Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Writing a novel: Month 8

This month was a relatively successful one, for my novel.  I doubled my word count, and sent it out to some (not all) of my test readers.  Feedback was negative, which is a good thing because I can improve!

Today, I'd like to talk about the mixed messages I get as a writer.

At Thanksgiving, one of the questions my mother asks me is "Are you going to continue with your PhD?"

I can't believe I'm hearing this!  I try writing a novel, and suddenly people ask if I'm continuing with my PhD program?  Nobody ever asked that in relation to any of the other hobbies I pick up.  When I started blogging, no one ever asked if I would continue with university.  When I picked up guitar, no one ever asked me if I was planning to switch to being a rock star.  When I picked up origami (and even made a small profit from it), no one ever asked if this meant I was giving up physics.

Let's put this in perspective.  I wrote about 7k words of my novel, and there were about 10k words in the novel I scrapped.  This is less than 20k words over the course of 8 months.  How many words did I write for my blog in the same amount of time?  I estimate 50k words.  But somehow, writing a book signals a greater time commitment.

Another thing that happened this month was National Novel Writing Month.  Every November, hundreds of thousands of people attempt to write a complete novel with at least 50k words.  This is quite an undertaking, and most people don't succeed.  I've heard that the resulting novels are usually terrible and require a lot of editing.

But still, this isn't something people quit their jobs for, not for just one month.  Writing fiction can be a career for some people, but for most people it isn't.  More often, it's just a weighty hobby.  For me, it's not even that, it's a light hobby.  There was no way I'd write 50k words in a month.  I wrote about ten times less than that, mostly while riding the bus to and from work.

Here's another kind of writing that people do: fanfiction.  Personally, I can't stand fanfiction.  The quality is just too low.  The only fanfic I ever really read was HPMOR, and even there I feel like I'm struggling with Yudkowski's awful prose and peculiar plot obsessions.

But I don't begrudge people writing for the pure love of writing and stories.  On the contrary, I admire it.  And who is to say my writing is any better?  Test reader feedback isn't positive enough to justify such a view.

And that's fine with me.  I would love to be a great author and get published, but that's not the real goal here.  If the small amount of time I commit isn't enough to get to the finish line, it's not a big loss.  The goal is to enjoy myself, and I am already accomplishing that.

Monday, December 15, 2014

What is an apology?

There are countless cases in the news where a public figure does something wrong, and we all collectively ask, "Why don't they just apologize?" or "Why don't they apologize the right way?"  In the mean time I've often thought, "Why does anyone apologize ever?  What is an apology aside from a collection of emotions with no rational analogue?"

An apology is a sort of script.  Alice wrongs Bob.  Bob demands an apology from Alice.  Alice apologizes.  Bob forgives Alice.


Alice refuses to apologize.  Bob is angered and seeks other means to punish Alice.  He could deny her trust, deny her social status, or even punish through legal means.

But what's in it for Alice?  What's in it for Bob?  As far as Alice is concerned, the outcome of apologizing is clearly better than that of refusing to apologize.  As far as Bob is concerned, punishment may provide either a psychological or game-theoretic value--why should any of that change just because Alice arranges some words in a particular way?

We've all been in Alice's place at one time or another, so we intuitively know the answer.  Apologizing is humbling, and feels bad.  Refusing to apologize feels empowering.  This is backed up by psychological research (and reading the intro to that paper helped frame some of the thoughts in this post).  Thus, Alice is weighing the psychological benefit of refusing to apologize against the potential for reconciliation upon apologizing.  And if Alice feels bad about apologizing, this serves some of Bob's psychological and game-theoretic needs, in place of punishment.

It's crucial to the script that Alice can actually prove that she feels bad when she apologizes.  Anyone can just say that they feel bad.  And yet, we have the phenomenon of the "non-pology".  A non-pology is when someone tries to apologize, but since they don't actually feel bad about their wrong-doing, it comes across as insincere.  It seems that people are not very good at mimicking sincerity when it comes to apologies.  Thus when people sound sincere, this often suffices as proof.

Apologies start to make more rational sense now.  However, they only make rational sense because we're living in an irrational psychological landscape.  In particular, we need that:

1. Apologizing feels bad.  Refusing to apologize feels good.

2. People are bad at mimicking sincere apologies.

3. People are good at detecting insincere apologies.

This psychological landscape needs an evolutionary explanation--although not necessarily an adaptive explanation.  I will not offer any specific hypothesis, although I will compare it to the phenomenon of the Duchenne smile.  People have two kinds of smiles, the kind they make spontaneously, and the kind they make voluntarily.  We are able to spot the spontaneous smile, called the Duchenne smile, and it appears to us as the "truer" smile.  And yet, despite the advantages a Duchenne smile, most people are unable to make one at will, unable to mimic sincerity.  Why did this evolve?

