Friday, January 30, 2015

Growing up smart

So far my blogging in 2015 has been very technical, and I say... the worst is yet to come!  To balance it out, I present some anecdotal fluffiness.

A little while ago, the internet was chattering about Scott Aaronson, EECS professor at MIT.  He had a blog comment talking about his problems growing up, and how his own feminism made him afraid of approaching women.  This was picked up by several mainstream news sources--here's one example.

When I saw Scott Aaronson's comment, my main reaction was, I don't relate to that at all.  Perhaps this is only natural, since I'm not attracted to women.  On the other hand, I am skeptical that the typical heterosexual male nerd is so afraid of accidentally harassing women, that they have constant suicidal thoughts.  I mean... really?  I can believe it for Scott Aaronson, especially after I learned that he began college at age 15 or so, but the idea that most nerds have the same problems beggars belief.

Nonetheless, the story went viral under the pretense that it represents the nerd narrative.  You know what, maybe the problem is we need more nerd narratives.  Here's one.


Modesty forbids me from saying that I am smart.  But I know I am smart, and have known since elementary school.  No one would ever let me forget it.

Let me tell you about the smart kid.  In children's cartoon shows, you'd often have a bunch of characters, one of whom is the smart kid.  But fictional characters cannot be perfect, so they have to have some flaws, such as anxiety or social awkwardness.  And frequently the characters are flanderized so that they're really smart and really awkward.

Recess was a show that was on when I was a kid.  The smart one is Gretchen, the girl on the right. Actually I'm not sure whether she was socially awkward; mostly she was just a minor character. (source)

So that's who you're supposed to be.  That's what you try to be, and what everyone else makes you out to be.  And for what it's worth, it was true.

It was also self-fulfilling, in part.  Social skills are, to some extent, skills that you develop.  Smart kids are not encouraged to develop it.  From the nerd's point of view, intelligence is simply an innate part of who you are, and it seems only natural that being good at socializing is another innate part of who you are.  Nerds curse their own awkwardness, but they are not encouraged to do much about it.  Though to be fair, nobody is really clear on how to develop social skills, and kids and teens are some of the absolute hardest people to socialize with.


Yeah, okay, but things changed when I got older.  I entered increasingly selective spaces.  My middle school had a magnet program.  My high school was one of the top private schools in Los Angeles.  And then I went to UCLA.

It was a gradual process, but by the time I got to UCLA, I realized I am absolutely surrounded by nerds.  The chipper RA who made the arty displays in the dorm hallways, she was a total nerd.  The souzaphone player who had loud sex next door, total nerd.  The roommate who spent all his time making YouTube videos about hockey, what an utter nerd.  Seriously, most of these people were among the very few selected from their high schools, and most had, at some point in their lives, a reputation for being smart.

Intelligence is sort of like social class.  The wealthiest people tend not to realize how far above the median they are, because they surround themselves with similarly wealthy people.  The most educated and intelligent people also surround themselves with educated and intelligent people, and tend to forget just how nerdy all their friends are.

Once I saw it, I realized, nerdiness is meaningless.  Nerds have hardly anything in common.

If you are young and think of yourself as a nerd, here's what I have to say:  You can still be whoever you damn please.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Barefoot Bum comments on utilitarianism

In my previous post, I started out by saying, "my explicit thought about moral philosophy is indebted to fellow blogger The Barefoot Bum." Larry, the Barefoot Bum had a response on his blog. I pull out a couple quotes:
Utilitarianism first rests on four more-or-less scientific principles:

  1. People directly experience "happiness" and "suffering"; they're hard to define precisely, but we know them when we feel them. Happiness is intrinsically good, and suffering is intrinsically bad.
  2. People are goal-seeking, which differs from other possible high-level cognitive strategies such as rule-following; (what Daniel Dennett calls sphexishness).
  3. People generally create and act on the goal of maximizing their own happiness and minimizing their own suffering.
  4. People have evolved to be social, and we have evolved the tendency to feel our own happiness when (some) others are happy, and feel our own suffering when (some) others suffer.
None of these scientific principles entail any particular ethical system. Utilitarianism thus must add an ethical ideology to these principles.

Utilitarianism does not describe how the world actually is. It is a framework that people chooses or does not choose to evaluate their actions. The "reductionism" just happens to be part of the theory; as a proponent of utilitarianism, I would not say that utilitarianism is true because it is reductionist. (Indeed, I would not say that utilitarianism is true. Full stop.) Reductionism just serves to make the theory easier to use.

