Thursday, March 5, 2015

These things do not exist

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

In the previous post in the series, I explained why existence is not a predicate.  Or if it is a predicate, then it is tautological and meaningless.

However, here is a rebuttal in song form (song starts at 1:35):



My transcript:
Perfect circles, three-sided squares, and two nested pairs with just one number,
Isaac Newton's fourth law of motion, rivers and oceans on the moon,
Easter Sunday in the fall, and Pope John Paul the sixth or seventh,
Also the last digit of pi, or large dragonflies that eat baboons.

Or what about elves and unicorns, or cranberries grown with pairs of thorns,
Or trash double cheesecakes laced with thorns, these things do not exist.
And don't forget objectivity, and non-oppressive authority,
Or equal opportunity, these things do not exist.

I'm quite impressed with our little list, though I think we missed a thing or two,
So not to sound too over-rehearsed, but we'll sing more verses after this.

So what about life without suffering, or a moment when nobody's dying, or a
Flower immune from withering, oh these things do not exist.
Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, American nuclear arms reduction,
Women safe from my powers of seduction, these do not exist.

Or restaurants in California where you legally can smoke, or pitless peaches, orange celery, or heartless artichokes,
or Chia pets that look like Howard Taft or Howard Stern, the Antarctic Badminton League, or gasoline that does not burn.
Or lengthy treatises on existential thought by dinosaurs, or belly-button-flavored jello, Japanese conquistadors,
September 33rd or 50th or 91st, or flying submarines, or talking plants, or meatless liverwurst.

Or oceanfront property in Zimbabwe, Orthodox Jews that speak God's name Yahweh,
Truffles or mushrooms with vertebrae, these things do not exist.
Or cellular phones from 1910, or monsters in closets, or boogeymen,
or cigarettes without carcinogens, these things do not ex--

Eggs as large as Mars, cherry-flavored cars, ninety string guitars, immortal
armadillos, paint chip pillows, billion kilo cigarillos, real Fox News sans point of views, or fake tattoos held on with screws, or duct tape zoos, or argon shoes, or cheap canoes made from kazoos, or free shampoos from kangaroos,
twelve-handed clocks, magic beanstalks, woodless woodblocks, NASA space walks on Earth, or sock puppets made without any actual socks.

One-line sonnets, eight-legged snakes, and beer-flavored lakes in Minnesota,
Cat-scan goggles, monks singing chants in tight leather pants, and
Finally not least of all, an utterly exhaustive list of things that don't exist!
The above song was inspired by a lovely Dinosaur Comic.

If existence is not a predicate, how do any of the above statements make sense?  Read on to find out.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Floral Dodecahedral Space

Floral Dodecahedral Space, an original model by me.  The units come from Meenakshi Mukerji,  specifically, these are units from Flower Dodecahedron 3.  If it seems like I make a lot of stuff by Mukerji, it's probably because I have a lot of her books.

This model was inspired by cosmology.

See, I was reading a bit on the geometry of the universe, and one proposal is that the universe is shaped like PoincarĂ© Dodecahedral Space.  I have a lot of trouble understanding what the hell this geometry is.  I think it's the quotient group of SO(3) and the icosahedral group?  It's been a long time since I've taken group theory.

Anyway, I found this column from the AMS (academic access required) which attempts to explain it.  I'm not sure how successful the article was, but when I saw this image, that's when inspiration struck.

It's got something to do with Poincaré Dodecahedral Space?

My reaction was, waaaait a minute!  You can have 6 regular pentagons symmetrically arranged while sharing a single corner? You can put 4 dodecahedrons together at a single vertex??  How did I not know this!?

As it turns out, you can't really put 6 regular pentagons together.  The angles aren't quite right.  I think this has something to do with the fact that PoincarĂ© Dodecahedral Space is curved space, so the angles don't necessarily all add up.

Anyway, origami sort of exists in curved space too, because you can always fudge the angles a bit.  And that's the inspiration for my model, Floral Dodecahedral Space.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Plugging my amateur social science

Have I ever mentioned that I volunteer for the AVEN survey?  It's a big community survey of people in the ace community, launched last October, and hopefully conducted annually thereafter.  We got about 11,000 ace respondents.

We published some preliminary results, and we're currently working on further data analysis to be published on our blog.  The analysis will all be published in a complete report at a later date, but the blog helps me focus on one step at a time.

