Monday, April 30, 2012

Depictions of asexuality

Ace Up Your Sleeve has a wonderful post on media imagery of asexuality.  It's a real shame that it's on tumblr, where it is unlikely to get saved for posterity.  Priceless teaser quote:
What I learned: asexual people are ethereal, wan, and nude.
I feel a bit scooped, because I also have been collecting a few media images of asexuality.   I used to keep an eye on these (via Google) for use in presentations.  But after seeing a lot of them, I find them hilariously bad.  I wouldn't use most of these in a presentation except as examples of terribleness.  Here are a few of the images I've collected that were not in Ace Up Your Sleeve's collection.

I can't help but notice the heads are removed!  I think that's because faces humanize the subject and humanization = sexy.  Distances smaller than two feet are also too sexy for asexuality.  Taken from Bering in Mind, a psych blog.

The Asexual Sexologist found this in a sexuality textbook, so you know the depiction has got to be objective and accurate.  This is a 100% objective and accurate depiction of two asexuals who are... um, what are they doing exactly?  Waiting for a bus?  Everyone looks demure when they're waiting for a bus.

I guess all anyone ever thinks about asexuals are their pants, and how they're not getting into them because they added these cheap locks.  The bastards!  From Salon.

This is a college newspaper cartoonist's depiction.  In fact, that's exactly what it looks like whenever I go out for a walk.  Except that this is Berkeley, so there are fewer gogo dancers and more hipsters.  Also, I usually go out with my boyfriend, holding hands, standing two feet away from him, with our heads cut off by the edge of the frame.

Did I mention that cutting off asexual's heads was a thing?  Taken from a story which also featured the images below:

The caption on the left image says they're talking about the other kind of asexuality.  The caption on the right image says that many asexuals pursue romantic relationships.  It's nice, for a change, to see a news story that admits the images are inaccurate and irrelevant.

Note that positive depictions are possible.  I love the professional photo shoots of actual asexuals (as seen on Ace Up Your Sleeve).  You can also go the route of Pride parade photos or asexual-made images, though these can have problems as well.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Religious communities aren't the only kind

PZ Myers had a post about the idea of an atheist community.  It was in response to something John Wilkins said:
First of all if you want to build a community you have to have a set of shared values, rituals and practices. These are, if you like, the nature of the community.
I left a comment which I feel is worth reproducing:
I really don’t understand why religious communities are always used as the basis of comparison for atheist communities. Why not… fanfic communities? Sports communities? Japanese-American communities? Makes about as much sense. And then maybe we’ll get a broader idea of what really makes a community.
Once you consider other communities besides religious ones, it becomes really obvious that communities don't necessarily have shared values, rituals, or practices.  They may not even have shared interests, a shared identity, or shared physical space.  All you really need is a bunch of people who are connected to each other somehow.  Put it this way, if someone is a stranger but in the same community, it seems easier to connect with them.

I think it is totally okay to feel unconnected with the atheist community, or not want to connect to it.  And since it is a completely legitimate feeling that needs no justification, you don't need to make up bullshit excuses for it, like this platonic idealization of religious communities.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The problem with external critics

I want to draw a distinction between internal and external critics.  An internal critic is someone who's had experience inside the movement, and thus criticizes it with an internal understanding.  An external critic is someone who is not part of the movement they criticize.

I believe these thoughts are widely applicable to all sorts of movements, but I have a concrete example guiding my thoughts.  Alain de Botton has a TED talk criticizing atheists, basically saying that secular society can learn a lot from religious practices (if not religious doctrine).

(TED talk below may not show up in rss feed)
I've been sympathetic to the general idea that atheists should feel free to do some things normally associated with religion, but I think de Botton's more specific ideas are quite ridiculous.  He thinks art should be didactic, and we should do more rote learning?  (For more on de Botton, I recommend this review of his book, Religion for Atheists.)

The talk also solidifies Alain de Botton's position as an external critic.  He may be an atheist, but any veteran can plainly see that he has not had experience in the atheist movement.  The first sign is right there in the talk's title.  In the past, "new atheism" has also been dubbed atheism 2.0, and de Botton's views are more aligned with atheism 3.0.  Calling for atheism 2.0 is a bit like calling for a "second wave" of feminism--it just shows ignorance of the existing discourse.

That may be a rather weak point (since I'm sure many atheist activists are also unaware of the term "atheism 3.0"), but it's corroborated by numerous other intangible markers throughout the talk.  And of course, you can just go look up de Botton's background to be sure.

