Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Queerness and progressive game design

Earlier, I attended a conference on queer theory, game studies, and game design.  This inspired in me several topic ideas.  I will start with the one that is most directly related, and most reactionary.  One of the conference's major themes was how to find queerness in games beyond the literal inclusion of queer characters.  Queerness isn't just in the characters, it's in the image of gamers, in the broader narrative themes, in the way we play games, and in the design and mechanics.

There are many great ideas in there.  But some ideas... Well, they're "productive" ideas in the sense that it's helpful to discuss them, but they're ultimately bad ideas IMO.  In particular, several conference speakers decided that queerness in games can mean conforming to their particular ideas about progressive (and transgressive) game design.

For example, it was repeated many times that queerness means choices in your video games.  Queerness means transgressing the prescriptive definitions of a "game" made by formalists.  Queerness is playing a game and making your own objective rather than using the one designated by the designer.  One presenter even said queerness means fluidity in the rules of the game (this being the context of tabletop RPGs).

The overall message I seem to be getting is that queerness is Indie.  Which maybe sounds just a little too much like self-flattery when it's coming from a bunch of queer indie game designers and queer indie game lovers.

Don't get me wrong, I love indie games.  These days I've been playing more AAA games, but indie games are often the ones pushing the envelope, ultimately resulting in a better future for all games.  But though queerness is great and progressive game design is great, they don't really seem to be the same thing.

If queerness is reduced to themes of human variance, fluidity, and transgressing norms, then you'll find these themes everywhere you want to find them.  (You'll find these themes in AAA games too, but I think people at this conference were less interested in finding them there.  It was said during the conference that buying AAA games is supporting capitalism, but we shouldn't shame people who do it because maybe they just don't have the cultural capital to really be aware of the indie games out there.)  And yes this is a problem.

It's sort of like... Dumbledore being gay in Harry Potter.  Author J. K. Rowling said that Dumbledore was gay, but it's not really clear from the books themselves.  So the bottom line is that this queer "representation" may not be satisfactory to many queer readers.  Therefore, it's best not to overplay the queerness of Dumbledore, because frankly we can do better than that.  Similarly, it's best not to overplay the queerness in games, because many queer people are not going to be satisfied just by progressive game design, and we can do much better than that.

I can also imagine other problems with equating queerness and indie gaming.  Imagine a queer person feeling that their queer cred is under question because they are disinterested in indie games.  I don't think this is a likely scenario, but it could be likely if the queer indie ideology at this conference were widespread.  It's even more problematic to say that fluid game rules are queer, because even when it comes to sexuality, queer does not necessarily mean fluid.  Plenty of trans people felt they were always the gender that they are, and plenty of bi people do not feel that their orientation fluctuates from gay to straight (which is a common misconception about bi people).

If progressive game design means bucking some common sexist, racist, cissexist, or heterosexist conventions, then sure, that's more queer.  It would be great to come up with new fantasy races, rather than the rather racist ones inherited from Tolkien.  It would be great to have some new mechanics which make it easier to tell stories about groups in relation to society (rather than the usual stories about a single straight white male hero).  It would be great to offer the player more choices about character genders (ie more than two) and sexualities.  New ideas in narrative and game design are essential to improving the experience of queer players, but progressive game design in itself is not sufficient.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Conference report: queerness in gaming

Not the target audience

I attended the Queerness in Gaming Conference (QGCon) this weekend.  It was a unique intersection of topics: game design, the academic study of games as a medium, and queer theory.

I was not really in the target audience for this conference, since I neither design games, nor work in a remotely related academic field.  I am a mere consumer of games.  Probably a conference like GaymerX would have been more appropriate for me.  But even though I was not the target audience--in fact, partly because I was not the target audience--I found it to be full of ideas that were novel and fascinating.  And though I will not apply any of this knowledge, it was thoroughly stimulating, and could enhance my enjoyment of games.

Being a typical ungrateful blogger, I will talk at length about all my disagreements with things in the conference, while glossing over the stuff I agreed with.  But one should not infer that I disliked the conference. Even listening to talks I disagree with is a joy.

In particular, there was a lot of critical theory in the conference (literary criticism, postmodernism, or whatever you'd like to call it).  In the world of skeptics, I'm relatively sympathetic to postmodernism, but that's like saying that in the world of gender studies, I'm relatively conservative.  A lot of critical theory is still nonsense to me, and this conference provided many egregious examples.  For much of this post, I may be teetering on the edge of a rant, but I'll try to save the rant for another time.

More than representation

The most striking thing about the conference is how little it discussed queer character representation in games.  Speakers uniformly believed that there are many more ways to find queerness in games.