Most recently, I published a bit of analysis regarding people's gender histories (under the name Siggy).  I'm particularly proud of this chart, which I made in Adobe Illustrator:


The above graphic shows the prevalence of different gender histories in the ace community, with the thickness of each line proportional to the size of the group.  The color indicates the percentage of people who identify as trans.  For the purposes of the color scale, trans people and people unsure whether they identify as trans were lumped together.  Note that "history" does not necessarily mean that people's gender changed over time; [sex assigned at birth] may or may not reflect a person's gender at birth.
 Most of the other graphs I make aren't nearly so fancy.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Geek cultural hegemony

In the past few weeks, I've been referring to various nerd/geek narratives.  There's the narrative that nerds are socially awkward,  particularly around women.  There's the narrative of being the smart person in your social group.  And there's the narrative of having very geeky niche interests.

There are certain advantages to having "popular" interests.  You have a much easier time finding other people who want to talk about your interests.  A lot more money is devoted to developing products related to your interests.  If you like popular music, you can expect it to be played in retail outlets and nightclubs.  So on and so forth.

What are "geek" interests?  There isn't any precise definition, but we have a wide array of prototypes.  There's sci-fi.  Fantasy.  Anime.  Trading card games.  Dungeons and Dragons.  Video games.  Comic books.  Science.

At some earlier point in time, all of these things were niche interests, primarily loved by geek subcultures.  However, "geek" does not necessarily imply "niche", and so they may persist in being geeky, even if they do not persist in being niche.  In fact, it seems like several of the prototypes I listed are now quite popular.


Blockbuster films have very high budgets, and must be supported by a very popular consumer base.  The infographic on the right is a list of upcoming comic book movies from IO9.  I also show GTAV, one of the best-selling video games of all time, and also one of the most expensive.

If something like Lord of the Rings has vastly more cultural currency than it once did, you might guess that most of the new fans are no longer from the geek subculture.  But so what?  That's what cultural hegemony is.  Even people who are not part of your subculture now feel compelled to recognize the value of your subculture's interests.  Your interests are now popular, and you gain all the associated advantages.  Good for you.

If I sound unsympathetic, it's probably because my biggest geeky interests have not attained a similar degree of popularity.  I'm mostly a math geek.  I like game theory, set theory, real analysis, origami, and logic puzzles.  I have been incidentally interested in sci-fi, but I've never been particularly enthusiastic about it.

From SMBC

One of the antitheses of geek culture is football culture.*  Stereotypically, geeks dislike football, which is fair enough.  Football is injurious to its players, a waste public resources, and most unforgivable of all, incredibly boring.  But most things that have cultural hegemony are obnoxious when they don't personally interest you. 

*That's American football, to all the non-US people.

Maybe it's just because I talk to more geeks than sports fans, but I personally think sci-fi fans are far more obnoxious than football fans.  I can't count the number of times I've been told that I absolutely must see Star Wars, and must read Lord of the Rings or Dune or whatever.  I'm kind of reactionary about it.  I tell people that I actively dislike the "classics".  (Since I'm ace, I privately draw a comparison between the cultural dominance of sci-fi and the cultural dominance of sex.)
http://xkcd.com/1480/
Click for bigger original, from XKCD.  My reaction to this comic was that I'd prefer it if people were neither obligated to listen to football, nor to geeky interests they don't care about.  For instance, my dear readers are never forced to read every part of my blog.

Perhaps one of the worst examples of geek cultural hegemony is in video games.  Because the video game market has space for relatively few big-budget games, geeks are incredibly possessive of the medium.  Something like two thirds of US households play video games, and yet geeks complain endlessly that it doesn't count because they aren't the right kinds of video games (because they're casual, or indie, or Call of Duty, or sports games, or Nintendo).  This amounts to having cultural hegemony, and yet still complaining that it's not nearly enough.

Geeks are frequently defined by their opposition to popular culture and appreciation of more niche cultures.  But now that geeks are taking over popular culture, the question is, have geeks learned anything whatsoever about how to be popular without being an asshole about it?

Friday, February 20, 2015

Merging discourses on sexual repression

Content warning: this post deals with some uncomfortable issues regarding people who are or think they are sexually repressed.

In a recent post on The Asexual Agenda, I discussed how it is okay to identify as asexual even if you feel your asexuality was caused by some identifiable reason.  Among the reasons that people commonly identify is sexual repression, particularly from a religious upbringing.

