Monday, December 20, 2010

Blogging break

Let's take a break.

This wasn't that successful last time, but for the duration of my break, you can ask me questions on formspring.  It's completely anonymous.  Ask me questions you'd like me to blog about, or I guess you could ask frivolous questions too.

In other news, there will be a lunar eclipse tonight at 9:30 pm PST.  It coincides with winter solstice.

ETA: Some comment moderation will be slow during my break.  Sorry!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The interminable tone debate

Let's revisit the issue of rabid militant atheists vs sniveling appeaser atheists.  Yes, again.  We'll beat that dead horse until it starts running again, dammit.

This time, I'm beating the horse because I'm interested in doing some cross-movement comparison some time in the future and/or imagined future.  Do activists for other causes have similar disputes over tone?  Of course.  But for now we'll stick to atheism, since that's what we all know and love, and examine some of the underlying issues of the tone debate

1. Different goals

You can't take it for granted that every atheist wants the same thing.  Some want to end religion.*  Some want to end supernaturalism.  Some just want to get on their lives without family, friends, and society constantly bothering them.  Some want to get on with their lives without the religious right making a mess of US politics.  Some just want religion out of science, or out of morality.  Some just want the atheist community itself.

*The fact that this goal is unattainable is irrelevant.  It's okay to work towards an impossible goal as long as small steps towards that goal are considered desirable.  Really, saying "I want a world with no religion" is short-hand for saying "I think any reduction in religion is an improvement."

And let's not pretend that it's as simple as one person wanting to end religion, and another wanting civil rights. If you asked me which goal I'm working towards, I wouldn't know.  I want them all, to different extents.  Most immediately, I just want to maintain this blog, though I'm not sure what it accomplishes exactly.

Though goals are often vague and amorphous, sharp distinctions always seem to emerge in disputes over tone.  We should be nicer to religious people because we can't improve their science education if they antagonize scientists.  We should be meaner because we want to shock people out of irrationality (improved science education will naturally follow).  So on and so forth.

Differing goals can lead to an unresolvable dispute.  What right does anyone have to criticize my methods when they don't share my goals?  Why should I trust advice from someone who does not particularly care about my success?  In the case of extreme goal differences, it's essentially concern trolling.  A concern troll is someone who does not share any of the goals of the atheist movement, but nonetheless advises that it would help atheists if they were to quiet down.  Concern trolls are not well-received.

2. Tone vs Substance

One of my biggest complaints about disputes over tone is that they're always confusing the message with the way the message is delivered.  For some reason, embedded in many tone arguments, are arguments about methodological naturalism.  Or about whether science can investigate religious claims.  Or whether science and religion are compatible.

None of these have any obvious relation to whether we should be angry.  It doesn't tell us anything about whether we should use ridicule or satire.  And yet, these different issues have been made inseparable.

Perhaps it is because the most prominent voices of gnu atheism also hold slightly stronger positions about just how bad religion is.  In fact, that might be my biggest disagreements with them, that they sometimes exaggerate, seemingly for shock or entertainment value.  But then I also sometimes disagree with the Friendly Atheist because I think he's too brief and glosses over details.

The fact is, tone and substance don't always align.  Even agnostics can get really angry.  And even someone with relatively extreme views can be nice.  I probably have relatively extreme views myself, since I have really strong disagreements with the most liberal of believers.  But I can't get angry, and I'm not very good at ridicule.

3. Stereotypes

Let's not ignore the elephant in the room.  The reason we argue so much about this is because the angry argumentative atheist is a stereotype.  Stereotypes screw everyone over.  If you don't match the stereotype, then you encounter a lot of assumptions and unwarranted hate.  If you partially match the stereotype, then you encounter even more assumptions (since it's assumed that you match the stereotype in every detail), and hate from people who think you're worsening the stereotype.

What's worse, how can we counter the angry atheist stereotype without loudly complaining about it?  We could just publicly identify as atheist, and then go completely quiet.  But this is not a viable strategy for a whole movement, and a pretty messed up thing to expect.

The angry atheist stereotype has a few big effects on the tone debate.  First, anger takes on special significance.  When an atheist expresses anger, believers think, "Oh, it's one of those atheists."  Other atheists think, "Those people give us a bad name."  Second, people tend to see angry rabid atheists even when they're not there.  For instance, Richard Dawkins is just about the nicest guy, but he's the poster child of gnu atheism.  I think it's another case of confusing tone with substance, since the substance of what Dawkins says is a bit on the extreme side.

4. Style vs strategy

I rarely use anger in my writing.  Is this because I think it's more effective to argue calmly, or is it because I'm just not angry?  When PZ Myers throws a string of insults at the latest kook, is it because he thinks is the best way to accomplish his goals, or is it because it's the writing style that comes naturally to him?  When Friendly Atheist uses gentle snark in his commentary, is it part of some grand strategy, or is it just the way Hemant thinks?

I for one, am not convinced it was all planned out.  I think most people just argue in whatever way comes naturally to them, and then come up with post-hoc justifications for why they are right to do so.  Or, as is more common, they come up with a justification for why the movement as a whole should use a mix of methods.  That way everyone can do what they like.

Not to say that their justifications are wrong.  I also think a mixed-methods approach is best.  But I also think that's not why we use the mixed-methods approach.  We use mixed methods, because it could not be any other way.  It's a very big and diverse movement; there will always be atheists who are inclined towards angry activism, and those who are inclined towards other styles.  And most of them have the ability to defend their style if criticized.

So what does it mean to advocate a friendlier tone?  Do we actually hope to shift people's styles?  Or is it an attempt to silence the less friendly voices?  Even if I thought the mixed-methods approach was suboptimal, I think I'd prefer it to silencing people on my side.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Three examples of dimensional analysis

Let's say I drop a bowling ball from a building.  How long does it take to hit the ground?

Probably many of you are now thinking about how much you hated your high school physics class.  What was that formula you used for falling bowling balls?  Geez, who wants to remember that equation and solve it?

But let's say that we just want an approximate answer.  In physics, there's a special method called dimensional analysis which is useful to find approximate answers to questions like this.

The first step is to figure out what quantities could be involved in the answer.  For the bowling ball, it could only depend on the mass, the height, and the strength of gravity.  Then we figure out the units of all these quantities, as well as the units of the answer.

Mass of ballkilograms
Height of ballmeters
Strength of gravitymeters/second2
Time to fallseconds

How can we combine the three quantities to get the answer?  One thing's for sure, they'd have to be combined in a way that gives the correct units.  So here's a guess:

It's a pretty good guess too.  If you work out the problem using kinematics equations (which isn't really that hard), you get the same answer, but multiplied by the square root of two.  That means that the dimensional analysis was only off by 40%; it's almost correct by physics standards.  Dimensional analysis also successfully predicted that the time to fall does not depend on the mass of the bowling ball.

Math can be hard.  But in the end, the math just ends up with a number, like the square root of two.  Or maybe it ends up with one half.  Or 2*pi.  Or something.  It's highly unlikely that the math will end up with a factor of a thousand.  So whatever you get, you're probably at least within a factor of 10.

I've seen one exception where dimensional analysis is off by more than a factor of 10.  My last physics post discussed energy lost by radiation from a thermal pot.  According to the Stefan-Boltzmann law, the rate of energy loss per unit surface area is proportional to temperature to the fourth power.  What I didn't tell you is that the Stefan-Boltzmann law can almost be derived by dimensional analysis.

The first step is to figure out what quantities could be involved in the answer.  To do this, you need to know something about the physics, but not much.  It turns out that the answer depends only on the temperature and fundamental constants.

Speed of lightcmeters/second
Planck's constanthJoule seconds
Boltzmann constantkJoules/Kelvin
Power loss per unit areaP/AJoules/(second meter2)

If you try dimensional analysis on this problem, you predict the following:
But it turns out that this answer is wrong.  The real answer is about 40 times bigger.  More precisely, it's bigger by a factor of 2*pi5/15. The reason for this is that there is some really nasty math involved.  And when I say the math is nasty, I'm not joking around.  At one point, you have to calculate the following:

I have no idea how to calculate that one.  I'd have to look it up (it's called the Riemann zeta function).

