Thursday, August 28, 2014

The dangers of meta

In the context of a discussion, going meta means to talk about how we're doing the discussion.  For example, in skeptical discourse, a common way of going meta is to talk about fallacies, and styles of argumentation.  In social justice discourse, a common way of going meta is to talk about the words we use in discussion, and whether these words are problematic.  Or we talk about "derailing", which is the way that people shut down discussions about social justice.

This post, of course, is going meta one level deeper.  I'm not talking about how we talk about things.  I'm talking about how we talk about how we talk about things.

For someone like me, there's a strong draw towards meta conversations.  And that's not a bad thing.  Meta-discussions are often what separate the advanced discussion and the basic discussion.  Meta-discussions inject a sense of self-awareness into our normal discussions.

Unfortunately, advanced discussion is not for everyone, and there's a reason the basic discussion is needed.  I know, for instance, that this blog will never have popular appeal.  And this doesn't just have to do with me.  Anything that involves reading thousands of words on such narrow topics will never have popular appeal.

And yet--I'm speaking for myself here--meta-discussions have a strong hold on me.  I can't let go of my self-awareness.  And self-awareness is just one step away from self-consciousness.  I am self-conscious about using arguments that I know are bullshit or political expedients (which is nearly everything).  As I've mentioned before, I am self-aware about concern trolling.  The self-awareness doesn't always stop me from doing it, but changes how I do it (and possibly not for the better).

Another problem with meta-discussions is that it feels like meta is the answer to everything, and that everything needs meta, but this is not true.  Meta-discussion is a general discussion.  Most problems require case-by-case judgments, and knowledge of specific details.  For instance, many skeptical topics, even the small and pointless ones like bigfoot, require specific knowledge to effectively address.  They require research.  Pointing out logical fallacies will only get you so far.

Meta is not the answer to everything, nor does everything need meta.  In many of my discussions on the internet, I have strong opinions on the meta aspects.  Like, say I'm talking with someone, and they declare that bringing up a particular topic is "derailing".  I have strong opinions on whether certain things count as derailing or not.  But even if I disagree with someone, bringing up a whole meta-discussion about derailing is itself honest to goodness actual derailing.  It's distracting from the main point, and frankly condescending.

I see this happen with other skeptics.  I see people bring up logical fallacies when it's inappropriate.  Whether or not I agree with the point on fallacies, it comes off as condescending, and a distraction from the point.  Like Process Man we're in danger of putting the arcane details of the process above the results.

Nonetheless, I would say that on some level meta-discussion really is indispensable.  The default, for many people is to fall along partisan lines.  Not necessarily partisan political lines (as in left or right), but things like the partisan skeptical line, the partisan atheist line, or the partisan social justice line.  One of the best ways to break out of these partisan lines is to have strong opinions about what sort of arguments are valid or invalid, regardless of who makes the argument.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Evaluating privilege, -normativity, and -ism as language

My post "Privilege and its technical failings" was really just about one particular failing of the the concept of "privilege".  But in the comments, people took the opportunity to discuss other failings of the concept of "privilege".  We also touched on alternatives, such as "-normativity" and "-ism".  These are basically three different frameworks for people to talk about the same thing: Certain groups of people have systemic problems.  We want to solve those problems.

Examples: White privilege, male privilege, straight privilege
Privilege reframes the problems of the marginalized group as advantages of the majority group.

Examples: heteronormativity, patriarchy (maybe), sexualnormativity
"-Normativity" language blames the problems on a society which sees certain groups as "normal" or "default", or perhaps just inherently superior.

Examples: racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia
"-Ism" language blames the problems on certain emotions, attitudes or actions which are wrong.

There are also a few oddballs.  "Erasure" as in "bisexual erasure" appears to be in a category all to its own.  "Cissexism" looks like an -ism, but is often used to talk about how cisgender is the societal default, so it's halfway to "-normativity" language.  And I'm sure readers can think of other oddballs.

I was really gratified by the commenter discussion analyzing the advantages and disadvantages of the above sets of language.  I am used to this language, and comfortable using it to communicate, but sometimes I feel a disconnect with other people who use the language.  It's as if other people think of the language not just as language, but as a real thing.  Whereas I see it as merely a tool for communication.  I am gratified to see that I am not the only one who thinks this way.

