Monday, August 29, 2011

Actual infinities in physics

This is a continuation of my series, "Here are a few things that are wrong about the cosmological argument." Previously, I tried to define, precisely the distinction between "actual" and "potential" infinities.  Now, I will try to provide examples of actual infinities in physics.  But before we get on with the examples, I will outline the possible conclusions.
  1. My definition of actual and potential infinities is no good.  Bring your objections to my previous post.
  2. I've somehow misapplied the definition.
  3. The objects in question are not "real" or "existing" objects.  Many people contend, for instance, that the set of all positions is not a set of real objects.
  4. The theory of physics I'm describing must be incorrect (not just possibly incorrect).
  5. Contrary to William Lane Craig's argument, sets of real objects in the real world may be actually infinite.
In this post, I will not argue for any particular conclusion (though I claim that 2 is incorrect).  But I would definitely like to hear what you think for each example.

A. Real Numbers

Real numbers are abstract entities, so you might wonder why I am including them in a set of physics examples.  The reason is that real numbers are so ubiquitous in physics.  Nearly every quantity in physics lives in the set of real numbers, including time, distance, energy, electric field, temperature, brightness, pressure, to name a few.

Note that there are two ways in which the real numbers have an infinite cardinality.  First, it extends to arbitrarily large numbers, just like the set of natural numbers.  Second, between any two real numbers (say, between zero and one), an infinite number of real numbers are packed in between.

Now, as to whether this is a potential or actual infinity is a bit tricky.  It depends what we are talking about.  If I'm talking about the set of all possible distances, this is a set with infinite cardinality, and thus actually infinite.

However, if I talk about one particular distance, say the distance between two stars, this is not an infinite set.  The distance between the two stars has only one value.  And yet, perhaps there is some possible world where they are further apart.  Perhaps the two stars can, in the set of all possible worlds, be arbitrarily far apart.  If this is the case, then the distance between the two stars is potentially infinite.

But what if the two stars are moving towards each other?  Then the distance between the two stars really does have an infinite cardinality of values (in this world, not in other possible worlds), though in different moments of time.  The set of distances between the two stars would be actually infinite.

And if we're talking about points in space themselves (or moments in time, or events in space-time), these are of course actually infinite.  In standard physics, space is infinite in extent, and events are densely packed.  Yes, I know that there are theories in which space is not infinite, and theories in which space is made up of indivisible atoms.  The question is, are you willing to accept these theories on a purely philosophical basis without any empirical evidence?

One last note is that the very idea of taking a derivative relies on actual infinities.  For example, if I consider the velocity (which is the derivative of position with respect to time) of an object, the idea of a "velocity" is only coherent because the object exists in an infinite number of locations at different instants.

B. Fields

A field is something that has a value at every point in space.  There are scalar fields, whose value at every point is a real number, and vector fields, whose value at every point is a magnitude and direction.  For example, temperature is a scalar field and wind velocity is a vector field.  Of course, these two examples don't really exist at every point, since on the smallest of scales, there is no temperature or wind velocity between the air molecules.

But physics has many examples that are more fundamental.  One example is the electric potential.  The electric potential has a value at every point of space.  And thus, just like the points in space are actually infinite, the values of the electric potential are actually infinite.  Furthermore, we also speak of the electric field, which comes from the derivative of the electric potential.  If the electric potential did not exist at an infinite number of points, this concept would not even be coherent.

Fields are also a fundamental part of other fields of physics.  There is the gravitational potential and gravitational field.  In general relativity, we have the metric tensor.  In quantum physics, we have the wavefunction.  In particle physics, every one of the different particles is associated with a different field.  It is not a stretch to say that fields are one of the most fundamental components of physics.

C. The singularity

The singularity is a hypothetical point in time at the "beginning" of the big bang.  Note that Big Bang theory has little to do with the singularity, and is merely the theory in which distances between all galaxies is increasing over time.  But if you naively follow the trajectories of these galaxies backwards through time, then they all cross at one point.  My expert opinion is that the existence of the singularity is disputed, but for now I will analyze it as if it really existed.