The idea, however, that we know physics is true, that it really describes the world, because it is reductionist is very philosophically problematic. There's no denying that reductionism is a really useful tool in physics, but the connection between reductionism and truth seems very hard to justify.
 I have no response except simply that I agree.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Utilitarianism to deontology

Since I am not a moral philosopher, I can freely admit that I do not have a coherent moral philosophy.  Like most people, I dabble in whatever seems useful, or whatever moral discourse is already established, without really thinking about it.

Most of my explicit thought about moral philosophy is indebted to fellow blogger The Barefoot Bum, who argues for an underlying utilitarian philosophy, from which deontological principles emerge (eg see here).  However, my views are my own.  Since utilitarianism and deontology have come up in a recent post of mine, I should outline my perspective.

Utilitarianism and its problems

Consequentialism is the philosophy that actions should be judged by their consequences.  The most common form of consequentialism is utilitarianism, which says that the particular consequence that matters is utility, the sum benefit to everyone.

I don't know of any way to "prove" or even argue in favor of a fundamental ethical philosophy, but there are definitely ways to argue against them.  I will highlight two particular objections to utilitarianism:
  1. It is impossible to calculate the utility of any given action.  If stepping on a butterfly causes a hurricane in a hundred years, then stepping that butterfly seems morally equivalent to causing all the damage of that hurricane.  Clearly, we can't know the consequence.  So the question is, how far in the future are we obliged to calculate?

  2. Utilitarianism does not seem to reproduce many of our moral intuitions.  There is no distinction between consequences through action and consequences through inaction.  There is no distinction between laudatory and obligatory actions.  There are no situations where selfishness (or even favoring kin) is justified.  There is no notion of rights.  We must either bite the bullet and reject our intuition, or come up with utilitarian justifications for these ideas.
Reproducing moral intuitions

One appealing resolution is to say that these two problems solve each other.  It is true that a naive utilitarianism does not account for uncertainty.  But when we do account for uncertainty, then we will reproduce most of our moral intuitions.  Although perhaps we will not reproduce every moral intuition, and so this provides a useful way to distinguish between intuitions which are correct and intuitions which are incorrect.

For example, whenever we make decisions, we are more certain of the consequences to ourselves than we are of consequences to people far away.  In the face of uncertainty, consequences tend to be a wash, so it is good to prioritize ourselves.

Another example.  Whenever we drop a brick off the roof of a building, we cannot distinguish beforehand the cases where the brick will hit someone and the cases where it won't do anything.  Therefore, we must judge all brick-dropping the same way.  We must make a rule against the action of dropping bricks in random places.  This reproduces deontological ethics, which makes rules about particular actions based on the qualities of those actions.

This also neatly solves one of the problems with deontological ethics, which is that there isn't a clear way to generate new rules about actions.  This framework suggests that the correct way to generate new rules is to consider the probabilistic consequences of a class of actions.

I like the ethical framework explained above, although I am not committed to it.  There are also a number of complications which I won't go into right now.  For now, I'd like to compare and contrast the emergence of deontology from utilitarianism to the many examples of emergence in physics.

How ethics is different from physics

Physics is reductionist, in the sense that if you were given all the basic laws of the universe as well as its initial state, then you could calculate what happens with a sufficiently advanced simulation.  In practice, this is too hard to calculate for anything with more than a few particles, and we rightly make extensive use of emergent concepts such as temperature and atoms.  However, as far as the universe is concerned, the "sufficiently advanced simulation" is in fact how it works.  The universe simulates itself, down to every reductive detail.

Utilitarianism is also reductionist, in the sense that if you could calculate all the possible worlds given different actions, then you could exactly determine which actions are right or wrong.  In practice, this is too hard to calculate for anything but the most artificial of dilemmas, and we make extensive use of emergent concepts such as rights and obligations.

But we cannot say that utilitarianism is in fact how the universe really works.  Descriptively speaking, the way morality really works is that we have a bunch of intuitions which came from evolution, or society, or random variation.  Sometimes we apply the intuitions directly to actions.  Other times, we create moral philosophies which we "test" by trying to reproduce our intuitions.

Normatively speaking, the results of utilitarian calculations depend on how much calculating we do.  That is to say, making successively precise calculations doesn't merely improve the precision of the results, but actively changes what is right and wrong.  If we discover with certainty that dropping a brick at a particular time won't hurt anyone, and will instead kill a butterfly and stop a hurricane in a hundred years, then that action literally goes from unacceptable to acceptable.

The claim, then, is that if we achieve reasonable precision, but not total precision, utilitarianism will reproduce many intuitions about rights, obligations, etc.

