Monday, October 29, 2012

Not to be confused with fluidity

This was cross-posted on The Asexual Agenda.

One of my pet peeves is when people mix up the following things:

1. Being between orientations
2. Fluidity in orientation

Because I am gray-A, I am between orientations.  That does not necessarily mean that I am fluidly switching back and forth between allosexual and asexual.  It's not like I'm asexual for most of the year, but the local ace meetup group has to avoid scheduling on full moons.  No, I feel sort-of-not-really-attracted to people on a daily basis.

Of course, some people might experience fluid orientation.  If someone's level of attraction varies from month to month, that's a pretty decent reason to identify as gray-A.  If someone's level attraction slowly varies over their lifetime, I'd say it's up to them to choose which labels are most convenient at which times.

Wouldn't you know it, this is a confusion with bisexuality as well.  I think the Bisexual Index put it best:
Often you'll hear long winded definitions of bisexuality include the word 'fluid', or 'changeable'. Some bisexuals like the word, because it feels to them like their sexuality does change over time. One day you might be only fancying long haired people, the next week all your fantasies might be about office workers, or pizza-delivery-people. Or you might not - some people have a type and stick to it. That's fine with us. But why do people who aren't bisexual like the word?

Because it explains away the gender attraction - they can't get their head around people liking more than one gender, so they couch it in terms of the attraction changing, flowing, from same-sex to opposite sex and back again. When non-bisexuals define bisexuality as "fluid" what they usually mean is "no-one can be genuinely attracted to more than one gender at the same time, so it must be about being gay some days and straight others".
Likewise, when people assume that gray-A is necessarily about being attracted to people very infrequently, I think it's because they just can't grok the idea that anyone can be inbetween at every instant in time.

Next on my pet peeves list: when people confuse fluidity and choice.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Poe's Law is unflattering

Poe's Law says that there is no parody of religious fundamentalism so ridiculous that it won't be mistaken for the real thing.  Alternatively, it says that it is impossible (or very difficult) to distinguish between sincere religious fundamentalism and a parody.

PZ Myers recently came down against Poe's Law, and said he was sick of people referring to it.  This surprises me because as far as I know, PZ is still the most widely read atheist blogger, and I see commenters on atheist blogs referring to Poe's Law all the time.  People are always saying "It's a poe," which either means, "It's another parody that fooled us," or, "This is yet another instance where it's hard to tell whether it's a parody or not."

I don't agree with PZ Myers' argument:
Declaring something to be a “poe” is a minimizing tactic; it’s a way to pretend that a real problem doesn’t exist. Are you really going to try to delude yourself and others into thinking that the Tea Party, Fox News, and the whole goddamned Repuclican party are an act put on by snarky liberals?
That's not really the impression I get.  When people call something a Poe, I don't think they are trying to deny the craziness of conservative religion.

In fact, my impression is the opposite.  What people mean is, "Okay, well maybe this time it was just satire, but the fact that some among us were fooled is a testament to how crazy fundamentalists have gotten!"

In other words, calling something a Poe is not a way of denying how crazy religion is.  It's a way of taking satire, which is something that constitutes no evidence whatsoever, and twisting it into still more confirmation that religion is crazy.

Instead of turning satire into confirmation bias, there are far more unflattering conclusions we can draw.  For instance, we could conclude that the person declaring "It's a Poe" is so unfamiliar with the fundamentalism they oppose, that they can't recognize it when they see it!  Or we could conclude that they are unable to recognize humor or unable to recognize sincerity.  Or perhaps satirists of religious fundamentalism are generally incompetent.

Poe's Law, it's just a stupid internet meme.  People like it because it's a common cultural touchstone.  But like most stupid internet memes, its only value is self-referential emptiness.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Current research: All-nighters for science

Sometimes I run experiments at the Advanced Light Source.  You can read more about it here or here, but the basic idea is that there is a beam of electrons going around in a giant ring, just like a synchrotron particle collider.  But in a particle collider, they have to worry about losing energy to radiation; at the Advanced Light Source, the radiation is the whole point.  All around the ring, the x-ray radiation is used for a diverse number of experiments, from biology to materials science.