To explain my view, I am a nominalist.  That is, I do not believe that categories are real.  Tables are not real.  I'm sitting at a table, and that table is real.  But the general category of tables is not real.  So if we have disagreements on whether it's really a table (some people might say that desks don't count as tables), then we're disagreeing on a question that isn't real.  Another example: gender.  Male and female do not exist.  There are lots of people that seem to fit neatly into those categories, but if people don't fit into the categories that's fine because the categories are not real.

Privilege, -normativity, and -ism are not real.  That's not a sleight against those concepts.  Most things are not real.

But there are consequences to seeing things this way.  The language we use can have advantages or disadvantages.  If a particular piece of language has too many disadvantages, and if there is a better alternative, then that language should be discarded.  People still have systemic problems, and we still want to solve those problems, but there's no sense in getting attached to any particular language if it's not effective at solving those problems.

If you look at the examples I provided, you'll notice different contexts seem to favor different language.  For instance, nobody seems to talk about "White normativity".  Is this because "-normativity" language simply isn't useful in the context of race?  I'm sure the costs and benefits of our language are very context-dependent.  However, sometimes the biggest benefit of a particular piece of language is simply that it's already in the language.  Perhaps the only reason "White normativity" isn't discussed much is because it hasn't been discussed much before.

Thus, it could be useful to think directly about the question, to evaluate our language.  For example, is "homophobia" effective?  How do people respond to it?  Is there a better alternative? Or is it context dependent?

I'm thinking of writing a (mini?) series of posts analyzing the costs and benefits of our choice of language.  I've addressed this before in a few posts, but a devoted series could be nice.  I'm not sure what to cover though.  Are there any particular topics you'd like me to cover?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Writing a novel: month 4

I'm going to go ahead and admit that I did not write anything for my novel for most of this month.  But let's not phrase it as "admitting".  Writing is a hobby.  It's not my job.  Writing is more fun than my job.  I can do whatever I want with my hobby, including ignoring it for a month.

This month, I was instead engrossed with another book, The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro.  I tend to write on the bus, and also read on the bus, so the time I spend reading and writing negatively correlate with each other.

I may or may not have said before, that Kazuo Ishiguro is one of my inspirations.  He zooms in really close on ordinary social interactions, and reveals the unnameable emotions within.  For example, in one chapter of The Unconsoled, a man explains at great length why he doesn't speak to his (adult) daughter.  When she was a child, she did something to anger him, and it was only meant to be a few days. But there never seemed an appropriate moment to break the silence.  An appropriate moment finally arose when she was grieving her hamster, which she accidentally killed, but he hesitated, and now it seems like speaking to her would disrespect the memory of her hamster.

So good!  Although I would have hated this book in high school.  And it's basically impossible to imitate.

Uh, yeah, so my novel... I will not apologize for taking a break, because my alternate activity was wonderful.  But it was not a permanent break.  I'm getting back into it now, and the fresh perspective is already helping.

My approach with many of these posts about writing has been to discuss an idea I have that I find exciting.  But I'm reconsidering whether this is a good idea, because I worry about building up expectations.  These are cool ideas and all, but it really all comes down to execution.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Privilege and its technical failings

In my previous post, I discussed how different orientation labels not only have direct meanings, but also oppositional meanings.  For example, "straight" has the connotation of "as opposed to gay".

The inspiration for this topic was the concept of "privilege".  When we talk about White privilege, we're implicitly talking about White (as opposed to Black) privilege.  When we talk about male privilege, we're implicitly talking about male (as opposed to female) privilege.  When we talk about straight privilege, we're implicitly talking about straight (as opposed to gay) privilege.

In particular, the inspiration for this topic, was the concept of "allosexual privilege" (aka "sexual privilege" or "non-asexual privilege".  "Allosexual privilege" is a discredited concept, and has been since 2011.  When the idea was first proposed, it received a lot of pushback, and was the center of a lot of drama. By now, many problems have been identified,* and even its earlier proponents have long been disillusioned. However, I believe that people have so far missed the heart of the problem, which has to do with the technicalities of our language. 

