manually because the default widget is broken.  Also at some point I accidentally deleted an HTML/Javascript widget and I can't remember what was in it.  Oh well...

Sunday, March 15, 2015

How masculinity is like a white Christmas

I grew up in Los Angeles, and every winter it would snow--but only in Hollywood in front of the movie cameras.  We Los Angeles kids, we didn't really know what snow was like, but we knew very well it was supposed to snow in winter.  Also: Santa Claus is supposed to exist and kids are supposed to believe in him, even though he doesn't and I didn't.

Masculinity is also featured prominently on the movie screen.  It's about being the protagonist, shooting everything up, and getting the girl in the end.

Sometimes movies show masculinity and snow simultaneously.  From upcoming James Bond movie, Spectre.

If you ask feminists, they talk extensively about toxic masculinity, which is a collection of expectations of men that hurt men.  Men must always want to have sex, they must never show emotion, and they must solve problems with violence.

I have a hard time believing that this masculinity actually exists.  Next you'll tell me that snow is real!  I'll have you know, I grew up near the movie studios and I've seen what their "snow" looks like close up.

So, given that the masculinity we're presented in movies is totally fake and doesn't affect anyone, I'm left wondering what the hell real masculinity is like.

Here's a thing I used to think about men.  Men are not supposed to care how they look.  They are supposed to generate a random number every morning, and use it to select clothes from a nearly identical line-up of unremarkable clothing.  It turns out, this is a total lie.  Apparently, being a man means dressing up in a suit and tie on special occasions.  People pretend that this is a "neutral" costume, like practically not a costume at all!  I find this such a bizarre belief, that I've begun to question whether my own belief in "neutral" clothing might in fact be equally bizarre.

Here's a thing I used to think about manliness.  Being manly means being a jock.  But then it seems really puzzling why geeks, who are like anti-jocks, are made up entirely of men.  Well okay, there are geek women too, but I've been told there are so few of the real ones that it would be economically impossible for geek culture to ever cater to them.  I sure can't see any way out of this paradox, it's as airtight as a whistle.

Here's a thing I used to think about masculinity.  Masculinity means wanting sex, or at least being expected to want sex.  Except... apparently this is not true of Asian-American men?  It's baffling that my whole life I thought I was expected to fit into one stereotype, but apparently I've really been expected to fit into a different one.  Only, since I'm half-Asian, I guess somewhere between those two?  Gee, I'm glad all these expectations are as fake as snow or they would be quite confusing!

One thing I'm sure about is that there's no point in aspiring to be any more masculine than I happen to be already.  It would be like believing in a religion without knowing what the religion believes in.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Destroying Tumblr with RSS

Let's say, purely as a hypothetical, that I wanted to destroy Tumblr as a medium.  What would I do?

My idea is this: People on Tumblr are stuck there, because it's the only way to keep track of their news feed.  If you have friends on Tumblr and want to keep track of them, it's the only way.  Unfortunately, the news feed does not let you track anything that isn't on Tumblr.  So at that point, you simply stop reading things that aren't on Tumblr.

However, there is another way to track people on Tumblr!  There's something called RSS, which is used by old-timers like me.  All you need is an RSS reader, such as Feedly, and then you add subscriptions to anything you like. 

For instance! If I wanted to keep track of the Hiveswap tumblr:
Then I simply go to the rss feed:
And then there's the option to put it into Feedly!  This isn't tech-geek level stuff, it's really simple syndication (RSS)!

RSS offers many advantages compared to Tumblr.  You can subscribe to blogs that aren't on Tumblr.  You can subscribe to webcomics.  The world is ripe for the taking!

The Tumblr news feed also offers a few advantages:
  1. What the hell is RSS?
  2. The Tumblr news feed is easily accessible.
  3. Tumblr doesn't keep track of how much you've read, so there's no anxiety over unread counts
  4. Tumblr lets you keep track of tags, which as far as I know, have no associated RSS feed.
  5. I've already subscribed to a lot of Tumblrs and it's too much work to subscribe to each and every RSS feed.
  6. What the hell is RSS?
So I'm thinking, purely as a hypothetical, that I need to find a suitable RSS reader, one which is so simple even a Tumblrite could use it.  Then I need to make a good tutorial/sales pitch to convince people to use it.

Does anyone have any suggestions?  Which RSS reader would work best?  How can I write the sales pitch?  What sort of pitfalls might a person encounter when switching from Tumblr to RSS, and how might I solve them?