I'm going to point to this video debunking the Kalam cosmological argument, starting at 3:38.  Monica points out that William Lane Craig's position is inconsistent, because he denies the existence of infinities in realities, and yet asserts the existence of the singularity, which he himself describes as having infinite density, pressure, temperature and curvature.

I'm going to disagree with Monica.  WLC's position, in this case, is consistent.  The density, pressure, temperature, and curvature of the singularity are only potentially infinite, at least by the definitions we've discussed.  My argument?  None of these properties correspond to an infinite set.

By infinite density, we really mean that there is some set of massive objects in zero volume.  Unless this set of massive objects is itself an infinite set (see example D), then there is no actual infinity to speak of.  Instead, the density is potentially infinite, because for any finite value M, we can find an instant in time where the density is greater than M.  At the singularity itself, the density is technically undefined, divide by zero.

(Of course, the set of all densities is actually infinite, but then this is going back to example A.)

Similarly, pressure and temperature do not correspond to infinite sets.  I'm going to admit that I am ignorant as to whether curvature represents an infinite set, but I suspect not.

D. Uniform cosmology

You may have heard that the universe is finite in size.  But actually, you misheard.  The correct statement is that the observable universe is finite in size.  The speed of light is finite, and has had a finite amount of time to travel through space.  When we look far into space, we are looking far into the past.  If you look too far back in time, you reach the "time of last scattering", which is when the universe became transparent.*  But theoretically, if we had an omniscient view of everything, we would find that the universe goes on forever.

*Note that this is not the same time as the Big Bang.  It occurs 380,000 years afterwards.  This is where the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation comes from.

In standard cosmology, not only does the universe go on forever, but it is uniform on the largest scales.  On a small scale, the universe is not uniform, because the sun is not at all like the earth, which is not at all like the space between them.  But on a very large scale, larger than galaxies, larger than galaxy clusters, larger than galaxy filaments, the universe is uniform.  That is, the density of matter is the same everywhere throughout the infinite universe.

A corrolary of uniform cosmology is that there are an actual infinite number of particles, stars, galaxies, and galaxy clusters.  This is not a potential infinite, because the infinite set exists entirely in this universe, not in some possible universe.

Mind you, there are theories of cosmology in which the universe is not uniform or not infinite.  For instance, I recall that blogger Sean Carroll once authored a paper proposing that the universe is just a bit lopsided.  However, the universe would still have an infinite amount of matter in this scenario.

So, what are your conclusions?  1, 2, 3, 4, or 5?  Myself I would agree with different conclusions for different examples.

"A few things wrong about the cosmological argument"
1. Actual and potential infinities
2. Actual infinities in physics
3. What is real?
4. The "absurdity" of Hilbert's Hotel  
5. Interlude: God is infinite
6. Forming Infinity, one by one
7. Uncertain beginnings
8. Entropy: The unsolved problem 
9. Kalam as an inductive argument
10. Getting from First Cause to God  

    Wednesday, August 24, 2011

    Tracking a silly syllogism

    Though I did not read the hundred page paper (by Mercier and Sperber) on argumentative theory that I mentioned earlier, I did spot this:
    Categorical syllogisms are one of the most studied types of reasoning. Here is a typical example: “No C are B; All B are A; therefore some A are not C.” Although they are solvable by very simple programs (e.g., see Geurts 2003), syllogisms can be very hard to figure out – the one just offered by way of illustration, for instance, is solved by less than 10% of participants (Chater & Oaksford 1999).
    (Mercier and Sperber, pg 30)
    The syllogism is being used as an example of how people are poorly motivated to falsify their own conclusions.  The problem is that the syllogism they give is false.  We need an additional premise: "There exist some B."

    It's somewhat surprising to spot such a straightforward logical error.  It's as if I found a misspelled word in the title.  I was curious if the paper they cited, by Chater and Oaksford, made the same mistake.  It turns out that the paper, "The probability heuristics model of syllogistic reasoning," is not only correct, but interesting in itself.