In any case, thinking this through has given me a better understanding of why people apologize, and why they don't apologize.  An apology is a way of communicating psychic pain, one that we are naturally bad at faking.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Atheists react to queer religious people

I was happy to see that Alex Gabriel talking about how queer activists give way too much credit to Christianity, and how this excludes queer atheists.  I was even happier to see this picked up by other atheist blogs, including Heina Dadabhoy and PZ Myers.  (And once Myers picks it up, it's likely to get more reactions from there.)

I feel this topic is under-discussed, and thus when people finally talk about it, so many different feelings and issues get swirled together.  I myself have a lot of mixed feelings which are difficult to disentangle.  It helps to contrast the perspectives of Dadabhoy and Myers.  Dadabhoy brings up her many negative experiences in queer activism:
When I volunteered for the No on Prop 8 campaign, the local dispatch center was a church. At on-campus LGBT events, many of the speakers were religious and talked about their god as if everyone believed in that sort of deity.

The worst experience I had was at a local conference about mental health and LGBT issues. Fully half of the panels were about religion, and every panel had a representative of what was euphemistically referred to as “the faith community.”
PZ Myers, being straight, doesn't have the ground-level experience with LGBT activism, and instead talks about the way religion is used to justify everything:
The problem is that Jesus and Mohammed and Moses are completely malleable imaginary authority figures who can be invoked to justify anything — Jesus simultaneously blesses the peacemakers and comes with a sword in that muddled book of myths, the Bible, so pacifists and warmongers are both happy to adopt his ‘philosophy’.
These are two distinct issues.  There's the practical issue, that LGBT activists are very religion-friendly, and not very atheist-friendly.  And there's the theoretical issue, which is that the pro-LGBT arguments within Christianity and Islam just aren't very good.  It's important to distinguish these issues because there are contexts where only the practical issue is present, or only the theoretical issue is present.

There are some religious traditions which are much more plausibly LGBT-friendly, from a theoretical standpoint.  In particular, I point to Unitarian-Universalism, and Shin Buddhism.  I also point out that most religious traditions are much more ambiguous about other queer groups, such as asexuals and genderqueer people.  And yet LGBT conferences can still be dominated by religious perspectives in a way that is exclusive of ace and genderqueer atheists.

There are other cases where the theoretical issue is present, but the practical issue is not.  Many people, myself included, have complained about the dominance of religion at the big NGLTF conference, Creating Change.  And yet, Zack Ford, a major critic, says it has not always been this way:
I’ve had numerous conversations with folks in the movement about the phenomenon, and the consensus has been that this embrace of religion is new, and a swinging of the pendulum away from what used to be a very toxic environment for any discussion of religion to an environment eager to reconcile with religion.
In the past, LGBT groups frequently excluded religious queers, which is not a situation I endorse.

It's also important to remember that the "LGBT community" is far from a united community.  There are LGBT activist organizations, but nearly every non-activist group subdivides by individual letters.  Furthermore, most of these groups are local, and don't really interact with each other.  Without an activist agenda, why would they?  What I'm trying to say is that while LGBT activist groups may be dominated by religion, in my experience this is not consistent among all queer communities.  Some may even have the pendulum swinging the other way.

Having seen a lot of the practical issues associated with queer atheists, I find myself a little uncomfortable with atheists who focus exclusively on the theoretical issue of reconciling queerness and religion.  The pendulum can swing both ways.  We're not talking about the general US population, which is 73% Christian.  We're talking about LGBT people, who, in the US, are 47% non-religious.  My own community, the ace community, is 59% non-religious.  We absolutely need to continue discussing the theoretical issue of reconciling queerness with religion, but we need to be careful about the practical issue of how that feeds back into queer communities--all queer communities.

I have the sense that many atheists, when they see Christians arguing that the Bible is actually LGBT-friendly, really don't like this.  It seems so hypocritical, and utterly inconsistent.  In fact, it subjectively feels even more inconsistent than the belief that Jesus is God.  I think we should examine why we feel this way.

On some level, believing that Jesus was a queer ally is more sensible than believing Jesus was God.  We at least know that allies exist.  The Bible doesn't say Jesus is an ally.  It doesn't say Jesus is God either.  Besides, it's a work of fiction.  I think the fact of the matter is we're simply more used to Christians believing Jesus is God, and so even as we reject that belief, we take it more for granted.  When Christians believe Jesus loves gay people, that seems more unusual, and thus somehow worse.

