Saturday, January 24, 2015

The nightmarish collision of FTB and Tumblr

Here's a video of our panel last night:

We also got this reaction from Thunderf00t:

the 'freethoughtblogs' conference FTBcon3 is in full swing.It REALLY is the nightmarish collision of FTB and tumblr!
Thunderf00t's tweet led to about 30 dislikes on our video plus a few troll comments (now deleted).  See Lousy Canuck for details.

I'm so proud.

FTBCon is still going, with lots of good stuff on the way!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

I will be in FTBCon3

FTBCon is a free online atheist conference affiliated with Freethought Blogs.

I will be on a panel, "Asexual Spectrum Atheists", on this Friday, 9pm CST.  You can watch the panel here, but I also recommend tracking the conference as a whole.

If you're not sure which panelist I am, I'm the only male panelist.

Update: The archived video is here on YouTube or here on Google+!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The moral horror that is ourselves

Consider the following propositions about our society:
  • We totally approve of causing pointless pain to certain individuals, even though torture is known to be ineffective.
  • Everyone is either a rapist, or implicitly supports rape and sexual assault.
  • We enslave and murder because we like the way meat tastes.
  • We enslave people, and we think it's okay because they get paid enough to feed themselves.
  • In the future, everyone will look back at this era and see something horrible about us, and they will be right.
I am not arguing for the truth of any of these statements, but trying to identify a particular trait they have in common.  Each proposition, if true, is horrifying, because it means you and everyone around you is evil.  And that makes us recoil.

The elder god represents ourselves. (source)

And yet, we might still wish to argue for some of these propositions.  For example, it is entirely true that torture is pointless, and yet supported by most Americans.  And I would say that sexual assault is so widespread that it is frequently accepted as normal.  And even if you do not agree with these statements, you might have your own sharp critiques about society.

One of the strongest cognitive biases is the belief that I am a good person.  This bias extends to society at large.  If society is so evil, and I am a part of society, then I am evil.  I am not evil, therefore...

In my post giving general advice on how to argue, I said that the belief in one's own goodness is such a strong cognitive bias, that it's better to work around it than to directly counter it.  Here we have the same dilemma.  If I wish to argue, for instance, that capitalism is slavery, should I skirt around the moral horror, and reassure people that I am not condemning them as the ultimate evil?  Or should I play up the horror, saying, "that's why it's so important to address this issue"?

And what should we tell ourselves?  Are we complicit in the moral horror that is modern society?  Or are we on a righteous crusade to defeat evil?  Or should we assure ourselves that society's not totally evil, and that it's just this ordinary problem that we're trying to solve?

The weeds represent enslavement, torture, and rape.  Image source unknown.

Our approach to moral horror can be informed by our ethical system. Here, I will discuss utilitarianism, which judges actions based on how well the consequences align with our preferences, and deontology, which judges actions based on the quality of the actions themselves.  It's common for people to use utilitarianism in some situations (eg cost-benefit analyses) and deontology in other situations (eg any talk about "rights").*

*Note I am not saying that this is logically inconsistent.  Many utilitarians believe that things like rights can be justified on utilitarian grounds.  I am merely observing the fact that, on the surface level, some ethical arguments look utilitarian, and some look deontological.  I'm suggesting that it is the surface level which is relevant here, rather than the underlying ethical justification.

Consider the cause of animal rights.* Despite "rights" being in the name, a lot of animal rights philosophy is explicitly utilitarian.  It is not based on an animal analogue to human rights so much as it is based on animal suffering.  Though one of the philosophical critiques of utilitarianism is that implies that all moral actions are obligatory, in practice it makes moral actions less black and white.  There's a sliding scale--if you simply reduce the amount of meat you consume, that reduces harm.  This allows us to focus on small steps to improve the world, rather than focusing so much on how everyone who isn't vegan is evil, and even vegans are complicit.

*Disclosure: I am not a vegetarian.

The situation is different when we talk about rape and sexual assault.  The fundamental problem with rape is that it is a violation of consent.  This is, on the surface, a deontological argument.  It is based on the intrinsic quality of rape as an action, rather than on the consequences.

The fact that we think of it this way allows us to draw some hard lines about what's right and wrong.  But it also plays up the moral horror whenever we talk about rape culture.  It's hard for me to talk about how common sexual assault is in nightclubs, because that is horrifying.  It's hard to talk about the many ways that partners and society can soft-pressure people into having sex that they don't really want, because that is like saying many of your friends are practically rapists.

On the other hand, there are benefits to taking a more black and white view, in a world where people constantly exploit gray areas to justify assault and blame victims.  Or consider a world not too long ago where US had legalized slavery.  If people at the time had been horrified by the society they lived in, they would have been right.