However, given that I don't personally know how to derive most specific rights or obligations, I don't think I have even achieved this reasonable degree of precision.  My state of ignorance may literally change what is right and wrong for me.  For instance, I'm not sure it's good for me to apply utilitarian calculations given that my calculations are apparently so naive they cannot even reproduce rights.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The nightmarish collision of FTB and Tumblr

Here's a video of our panel last night:

We also got this reaction from Thunderf00t:

the 'freethoughtblogs' conference FTBcon3 is in full swing.It REALLY is the nightmarish collision of FTB and tumblr!
Thunderf00t's tweet led to about 30 dislikes on our video plus a few troll comments (now deleted).  See Lousy Canuck for details.

I'm so proud.

FTBCon is still going, with lots of good stuff on the way!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

I will be in FTBCon3

FTBCon is a free online atheist conference affiliated with Freethought Blogs.

I will be on a panel, "Asexual Spectrum Atheists", on this Friday, 9pm CST.  You can watch the panel here, but I also recommend tracking the conference as a whole.

If you're not sure which panelist I am, I'm the only male panelist.

Update: The archived video is here on YouTube or here on Google+!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The moral horror that is ourselves

Consider the following propositions about our society:
  • We totally approve of causing pointless pain to certain individuals, even though torture is known to be ineffective.
  • Everyone is either a rapist, or implicitly supports rape and sexual assault.
  • We enslave and murder because we like the way meat tastes.
  • We enslave people, and we think it's okay because they get paid enough to feed themselves.
  • In the future, everyone will look back at this era and see something horrible about us, and they will be right.
I am not arguing for the truth of any of these statements, but trying to identify a particular trait they have in common.  Each proposition, if true, is horrifying, because it means you and everyone around you is evil.  And that makes us recoil.

The elder god represents ourselves. (source)

And yet, we might still wish to argue for some of these propositions.  For example, it is entirely true that torture is pointless, and yet supported by most Americans.  And I would say that sexual assault is so widespread that it is frequently accepted as normal.  And even if you do not agree with these statements, you might have your own sharp critiques about society.

One of the strongest cognitive biases is the belief that I am a good person.  This bias extends to society at large.  If society is so evil, and I am a part of society, then I am evil.  I am not evil, therefore...

In my post giving general advice on how to argue, I said that the belief in one's own goodness is such a strong cognitive bias, that it's better to work around it than to directly counter it.  Here we have the same dilemma.  If I wish to argue, for instance, that capitalism is slavery, should I skirt around the moral horror, and reassure people that I am not condemning them as the ultimate evil?  Or should I play up the horror, saying, "that's why it's so important to address this issue"?

And what should we tell ourselves?  Are we complicit in the moral horror that is modern society?  Or are we on a righteous crusade to defeat evil?  Or should we assure ourselves that society's not totally evil, and that it's just this ordinary problem that we're trying to solve?

The weeds represent enslavement, torture, and rape.  Image source unknown.

Our approach to moral horror can be informed by our ethical system. Here, I will discuss utilitarianism, which judges actions based on how well the consequences align with our preferences, and deontology, which judges actions based on the quality of the actions themselves.  It's common for people to use utilitarianism in some situations (eg cost-benefit analyses) and deontology in other situations (eg any talk about "rights").*

*Note I am not saying that this is logically inconsistent.  Many utilitarians believe that things like rights can be justified on utilitarian grounds.  I am merely observing the fact that, on the surface level, some ethical arguments look utilitarian, and some look deontological.  I'm suggesting that it is the surface level which is relevant here, rather than the underlying ethical justification.

Consider the cause of animal rights.* Despite "rights" being in the name, a lot of animal rights philosophy is explicitly utilitarian.  It is not based on an animal analogue to human rights so much as it is based on animal suffering.  Though one of the philosophical critiques of utilitarianism is that implies that all moral actions are obligatory, in practice it makes moral actions less black and white.  There's a sliding scale--if you simply reduce the amount of meat you consume, that reduces harm.  This allows us to focus on small steps to improve the world, rather than focusing so much on how everyone who isn't vegan is evil, and even vegans are complicit.

*Disclosure: I am not a vegetarian.

The situation is different when we talk about rape and sexual assault.  The fundamental problem with rape is that it is a violation of consent.  This is, on the surface, a deontological argument.  It is based on the intrinsic quality of rape as an action, rather than on the consequences.