I do not see queer Christians as any worse than other Christians.  On the contrary, I like queer Christians better, because they're probably not homophobic.  Straight atheists can complain all they want about bad epistemology and the irrational justifications used within religion.  However, I can only be so principled before I care about the results of beliefs, irrational or not.

Queer religious people should be treated the same way as other religious people.  They absolutely deserve some space to talk about their particular issues and beliefs amongst each other.  But they cannot demand freedom from criticism, and cannot pressure critics into silence.  General queer spaces, just like general society, should be kept secular.  Currently, LGBT activist groups are not very inclusive of atheists.  They can't brush us under a rug just because they're afraid of what it will do to their image.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Why I find LessWrong fascinating

As it says in the title of the blog, I'm a skeptic.  That is to say, my attitudes and modes of thinking have roots in the modern skeptical movement and community.  The skeptical community is interested in a cluster of ideas, which I roughly illustrate below:

[Image: Skepticism is surrounded by the words Critical Thinking, Science, Anti-Pseudoscience, and Religious Skepticism]

For a variety of reasons, I've moved away from skepticism, more out of disinterest than disagreement.  But I'm still very fond of the value of critical thinking.  I like learning about cognitive biases and fallacies.  I like the idea of judging an argument based on its form rather than on one's prejudices about the particular topic.

In fact, I wouldn't mind if critical thinking were treated with a little more rigor.  The skeptical approach is constrained because it's mostly geared towards countering strange and harmful beliefs of other people.  If there were a little more focus placed on the sloppy thinking within ourselves, we might be able to move beyond mere fallacy-spotting, and hammer down some of the subtler details of rational thought.

The LessWrong community looks like that critical thinking utopia.  LessWrong is the name of a website founded by Eliezer Yudkowski in 2009, although it more broadly refers to the community that grew around that website.  Yudkowski had previously gained popularity by writing his "Sequences" on the blog Overcoming Bias, which mostly covered topics in critical thinking.  As the name implies, the Sequences built on each other progressively, enabling them to reach dizzying heights.  So here we have a community based on using critical thinking more rigorously, as a tool for progressive self-improvement.

So I have a bit of an affinity for the LessWrong community.  And in fact, I've read a lot of LessWrong material, including a lot of stuff about decision theory, nearly all of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, plus a scattering of blog posts whenever I get linked.  I'm familiar with a decent amount of LessWrong lingo.

But I don't read LessWrong on any consistent basis, basically because of the major TL;DR factor.  It's all fine and good when I want to read one particular major article that I've been linked, but in general the website is unreadable.  They've embraced the progressive structure of ideas, and so everything is thickly woven with required premises and lingo.  I especially dislike the lingo.  I hate that they either don't know how or don't know when to speak in plain language.  I hate that nearly every neologism is secretly a sci-fi reference.

It's also clear that LessWrong is not just a generic community focused on critical thinking.  Just as skepticism has other components in addition to critical thinking, so does LessWrong:

[Image: LessWrong is surrounded by the words Transhumanism, Critical Thinking, Effective Altruism, and Utilitarianism.  Keeping in mind that I'm not part of this community and may not correctly identify what they consider most important.]

The part that should raise the most eyebrows is transhumanism.  I'm going to get some of these details wrong, but they believe that we will develop artificial intelligence which will be powerful enough to take over the world.  They hope to ensure that the AI will be friendly to humans, rather than antagonistic.  People are encouraged to donate to the Machine Intelligence Research Institute which was founded by Eliezer Yudkowski and is affiliated with LessWrong.

I would not be able to refute any of these claims, and can only express general uncertainty about any specific claims about the future (AI in the future, sure, but beyond that??).  Mostly, I just don't care about transhumanism because I'm too pessimistic about our power to predict anything useful.

And then there are other weird things about LessWrong.  Like the obvious preoccupation with specific intellectual heroes, particularly Eliezer Yudkowski.  Or the common acceptance of fringe science, like cryonics and cold fusion.  Then there's Roko's Basilisk, although personally I find that more amusing than damning.  I'm more bothered by the neo-reactionaries, a spinoff group from LessWrong.  Neo-reactionaries... advocate for monarchy?  Explicitly believe in discrimination by race?  Due to LessWrong's value system, they're obliged to take it seriously.