*For example, people originally called it "sexual privilege", but it became clear that there are some justifiable complaints about the word "sexual".  This is basically the origin story of the word "allosexual".

"Privilege" is a way to talk about the minority group by talking about the majority group instead.  The minority group has certain problems that need attention.  That is to say, they need attention from people with power.  Often the people with the most power are people in the majority group.  So how do we make the minority group's problems relevant to the majority?  We reframe minority problems as majority privileges.

Crucial to the reframing tactic is that there are only two groups, the majority and the minority.  Privilege requires a majority/minority binary.  When there are two or more minority groups, the rhetoric falls apart.

When people tried to use "privilege" to talk about asexual problems, no one even thought to talk about "straight privilege".  Because "straight" means straight (as opposed to gay), not straight (as opposed to asexual).  Instead, people talked about "allosexual privilege".  The problem is that "allosexual" refers equally to straight, gay, lesbian, and bisexual orientations.  Many asexual problems are shared by gay, lesbian, and bisexual people.  Thus, a list of allosexual privileges risks erasing gay/lesbian/bisexual problems, despite no one intending to.

By all rights, people should have been talking about straight (as opposed to asexual) privileges.  But this is impossible, because there is no word for "straight" that connotes "as opposed to asexual".  If you look up lists of straight privileges, you will have trouble finding any items that address asexual-specific issues.

A corrolary: similar problems would arise if people attempt to apply "privilege" to other "secondary" minority groups such as Asian Americans, bisexuals, and possibly people with non-binary genders.  Of course, each case will be affected by its own particular details.


I do not mourn the loss of "privilege" as applied to asexuality.  The truth is, "privilege" is not a very good concept.  "Privilege" is supposed to be a billboard word, something you use in public outreach when there isn't room for more than a few words.  In practice, "privilege" requires so much more explanation.  When you tell someone they have privilege, people don't know what to do with that, and they often feel accused.  Often, I think we can do better by tabooing the word "privilege", to explain what we mean with different words.

Throughout this post, I referred to "privilege" as a framing device, or a public outreach tool.  I've noticed that many people who talk about privilege appear to take it more seriously, reifying it into a real thing.  That is to say, privilege is thought of as a mechanism for the oppression or marginalization of certain groups.  People acquire certain privileges, and through some unexplained process deprive others of those same privileges.  I explicitly reject this view of privilege as not just wrong, but not even wrong.  It's just unclear what any of it even means.  It could mean something completely vacuous, or something completely outrageous, and I think it's all a setup to equivocate between the two.

In this post, I've explained why "allosexual privilege" failed, and it had nothing to do with the particular problems of asexual people (except that these problems strongly overlap with LGB people).  It only had to do with language technicalities.  I believe this supports my view that "privilege" is merely an educational tool.  If privilege were "real", then it would be impossible to talk about the same problems without referencing the advantages gained by straight people.  In fact, people still talk about the same asexual problems, and have simply adopted different language to describe them, like "amatonormativity" or "compulsory sexuality".

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Orientation labels and oppositional meanings

Our language and words are supposed to be infinitely fluid, to express whatever we like.  But often when you get down to the technical details, you find it's made of all this chunky stuff, these words.  It's as if the air we breathe were made of little pebbles.

Identity labels are some of the chunkiest words around.  Case in point, many identity labels not only have a direct meaning, they also have an oppositional meaning.1  I say "oppositional" in the sense of "opposite".

What is the opposite of "straight"?  To many people, the opposite is "gay".  When you say someone is straight, you mean that they are attracted to the opposite gender (there's that "opposite" idea again!).  But also, you mean that they are not gay.  (And also not bisexual.)  ((And also maybe sorta not asexual.))  Note the hierarchy of meaning.  Everyone agrees that "straight" and "gay" are opposed.  We agree that bisexual people are not straight, but wouldn't say they're opposed exactly.  As for asexual people, whether they can be straight or not is commonly contested.2

To depict this graphically, here I show the meaning of "straight" within the Storms model.  Blue represents the direct meaning, and orange represents the oppositional meaning.3  The darker the color, the stronger the meaning.