The fact that we think of it this way allows us to draw some hard lines about what's right and wrong.  But it also plays up the moral horror whenever we talk about rape culture.  It's hard for me to talk about how common sexual assault is in nightclubs, because that is horrifying.  It's hard to talk about the many ways that partners and society can soft-pressure people into having sex that they don't really want, because that is like saying many of your friends are practically rapists.

On the other hand, there are benefits to taking a more black and white view, in a world where people constantly exploit gray areas to justify assault and blame victims.  Or consider a world not too long ago where US had legalized slavery.  If people at the time had been horrified by the society they lived in, they would have been right.

So here's my question: If it would give our poor psyches a break, should we consciously adopt more utilitarian approaches to the big issues afflicting society?

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Doing what you love

Should you find a job that you love, or should you just find a job that pays and do what you love on the side?  There is no ultimate answer to this question, only personal preferences and conventional wisdom.

The sense I get from US cultural history is that the conventional wisdom shifts from generation to generation, often tracing economic trends.  The clearest example I can think of is the idea of the "yuppies" in the 80s.  Yuppies were (supposedly) sellouts, people who chose corporate jobs over continuing the revolutions of culture in the 60s and 70s, or so the narrative goes.  In other words, Yuppies chose jobs that paid, rather than doing what they loved.

I am part of the millenial generation.  I feel it is impossible to ascribe motivations to a generation, as if it were a single individual, but I am a rather stereotypical millenial in many regards.  I am overeducated.  I am pessimistic about career, and about the economy.  I don't expect or want much in the way of material goods.  I do not drive.  And I don't love my job.

Unlike the stereotypical millenial, I don't have student debt.  In absence of debt, and in absence of any expensive hobbies, I would be happy with a shorter work week.  Really, we should all have shorter work weeks; it might help reduce unemployment.

I know lots of grad students.  My lack of enthusiasm is common.  But for some reason the cultural expectation is that scientists do what they do for the pure joy of discovery.  Non-scientists view science through the lens of popular science, where everything is cool and exciting.  I can fit my own research into this narrative too.  Liquid helium, ultra-high vacuum, class 4 lasers!  But science isn't all exciting ideas and fascinating discoveries.  It is, first and foremost, a job.  It's work.  I wouldn't do it if I didn't get paid for it.

On second thought, perhaps that's not true.  One of my volunteer projects is analyzing community survey data.  I'm basically doing social science purely because I want to do so.  But considering how little time I put into that project, I think it only serves to show: liking what I do can only get me so far.

But even when "doing what you love" seems unattainable, it sounds like a nice ideal.  It would be great if different kinds of labor could be allocated to exactly the people who like them.  Who could oppose such potential for human happiness?

I don't oppose the ideal.  Rather, I oppose what people are expressing through the ideal:  You are not allowed to like things, unless by liking them you contribute materially to society.  You can't like art unless you're an artist or critic.  You can't like games unless you're a designer or competitor.  You can't like music unless you're a performer.  As for whatever job you might have, you must work really hard at it, because you love to do so.  Forget the 40-hour work week, why would you want to constrain yourself?  And while you may not have much remaining free time to enjoy the income you earn, you can always spend the extra income on status goods.  Giant houses, and lots of things to put in the houses!  That's what comfort is, what luxury is.

To me, comfort doesn't mean having more status and wealth than other people.  It means having more time to do the things I actually want to do.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Iterated games

Now that I've completed my series on the evolution of Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma strategies, I want to say something about the importance of iterated games.

At the very end, I brought up another two player game, called the Battle of the Sexes.  Battle of the Sexes is often told through a particular narrative: a husband and wife negotiate over whether to go to the opera or the football game.  But this narrative is not an entirely accurate representation of the game-theoretic concept of Battle of the Sexes.  In theory, the players do not communicate anything, and go into the game without any knowledge of what the other player will choose.

The narrative that is usually used for the Prisoner's Dilemma is more precise.  The Prisoner's Dilemma narrative tells of two prisoners who are locked separately with no way to communicate.  That's the way that game theory operates.

There's actually some justification for this, even in real situations where players can communicate with each other.  Players can basically say whatever they want about what they will choose, but it's all just "cheap talk".  There's no way to enforce a correspondence between what players say and what they do.  Thus the correct strategy is to ignore everything the other player says.  (Of course in practice, that's now how people behave, but put it up to human irrationality.)

Consider a situation where two players have the ability to communicate only one piece of information: their intention to go to a football game or the opera.  They are allowed to switch their intention at any time.  After exactly a minute has passed, each player's intention becomes reality.  But everything you communicate in the first 59 seconds has no impact whatsoever, because you can just change your mind in the last instant.