I like the idea of LessWrong.  But closer examination just makes me appreciate the more populist aspects of the skeptical movement.  The accessibility of skepticism may have made it a more chaotic crowd, but chaos may be preferable to insularity.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Zinnia Star

Zinnia Star, by Meenakshi Mukerji

I made this model as a gift for a friend of mine who is a teacher.  After it was completed, it occurred to me that it would collapse under the weight of all the children in her classroom, so I did the forbidden and added some glue.  It was quite sturdy afterwards!

The shape here is a great stellated dodecahedron.  I thought that was odd at first, because I look at it and I see triangles.  There are 20 triangular pyramids in the model.  Dodecahedron = 12 pentagons, and icosahedron = 20 triangles.  So why is it called a stellated dodecahedron rather than an icosahedron?

Stellation is the process of constructing polyhedra by extending the facial planes past the polyhedron edges of a given polyhedron until they intersect.
To stellate a dodecahedron, you need to extend out each of its planes.  If you extend them out, you can get progressively larger stellations (right column of images from Wolfram):

It's neat to rotate around this figure and try to imagine the tiny dodecahedron inside.  Although I already gave the model away...

Friday, December 5, 2014

Julia Serano's "marked groups"

Generalizing about social movements

The other week I saw a talk by Julia Serano, author of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity!, and Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive.  She also has a super sweet blog.

This particular talk was based on Excluded, which is about the way that minority movements exclude other minorities.  Feminists have a history of excluding lesbians.  The gay movement has a history of excluding women.  Both of those movements have a history of excluding people of color.  And then moving on from that, feminists have a poor track record with transgender people, gay/lesbian people have a poor track record with bisexuals, and so on and so on.

Julia Serano draws from her personal experience as a bisexual femme tomboy transsexual woman.  Since she's part of several different groups which have been excluded, she hopes to make some general theories about how the exclusion operates, and how to combat it.

I am totally in favor of this conversation, since it's something I often talk about myself.  I started out as an atheist activist, and then became an asexual activist, and I've found it very interesting to compare and contrast.  However, I'm a little less optimistic about making broad generalizations, because it seems to me that bisexuality, transgender, and femme issues, despite being very different, are basically nextdoor neighbors.  Atheism isn't even on the same block.  And what happens when we consider other minority groups, such as poor people, criminals, people attracted to minors, or people in poor countries?

For example, one strategy Julia Serano advocated was unification.  Feminists thought gender was everything and ignored LG issues, and LG activists thought sexual orientation was everything and ignored women's issues.  If the movements had been more unified, they would have avoided this problem.  But should every pair of issues be unified, just because some people are affected by both problems?  What about the disadvantages of unification, such as when a broader umbrella causes more group-specific issues to get lost?

This is not to say that we shouldn't try to make general theories.  I think even when these ideas turn out to be wrong, they don't cause much harm, and instead lead to lovely discussions.

Marked and invisible groups

Julia Serano presented at least one idea that I thought might be widely applicable.  She proposed the idea of a "marked group" vs an "unmarked group".  For instance, transgender people are marked, and people who are not transgender are just considered "normal".  When a group is marked, they are "sticky", in that stereotypes, assumptions, and everything tend to stick to that group.  When a group is unmarked, we don't think of them as a unified group at all.

Thus, the term "cisgender", to label people who aren't transgender.  Now, if we want, we can think of cisgender people as a marked group of their own, removing some of the conceptual disparity between cis and trans people.  Of course, trans people remain as the marked group, and a minor change in language can only do so much to counteract that.

Here's why I think the idea of a marked group is generalizable:  It even applies to careers.  I'm a physicist, and that marks me as different in many contexts.  People tend to assume that I know all about cosmology and want to talk about it.  People assume I'm really smart and that I cultivate a secular spirituality.  Of course, this is not a very strong marking, and the assumptions people make aren't particularly bad ones.  But it's easy to see how the same processes can go wrong when a group is more strongly marked, and the assumptions more negative.

Consider another group, asexuals.  Are asexuals marked the way that transgender people are?  For the most part, asexuals are invisible, which is like the polar opposite of marked.

On her blog, Julia Serano has discussed the way that activist language changes over time, primarily so that people can avoid being stuck with "bad" words.  Serano imagines that once the groups are no longer marginalized, the language will stop changing so quickly.  This stands in contrast with asexual language, which seems to change radically every five years.  Asexual language does not develop to replace bad words.  Instead, people coin words to describe experiences that they feel people haven't talked about enough.