But the dimensional analysis wasn't a complete failure.  We at least showed that the power loss is proportional to temperature to the fourth power.  That's the most important result!

I have one last example of dimensional analysis used in particle physics.  One of the holy grails in particle physics is to figure out the correct way to combine General Relativity and Quantum Field Theory.  Now, nobody knows for sure the underlying physics of the situation.  However, we do know that we can combine fundamental constants to get a special length, called the Planck length.

The Planck length is calculated from Planck's constant (from quantum mechanics), the gravitational constant (from gravitational theory), and the speed of light (from relativity theory).  The result is a length that is mind-bogglingly small, 25 orders of magnitude smaller than an atom.  What does it mean?

The significance of the Planck length depends on what theory we're using.  String theorists think that the Planck length is about the length of a string.  If the universe has extra dimensions, perhaps these extra dimensions are Planck length in size. Some theorists think that space is quantized into lengths about the Planck length.

And since nobody really knows the underlying physics, nobody knows what mathematical factors may appear.  Maybe a factor of pi will show up.  At worst, a factor of 40 might appear.  But even if they're off by a lot, one thing's for sure: the Planck length is tiny!  If strings exist, strings will be tiny!  If space is quantized, it's quantized into really tiny pieces!  Dimensional analysis tells us that much.

I wonder how mathematicians and philosophers would react to the method of dimensional analysis.  I suspect a lot of head-banging would be involved.  How can those dang physicists be sure that this is sound reasoning?  Well, no one is really sure.  Luckily we can use experiments for external verification.

Friday, December 10, 2010

A brief history of antisexuality

One of the major motivations of homophobia is disgust.  Many people feel disgusted at the idea of having sex with someone of the same sex.  This personal disgust leads to disgust with anyone having same-sex sex.  And then it's assumed that anything they find disgusting must be immoral.

Some asexuals (but not all) feel disgusted at the idea of having any sex.  This occasionally leads to the belief that sex is bad, and non-procreative sex should be reduced as much as possible.  This belief is known as antisexuality.

The historical relationship between the asexual community and antisexuality is an interesting one.  It's the story of how a community shifted from antisexuality to sex-positivity.  Let's jump back to 2001, before the founding of AVEN, the major asexual community of today.

Asexuality on LiveJournal

One of the pre-AVEN communities was a LiveJournal community called "Asexuals".  This was the group's description:
This is a community for folks who think sex is terribly overrated and pointless unless of course it has meaning. Come to think of it, there are tons of reasons why you might be ASEXUAL. Sex is constantly shoved down our throats by the media. What once was a beautiful and powerful thing, is now cheapened because some brilliant demon thought it would be smart to use it to sell their product. Because of this, nobody takes it seriously. Sex is no longer about expressing anything. Fight back.
It's difficult for me to contain my negative reaction to this description.  For one thing, they are conflating asexuality (lack of sexual attraction) with celibacy (not having sex) and with antisexuality.  But remember, this is back in 2001.  Currently, "asexual" is defined as "a person who does not experience sexual attraction".  But back in 2001, this definition had not been established!  Back then, the "asexual" community was a mix of celibates, antisexuals, and people who personally did not like sex.

But that meant that there was little space for people who did not personally like sex, but had no problems with sex in general.  There was also little space for people with partially sexual experiences.

But 2002 saw the founding of what are now the two biggest asexual communities.  AVEN was founded by David Jay, and the "Asexuality" LiveJournal group was founded by Nat, aka Paranoid Gynandroid.

Nat originally came to the concept of asexuality through a genderqueer/third gender mailing list.  A lot of newcomers tended to confuse androgyny with asexuality, so the topic came up often.  Nat related to asexuality, so they (using singular "they" for Nat) tried to find an asexual community.  What they found instead was the Asexuals LJ group.  So they founded the Asexuality LJ group as a reaction to it:
I've just created this community because I saw a gap which needed filling. The asexuals community is a good place for celibate people to discuss the difficulty of living in a society which continually pushes sexual images into our faces, but as such it is usually full of posts attacking sexual activities of others.

Personally I am sex positive, I think people should have as much or as little sex as they like with whoever they're attracted to. As long as sex is consentual I think it's a positive pleasurable thing and that people should be allowed to enjoy it if they wish to. Sex doesn't have to have meaning if those involved decide it doesn't. I'm not against sex as 'casual' or 'trivial'.
Nat was also in contact with David Jay, and wrote AVEN's FAQ page.  Here's a sample of the FAQ as originally written:
I enjoy being sexual with my loving partner but I've never really felt driven to have sex with anyone else, could I be asexual?
Most asexual people are capable of having sex, as with masturbation some asexuals find the experience of sex pleasurable. If you use sex as an expression of romantic or emotional attraction (love) rather than because you are driven to do so by a sex drive, then that need not contradict an asexual identity. [...]

I don't have crushes on people, I'm perfectly happy just having close friends, that means I'm very asexual doesn't it?
Yes it means you're asexual but I question the idea of 'very asexual'. There is no hierarchy of asexuality. [...]

Are asexual people more [sensible/clever/etc.] than sexual people?
Asexuals are just as diverse as sexual people. Some of us may be sensible and intellectual, some of us are less so. [...]
Nat wrote this with the intention of building a more inclusive and sex-positive asexuality.  Based on responses, it was apparent that there were many people who felt the need to censor their experiences in the previous antisexual environment of the asexual community.

But around 2004, Nat stepped back from the community.  They decided not to be a visible asexual activist because they were afraid public would confuse asexuality and their genderqueer identity.  Contrast with David Jay, who is a young white attractive cis-male.  These qualities made David Jay an ideal asexual spokesperson, though for reasons he acknowledges are messed-up.  Because Nat stepped back, Nat became one of the lesser known heroes of the asexual community.

AVEN and the Nonlibidoism Society

AVEN is the other major asexual community, started in 2002 by David Jay.  Like Nat, David also had a vision of a sex-positive asexuality.  AVEN adopted and popularized the current definition of asexual, "a person who does not experience sexual attraction".

But early on, AVEN had a rival community. The Official Asexual Society had a definition of asexuality which was very incompatible with AVEN's definition.  In 2004, after AVEN's big media successes, the Official Asexual Society changed its name to the Official Nonlibidoism Society, because the word "asexual" had been tainted.

What was the definition advocated by the Nonlibidoism Society?  A nonlibidoist was someone who has not had a sex drive ever.  It was emphasized that nonlibidoists did not masturbate, and that it was a life-long thing.  It was also an unwritten rule that nonlibidoists had to be repulsed by sex, and have antisexual views.

This exclusive definition was enforced by an application test.  You had to answer a bunch of questions, and send it to the administrator, Miss Geri, for her personal review.  You could only have membership and access to the forums if Miss Geri accepted you.

Another bizarre thing about the Nonlibidoism Society was the unicorn and Hindu imagery all over the website.  My research didn't turn up any explanation for that.  In 2007, the website disappeared for reasons unknown to me, and all I have is the internet archive.

Upon the dissolution of the Nonlibidoism Society, many of its members moved to the AVEN forums.  Here is a personal account by Dargon, an AVEN member at the time:
They were better than sexuals, better than AVEN asexuals, just plain better. They didn't have those desires of the flesh ruling over their bodies. They were more rational, and could feel more purely since their emotions weren't clouded by sex. They were perhaps the biggest group of egotistical douchebags I have ever encountered.

When they polluted AVEN, they frequently used terms such as "real" or "pure" asexuals, as though thinking sex was okay made you impure. People would show up and mention that they tried sex before and really didn't care for it, only to be berated for even thinking they might be asexual, as a "real asexual" would never even try sex. Long established members would become constant targets of attack, supported by the masses. Discussions on sexuality other than "sex is icky" would be drowned out in those very juvenile lamentations.
Thankfully, this drama is long over by now (otherwise I wouldn't have felt welcome on AVEN myself).

Nowadays, "nonlibidoist" simply refers to someone without sex drive (ie doesn't masturbate), without all the exclusivity and elitism attached.  Nonetheless, I discourage heavy use of the term, because it's just about the silliest identity distinction you could make.  It's useful to show that some asexuals masturbate and some don't, but otherwise there isn't any major difference between the two groups.  Also, not many people are interested in adopting an identity which places emphasis on the details of their private life.