For example, stories can have queer themes without having any queer characters.  Jack Halberstam talked about how once we moved from 2D animation to 3D animation, cartoons became more capable of depicting crowds, and thus featured more stories about large groups.  So you get stories about conflict between groups, which is more reflective of the conflict between queers and normative society.

Some mechanics of games were also described as queer. If players can decide for themselves the traits of their character, this allows them to express something different or unique about themselves.  Unfortunately, choices also tend to be constrained, such as to a gender binary.  Or perhaps the choices have no real impact on the game (eg, the NPCs in Skyrim will hardly react to the protagonist's race, even though there's supposed to be signficant racial tension in the world).

There are also many ways we can apply queer theory to how we play games.  Samantha Allen and Kathryn Bond Stockton both made a fascinating analogy between the way people are shamed for being queer, and the way they are shamed for being gamers.  There are also some interesting problems in the way gamers are presented in order to buck their negative image.  Namely, social gamers are emphasized, and solo gamers are deemphasized.  Another interesting parallel was between The Art of Failure and The Queer Art of Failure.  The latter book is about the way that the system of success and failure enforce cisheteronormativity by describing queerness as failure.  The former book is about how we like games even when we fail at them, much the same way we enjoy tragedies.

And there were lots more analogies; speakers really liked analogies.  Sex and gaming was a particularly common analogy.  Moral panic over kids playing games is like moral panic over kids being gay.  The power structures and role playing in games are like kink.  There was a lot of Freudian comparison of joysticks and first person shooters to penises (I think only some of this was serious, although it is my humble opinion that ironic Freudianism is no more acceptable than serious Freudianism).  One speaker compared the censorship of sexual content in imported games to the blocking of homosexual immigrants earlier in US history.

I liked speaker Adrienne Shaw, who talked about doing some ethnographic studies of gay gamers.  She found that most of them don't care so much about having character representation.  They care more about the homophobia, and the image of the white heterosexual cis male gamer.  She critiqued the idea that if we just got more gaymers together, representation would automatically follow.  Female gamers have been around for a long time, and yet the structures of exclusion have not been dismantled.  Furthermore, even if game producers did decide to cater to the queer market, this would only include the least marginalized among queers, and would not be a complete solution.

But yes, representation too

There were, of course, also lots of talks about representation.  I particularly liked talks about history.  Bill Jahnel talked about the (very problematic) history of queer representation in comic books.  Hanna Brady talked about the (also extremely problematic) representations of race in fantasy, and also had a bunch of cool book recommendations.  Evan Lauteria had a short but fascinating talk about the way early Japanese games were localized in the US.  In particular, he compared Poison from Tekken and Flea from Chronotrigger, both trans villains.

There was also lots of talk of more modern representation, from Bayonetta to Dominique Pamplemousse to Bioware.  While I enjoyed these talks, I seem not to have written many notes on them... but they were a presence!

I also enjoyed the open arcade, which was a showcase of indie games with queer themes in various forms.  It included a couple Twine games, an interactive fiction, and a puzzle platformer that told me it hated me.  Indie games, of course, are much more able to have queer themes and appeal to niche audiences.  My favorite one, of course, was the puzzle game.  Triad was a short puzzle, designed by Anna Anthropy, in which the goal was to fit three people on a bed without anyone falling off.  And I entered this conference thinking that there wasn't much opportunity for queer representation in puzzle games.

My greatest disappointment with the conference is that Anita Sarkeesian was there, but I did not even realize until after it was over!

Potential future topics

Attending QGCon, especially the parts I disagreed with, inspired in me several blogging ideas.  Most of these ideas extend beyond just this conference.  I outline them here:
  • Labels are maps, not walls
  • Can analogies be arguments?
  • Queerness and progressive game design (and why they're not the same)
  • People should bring out their disagreements rather than acting like we all agree
  • Academic queer theory vs internet queer theory
  • thoughts on gamer shame
I hope readers enjoy these topics, and I apologize for procrastinating the completion of my other two running blog series.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Japanese "herbivore men" hold a mirror to our culture

Herbivore men briefly explained

The Japanese subculture of "herbivore men" seems to hit the news every so often.  Here is a recent example in the Guardian: Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?  What exactly is going on over there?

I'm no expert in Japanese culture, but my coblogger on The Asexual Agenda, Queenie, is an expert.*  I will defer to what she's written about herbivore men.  My summary: In Japan, men are expected to be "carnivores", aggressively pursuing relationships with women.  But many men in metropolitan areas have become "herbivores", being less assertive in relationships, more sensitive, and even willing to be friends with women (in Japan this is a big deal).  And there's probably other stuff as well, like their attitude towards money, jobs, and fashion.  Women of course are expected to be herbivores to begin with, although there is also talk of carnivore women.

