Thursday, July 28, 2011

Ten rows of three

Here is a way to arrange eight dots into four rows of three.

Can you find a way to arrange nine dots into ten rows of three?

For the purposes of this puzzle, a row is just a set of distinct colinear points.  No two rows may lie on the same line.

See the solution

Monday, July 25, 2011

Diversity vs itself

Something exciting happened at TAM (The Amazing! Meeting, annual skeptical conference).  No, I didn't go this year, but I've read Jen's liveblogging.  There was heated disagreement during the "diversity" panel.

On the one hand, to increase diversity in a movement, you must make sure that the focus isn't only on the concerns of middle class white men.
Jamila adds that if we care about the state of everyone, we need to be outspoken about police brutality, the drug war, and crime. [...] We need to offer some social programs. We love hard facts and evidence, but we also need to understand that the people who need us may not be drawn in just by meeting Neil deGrasse Tyson (as crazy as that sounds to us).
--Jen McCreight
On the other hand, broadening the focus constitutes mission creep, and may reduce the diversity of views allowed under the same tent.
This empirical focus has allowed the skeptical community—old and white and bearded as it may have been—to enjoy other kinds of diversity. If political ideology is not a topic for our movement, then anarchists, libertarians, liberals, and conservatives can happily share the same big tent. If science-based skepticism is neutral about nonscientific moral values, then the community can embrace people who hold a wide range of perspectives on values issues—on the environment, on public schools, on nuclear power, on same-sex marriage, on taxation, gun control, the military, veganism, or so on. It’s a sort of paradox: the wider the scope of skepticism, the less diverse its community becomes.
--Daniel Loxton, in his recap of the panel
I'm not sure what to think of this; I agree with both sides, but it's clear they contradict.

First things first.  My blog, though it is about a variety of topics, is not an attempt to widen the scope of skepticism.  I consider my blog to be a skeptical blog that very frequently goes outside the scope of skepticism.  Practically all the time, in fact.  This is okay because I'm an individual, not a skeptical organization.

But come to think of it, there is no single "scope of skepticism."  There is the scope of large skeptical organizations.  The scope of small student organizations.  The scope of skeptical blogs.  The scope of things we agree on, and the scope of things we disagree on (but like to talk about).  Perhaps a call for a broader focus should be taken as a call for widening the scope of skeptical chatter, but not of skeptical organizations.

An alternative path to reconciling the two sides is to note that even non-skeptical topics have skeptical questions embedded within them.
As [Greta Christina] argued, there are testable, empirical, pseudoscientific claims embedded within the arenas of social values, political discourse, and yes, religion as well. The forest may be out of scope, but some of the trees are not. (D.J. offered the example of harmful pseudoscience within gay rights debates.)
--Daniel Loxton
This would, of course, rule out Jamila's suggestion of social programs.  Actually, if I wanted to volunteer with social programs, I would simply do that and not bother with "skeptical" social programs.  But I would be perfectly happy with skeptical assessments of police brutality, the drug war, and crime issues, if there are any skeptics qualified to give such assessments.

However, I think there are some topics that skeptical organizations must tackle even if there are no embedded empirical claims.  If, for instance, the skeptical community gets overrun with people who think same-sex sex is morally wrong (this is in no danger of happening), that would be a problem regardless of whether they made any empirical claims.  If skeptical men are hitting on skeptical women in elevators, that is a problem regardless of any statistics on elevator rape.  If skeptical conferences indirectly push away women by failing to provide child care, that is a problem.

Skeptical organizations must talk about these things not because they are skeptical but because they are organizations.  Organizations must deal with people in all their variety.  It's one thing to be pushed away from a group because it's outside your realm of interest, or because you disagree with its positions.  It's another to be pushed away because the environment is totally unfriendly.  Sometimes this means weighing one kind of diversity vs another (eg would we rather be inclusive of queers or homophobes?).  Luckily I think skeptical organizations like JREF already understand this point, perhaps better than I do.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Current labwork: Vacuums

My mother is begging me to write about my current summer research.  I have already talked about my general research topic, but let's talk a little more about the experimental details.  Let's talk about this thing:

My reaction (and possibly yours too) is, "What the hell is that?"  I've toured a bunch of physics labs, and many of them are inhabited by these strange Physics Devices.  They just look like jumbles of spheres, windows, tubes, wires, and aluminum foil.  Who knows what those mad physicists are up to?