The current state of antisexuality

Antisexual communities still exist, of course.  The Russian-based Antisexual Stronghold comes to mind.  But I don't know much about any of these communities, because they are completely separated from the English-speaking asexual community, and nobody talks about them.  (Update: Many years later, I finally learned more about the Russian antisexual community, and they have some very different things going on.)

Which is not to say that there are no antisexuals in the asexual community.  The asexual community is such that there is a constant flux of newcomers, and there will always be some newcomers who are antisexual.  Often, it's because they're reacting against a society that alienates and ignores them.  This often gets compounded by a personal feeling of disgust with sexual activity.  Then they find the asexual community, where they can finally vent all their frustrations.

The vast majority eventually shift to a more reasonable view, in a process I've heard called "detoxing".  Society may have done messed up things to them, but that's no reason to hate everyone and what they do.  They may feel personal disgust at sex, but it would be inappropriate to generalize this experience to everyone else, or to derive moral rules from it.

It will forever be a subject of debate on how to best deal with these people. We need to aid the detoxing process.  We need to make sure they don't get pushed away from the community just because of a bad start.  We need to make sure that they don't push other people away.  There are still other concerns about how such people hurt visibility efforts, but I don't agree with this.  There are much less self-destructive ways to improve asexual visibility than chasing people away (eg blogging).

But for all the fuss about it, I think the asexual community has it pretty good.  I mean, look at the straight community!  Homophobia is organized and rampant!

Disclaimer: This is by no means an attempt to give an academic historical account, but rather, an attempt to tell this history to a wider audience.  For a more serious and in-depth look, please instead see my sources listed below:

1. History discussion on Apositive (this is my major source)
2. Asexuality: The History of a Definition
3. Internet archive: the original Asexuality LiveJournal group
4. Internet archive: the original AVEN BigFAQ (compare to current FAQ)
5. Internet archive: The Official Nonlibidoism Society

Monday, December 6, 2010

Candy combinatorics

Back in the day I used to solve puzzles like these for a hobby.  It occurs to me that one of the things I really liked about it is that I got to "discover" different kinds of math.  Maybe I should make more math puzzles?

Allow me to introduce you to combinatorics, the mathematics of counting (skip ahead to the puzzle if you already know it).  You all know how to count, right?  Yeah, me neither.  But combinatorics is a bit different from what you might expect.  Let's say I have a class of twenty students, and I want to put three of them in a group.  How many different ways are there to do this?

To pick the first student in the group, you have 20 choices.  For the second you have 19.  For the third, you have 18.  That gives 20*19*18 = 20!/17! choices.*  But some of these choices have been overcounted, because you could have chosen the same three students in a different order.  Therefore, we must divide by 3*2*1=3!, which is the number of different ways to order three students.

*If you're not familiar with it, ! is the factorial function.  For example 5!, or "five factorial" is 5*4*3*2*1=120.

The final result is called the "choose function", which is written below:
The same number can also be written as "twenty choose three" or C(20,3).

The puzzle: Candy giveaway

Let's say that I have five pieces of candy to give out to my twenty students.  How many different ways are there to distribute all the candy?  All the pieces of candy are identical, so it doesn't matter which candies the students get, just how much candy they each get.

Hint!  I introduced the choose function for a reason.  The answer is a choose function, but it's not C(20,5).  Bonus points for deriving the general formula for N students and K pieces of candy.

Believe it or not, this problem has applications in physics.  It's used in boson statistics, because like the candy, bosons are identical.  This is what leads to blackbody radiation and Bose-Einstein condensates.  The day I learned this was the day I fell in love with physics, or it would have been if I didn't already love physics by then.

Bonus problem: Class Candy Clash

Here's a puzzle for those people who already knew the previous one.  Let's say that I teach a class of twenty students, and my colleague simultaneously teaches another class of twenty.  We want to organize a competition, my class against hers.  The winning class will get all the candy.  All of it.

I will pick a group of students from my class to be my class's team.  She will do the same.  Naturally, each team must be the same size.  How many ways are there for the two of us to pick teams?

solutions posted

Friday, December 3, 2010

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Retroactive psi

Over a year ago, I wrote that if quantum mystics can choose the outcomes of measurements, then they can also send messages backwards in time.  In brief, this is because of the EPR paradox.  Normally, the EPR paradox is only an apparent paradox, but quantum mysticism breaks the laws of physics in such a way that it becomes a real paradox.  The end result is that quantum mysticism violates causality.

Dear reader, that was one of those times where I had my tongue in cheek.  I can't use that as a serious argument against quantum mysticism, because I just know that quantum mystics will bite the bullet and agree that they really can violate causality.

I'm amused to see a new study doing just that.  The study shows that "priming" (subliminally showing a word or concept) affects people even if they are primed after being tested.  The author takes this as evidence of psi, and goes on to talk quantum nonsense.
Those who follow contemporary developments in modern physics ... will be aware that several features of quantum phenomena are themselves incompatible with our everyday conception of physical reality
Gee, I do follow modern physics, and I'm pretty that it's incompatible with retroactive psi effects.  Whatever the explanation for the results, this is not it.

For us lay skeptics, the appropriate thing to do here is stop and await replication.  I'm probably not qualified to spot any errors in the study's methodology (and there's no guarantee that they wrote the report in such a way that it's even possible to spot the errors).

But from the comments, I found that part of the study was already replicated--with negative results.  And someone went through the study itself and found some serious flaws in their statistical analysis.  Among other things,* the study ignores the distinction between exploratory and confirmatory research.  Exploratory research is intended to try out many hypotheses to see if any of them might be interesting.  Confirmatory research is meant to look at a specific hypothesis to see if it pans out.  The authors appear to have done exploratory research, but failed to be upfront about it.  That is, they tested so many different hypotheses, that a random data set was bound to confirm at least one of them.  They were data snooping.

*The study also ignores prior probabilities, and the positive results disappear under the more rigorous Bayesian t-test.

This study reminds me of my brief experience with LIGO.  The LIGO collaboration has some pretty zany schemes to prevent bias in data analysis.  Is it too much to ask that psi researchers do the same?

I just thought up a simple scheme they could use!  First, they should simulate every study with a random number generator.  Repeat like a hundred times.  Then, give all the data sets to the data analysts without telling them which is the real data set.  Data analysts must use the same analysis on all data sets.  How much do you want to bet that they find correlations in nearly every data set?

(via freakonomics)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Don't pray for me

Some atheists don't mind when Christians say they'll pray for them.  But I do.  I think it is inappropriate in virtually all contexts.

I feel like I could stop right here already.  I don't like it, therefore it's impolite to pray for atheists.  Nobody needs to know why I don't like it.  They just need to know that I and other atheists don't like it.  If the intended message of prayer is to show that you care, you should show that you care by avoiding praying for people who probably don't like it.  There are secular alternatives ("You're in our thoughts" instead of "You're in our prayers"), or you could just pray privately.

But this being a blog, we'll dig deeper even though we don't need to.

Tangent: This is one of those situations which resembles post-hoc reasoning (ie, starting with a conclusion, and then finding justifications for the predetermined conclusion).  I feel an emotional reaction against people praying for me in front of me.  I can only figure out why I feel irritated by thinking about it afterwards.  Thus, the conclusion ("I feel irritated") comes before the justification ("Why am I irritated?").

But it's not quite post-hoc reasoning, nor is it a fallacious argument from emotion.  I may be using my emotions as evidence, but I am not trying to prove a fact about the external world.  I'm merely trying to prove something about my internal state, that I feel irritated.  And when I talk about reasons for why I feel irritated, this is not supposed to prove the predetermined conclusion that I feel irritated.  We already agree that I feel irritated, and we don't need further evidence for that.  Instead, this is an exploration of what part of prayer I think is most irritating.