It is okay to be an external critic!  We are all external critics at one point or another.  Atheists are external critics of religion.

In fact, external critics are a great thing to have.  Movements are made of many people who argue with each other, but there's nothing quite like an external perspective.  The external critic has no interest in the movement being "right", and therefore avoids confirmation bias in favor of the movement.

But that does not mean that external critics are free of their own biases.  In fact, there are some things external critics can just get wrong, rendering themselves unproductive.  I hope to pinpoint a couple of those problems.

The "Here's What You Say" gambit

It is pretty hard to criticize atheists without saying, "Atheists say that..." or "Atheists believe..."  But every time you say such a thing, you are making a rhetorical gambit.  Every atheist who reads that sentence will compare what they say with what you say they say.  And if you got it wrong, you just lost the argument and your credibility.

There's also a less risky form of the gambit, "Some atheists say..." or "Most atheists say..."  You can lose this gambit as well, if, in the readers' impression, no significant segment of atheists says as you say they do.  People within a movement are likely to have more accurate impressions of what people in their own movement say, believe, and do.

External critics, on the other hand, have all sorts of distorted impressions.  I've experienced this first-hand multiple times, when people started talking about those atheists, not knowing that I'm a card-carrying atheist myself (figuratively speaking).  Usually their comments are traceable to some atheist they knew in high school who just argued about it all the time.  I observe that, despite being a hardcore atheist, I've somehow managed to bring up atheism in front of them fewer times than they've brought it up in front of me?  Also, I think talking about atheism all the time is no different from someone who is interested in politics and talks about politics all the time; it doesn't have to mean anything.

Now, atheists can also have inaccurate impressions of their own movement, and it is possible to trump their impressions with harder evidence.  You can cite people who in fact say what you said they say.  And hopefully you're not just citing cranks, or fringes that have been internally criticized.

Concern Trolling

My (possibly idiosyncratic) definition of concern trolling is as follows:  A concern troll is someone who advises a group on how to achieve their goals, but whose advice is compromised by their own differing goals.  I do not think that a concern troll needs to be aware of what they are doing.  They could simply fail to appreciate the difference in goals.  I also do not think that a concern troll need be incorrect in their advice.  All that matters is that the concern troll fails to establish the trustworthiness of their advice.

The classic example of a concern troll is an external critic who thinks a movement is just so loud.  Surely, if they quieted down, more people would listen to them!  (Concern trolls don't listen to their own advice.)

Also see: External critics who say we should stop talking about race, because bringing attention to the issue only causes racism.  External critics who think feminists should hand out more cookies for seeing women as people.  External critics who think who think asexuals need to stop acting like it's an issue because it's not.

Concern trolling is a perpetual problem for external critics.  I think it is best to avoid criticizing the means that other groups use to achieve their goals.  It is better to criticize the goals themselves as wrong, or to criticize specific claims as wrong.  And if you really want to criticize tactics, don't pretend that you're doing it to lend a helping hand.  You really aren't.

I challenge readers to apply these concepts to atheists who criticize religion as well.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Boy Scouts and the Order of the Arrow

I had a negative experience with the Boy Scouts growing up.  It really has nothing to do with BSA's official exclusion of agnostics, atheists, and gay people.  I didn't think of myself that way at the time, and anyway, BSA's pro-discrimination policies aren't typically enforced.  My problem was I just didn't fit in with the other kids.  They were immature and could be kind of mean.  I quit some years before 18, the maximum scout age.

My younger brother was in a different troop from me, and had a much more positive experience.  His troop always struck me as much more mature.  They also seemed more religious, though they had a large Buddhist population.  The difference between my experience and my brother's experience demonstrates the non-uniformity of Boy Scouts.

I was talking to my brother about scouts, and I found that he was in the Order of the Arrow.  What's that, you ask?  Let me tell you how I knew them.

I knew the Order of the Arrow from the yearly Camporee, when all the scouts in the local district would get together and compete.  The competitions were things like knot-tying, fire-building, whatever.  On one of the nights, they'd get all the scouts up late at night.  We'd walk a long way in the dark, guided by silent people in Native American costumes.  Eventually we'd reach a large field and form an ellipsoid.  More people in Native American costumes and soundmakers attached to their ankles would run around on the inside of the ellipsoid.  Occasionally, they'd stop at a scout, look real closely at their face.  Then they'd either go back to running, or pull out the scout to join the Order of the Arrow.  Those scouts would reappear later the next day, and wouldn't explain what happened.