Anyway, the result is that thousands of scientists come every year to do experiments.  Even though there are a dozen different places around the ring where experiments can run simultaneously, "beam time" is in high demand.  So every semester there's this process where we propose experiments, and get assigned specific days to run experiments.  Typically, we get assigned 24 hour blocks.

So when I run experiments at the Advanced Light Source, that means I'm working for 24 hours straight.

Here's how a typical experiment might go:

Hour 1: I load samples into vacuum and wait for it to pump down.  I wait for the liquid helium to cool the sample.
Hour 2: I try to align the X-ray beam with the sample.  Is it not showing because it's not aligned or is one of the settings wrong?
Hour 3: The staff scientist comes by and instantly solves the problem we've been working on for the last hour.  We fiddle around with the settings to see if we can get the signal to look better.
Hour 4: Geez, I'm already tired, and beam time has hardly gotten started.  But finally, we can take our first data, a quick fermi surface mapping.
Hour 5: The computer crashes repeatedly.  Even the staff scientist is puzzled for a while.  I'm hungry, so I produce dinner from thin air.  Just kidding, I painstakingly cooked all of that food the previous night.
Hour 6: This data doesn't look quite right.  Maybe we can solve the problem by taking more data?
Hour 7: Maybe it would look better if we tried a new sample?  We spend an hour switching to a new sample and cooling it down.
Hour 8: We've learned from our mistakes, and this time it only takes an hour to get the sample in the right place.  It doesn't look much better than the previous sample though.
Hour 9-12: Finally, we can take our data again.  I sort of nod off, only staying sufficiently awake to start new scans every hour.  I heat up more food and try reading my book, but soon I don't have the short term memory to get through long sentences.
Hour 13: Apparently, the light polarization was all wrong, and that's why the data didn't quite look the way we wanted.  Good thing we figured it out early and didn't waste too much time.
Hour 14: I argue with my coworker over the best way to ration our time.  Better statistics, better resolution, more data points, it's all a trade off.  We take test scans trying to figure out our best options.
Hour 15-23: Now we start really taking data.  Strangely, I feel more awake now, even though I no longer have to think very much.  I do my physics homework.
Hour 24: We're done with our main plan, with one hour to go.  We spend 20 minutes arguing over the best way to spend the last 40 minutes.

Hour 48: We discover that all the data we acquired was useless because the sample wasn't cooled properly despite what the thermometers said.

Experimental work is frequently a shaggy dog story.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Three ways for definitions to be wrong

When I was younger and newer to critical thinking, I was fascinated by definitions, and how they relate to truth.  Definitions... they can't be wrong!  If I define a floob as a four-sided triangle, then every instance of a floob will be a triangle with four sides.  If that sounds like a paradox, the paradox is resolved by the fact that there are no instances of floobs.

But that's a simple example because "floob" is a nonsense word.  Things get trickier when you define a word that has colloquial meaning, or when you give a single word multiple definitions.  If you switch between two definitions in the middle of an argument, you've committed the equivocation fallacy.  This is described with a famous quote from Through the Looking Glass:
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone. "It means just what I choose it to mean - neither more or less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all."
(Humpty Dumpty then proceeds to define the words that appear in "Jabberwocky".)

But even if you stick to one definition, there are ways that a definition can be wrong.  Here I present three different ways I think a definition can be wrong.  This list may not be exhaustive.

1. A definition is descriptively wrong if it does not match the way the word is used.  For example, if I define "glory" as "a nice knockdown argument" (Lewis Carroll's example), this is wildly different from the way "glory" is commonly used.  If we say a dictionary is wrong, then what we mean is that it is descriptively wrong.  After all, the entire purpose of a dictionary is to describe the ways words are used.

2. A definition is wrong in application if someone purports to define a word in one way, but in practice uses it another way.  For example, if someone defines a pencil as a long thin piece of wood with a tube of graphite inside, but later refers to a mechanical pencil as a pencil, then their definition was wrong in application.  Either they failed to entirely describe what they think of as a pencil, or they were mistaken to include mechanical pencils in that category.