One possible reason prayer could be irritating is simply because of philosophical disagreements.  As a skeptical atheist, I obviously don't believe in any of this prayer stuff.  There's at least one kind of prayer that I disagree with so much that it irritates me to see it: intercessory prayer intended to heal people

Tangent #2: Intercessory prayer, prayer meant to call on the supernatural to intervene on our behalf, is anti-skeptical.  Without going into details, the best studies show that prayer does not make people better.  Many people claim that these studies show nothing because prayer can't be analyzed scientifically.  But if a claim can't be analyzed scientifically, not even by phenomenological studies, that places very tight constraints on the claim, constraints that are completely ignored in practice.  There's no place for this kind of nonsense in matters of health.

In short, people are just making excuses for magical thinking in the face of positive scientific evidence.  Intercessory prayer is the reason why we can't have good things.  Intercessory prayer is the reason why there's a fairly good case against the compatibility of theism and skepticism.  And in the rare case where intercessory prayer is offered as a replacement for real help, that's just adding injury to insult.

But outside of this kind of intercessory prayer, I have more tolerance for disagreement.  If you want to believe that prayer allows a divine being to pat you on the back, I think that's silly.  But I'm not as irritated by it, not so irritated that I would declare it impolite.

The thing is, prayer can make for some very awkward social situations.  If someone starts praying in front of me, what do I say?  I feel like a prayer calls for a certain mood, one of reverence, respect, or sympathy.  But prayer does not put me in any of those moods.  Prayer puts me in a cynical, critical, or apathetic mood.  So I have two choices: either pretend that I'm in the same mood as everyone else, or rudely break the spell.

There are few things in an atheist's experience which are as alienating as being in the middle of a group prayer.  It makes me think of our vast philosophical differences.  It makes me think how I'm experiencing this differently from everyone else in the room.  And if I speak up, that's when all the cultural misunderstandings come out in the open.

This happened in a recent episode of Glee...
I know you don’t believe in God, and you don’t believe in the power of prayer, and that’s okay, to each his own. But you’ve got to believe in something. Something more than you can touch, taste, or see. ‘Cause life is too hard to go through it alone, without something to hold onto and without something that’s sacred.

-Mercedes to Kurt in front of a church
Glee isn't exactly known for its realism, but parts of this episode seemed all too familiar.  Here, Mercedes is naively trying to translate religious concepts into nonreligious ones as if there were a one-to-one correspondence.  That's not even true between different religions, much less religion and atheism.  Kurt doesn't say anything about it, but then, who would say anything in front of a big church praying for your dying father?

Incidentally, I didn't like praying when I was Catholic either.  It wasn't really my cup of tea.  I only ever did it out of religious motivation, not personal motivation.  I've often wondered how common this experience is among Christians, and if such people ever get annoyed by prayer.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanks, where it matters

I'm thankful for the universe for all the ridiculous amounts of math and computation it does.  I'm not sure if all that work was strictly necessary, or if it's just going the extra mile for us, but either way, thank you universe.  It is my hope, that as you calculate the evolution of innumerable particles, wondering if anyone will ever appreciate such small details, if it's worth going on so diligently, that you think of us.  We really appreciate it, it's just that we can't keep track of it all.

I would also like to thank my family for giving me all the support I could hope for.  I want to thank my friends for all the good times and ideas.  I want to thank them for putting up with my egocentrism. I want to thank them, but I also realize that this is nonsensical.  We live in a deterministic world.  People are just products of the initial conditions.  They just keep doing what they're doing and feeling how they're feeling, regardless of what they read or hear.  So what is the point?

Wait, I got that backwards!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Cooking with insulators

Look what I got.

It's a thermal pot!  Also a Kandinsky carpet, but the pot!

It's easy to use. Put all the ingredients in the inner pot, and heat them on a stove. Then put the inner pot into the hot pot, and let it cook.  Then, when you open it again later, the meal is still hot and ready to eat.

 Lentil soup... delicious!

The way it works is simple.  The outer pot is a really good thermal insulator.  The outer pot has two layers, with a vacuum chamber between them.

There are basically three kinds of heat transfer.  The first is convection, which is when hot atoms physically move into a colder space.  Convection doesn't occur in solids, so it's not a problem for my pot.  The second kind is heat conduction, which is when hot atoms transfer energy to cold atoms, essentially by bumping into them.  Conduction occurs in solids, but it can't occur in a vacuum.  So that's why the thermal pot uses a vacuum.

The last kind of heat transfer is thermal radiation.  Random motion of particles will emit electromagnetic radiation (ie light), which carries energy.  Light travels through a vacuum just fine, so that's how the thermal pot loses energy over time.  In fact, we can calculate how much energy the pot loses through the Stefan-Boltzmann Law.

 This basically says that the rate of energy loss (P) is proportional to the fourth power of temperature (T).  It's also proportional to the the surface area of the pot (A).  σ is just a fundamental constant of nature, called the Stefan-Boltzmann constant.

As for ϵ, that is the emissivity.  It turns out that the emissivity is always equal to the percentage of light that the material absorbs (as opposed to what it reflects).  Absorption and emission are basically the same process, only reversed in time, so it's not surprising that their rates are related.  To make the best insulator, we want low emissivity, and thus low absorption and high reflectivity.

Therefore, what we really want is a highly reflective surface, such as silver.  It's likely that the inner surface of the vacuum chamber is coated with silver, though I couldn't be sure without breaking it open and looking.

I tried calculating the rate of change of temperature, and it's about 15 degrees Celsius (or 27 degrees Farenheit) per hour.  That's an overestimate.*  I expect it's a few times smaller than that.  I often leave soup in there for four hours or more, and it's still piping hot when I open it!

Chicken veggie soup!  At least one animal was harmed in the making of this blog.

*Some details: I took the surface area to be 0.5 square meters, the reflectivity to be 90%, and the heat capacity to be the same as two quarts of water.  The pot inside is 100 degrees Celsius, and the temperature outside is 20 degrees Celsius.  15 degrees per hour is almost certainly an overestimate, since the rate of energy loss would decrease as the pot gets closer to room temperature.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Meme skepticism

"Meme" is a word coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene.  It's used as an analogy between biological evolution, and the evolution of ideas.  The genes that survive are those that are best able to replicate themselves.  The ideas that survive are also those that are best able to replicate themselves.

It's a useful analogy, helpful for a basic understanding of both biological evolution and culture.  It powerfully conveys the truism that ideas can't survive without winning new minds.  It demonstrates that the basic process of natural selection is just an abstract principle that can apply to many things that replicate.

But I think people are too enamored with the analogy (Daniel Dennett in particular). Does it really work as a theory of social interaction?  The source of the idea also rings skeptical bells.  Just as I don't expect new revolutionary physics to first be published in a book written by an engineer and marketed to popular audiences, I don't expect a new revolutionary theory of social science to first be published in a popular science book about evolutionary biology written by an evolutionary biologist.

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  And perhaps, when you're an evolutionary biologist, everything looks like natural selection.  And since I'm a skeptical blogger, everything looks to me like a claim to be questioned.

I can't really speak to the expert criticisms of meme theory (though a cursory glance at Wikipedia indicates that there are many), but there's at least one flaw in the meme/gene analogy that jumps out at me.  What is the origin of a meme?  While ideas aren't created in a vacuum, it's difficult to describe them as "descendants" of other ideas.  Many ideas just have no traceable source, or they look completely different from their source. As far as biological evolution is concerned, it's extremely important that the offspring look at least a little like their parents.  The traits that improve survivability need to be consistently heritable for evolution to go anywhere.

And many ideas come from more than one source.  There's hardly any speciation of memes, they all just mix and cross-hybridize.  Even in religion (a common example of a meme), syncretism is absolutely commonplace.  Imagine if this were the case in evolutionary biology, we'd have crocodiles reproducing with ducks!

I know I've written a lot of posts expressing idiosyncratic disagreements with Dawkins, Harris, and other prominent atheists.  But that's not even what's going on here.  Based on things I've heard Dawkins say, I fully agree with him.  Take this interview from 2004:
When Dawkins introduced the meme concept a couple of decades ago, hopes were raised that the evolution of culture, or even of the human mind, might be explained as a sort of Darwinian competition among memes. But little has come of this project, even if the word "meme" does continue to get tossed around quite a bit by pretentious intellectuals. I asked Dawkins if he had cooled on the meme idea over the years.