    The paper is about formally correct syllogistic inferences vs the inferences that people actually make in practice.  The paper proposes a new model for how people draw inferences.
    People may not be trying and failing to do logical inference, but rather succeeding in applying probabilistic reasoning strategies.
    (Chater and Oaksford, pg 193)
    It's another long paper--70 pages--which I'm not willing to read because I am not that invested in it.  And yet already, it seems that Mercier and Sperber seem to have missed the point of the paper.  It is not about how people are poorly motivated to falsify their own conclusions, but how people use probabilistic reasoning rather than formal logic.

    I noticed that in Table 1, they show three systems of syllogistic reasoning.  The table is full of cryptic letters and codes, but I took the time to figure out what it all meant.
    1. Aristotle's logic:* You are allowed to assume that there exist at least one object of A, B, and C.  However, in Aristotle's logic, the order of the syllogisms matters!  If the first premise uses A and B, and the second premise uses B and C, then the conclusion must be of the form C-A.  That is, the conclusion is either "All C are A," "No C are A," "Some C are A," or "Some C are not A."  We may not conclude "All A are C," because the premises are in the wrong order.
    2. Johnson-Laird's logic: This is the same as Aristotle, except that the order of the premises does not matter.
    3. Frege's logic: We are not allowed to assume the existence of objects in every category.  If I say "All A are B," that just means that given an object in A, it must also be in B.  However, it could be the case that there are no objects in A, thus it would also be true that no A are B.  The ordering of premises does not matter.
    *Just because they naming this after Aristotle, I would not assume that they are actually trying to attribute it to Aristotle.  After all, this is a cognitive psychology paper, not a classics paper.

    Chater and Oaksford are essentially constructing a fourth system of syllogistic reasoning, using additional quantifiers of "most" and "few".  It's quite complicated, but when compared with survey data, this fourth system mostly agrees.  (A caveat: just because this model has been proposed in a paper does not mean it is correct.  That simply means it has been proposed, and some evidence put forward.  The paper has 144 citations, which suggests that experts consider it a serious contender.)

    The syllogism at the top of this post, “No C are B; All B are A; therefore some A are not C,” is valid according to Aristotle and Johnson-Laird, but not Frege.  It is unsurprising that I use Frege's logic, because I have mathematical training, and that's the appropriate reasoning for mathematics.  But it was premature of me to label the syllogism as simply incorrect; it simply uses different syllogistic reasoning.

    In any case, it seems that most people draw a conclusion that is incorrect by any formal logic system. 60% conclude "No A are C" or "No C are A".  10% draw the conclusion which is correct according to Aristotle and Johnson-Laird.  25% draw no conclusion, which is correct according to Frege.  The other 5% draw other conclusions entirely.  While that's still pretty bad, as far as formal logic goes, I still feel that Mercier and Sperber misrepresented the results by only citing the 10% figure.

    Monday, August 22, 2011

    More panadaptationism: cognitive biases

    Someone sent me a link to a NY Times article called "Reason Seen More as Weapon Than Path to Truth".  (The age of the article tells you something about how long these ideas sit in my draft bin.)  It's about "argumentative theory", which claims that human reasoning evolved to win arguments, rather than to reach truth.  In this view, even our many cognitive biases are adaptations to improve debate skills.  This goes against the more common view that cognitive biases represent limitations of natural selection.

    Given these two diverging views, I was curious about the evidence for each side.  But I was disappointed in how little evidence the article presented.  In fact, it presented no evidence at all!  I've decided the article is a self-referential parody.

    The article instead talks about how resilient cognitive biases are. 
    Mr. Mercier, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, contends that attempts to rid people of biases have failed because reasoning does exactly what it is supposed to do: help win an argument.
    If cognitive biases are adaptive this does not imply that they are harder to be rid of.  If cognitive biases represent limitations of evolution, this does not imply that they are easier to be rid of.
    “People have been trying to reform something that works perfectly well,” he said, “as if they had decided that hands were made for walking and that everybody should be taught that.”
    Never mind that no evidence has been put forward for argumentative theory, let's march onwards to even more questionable conclusions!  In this case, the inference is that if we're adapted for something, we better not mess with what nature wants.

