Saturday, November 22, 2014

Personal thoughts on the four campfires of art

Scott McCloud is a cartoonist, and the leading theorist of comic arts.  In his book Making Comics, McCloud proposed the idea of the "four campfires of art", also known as "tribes of art" or "passions of art".  It's a way of dividing art or artists into four types.  But perhaps it's better understood as dividing art into four aspirations, since any particular artist or work of art can draw from multiple campfires.

For a description of the four campfires, here's a good blog post, or you can see what McCloud himself says in his TED talk or in this interview.

Image taken from McCloud's TED talk.

In addition to those links, I offer a very brief description:
  • Classicists focus on beauty, and mastery of the artform.
  • Animists focus on content, trying to present their story or ideas in the clearest way possible.
  • Formalists focus on form, exploring the contours of the medium.
  • Iconoclasts focus on truth, especially by targeting artistic conventions which gloss over truth.
Though McCloud is coming from the perspective of comics, they also may apply to other art forms, such as fine arts, literature, movies, music, and video games.

I find these four campfires to be personally validating, so much to the extent that I cannot offer any general commentary on them, and only offer my personal feelings.

I take one look at the four campfires, and it's blatantly obvious which one I fall into, both in my appreciation of art, and in my recent attempts to write a novel.  I'm an iconoclast. I really like fiction that deconstructs common tropes.  I like art that turns common moments into objects of fascination.  When I set out to write a novel, I end up writing a novel about a narrator whose major flaw is too much trust in tropes.

I also appreciate formalism and animism, but the campfire that is hardest for me to understand is classicism.  I think the category somewhat suffers from its association with "classic" art, because I think that most of the time when artwork gets immortalized as "classic", it's not because the artist set out to do so.

For example, is Shakespeare a classicist?  A lot of Shakespeare focuses on the details of the plot, and linguistic wit of the characters, both of which are animist values.  However, regardless of artistic intention, perhaps classicism is the main thing people get out of Shakespeare today, if only because the other values don't age as well.  I don't know, I don't really care for Shakespeare.  Or classic works in general, really.

I find the four campfires personally validating, because I really like art, but this is hard to explain when I'm not much into popular art, and dislike most classic art.  Also, my favorite thing to do with art is complain about it.  But it seems there's still a place for me at one of the campfires.

Which of the four campfires would you say you value most?

Monday, November 17, 2014

How identity is like a democracy

This was cross-posted to The Asexual Agenda.  I always end up writing these essays which almost exclusively concern people in the asexual community, but I thought readers here might find it interesting since it applies to identity politics more generally.

Why do the kids these days have so many words and identity labels?

That's the question we ask year after year.  But isn't that funny?  If it's the same thing year after year, why does it seem like kids these days are especially bad about it?

It's certainly true that some years provide more fertile ground for words than others.  For example, there were a lot more new asexuality-related words in the years 2000-2010 than in the years 1990-2000.

But a lot of the perceived change is an illusion.  Previous generations also had lots of words and identity labels.  Some of those words became established, and now you take them for granted (eg hetero-/bi-/pan-/homo- romantic, gray-A, demisexual).  But for every successful word, there were a dozen unsuccessful words.  You don't see them anymore, because they died.

I can provide many examples, being on AVEN since 2009, and having read a lot of community history.  There were the "sensual" orientations, such as homosensual, etc.   There was primary and secondary romantic and sexual attraction (ugh).  There were all the alternatives for gray-A and demisexual.  There were the concepts of "gay asexual" or "straight asexual", which were synonyms for romantic orientation.  And a bunch of other terms that failed so quickly that they're hardly worth mentioning or remembering.

You might think of words as having definitions, a collection of necessary and sufficient conditions.  But first and foremost, words are tools.  We don't adopt words merely because they apply to us, we adopt them if we find them useful.

Here are some of the things identity labels are useful for:
  • Identifying something about yourself, so that you may better understand it.
  • Feeling like you share an experience with other people who also use the word.
  • A tag to collect similar discussion.
  • A way to communicate something about yourself.
  • A rallying call for a community or social movement.
Note that most of these things require that you are not the only person using the label.  You can't use an identity label to share experiences if no one else uses the label.  You can't communicate with it unless you're in a context where enough people understand it.  You can't organize a social movement unless a lot of people are on board.