"My enthusiasm for it was never, ever as a contribution to the study of human culture," he said. "It was always intended to be a way of dramatizing the idea that a Darwinian replicator doesn't have to be a gene. It can be a computer virus. Or a meme. The point is that a good replicator is just a replicator that spreads, regardless of its material form."
Well, yeah!  Memetic evolution is a powerful tool to explain evolutionary biology to popular audiences.  It's not actually meant to contribute to the study of human culture.  I mean, isn't that what the social sciences are for?  I know we all like to hate on the squishy social sciences, but to take memetic evolution seriously does not strike me as an improvement.

Monday, November 15, 2010

On being between

I'm gay and asexual.  Or, if I'm being precise, I'm between the two.  In the asexual community, the word for people like me is "gray-A", though I generally avoid the term outside the community.  That makes me a gay gray-A, which is cool because it rhymes.

Since this identity is somewhat unusual, even within the asexual community, people are always asking me to explain it, to give my personal experience.  But in fact, explaining and giving my personal experience are two very different things.  If I explained what gray-A meant, a lot of it would be correcting misconceptions, explaining what you don’t know about me.  If I gave my personal experiences it could be misleading.

If I had to choose between explaining something and telling people the personal details of my life, I’d rather do the former.  That’s why I often explain asexuality, identify as between gay and asexual, but rarely go beyond that.  Asexuality 101 is difficult enough, so why should I go further, into territory that could be potentially confusing?

And yet, I still think it’s important to get my experience out there.  So I’ll do it.  But I'll intersperse it with a lot of explanation, because I don't want to mislead.

1. What you don’t know

Some people think it’s all about sex, sex drive, and libido.  They think I identified as asexual because I had a low sex drive.  They get the impression that I identified as gray-A because I tried sex with my first boyfriend and liked it.  What a narrative!  What an ill-informed narrative!

In fact, asexuality has nothing to do with sex drive.  A fairly significant fraction of the asexual community has a sex drive.  That doesn't mean they want to have sex with people they don't find sexually attractive (ie everyone).  A lone man on a deserted island would still have a sex drive; that doesn't mean he is attracted to anyone.

Nor does asexuality have to do with disliking sex.  There are many reasons people like sex, including sexual attraction, sex drive, wanting to please one’s partner, and so forth.  Though many straight people find same-sex sex to be unappealing, I think it’s perfectly possible that some of them can and have enjoyed it.  Likewise, some asexuals can enjoy sex. And non-asexuals can have negative experiences with sex.

By identifying as asexual and gray-A, I haven’t divulged any information about whether I have a sex drive, whether I tried sex, and whether I liked it.  I’d rather keep it that way.  I will say, however, that I knew all along that I had a sex drive.  And I knew that this didn’t have anything to do with whether I was asexual or not.  Therefore, the whole narrative is preposterous from the start.

2. Why my story is misleading

For me, it’s not about the sex at all.  It’s more about the romance.

But before I go on, I must explain that asexuality is not about romance.  Asexuality is about sexual attraction.  Many asexuals experience some sort of romantic attraction to people which is decidedly nonsexual.  They could be romantically attracted to one or more genders, or none at all.  We call this romantic orientation, and it parallels sexual orientation.

Therefore, if I were to explain my experience with romance, you might get the impression that a romantic experience amounts to disproving asexuality.  It doesn’t.

What’s going on here is that attraction is really complicated.  Attraction is a single name for many things.  Many people experience different kinds of attraction all at once, and so there is no point in distinguishing them.  And when you tell someone else about your experience of attraction, it’s like trying to explain how something smells or taste.  Our language just isn’t sufficient.  So it’s really hard to tell whether you’re experiencing the same thing as everyone else or not.  So we sort of lump all these experiences together under a single label, “attraction”.

In the asexual community, people spend a lot of time trying to tease apart different kinds of attraction.  Romantic attraction and sexual attraction are just the most widely used labels.  There’s also sensual attraction, aesthetic attraction, platonic attraction, primary and secondary attraction, and so on.  I treat these categories like I treat the descriptions on the back of wine bottles.  They’re rather subjective.  And as far as my personal experience goes, some of the distinctions are meaningless.

In particular, the romantic/sexual distinction is meaningless.  Sure, here’s romance, and there’s sex, and I can tell the difference.  I just don’t see why I would want to have one without the other.  I considered myself asexual because I didn’t experience romantic attraction, which as far as I’m concerned, is a prerequisite for sexual attraction.  So when I experienced a little romantic attraction, it made more sense for me to shift to gray-A rather than merely gray-romantic asexual.

In general, it would be inappropriate to generalize my experience to anyone else. But you knew that already, right?

3. What it’s like to be me

I can’t scope out a room.  I can’t go to a bar and say, hey, that guy looks cute.  He’s just some guy.  Maybe he’s well-dressed.  Maybe his face reminds me of an old friend.  Maybe he looks like he’s enjoying himself.  But it doesn’t occur to me to think of people as attractive based on looks.  You point out an attractive person to me, I’ll say, “Who? What?”  And then I’ll think, “Oh, right, most people can tell if someone is attractive just by looking at them.”  I’m still not entirely sure how that works.

And yet, I did spend many months looking at people passing by, to see if I had any feelings about how people look.  At first I tried with women, with no success.  Then I tried with men.  So I found that seeing certain guys gives me a slight rush.  Finally, I’ve figured out what people have been talking about my whole life, and it’s… it’s so weak and useless!  It doesn’t actually make me like the guy or want to be with him or anything. It doesn't last any appreciable length of time either.

What I’m describing here is what’s known as aesthetic attraction, liking the way someone looks.  I’m keenly aware that it is not necessarily related to sexual attraction. And though it does not constitute asexuality, it’s one of the most notable aspects of my own experience.

Some people say that they’re attracted to personality rather than looks, but that’s not the case for me either.  There are certain personalities I like.  I like serious, nerdy, honest, and eccentric people.  And if I had a partner, it’s probably important that they have a personality I like.  But just because someone has a likeable personality doesn’t mean I’m attracted to them in any sort of romantic or sexual way.  It means I like them as a person, or as a friend.

In summary, I am never attracted to anyone under any ordinary social circumstances.  Not when I look at them, not when I find that they have a great personality, not when I find that they are great people to be with.  How is it that I’m ever attracted to anyone at all?  I'm not entirely sure. I think reciprocation and physical touch are fairly important, but I might give a different answer tomorrow.

How did I ever end up dating anyone?  I may like the idea of a long term relationship, but this is a rather emotionally distant motivator to dating. It doesn't actually carry any weight in ordinary social situations when I see a bunch of people, none of whom are attractive. Both times I've started dating, the other guy asked me out.  Unfortunately, I can’t think of a better way to do it.

But once I started dating, I found that things proceeded almost normally.  I’ve liked kissing, cuddling.  I’ve wanted to hold their hands in public (despite the oppressive social conventions against it).  I’ve wanted to just be with the person, to share moments with them.  To lose track of time with them.

I’ve also had bouts of doubt.  When, sometimes, my instinct is to treat them just as a friend.  When, after a date, I sense that something was artificial.  The worst is when I think that I have something to offer, but it just isn’t enough.  See, it’s not the romantic/aromantic distinction that matters.  What really matters is the distinction between being capable and incapable of functioning in a relationship.

But I’m cautiously optimistic about it.  I’m careful about calling it "optimism" though, because I want to accept all possibilities.  If it works out eventually with someone, that’s cool.  If it just never works out, that’s cool too.  They're very different options, but they both have their upsides.

4. What people say, but shouldn’t

Some people say my experiences just sound like they’re in the normal range.  Well, yeah!  Asexual and gray-A are as much part of the “normal range” as being gay.

I think what they mean, though is that they think there are a lot of gay people out there with the same experiences and who do not identify as gray-A or have to talk about it ever.  If that’s true, then good for them!  It doesn’t really bother me that two people can have similar experiences yet identify as half an orientation apart.

Other people say I should be open to new sexual and romantic experiences.  For some reason, they never suggest being open to new asexual or aromantic experiences.  In any case, of course I’m open to both!  It’s practically a requirement of identifying as gray-A.  I already have some experiences that I share with asexuals, and some I share with sexuals, and I accept both.