We can give a similar treatment to the other major orientation labels

Gay/Lesbian, Bisexual, and Asexual

You might notice that none of the words have a particularly strong meaning with respect to asexuals.  Due to asexual invisibility, most people who talk about about other orientations are not really thinking about asexuals.  However, if you're talking about asexuals, you are most certainly conscious of gay and bisexual people.

The word-chunkiness becomes especially clear when we consider the inversions of these labels.  For example, "queer" is sometimes thought of as an inversion of "straight", with the result that "queer" is most closely associated with gay and lesbian people, and to a lesser extent bisexuals, and hardly at all with asexuals.

This raises an interesting question.  Is "queer" necessarily the inversion of "straight", or is it contingently so?  For instance, if "bisexual" came to be more closely associated with "queer", would it necessarily become more dissasociated from "straight"?  If someone is straight, do they automatically become disassociated with queerness?  (And let's not even talk about straight trans people, or you'll break our fragile language to pieces.)

Here are some more inversions:

Monosexual and Non-asexual (aka allosexual)

Monosexual is a funny term, because it's intended to be an inversion of bisexual, but literally means attracted to one gender, so it inadvertently excludes asexuals.  Due to disagreements over various synonyms like "bisexual", "pansexual", and "omnisexual", people often use "non-monosexual" as an umbrella term for all such people.  But now "non-monosexual" is a perfect inversion of "monosexual" (which is an imperfect inversion of "bisexual"), and therefore inadvertently includes asexuals. I've heard "plurisexual" as yet another alternative to reduce confusion.

Non-monosexual and Plurisexual

Notice that I showed inversions of "straight", "bisexual", and "asexual", but there isn't really an inversion of "gay/lesbian".  That's because "straight" more or less functions as the inversion already.

Lastly, here are a few extra terms which explicitly acknowledge an orientation spectrum:

Kinsey 1, Kinsey 2, and Gray-A

And here are few things which we do not have words for.

??? and ???

Do you feel like you're breathing pebbles yet?  Gosh, and these are just the words that can be easily described within the Storms model!  It only gets worse from here!


All graphs were sketched by finger using the GoodNotes app.  I happily recommend this app to people who like drawing graphs.

1. The term "oppositional meaning" is my own invention, although I see that it's used by at least one other person, apparently to denote something very similar.

2. Ace in Translation offered one of the best explanations of the subject.

3. I'm hoping orange and blue are colorblind-friendly, let me know if they are not.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

47% of LGBT Americans are nonreligious: a brief reaction

Recently, Gallup released a poll showing that LGBT Americans were significantly less religious than non-LGBT Americans.  Specifically, 47% were non-religious.

Among the blogs I read, Friendly Atheist reacted without surprise, because of course people are going to leave churches that condemn them.  Greta Christina said this means (American) LGBT organizations need to wake up.

My reaction was, "47%?  That's nothing.  The asexual community has 64%!"

The high percentage among asexuals makes me disinclined to accept the standard explanations offered for the number of non-religious LGBT Americans.  If it's all about people leaving their religions, why would asexuals, who are condemned by churches less consistently and less publicly, be leaving in greater numbers?

There are multiple alternate explanations.  Asexuals and atheists have overlapping demographics, both groups tending towards young and educated.  Furthermore, there's speculation that people who are religious are less likely to be aware of asexuality or identify with it.

Regardless of the explanation, if the 47% figure means that American LGBT organizations need to "wake up", what does the 64% figure mean?

Technical note: That poll has some, er, technical problems, because the question is in the form of "check all that apply", when it's clear that many respondents treated it as "pick the one that applies most".  So actually only 36% said they were nonreligious, 23% said they were atheists, and 23% said they were agnostics.  64% is what you get when you combine all three groups.  It's possible this includes some small percentage of atheistic religious people, like Pagans or Buddhists.

Actually, I have the source data for this poll, so I know if you remove all people who indicated specific religions, you're left with 61%.  If you also remove people who say they're "spiritual but not religious" (a group that would have been included in Gallup's 47% figure), you're left with 54%.