    Later, the article gets into the political implications of argumentative theory.
    Because “individual reasoning mechanisms work best when used to produce and evaluate arguments during a public deliberation,” Mr. Mercier and Ms. Landemore, as a practical matter, endorse the theory of deliberative democracy...
    I'm not sure what this has to do with argumentative theory at all, but then, we don't even know whether argumentative theory is true or not, so what does it matter?

    The NY Times article does cite its original source, which is a hundred-page paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences.  I not willing to read this paper, so I will remain agnostic as to whether the lack of evidence is NY Times' fault, or the scientists' fault.  However, my boyfriend was trying to read the paper earlier, and said it was merely a review of evidence for cognitive biases, without any evidence that these are adaptive.  There is additional hearsay from Massimo Pigliucci, who says, "The first substantive thing to notice about the paper is that there isn’t a single new datum to back up the central hypothesis."

    I could write a rant about panadaptationism, but then it's not like these rants are in short supply.

    Friday, August 19, 2011

    Opinions are relative

    Two friends were arguing over nature vs nurture.  As we all know, asking whether a trait is caused by social or inherent factors is a bad question.  All the same, we can ask similar questions which are good questions, or at least passable questions.

    Let's consider how women do in, say, math.  There are more men who study math than women, at least in the US.  How much of this gap would remain if we somehow cleared the slate of social constructions?  Would women participate just as much, and do equally well as men, or might there still be a gap in one direction or the other?*  And how big would this gap be?

    *Google's answer was this article.  No comment.

    One friend started talking about abuses of evopsych.  He's seen lots of people blithely constructing just-so evolutionary stories to explain why male/female mathematical differences are innate.  He's seen questionable explanations for why homophobia is adaptive, or why men are naturally doms and women subs.  My friend accepts the possibility that a few of these narratives can be true, but how often they are stated without evidence in order to justify our prejudices!

    The other friend started going on about postmodernism.  He's met many postmodernists in liberal arts departments who absolutely insist that everything is only a social construction.  Women have exactly the same mathematical aptitude, and any difference is proof positive of a biased culture.  Everyone is really fluid/bisexual and genderfluid; our identities are just a social construction. If science provides an evolutionary explanation for some particular trait, that's just another narrative with no more reality than the narratives provided by religion or political ideologies.

    (The above conversation is based on a true story, but details are not factual.)

    As for myself, I was struck by this perfect example of how we think of opinions in relative terms.

    Questions of nature vs nurture have a spectrum of answers.  Unless we get into specifics, it is difficult to express our opinions in absolute terms.  So instead we express them, and think of them, in relative terms.  "I lean towards nature."  "I lean towards nurture."  But to talk of "leaning" one direction or the other, we have to specify a center.  And where is the center?

    We could define the center to be wherever the correct position lies.  If so, I believe I'm in the center, and you believe you're in the center.  At least one of us is wrong (I think it's you).

    Or we could define the center to be where popular opinion lies.  But we seem to have such divergent views of where that is.  One friend had bad experiences with liberal arts professors.  The other had bad experiences with libertarian blog commenters.  It's funny how a scientific issue, when discussed in casual conversation, gets reduced down to personal experiences.  And when we get an impression of popular opinion, it usually comes down to less than a dozen specific examples, completely fraught with selective biases.  It has to do with where we live, who we hang out with, and where we get our news.  Sometimes our beliefs really do hang on a string.

    Not to say that both sides are equally right or any such nonsense.  Obviously I lean towards nurture.

    Wednesday, August 17, 2011

    Solution: ten rows of three

    See the original problem

    Image of solution

    I had a book when I was much younger that had a handful of puzzles just like this.  Use X points to make Y rows of Z points each.  My blog has featured several variations of other puzzles that appeared in this book.  I rummaged through the house earlier and I found my copy!  100 Perceptual Puzzles.  I recommend it.

    Monday, August 15, 2011

    Actual and potential infinities

    I've spent much time on the ontological argument for God, but only ever invested one post, years ago, on the cosmological argument.  Looking back, my essay is a jumble of too many objections in too small a space.  I also pushed some of the most interesting objections aside because they were not particularly important.  Therefore, I am declaring a new blogging series: not "Why the cosmological argument is wrong," but "Here are a few things that are wrong about the cosmological argument."