So here's my question: If it would give our poor psyches a break, should we consciously adopt more utilitarian approaches to the big issues afflicting society?

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Doing what you love

Should you find a job that you love, or should you just find a job that pays and do what you love on the side?  There is no ultimate answer to this question, only personal preferences and conventional wisdom.

The sense I get from US cultural history is that the conventional wisdom shifts from generation to generation, often tracing economic trends.  The clearest example I can think of is the idea of the "yuppies" in the 80s.  Yuppies were (supposedly) sellouts, people who chose corporate jobs over continuing the revolutions of culture in the 60s and 70s, or so the narrative goes.  In other words, Yuppies chose jobs that paid, rather than doing what they loved.

I am part of the millenial generation.  I feel it is impossible to ascribe motivations to a generation, as if it were a single individual, but I am a rather stereotypical millenial in many regards.  I am overeducated.  I am pessimistic about career, and about the economy.  I don't expect or want much in the way of material goods.  I do not drive.  And I don't love my job.

Unlike the stereotypical millenial, I don't have student debt.  In absence of debt, and in absence of any expensive hobbies, I would be happy with a shorter work week.  Really, we should all have shorter work weeks; it might help reduce unemployment.

I know lots of grad students.  My lack of enthusiasm is common.  But for some reason the cultural expectation is that scientists do what they do for the pure joy of discovery.  Non-scientists view science through the lens of popular science, where everything is cool and exciting.  I can fit my own research into this narrative too.  Liquid helium, ultra-high vacuum, class 4 lasers!  But science isn't all exciting ideas and fascinating discoveries.  It is, first and foremost, a job.  It's work.  I wouldn't do it if I didn't get paid for it.

On second thought, perhaps that's not true.  One of my volunteer projects is analyzing community survey data.  I'm basically doing social science purely because I want to do so.  But considering how little time I put into that project, I think it only serves to show: liking what I do can only get me so far.

But even when "doing what you love" seems unattainable, it sounds like a nice ideal.  It would be great if different kinds of labor could be allocated to exactly the people who like them.  Who could oppose such potential for human happiness?

I don't oppose the ideal.  Rather, I oppose what people are expressing through the ideal:  You are not allowed to like things, unless by liking them you contribute materially to society.  You can't like art unless you're an artist or critic.  You can't like games unless you're a designer or competitor.  You can't like music unless you're a performer.  As for whatever job you might have, you must work really hard at it, because you love to do so.  Forget the 40-hour work week, why would you want to constrain yourself?  And while you may not have much remaining free time to enjoy the income you earn, you can always spend the extra income on status goods.  Giant houses, and lots of things to put in the houses!  That's what comfort is, what luxury is.

To me, comfort doesn't mean having more status and wealth than other people.  It means having more time to do the things I actually want to do.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Iterated games

Now that I've completed my series on the evolution of Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma strategies, I want to say something about the importance of iterated games.

At the very end, I brought up another two player game, called the Battle of the Sexes.  Battle of the Sexes is often told through a particular narrative: a husband and wife negotiate over whether to go to the opera or the football game.  But this narrative is not an entirely accurate representation of the game-theoretic concept of Battle of the Sexes.  In theory, the players do not communicate anything, and go into the game without any knowledge of what the other player will choose.

The narrative that is usually used for the Prisoner's Dilemma is more precise.  The Prisoner's Dilemma narrative tells of two prisoners who are locked separately with no way to communicate.  That's the way that game theory operates.

There's actually some justification for this, even in real situations where players can communicate with each other.  Players can basically say whatever they want about what they will choose, but it's all just "cheap talk".  There's no way to enforce a correspondence between what players say and what they do.  Thus the correct strategy is to ignore everything the other player says.  (Of course in practice, that's now how people behave, but put it up to human irrationality.)

Consider a situation where two players have the ability to communicate only one piece of information: their intention to go to a football game or the opera.  They are allowed to switch their intention at any time.  After exactly a minute has passed, each player's intention becomes reality.  But everything you communicate in the first 59 seconds has no impact whatsoever, because you can just change your mind in the last instant.

But suppose that the game doesn't end at exactly one minute.  Maybe you don't have any idea when the game will end.  Then, it's like you and your spouse play the game over and over again, an unknown number of iterations, and it's only the last iteration which counts.  But since you don't know which is the last iteration, you should choose a strategy which optimizes the average outcome over a large number of iterations.  In fact it can be a very large number of iterations, if our reaction time is much shorter than our uncertainty about the end time.

I suggest that this latter situation is closer to what we experience in most realistic situations.  Thus, even if we're only playing one game of Prisoner's Dilemma or Battle of the Sexes, it's often like an iterated version of the game.  I've never heard a game theorist express this equivalence between "real time" games and iterated games, but that's my analysis.