That's why, when words become unpopular, they don't just die a little.  They die completely.  Most people just don't have a use for an unpopular label. 

Using an identity label is like voting for it.

When you adopt a word, you are saying, "This word is useful to me."  And you are also giving the word more power.  You are opening up new ways to use the word.  And this is a good thing, because it means that the best words, the ones that most people find useful, become the successful ones.  The ones that people do not find useful become unsuccessful.

Crucial to this process is the freedom to vote.  People need the freedom to determine if a label is useful to them, or if it is not useful to them, independently of whether the label technically describes them.  If people are required to use a word just because it describes them, then this would ruin the whole process and lead to the creation of bad terms that we all use but no one likes.

It's certainly acceptable to campaign for or against a word.  Many established words became successful because someone campaigned for them.  For example, "demisexual" originally had success because AVEN user OwlSaint campaigned relentlessly for it circa 2008.  And I've campaigned against words before, like the primary/secondary attraction mentioned earlier.

On the other hand, there are certain campaign strategies that seem unfair.  For example, it seems unfair to outright tell people, "You shouldn't use that word," or, "Sounds like you're ____," especially when you're saying it to baby aces who see you as an authority figure.  You should be teaching baby aces how to vote, not telling them which way to vote.

I also think it's unfair to go straight to the public and use new words in visibility efforts.  That's taking too many shortcuts, and you may just be advocating a word that will die later on.  But there is a large gray area here.  In my history of doing presentations, I've been far too conservative, hesitating to use words that later became much more popular.

...

Once a word becomes established, it may stick around for a long time.  But that doesn't mean that there is no longer anything to vote on. 

We also vote on the meanings of words.

The asexual community is especially prone to thinking that words have clear definitions with necessary and sufficient conditions, because that's the way the word "asexual" is usually presented.  In fact, this idea is widely rejected in cognitive science and philosophy of language.  Most words don't have necessary and sufficient conditions, they have "prototypes".  Whether something belongs to a class or not depends on how similar it is to the prototype.  Stereotypes are basically a kind of prototype, so when people complain about stereotypes, they're trying to broaden a word away from a particular prototype.

The result of all this, is that words can be fluid.  Definitions are attempts to pin down the meanings of words, which is an extremely useful thing to do.  But definitions are not the ultimate reality of what those words mean.

In particular, there is always a lot of negotiation of the boundaries between words.  For example, if you experience just a tiny bit of sexual attraction, how much is needed to push you from asexual to gray-A?  If you yourself are on that boundary, that's for you to decide!

Just as we need the freedom to vote on which words to use, we also need the freedom to vote on what they mean.  Therefore, people should feel free to use a word even if by your preferred definition, that word does not describe them.  This allows us, as a community, to negotiate what are the best meanings for existing words.

This democratic process is the way that our language has been created.  Please continue voting!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Writing a novel: Month 7

This month I made modest progress on my book, finishing a few chapters.  I stalled for a bit while writing a chat log between the narrator and protagonist.  The narrator lies a lot, so the chat logs serve the purpose of being more reliably true.

Let me take this opportunity to talk about one of my major inspirations.  Let me tell you about Homestuck.  Explaining Homestuck to people is an exercise in absurdity and futility, so much so that "Let me tell you about Homestuck" has become a meme.  But it will help that I'm not actually trying to convince anyone to read Homestuck, I'm just trying to explain what it is.  (See the author's explanation for a more persuasive effort.)

Homestuck is a webcomic, and an epic satire of video games and the internet.  Unlike most webcomics, it makes full use of its online medium, including animations, music, hyperlink shenanigans, flash games, and more.  And Homestuck is really really long, longer than the entirety of Harry Potter, and more dense too.  Despite the high barrier to entry, it is extremely popular, with a very active fandom.  Most notably, Homestuck fans were able to raise 2.5 million dollars for a spinoff video game.

