Monday, July 21, 2014

Yes, we should judge people from earlier times

I read Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman some years ago, and found it entertaining.  But also, Richard Feynman was a jerk.  He was a practical joker, which I already think is awful.  He was also intentionally mean to women because it got them to sleep with him.  He was basically using "negging" techniques, like a modern pickup artist.

Richard Feynman's sexism was the subject of a recent defense in Scientific American, which prompted several rebuttals.  Among other things, people defend Feynman by saying he was a "product of his time".

I'm skeptical that being a man in the 1950s necessarily meant you were sexist in the way that Feynman was.  If lots of men were "negging" in Feynman's time, then why would he have thought it was an interesting anecdote to tell?  Feynman himself did not depict his pickup practices as products of his time, but rather products of his own cleverness.

I would go further than that.  In general, I believe that even when people truly are products of their time, they should still be judged by today's standards, no matter how anachronistic.  I believe this because I am a moral pragmatist, and also because I don't believe in the afterlife.

As a pragmatist, I believe the function of "moral judgment" is to encourage better behavior.  And yet moral judgment has limited power to change people.  Sometimes there's an powerful underlying "reason" why people do bad things.  In these cases, moral judgment may be unwarranted, since it will just make people feel bad about themselves without doing anything to change the underlying reason for their behavior.  And yes, I consider it an intrinsic evil to make people feel bad about themselves, no matter who they are.

So when people are a "product of their culture", this can be a mitigating factor to their moral responsibility.  We can't expect people to deviate significantly from their surrounding culture, so sweeping moral judgments may be a waste.  (On the other hand, moral judgment is also an excellent tool for changing the culture, so there's that.)

This framework for viewing morality has some odd consequences when we look at past people and past societies, especially when the people are all dead, and the societies gone.  What is the point of judging these people at all, if their behaviors are set in stone?  It doesn't do any of those dead people any good.  Since there's no afterlife, it doesn't even make the dead people feel good or bad about themselves.

Therefore, the function of morally judging people in the past is not to change the past, but to guide the present.  As such, the moral standards of today are the only moral standards that are relevant.

When we say that what Feynman did was morally acceptable, there are two messages we could be sending.  The first message is the direct message: sexism is acceptable.  The second message is more indirect and abstract: we're saying that if we live in a society that has sexism, then it is acceptable to assent to the sexism, and even participate in it.  Since we do live in a society that has sexism in it, the second message also basically amounts to saying sexism is acceptable. Neither of these messages seem appropriate to me.

Another example is that we know Darwin was racist.  My understanding is that Darwin was less racist than many of his contemporaries, but he also lived in a colonial society which thought of other peoples as savages, or somehow lesser.  If we were to defend Darwin's racism, there are two messages we could be sending.  The first message is that racism is acceptable.  The second message is that if we live in a society that has racism, then it is good to reject that racism, even if only in baby steps.  I think the first message here is a bad one, while the second message is a good one.  Therefore, I have more mixed feelings about Darwin than I do about Feynman.

This analysis applies to people and societies in the distant past, but not necessarily to societies in the recent past, nor to foreign societies in the present.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Western atheist Buddhism

Buddhists don't believe in gods, so they're technically atheists.  Even Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, which as I read earlier, calls upon the Amida Buddha for help reaching the Pure Land, does not believe the Amida Buddha is a deity.  He is just someone who attained enlightenment.  On the other hand, I suspect this religious tradition will not appeal to typical atheists in the US, because of the clear presence of supernatural beliefs.

But still there are plenty of anti-supernaturalist atheists around who consider themselves Buddhist.  Perhaps they are working within a different tradition of Buddhism where supernatural beliefs are absent or deemphasized.  Or perhaps they're picking and choosing from Buddhist traditions, taking only the parts they like.

There are some Buddhist traditions that I like too.  I like the idea of emptiness, and the idea that there is no constant self.  I think this is true to reality, or about as true to reality as an ancient belief can be.  I am not the same person I was or will be, I merely share some attributes.  Most (or all) things are not really things at all, but patterns.  There is nothing underneath.