I think this is a practical solution to the Prisoner's Dilemma in most realistic situations.  In a simple Prisoner's Dilemma, rational players (for some definition of rational) always defect.  But in an iterated Prisoner's Dilemma where the number of iterations is unknown, rational players may cooperate.  The keyword is "may", since as my simulations found, the iterated Prisoner's Dilemma is far from simple, even when considering an idealized situation.

A large portion of morality and politics are essentially dedicated to solving game-theoretic problems, particularly the Prisoner's Dilemma.  It is my vague hope that in the future we will develop new game theory "technology" which will have as much positive impact as anything new in physics.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Commentary on Charlie Hebdo

The buzz last week was about an attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo, which killed 12 people.  Charlie Hebdo is a sort of French equivalent to Mad magazine, and the attack was in response to satirical cartoons targetting Islamist extremism.

I don't usually have anything to say about news stories like this--my primary comment on almost any tragedy is "that's bad."  You won't even get a "how horrible!" out of me because frankly 12 deaths is not a whole lot compared to other faraway stories which get comparably little coverage.  As for the attack on free speech, the reader may compare it to the French ban on pro-Palestinian protests, which has been in place since July.  One has to adjust their emotional response to account for selective virality bias.

It seems that other people have different comments to add.  In fact, the issue has split my Facebook friends, with a lot of atheist friends hammering on about free speech, and queer friends saying free speech yes, but Islamophobia.  Here is a representative image from American Atheists, and here's a representative article from the other side: "In the wake of Charlie Hebdo, freedom of speech does not mean freedom from criticism".

That last article claims it is obvious that the cartoons are Islamophobic, but it's hard for me to judge since no translations are offered, and the English examples in the same article seem pretty weak.  I guess I don't care enough to look up translations, much less do the necessary research on the context.

However, I agree with the article that we should feel free to criticize the cartoons even in the wake of the attacks.  Jason Rosenhouse points out that if it were a neo-nazi magazine under attack, we'd still talk about freedom of speech, but we'd also feel compelled to say how much we disagree with the neo-nazis.  If some people genuinely feel the cartoons are islamophobic, it makes sense for them to say so even while decrying violence.  The reason American Atheists does not criticize the cartoons is not really because they think they think the cartoons are above criticism, but because they obviously agree, sufficiently, with the cartoons.

Nonetheless, some people think it's inappropriate to talk about any of the context surrounding the cartoons, lest we disrespect the dead.

A useful comparison can be drawn to the concept of derailment.  If I start about talking about the difficulties of women or queer people and you say, "but men/straight people also have problems let me talk about them", that's derailment.  Because you're effectively preventing me from talking about what I want to talk about in my own space without obnoxious interruptions.

Is it derailment to talk about how bad the cartoons are, when the cartoonists are fresh in their graves, and the foundation of liberal society is at stake?  I don't think so.  When a tragedy goes viral, we basically end up having a public conversation about it. If a particular topic is "derailing" the conversation, then there is no place for anyone to talk about that topic.  In a conversation supposedly about free speech, this goes against the spirit.

I think there is plenty of room in a public conversation for people to have many spaces with many topics.  For example, even if what I say here is demonstrably terrible and stupid, it doesn't prevent you from having a more productive conversation elsewhere in your own space.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

So you want to start your own blog

This was written for The Asexual Agenda, and cross-posted here.  It's primarily geared to people looking to start ace blogs, which means I will refer repeatedly to the current state of the ace blogosphere.  But most of the advice is generalizable.

It says on our about page, we're not just here to talk about asexuality, we're also here to stimulate blogging.  Lately I've seen a number of people starting their own blogs.  (For purposes of this post, I'm referring to non-Tumblr blogs only.)  Since I'm possibly the most experienced blogger in the ace blogosphere, having blogged consistently for over seven years, I'd like to offer a bunch of miscellaneous tips.

What do you want out of your blog?

When I first started blogging, I dreamt big.  I wanted all the readers, and I wanted to influence the conversations I saw on other blogs with lots of readers.  Naturally, none of that happened, and at first I felt very disappointed.  But I continued writing because I discovered there were other things I got out of blogging in the short-term.

The fact of the matter is that most blogs don't get a significant number of readers, and those that do acquire them over many years.  If you really just wanted attention you could probably do better by being a troll on tumblr.  There must be something else you want, so what is it?

I asked this question in an earlier question of the week. Some of the answers provided:
  • To talk about things that you can't talk about offline
  • To reach people
  • To order your thoughts
  • To spend time
  • To connect with readers
  • To get reader's thoughts
  • To find communities with shared interests
The thing you should be asking yourself is, how essential is it to have lots of readers?  Having some readers helps to distinguish a blog from a personal diary.  And certainly I want to see more popular ace blogs.  But what do you want?  Would you be satisfied if only a few people read your blog?