3. A definition is morally wrong if we judge that using that definition will lead to harm.  For example, I might say that it is morally wrong for altmed people to talk about "energy fields", not because physics has a monopoly on the words "energy" or "field", but because those words lend an air of science to something undeserving.

Note that we may still accept definitions if they are wrong in some ways.  For instance, we may use descriptively wrong words if we're trying to change the language.  It is appropriate to include morally wrong definitions in a dictionary.

Whenever you call a definition wrong, a fun exercise is to determine the exact way in which it is wrong.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The topology of opinion space

The purpose of an analogy is to explain an idea by relating it to something simpler.  Unfortunately, what I consider to be simple is not the same thing as what most other people consider simple.  Because of my math and physics education, I often think of analogies relating to math and physics.  To most people, these "analogies" only end up making things more complicated.

Here's an analogy in that vein:

When we want to describe people's views and opinions, we usually don't simply list out their views and opinions.  Instead, we try to simplify by describing it with an axis.  For example, liberal vs conservative is an axis.  If this axis isn't enough to describe what we want to describe, then we add more axes.  Religious vs secular.  Socially liberal vs socially conservative.  Isolationist vs interventionist.  We also invent axes to describe various other things in life, like sexual orientation or personality.

We sure love our axes!  That's why we have such things as the Political Compass, the Klein Orientation Grid, and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

But what is the mathematical structure of an axis?  Most people are implicitly thinking of the interval (0,1), or possibly (-inf,+inf).  All the above quizes basically use an orthotope in Rn, where n is the number of axes.  The greater n is, the more sophisticated the model is, supposedly.

But speaking as a student of maths, why R?  R, the set of real numbers, is a mathematical space with an awful lot of unnecessary structure to it.  R has addition, multiplication, subtraction, and division.  What does it even mean to take the sum or product of two opinions?  0 is defined as the addition identity element (ie x+0=x for all x), but there is no need for this concept if there is no addition.  Likewise, 1 is defined as the multiplication identity element, and there is no need for that either.

If you take all that away, what remains is not R, but a special metric space, which we'll call S.  It's a metric space, because we're imagining that we have defined the distance between any two points in S.  A distance function is basically a special function which takes an unordered pair of points in S, and outputs a positive real number (unless the two points are the same, in which case it outputs the distance 0).  The distance function must also obey the triangle inequality.  S also has some additional properties beyond being a mere metric space.

But I find myself wondering, is it necessary to even have a metric space?  I feel like it doesn't really make sense to say that my political view is equally distant from two other political views.  In other words, I find myself puzzled by the idea that between any two political views, there is another one which is exactly in the "middle".  What does the "middle" even mean?  In my humble opinion, what we view as the "middle" is very subjective and reactionary.

We could also define distance according to the results of the questionnaire.  But I do not think this solves the problem of subjectivity.  Instead, it merely pushes aside the problem of subjectivity onto the person designing the questionnaire.

To try a more objective distance function, we could define the distance as the percentage of people between the two points.  For example, if I'm introverted, and you're more introverted, we can say that the distance between us is equal to the percentage of people in the world who are more introverted than me, and less introverted than you.  But this would give us weird results.  For example, we could never say that lots of people are gathered in one particular part of the axis, since by definition people are evenly distributed along the axis.

My preference is to not think of an opinion axis as a metric space at all.  Instead, I think of an opinion axis as a topology, one that is topologically equivalent to (0,1).  However, there is no distance, and there is no middle.  Or at least, there is no natural way to define a distance or middle.  Instead, we can only talk about whether one opinion is to the left or right of another.  And we can talk about whether a third opinion is between the first two opinions.  But we can't talk about whether the third opinion is closer to the first or the second.

This isn't much to go on, but we can add a little structure by adding landmarks.  For example, the Kinsey Scale defines 7 landmarks of sexual orientation with the integers between 0 and 6.  Calling the landmarks by numbers is misleading, because we can't talk about the distance between two landmarks.  We can't, for instance, say that the distance between 3 and 4 is the same as the distance between 0 and 1.  Nor can we say that there is anything "special" about these landmarks, any reason we couldn't have chosen different landmarks.  But we can talk about being to the left or right of various landmarks.  For example, a person could be between 4 and 5.  That tells us something.