But I'm pretty sure there's more to the Buddhist idea of emptiness than that.  And there are plenty of other non-supernatural Buddhist traditions that I just don't care for.  Like meditation.  Or the Middle Way.  Or framing the world in terms of suffering and enlightenment.  None of that stuff's wrong per se, but it just doesn't appeal to me as a way of seeing the world.

The choice for me is easy: I will not identify as Buddhist.  But if you're into all those Buddhist beliefs and practices, minus the supernatural parts, you might be justified in identifying as Buddhist.

Here are a few things people said on Friendly Atheist about being both Buddhist and atheist:
Yes many people who are Buddhist today believe in supernatural things. However at the base of Buddhism, it is just philosophy of how to live your life.
I really don't view Buddhism as a religion. Instead, I understand it to be more of a lifestyle or philosophy; one that can be easily adapted into any belief system or lack there of.
The early Buddhist texts, particularly the Pali Canon, are free from all the woo that seems to have come later.
There is a sutra in the Pali Canon where the Buddha basically states that it does not matter whether rebirth is real or not.
I respect people's decisions to identify as Buddhist, but I disagree with some of these specific comments.  If we see Buddhism as a philosophy, to be judged on its merits rather than on its authority, I don't understand why people feel the need to defend "original" Buddhism.  Gautama's Buddhism is no more authoritative than later developments.  For example, the concept of "emptiness" that I like so much actually appeared some six centuries after the origin of Buddhism.

I think people refer to the supposed naturalism of "original" Buddhism because they are trying to establish that Buddhism is at heart a secular philosophy rather than a religion.  But I disagree with this view, because I think Buddhism, like all other things, has nothing at its heart.  It is empty, without any central essence to represent the "real" Buddhism.  In other words, atheists can be Buddhists, but they are no more legitimately Buddhist than the ones with supernatural beliefs.

Buzzfeed once did a video "If Asians said the stuff White people say", which I think is relevant to the topic.

At 0:50, a guy says, "I'm really into western religions lately.  I love how they're so angry and uptight, you know?  I decorated my whole house in crosses!"

I wouldn't say that it's appropriation, exactly, to take ideas from Buddhism that you like.  It wasn't "appropriation" when Filipinos adopted Catholicism, it was just conversion (and colonialism).  Buddhism is an idea that wants to spread, so there's nothing wrong with having it spread and transform across cultures.

However, I suspect that if there were more Buddhists in our culture, atheists in the US wouldn't be so quick to say that the kind of Buddhism they practice is the real Buddhism.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Some thoughts on writing asexual characters

This was cross-posted on The Asexual Agenda.  I know I've talked a whole lot about writing my novel here, but I haven't said anything at all over there, so please allow for some repetition.

As a few people know, a few months ago I finally started on my long-time ambition to write a novel.  It would be premature to get excited about it, since no one knows if I write decent fiction, or if I’ll ever publish.  But I might as well say that one of the characters is asexual.  So I’m starting to get more of a first-person perspective on writing asexual characters, and I’d like to share a few of my thoughts.

First I should note that I am not writing genre fiction.  No tentacle aliens or space wizards here, just Characters and Relationships.  And so instead of having tentacle-alien-fighting space wizards who just happen to be asexual, I have relationship-having literary characters who just happen to be asexual.  But it’s pretty hard to pretend that asexuality isn’t relevant to relationships so hey I guess asexuality is sorta central to the plot, huh.

I’ve already told you a lie about my book.  I said one of the characters is asexual, but there are two.  This is one of my ideas about how to do representation right, is to have at least two characters.  For someone like me, who worries too much about what particular groups and traits are represented in media, this is great for peace of mind.  One is white and male, which could be a representation problem.  But the other is non-white and female, so that makes me feel better.  I also get to represent multiple points in the spectrum.  One is openly asexual, while the other believes they’re straight.  One is romantic, the other is unknown.

This is easy to do if you have a large cast of characters, which I do.  But even so, I can’t make two characters representing every group.  I don’t have two major bi characters, for instance.  Oh well.