Monday, August 11, 2014

I'm unsubscibing to Skeptoid

In an earlier post, I explained that by disposition, I am very judgmental, but also very forgiving.  A corollary is that my politics are very anti-punitive, and I am very much in favor of criminal rights.  There's no particularly coherent worldview behind this, and I am honestly not all that familiar with the criminal justice system.  I'm vaguely aware that California's prison system has major problems with it, but I would not name that as the root reason for my politics.  The root reason is my emotions, might as well admit it.

Criminals are, by design, a marginalized group.  And they should be.  But the marginalization should be somewhat restrained.  For instance, my landlord is a former felon.  The crime was particularly despicable too.  But I don't believe in denying them business on those grounds alone.  I believe that it's best dealt with through a fair criminal justice system rather than through the whims of individuals, with all their nasty prejudices.

Brian Dunning is a skeptical celebrity, one that I otherwise like, and now he is a convicted felon.  Brian Dunning runs the Skeptoid podcast.  I have nice things to say about Skeptoid.  It's short, which makes it infinitely more listenable than basically every other podcast I've ever tried.  And Dunning takes the time to do some research, which is more than I can say for most people.  It's nice sometimes to learn a few new things instead of just hearing people's opinions.

But back to the felony.  Prior to starting Skeptoid, Brian Dunning defrauded eBay for millions of dollars.  He used custom-designed software to trick eBay into thinking that many sales they were getting were coming from Brian Dunning's advertising.  Dunning earned millions in commissions until he was raided by the FBI in 2007.  More recently, Dunning has been convicted, and sentenced to 15 months of prison.

You can read more about the story on Skepchick, where there is a long dissection of Dunning's statement to the public.  Dunning says a lot of things which are, at best, technically true but grossly misleading.

I was not giving Skeptoid any money previously, but I had subscribed to it, and it was on my blogroll.  I have unsubscribed and unlinked it.  While I believe in restraining our marginalization of criminals, I don't have to like criminals.  Promoting Dunning as some sort of skeptical leader requires at least a little good will on my part.

I also get the sense that "the whims of individuals, with all their nasty prejudices" are working in Dunning's favor here.  People like Skeptoid.  And oh, look, there's a photo of Dunning with his happy family.  What a nice guy, this white collar criminal, the kind of guy you could have a beer with.  Nope, not buying it at all.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Judgment, anger, and me

I am a very judgmental person.  I'd have to be, to maintain an blog about my opinions for so long.

This remains true even as I've become influenced by queer ideas of non-judgmentalism with regard to people's orientation, behavior, and identity.  Now I just have really strong opinions (judgments!) about when judgmentalism is appropriate and when it is not.  When it is not appropriate, I refrain from expressing any judgment, even if I do not refrain from thinking it.

But perhaps there need to be multiple axes of judgmentalism, because there is another sense in which I'm not very judgmental at all.  I have a large quantity of judgments, but they're mostly small judgments.  I don't think you're a terrible person for having done something wrong.  You're just a normal person because in my view, everyone is doing things wrong, and I also have thoughts about what in particular they're doing wrong.

For example, I don't think very highly of the trolls I occasionally get in my comments, but I also think they're probably not so bad elsewhere or offline.  They are terrible at arguing, and often have terrible opinions, but that's pretty much all I know about them.  Perhaps if we interacted in a different context they'd be more sensible and competent, who knows?

This is also applicable to public intellectuals.  For instance, for years now, some people have been pretty upset with Richard Dawkins, going so far as to say they will no longer buy books from him or otherwise consume his work.  Now, I think Dawkins' infamous "Dear Muslima" comment* was really stupid, blindingly stupid.  Even Sam Harris's stupidity is given a run for its money.  On the other hand, do people not remember Dawkins' other stupid comments?  Like how "Neville Chamberlain atheists" is a backhanded comparison of religion to Nazism?  Or how the comparison of religion to child abuse created years of unproductive arguments?  Or the stupid stuff he said about fantasy fiction?  And what about memes?  And brights?  Dawkins has been perpetually been putting his foot in mouth for years.

*Apparently he recently apologized for this.

Maybe "Dear Muslima" was worse than all that, either for being especially stupid, especially harmful, or especially emblematic.  But I just can't maintain my anger about it, never could.  I'm just not emotionally disposed to do that.