I also understand that, being in the gray zone, it doesn't take much to nudge me into one category or the other.  I could be just a little wrong.  Or my experiences could shift over time.  Or I could just slightly shift the definition of asexual.  I identify as gray-A because I don't like having to play this game of jumping back and forth over an invisible line.

Friday, November 12, 2010

I see Sam Harris

I saw Sam Harris speak on his new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Human Values.  I've already disagreed with Sam Harris on this topic, but how does he fare on second glance?

At these talks, I always try to come up with a good brief question to ask the speaker.  I never actually ask the question, because I lack the confidence.  I don't know why I'm afraid, when so many of the other questions tend to be terrible and long-winded can-you-get-to-the-question questions.  But there you go, confidence is irrational.

Question to Sam Harris:  "The subtitle of your book suggests that your main claim is about meta-ethics.  Your talk suggests that you don't really care about meta-ethics.  Which is it?"

Meta-ethics, by the way, is the philosophy concerning the nature of ethics (rather than the nitty gritty).  Meta-ethics is to ethics as philosophy of science is to science.  Knowing philosophy of science is neither necessary nor sufficient to being good at science, though it might be interesting and might suggest certain scientific practices.

The reason I'd ask this question of Sam Harris is because it seems to me like Sam Harris only cares about meta-ethics to the extent that he can use it (abuse it?) to reach his goals.

At least his goals are fairly respectable.  He spent most of the talk highlighting egregious evils caused by religion, and the way that people tend to give it a free pass through some sort of moral relativism.  He's also advancing the idea that some cultures are morally better or worse than others (and in particular, some religions create better cultures than others).  That I can agree with.  Pretty much all of social activism is premised on the idea that we can improve culture.

At first I was bothered that he'd only talk about the most extreme examples of moral relativism.  It's making straw men.  But, you know what?  Attacking the egregiously wrong is a respectable thing to do.  It may not be the most intellectually deep exercise, but if people actually believe these things, then the stupidest beliefs are also the most harmful.  This is also why the atheist movement is right to focus on the egregiously wrong beliefs of the people rather than the merely wrong beliefs of theologians.

So I largely agree with Sam Harris' major points and goals.  But in his arguments, he's using meta-ethics, and Sam Harris sucks at meta-ethics.  I'm not saying this from an ivory tower perspective; I'm not saying that you have to be a professional philosopher to say anything about ethics or meta-ethics.  All I'm saying is that if Sam Harris is good at meta-ethics, then so is Ayn Rand. (Burn!)

Sam Harris thinks that there is objective moral truth, it's just that it's really hard to determine.  Just like how economics is really hard, but must have some underlying truth.  He argues this by coming up with extreme hypotheticals, saying that they are certainly morally undesirable.  I think the conclusion he wants to draw is that the set of all possible outcomes can in principle be uniquely ordered by moral desirability.  How he gets from here to there is kind of sketchy to me.

But, to use a recent example on my blog, I think moral truth is like the question of nature vs nurture.  If you ask, "How much of a given human trait caused by genetics?" that is an ill-defined question.  Science produces an answer to this bad question by subtly replacing it with a good question.  Similarly, if you ask, "What is good and bad?" as far as science is concerned, that's a bad question.  Science can only answer this bad question by subtly replacing with another one.  Sam Harris replaced it with, "What produces the most well-being?"

And that's a fine replacement.  It's good enough to condemn Islam, anyways.  However, I'm skeptical that this perspective is of much use to, say, a working ethicist.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My first crank mail

One of the perks of being a physicist is that you occasionally get letters from cranks.  See, physicists are the great arbiters of truth, and therefore best able to recognize a good idea when a lone genius sends them one.  How flattering!

I just got my first e-mail from a crank!  (To be fair, I got a few of these when I was running a secular student group.)
When a professor gives a lecture to a classroom full of students, the students learn new things.

The changes in the neural wiring of the student's brain while he's learning aren't caused simply by the low-level electro-chemical signals resulting from the sound waves of the professor’s voice. Instead, the intelligence is located at the interpreted level of the professor’s words. Otherwise the professor could expect the student to learn the same lesson whether he spoke to the student in English or Chinese, since the same intelligence would be located in both sets of auditory signal data. 

In conclusion, thoughts exert the physical forces needed to change the neural wiring in a person’s brain when he’s learning new things. Since new forces emerge at the thought level and add into the net sum of all forces, they affect the path of reality and therefore reality isn’t determined solely by the four fundamental forces of physics, as required by the theory of predeterminism.

Emergent living forces are caused by subcomponent forces, but the living forces aren’t determined by those subcomponent forces because the living forces exist in a different field, and forces located in different fields don’t add directly with one another.
I wonder what he thinks of voice recognition software.  Wait, why am I wasting logical arguments on this?  Let's try again.

Clearly, living forces cannot arise from subcomponent forces, because the dimensions are wrong!  Living forces are three-dimensional, and normal forces are two-dimensional (a product of infinite largeness and infinite potential).  Furthermore, the changes in neural wiring are already explained by the fact that reality has two axes, as explained in the Book of Isaiah.  Anyways, there is no point in fighting the theory of predeterminism because it's all a scam knowingly created by physicists who misinterpreted the words of Einstein.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Acute dissections

Take a 45-45-90 triangle, and cut it into acute triangle pieces.  That means each triangle piece must have angles that are strictly less than 90 degrees.  Try to do this with as few pieces as possible.

Afterwards, try the same with a square.

You may send solutions to skepticsplay at gmail dot com.

[Note: this is not an original puzzle.]

solutions posted

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Nature/nurture and causality

We intuitively understand that things can have many causes.  For example, what caused the election of Obama in 2008?  Obviously, it was a combination of factors, including public disapproval of the war, the disaster of hurricane Katrina, Obama's popular election campaign, and so forth.  Now I ask, what percentage of the victory was caused by McCain's choice of Palin as running mate?

To answer this question, we could perform a thought experiment where McCain chooses someone else, and then we predict how well Obama would have done.  Divide the change in votes by the total number of votes and we have a percentage.  But even supposing we could perfectly predict the outcome of this thought experiment, this answer is problematic.  Wouldn't it depend on who McCain chose instead of Palin?

Furthermore, if we did the same thought experiment for all sorts of different causes, the total percentage would be much greater than 100%, which just doesn't make any sense.

I think this is because the question simply isn't well-defined enough that it can have a definite percentage as an answer.

And yet, when it comes to human biological traits, we ask the same question and expect a definite answer.

What percentage of a given human trait is caused by genetics rather than environment?

This question is problematic, because it's unclear how exactly we would do the thought experiment.  How much do we vary genetics in our thought experiment?  How much do we vary the environment?  And you can't just say that we vary genetics and environment by the same amount.  Given a certain variety of genes, how much is an equivalent variation in environment?  There simply isn't an answer to these questions, because they are bad questions.

But even though it's a bad question, scientists still deliver!  Scientists talk about measuring the "heritability" of a human trait, which is just a number between 0 and 1 that can be experimentally observed.  How do scientists answer the impossible?

They do it by being tricky.  In fact, heritability is the answer to a different question.  If you're a non-scientist, now you are put in the odd situation of having a number for an answer, but not knowing what the original question was.

Google knows all the answers

But enough suspense.  Heritability answers the following question:

How much of the variation in a given human trait is due to genetic variation between individuals of a population?

The question sounds almost the same, but perhaps that's just because I couldn't word it more precisely in a single sentence.*  This question calls for a thought experiment where we take a large population, and hold all environmental conditions constant.  We vary just one factor, genes, and we vary it by the amount we see in the real world.  What percentage of the trait's variation in the population remains?  Alternatively, we can try a thought experiment where we take a large population, and leave their environment as is.  But we change the population's genes, making them all genetically identical.  By what percentage does this decrease the trait's variation in the population?

*The more precise definition has to do with variance, which is a statistical concept that I won't attempt to explain.