I've been reading Homestuck since the beginning in 2009, although I don't really participate in the fandom.  I honestly think Homestuck is one of the greatest works of my generation.  But I'm not trying to sell you on it, so I don't feel the need to explain all many great things about it.  I'm just going to pull out one aspect that I find inspirational.

Homestuck captures the modern communication age better than any other work of fiction I have ever read.  Homestuck is about a bunch of kids who live across the world, but who can nonetheless be close friends, through the medium of instant chat.  They are all excited to play a video game which promises, among other things, to provide a means for them to meet each other.  As someone who spends a lot of the time on the internet, that's touching.

Aside from that, all the characters, the humor, and the entire aesthetic of the comic has clearly been shaped by the internet age.  It's a world where people can have really obscure hobbies, where writing style blends into personal identity, and where ideas are often imported from the fandom.

The ways that other works of fiction deal with the communication age doesn't even come close.  Just think of all those movie plots that rely on no one having a cell phone.  If we can't handle cell phones, how will we ever handle smartphones?  And think of all those google-search and email montages.  Who thought those were a good idea?

Even cyberpunk.  I haven't read much cyberpunk, because it kind of makes me angry, but from what I can tell, it's based on a bunch of tropes that were attempts to predict what the computer age would look like in the future.  I read part of Snow Crash (and then stopped, because the hacker hero archetype really annoys me), which envisioned an internet a bit like Second Life.  That's nice, but I'd like to see more fiction with the benefit of hindsight.

I started talking about Homestuck because I mentioned that I was writing some chat logs.  Honestly, the idea of fictional chat logs is so closely associated with Homestuck for me, that it makes me feel like an imitator.  And a poor one at that, since I'm pretty sure I'll never be as good a writer as Andrew Hussie.  On the other hand, I would really like to see modern communication and its aesthetics to become more common in fiction, to the point where it no longer feels like an imitation of any particular work.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Why I support a guaranteed basic income

I've been a radical social liberal for a long time, but agnostic about most economic issues.  Macroeconomics is black magic, after all.  Nonetheless, over the past few years my economic politics have skewed more and more liberal, even though I don't blog about it much.

For example, one hypothetical policy I would support is a policy of giving everyone money.

That's a policy that I never would have supported when I was younger.  Even when I was a teenager, I understood that money is a fictitious entity.  If everyone had more money things would just cost more.

Put another way, say we had enough bread and houses to provide food and shelter for a million people.  If you gave everyone money, then prices would just rise until only a million people can afford bread and houses.  The same number of people would starve and go homeless, because it's not really a money issue, it's an issue of how much resources we have.

On the other hand, if you give everyone the same amount of money, that has the effect of redistributing wealth.  It would reduce inequality, basically.  And there really would be fewer starving and homeless people, because we would invest less in producing luxury goods for the most wealthy, and invest more in producing additional bread and houses for the poor.

One thing that colors my view is that I'm part of the millenial generation.  I'm entering the workforce in a time when unemployment is higher than ever.  What do unemployment rates say about our society?  It's possible that it means we're just allocating resources poorly.  But the other interpretation is that we have a surplus of labor.  We're too efficient at producing the goods that we need.  This is a bad thing only because employment is the primary way we distribute money.  If individuals can't find jobs then they're in financial trouble.  The easy solution is to distribute money by other means.

I think the unemployment levels are really just the tip of the iceberg.  When people are desperate for jobs, they'll accept worse jobs.  I'm coming from a cynical grad student perspective, and one of the things I despise is the workaholic culture in academia.  People expect you to work longer than normal hours.  And in order to advance to professorship, most people have to spend years in postdocs for low pay.  You just have to put up with it, because there are too many other people who want your job.

There are also governmental jobs which provide no real value to society.  They're just there because governmental employees can vote, and therefore vote to maintain their own jobs.  I would rather just give those people money instead of having them waste their time to get it.

Why a guaranteed basic income?  Why not welfare instead?  There are two reasons, one economic, and the other social.