*She's actually an expert in Japanese religion, but close enough.

In Japan, herbivore men are sometimes the subject of moral panic because they're not forming relationships, are defying Japanese gender roles, and may be contributing to the declining birth rate.  Cry me a river I say.  People aren't obligated to make babies just to uphold the national birth rate, and if Japanese people really wanted population growth so badly they could try being less racist and accept more immigrants.

In the English speaking world, the reaction to herbivore men is... different.  Sometimes, the reactions really say more about our own culture than about Japanese culture.

Here I will briefly show the reactions coming from three different groups: mainstream news, asexuals, and men's rights activists.

Mainstream news reactions

In Japan, the moral panic over herbivore men isn't really about sex.  It's about relationships.  If herbivore men formed sexless relationships, that would be entirely ordinary in Japanese culture (although I think it's assumed that once a couple gets married, they will immediately start producing children).  But these men aren't forming relationships at all!

Of course, in English news sources, it's all about the sex.  You can see from the titles of the stories:*

Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?
Japan's 'herbivore men' -- less interested in sex, money
The Herbivore's Dilemma: Japan panics about the rise of "grass-eating men," who shun sex, don't spend money, and like taking walks.
No Sex, Please, We're Young Japanese Men
Japanese leads the way in sexless love

*There are also a few counterexamples.  Notably, NPR focuses on their rebellion against gender roles.
Ironically, if you look closely at what the Japanese correspondents actually say, rather than what the news source says, you can see some of the truth leaks through.  In The Guardian, a correspondent says:
...many are turning to what she terms "Pot Noodle love" – easy or instant gratification, in the form of casual sex, short-term trysts and the usual technological suspects: online porn, virtual-reality "girlfriends", anime cartoons.
Wait, if it's about the sex, what's the problem with casual sex and short-term trysts?  Answer: it's not really about the sex, but English news sources seem to think it is.

Asexual reactions

Generally speaking, asexuals aren't likely to confuse disinterest in sex with disinterest in relationships, because we talk about that distinction all the time.  But news sources say herbivore men are rejecting sex, so you can hardly blame asexuals for taking this at face value.

If you think herbivore men are avoiding sex, then the parallels with asexuality are obvious.  A few people think it might be related:
"I've been thinking that asexuals are probably not the tiny minority that we think we are.  Perhaps Japan is simply the first country to come to terms with these feelings. "
But this really strains credulity.  Asexuality obviously cannot account for the 60% of urban young men who are not in romantic relationships.  There are clearly lots of other better explanations.  Many asexuals feel compelled to point this out:
"I don't think they're asexual, they're just choosing to focus their priorities elsewhere."

"We really need to keep in mind here, that not showing an interest in sex does not necessarily equal asexuality."
But even though herbivore men are not identified with asexuality, the moral panic over herbivore men is identified as being similar to the moral panic over asexuals.
"That little part of me that secretly wants everyone else to be asexual, too, makes me root for those Japanese guys, though, and get annoyed when everyone always calls this trend a "problem." "

"If it makes a lot of practical sense to choose that lifestyle and those people who do so feel happy and fulfilled, why the hell is everyone freaking out?! Oh, that's right, because having sex is a Basic Human Need and those people who have little interest in sex are clearly unhealthy and need help. "
All these comments come from threads on AVEN's world watch forum.

Men's Rights Activist reactions

When my Queenie wrote for The Asexual Agenda on herbivore men, I was surprised to see an influx of wayward googlers with MRA (Men's Rights Activist) inclinations.  In particular, I remember there was someone who writes for A Voice For Men who seemed to think that we were accusing herbivore men of being misogynistic, even though Queenie's piece was obviously sympathetic to herbivore men.  But perhaps I shouldn't make too much of people being confused on the internet.  At least MRAs seem to understand that herbivore men aren't about rejecting sex.

If you're unfamiliar with MRAs, there was a recent article in The Beast about them.  MRAs are one of the most malicious groups on the internet, and basic human decency compels me to abhor them.  However, this doesn't mean that every particular thing they ever say or advocate is wrong, and for the purposes of this post, I will consider what MRAs say about herbivore men in isolation from other things they say.

In the MRA world, herbivore men draw obvious comparisons to Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW).  MGTOW are "going on strike" on marriage and fatherhood, because they realize the deck is stacked against them:
Men are beginning to recognise their appalling vulnerability when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex, and they are individually waking up to the ridiculous risks they face. Almost 70 per cent of divorces are now initiated by women, and typically it is the man who stands to lose everything — his children, his home, his future income and his reputation. With suicide being the biggest killer of young men in the UK, and with those experiencing relationship breakdown being at the highest risk, he also stands to lose his life.
If we want a glimpse of what the future may hold, we only need to look to Japan where those who reject their traditional masculine role are referred to as "grass eaters" or "herbivore men".
-Why are men going their own way when it comes to relationships?
Another vlogger suggests that herbivore men might be caused by Japan's change to the Western family court system after WWII.