 This is a convenient definition because we no longer have to rely on thought experiments to vary the genes and environment.  Now we can look at the real world, and use the real world variation in genes and environment.  The primary difficulty is isolating the two factors.  This is usually done using studies of identical and fraternal twins.  It's by no means a straightforward experiment, and there are all sorts of methodological difficulties, but it's possible.

But even if we can measure heritability perfectly, there are some rather strange consequences of the definition:
  1. Heritability increases as the genetic diversity of a population increases.
  2. Heritability decreases if a population is exposed to a wider variety of environments.
  3. Thus, heritability depends on which population we consider, and what point in history.
  4. Heritability does not tell you how hard it is to change a trait by changing environment.
I should re-emphasize that last point, because it undercuts a lot of political abuse of heritability.  For example, let's consider a people that doesn't get any schooling.  How much variation in literacy is due to variation in schooling?  None, because there is no variation in schooling.  But that's not the same as saying that increased schooling will fail to increase literacy.  What it really means is that being a privileged member of this population gets you nowhere because not even the privileged go to school.

Even if heritability is close to 1, it might still be possible to change the trait by changing the environment.  You just have to change the environment by more than is typical for the population.  This could be easy or hard, depending on specifics.

Further difficulties are caused by the fact that genetics and environment are not exhaustive categories, unless you define environment to be everything that isn't genetic.  For example, what about random developmental factors in the womb?  Technically, this is an environmental factor.  But just like genetics, it's just a bunch of chemicals bouncing around in a way that we have no control over.

And we haven't even gotten into gene-environment interaction.  For instance, what if there's a gene that simply increases human receptiveness to environment?  Is that variation due to environment or genetics?  Nature/nurture is a false dichotomy.

Other posts in this mini-series:
Colds and Causality
Women and Causality
Responsibility and Causality
Nature/nurture and Causality
Physics and Causality 
Math and Causality 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Vote vote vote!

Tomorrow Today is Election Day!  I am celebrating Election Eve by finally taking a look at this California voters guide here.
Oh, geez, I don't really have an opinion on most of this stuff.  And of course the stuff I do have an opinion on, I could never hope to say anything interesting about.

For example, I understand that Prop 23 basically prevents cap and trade from going into effect... so no on Prop 23.  Prop 19 legalizes marijuana under state law... so yes on 19.  Wow, I will never persuade anyone on these and my opinions are basically worthless.  Well, they're worth one vote I guess.

I think Prop 27 is pro-gerrymandering and prop 20 is anti-gerrymandering.  I, uh, don't really understand the pros of gerrymandering.  But, uh, several of the voters guides I'm looking at support 27 over 20, so maybe I don't really understand what's going on.

You'd think my skeptical knowledge would prepare me to sort through all this nonsense, but my feeling now is that it really doesn't.  It's not like they're using complicated arguments or anything.  It's just a bunch of one-step arguments that sound like bullshit.  The rebuttals in the official voters guide can't even be bothered to mention the opposing arguments much less address them.

I have only understood a small fraction of the decisions here, and then my internet went out for a few hours.  Clearly I am a terrible American with terrible internet service.  Now it is Election Day already.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Fractal Maze hints

Last month, I designed and posted a fractal maze.  I'm not sure that anyone could solve it.  Haha, sometimes I get a little overzealous with my puzzles.  Rather than posting the solution, I'm going to explain how I designed the maze.  If you understand the process, it will provide insight into how to solve it.

When designing this maze, drawing out the maze was the last step.  The first step was to consider the maze more abstractly, and decide what would connect to what.

So I decided that there would be two smaller copies of the maze, called A and B.  Each copy of the maze can be specified with a finite sequence of As and Bs.  For instance, if I go down a level into B, and then down a level into A, this can be described with the sequence BA.

But to fully describe a position within the maze, we need more than just As and Bs to specify which copy of the maze we're talking about.  We also need to specify where we are within that copy.  So I decided there would be two checkpoints, called 1 and 2.

From each of these checkpoints, there is a set of actions you can take to move from one place to another.  For instance, starting at position 2, you can go down A, down B, and end up at position 1.  I denoted this action as 2-AB-1, because it starts at 2, ends at 1, and goes down AB.

Some of the actions would also go up a level.  I denoted those with inverse notation, like A-1.  Note that you can also take any of these actions backwards.

Here's the list of actions I came up with:
  1. 1-BBA-1
  2. 1-A-2
  3. 1-B-1A-1-2
  4. 1-A-1B-2
  5. 2-A-1BA-2
  6. 2-A-1-1
  7. 2-AB-1
  8. 2-B-1A-1
And with this simple list of eight actions (some of which are redundant), I was practically done!  The rest was just a matter of presenting the above in a somewhat aesthetic fashion.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Entropy and God

Following my discussion of Boltzmann Brains, I wanted to mention its relation to yet another argument for God.

The argument goes that a low-entropy initial condition is extremely unlikely unless God exists.  Therefore, God probably exists.

(This argument is not to be confused with the argument that evolution contradicts the Second Law, a mistake once made by PZ Myers.)

My response is that we don't know that the initial condition is extremely unlikely.  It's only extremely unlikely if we assume all microstates are equally likely initial conditions.  Also, saying that we do not have an explanation is not the same as saying we do have an explanation and we call that explanation God.

Let's say that I have a differential equation that I can't solve (a common scenario in physics).  A common practice is to posit the existence of a solution and call that solution something like the Bessel Function or the Legendre Function.  But I can't posit a solution and call that solution God.  Got the distinction? The analogy isn't perfect though; in differential equations we have existence theorems, in metaphysics we do not.

Rationalist atheism does not claim that science has all the answers, but rather, that religion has none of the answers.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Dreaming Boltzmann Brains

In a previous post, I discussed the proposition that all the world is a coherent dream.  This is basically the ur-example of pointless philosophical exercises, but I promised that it has applications in cosmology, to be explained now.

Let's take a closer look at the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  The Second Law says that the universe tends towards disorder as time progresses.  More precisely, it tends towards a state of higher entropy, where "entropy" is a precise measure of disorder.

In any basic statistical mechanics class, they'll tell you that the Second Law has perfectly logical justifications.

First we need to understand that every physical system has a large number of possible configurations, called "microstates."  Some of those microstates look more or less the same.  For example, it doesn't matter if a particular molecule on my nose is moving to the left or to the right, my nose still looks the same to me.  On the other hand, there are some microstates which look different.  If the right half of my nose has significantly more energy than the left half, I can tell that one side of my nose is cold and the other is warm.

A "macrostate" is a collection of microstates that all look more or less the same.  Some macrostates consist of more microstates than others.  Entropy is a measure of how many microstates there are in the current macrostate.

The Second Law rests on the Ergodic Hypothesis, which says that all microstates are equally likely in the long run.  Therefore, in the long run, we're more likely to be in macrostates consisting of more microstates.  In other words, in the long run, we're more likely to be in a state of high entropy.  That's why entropy increases as time progresses.

But there's a problem with this "perfectly logical" justification of the Second Law.  The Ergodic Hypothesis and the Second Law make very different predictions.

According to the Second Law, the universe starts at some low entropy state, and entropy increases throughout time.  Eventually, the universe reaches the maximum entropy state (called the "heat death" of the universe).  This does not agree with the Ergodic Hypothesis, which says that the universe would be in the maximum entropy state to begin with.

But hold on!  The Ergodic Hypothesis doesn't say that the universe has to be in the maximum entropy state.  It just says that all microstates are, in the long run, equally likely.  At least some of those microstates have lower entropy.  Therefore, the universe will occasionally fluctuate into lower entropy states.  Perhaps such a fluctuation accounts for the observations we see now.

Such a fluctuation seems extremely unlikely, but we could argue, by the Anthropic Principle, that we just weren't around to see the vast majority of the timeline in which there was no large fluctuation.

Let's try out our new hypothesis, which is the Ergodic Hypothesis plus fluctuations.  The first thing we want to figure out is how large the fluctuation was.

 The above plot is a comparison of three different fluctuation sizes.  The fluctuation could have been big enough to account for the entire universe.  Or it could have been just barely big enough to account for our present observations.