But also, I can't be angry at people who went so far as to shun Richard Dawkins.  Seems to me that that's their own prerogative.

I'm not saying that my way is the right way.  On the contrary, I am saying that this is one of my biases.  I don't get very angry at people, regardless of whether I should.  I don't hold grudges against people, regardless of whether I should.  It's common for people to say "criticize the opinion, not the person", and that's what I do, not because it is the right thing to do, but quite simply because it is my emotional default.

This bias has led to real life problems in my leadership experience.  I get along with people who don't get along with each other.  As a result, I've promoted officers who were problematic, and have been poorly prepared for the consequences.  Because I just don't get it.  What is this emotional response that other people are feeling but I'm not?

Since this is a recognized personal bias, I take steps to compensate for it.  I don't try to fake emotions, because my emotional response is real and just as valid as anyone else's.  But I make a point to remember that a person's past actions are predictive of their future actions, and I guard myself against unwarranted optimism.  And I remember that most other people do have a stronger anger response, that not everyone is exactly like me.  Lastly, I realize that calmness is valued in our culture, but I question that value, because calmness does not make me a superior person.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A little welfare math

In an earlier post, I mentioned an argument that welfare decreases wages. The idea is that employers don't need to pay as much, since the wages they provide will be supplemented by welfare. However, in a simple analysis, welfare clearly increases wages. It could be that the simple analysis is wrong (as I showed is the case for a simple analysis of minimum wage), but the simple analysis should still be a beginning for understanding.

Since this is only a personal blog, I did just the bare minimum of research into US welfare systems. I immediately learned that US welfare is shit. I can't believe how little safety net there is in this country. Here are some basic facts:
  • The major programs are Social Security, Medicaid, TANF, and SNAP. I ignored the first two because those are more complicated and conditional. 
  • TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) is for extremely poor families with children. For example, a household of four people in Indiana must have income under 36% of the poverty level, and the maximum payment is 17% of the poverty level (and that's assuming your income is zero). 
  • Additionally, TANF has a lifetime limit of 5 years, and only 2 years without a job. 
  • TANF websites are horrible and most of them won't give the relevant information in an accessible manner. 
  • SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps) applies to a much broader class of people, and pays more. For a household of four, you must have gross income under $2552 a month to qualify (or 130% of the poverty level), and you are allotted $632 (with 30% of your "net income" deducted). 
  • People in the SNAP program must get a job within three months.
For the sake of analysis, I will take a simplified SNAP as a model. Let's just say that we have a four-person household, and the payments are $630 a month minus 25% of gross income.

The first thing you should notice is that SNAP effectively creates a 25% tax on the first $2520 of your household's income. Already we can see why welfare should increase wages. Workers will demand more money for the same amount of labor, because they're only seeing 75% of that money. Of course, there's a tradeoff between wages and employment. If workers only see 75% of their wages, more of these workers may choose not to get a job at all. Or employers may choose not to hire them in light of the higher wages.

This is all complicated by SNAP's requirement that people get a job. Now that may decrease wages, if it motivates people to look for some job, any job, in order to maintain eligibility.

There's a second way that welfare can increase wages: the decreasing marginal utility of money. I'm making these numbers up, but say you need $100 a month to eat, and $200 a month to eat well. The first $100 prevents you from starving, whereas the next $100 only prevents you from hating your food. If there is no welfare, you might be willing to work a shit job for low pay because it's still better than starving. If you're already getting $100 a month from welfare, you would demand more money for your labor.


The rest of this post will do a simple mathematical analysis of welfare. You must have javascript enabled in order for MathJax to render the *\LaTeX* equations.

In a simple analysis, the number of low-wage workers employed and the amount of wage they earned is determined by the intersection of supply and demand curves. The demand curve is the number of workers that employers are willing to hire. The supply curve is the number of people willing to work for a certain wage.

In panel a I show typical supply and demand curves. However, there are arguments that the demand curve for low-wage workers is unusual in that it has "zero elasticity" (panel b) or "negative elasticity" (panel c). These arguments are complicated and controversial, so I'm just going to ignore the demand curve for now.