But after working on these Physics Devices for weeks, I've unlocked some of their secrets.  In short, they are vacuum chambers.

Actually, they are all sorts of different devices for different experiments, but vacuum chambers are a very common component.  A vacuum has obvious utility for lots of experiments.  In my own experiment, air will interact with the surfaces of the superconductors, and thus ruin the experimental results (which are very surface-sensitive).  Therefore, the superconductor has to be kept under vacuum.

Why do vacuum chambers look the way they do?  First, you need those spheres to prevent air from coming into the vacuum.  And then you need the windows so you can actually see what's happening inside.  You need additional spheres as loading chambers (so you don't let the air in everywhere whenever you load a material).  And then you may need additional chambers between the main one and the loading chamber in order to slowly step up the vacuum power.  There are also multiple vacuum pumps and pressure gauges.

And then, you need some way to transfer materials from the loading chamber to the main chamber.  This is tricky.  I'm going to zoom in on the solution.

That long cylinder is a manipulator arm.  On the very right end is something you can slide back and forth to move the arm.  Typically, you'd have a sample (eg a superconductor) screwed onto a "stage" in the loading chamber, and you'd use the manipulator arm to unscrew the sample, move it into the main chamber, and then screw it onto another stage.

What's with all the aluminum foil?  Water molecules tend to stick to the inner surfaces of the vacuum chamber, and they slowly come loose, to the detriment of the vacuum.  We need a really good vacuum, down to 10-11 atmospheres or so!  Therefore, before starting any experiments, we need to heat up the chamber, and boil off all the water so it can be pumped out.  This is called a "bake-out".  The aluminum foil is there to keep the heat in during the bake-out.  Grad students are usually too lazy to take the foil off afterwards, especially since they'll just have to put it on again for the next bake-out.

The wires are there to supply power and record data.  All the data ends up on a computer, which is actually where I do most of my work.  But that's boring to describe, so back to the vacuum.

Depending on the experiment, there could be lots of other attachments to the vacuum chamber.  In my experiment, we need to take off a layer of the superconductor while it's in the vacuum in order to expose a new surface that has never touched air before.  This is also quite tricky.  The solution involves gluing a little peg to the sample beforehand, and then using a "wobble stick" in order to jab the peg off.  I am not making this up.

My experiment also requires the addition of a hemispherical analyzer (shaped like a hemisphere), and a laser (which comes with a whole new jumble of lenses, mirrors, cameras, and other optics).  There's probably even more stuff that I don't understand.  Who am I kidding, I don't even fully understand the things I've described!

Monday, July 18, 2011

I'm no atheist activist

I am questioning my identity.  No, the other identity.  No, the other other identity.  I'm talking about my identity as an activist for atheism.

Calling myself an activist made a lot more sense when I was running a student organization.  But these days, what is it I do exactly?  I don't go to any protests (I don't like them).  I don't write letters to congressmen, or even to newspapers.  I don't support any atheist organizations.  All I have is this blog, which I really don't think counts.  There is a swarm of atheist blogs already, and I'm pretty sure that this little raindrop is not responsible for the flood.

For some reason, I feel sorry to see my activist identity go.  Maybe it's because I'm doing nothing to help the atheist movement which I know and care about so much.  Personally, I think it is for the much sillier and selfish reason that being an activist greatly boosted my ability to smash stereotypes of atheists.  Nobody could chalk me up as an individual exception; I was a leader.  Never mind how ridiculously elitist that is, or how minor a leader I was.

But reality compels me to say goodbye.  I have started thinking of myself as a radical atheist instead (yes, like Douglas Adams), because it's something I'm still very serious about.  But I am completely incapable of dredging up the will to do anything about it other than a bit of reading and writing.  Pretty much the same boat as most of my readers, which maybe isn't so bad!

On a related note, Cerberus planted a little idea in my head (emphasis mine):
Yes, atheists can, do, and should point out issues in the Religious Right all around the world, both Christian and Muslim, pointing out egregious behavior and making it impossible to hide them from the public eye and public condemnation. To make it easier for people to leave those communities and try to reach those who can break from the oppressive conditions they find themselves in.

But the thing about that is that comes with a lot of downtime.