But suppose that the game doesn't end at exactly one minute.  Maybe you don't have any idea when the game will end.  Then, it's like you and your spouse play the game over and over again, an unknown number of iterations, and it's only the last iteration which counts.  But since you don't know which is the last iteration, you should choose a strategy which optimizes the average outcome over a large number of iterations.  In fact it can be a very large number of iterations, if our reaction time is much shorter than our uncertainty about the end time.

I suggest that this latter situation is closer to what we experience in most realistic situations.  Thus, even if we're only playing one game of Prisoner's Dilemma or Battle of the Sexes, it's often like an iterated version of the game.  I've never heard a game theorist express this equivalence between "real time" games and iterated games, but that's my analysis.

I think this is a practical solution to the Prisoner's Dilemma in most realistic situations.  In a simple Prisoner's Dilemma, rational players (for some definition of rational) always defect.  But in an iterated Prisoner's Dilemma where the number of iterations is unknown, rational players may cooperate.  The keyword is "may", since as my simulations found, the iterated Prisoner's Dilemma is far from simple, even when considering an idealized situation.

A large portion of morality and politics are essentially dedicated to solving game-theoretic problems, particularly the Prisoner's Dilemma.  It is my vague hope that in the future we will develop new game theory "technology" which will have as much positive impact as anything new in physics.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Commentary on Charlie Hebdo

The buzz last week was about an attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo, which killed 12 people.  Charlie Hebdo is a sort of French equivalent to Mad magazine, and the attack was in response to satirical cartoons targetting Islamist extremism.

I don't usually have anything to say about news stories like this--my primary comment on almost any tragedy is "that's bad."  You won't even get a "how horrible!" out of me because frankly 12 deaths is not a whole lot compared to other faraway stories which get comparably little coverage.  As for the attack on free speech, the reader may compare it to the French ban on pro-Palestinian protests, which has been in place since July.  One has to adjust their emotional response to account for selective virality bias.

It seems that other people have different comments to add.  In fact, the issue has split my Facebook friends, with a lot of atheist friends hammering on about free speech, and queer friends saying free speech yes, but Islamophobia.  Here is a representative image from American Atheists, and here's a representative article from the other side: "In the wake of Charlie Hebdo, freedom of speech does not mean freedom from criticism".

That last article claims it is obvious that the cartoons are Islamophobic, but it's hard for me to judge since no translations are offered, and the English examples in the same article seem pretty weak.  I guess I don't care enough to look up translations, much less do the necessary research on the context.

However, I agree with the article that we should feel free to criticize the cartoons even in the wake of the attacks.  Jason Rosenhouse points out that if it were a neo-nazi magazine under attack, we'd still talk about freedom of speech, but we'd also feel compelled to say how much we disagree with the neo-nazis.  If some people genuinely feel the cartoons are islamophobic, it makes sense for them to say so even while decrying violence.  The reason American Atheists does not criticize the cartoons is not really because they think they think the cartoons are above criticism, but because they obviously agree, sufficiently, with the cartoons.

Nonetheless, some people think it's inappropriate to talk about any of the context surrounding the cartoons, lest we disrespect the dead.

A useful comparison can be drawn to the concept of derailment.  If I start about talking about the difficulties of women or queer people and you say, "but men/straight people also have problems let me talk about them", that's derailment.  Because you're effectively preventing me from talking about what I want to talk about in my own space without obnoxious interruptions.

Is it derailment to talk about how bad the cartoons are, when the cartoonists are fresh in their graves, and the foundation of liberal society is at stake?  I don't think so.  When a tragedy goes viral, we basically end up having a public conversation about it. If a particular topic is "derailing" the conversation, then there is no place for anyone to talk about that topic.  In a conversation supposedly about free speech, this goes against the spirit.

I think there is plenty of room in a public conversation for people to have many spaces with many topics.  For example, even if what I say here is demonstrably terrible and stupid, it doesn't prevent you from having a more productive conversation elsewhere in your own space.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

So you want to start your own blog

This was written for The Asexual Agenda, and cross-posted here.  It's primarily geared to people looking to start ace blogs, which means I will refer repeatedly to the current state of the ace blogosphere.  But most of the advice is generalizable.

It says on our about page, we're not just here to talk about asexuality, we're also here to stimulate blogging.  Lately I've seen a number of people starting their own blogs.  (For purposes of this post, I'm referring to non-Tumblr blogs only.)  Since I'm possibly the most experienced blogger in the ace blogosphere, having blogged consistently for over seven years, I'd like to offer a bunch of miscellaneous tips.

What do you want out of your blog?