Really, scouts were nominated beforehand, and the people running around in circles were trying to recognize people in the dark.  I suspected the Order of the Arrow was a glorified alumni association for honored scouts.  But my brother told me that's not what it's like.  In his description, there were a lot of little kids playing tennis, and adults who were crazy enough to dress up as Native Americans.

Then I realized that I had missed yet another problematic aspect of the Boy Scout institution.  There's so much appropriation of Native American culture.  They reinforce the stereotype that Native Americans are just people in headdresses, even though I daresay most actual Native Americans don't go around wearing headdresses.  When the number of scouts who dress up as Native Americans greatly exceeds the number of visible Native Americans, they're just seizing control of an image with little regard to whom the image applies.

Given how widespread the practice is, and how it's propagated among kids who don't know any better, you can expect a lot of people to rationalize it to reduce dissonance.  "No, we try very hard to be respectful of Native American culture."  "If Indians can act white by getting health care, then we can act Indian."

But what do I know?  I'm not Native American, nor am I invested in the scouts.  Obviously, it would be better to hear Native Americans speak for themselves.  A blog called Newspaper Rock has written on the subject numerous times.  It appears that the Boy Scouts are frequently disrespectful of Native Americans, although like most things in the scouts, it is non-uniform.

I liked this cartoon, found on Newspaper Rock.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Break time!

I am busy.  Let's put this blog on hold until... after April 20th, when my term paper is due.

I hereby declare this an open thread.  Topic suggestions are welcome.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

I still wouldn't play the lottery

Having a lot of math friends, I heard a few of them bought lottery tickets last week, when the expected value of the ticket was greater than the price.  Shit math people say, amirite?

The positive expected value is due to the record-breaking size of the jackpot.  It was $640 million if chosen to be received over 26 years, or $462 million if received all at once.  It's less than that when you subtract tax, but it's still enough to overcome the $1 ticket price and 1/175M probability of winning the jackpot.  (There are smaller prizes, but they have negligible expected value.)

My understanding is that a small percentage of ticket sales goes to the jackpot.  So the record-breaking jackpot is the result of a lot of people spending money on tickets when there was a negative expected outcome, and winning even less money than is statistically expected.

The positive expected value of lottery tickets is greatly mitigated by the fact that if multiple people win the jackpot, they split it amongst themselves.  I am not sure how many people bought tickets, but according to CBS news, ticket sales that week were projected to be $1.46 billion.  With those numbers, you'd expect a lot of simultaneous winners.  There were only three.

But even ignoring the probability of splitting the jackpot, I still don't think it is a good idea to play the lottery.  Why?  $462 million is not 462 million times more useful than $1.

Put another way, imagine that 462 million people all gave a dollar to one person.  That person is rich, rich, rich, on account of having received money from a lot of people.  Wait, why are we all paying this rich person? If we're going to give away money, isn't it better to give it to the poor, and equalize wealth?

Put another way, if I start increasing the amount of money I have, starting from zero, what will I spend that money on?  At first I'd buy food.  Then I'd rent an apartment.  Eventually I'd have enough to get a car.  Much later, I could afford a house.  Later I could afford to retire early, or hire servants (or whatever rich people do with their money).  The point is that the money I get early on is used to buy essential goods, while later money is used to buy luxuries.  I could choose to buy luxuries even when I'm poor, but I'd much rather buy the essentials, because that's more for my money's worth.  The result is that a dollar is more useful to a poor person than a rich person.

One way to capture this intuitive idea is with a utility function.  (Insert standard disclaimer about not having any economics education.)  A utility function is just a way to express how preferable something is.  So if we're considering money, U($x) tells you the utility of having x dollars. The greater the utility, the more preferable it is.

If we assign a numerical value to utility, we can speak of the expected utility of buying a lottery ticket.  Suppose we start with $10000.  Then the expected utility of buying a lottery ticket is approximately as follows (ignoring tax):
U($9999) * (1 - 1/175M) + U($462M) * (1/175M)
And of course, this needs to be compared with the utility of not buying a lottery ticket, which is U($10000).