Earlier, I learned a bit about how welfare works in the US.  People are awarded a certain amount of money, with a certain percentage of their income deducted.  And in order to remain eligible for welfare, people need to eventually find a job.  But if we have a surplus of labor, why require people to find a job?  And deducting a percentage of people's income amounts to an effective tax on the poorest people.  By giving everyone the same amount of money regardless of income, we remove that effective tax (not to mention cut down on bureaucratic costs).

Welfare also has a social problem, since they're perceived as handouts rather than money that is rightly owned by its beneficiaries.  Taking welfare amounts to admitting that you are unable to provide for yourself.  But this isn't really a matter of individual failure, it's a matter of correcting an economic problem that comes from labor surplus.  Thus, nobody should feel bad about receiving money.  If wealthy people receive the same amount of money, it would be harder to stigmatize.

Anyway, I have the impression that this puts me way to the left of US democrats.  Although to be fair, libertarians often support a similar policy under the heading "negative income tax".

Saturday, November 8, 2014

"Diluting" the meaning

Content note: brief nonexplicit discussion of sexual assault

Recently, someone in the comments accused me of using "sexist" too loosely:
I also take umbrage with the casual and loose way in which people throw around the words sexist, racist, islamaphobia, etc. It gets to the point where EVERYONE can be determined to fit into the insanely loose definition of what constitutes one of those caricatures.
But this is just one example of an attitude I've heard from many people.  Whenever anything is called sexist, homophobic, etc., we're said to be "diluting" the meaning of those words.  We're taking attention away from the more serious problems of outright sexism and homophobia.  I've heard the same said about sexual assault.  When we use "sexual assault" to refer to situations where the victim is drinking, we're diluting the meaning of sexual assault.

I have a zany proposal: Yes, I am diluting the meaning, and I am correct to do so.

Seriously, I would love it if sexual assault were punished more often, but more lightly.  I don't like that people who are convicted of sexual assault basically have their lives ruined because sex offender registries exile them out of many urban areas.  I don't like that I would feel bad about reporting sexual assault, because it's unlikely I would believed, and even if I were believed, it could hurt the accused far more than I want to.

I would love it if sexism and racism were recognized to be not just a few bad apples, but a dilute set of attitudes that affect us all.  I think this makes people uncomfortable, because how can EVERYONE be bad?  But let's frame it another way.  Instead of making it about us vs the baddies, it's now about self-improvement!  What a lighter world that would be!  Furthermore, I think this more closely conforms to the way that prejudice actually works.

Another problem with the stronger definition of sexism/racism/homophobia/etc. is that it gets our personal identities all tangled up with the attitudes.  For instance, consider this quote from the above commenter:
The idea is that when you cherry pick a quote, especially a joke, to make a blanket condemnation you are ignoring what [Bill Maher] actually supports.
No, but here's the thing: I was not trying to make a blanket condemnation of Bill Maher just on the basis of one quote.  Maybe he is otherwise an okay person, what do I know?*  The commenter is saying it's so unreasonable to condemn a whole person just based on one attitude.  You know what, I agree!

*To be fair, I do know that he's an antivaxxer, and I condemn him more strongly on that basis.  Some of this animosity towards Maher may spill over into my other comments about him.  But that's largely an independent issue, and obviously not everyone who makes sexist jokes will be an antivaxxer.

And that's exactly why the meaning of "sexist" should become more dilute.  Right now, "sexism" is so strong that it's reserved only for people who are all around terrible about everything.  It would be better if instead it referred to some particular thing, not a whole person, that is objectionable.  It would be great to disentangle personal identity from sexism.

In summary, I wish we could recognize sexism/racism/homophobia/ sexual assault/Islamophobia/etc. more frequently, and also be less punitive about the times when we do recognize them.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Sexist jokes and Bill Maher

I'm a member of the atheist student group at UC Berkeley, known as BASS, and apparently they recently launched a blog.  The first post is about Bill Maher, who was invited as a commencement speaker.  Some students, especially the Muslim student group, did not like that Bill Maher was invited, and they started a petition to stop him.

I basically don't care about Maher speaking at commencement, because I already hate commencement.  It's a long boring ritual that we're strongly pressured to participate in whether or not we personally derive anything from it.  Anyway, I'm not an undergraduate, and it's for the undergraduates to work out.