Cerberus goes on to say that the most important thing to do during this downtime is work on our own community and ourselves.

Well, here I am, in permanent activist downtime.  I'm quite sure that my blog has no real effect on the religious right.  But I am happy to simply participate in this community, and do what little I can there.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Where are the citations?

In a previous post, I spent some time complaining about people who don't provide examples of the things they are criticizing... and yet I did not provide any examples myself!  Savor the ironic hypocrisy for a moment.  I know I'm savoring it.

Anyway, I did have some examples in mind from some time ago, which I would probably not bring up except for aforementioned hypocrisy.

The example is the asexual blogosphere, which, as much as it pains me to generalize, has a habit of not citing the things it criticizes.  We'll begin with Sciatrix.
So in the wake of the shitstorm that’s been happening on Tumblr this week I’ve seen one thing over and over again, and it bugs the shit out of me.
No links or quotes of even one of those times you saw it?  And though I may know which shitstorm is being referenced, not everyone does, and hardly anyone knows which part of the shitstorm it was.

There were lots of other examples (found through Sciatrix' excellent linkspams) about the same drama which similarly failed to provide links or quotes:
Where the fuck is all this ‘heteroromantic aces can’t call themselves queer’ BS coming from? [The title of this post. The question remains unanswered, since no links are provided.]

So there is a situation I’ve ran in to quite a few times that I find rather ironic, and I noticed it just recently from some of the bullies/trolls on tumblr.
[From here.  No links provided when there is a clear opportunity.]

...there's been some massive awfulness directed at asexuals on tumblr and some big livejournal communities I shall not name over the past few weeks...
[Kaz at least has some conviction about not linking drama]

Sooo I know some of you saw that debacle. In sf_d. A lot of you probably didn't? But that's alright because I'm pretty sure the things I want to say here can stand completely separate from that, but I do have a few words to say on that first, as to why I'm now writing a post on it;
[From here.  I think a link still couldn't hurt.]

Another big misconception is the idea that groups are ordered from most privileged to least privileged.
[The worst example.  The drama that inspired it isn't even mentioned.  From Skeptic's Play.]
There are plenty more, not all having to do with the same drama, but that's probably enough--I already feel like a blogging-etiquette nazi.  Hell, let's throw in one more recent example for good measure.

But yeah, providing specific examples of the views being criticized is generally a good thing.  To rehash, this gives opponents a chance to respond, gives allies a chance to join in, shows that you are not making straw men, and reduces confusion over what views are being criticized.

It's jarring to see so many bloggers deliberately missing out on opportunities for citations.  In contrast, I have not seen a single post on elevatorgate in the skeptical blogosphere which did not link to relevant posts.  However, there is still lots of confusion over who is criticizing whom... so yeah.

Since this is an inherently belligerent post, I should remind you of my comment policy: Anything but spam.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Cite your opponents

There was another interesting discussion that came out of the whole "elevator" thing.  I should provide a quick summary of the "elevator" thing so you actually know what I'm talking about.
1) Rebecca Watson says she is tired and wants to go to bed. It’s 4:00a.
2) Unknown Male approaches Rebecca in the elevator and asks her if he’d like to come to her room.
3) Rebecca says no and then goes to her room.
4) Rebecca makes a video in which she mentions the situation.
5) Stef McGraw responds to the video saying that situation doesn’t sound as bad as Rebecca made it out to be.
6) Rebecca calls out Stef in front of her friends and peers at a conference.

(Summary stolen from Hemant, with names inserted)
And then people complained that Rebecca was wrong to name Stef when she criticized her.  Rebecca doesn't agree!
For me, this is a question of respect: I have enough respect for the person I am criticizing to not make them guess that I am talking about them or guess at what they said that needs to be defended, and I have enough respect for my audience to allow them the opportunity to double check my work. If I hide the person and the exact words that I am criticizing, how does anyone know whether or not I’m creating a strawman? How can the person in question respond?
I acknowledge that naming a person may subject them to public humiliation... but not naming names is passive-aggressive.

I should add, this is not just about naming names.  It's a more general issue of citing the opposition.  That means naming, linking, quoting.  Or at the very least, you should cite evidence showing the existence of the beliefs you criticize.  Failing to do this is one of the major ways an opinion essay can fail.