    I will place emphasis on math and physics, and deemphasize the cosmological argument itself.  I trust this post will demonstrate what I mean.

    Actual and Potential Infinities meet Mathematics

    In William Lane Craig's version of the cosmological argument, he makes a distinction between "potential" and "actual" infinities.  William Lane Craig (henceforth WLC) contends that potential infinities can exist in the real world, but actual infinities cannot.1

    The thing is, in mathematics, there is no distinction between actual and potential infinities.  At least not one I've heard of.  Luckily, WLC explains.  He identifies actual infinity with the cardinality of natural numbers, ℵ0 ("Aleph-nought").  As for potential infinity...
    Crudely put, a potential infinite is a collection which is increasing toward infinity as a limit, but never gets there. Such a collection is really indefinite, not infinite. The sign of this sort of infinity, which is used in calculus, is ∞.
    From a mathematician's perspective, WLC's definition of actual infinity is perfectly well-defined, but his definition of potential infinity is poorly-defined.  In calculus, ∞ doesn't actually have any meaning on its own, but when inserted into mathematical expressions it gives the expressions new meaning.

    These are two possible contexts in which ∞ can be used, and it technically has a different meaning in each context.2  WLC appears to be using ∞ in yet a third context where the meaning is unclear.  I can guess fairly well what he's trying to say, and the charitable thing to do would be to simply give potential infinity a precise and appropriate definition, even though WLC could only be bothered to give a crude definition.  But if I did that, WLC's supporters would likely claim that I've defined it incorrectly.

    But let's try it anyway.
    Any particular set of objects has an exact "size", called its cardinality.  The cardinality may either be a finite number (eg 0, 1, 2, 3), or an infinite cardinality (ℵ0 or larger).  We say that the set of objects is actually infinite if its cardinality is ℵ0 or larger.

    Potential infinity is not a cardinality, and does not refer to any particular set of objects.  If we say that the set of all apples in the world is potentially infinite, we are really talking about the set of all possible sets of apples.  And if we say that distance between two stars is potentially infinite, we are really talking about the set of all possible distances between two stars.

    We say that a set of objects is potentially infinite if for every finite number M, there exists some possible world where that set of objects has cardinality greater than M.  Similarly, we say that a number X is potentially infinite, if for every finite number M, there exists some possible world where X is greater than M.
    Notes on my definition:
    1. Even if the set of all apples in the world is potentially infinite, this does not necessarily imply that there is some possible world in which the set of apples is actually infinite.  It just means that there is no maximum number of apples in the world.
    2. However, if the set of all apples in the world is potentially infinite, this does imply that the set of all possible worlds is actually infinite.  I think this is okay with WLC, because he would not consider possible worlds to be "existing" objects.
    3. Mathematically speaking, this is still poorly-defined because the set of all possible worlds is poorly-defined in mathematics.  However, I think it will suffice for my purposes.
    I sincerely hope that my definition is satisfactory to WLC's supporters, but I couldn't know for sure.  It stands to reason that they should be able to tell me whether the definition is satisfactory before I apply the definition.  Therefore, I offer a pause here for objections (though it's a symbolic pause, since realistically I don't expect any supporters to pay attention to a little blog).

    1. This is relevant to the cosmological argument because WLC contends that a universe without beginning is an actual infinity, and I suppose he contends that a god is not.  But let's not get sidetracked.

    2. Equation (1) means that for any positive number ε, there exists some number M such that for all x greater than M, 1/x is between -ε and ε.  Equation (2) means that for any number M, there exists some positive number ε such that if x is between 0 and ε, then 1/x is greater than M.

    "A few things wrong about the cosmological argument"
    1. Actual and potential infinities
    2. Actual infinities in physics
    3. What is real?
    4. The "absurdity" of Hilbert's Hotel 
    5. Interlude: God is infinite 
    6. Forming Infinity, one by one 
    7. Uncertain beginnings
    8. Entropy: The unsolved problem
    9. Kalam as an inductive argument
    10. Getting from First Cause to God 

    Sunday, August 14, 2011

    Google adventures: Ys and infinities

    I was thinking of writing a post about the (bad) math in the cosmological argument.  But you're not going to see it yet.  Instead let me tell you something funny that happened during research.