There is a similar common narrative among atheists.  For example, Libby Anne said that she used to be "sexually suppressed and extinguished" by religious purity culture, and that she was "essentially asexual".  For thousands more examples, there was an informal study conducted by Darrel Ray (see Greta for a summary), which concluded that leaving religion improves people's sex lives.

These two discourses are in conflict about their valuation of sexual repression.

Asexual discourse is essentially reacting to the accusation that asexuals are sexually repressed.  Some have reacted by asserting that asexuals aren't sexually repressed.  Some have probed the meaning of sexual repression, and questioned whether it exists at all.  Some have questioned whether sexual repression is necessarily a bad thing, even if we acknowledge that its source, religious purity culture, is bad.

Atheist discourse is primarily geared towards criticizing problems with religion and recovering from religion.  Sexual repression caused by religion is a problem to be overcome.  There is no reason to look for any positive or neutral aspects in repression, or to probe its meaning.  For example, Darrel Ray's Sex and Secularism report claims that sexual repression is ineffective at actually reducing sexual activity (although it tends to slightly delay it), and that the primary effect is that people feel guiltier about their sexual behavior. This is pretty damning, because even if you believe that it's good to reduce sexual behavior, repression seems ineffective in achieving that.

I would like for atheists and asexuals to listen to each other more.  However, on reflection I think asexuals are already listening to atheists.  After all, most people in the asexual community are non-religious themselves, and I found Libby Anne's article (as well as others) through ace community discussions.  So really I should say, I would like atheists to listen to asexuals more.

There are many questions which get asked by aces, which are never addressed by atheists. Questions with no straightforward answers.

What does it really mean to be sexually repressed?  In some cases, it appears to mean only that a person has sexual desires, but feels too guilty to act upon them.  In other cases, like Libby Anne's, it appears to mean lacking sexual desires.  If one has no sexual fantasies or desires, how does one know that one's "true" self is the counterfactual self, the one with fantasies and desires?

How do we know that repression is bad?  Though religion may be bad, there is no reason to think that all of its consequences are uniformly bad.  I accept that guilt is bad, especially when it has no positive effect on one's behavior.  Lack of sexual desire or attraction, though, is more subjective.  It may cause relationship problems, and it may cause personal distress.  There are some people who overcome sexual repression and subjectively feel that it is an improvement in their lives.  But are these problems inherent to ourselves, or inherent to the way society is structured (or both)?

How do we know it can be changed?  Yes, we've heard stories of people who have successfully overcome sexual repression.  But I've heard plenty of stories of people who tried and failed. It often constitutes a form of self-harm, as people try to have sex in hopes of "fixing" themselves.  And since sexuality is a spectrum, there are people who try and end up landing in the middle.

How do we distinguish between attempts that will fail, and attempts that will succeed?  This is an empirical question.

If you are recovering from religion, and its effects on your sexuality, your experience is valid.  You only need to come to terms with your own experience, and you don't need to answer to anyone else's experiences.  You don't need to have answers to the questions I've posed.  Nonetheless, I think these are questions that the atheist community should think seriously about.

(Aside: If you looked at Darrel Ray's study, I have an important comment to make.  Darrel Ray hypothesizes that people who grow up religious and then become non-religious still have residual guilt.  This hypothesis is of great interest to asexuals who think they may have been affected by religious upbringing.  Darrel Ray claims to disprove the hypothesis.  However, the associated survey question was, "How much anger do you experience towards religion because of how it affected your sexuality?" which simply appears not to address the hypothesis.  Therefore, I am skeptical of his conclusion, and have ignored it.)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Board game metaphors

Sometimes I wish board games had more cultural currency, because then I could use them in analogies and metaphors.  Alas, board games are such a niche interest that they can't really be used as a common cultural touchstone.  In fact, culture has such a "long tail" that only the most popular works can ever be used as a touchstone.  You have your footballs, your Star Warses, and your Bibles, all of which derive value from their popularity, even if their intrinsic value is in my opinion questionable.

Well, I'm just going to ramble about board games regardless of whether anyone "gets" it.

Even within board games, there are a few giants which all people are familiar with.  There's Chess, Poker, Monopoly, Risk, Scrabble.  And among nerdier people, everyone knows about D&D, Magic: The Gathering, and Settlers of Catan.  All of which I have complaints about, although some more than others.  By far the worst is Monopoly, which comes from an era when I think people just didn't understand game design.