Have you ever read something that you felt like it was trying to criticize you, but you're not sure because it doesn't identify anyone or any group?  Have you ever wondered: Is this criticizing other people who are stupider than me, or is it trying to claim that I'm that stupid?

And even if you're on the same side as the critic, you might want to know: Is this a straw man?  Where do these beliefs come from, and how prevalent are they?  Where can I read more about what your opponents say, possibly so I can write some criticism myself?

I consider citing opponents to be particularly important, because blogging experience tells me that it is one of my own weaknesses.  Because of the way I think and the way my memory works, I tend to avoid naming names.  I get some impression or idea in my head, and it becomes completely disconnected from the context of its inspiration.  And then, weeks or months later I write a post about "privilege", "utopianism", or the like.  This okay to do once in a while, but unless I put in some effort, it will happen all the time.  Seriously, I shudder to look at the older parts of my blog archives.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Privilege: the invisible thing I believe in

I've become very interested in minorities within social movements, which, of course, means I paid attention to the "elevator" controversy.  But let's not speak of it yet.  I just wanted to say that I liked the title of one of the posts, "The Privilege Delusion".

Because that's how some people see it, isn't it?  Privilege is an invisible thing that other people believe in.  "Sure," they say, "Minorities encounter problems, but so do I.  How do they know it has anything to do with race or gender?"  The cynics might even believe that "privilege" is an attempt to tip the scales by claiming that they are not already balanced.  (See: belief in "reverse racism")

Many privileges are invisible.  And they are not only used to justify things like common decency (which should hardly need justification!), but also things like affirmative action.  So how can we provide evidence for its existence?

First, I think we should explain why privileges are invisible, and why this is unsurprising.  Let's cut through the rhetoric; privileges are not about advantages, but about disadvantages.  But if we call it a disadvantage, then it looks like Someone Else's Problem.  By reframing it as a privilege, it becomes more about the privileged person, and more relevant to the privileged person.  To illustrate, let's look at the first three items from the White Privilege Knapsack.
1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.
3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
The whole point of the privilege knapsack is to get you to realize... non-white people do not have these privileges.  They can't easily arrange to be in the company of people their own race.  They have to deal with culturally trained mistrust on a day-to-day basis.  They have to worry about housing discrimination, which was legal as recently as 1968, and which may still exist de facto.

I think privileges are a valid way to reframe disadvantages, but for the purposes of this discussion, it is unhelpful.  If you think of them as disadvantages, of course they are invisible to people who do not experience the disadvantages.  They are not about your experience, they are about someone else's experience.

Therefore, the problem is not explaining why privilege is invisible.  The problem is that the evidence for privilege mostly comes from the personal experiences of underprivileged people.  How can those people translate personal experience into objectively acceptable evidence?  How can we correct for conflict of interest (since underprivileged people obviously have an interest in demonstrating the existence of privilege), without overshooting?

Though I posed this problem, I will not be able to pose much of a solution.

The obvious way is to point to studies showing real disparities in income and health, like what I did to show gay and lesbian privilege over bisexuals.  I'm sure similar studies show a variety of disparities between white and black people, and between men and women, but I will not cite them since my readers are just as good at googling as I am.

Another way is to recount specific experiences where race or gender clearly played a role.  But anecdotes have their own slew of evidentiary problems.  In any case, it usually isn't clear that race or gender played a role.  If, for example, people are talking over you, how do you know it's because you're a woman?  All you know is that it seems to happen pretty frequently.  This is one of the problems cited by feminists, but it would be hard to produce any sort of "elevator" controversy out of it.

Dear readers, can you think of any ways to provide evidence for invisible privileges?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Rigged card game solutions

I am considering reducing the rate of puzzles on this blog.  I haven't been inspired to write many lately.

See the original puzzle

The three triplets are like rock paper and scissors.  If you pick the rock triplet, I'll pick the paper triplet.  If you pick paper, I'll pick scissors.  And so on.  The hard part is figuring out what card combinations will create the rock-paper-scissors structure.

Rock: 3, 4, 8
Paper: 1, 5, 9
Scissors: 2, 6, 7

If I pick the right one, then I have a 5/9 chance of beating you.