Most of this post will focus on acquiring readers, since that's the main thing I can give advice for.  There's not much I can say to help your venting be more cathartic or your analysis be more exacting.  But keep in mind what you really want, and recognize that you are not failing just because you don't have many readers.

Where do readers come from?

Let's get into the nitty gritty of blog readership.  Take a look at these site statistics from the past month of my personal blog.

Blog statistics

Here's a brief explanation of the pieces of pie:
  • Referrals - People follow links to your blog, often from tumblr, other blogs, or forums.  Site statistics will track incoming links, which is very useful to know your audience.
  • Organic search - People find your site by search engines.  Site statistics will track search terms, and it's often hilariously obvious that people won't find what they're looking for on your blog.
  • Direct - People go directly to your blog by bookmark or typing in the url.  These are probably regular readers.
  • Social - Mostly Facebook.  Facebook makes it impossible to tell what people are saying about you.
One of the reasons I stopped caring about getting lots of page views is because I realized that I really only value regular readers.  Page views tend to be dominated by search engine hits.1,2  The vast majority of visitors who come by search engine never return.  It's also hilariously clear based on the people's search terms that most people aren't getting what they wanted from my blog.

But of course, every regular reader used to be a one-time visitor.  So if you want regulars, the main issue is how to "hook" those one-time visitors.  When I consider reading a blog, it's usually after seeing a link to an essay I like.  Then I look at the "about" page to see what kind of perspective is offered, and then I browse the front page or tags for anything interesting.  If I like what I see, I look around for a subscription service.3

Writing a blog for readers

Writing well simply requires practice, and there's very little advice I can give to help you write better.  I can, however, say what readers generally want:
  • Consistency in the long term - Good writing can acquire more readers, but it won't matter if people have forgotten about your blog by the time you post another update.  Basically, quantity can be more important than quality.
  • Unique personality - Your individual voice will distinguish you from just another essay we found on the internet.  You can adopt a particular tone, a particular writing style, or format.  You can tell personal stories, bring up new issues, or think about old issues in new ways.  Even attaching pictures to your posts can go a long way to adding character.
  • Shorter is better - I'm a very verbose writer, and I understand how long-form writing can be essential to my personal goals in blogging.  But as far as the goal of acquiring readers goes, new readers generally don't want to invest a lot of time in a blog they just met.
  • One small issue at a time - It's tempting to write big manifestos that say everything you ever wanted to say about asexuality.  But this tends to lead to big sprawling posts that take forever to write, and of course the next week you remember something else you forgot to add.  Having a web of many posts is easier, and encourages people to follow the web as it grows.
Wordpress, Blogger, and Tumblr

Outside of Tumblr and Livejournal, it really doesn't matter what blogging software you use.  Where Tumblr can connect you with a "Tumblr community", using Wordpress doesn't really connect you with a "Wordpress community", and using Blogger doesn't connect you with a "Blogspot community".  You make your own connections with old-fashioned links and search engines.  So the playing field is pretty much level.

That said, I think Wordpress looks a little more "professional" than Blogger.  But unless you get the paid version of Wordpress, Blogger gives you more freedom to tinker with its code.  For example, he reader statistics above come from Google Analytics, which I can install on Blogger but not on Wordpress.

 The state of the ace blogosphere

The Asexual Agenda is currently the biggest asexual blog around.  That means that one of the ways to attract readers is by getting us to link to you.  We're aware of our power to direct eyeballs, and we try not to abuse it.  This is all to say, ask us nicely and we'll link you.  Of course, making readers stick around is up to you.

You might ask, where do our readers come from?  Most of our referrals come from Tumblr--links from AVEN and Reddit are much less fruitful.  You can always go to the source and try to plug your blog on Tumblr.  There's a fairly common Tumblr/Wordpress hybrid model, where people get readers from Tumblr and have structured discussions on Wordpress.  This is an easy way to get the best of both worlds.

Of course, the current state of the ace blogosphere can change.  Why should The Asexual Agenda be the most popular?  There should be many popular blogs.  I hope to see more in the coming years.


1. I think it takes a while for Google to notice that a new blog exists, so this might not be true for brand new blogs.

2. Depending on what you're doing, you might actually cater to search engines.  For example, Asexuality Archive is aimed at providing resources, and so search engine hits are important.  But I think this is true of very few blogs.

3. I'm not sure how many people use subscription services or what kinds.  I use RSS feed, but I read lots of blogs and webcomics so I'm probably unusual in this regard.  You can add widgets to advertise subscription services, although experienced users might figure out how to subscribe regardless.