In a way, asexuals are voluntarily marking themselves, and marking their various experiences.  This is not without its disadvantages.  It may lead to stereotyping.  Perhaps one day it will allow a more coherent anti-asexual movement.  But these are still preferable to invisibility and obscurity.

Serano has also talked about the way that activist movements change strategies over time in response to the changing context.  What's adaptive in one generation can be maladaptive in another.  She recommends embracing ambivalence--"recognizing that certain ideas or objects may simultaneously posses both good and bad qualities, especially depending upon the context in which they occur."  I suggest that we should also embrace ambivalence with respect to being marked or unmarked.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Five awful things about "God's not Dead"

I saw God's Not Dead, a Christian film that appears to be based on that absurd chain e-mail about the brave Christian student who faces down an atheist professor.  This movie got a 16/100 on metacritic, but still ended up a big box office success.  If you want to know what happens in it without watching it, I recommend this synopsis.

In the world of God's Not Dead, atheists are horrible people who mock their girlfriends in public, abandon people close to them when they're dying, and secretly hate god.  The movie joyously depicts atheists dying by cancer or car accidents, and gloats over their last minute conversions.  Also, all atheist arguments are arguments from authority or assertion (oddly, so are the Christian arguments).

But a lot of that has already been said.  So here I present five things that were awful or bizarre about God's Not Dead that had nothing to do with atheism.

1. The girlfriend from middle school

The main character, Josh Wheaton, mentions that it's his sixth anniversary with his girlfriend.  He's a college freshman.  ...  I suspect the writers didn't think the math through, and just wanted it to seem like they had a long-time commitment.

The six-year commitment makes it all the more devastating when they break up!  Josh's girlfriend demands that he stop trying to challenge his professor, because they need to get good grades so they can go to law school together, like God wants.  Josh stands his ground, so she threatens to break up with him, and then she does.  Wow, how did they stay happy together so long in such an obviously abusive relationship?  Josh, naturally, has no emotional reaction to the breakup whatsoever.

2. A distillation of Muslim stereotypes

Another character, who is utterly unrelated in any way to the protagonist, is Ayisha.  In the presence of her "traditional" Muslim father, she wears what I think is supposed to be a niqab, although it's not remotely accurate.

Her whole plot arc seems to be based on the view that Muslim women wear covers because of direct coercion by male figures in their life, such as their husbands or fathers.  This is pretty much explicit when a student goes up to her and says, "I wish you didn't have to wear that".  Later, when Ayisha converts to Jesus, her father, who loves her very much, beats her and kicks her out.  Gee, I knew these were Muslim stereotypes, but I've never seen them represented so succinctly.

3. The car that won't start

Two Christian pastors are trying to drive... somewhere.  It was explained at some earlier point in the movie, while it was still throwing random characters at us, and I didn't know there was anything worth paying attention to.  But they can't get there because their car won't start.  And then a car rental guy drives a car over to them, and that car won't start either!  And then the scene with the car rental guy is repeated again, for good measure.

Get this: the car rental guy is going to audition for a role in Death of a Salesman.  Why is that relevant?  Who the hell knows?  I don't even understand how he gets to his audition without any transportation.

This whole time I'm thinking, obviously their car doesn't start because God doesn't want them to get on a train that God plans on crashing.  Turns out it's actually because God wants them to convert an atheist and then dance over his grave.  Props to the movie for being unpredictable.

4. That Chinese kid

There's one Chinese student on campus, and he is a visiting student from China.  His entire story arc is that he converts to Christianity, which his family finds inconvenient because maybe the Chinese government won't let his brother visit the US anymore (??).

I am Chinese American, and this is one of the most blatant examples of tokenism I've ever seen.  Couldn't they imagine that some Chinese people actually aren't from China?  It's also suffering from White savior syndrome, wherein a white American male hero rescues a foreigner from his ignorant foreign culture.  I'm pretty sure the Chinese Christian communities are much more effective at converting Chinese people, thanks.

5. The Duck Dynasty cameo

Early in the movie, a character has an interview with the guy from Duck Dynasty.  This served no purpose whatsoever, except to allow some celebrity to spout stuff about Jesus and ducks.  Later I found out from the synopsis that the interview was supposed to be hostile, because the character is an angry blogger.  I totally missed that because the rest of the blogger's story arc is about how she's dying all alone from cancer.

In case you didn't get enough of Duck Dynasty, he makes a second cameo.  For no apparent reason, he shows up at a music concert and encourages everyone to participate in a viral texting campaign (send "God's not dead" to all of your contacts!).  This is, of course, a very good idea, and is well-received by all.