How did I get those numbers, you ask?  Each triplet contains a card from the set {1, 2, 3}, from {4, 5, 6}, and {7, 8, 9}.  If I pick a number from {1, 2, 3} and you pick one from {4, 5, 6}, then it's a lost cause for me.  But if we both pick one from the same set, notice that I will win 2/3 of the time.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Large-scale critical thinking

There is a particular aspect of critical thinking that I will introduce by way of an analogy. Critical thinking is a way of spotting and fixing errors in an argument for a claim.  Debugging is a way of spotting and fixing mistakes in a computer program, such as a computer simulation.

For those who have never done any debugging, imagine this.  Writing computer code is never the hard part; 90% of programming is debugging.  After writing any moderately complex code, it has a pretty good chance of failing.  The best kind of failures are the ones that stop the program and tell you where it went wrong.  The worst failures are when the program appears to be fine, but gives incorrect results.

A major problem is that you don't always know where the bug is.  Now you could locate the bug by reading the code line by line and checking the all the syntax, control loops, and so forth.  But any program of moderate complexity will have thousands of lines of code.  And if we could spot the bug that easily, we would have spotted it as we wrote it in the first place.  A more effective way of locating the bug is to use tests to isolate it within a small region, and then look line by line.

Most arguments don't involve thousands of steps, so most of the time you can find errors by just going through step by step.  But there are exceptions.

Many arguments, for instance, involve scientific papers.  As a blogger, I think laziness is a perfectly valid excuse to not examine a scientific paper in detail, but if you don't accept laziness, there are other reasons.  If there are problems in a paper, they may be impossible for a lay person to spot.  Or they may just be plain impossible to spot.  They may involve details omitted by the authors, or details in other papers.  We could also be cherry-picking a single study, but we'll never know unless we look outside the study.

Another example are conspiracy theorists and physics cranks.  Such people construct a whole universe of details to support their view.  The worst part is that often each universe is unique.  Even if you spent all that effort to locate the errors, you've only debunked the claims of... one person.

In these situations, and others, we may need to resort to larger-scale critical thinking.  How can we examine an argument for a claim without going into the details?  How do we find a bug without looking at code line by line?

A common technique is to execute the code with simpler inputs and watch what goes wrong with the output.  This would be analogous to using reductio ad absurdum.  For example, if I accept the argument that homosexuality is wrong because the Bible says so, mustn't I accept the same argument against wearing clothes with mixed fabrics?  Clearly there is an error in the argument, but we still need more work to pinpoint it.  Pinpointing the error might consist of discussing where the Bible came from, and why this is an inappropriate source.

Another example that I have actually blogged about is the ontological argument.  Most treatments of the ontological argument simply say that it is absurd to prove the existence of something with mere logic and without any investigation of the real world.  But this does not pinpoint the exact error in the ontological argument.  Knowing this, I thought it would be an interesting exercise in modal logic to pinpoint the error.  But there are other times on my blog where I take the opposite approach and look at the big picture only.

There are more critical thinking techniques that may not have any analogy to debugging.  Appealing to experts comes to mind.  Why locate an error when you can instead locate an expert who will locate it for you?  Of course, you have to trust that the expert really does know how to spot errors, and that the expert is not omitting errors in the other direction.  A good critical thinker tries to understand the nature of experts, and does not use them indiscriminately.

One major difference between critical thinking and debugging is that the debugger must locate the precise error to fix it.  The critical thinker only needs to show that there is an error somewhere, and does not need to pinpoint it.  And yet, if you can pinpoint the error, or show that there is none, this trumps all large-scale analysis.  It doesn't matter if an expert made the argument, if we can show the argument is incorrect.

And yet, small-scale critical thinking does not really trump large-scale critical thinking.  In such a detailed analysis, it is easy to make mistakes.  To miss errors or see errors that aren't there.  Also, as with investigations of paranormal phenomena, these details can be completely lost to time.  Even in absence of laziness, large-scale critical thinking is an important component of any analysis.

I think this is another one of my posts where the conclusion is, "Critical thinking is hard."

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Carnival of Aces 3: Community

This is the third edition of the Carnival of Aces, with the theme, "Community".

 Photo used with David Jay's permission

Sciatrix explains why community is important.

Norah talks about being in an MMO community.

Ace Eccentric had experiences in multiple ace communities.

And lastly, I wrote about trying to build offline communities.

Thank you, everyone, for your submissions!  The next carnival will be hosted by Neutrois Nonsense.