Welfare affects the utility function of workers. Normally, we'd just say

**U = L w - c(L)**

 where U is the utility function, L is the fraction of laborers employed, w is the wage, and c(L) is the total cost of all those people working. c(L) is basically a measure of people's subjective preferences. But now the total earnings of each worker is the wage plus welfare, which we'll call t(w). So we have

**U = L t(w) + (1-L) t(0) - c(L)**

 A further complication is the decreasing marginal utility of money discussed previously. If u(w) is the utility of wage w, the the total utility function is

**U = L u(t(w)) + (1-L) u(t(0)) - c(L)**

Here I plot the t(w), u(w), and u(t(w)) that I used. t(w) is wages plus the simplified SNAP payment described previously. We know very little about u(w), so I just used *u(w) = Log(\frac{w + $500}{$500})*.

The supply curve is defined by the point where the marginal worker no longer benefits from working. In other words, it's the point where U no longer increases with L. The derived supply curve is

**u(t(w)) = u(t(0)) + \frac{dc}{dL}(L)**

 Below I show the supply curves before and after applying welfare (assuming *\frac{dc}{dL}(L)* is just proportional to L).

So as far as I can tell, the idea that welfare is "subsidizing" employers makes no sense. Welfare appears to increase wages.  The number of workers may increase or decrease, depending on the elasticity of the demand.

There are a million caveats and complications here, and you should not trust the basic analysis.  For instance, note that the wages payed by the employer are not the same as the profit earned by the employees, since employees miss out on the welfare they could have gotten by being unemployed.  This is just the effective 25% tax from welfare.

One way to get rid of the effective tax is to guarantee everyone a base income. That is, give everyone $630 a month, regardless of their other earnings. This would still raise wages, because of decreasing marginal utility. But then we'd probably have to worry about inflation. I'm not even gonna go there.

I couldn't find any studies (that I understood) on the impact of welfare on wages, so I have no way of knowing whether any of my conclusions are correct or incorrect. I think, however, it was good to learn about our welfare system. If it took a math problem to motivate me to do a bit of research, it was worth it.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Water bomb

I usually stick to modular origami, and haven't posted very many origami tesselations  So here's one.

Water Bomb Tessellation, by Eric Gjerde

I believe that it's called a Water Bomb, because in origami there's something called the water bomb base, shown below.

The Water Bomb Tessellation consists of many copies of this water bomb base.

Truth be told, I think I don't post many origami tessellations, because they're really hard to make.  This one in particular.  This was so much harder than the Star Puff I posted months ago.  The Star Puff, you see, was made of pleats.  When a tessellation is made of pleats, you can add pleats one by one until it's done.

But the Water Bomb!  You can't just add water bombs one by one until it's done.  It just doesn't work.  If you start making water bombs in one corner, that corner does not quite fit with the rest of the paper.  The rest of paper will crumple a bit, and the water bombs won't fold quite right.  When any section of the paper has water bombs, the area of that section shrinks by a 5:1 ratio, both length-wise and width-wise, and this simply doesn't mesh with flat paper.  In effect, you need to fold the entire tessellation at once.  It's basically impossible.

Well, I made it, so I guess it was possible after all.  But let's just say that I've attempted a few origami tessellations that were failures because I couldn't fold them right.

It would probably help if I used larger paper, but there's a bit of a psychological barrier for me.  I have thousands of sheets of 15 by 15 cm paper, so I want to use that stuff.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Richard Dawkins is a Vulcan

Richard Dawkins posted a series of tweets that set off a firestorm.
X is bad. Y is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of X, go away and don’t come back until you’ve learned how to think logically.

Mild pedophilia is bad. Violent pedophilia is worse. If you think that's an endorsement of mild pedophilia, go away and learn how to think.

Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think anybody who said that would thereby be endorsing date rape, go away and learn how to think.
Twitter is such a terrible format, I'd rather not even engage with it.  Instead, I will respond to Richard Dawkins' longer post on the subject, "Are there emotional no-go areas where logic dare not show its face?"  In effect, I am being charitable to Dawkins by considering his fuller justification, regardless of whether he actually deserves such charity.
Some people angrily failed to understand that it was a point of logic using a hypothetical quotation about rape. They thought it was an active judgment about which kind of rape was worse than which. Other people got the point of logic but attacked me, equally furiously, for choosing the emotionally loaded example of rape to illustrate it.  To quote one blogger, prominent in the atheist movement, ‘What would have been wrong with, “Slapping someone’s face is bad, breaking their nose is worse”? Why need to use rape?’
I hope I have said enough above to justify my belief that rationalists like us should be free to follow moral philosophic questions without emotion swooping in to cut off all discussion, however hypothetical. I’ve listed cannibalism, trapped miners, transplant donors, aborted poets, circumcision, Israel and Palestine, all examples of no-go zones, taboo areas where reason may fear to tread because emotion is king. Broken noses are not in that taboo zone. Rape is. So is pedophilia. They should not be, in my opinion. Nor should anything else.
In short, Dawkins was trying to make a point about logic.  But he wasn't really trying to make a point about logic, he was trying to make a point about how certain subjects are so taboo that we fail to apply logic.  According to Dawkins, people angrily failed to understand that he was just trying to make a point about logic.  How can they disagree with logic?  Except, apparently he wasn't just making a point just about logic.

I appreciate that there are taboos that block rational discussion of important topics.  Perhaps the one most important to Dawkins is the taboo against criticizing religious beliefs.

On the other hand, Dawkins is being that guy.  The guy who dumbly pretends that they only understand literal meanings, and who act shocked when people interpret their statements in any sense other than the literal one.  I'm not sure what the cool kids call it these days, but when I was a kid, we called this being a "smart alec".  Smart alecs were assholes.  Even smart alecs themselves knew they were being assholes.

I know Richard Dawkins has a science popularizer background, and not a Skeptical background (and I mean capital S Skepticism, as in the community of people actively interested in the subject).  And in some ways, capital S Skepticism is dying, or it is to me, because of dissatisfaction with the community.  But there was at least one advantage to the community, which was that it made us think about our collective image as skeptics.  We knew that we were perceived of as smart alecs, as Vulcans, as people who only cared about logic.  We knew the stereotype that skeptics don't care about feelings, neither our own nor other people's.  We made sure to counter this stereotype whenever possible.

But Dawkins.  Dawkins is trying to be that guy.  He's trying to be the Vulcan.

Sorry, but being a Vulcan is neither endearing, nor is it the correct approach to critical thinking.

As for the fallacy that Dawkins mentioned, is it ironic that the politically-correct witch-hunting feminazis actually discuss this particular fallacy in greater depth than Dawkins ever could?  This fallacy is commonly discussed under the heading of "oppression olympics".

"Oppression olympics" is when people disingenuously compare how bad X and Y are, in order to just shut people up about X.  For instance, if people are talking about sexism in the UK, someone might dismiss the whole discussion by referring to sexism in the Middle East.*  But that's stupid.  Just because Y is worse than X doesn't mean we should ignore X.  X may still be pretty bad.

*I use this particular example because it's something Dawkins himself has infamously done.

At this point, the person who invoked the comparison gets defensive.  "I wasn't trying to say that X isn't bad.  I wasn't endorsing X."  But if what they said has no implications on X, why did they bring it up in a conversation about X?  Probably they subconsciously believe it has implications on X, even though they won't admit it.  In other words, people can still believe in the fallacy even when they say they don't.

Case in point, Dawkins says he doesn't believe in the fallacy, but people still remember his comments from last year when he said he "can’t find it in [him] to condemn" the "mild pedophilia" he experienced in his youth.  Just because it was "milder" than other people's experiences doesn't mean it wasn't bad, and doesn't mean we can't condemn it.  Does Dawkins himself understand the lesson of his own tweet?

Again, I appreciate the value of breaking taboos.  It's actually a pet peeve of mine when, because of taboos, people don't understand that different cases of sexual assault or rape may result in different degrees of trauma. But it's not so simple as dividing rape and assault into different "kinds", it's not so deterministic.  There are a lot more factors involved than just whether it was "date rape" or "violent rape".  The important message here is that people can react in different ways, and their feelings are valid.  And I will say that regardless of how taboo it is.