I mostly play games in the Eurogame tradition, which is the one that includes Settlers of Catan.  I might as well say that one of my favorite games is Dominion, a deck-building game from 2008.  Dominion reached such popularity that it has been subject to a lot of imitation, and that's basically what the "deck-building" genre is.  I play several other deck-building games as well, like Ascension and Eminent Domain.

One of the interesting design choices in Dominion is the near-complete elimination of "politics".  In board games, "politics" refers to situations which depend on the power dynamics of the players.  A typical political situation is if I have a card that hurts one other player, but I can choose which player to hurt.  In Dominion, it is generally not possible to single out any opponent to hurt.  In a game like Settlers of Catan, players trade goods with each other, which is inherently political.

Because there aren't any politics, Dominion ends up being more of a pure game of economic development.  Each player has their own deck of cards, and they buy new cards to put into the deck.  Most cards improve your deck, allowing you to buy even better cards to put into it.  But you also want to buy "victory" cards, which actually make your deck worse.  When the game ends, you count up the points on your victory cards, and the highest score wins.  So the basic strategy is that you progressively improve your deck until a critical point, when you start "greening" and buying lots of victory cards (which are colored green).  The most important part of playing well is knowing when to green.

The build-up/cash-out structure is shared by many other Eurogames, even ones that are not deck-building games.  For example, in Race For the Galaxy, each player expands their galactic empire.  However, halfway through the game, some players might choose to switch to a "consume" strategy, where they take the empire they have, and focus on making lots of victory points.  Victory points don't help you expand your empire at all, but they are, after all, what's used to determine victory.

What's this a metaphor for?  Man, I don't know.  Life.  Except that life is political.

Here's another metaphor.  In Dominion, there are ways to remove cards from your own deck.  Beginners often don't understand why this is useful.  I bought those cards, why would I want to get rid of them?  Turns out getting rid of cards is one of the most powerful abilities, because it's the average card in your deck which matters.

That right there, that's a metaphor for life.  Life is like a deck of cards, and sometimes you want to get rid of some cards.  And sometimes you want to go for the village/smithy engine or the duchy rush strategy or the double jack strategy, or maybe the metaphor is breaking down here...

I don't know where I'm going with this.  Do any of my readers play board games?

Friday, February 13, 2015

Sexual economics, a theory in need of reworking

Recently, my attention was caught by the idea of the "sexual marketplace".  Specifically, there's a theory of sexual economics created by Baumeister and Vohs.  If you'd rather not read the paper, the Austin Institute* made a fancy video about it:



*Apparently, it's a think tank run by Mark Regnerus.  Yes, that Mark Regnerus.

Note that the video makes a bunch of claims about how people should behave, rather than just how they do behave.  I'll get to that part later. 

Basic Sexonomics

Baumeister and Vohs (B&V) model sex as an exchange that takes place within a marketplace.  We're ignoring everything except straight sex because, sure, that's ~90% of the sex.  So far, fine with me.  Since I'm a physicist I think you can make a simple model of anything.

But B&V add one extra component to the theory.  Men like sex more than women.  Therefore, sex is "sold" by women, and "bought" by men.  Men don't typically pay in money, but instead may offer
a fancy dinner, or a long series of compliments, or a month of respectful attention, or a lifetime promise to share all his wealth and earnings with her exclusively.
I'll just grant, for the sake of argument, that men really do want sex more than women, and I won't discuss whether that's cultural or biological.  The idea that women are "sellers" doesn't follow.

In general, sex is an exchange where both parties benefit, regardless of whether anything is bartered for it.  There are people who don't like sex, but they're not really participating in the market.  You'd think people would just have sex all the time, but I suppose you need time for other stuff and there's probably diminishing returns.  I also suppose there's also some opportunity cost associated with having sex with this person rather than that one.

Anyway, you can imagine supply and demand curves, where the demand curve is the marginal value to men, and the supply curve is the marginal "cost" to women.  Since sex is valuable to both parties, the "cost" is actually negative, but whatever.  The efficient market price is at the intersection of the supply and demand curves.  Since men want more sex than women, the efficient market price is positive (from men's perspective).
I worked really hard on this graph so you know it's right. 

However, it is not clear to me that the pricing will be the same across the board.  That may be true in the case of interchangeable products like bread, but is clearly not the case for people.  It may be the case that on the margins, paying women for sex can be the only way to make mutually beneficial agreements, but it's not obvious that this applies to the market as a whole.  For people who positively value sex, a large range of prices are possible (anywhere between the supply and demand curve shown above).