MRAs also seem to draw herbivore men in opposition to feminism:
...apparently, the feminist situation got so bad that Japanese men actually get more pleasure from anime and video game characters than from real women.
The women aren't happy, and some have labelled the behaviour "misogyny"
-The situation of men in Japan
But this opposition appears not to reflect reality.  Searches for herbivore men and feminism mostly turn up MRA sites talking about how they're opposed.  I found very few feminists even talking about herbivore men.   There's one Jezebel piece titled Japan's "Herbivore Men" Refuse To Adhere To Stereotypes which vaguely implies approval of the trend.  I think because feminists often criticize MGTOWs (and it's not hard to see why given the above quotes), and because MGTOWs sympathize with herbivore men, they assume too quickly that feminists would also criticize herbivore men.


Herbivore men are an interesting generational trend in Japan.  In English mainstream media, what really grabs attention is the idea that they are not having sex (even though this is not the part that is considered shocking in Japan).  In asexual spaces, asexuals see the panic over herbivore men as being similar to panic over asexuality.  In MRA spaces, herbivore men are associated with MGTOWs, and are thought to have similar motivations.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

An atonal earworm

I have a fondness for 20th century classical music, because that's when composers really start to peel off the layers of conventional tonality.  That said, I am not sure I'm a fan of twelve-tone serialism, which is the musical movement that went the farthest in the quest to defeat tonality.

Serialist composers would constrain their music such that it would go through every one of the twelve tones before coming back to the first one.  The sequence of twelve tones is called a "tone row".  This was intended to prevent it from being in any particular key.  For example you couldn't say it's in the key of C, because C is only ever played within a tone row with other equally important notes.  But oddly, this constraint often isn't sufficient to defeat tonality.  Even when you have a random sequence of twelve notes, our minds tend to pick out some pattern, and fit it into a key.

Mathemusician Vi Hart has a great video about serialism, which includes a few serialist compositions that are intentionally tonal:

Vi Hart talks a bit about The Owl and the Pussycat, a song by Igor Stravinsky.  But she doesn't play it because it's copyrighted.  But there are other people are willing to violate copyright, so here it is:

But before I move on, I have to talk about these silly lyrics. I was disappointed to learn that Stravinsky didn't write them himself.  Instead, they come from a poem by Edward Lear:
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
   In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
   Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
   And sang to a small guitar,
"O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
    What a beautiful Pussy you are,
         You are,
         You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!"
The rest of the poem describes how the owl and pussycat buy a ring from a pig and get married by a turkey.  Mysteries in the poem abound:  How can they spend a year and a day searching for a ring right after the pussycat delivers the line, "too long we have tarried"?  Why do they only get one ring: which of the two will wear it?   What is a runcible spoon?  I thought the incongruities were just too absurd, until I remembered that "rockabye baby" is a lullaby about a baby falling to its death.

As for Stravinsky's music, it sounds like all the notes are wrong.  But I may have an unusual opinion: I think it is catchy.  As in, I literally caught the singer's melody in my head.  I had a serialist earworm.

This raises the question of whether my earworm accurately reflects the song.  Is it truly an atonal earworm?  Or is my mind interpreting the music as being in a particular key?

This can be tested with an experiment!  A couple days after listening to the song, I transcribed it from memory.  Then I transcribed the original song, almost finishing the first stanza before giving up.  Here are the results:

Each line represents one of Stravinsky's tone rows.  In blue is Stravinsky's tone row (I ignore repeated notes for simplicity).  The other colors show the corresponding notes that were in my earworm.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my earworm is full of inaccuracies.  Besides getting a bunch of notes just wrong, there are also a few sections that were shifted up or down by an interval.  There are also some missing parts.  I hadn't at all remembered the line, "And sang to a small guitar."  And lastly, my earworm gets completely derailed in the last line ("What a beautiful pussy...").

The last line is different from the others, because it's not really a tone row.  The note F is repeated three times!  D# and F# are also repeated.  Perhaps Stravinsky didn't follow tone rows strictly.  Or I transcribed the notes wrong (transcription is hard).  Or the singer sung the wrong notes (who would know?).  In any case, there's one part of the line that stands out as having conventional tonality: the sequence C#, A#, B ("-ssy you are!").  This is called an "authentic cadence", and it tends to establish a key of B.

The authentic cadence is such a strong structure that it appeared in my earworm, albeit shifted to the key of D.  And then it seems like the entire line got derailed into a key of D major.

No wonder my earworm is so inaccurate in this spot.