What I find shameful is the defense of Bill Maher in general, and the defense of "sexist" jokes (in scare quotes because my opponents are contesting that they are sexist):
...let’s take as an example a Tweet that Bill Maher made recently, saying “Dealing w/ Hamas is like dealing w/ a crazy woman who’s trying to kill u – u can only hold her wrists for so long before you have to slap her”.
Now, I agreed with him that the Tweet was objectionable, but I also saw that the moment he started arguing over whether the term “sexist” applied to it, he gave the conversation away to the forces of nonsense.
Calling something sexist just means that it's objectionable, particularly with respect to the gender axis.  If he agrees that it's objectionable, then it hardly seems necessary to argue a point we already agree with.  He appears to be operating under the view that "sexist" is to be reserved for things that are LITERALLY HITLER, whereas my definition of "sexist" is apparently too loose?  It seems clear to me that a looser definition of "sexist" is simply a superior one, because then maybe I can actually use it every so often on things that exist in the real world.

The author then goes on to talk about the real world harm of the tweet:
“It perpetuates the stereotype of women as irrational and insane.”  In whose mind?  Yours?  Maybe if you’re an idiot.
Wow, what a great example of people believing that if they're smart enough, they can overcome cognitive biases.  Only an idiot would ever be taken in by stereotypes.

You don't need to look very far to find lots of research on sexist jokes, and how they affect attitudes towards women.  Here are a few examples from one study:
How many men does it take to change a lightbulb? None let her do the dishes in the dark.

Why do women have small feet? So they can get closer to the sink!
These jokes are, of course, "ironic", because no one actually believes that women have small feet so they can do housework.  The lightbulb joke only mentions a specific woman, and not women in general.  In fact, that one's really making fun of lazy men, not women.  Only an idiot would be affected by these jokes.

Look, we can argue back and forth whether Bill Maher's humor is qualitatively different.  But we don't know if it's sufficiently different, because I didn't see any studies that looked at the finer gradations of sexist humor.  I don't think the problems with Maher's humor can be dismissed out of hand as something that only affects idiots (and certainly not ourselves!).

Oh, and take a look at this concern trolling:
If Feminists attack people who make disagreeable remarks on social media, then – in the public perception, at least – Feminism comes to entail attacking people who make disagreeable remarks on social media, and that’s all anyone needs to know to safely dismiss the brand altogether (e.g. "Feminists?  You mean those people who say you can never call a woman crazy, even if she's trying to kill u?").  If you want to brand yourself as the kind of person who throws a fit whenever a public figure says something unflattering, don’t be surprised when people stop listening to you, even about real issues.
People focus on quotes because it's actually a lot more effective than saying "Bill Maher is islamophobic" or "We have a problem with islamophobia."  "Oh?  Can you give an example?"  Yes, here are some quotes.  No wait, Alex Freeman advised me not focus on quotes, and surely he knows best.

Alex Freeman proposes that instead we focus on actions.  For instance, Bill Maher is my goddamn enemy because he is anti-vaccination, and I got into skepticism precisely to oppose that sort of nonsense.  But let's not focus on anything Maher said about vaccines or Louis Pasteur recanting germ theory on his deathbed.  Let's focus on his actions, and any actions he directly inspired.  I don't know of any such action, so I guess Maher's off the hook!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Trillium Bouquet

Impatient Trillium Bouquet, by Meenakshi Mukerji.  Textbook for scale.

Today I have a simple model, from Meenakshi Mukerji's "Blintz Base Bouquet" series.  They're all based on the blintz fold, which is simply folding all four corners of a square to the center.

There's one interesting about this model, math-wise.

Each unit consists of two colors.  The major color (blue, light blue, green, or purple) makes the structure of the unit.  The minor color (red, pink, or light pink) is simply inserted for color's sake.  There are twelve units total, making up the twelve edges of an octahedron.

What's interesting is that both the major and minor colors constitute "proper symmetric" colorings of the octahedron edges.  But they are distinct colorings, because there are four major colors, and three minor colors.  Furthermore, the twelve units have all twelve possible combinations of major and minor colors.  Isn't that elegant?