    For reference, I decided to use Lane Craig because he is widely cited.*  And I used this article, which was recommended by a friend who like Lane Craig.

    Lane Craig says this:
    The sign of this sort of infinity, which is used in calculus, is ¥.
    At first I saw that symbol, the Y with double-strike-through, and thought, "What the hell?  Is he using some obscure concept of infinity that was mentioned once by who knows which mathematician?"

    To Google!

    I quickly found another website which used the same symbol.  Apparently, the double-struck-Y was a symbol invented by John Wallis in 1655.  Who also, it seems, invented the sideways-8 symbol for infinity, the lemniscus.  But the website didn't explain why there were two symbols, or even seem to acknowledge it.

    To Google?

    I could not find a single other article which mentioned the Y-with-equals-sign as a symbol for infinity.  It looked pretty suspicious!  And whenever I tried searching John Wallis, only the lemniscus was ever mentioned.  I thought maybe the lemniscus was just so much better-known that it overran any mention of the plus-plus-Y symbol.

    Eventually, with more Google, I was able to solve this mystery.  It's a Symbol font problem.  With certain browsers, using the Symbol font will cause the wrong symbol to appear. In particular, if you try to make the lemniscus symbol, ∞, it will appear as the Yen symbol.  If your internet browser does not have this problem, I guess you've just solved the mystery of WTF Is Miller Talking About?

    You learn something new every day.  Sometimes things you didn't really want to learn.

    *Okay, it's more like, I have had three or four independent personal experiences where someone mentioned William Lane Craig.  Funny how we form impressions out of such scant evidence.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011

    On asexual relationships

    Did you know? XKCD once had a comic about asexuality.

    Okay, not really.  But it's relevant.  As most sexual people know, sexual relationships create all sorts of drama.  So if you're asexual, you get to avoid all that, right?  No such luck.

    Asexual relationships fall into two categories: the conventional and unconventional.

    Conventional relationships include romantic relationships, friendships, family relationships, coworker relationships, and so forth.  Some asexuals--I call them "classic" aromantic asexuals--have entirely conventional relationships, except for romantic relationships, which they avoid entirely.  There are other asexuals who have entirely conventional relationships including sexual romantic relationships.  They may do this as a compromise with a partner, or because they're only borderline asexual, or because they just want to do it, or because they don't know they're asexual, or any other number of reasons.

    Unconventional relationships fit in none of the above categories, and may come with entirely different social rules.  In theory, an unconventional relationship can be anything at all.  In practice, only a small range of unconventional relationships actually get discussed.  The simplest is the nonsexual romantic relationship, which is pursued by "classic" romantic asexuals.  It's basically a conventional romantic relationship only without sex.*  The man on the street asks, "But isn't romance just friendship plus sex?" It would seem that classic romantic asexuals are empirical evidence to the contrary!

    *This might not even be considered unconventional.

    But the man on the street may be right about some people.  Lots of asexuals--let's call them WTFromantics--really do feel confused about the difference between friendship and romance.  Well, not confused exactly.  It's more like, they want friends with more commitment and cuddles, or they want romantic partners with more independence and space.  They want a relationship which fits neither the friendship nor relationship category.  They want an unconventional relationship.

    Some non-asexuals tell me that these ideas resonate with them too.  Feel free to borrow them.

    I come from the perspective of forming only conventional relationships, including romantic relationships.  I don't feel comfortable with unconventional relationships, just as some WTFromantics don't feel comfortable with conventional relationships.  But I have it easier, because I already have this set of rules made out for me, and WTFromantics have to make it up as they go along.  I'm betting this results in drama drama drama, as if conventional relationships didn't already have enough drama.

    Discussion of unconventional relationships is very common in asexual communities.  It's kind of frustrating for me, because I feel like an outsider to this discussion.  But why should I be frustrated at a discussion that helps other people?  So I suck it up.