Another nice thing about having two asexual characters is that they can date each other.  It doesn’t work out though, because I like destroying relationships.

Actually, that’s sort of the book’s theme.  There are many breakups, and the breakups are Good because those relationships were Bad.  I am trying to subvert the idea that happy endings = successful relationships.  I think this is an uncommon idea: I couldn’t find it on TV Tropes.  Although I keep on wondering if it’s uncommon because it doesn’t work…

My last wacky idea comes from someone I met at an ace meetup.  He noted that fiction has the power to throw all this made-up stuff at us, and have us simply accept it, and it could do that for asexuality too.  So I decided to make a lot of things in my story from whole cloth.  I invented a city, which will raise no eyebrows.  I invented a religion, which is also normal novel material.  I invented an ethnic group, and as a reader you just deal.  I invented a sexual orientation, and you have to accept that too.  Wait no that last one’s real.  Tricked ya!

I’m hoping this will make less awkward the obligatory exposition on asexuality.  I really hate having to embed a lecture on asexuality within a story.  I don’t like reading it, and I don’t like writing it.  But I understand why people do it, because how else will you make sure your readers are up to speed?  How can we make the exposition more subtle?  I hope to do it by placing it alongside an exposition of Invented Ethnic Group, and its invented history with colonialism.  Do you think that will work?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Where does Burwell vs Hobby Lobby go wrong?

As I may or may not have mentioned before, my boyfriend has a law degree.  So I get to hear a lot of lawyerly opinions on the recent Burwell vs Hobby Lobby decision, both from him and his friends.  And they seem to contrast with the opinions I get from atheist blogs, where there's lots of panicking about the consequences, but very little explanation of the mechanical details of the decision.

The Hobby Lobby decision was based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal law from the 90s.  The RFRA says,
Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.
Laws specifically targeted against religions are already unconstitutional, but the RFRA adds religious protection from neutral laws.  For example, if a company bans hats among employees, that is a neutral rule that disproportionately affects certain minority religions which mandate wearing hats.

It's intended to protect religious minorities, because while the legislature is always conscious of the impact on the religious majority, they may ignore the impact on religious minorities.  For example, during prohibition, there was an exception for sacramental wine.  But in the 90s, some Native American employees were fired for using peyote, which is the case that motivated the passing of the RFRA.

Of course, you can imagine neutral laws which really should apply to everyone even if they burden some religions.  Non-discrimination (with ministerial exceptions) seems like an obvious one.  Therefore, RFRA does not completely rule out laws which burden exercise of religions.  Rather, it requires that those laws undergo "strict scrutiny".  That means they must be:
  • Justified by a compelling government interest
  • Narrowly tailored to achieve that interest
  • Be the least restrictive means to achieve that interest
Hold on, isn't women's health a compelling government interest?  Did the Supreme Court decide that it is not compelling enough?

In fact, the Supreme Court did not opine on whether it was compelling.  Instead, they ruled that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was not the least restrictive means to achieve that interest.  And here's why.  The ACA already exempts nonprofit religious organizations from paying for contraception.  The legislators wrote that in.  So if they made exceptions for nonprofits, why not for-profits too?  How can we argue that the ACA is the least restrictive law when applied to for-profits, when it is already less restrictive on nonprofits?

This is not so much bad because of the direct consequences.  Hobby Lobby employees will still get contraception covered by their health insurance, because the health insurance is required to pay for it when Hobby Lobby doesn't.  Presumably, the insurance providers will just raise non-contraceptive premiums to balance it, and Hobby Lobby can pretend they're not paying for it when they sort of are, really.  But it's bad because it sets bad precedent.

This should provide a road map to the various things that could have been wrong with the Hobby Lobby decision.  Should the RFRA be changed, or removed altogether?  Is the problem (as many argue) that RFRA should apply only to individuals and not corporations?  Is the problem with the legislature, who already made a huge exception for nonprofits?  Or is there something wrong with the slippery slope argument between nonprofits and for-profits?  What do you think?