When I first started blogging, I dreamt big.  I wanted all the readers, and I wanted to influence the conversations I saw on other blogs with lots of readers.  Naturally, none of that happened, and at first I felt very disappointed.  But I continued writing because I discovered there were other things I got out of blogging in the short-term.

The fact of the matter is that most blogs don't get a significant number of readers, and those that do acquire them over many years.  If you really just wanted attention you could probably do better by being a troll on tumblr.  There must be something else you want, so what is it?

I asked this question in an earlier question of the week. Some of the answers provided:
  • To talk about things that you can't talk about offline
  • To reach people
  • To order your thoughts
  • To spend time
  • To connect with readers
  • To get reader's thoughts
  • To find communities with shared interests
The thing you should be asking yourself is, how essential is it to have lots of readers?  Having some readers helps to distinguish a blog from a personal diary.  And certainly I want to see more popular ace blogs.  But what do you want?  Would you be satisfied if only a few people read your blog?

Most of this post will focus on acquiring readers, since that's the main thing I can give advice for.  There's not much I can say to help your venting be more cathartic or your analysis be more exacting.  But keep in mind what you really want, and recognize that you are not failing just because you don't have many readers.

Where do readers come from?

Let's get into the nitty gritty of blog readership.  Take a look at these site statistics from the past month of my personal blog.

Blog statistics

Here's a brief explanation of the pieces of pie:
  • Referrals - People follow links to your blog, often from tumblr, other blogs, or forums.  Site statistics will track incoming links, which is very useful to know your audience.
  • Organic search - People find your site by search engines.  Site statistics will track search terms, and it's often hilariously obvious that people won't find what they're looking for on your blog.
  • Direct - People go directly to your blog by bookmark or typing in the url.  These are probably regular readers.
  • Social - Mostly Facebook.  Facebook makes it impossible to tell what people are saying about you.
One of the reasons I stopped caring about getting lots of page views is because I realized that I really only value regular readers.  Page views tend to be dominated by search engine hits.1,2  The vast majority of visitors who come by search engine never return.  It's also hilariously clear based on the people's search terms that most people aren't getting what they wanted from my blog.

But of course, every regular reader used to be a one-time visitor.  So if you want regulars, the main issue is how to "hook" those one-time visitors.  When I consider reading a blog, it's usually after seeing a link to an essay I like.  Then I look at the "about" page to see what kind of perspective is offered, and then I browse the front page or tags for anything interesting.  If I like what I see, I look around for a subscription service.3

Writing a blog for readers

Writing well simply requires practice, and there's very little advice I can give to help you write better.  I can, however, say what readers generally want:
  • Consistency in the long term - Good writing can acquire more readers, but it won't matter if people have forgotten about your blog by the time you post another update.  Basically, quantity can be more important than quality.
  • Unique personality - Your individual voice will distinguish you from just another essay we found on the internet.  You can adopt a particular tone, a particular writing style, or format.  You can tell personal stories, bring up new issues, or think about old issues in new ways.  Even attaching pictures to your posts can go a long way to adding character.
  • Shorter is better - I'm a very verbose writer, and I understand how long-form writing can be essential to my personal goals in blogging.  But as far as the goal of acquiring readers goes, new readers generally don't want to invest a lot of time in a blog they just met.
  • One small issue at a time - It's tempting to write big manifestos that say everything you ever wanted to say about asexuality.  But this tends to lead to big sprawling posts that take forever to write, and of course the next week you remember something else you forgot to add.  Having a web of many posts is easier, and encourages people to follow the web as it grows.
Wordpress, Blogger, and Tumblr

Outside of Tumblr and Livejournal, it really doesn't matter what blogging software you use.  Where Tumblr can connect you with a "Tumblr community", using Wordpress doesn't really connect you with a "Wordpress community", and using Blogger doesn't connect you with a "Blogspot community".  You make your own connections with old-fashioned links and search engines.  So the playing field is pretty much level.

That said, I think Wordpress looks a little more "professional" than Blogger.  But unless you get the paid version of Wordpress, Blogger gives you more freedom to tinker with its code.  For example, he reader statistics above come from Google Analytics, which I can install on Blogger but not on Wordpress.

 The state of the ace blogosphere

The Asexual Agenda is currently the biggest asexual blog around.  That means that one of the ways to attract readers is by getting us to link to you.  We're aware of our power to direct eyeballs, and we try not to abuse it.  This is all to say, ask us nicely and we'll link you.  Of course, making readers stick around is up to you.