What are the advantages of thinking of an opinion axis as a topology?  It seems like we actually get less information this way, since we simply can't talk about distances.  But I prefer it this way because I think it eliminates the bad information, or at least emphasizes that it is bad information.  The fact that we can't talk about distances is an advantage, because distances don't really make sense.

Friday, October 12, 2012

My position on emergence, as a physicist

Rationally Speaking is starting a new series on emergence.  So far, I like it merely because it starts out by talking about Renormalization Group theory, which comes from condensed matter physics.  Finally, the philosophers are talking about my field, rather than all that stuff about cosmology and particle physics.

I should take this opportunity to explain my position on emergence as a condensed matter physicist.  And yes, here I am speaking as a physicist, not because my study of physics has compelled me to view it one way or another, but because physics has greatly influenced my view.  I can definitely imagine another physicist coming to the opposite conclusions as me, but surely their opinion would also be greatly influenced by their study of physics.

In a way, condensed matter is all about emergence.  Condensed matter is about throwing ~100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms together, and trying to predict what they will do.  It is not an easy task.  Consider: a single helium atom is already an unsolvable problem, because it's just too hard to solve the quantum mechanical equations for the nucleus and two electrons.

How do we solve the problem?  Approximation upon approximation upon approximation upon approximation etc.  Really, there are too many approximations stacked up to fully comprehend them all at once.  One could say that condensed matter physics is the art of making approximations, and using experiments to test that they're sufficiently approximate.

An approximation is all about throwing out information, clearing out some of those irrelevant details so that we can zoom out and see the big picture.  In fact, Renormalization Group theory is literally about zooming out.  In the theory, we zoom out by some scaling factor--say, if we removed every other atom, and the remaining atoms were 1 micrometer apart from each other, instead of 0.5 micrometers.  What laws governing this sparser atomic lattice would cause them to behave just like they did in the original atomic lattice?  That is, how are the parameters, such as the coupling strength between atomic neighbors, affected by zooming out?

Renormalization Group theory explains the behavior of phase transitions (like gas to liquid) by showing that when you zoom out on a liquid, the parameters change in a different direction than when you zoom out on a gas.  It's a very powerful theory.

On Rationally Speaking, emergent behavior was defined in the following way:
The idea being that a phenomenon is emergent if its behavior is not reducible to some sort of sum of the behaviors of its parts, if its behavior is not predictable given full knowledge of the behaviors of its parts, and if it is somehow new.
I'm sort of on board with emergence, but I'm sort of not.  Emergent behavior is everywhere, and in particular it's right in front of me on my desk every work day.  Call emergence an illusion if you will, but by that standard so is superconductivity, which IMHO is a pretty hard-sciencey thing.  I suppose I'm taking the slippery slope here:  I think superconductivity is a real thing, therefore emergence is a real thing, and therefore even highly-emergent patterns like the stock market and the internet are real things.  Yes, I'm willing to bite the bullet and say that the internet is real, despite appearances to the contrary.

But at the same time, I think the standard way of describing and understanding emergence is all wrong.  As with the above definition, emergence is about something new that appears in the big picture.  But having worked with emergent systems, I do not think it's about adding something new.  It's about taking information away.

Perceived patterns do not indicate a greater amount of information, they indicate less information.  Usually, a pattern would consist of many things repeated over and over.  Repetition and redundancy do not convey more information.  Repetition and redundancy do not convey... oh, you get it.

When you find emergent pattern that is difficult to predict, the problem isn't that you can't reduce it to fundamental physics.  The problem is that you have to reduce it far, far beyond fundamental physics.  You have to eliminate large swaths of useless information in increasingly creative ways.  You have to do experiments on all levels to make sure that you didn't lose any of the important information.