Monday, July 7, 2014

In which I research Buddhism

One of the characters in my novel is potentially a Buddhist, probably Jodo Shinshu Buddhist (aka just Shin Buddhism), which is one of the most common forms among Japanese immigrants.  Part of the reason I made this decision is because it's something I'd like to learn more about.  So that's what I did.

This is stuff you could learn by browsing Wikipedia (as I did), but I'm just picking out my favorite facts:
  • While Hindus believe in reincarnation, Buddhists believe in rebirth.  Reincarnation involves the transmigration of a soul, but Buddhists don't believe in an unchanging soul.  Rebirth is instead the continuation of the pattern of self.  Rebirth sounded like an ancient response to reincarnation, but instead it appears that reincarnation only came to dominate Hinduism after Buddhism began.
  • Tendai Buddhism is a kind of Buddhism based on the Lotus Sutra.  The Lotus Sutra claims to have been written during the time of Siddartha Gautama (the founder of Buddhism), but it was stored in the realm of the snake gods for five hundred years.  This seems to me about ten times more outlandish than the Christian belief that the gospels are accurate accounts despite being written down 50-100 years after Jesus.
  • There's actually a Christian saint based on the story of Gautama.  In the Christian version, Josaphat is a prince in India, whom astrologers predicted would become a Christian.  So his father tries to isolate Josaphat, but he sneaks out, becomes a Christian, and then soon converts his father, who abdicates the throne and becomes a hermit.  Medieval Christianity sure produced some bad fiction.
  • Buddhism claims to be compatible with science (but that's what they all say), but some Buddhists claim that Buddhism *is* a science (which says to me that their particular form is not compatible with science).
  • There's a Pure Land Buddhist tradition of Sariras, pearl-like relics found among the ashes of cremated remains.  They are taken to be evidence of enlightenment.
And specific to Shin Buddhism:
  • Shin Buddhism is a kind of Pure Land Buddhism started in Japan around the 12th century.  They believe that achieving enlightenment is impossible for most people without assistance, so they call on the Amida Buddha in his boundless compassion.  It's called Pure Land Buddhism, because enlightenment is equated with going to a Pure Land, a sort of paradise realm.
  • The idea of calling upon a religious figure for help getting into the right afterlife is superficially similar to Christianity (early Christian missionaries thought so too), but it's actually an independent tradition.
  • Shin Buddhists contradict many stereotypes of Buddhism in the US.  They do not meditate, and do not have monks.  It was sort of founded as a rejection of these practices.
  • Possibly one of the most famous Shin Buddhists in the US is George Takei.
  • Shin Buddhism in the US is one of the most LGBT-inclusive traditions around.  They've been performing same-sex marriage ceremonies for over forty years.  But this is not so true of other Buddhisms, or even of Shin Buddhism in Japan.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Writing a novel: Month 3

Well it's more like month 2.5, but whatever.  I completed the first chapter of my book, out of nine planned chapters.  I am maybe a third of the way through the second chapter.  Progress is fairly slow because there are some weeks where I just don't work on it at all.  I'm hoping that writing about writing will help me to not stall.

Often, when I stall, I worry where the story is going.  It doesn't seem to be going anywhere.  There isn't much at stake.

In genre fiction, the hero saves the world, and in the process learns something about themselves.  In my novel, the protagonist is not a hero, does nothing noteworthy, and in the process learns something about himself.

In a romance, the protagonist finds a potential partner, and despite many obstacles forms a relationship.  In my novel, the protagonist forms several relationships in sequence, and the relationships all end.

This actually follows the standard conflict-resolution structure.  The conflict is dysfunctional relationships.  The resolution is separation.  Still, it feels unsatisfying, if only because the end-state is the same as the initial state.  The difference between the initial and final states is that the protagonist learns something.  Given that I'm writing about breakups as positive things, you can take a stab at what you think the protagonist will learn.

But is that really compelling on its own?  And what about when the lesson learned is spread out across several breakups?  What sub-lesson will he learn at each stage?  Ugh...