It is not merely that each person has a different valuation of sex.  It's that the value of sex is a function of both who you are and who you're having sex with.  I don't know how you get from this two-variable function to the supply and demand curves. I don't know if it's even sensible to speak of supply and demand curves.  You can't just assume that all human variation automagically averages out.

B&V also repeatedly emphasize that men are paying by giving the women committed relationships.  So the sexual market, where women sell sex, is coupled to a relationship market, where men sell relationships.  The thing is, like sex, relationships also benefit both parties, and again they ignore that aspect.

This all makes me wonder, where are B&V getting this from?
Although not many others have explicitly discussed sex as a female resource, we believe that that view is implicit, though often unstated, in many writings.  For example, Wilson (2001) recently published a widely influential sociological analysis of the decline of marriage in Western cultures, in the course of which he found it necessary to invoke unsupported assumptions such as [...]
Translation: "We may not have much evidence for our theory, but other researchers don't have evidence for our theory either, so nyah!"

In fairness, they offer a bunch of other evidence, such as prostitution, and societal attitudes towards infidelity in men and women.  And certainly, you can fit some facts about our culture into the theory.

However, at times it just seems like B&V are really fishing for the "that totally confirms my pre-existing prejudices" response:

Advanced Sexonomics
Typically, a group of men brought back meat for the group and all the meat was shared.  Miller et al. argued that this arrangement obscured individual hunting ability, and therefore women could not easily use gifts of material resources as a sign of long-term mate potential.
Here's the obligatory evopsych just-so story.
A low price of sex favors men, whereas a high price favors women.  Therefore, men will tend to support initiatives that lower the price of sex, whereas women will generally try to support a higher price.
And that's why feminists are in favor of slut-shaming.
Why should a woman care whether men in her community purchase pornographic materials and masturbate? But if pornography satisfies some of the male demand for sex, then it may reduce the total demand for her own sexual favors, and as a result the price she can obtain will be lower.
I guess that is one explanation.
Sexual decision making is likely to be more complex for the woman than the man.  Faced with a suitor desiring sex, she may feel pulled in conflicting directions.
Is there some economic principle that I'm unaware of that says "sellers" are more emotionally conflicted than "buyers"?  (It should be noted that B&V are not economists.)
As social exchange theorists emphasize, the value of any commodity rises and falls with scarcity. [...] By analogy, sex would have high value if the woman has had few lovers or is known to be reluctant to grant sexual favors, whereas the same activity might have less value if the woman is reputed to be loose or to have had many lovers.
In my understanding of economics, the value of a commodity rises and falls with global scarcity.  If one person can sell more of a commodity, they simply earn more profits.  So maybe there are some people who prefer sex with sexually inexperienced people, but that's just an ad hoc preference, not a rational response to the market.
Both men and women said they would be more upset if their partner had sex with a man than a woman.  This fits the view that, in sex, women give and men take.
Again, B&V make it out like this is a rational response to the market, rather than an expression of ad hoc preferences.  I really don't see how this could be.  Most sex benefits both parties, and it only "costs" women in that there is an opportunity cost.
[cw: rape] A milder version [of this theory] thus holds simply that female coercion of male victims lacks an important dimension, namely theft of the resource, and so the trauma and victimization are less severe.
I really don't think the theft of resources is the most important factor for trauma!  It's not like hiring a prostitute and having your check bounce.  Alright, I'm done with this paper!

Normative Sexonomics

Even aside from the merits of sexual economic theory, the video at the top is awful.  It argues that sex has become cheap (because birth control), and therefore men are less likely to pay women with marriage.  The video argues that this is bad.  Therefore, women should collude to make sex more expensive again.

Within their own stupid theory, if there's more sex and less marriage, this satisfies men's preferences.  Why is it bad for men to get what they supposedly want?

Message: Men's desires are destructive to society.

Collusion is kind of a ridiculous idea.  In theory, if enough women collude, this could give them an advantage in a market.  However, the women who are not part of the collusion reap even more benefits, so there's not much incentive to collude.  The only way collusion is possible here is if it's coerced.  For example, by public shaming of women who have sex too freely.

Message: We need more slut-shaming.

Saying "sex is cheap" sure makes it sound bad.  However, within the theory, the more expensive sex is, the less equitable the market is, so cheaper sex means more equality.  Note also that as sex becomes cheaper, sexual economic theory becomes less valid.

Message: Men and women have become more equal, and it's making our theory break down, so we need to stop it!