This leads me to conclude that while some parts of my earworm roughly represent the original, there's also a tendency for my mind to substitute the atonal melody with a tonal one.  This is more likely to occur as we get further into the song, since I tend to have a poorer memory of those parts.

I wonder if there is any research on how well earworms tend to reflect the songs that they come from.  I daresay that I would have a much easier time transcribing Lady Gaga from memory.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The WXYZ model

 The WXYZ model, by Tung Ken Lam.  Guitar pick shown for scale.

Here it is, the most elegant model in all of modular origami.  It's called the WXYZ model because it is made of four intersecting planes, which we could call the w, x, y, and z planes.

When this model was invented in 2001, it created a whole new branch of modular origami.  Creating an intersection of three planes (the XYZ model) is obvious.  But once we realize that we can intersect four planes, why not more?  Soon we had VWXYZ models, UVWXYZ models, TUVWXYZ models, and so on until QRSTUVWXYZ.

Yes, the naming convention is kind of ridiculous.

The WXYZ model looks like four triangles, but each triangle is really made of three parts.  So it's made of 12 modules total.  If you look carefully, you'll find that the 12 modules correspond to the 12 edges of a cube.

Since the WXYZ model is so iconic, I thought I'd use it in an icon for my sidebar.  Now you can click on this icon for quick access to the origami category on my blog.

Friday, October 11, 2013

A research project shift

Here I'm going to talk a bit about my research, but devoid of any particulars.  This is partly because the vast majority of you wouldn't understand the particulars.  But mostly it's because I can't leak any information on my group's research.

Over the past few months, I shifted research projects.  It wasn't a huge shift.  I'm still in the same research group, studying the same material, using the same experimental technique, but I'm no longer working on the same paper.  This has probably set me back a bit, because I spent a year on my project without any paper to show for it.

The issue was that my advisor and Famous Theorist are both pushing a particular interpretation of my data that I don't agree with.  My interpretation is much less exciting than theirs.  I'm also not sure what experiment I could perform to rule out my interpretation.  My interpretation is along the lines of "this kind of analysis is invalid" rather than a fully-formed theory, so it's not really the kind of thing you prove or disprove easily.

I told a friend about this situation, and he said it was very "principled" of me to drop the project just because I didn't agree with the exciting conclusions.  He didn't agree with this principled stance.  He thought it was better to publish a paper with overreaching conclusions than not to publish at all.  Sure, the conclusions will likely be disproven later, but there's a small chance they'll turn out to be correct.

I'm not sure that I was taking any principled stance.  Maybe if the paper was nearly ready to be published, I'd be fine publishing it even with the conclusions that I disagree with.  But the truth is I'd have to do a lot more work to get to that point.  And if anyone would acknowledge my alternative hypothesis, that would mean even more experiments to rule it out.  I'm not really willing to invest that extra time to go nowhere.

My advisor and I were a bit frustrated with each other's positions.  My advisor was frustrated with me because she thought I was misunderstanding Famous Theorist, and that I wasn't proposing any experiment to test my theory, which she didn't understand.  I was frustrated with my advisor because she was misunderstanding Famous Theorist, and also my own theory.

But I don't mean to make it out like this has been hurting my relationship with my advisor.  There's an easy resolution to the disagreement: I switch projects, and she assigns another student to continue my old one.  It's slightly awkward, because I openly believe that the other student is now stuck in a dead-end project, but I wish them success in any case.

One advantage of switching projects at this time is that I know enough to form my own ideas of what to study.  I had a new idea in France, which I excitedly presented to my group.  My advisor likes when students come up with their own ideas, so she lets me pursue it.

Long story short, I haven't published anything, and I'm not close to publishing anything yet.  Oh well.  Such is the life of a grad student.

Monday, October 7, 2013

How puzzling influenced me

My ghost of internet past

Dear readers, what was your first introduction to the internet?

I'm part of the "millenial" generation, which means I grew up with the internet.  Well, sort of--I didn't actually pay the internet any attention until high school.  The point is, I had internet at such a time that it was important to the development of my identity.

But my introduction to the internet was not through blogs or forums or anything like that.  My introduction was through a small puzzle website called Perplexus.  Surprisingly, the website is still alive after 10 years, with not much changed. Perplexus publishes daily word problems, much like the puzzles that I occasionally publish on this blog (no coincidence there).  The content is user-submitted, and also selected by higher-ranking members.  I wrote over seventy puzzles over the course of three or four years.

I think I've mentioned Perplexus a few times in the past, but never by name or in detail.  I think I've been embarrassed, as I always feel embarrassed by old internet activity.  What an awkward dork past-me was!  I probably said such stupid things!  Not that I remember anything stupid in particular.