Alternatively, you can take a more phenomenological approach, and "guess" the result of the information-elimination based on empirical observation and intuition.  I get the sense that this is what many people call emergent behavior, because by taking guesses they're adding something new.  Guessing is an tried-and-true practice used everywhere in science, so I'm cool with that.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Currently reading

I started reading The Book of the Long Sun, by Gene Wolfe.  I read The Book of the New Sun last year and liked it a lot, so I'm trying more by the same author.

Like The New Sun, The Long Sun takes place in the distant future where technology has gone all the way, and regressed back again to a sort of fantasy setting.  It centers on Patera Silk, the priest of a church in a poor quarter.  They have a religion where they read randomly selected passages from their sacred text, and make live animal sacrifices in front of a big sacred computer screen in hopes that the gods will appear on it.  Silk is on a quest given to him by the Outsider, the one god who does not live in the internet.

Geez, it all sounds kind of silly when I describe it!  And that's before even mentioning the cyborg nun.

This has got to be the most Catholic work of fiction I have ever read.  I find it bothersome, actually, though I have to admit it is interesting.

A lot of the themes in the book are about wrestling with the weaknesses of Catholicism (as Catholics see them).  There's the extremely hierarchical, and sometimes-uncaring Church organization.  The seemingly pointless and archaic rituals.  The vow of celibacy in the holy orders.  The faith and doubt in the face of divine absence.  The many different conceptions of God (represented by the many gods of a polytheistic religion).  And one of the major themes is loving and working closely with sinners, rather than avoiding them for fear of catching something from them (Patera Silk's friends are thieves, whores, and the like).

These are all common themes in modern Catholic self-criticism.  Which is cool.  But sometimes Catholics have internal conflicts which just don't translate over to a secular worldview.  Like celibacy for instance: What is the point of the vow of celibacy, if any?  But for me, I don't feel conflicted at all in saying that a major Catholic practice is simply pointless.

One of the interesting things about encountering religion in novels is that we as readers are free to speculate on how truthful the religion is (and which parts).  Our speculations can be independent of our views of the real world.  Our speculations can be right or wrong (if they are confirmed or contradicted later in the book), or they could be indeterminate (if the book leaves it open to interpretation).

Monday, October 8, 2012

Funniest moments in the California Voter Guide

The California proposition system is a little ridiculous, and the most ridiculous part is the arguments that appear in the official voter guide.  Besides the BUZZWORDS IN ALL CAPS, they also never make rebuttals.  Rather than using the "rebuttal" space to address their opponents' points in any way, they just repeat the same points that were in their "argument" space.  This allows everyone to make really silly arguments, and it's only the most outrageous ones that ever get rebutted.

I'm going through the eleven propositions highlighting moments I thought were funny.  I'm not an especially informed voter, but writing this motivates me to inform myself a bit more.  Note that I may point out silly things said even by the side I agree with, but I make no claims of impartiality or balance.


Proposition 30 temporarily increases sales tax by 1/4 %, and increase the marginal income tax rate of filers who earn over 250K a year (that number is larger for joint filers and households).  The $6 billion additional revenues will prevent impending $6 billion cuts to education programs.
[Opponents:] PROP. 30 IS NOT WHAT IT SEEMS: It doesn't guarantee even one new dollar of funding for classrooms.
"NOT WHAT IT SEEMS" sure is an all-purpose argument.  I found this funny because the proposition is explicitly meant to prevent cuts, not to increase spending.

Proposition 31 reforms something about the budgeting process, and I don't really understand it.
[Supporters:] [Proposition 31 will] Prevent state government from spending money we don't have.
As I recall, California is in debt, and thus all the money we spend is technically money we don't have.  For some reason, I think eliminating the entire California budget is not a winning proposition.

Proposition 32 prohibits unions and corporations from using payroll-deducted funds for political purposes.  It also prohibits them from making "political contributions", which is one of multiple ways to spend money on politics (it does not prohibit "independent expenditures", which are another way).