Sometimes it's better to just focus on the chapter I'm currently writing.  Even when I have things plotted out, I end up writing in lots of things that were not in the plan.  For example, while writing the first chapter, I spontaneously decided that the protagonist once had a crush on his best friend (but didn't realize it).  This sets up some good material for chapter 6, when I get to it.

Perhaps when I've finished with chapter 2, I'll have all the seeds to create chapter 4.  And when I've finished chapter 4, maybe the events of chapter 8 will become clear.  And perhaps by the time I finish chapter 5, the whole story will fall into place.  One can hope.

I've only read a little writing advice, but one thing I've learned is that (supposedly) there are "plotters" and "pantsers".  Plotters plot out what they will write, while pantsers write by the seat of their pants.

I am clearly taking a plotter's approach, given that I know how many chapters there are, and roughly what's happening in each of them.  But it's good to moderate it with a little spontaneity.  Pants onward!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Is origami art?

Is origami art?  Of course it is.  End of post.

But pardon me saying, you wouldn't expect to see origami in an art gallery.  I mean, it wouldn't be very conventional anyway.  Is this because art galleries are not properly fulfilling their role as gatekeepers to "true" art?  Or is it that galleries are not supposed to fulfill this role in the first place?  If the latter, is origami one of the art forms that belongs in a gallery?

This is more than theoretical for me, since someone recently asked me if I'd like to display some of my origami models in an art gallery.  So we have to add some real world particulars to the question, like the fact that this is my origami we're talking about, and this is the kind of gallery that also offers art classes for all ages.  It's also difficult for me to approach objectively, given my impulsive modesty.

Origami is different from the "canonical" art medium, painting.  Origami is much more like that other canonical art: music.  People "compose" origami models by creating them for the first time.  Then they may write it down in coded origami notation.  Then other people like me may "perform" these compositions by recreating them.  I am not the only one who has made this comparison--origami artist Robert Lang says the same thing.

This presents the problem of who gets how much artistic credit (although it's not as bad as it is for other art-forms like TV, movies, or video games).  I often think that the composers deserve the bulk of the credit, and that I don't add much artistic input.  Take this model:
Perovskite, based on Tomoko Fuse's Dual Triangles

Tomoko Fuse is sort of like a composer of jazz, in that she allows the folder a lot of freedom to improvise.  She just shows a way to make octahedrons, and a way to connect octahedrons.  So relative to most models, I made a lot of decisions:

-I decided to make connected octahedrons, out of all the things I could have made from all my books.
-The octahedrons are in a perovskite structure.
-I used kami paper in the color arrangement shown.  Note that there are 4 pieces per octahedron, and 24 connectors, for a total of 56 pieces.  But I chose a coloring with low Kolmogorov complexity.
-There are many ways to orient the connectors, but I oriented them as shown for stability.
-I scrapped Fuse's connector, because I felt it was more complicated than it needed to be.  I made my own connector, based on hers.  The main thing is I need a right triangle of exactly the right size, with tabs in the right places.

Art?  Or function?

Some of these decisions might be artistic, but some of them are simply technical or practical.  Even when I invented a new module, it was really just a practical shortcut.

Other models are even worse, with coloring being the only personal input I have.  The rest is skill and time.

Origami is a sort of mass-produced art.  It's not mass-produced like movies, or even like prints of famous paintings.  It's mass-produced in the way that the compositions are out there for anyone to fold.  Modular origami is readily accessible to all.*  And while accessibility would tend to be a strike against it being considered Totally Serious And Legitimate Art, I think accessibility is a good thing.  Accessibility means you can do it while working on a PhD.  Accessibility means you can teach it to kids. 

*I wouldn't say the same of origami tesselations or anything that requires crease patterns.  That stuff's difficult.

Does origami belong in an art gallery?  Sure, and it's been in art galleries too.  But I feel less sure about things like my reproduction of the WXYZ model.  The WXYZ is a classic, but my recreation of it wasn't exactly an exercise in creativity or anything.  It's art but I don't think it's my art.