The probability of a fluctuation decreases exponentially as the size of the fluctuation gets larger. So the most likely explanation for our current observations is that the fluctuation was just big enough, and no bigger.  Any signs that the universe used to have lower entropy are illusory.  Taking this conclusion to the extreme, I must be a brain that spontaneously assembled itself in such a way that it just thinks that it lives in an ordered universe with things like blogs and the internet.  This brain is known as a Boltzmann Brain.

We can draw a comparison between Boltzmann Brains and the dream hypothesis.  If the world were just a dream, then most likely, it is a dream which is just coherent enough to explain our observations.  If the world were just a statistical fluctuation, then most likely, it is a fluctuation just large enough to explain our observations.

The problem is that this makes very strange predictions which are perpetually falsified.  The dream hypothesis predicts that as we see more of the world, it will no longer be coherent.  The Boltzmann Brain hypothesis predicts that only part of the universe is ordered: the part we currently occupy.  As we look out to the sky, to a part of the universe that we have never seen before, we would predict it to be in a maximum entropy state.  But everywhere we look, we see stars that have not yet burnt out.

When we consider the dream hypothesis, something is not right about it.  So we reject the dream hypothesis.  When we consider the Ergodic Hypothesis, something is also not right.  But we need the Ergodic Hypothesis!  It explains the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Cosmologists understand that the Second Law arises from two principles.  First, all accessible microstates are about equally likely.  Second, the universe has an initial condition which is highly ordered.  But why?  Is a large fluctuation not as unlikely as it appears?  Perhaps there is no maximum entropy state, and new baby universes are formed repeatedly throughout history?  It's an open question in cosmology.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Guest Post: My father's side

My dad (who you may address as #1 Dad) volunteered to write a guest post about his side of the story when I came out as gay.  Enjoy!

This is Miller’s father, giving a different perspective about my son "coming out". My comments here may not make me sound as accepting as my son makes me out to be, because I have to say I wish he was not gay. My son said that parents are the hardest people to tell. Well, the hardest person to accept as being gay is your child.

My son never uses his first name on his blog, but I will give him the pseudonym “Bill” to make it less awkward. (My last name is Miller also.)

I wish I knew when someone becomes gay. Is someone born that way? Is it early in childhood, or during puberty, or at the age whenever they realize they are gay? This last age seems to vary quite a bit between individuals. I don’t know if it was just coincidence, but I wondered about my son at age 7 already, when he seemed a little confused. But maybe a lot of 7 year-olds are confused.

When Bill’s older brother was a toddler, I told him many times that he was going to grow up and be like Daddy, and that he could not be like Mama. But with Bill, I didn’t do that. So with Bill, I was already upset at myself when he was 7 that I didn’t do that when Bill was a toddler. I remember thinking, “Oh no, I hope it’s not too late.” I told no one of my thoughts. Over a few years, I imagined what I would do if he grew up and ever told me he was gay. It seemed easy enough, I would never disown or get angry or stop speaking to him as I have heard of other parents doing. (In reality, it was not easy.)

When Bill was in middle school, he had a girlfriend, and I was relieved. I felt silly for ever having worried. For high school, as he has mentioned on his blog, he went to a Catholic school, which was all boys except during summer school. Was that a mistake? Everybody relates to their own life best, and as for me, I definitely was very interested in girls before high school. I don’t think any high school could have changed that.

From near the end of high school through most of college, I kept wondering if Bill would tell me a secret. I didn’t ask for a long time, because if it wasn’t true, then he might take it as an insult. He says now he didn’t know it himself in high school.

Considering Bill’s family, going back 3 generations on either side, including brothers, sisters, cousins of parents, grandparents, etc., there are a lot of religious conversions. It seems that roughly half change their religion/religious affiliation during their lives. Many change upon adulthood or upon marriage. The idea that people or born, marry, and die in the same religion just doesn’t seem to apply to life in a big American city, and Bill grew up in Los Angeles. For Bill’s ancestors/relatives, from Asia and small-town America, it didn’t always apply either. So I never had strong expectations that all of my children would remain in the same religion their whole lives.

When Bill came out as an atheist, I almost told him that one day when he had children, he could not expect them to always have the same beliefs he had. But I was already wondering whether he had another secret, which would make children less likely. To me, this would be a revelation much harder to take. Finally, after months more, I just asked him.

When I told my wife, his mother, that Bill was dating someone, her first words were, “Is it a girl or boy?” This took me by surprise. I never knew she had the same suspicions.

I soon told Bill about a girlfriend I had as a teenager. One day she said to me, “I like boys, but I like girls, too”. That just weirded me out. Especially since neither one of us ever heard of bisexuality. I thought I had the strangest girlfriend on earth, and even she thought she was odd and was trying to determine whether she was a lesbian or not by reading books on the subject. We broke up soon after. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone why.

After Bill told me, I told other people about my gay son, but not people who know Bill. These were people closer to my age. The first told me his sister was a lesbian. The second told me he was glad that stage in his life was over, when he was figuring things out. (What did that mean? He is married to a woman now.) The third told me she was very concerned that she would hear the same thing from her own son. The fourth told me her cousin was gay. So this was easier than I expected – does everyone have a gay relative?

Then the next person I told went into a long Biblical spiel and implied that it was my fault and said I could change my son through prayer and telling him what the Bible says. I find it difficult to believe that anybody is straight just because the Bible tells them they should be. But I stopped telling anyone else. On the one hand, I rejected her setting the blame on me, and thought of how great my son is and how proud I am of everything else that he is. On the other hand, I wondered if I could have changed anything. Quite the opposite of bullying him with the Bible, I wondered whether when Bill was 11 or 12 or 13, I should have bought a Playboy magazine and “accidentally” left it lying around the house. (Ha, ha, I think that is a joke.)

I haven’t mentioned asexuality. I suspect many people are that way, especially many who never marry, and no one holds that against them.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

I get sleep paralysis

I stayed up a bit late last night studying quantum rotations, so when I went to sleep I was thinking about Euler angles.  Actually, before I fell asleep, I woke up twice thinking, "Oh no! I rotated that axis the wrong way!" and "Oh no!  I left a dish in the public kitchen!"  Sometimes things get stolen if I leave them in the kitchen, see.

Anyways, at some indeterminate time last night, I sort of woke up again, and I couldn't move.  I thought someone had broken into my room and was pinning me to my bed.  I even thought I saw him, though my bed sheet was mostly in the way.  I think I tried to say, "Hey!" but I couldn't speak either.

That lasted about five seconds, then I could move again.  And then I thought, "Oh, sleep paralysis," and went to sleep again.

I don't know much about sleep paralysis, except that it occurs when you are falling asleep or waking up.  Subjects usually get the feeling that some conscious agent is involved, though the nature of the agent is culture-dependent.  It's not surprising that I interpreted it as an intruder, since the previous night, my apartment residents were talking about someone who keeps stealing food from the refrigerators.  But many past cultures have interpreted them as demons, and in more modern times, as alien abductions.

Alien abduction is one of those classic skeptical topics discussed by Carl Sagan in The Demon-Haunted World.  Though we rarely have to deal with alien abduction claims, I feel that it's still an extremely important demonstration of some skeptical concepts.  Alien abductions are one of those paranormal claims which really do have something to them.  It's not quite so extraordinary as aliens performing live dissections, but sleep paralysis is pretty amazing too.

Anyway, when countering alien abduction claims, it's important to affirm the reality of those experiences.  People have a bias against believing anything unflattering about themselves, so if you tell them that their experiences are fake, they'll reject what you say.  But it's not just a matter of strategic positioning, it also happens to be true that the experiences are real.  Alien abductees aren't liars.

And for the same reasons, it's important to emphasize that alien abductees are not crazy either.  Sleep paralysis is actually fairly common, and it's frequently accompanied by convincing hallucinations.  I've only experienced it once or twice myself, but I have friends who've had it more often.  One of my friends says she gets it like once a month.  It's usually quite a scary experience, though it's not as bad as night terrors, which she has much more often.  Once she showed me a picture she drew to help her deal with night terrors.  It was a picture of a demon making photocopies instead of trying to kill her.

Frequent sleep paralysis probably constitutes some sort of sleeping disorder if it interferes with one's sleep, but it's silly to think that it makes someone a worse person in any way.