The proposition is kind of funny in itself.  It's supposed to look "fair", because it applies to both unions and corporations, but only unions really get money from payroll deductions.  Corporations get money from profits.
LOL buzzwords and generic arguments.
[Opponents:] [Prop. 32] costs Californians over a MILLION DOLLARS for phony reform.
If you put it in all caps, it sounds like a lot, but in reality that's pebbles.

Proposition 33 allows auto insurance companies to discriminate prices based on whether the person has been covered by auto insurance over the past five years.  Exemptions are made for people who didn't have auto insurance due to layoffs or furloughs or military service.  The opponents point out that the proposition is 99% funded by Mercury Insurance's chairman.
[Named supporters include:] Estercita Aldinger
Small Business Owner
Another buzzword!  Guess what small business it is.  Hint: It's auto insurance.

Proposition 34 repeals the death penalty, and applies retroactively to people already sentenced to death.  The proposition also gives a one-time $100 million to law enforcement.  The legislative analyst estimates that it will otherwise save at least $100 million a year in court costs.
[Supporters:] Evidence shows MORE THAN 100 INNOCENT PEOPLE HAVE BEEN SENTENCED TO DEATH in the U.S., and some have been executed!
Look where in the sentence they stopped using all caps.  One wonders why they're talking about the entire U.S. rather than just California.
[Opponents:] Abolishing the death penalty costs taxpayers $100 MILLION OVER THE NEXT FOUR YEARS AND MANY MILLIONS MORE IN THE FUTURE.
This is so hilariously misleading.  The $100 million is not an ongoing cost, but a one-time cost which was attached to the bill but appears otherwise unrelated to the death penalty.  I don't know where the "many millions more" comes from, but I'm going to believe the legislative analyst instead.
Well, sure, Jerry Brown would know.  And I bet the California court system agrees.  If the courts thought any of them were innocent, they wouldn't be on death row!

Proposition 35 increases penalties for human trafficking, requires that traffickers register as sex offenders, and that sex offenders provide information about their internet activities.  There's some other stuff in there too.

The bill is opposed by sex workers, but they're obviously fighting a losing battle because hardly anyone is going to have sympathy for Erotic Service Providers Legal, Education, and Research Project, Inc.

The part that I found funny was that the opponents were obviously such amateurs.  Instead of using the traditional ALL CAPS, they instead provided urls to articles.  Who's gonna bother typing all those things into their browsers?  It's like they think the way to win an election is to provide information, rather than to mislead and appeal to emotion.

Proposition 36 reforms the three strikes law such that the third strike must be a serious or violent felony (rather than any old felony).  Some people convicted under the three strikes law may petition to have this new rule apply to them.  The legislative analyst estimates that this will save $70 million a year, increasing up to $90 million a year.
[Opponents:] A hidden provision in 36 will allow thousands of dangerous criminals get their prison sentence REDUCED and then RELEASED FROM PRISON early.
It's not exactly hidden.  It's right there in the official summary!
[Opponents:] 36 WON'T REDUCE TAXES.
Yes indeed.  It is not a tax reduction bill.  I read the summary.

Proposition 37 requires that genetically engineered foods be labeled as such.
[Supporters:] Proposition 37 will help protect your family's health.  The FDA says "providing more information to consumers about bioengineered foods would be useful."  Without accurate labeling, you risk eating foods you are allergic to.
That sure is a quote mine if I ever saw one!  I also like how they switch to talking about allergies as if that were a relevant point.
[Opponents:] [Prop. 37] EXEMPTS [from labeling] TWO-THIRDS OF THE FOODS CALIFORNIANS CONSUME--including products made by corporations funding the 37 campaign.
That just makes me wonder how they are counting foods.
[Opponents:] [Prop. 37] would cost taxpayers millions.
There's an error there: they forgot to put "MILLIONS" in all caps.