You might ask, where do our readers come from?  Most of our referrals come from Tumblr--links from AVEN and Reddit are much less fruitful.  You can always go to the source and try to plug your blog on Tumblr.  There's a fairly common Tumblr/Wordpress hybrid model, where people get readers from Tumblr and have structured discussions on Wordpress.  This is an easy way to get the best of both worlds.

Of course, the current state of the ace blogosphere can change.  Why should The Asexual Agenda be the most popular?  There should be many popular blogs.  I hope to see more in the coming years.


1. I think it takes a while for Google to notice that a new blog exists, so this might not be true for brand new blogs.

2. Depending on what you're doing, you might actually cater to search engines.  For example, Asexuality Archive is aimed at providing resources, and so search engine hits are important.  But I think this is true of very few blogs.

3. I'm not sure how many people use subscription services or what kinds.  I use RSS feed, but I read lots of blogs and webcomics so I'm probably unusual in this regard.  You can add widgets to advertise subscription services, although experienced users might figure out how to subscribe regardless.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Wind and fire

In many ancient traditions, the world is made up of a small number of elements, including water, earth, fire, and air.  But since I'm more of a gamer than a classicist, I see the classical elements as a motif that gets way overused in fantasy video games.  You know, you have your fire spells, which engulf things in flame, and your wind spells which create miniature hurricanes, and so on.

The classical elements are clearly a timeless idea.  But the thing is, we know that the underlying mechanism between wind and fire are pretty similar.  Both air pressure and air temperature arise from random motion of molecules in a gas.  Why, then, is there such an obvious distinction between getting burnt and getting blown away?

This question was asked by a reader.  I also wrote something about temperature and pressure back in 2010, which was a bit more technical.

Defining terms

Temperature is basically "the willingness to transfer energy".  That is to say, a hot object will transfer heat (energy) to a cold object, and not vice versa.  The exact rate of transfer is influenced by many factors, but temperatures control the direction of transfer.

Temperature is distinct from thermal energy, which is the amount of energy in the random small-scale motion of a material.  In general you can have objects with more thermal energy but lower temperature.  For example, a cold glass of water has more thermal energy than a lit match, simply because it's bigger.  But this can be true of equally-size objects, since it depends on the object's microscopic properties.

Pressure is the force that a gas applies outwards.  Analogous to the above definition of temperature, pressure is "the willingness to expand".  The pressures we are used to are incredibly strong.  At sea level, the pressure is 2,116 pounds per square foot.  The reason this force does not push you left and right is that usually the forces from air pressure cancel out exactly in all directions.

We often talk about pressure applying force on surfaces, such as the walls, floor, and ceilings of a room.  But the gas also applies force on itself.  You can divide a room of gas into a bunch of small units, and each unit of volume applies force on the adjacent units of volume.  All the forces cancel out except at the surfaces--the walls, floor, and ceiling.

A room is divided into many units of volume, and the red arrows show the forces applied outwards by each volume of air.  The image is mine.

Wind is actually distinct from air pressure.  Wind is the large-scale flow of gas, a velocity averaged over all the molecules that make up the gas.  Wind is often caused by gradients of air pressure.  For example, if there are two nearby regions, one with higher pressure than the other, then the pressure gradient will push air from the high pressure to low pressure.

It seems pretty intuitive that when wind is flowing a certain direction, it will push you in that direction.  But the physics behind this is actually horribly complicated.  When the air flows around you, it creates a slight pressure difference between one side of you and the other side, and that pushes you in the direction that the wind is going.  The details are beyond the scope of this post.  Just know that it's correct to say that when you're blown away by wind, it's caused by air pressure, but that wind and air pressure are not the same thing.

Random motion of molecules

Image from Wikipedia.  Depicts randomly moving particles in a box, applying force to the walls of the box whenever they collide.

 Microscopically speaking, the source of air pressure comes from collisions of molecules.  All the molecules of a gas are moving around randomly, and when they collide with any surface they apply some force for a brief instant as they bounce backwards.  Averaged over many molecules, the pressure can be considered to be constant over time.

At room temperature, the mean speed of air molecules is about 1800 km/hr.  For comparison, this is about as fast as the fastest winds on Saturn.  A hurricane with winds over 252 km/hr counts as category five.  The speed of sound is about 1,200 km/hr.  So there's a big difference between wind, the average velocity of molecules; and pressure, which comes from the random motion of molecules.

As it turns out, in a gas, the temperature--the willingness to transfer heat--is also related to the random motion of molecules.  This makes sense, since the faster the molecules move, the more "willing" they are to give up some of that energy to whatever they collide into.  Furthermore, the pressure and temperature of a gas are proportional.  It doesn't even matter whether the molecules are big or small, although it does depend on the density of molecules.

