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