But I do remember things.  I remember learning a bit of html code, because some parts of the site require it to make links or line breaks.  I remember learning about combinatorics, the mathematics of counting.  I remember learning modular arithmetic.  I remember arguing about the urn problem, the 1.99999... = 2 problem, and the envelope paradox.  I remember learning about Raymond Smullyan and Martin Gardner.

Some of my memories also demonstrate how Perplexus dominated my internet world.  I learned all the ins and outs of the ranking system, and the complicated queue system for submitted puzzles.  The queue itself seemed like a puzzle to me.  I dug through the forum archives once, because I was interested in the social history of the site.  I read about a kid who was once caught sockpuppeting, on a puzzle website of all places.  That fascinated me, though I did not think it strange.

I looked at the webpages of regulars who had them.  There was a guy who it seemed could solve every puzzle very quickly, and who frequently irritated other members by solving it with a computer.  I respected him a lot.  His personal webpage had a series of essays about why he left Catholicism.  Some time later, I left Catholicism, though I think that's something I would have done anyway.

I do this for fun

At the time I had this philosophy.  Doing puzzles was a thing I did for fun.  Because it was an intellectual activity, I knew that some people might think of it as a useful, virtuous activity, like exercising.  But I rejected that idea, and insisted I was doing it for fun, not to learn things.

Did my philosophy stand the test of time?  Did solving puzzles impact my later life?  I often doubt that it had much effect.  Some stuff I learned was just useless.  Like Polya theory, what's that good for?  Or the method to solve lines-through-points puzzles?  Or coin-weighing puzzles?

But when I describe my life, it seems obvious that puzzles did have an impact.  I still have a fondness for shapes, as you might have noticed.  I still like to joke about set theory.  And it affected my career too.  Because of my problem-solving skills, I always had an easy time in math and physics courses.  I used to joke that I majored in physics because it was the easiest subject, and that was really true for me.  After undergraduate, problems are much more open-ended and un-puzzle-like.  But the skills still transfer over.

On this blog, I also consider issues that are more open-ended and un-puzzle-like.  And yet my approach tends to be the same approach I have to puzzles, if that makes any sense.  A puzzle is not about the answer;  If it were about the answer, then you could just look up the answer and be satisfied.  A puzzle is about the process.  It's about the challenge.  It's about the little mathematical tidbits we learn along the way.

Most importantly, it's about fun.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Another bloggiversary

Today is my sixth bloggiversary.  After the five-year mark, six years hardly seems special.  But six is still a special number, if only because it's the smallest element of the set of non-special natural numbers.  This year in blogging, I launched an origami series, and my "Fantastic Primer" series.

As with previous years, I will highlight some of my favorite posts:

A portrait of an "unsolved problem"
What are topological defects?
Quantum interpretations are scientific

Faith in fiction is hard 
Scouts, Mormons, and doing the wrong things for the right reasons
Questioning atheist org priorities 
Another way of viewing the skepticism/atheism dispute

Just how bad is evolutionary psychology?
Privilege and charity
Gaydar as cold reading

Bayesian reasoning and asexuality
A skeptically-oriented Asexuality 101

Evolution of prisoner's dilemma strategies
Math and Causality
Improving on the queue
Why do I blog?

You can see highlights from previous years by tracking my bloggiversaries backwards.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Missing the point on Fine-Tuning

The Fine-Tuning argument (henceforth the FTA) is the argument that the universe appears fine-tuned to create life, this strongly argues for the existence of a creator with life-friendly intentions.  I've written about the FTA before, in 2009, and I also endorsed a paper written by Ikeda & Jefferys1 (henceforth I&J) which purports to refute the FTA.  I've now changed my mind, and no longer agree with I&J.

To briefly summarize I&J, they formulate the FTA in bayesian terms.  We already know that life exists, as part of our background knowledge.  The new piece of evidence put forth by the FTA is that the universe is such that life may arise naturalistically (ie it is "life-friendly").  I&J say the problem is that this evidence argues against supernaturalism, not in favor of it.  After all, in a naturalistic world, we must observe that the universe is life-friendly.  In a supernaturalistic world, we might observe otherwise, since supernatural intervention can create or sustain life even when natural laws are not life-friendly.

In formal terms:2
N = universe is naturalistic
L = life exists
F = universe is life-friendly

I&J show that
P(N|F&L) ≥ P(N|L)
Whereas the FTA requires that
 P(N|F&L) << P(N|L)
I think their theorem is basically incontrovertible,3 and I do not contest it. However, I feel it is missing the point.  Here I aim to explain why.

What does the Fine-Tuning argument argue?

A schematic illustration of the Fine-Tuning argument.  The two rows each represent a different meta-theory of the universe.  The colored bars represent the probabilities of different events within those meta-theories.