Why won't a fire blow you away?

There are basically two explanation which play roles.

First, the temperature and pressure may be proportional in a gas, but that doesn't mean that the rate of heat transfer is proportional to pressure.  Direct collisions is one mechanism of transferring heat from a gas to a surface, but radiation is another important mechanism.

In more detail: Radiation is the transfer of heat through light.  For example, light can be created whenever two molecules in the gas collide with each other.  This bit of light can travel to a solid and get absorbed as energy.  Light also carries a little bit of momentum, but it's not enough to cause significant pressure in this situation.  Where did the momentum go?  Absent any wind, the average momentum of the gas is zero to begin with, so the momentum doesn't need to go anywhere.

The second explanation is that the density of gas molecules in a fire will simply decrease until its pressure is nearly at equilibrium with everything else.  Pressure is only proportional to temperature when the density of molecules is constant.

In more detail: When you create a fire, it does create an increase in pressure.  But the pressure quickly comes to an equilibrium with the surrounding, depending on the size and suddenness of the fire.  Big wildfires can certainly create big winds.  But with a small candle, there only needs to be a slight displacement of the air, and the pressure quickly equilibriates.  So you have this hot gas with fast-moving molecules, but there are also fewer molecules.  If you touch a flame, the faster, sparser gas will apply the same pressure as normal.  But since the molecules are faster, they're more willing to give up some of their energy.

It's not so much that the air molecules apply a lot of force to your finger.  It's that they're moving really fast compared to the molecules in your finger, and so when they bounce backwards they lose some of their original speed.  That energy is absorbed by your finger, possibly burning it.  The rest is chemistry.

Sunday, January 4, 2015


The Hollow QRSTUVWXYZ Stars, based on a design by Meenakshi Mukerji. Click for a bigger version.

Today I present the biggest model I've created so far.  It's called a QRSTUVWXYZ model because it consists of ten intersecting planes.  The naming convention is similar to other planar models like the WXYZ and the TUVWXYZ models.  As far as I know, this is the largest of the planar models, invented by Meenakshi Mukerji.

My model is a variant on the original model.  This variant is hollow at the center, which has a great visual effect not captured in the photo.  But believe it or not, I actually created this variant as a defensive measure.  I thought it would be too hard to have 90 pieces of paper, each folded into 16 layers, all coming together to a point in the center.  

For some reason I decided to diagram the steps out.  To make the variant, I added step seven.

Click for a bigger version.  Sorry, I'm not ready to diagram the assembly.  I also found these diagrams of the original model, if that helps.

90 pieces of paper!  As you can imagine, the way they connect is very complicated.  It also seems like 10 is the magic number of planes, creating a figure that is far more symmetrical than a 9-plane or 8-plane model.

I didn't know why that was, until I realized that an icosahedron has 20 faces.  And each pair of antipodal faces on an icosahedron are on parallel planes.  So if you take the 20 planes of the faces of an icosahedron, and move them all to the center without rotation, then you'll end up with 10 unique planes.

With that in mind, I drew an assembly guide, embedded on the surface of an unfolded icosahedron.

Each color represents one of the ten planes--except for gray, which just outlines the unfolded icosahedron.

The ten planes also form an abstract polyhedron, called the hemi-icosahedron.  It's like a regular icosahedron, but with opposite faces and vertices identified with each other.  I don't know that much about abstract polyhedra, but I note that each plane corresponds to a vertex in the dual polyhedron, the hemi-dodecahedron.

Image from Wikipedia.  Each gray circle is a vertex in the hemi-dodecahedron, and corresponds with a plane in the QRSTUVWXYZ model.

If you look at the photo at the top, I have a drawing of an alternate version of this graph.  I was using it to decide on the coloring.

Because of the heavy math involved, this is one of my favorite models of all time.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Ask me about physics

I'm not sure if I have enough readers to do this sort of thing, but it's worth a try.

Does anyone have any physics questions?  Whenever I look at physics blogs, I see lots of commenters with questions in the comments, most of which never get answered.  And while there are physics FAQs out there, you usually can't just send in any question and have it be answered.

Since I'm only a physics PhD student, I'm willing to answer questions informally, and even offer my subjective opinion.  If I have a short answer, I'll put it in the comments.  If I have a longer answer I'll write a post.

I study superconductivity, but I also know a lot about cosmology, quantum theory, and quantum interpretations.  And when I read popular articles about physics, I tend to have a better understanding than the typical lay person.