    But it still frustrates me when asexuals imply that we should all want unconventional relationships.  It's a pretty easy mistake to make.  First you're complaining about people who think there's no middle ground between romance and friendship.  Next you're complaining about people who refuse to be in the middle ground.  I feel this is akin to a bisexual complaining that not everyone is bisexual.  Or more aptly, a polyamorous person complaining that some people are monogamous, or a monogamous person complaining that some people are polyamorous.  It sucks, I know, and you want to complain.  But I don't feel comfortable with complaining about other people's sexualities when that's just a part of who they are.

    I should provide a specific example for my asexual readers so they know what I'm talking about.  Two words: "relationship hierarchy".  The relationship hierarchy is the idea that romantic relationships are somehow "more" than friendships.  This is decidedly untrue for aromantics, and for some other asexuals.  So asexuals complain about it a lot.  The problem begins when they complain about other people's relationships.  Here's one example:
    I believe with absolute conviction that there are far more human beings on this earth who have a capacity to experience romantic and platonic emotions on a spectrum, rather than in two regimented boxes that never intersect.
    See also: "Everyone is really bisexual."
    They try to explain that a romantic partner you aren’t fucking is different from a friend because your romantic partner is The Most Important Person in your life and The Only One that you have formal expectations of, want to live with, feel possessive of, spend all your time thinking about, want to be with all the time, etc. And this annoys me because I’m trying to GET AWAY from the Relationship Hierarchy, I think the world would greatly benefit if most people got away from it too...
    It's hard not to feel slighted by this characterization (especially when it got wide approval in the asexual tumblr community).  I do feel like my romantic partner is more important than any of my platonic relationships.  This is because I prefer wide circles of relatively distant friends.  In fact, this is what I like about friendships, that they are low commitment.  My boyfriend is different; he prefers a small group of much closer friends.  Diversity is pretty fascinating that way.

    Suddenly, I feel bad that this post started out as an exposition to the wonders of asexual relationships, and turned into a rant on the ugly side of asexual discourse.

    Tuesday, August 9, 2011

    Two puzzle competitions

    Every year I plug the US Puzzle Championship, which this year happens on August 27th.  What happens is I print out the puzzles, doodle on them with colored pencils, and type numbers and letters into an online form.  It's fun!  Register ahead of time, ie now.

    You should also try all these fillomino puzzles.  The puzzles are part of a different sort of competition where you're the judge.  You vote on your four favorite puzzles, using any criterion.  Vote for mine!  (I'm not allowed to say which one it is.)

    Monday, August 8, 2011

    Fair and balanced

    It's pretty fashionable to decry "fair and balanced" reporting.  "Fair and balanced" reporting involves featuring a person from each side, even if one side is plainly wrong.

    If the news decided to write a story on the health impact of EMF radiation, they might find one person who claims to get headaches from them, and another person to say that they're totally safe.  Someone who reads this might conclude that the middle ground is most likely correct--that EMF radiation requires caution and further study.  (It's forgotten that further study has already been done, and baseless caution causes harm.)

    But what is the alternative to "fair and balanced" reporting?  Would you like the article to declare one side right and the other side stupid?  This runs afoul of my rule against pointless opinions.  It doesn't really matter what the journalist thinks, because the journalist is just this person, you know?  The journalist doesn't have any special knowledge about the subject, because all the evidence is right there in the article.  If one side is so plainly wrong, the journalist doesn't need to say so in order for it to be plain.

    On the other hand, people who complain about "fair and balanced" may have a point after all.  The alternative is not for the journalist to express a pointless opinion, but to let their investigation go beyond the balance.  If on one side they have a concerned father, and the other side a health researcher, it may seem that there is parity, since it's testimonial against testimonial.  But the researcher's opinion is really a reference to a scientific study--maybe it's worth investigating?  If one side has more relevant things to say, let them say it without having to "balance" it with irrelevant anecdotes.