The FTA asks us to compare two meta-theories of the universe: naturalism and supernaturalism.  In a naturalistic universe, there's a very small probability that life can arise, because the universal constants need to be just right (or so the argument goes).  In a supernatural universe, well, who knows?

I&J make two important points about this argument.  First, they argue that the premise is irrelevant, and the conclusion is a fallacy.  Formally:
Premise: P(F|N) << 1
Fallacious conclusion: P(N|F) << 1
I checked to see if this is in fact the premise and conclusion used by FTA proponents.   The Discovery Institute basically makes the following argument:
Premise: P(F|N) < P(F|~N)
Conclusion: P(N|F) < P(N)
This is similar to the fallacious reasoning identified by I&J, only it's not fallacious.  It's correct.  But it requires a stronger premise.  Namely, we have to assume that the probability of life under naturalism is less than the probability of life under supernaturalism (as illustrated above).

I believe that I&J reject this stronger premise, and I think this is reasonable.  Who is to say that a deity would be particularly likely to arrange the universe such that it contains life?  There are an infinite number of possible deities which each prefer a different configuration of the universe.  If we only speak of deities that have an inclination towards universes with life, then they're likely to create life, but this is just some sort of selection bias on our part.

But even though I tentatively agree with I&J's first point, I will ignore it for the rest of the post, because I wish to evaluate how their second point stands on its own.

I&J's second point is that we need to include all evidence in our Bayesian.  We know two things: life exists, and life can arise.  The probability of naturalism should be conditioned on both these facts, not just one or the other.  Formally:
FTA argues that P(N|F) > P(N)
But the relevant comparison is between the quantitities P(N|F&L) and P(N|L)

With this modification, I&J find that if the universe is life-friendly, this is evidence against the supernatural.  This is easy to see in the above figure.  If we rule out a life-unfriendly universe (the red bar), this decreases the likelihood of supernaturalism.

On the other hand, if we compare the size of the green bars, it seems like the FTA works.  If the universe is life-friendly, that is evidence for naturalism.  But if the universe has life in it, it seems like that's even stronger evidence for the supernatural.  In formal terms, it appears that
P(N|F&L) ≥ P(N|L) << P(N)
And that's why I feel I&J have missed the point.

Life-friendliness vs Life
The "fine tuning" argument isn't "What do you think about God, when you learn that you are alive?" but "What do you think about God, when you learn that the universe is (apparently) fine-tuned or life-friendly?"
--Ikeda & Jefferys
As in the quote above, I&J believe that the only piece of evidence advanced by the FTA is that the universe is life-friendly.  The existence of life is not a piece of evidence, because we already knew life existed.

The thing is, the distinction between "life exists" and "life can arise naturalistically" is a novel idea by I&J.  It is definitely a useful distinction that improves our understanding of the problem.  But I don't think FTA proponents ever make this distinction.  FTA proponents are vague about it, and may not even know themselves whether they are arguing about life-friendliness or life-existence.

Therefore, when I&J say that FTA proponents are using life-friendliness as evidence, and not life-existence, this is totally groundless.

To understand the distinction between life-friendliness and the existence of life, it may help to consider how we might demonstrate life-friendliness.  It's actually very difficult to demonstrate without any sort of presumption of naturalism.  I&J indirectly mention the triple-alpha process, wherein the helium inside of stars fuse to carbon.  Since the triple-alpha process is necessary to naturalistically produce carbon life-forms, Fred Hoyle predicted in the 1950s that there was a particular resonance which greatly increased the probability of the triple-alpha process.  This prediction was later confirmed.

If FTA proponents are truly using life-friendliness as their evidence, they would point to Fred Hoyle's confirmed prediction.  In Biologos treatment, they do discuss the triple-alpha process, but do not mention Hoyle's confirmed prediction.  Instead they talk about how "statistically unusual" the resonance is.

Put in formal terms, I&J say that we should compare the quantities P(N|F&L) and P(N|L), because this is the correct comparison, and because this is the comparison described by FTA proponents themselves.  But I think that FTA proponents are actually comparing P(N|F&L) and P(N).  Furthermore, I think FTA proponents have chosen the correct comparison, whereas I&J have chosen the wrong one.

Trickiness with priors
But what is P(N|L)/P(~N|L)? Why, it is just the prior odds ratio that You assign to describe Your relative belief in N and ~N before You learn that F is true.
--Ikeda & Jefferys
According to I&J, our prior beliefs are based on our knowledge that life exists.  We think, therefore we are.  Therefore, if upon seeing that life exists, you think that supernaturalism is more likely than naturalism, then you have a "prior commitment" to supernaturalism.