Proposition 38 is another bill that temporarily increases taxes for education funding, just like proposition 30.  The tax looks less progressive, and I get the sense that 38 has less support than 30.  Proposition 38 and 30 are conflicting initiatives, and the one that gets more votes is the one that will take effect.  (Technically, if 38 gets more votes, part of 30 will still go into effect.)
[Opponents use this as a section title:] $120 Billion Income Tax Hike on Most Californians
Here they inflate the numbers by omitting the fact that it's $120 billion over 12 years.
[Opponents:] If you earn $17,346 or more per year in taxable income, Prop. 38 raises your California personal income tax rate by as much as 21% on top of what you pay the Federal government.
There are two jokes hidden here.  First, by 21% they really mean that for certain tax brackets, the income tax increases from 9.3% to 11.3%.  Second, the tax bracket for which this occurs is not the one above $17,346, but the one above $500K. lolmath.  This one was so shameless that it actually got mentioned in the rebuttal!

Proposition 39 changes the way multistate businesses calculate the taxes, leading to an increase in annual revenues of about $1 billion.  $550 million of that is dedicated to energy efficency and clean energy jobs, while the rest would likely be spent on public schools and community colleges.
[Named proponents include:] Tom Steyer, Chairman
Californians for Clean Energy and Jobs

Jane Skeeter
California Small Business Owner
 My boyfriend pointed out that Californians for Clean Energy and Jobs was a front organization.  If you look up Tom Steyer, he does many notable things, and Wikipedia doesn't consider Californians for Clean Energy and Jobs to be among them.  I was interested to see what "small business" Jane Skeeter owns.  Apparently, it's a glass sculpture company.  Actually, that's kind of cool!
Everyone is using the all caps buzzwords!

Proposition 40 is a referendum to approve the new state senate districts created by the Citizens Redistricting Commision, which was created in 2008 to reduce gerrymandering.  Apparently, no one opposes Proposition 40.

My boyfriend had to explain this one to me.  People may challenge state senate districts by making a state proposition.  Confusingly, the challengers want a NO vote on the proposition, since by convention a YES means approving the districts.  Here, the NO sponsors appear to be senators who wanted more gerrymandered districts for this election.  However, the California supreme court ruled that even if Proposition 40 got voted down, it would only apply to the next election, not this one.  Following this ruling, the sponsors withdrew their campaign.

By withdrawing their sponsorship, the senators are basically admitting dishonesty.  If they truly thought the districts were bad, they would continue to ask for a NO vote.  But they really only wanted a NO because they thought it would help them get reelected this one time.


Wooo democracy.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Dream: Rowling's book

I dreamt that I read a negative review of J. K. Rowling's new book on tumblr.  The reviewer's main complaint was that she kept on referring to the island as "Duji", which is basically like calling it "dinosaur poop".  So I thought, "Okay, whatever, now I want to read this book."

And then the feeling remained after I woke up.  Of all the reasons to want to read a book, this has got to be the most irrational.  What was it even called, The Unclaimed Houseguest?  (Nope, it's The Casual Vacancy.)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Aikin and Talisse on civility

Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse have a post on 3 Quarks Daily talking about what it means to be civil in an argument.  Their main pointseems to be that civility is not merely about civil tone, but about representing opponents correctly, receiving opponents' arguments, and presenting arguments that are relevant to your opponents.
Chief among these concerns the need for those who disagree to actually engage with each other’s reasons.  This requires arguers to earnestly attempt to correctly understand and accurately represent each other’s views.  For similar reasons, arguers must also give a proper hearing to their opponents’ reasons, especially when the opponent is responding to criticism.  In addition, when making the case for their own view, arguers must seek to present reasons that their opponents could at least in principle see the relevance of.  We can summarize these ideas by saying that civility in argument has three dimensions: Representation, Reception, and Reciprocity.
Those are some good argumentation practices.  The idea is to lay out some structure that we can all agree on.  We should all be able to agree that the structure will clear the road to truth, even if we disagree on which way that road goes.

I'm not sure about that third principle, though, since theoretically any reason that is relevant to yourself can be relevant to your opponent.  The example they give is using the Bible to argue against secularists who support same-sex marriage equality.  I don't feel that this is a "uncivil" argument, it's just a really bad argument.  I would rather people not make bad arguments, but at the same time I don't feel this one is a threat to the very structure of argumentation.