    Thursday, August 4, 2011

    (Some) opinions are worthless

    I once took a class that compared evidence in a court of law vs evidence in other disciplines.  According to the ideal, the lawyers present facts to the jury, and the jury makes inferences based on those facts.  But there are some kinds of inferences that the jury can't make on its own.  For this, we need the witness to give an "opinion".  It may be something as simple as the opinion that a noise sounded like a gunshot.  Or it may be an expert opinion, which is an inference that is too difficult for the typical juror.

    Of course, I've probably got the description completely wrong somehow, and courts probably don't match the ideal.  But it doesn't matter, because I'm really talking about blogging, not the law.

    Whenever I blog an opinion, I have to think about what I'm doing.  Have I presented new evidence for this opinion?  Have I presented new arguments that you couldn't have thought of yourself?  Or am I just trying to persuade by sheer force of personality?

    Let's take a short case study, dug from my blog archives.  Back in February, I posted a video of a panel of atheist men discussing sexism.  Some people thought the panel was no big deal, and others thought the panel was terrible.  My comment on it was brief:
    I don't think I have anything especially insightful or persuasive to say about this, but I will express my opinion that the whole panel was deeply disturbing.
    I was not stating a new position.  I was not presenting a new argument or new evidence.  I was merely saying which side I was on, namely the side that thought the panel was terrible.  Nobody should find this persuasive, just because some random guy on the internet said it.  So what was the point?

    In this case, the point was to provide evidence for a different claim, one that was unstated.  I was claiming that some skeptical men are concerned about sexism, since I myself am one such person.

    But suppose I had said something similar about UFOs:
    I don't think I have anything especially insightful or persuasive to say about this, but I will express my opinion that UFOs are Unidentified Flying Objects, and not Alien-Identified Flying Objects.
    That would be a worthless opinion, because it's not a novel position, and has no new supporting arguments or evidence.  Perhaps I would persuade people anyway if I stated my opinion in an especially succinct way, or if (hypothetically) I were a widely respected blogger.  But you, dear reader, should see through it.

    Monday, August 1, 2011

    How I feel about same-sex marriage

    Some time ago, Hemant wrote this:
    If I asked you what came to your mind when I said the word “homosexuality,” what would you think of?
    The Illinois Family Institute's answer is "sodomy".  Hemant's answer is his gay friends, pride parades, and the lack of marriage equality.

    My impression is that this is representative of the range of reactions I get from straight people.  Sodomy, and gay marriage.  (It's really same-sex marriage, since it applies to some bi and trans people, but this is frequently forgotten.)  Sodomy and gay marriage.

    For some reason, same-sex marriage has become the issue of gay rights.  It's the focus of most of the major gay rights organizations.  Millions of dollars are spent on it.  It's what makes the big news.  It's one of the first things straight people think about when they hear the word "homosexuality."

    But I can think of more pressing issues.  Homelessness is really common among youth.  Employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is still legal in most states.  Suicide is much more common than a few well-known cases; according to a statistic I once cited, gays and lesbians are three times as likely to consider suicide as compared to straight people, and bisexuals five times as likely.

    And marriage?  Marriage is only accessible to people who are doing well enough for it (I include myself in this category).  And the laws don't really stop people from marrying anyone of the same sex, by the way, they just stop it from being recognized by the state.  And legalization doesn't really stop individuals from seeing the marriage as invalid.

    Not that same-sex marriage is bad to have or anything.  On the contrary, it's something that is very obviously good.  In fact, it's ridiculous that same-sex marriage gets opposed at all.  I believe that opposing marriage equality simply does not belong in the Overton window.  It would be better if we were arguing over whether government should be recognizing all marriages or none.

    How did it come to be this way?  Among my queer friends, the cynics say that it's because same-sex marriage concerns the affluent, and it's the affluent who provide campaign funding.  The others say the issue was forced upon us by the opposition, or that it's a necessary political strategy.  Nobody I know thinks it's an ideal situation.

    I don't know whose fault it is, if anyone.  I don't know that knowing whose fault it is would help solve the problem.  I don't know if it would be any better if it were some other issue that dominated the gay agenda.

    So how do I feel about same-sex marriage?  I wish it were legalized already so we could move on to more important things.