"Prior commitment" sounds bad, like you've decided your conclusions before you've considered the evidence.  But generally speaking, there's nothing wrong with coming to conclusions without evidence, if you have an a priori argument.  Since FTA proponents are arguing about the quantity P(N|L), which I&J call a prior probability, we could say that FTA is partly an a priori argument.

Is it really true that the FTA is an a priori argument?  If the only evidence advanced is the existence of life, then the FTA is quite similar to the cosmological argument.  The cosmological argument only advances the evidence that there exists something rather than nothing.  Is the cosmological argument considered an a priori argument?  The internet consensus seems to be not.4

If the FTA is not an a priori argument, then I&J have made an error in using P(N|L) as our prior belief, rather than P(N).  If the FTA is an a priori argument, then I&J have basically ignored the a priori component of it, and no wonder that what remains is so unconvincing.

Of course, it seems like FTA proponents really are trying to advance some sort of evidence, and that's why they talk about universal constants and the triple-alpha process.  I propose that what's happening is that we're actually comparing three meta-theories:

By eliminating the naturalistic theories where fine-tuning is not necessary, it seems we greatly reduce the probability of life existing within naturalism.

Conclusion (TL;DR)

Ikeda and Jefferys refute the Fine-Tuning argument by making an interesting and useful distinction between universes with life, and universes where life can arise naturally.  According to them, it is only necessary to consider the evidence that life can arise naturally.  The problem is that this ignores the main thrust of the Fine-Tuning argument.

To refute the Fine-Tuning argument, we must discuss its many other problems, and not the particular problem put forth by Ikeda and Jefferys.


1. Also see the same paper hosted on a different website with inferior design, but with the extra Appendix 2.

2. If you are unfamiliar with the formalism of conditional probabilities, you can read up on it.  In this post, I will try to minimize formalism, but it is impossible to eliminate it entirely.

3. The only assumption is that P(~F&L&N) = 0, which is true from the definition of F.

4. See here, here, and here, all search results for the cosmological argument.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Labels and self-advocacy

This was cross-posted on The Asexual Agenda.

I'm generally in favor of accepting identity labels even if they seem strange or confusing at first.  But there isn't any fundamental principle that identity labels should never be questioned.  The underlying principles are: 1) People using the identity label for themselves have thought about it much more, and have likely already considered whatever "concerns" I might think of in the first minute, 2) Repetitive questioning of people's identities causes more discomfort than light.

Both of these principles rely on the existence of people who actually use the identity label for themselves.  If someone creates a new identity label, and does not use it for themselves, the label is fair game for criticism as far as I'm concerned.  That's the problem with this graphic, created by someone on AVEN:

It's clear that the creator wanted to come up with as many romantic labels as possible.  In some cases they made up new labels by joining known prefixes with the "romantic" suffix.  Here are my comments on a few of them:1
  • "Transromantic" is problematic.  You can't really be attracted to trans* people as a general category, because all they have in common is their history of being assigned the wrong gender.  It makes about as much sense as saying you're oriented towards people who grew up in single-parent households.
  • "Neutroisromantic" isn't problematic per se, but I'm unsure that people who are romantically attracted to neutrois people would really want to be known as neutroisromantic.  Maybe they'd prefer to come up with their own term?
  • Based on the colors, the creator seems to have confused "polyromantic" for "polyamorous".2  This is the sort of mistake you'd make if you just heard the word "polyromantic", but were not familiar with anyone who identifies as such.
  • "Lithromantic" stands in contrast to the other words, because it was clearly not made up.  It refers to people who don't need their romantic feelings to be reciprocated.  It's not really the sort of term you would make up independently, since "lithro" isn't a common prefix.
I'll admit that I find the concept of "lithromantic" a bit strange, but I won't say anything negative about it because there are in fact people who identify as lithromantic.  I'd rather let lithromantics speak for themselves!  In contrast, transromantics will not speak for themselves because there aren't really people who identify as transromantic.

The key is self-advocacy.  Identity labels are not sacred, but we trust in the self-advocacy of people who choose those labels for themselves.

Usually, identity labels only become problematic when they reach beyond self-advocacy.  For example, I don't like when people use "pansexual" because they believe that "bisexual" requires accepting a gender binary.  I don't like when people use "agnostic" because they believe that "atheist" means being absolutely sure.  Not that there is any problem in general with the terms "agnostic" or "pansexual".  But when these labels are used to say something about other people, that's fair game for criticism.


1. I am not trying to slam the creator here.  It's okay for people to create imperfect things, and the graphic is just a harmless discussion-starter.

2. Polyromantic is analogous to polysexual, which means attracted to multiple genders (though not necessarily all genders).  It is not analogous to polyamory, which refers to having relationships with multiple people simultaneously.