I also liked another part of the post:
Argumentation is the process of articulating our reasons for holding our beliefs.  The point of articulating our reasons is to put them on display so that they may be examined and evaluated.
This is generally my attitude towards arguing my opinions.  I'm not handing you opinions from on high, I'm displaying them for your examination and evaluation.  I also try to display the weaknesses in my own opinions when I see them, because that seems like it would be relevant to your evaluation.  However, showing one's own weaknesses probably isn't so great a practice in more adversarial arguments, like politics.  I mean, you might as well have your opponent do the work of finding your weaknesses.

(via The Thinker)

Monday, October 1, 2012

Love the sinner: an indicator theory

Sometimes people take a "love the sinner, hate the sin" attitude towards LGB people.  That is, they don't want to hurt LGB folk, they just know in their hearts that same-sex sexual behavior is wrong because Jesus said so.  They view homosexuality as comparable to alcoholism.  Some people have a tendency towards alcoholism, and those people deserve love and respect, but they still can't condone alcohol addiction.  (I consider this view common enough that I don't need an example.)

I'm toying with an indicator theory of why this is wrong.  That is, perhaps "love the sinner, hate the sin" isn't wrong because of its literal meaning, but because the people who tend to espouse such attitudes tend to be the problem people.

And yes, "love the sinner, hate the sin" definitely correlates with negative attitudes towards homosexuality, that's not just an impression.  According to a paper in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion:
I wondered if the “hate sin, love the sinner” responses of persons scoring in the top quartile of the Religious Fundamentalism scale would be reflected in their attitudes toward homosexuals. They were not. Most “High Fundamentalists” agreed—strongly in fact—that one should hate sin but love the sinner. But they nearly proved significantly more rejecting of homosexuals (M of 51.8) than did the few High Fundamentalists who disagreed with hating sin but loving the sinner (M of 37.7; t = 1.70, p < .10). And, of course, they rejected homosexuals much more than the other three quarters of the sample. They may believe in loving the sinner, but they also believe much more that homosexuals should be discriminated against and even thrown into jail. [emphasis mine]
Here's another example where I'm quite sure that the indicator theory is the correct one: "Some of my best friends are gay."  There's obviously nothing wrong with having gay best friends.  Knowing gay people personally has a greater positive effect on one's attitude towards gay people than nearly anything else.  The problem with saying, "some of my best friends are gay," is that it's the flimsy defense people give when they're being defensive, and the kind of people who need to get defensive tend to be the problem people.

Another example: using "gay" as a noun.  In many other identity categories (eg atheist, asexual, lesbian, vegetarian, Asian, American) people hardly think about whether they're using them as nouns or adjectives.  I think the reason we consider "The gays" to be wrong is because for whatever reason that usage mostly comes from the problem people.  The more informed people know that, and therefore avoid using "gay" as a noun.

Of course, just because "love the sinner, hate the sin" is an indicator of problems does not mean that its literal meaning does not also have problems.  The problem with its literal meaning is that it's espousing a friendly attitude while simultaneously admitting terrible underlying beliefs.  Respecting others in the face of disagreement is a virtue, but it is outweighed by the fact that the person believes in morality derived from a contemporary interpretation of a text that comes from nearly two millenia ago.  When people have such stupid reasons to hate something (be it people or behavior), one is tempted to more than just disagree with them, but to hold them morally accountable for such wretched views.

To further explore what is or isn't wrong with the statement, I always find it useful to try to think of similar cases where my sympathies lie in the other direction.  For example, if someone tells me that they're going to see their acupuncturist, I might tell them that I think this is wrong because acupuncture is bunk and a waste of money.  But I wouldn't dislike the person for this.  So in some sense, I'm loving the sin, hating the sinner loving the sinner, hating the sin.  What's different?

Another example: I am an omnivore, but several of my friends are vegetarian or pesco-vegetarian.  If they tell me that they think eating meat is morally wrong, but don't let this interfere with their friendship, that's okay with me.  Vegetarians have their reasons, and these are cool to talk about on occasion.  In some sense, vegetarians love the sinners (their omnivore friends), and hate the sin (eating meat).  What's different?