Common sense says that U($10000) is greater than U($9999).  But common sense also says that U($x) increases more slowly as x becomes greater (ie U is concave), because the more money you have, the less useful each dollar is.  One possible function which fits these criteria is U($x) = Log(x).  This is not the only possible utility function, though in some sense it is the "correct" one, for reasons I don't at all understand.  Using this utility function, here's the expected utility:
Expected utility of not buying a ticket: U($10000) = 4
Expected utility of buying a ticket: U($9999) * (1 - 1/175M) + U($462M) * (1/175M) = 3.9999566
Expected utility of dropping a dollar in a hole: U($9999) = 3.9999566
So yeah...

Buying more tickets is actually worse, because the difference between U($9999) and U($9998) is greater than the difference between U($10000) and U($9999).  I estimate you'd need about $100M before it becomes worthwhile to buy a single ticket.

Of course, as long as we're talking about utility rather than hard money, you could argue that there is utility in being entertained by the lottery.

I leave analysis of Pascal's Wager as an exercise to the reader.

(via Uncertain Principles)

Monday, April 2, 2012

A dilemma on asexuality and race

I am asexual, and I am half-Chinese, half-White.  I don't usually think of these two things as interacting, at least not in my life.  And yet, there I was, having an honest to gods dilemma involving asexuality and race.

I present this workshop on asexuality for queer audiences.  Last year, I presented at the Queer and Asian Conference.  It was successful, and I got the usual positive feedback.  But I had some misgivings.  I felt that what I had to say didn't really have much relevance to the intersection of queer and API (Asian/Pacific Islander) identities.  I make a point to know just a little about every intersection between asexuality and other identities and groups, because that's the sort of knowledge that is handy in a Q&A session.  But could I really say more than one or two lines about it?

I was also worried that it was a relatively small conference, and I was taking too large a slice of the attention pie.  Learning about asexuality does not prevent people from fighting for other causes, but attending this particular workshop would have the concrete effect of preventing people from attending other workshops held simultaneously.

The conference organizers asked me if I wanted to present again this year.  I wasn't sure, so I let the proposal deadline go by.  And then I immediately regretted it.

I had a realization.  I was so worried about "invading spaces", worried about taking up attention with things that are irrelevant to API people, that I ignored what API people were actually saying.  The organizers went out of their way to invite me, and people in the audience thanked me.  And here I was, thinking I knew better than them what they wanted.

It reminds me of something Natalie Reed said in Thoughts from a Diversity Hire.  Some people were saying that including a person from group X is "tokenizing" and "patronizing".  Natalie responds:
This one is especially infuriating in that presuming to speak for us about what would or wouldn’t be patronizing to us is itself patronizing in the extreme.
So that's what I was doing.  I was making assumptions about what API people want, in contradiction with what they said they wanted.  I was part of the problem.

For the record, I know that API people are not monolithic, and some might have the opinion that my workshop was inappropriate for the conference.  I want to hear from these people, if they are out there.  I am willing to listen.

I also realized I was getting a few other things completely wrong.  Such as, where am I getting this idea that the conference needs to be entirely about issues unique to API people?  I know very well that API people share experiences with white people, and are concerned about some of the same topics. Part of the purpose is just about having a social environment with many API people, and if there are any issues unique to us, we'll naturally talk about them along with the other topics.

And where am I getting this idea that there is little intersection between asexuality and race?  I know very well this is not true, but it seemed to have slipped my mind.  If asexuals are uniformly distributed in the population, asexuality is just as much an Asian issue as it is a White issue.  And yet, the publicly visible asexuals are disproportionately white.  An asexual who was Asian asked me the other day if there were any non-white asexuals I knew of, and was clearly disappointed when I could only think of a few.  This is both indicative of, and a contributor to greater asexual invisibility within API and other non-white groups.

And here I am, contributing to the problem even further.  I decided it was less worthwhile to present asexuality to an API audience than to a "general" (but probably predominantly White) audience.  I was further tipping the already imbalanced scales.  If all asexual activists did the same, it would become a major problem a decade down the road.

I was feeling pretty bad about this.  I was trying to come up with new reasons not to present, to justify the actions I already made.  "Presenting takes work, and I want to relax a bit."  "It would be best to present every other year."  "The organizers may want me to fill their workshop schedule, but the attendees are tired of it." Even though these reasons clearly weren't the original reasons why I did what I did.

So I solved the problem.  The workshop proposal deadline passed, so what?  I submitted a proposal the morning after the deadline.  I am presenting at the Queer and Asian Conference again this year.

tl;dr This is an announcement: I will be speaking at the Queer and Asian Conference at UC Berkeley, which is on April 27-29.  Registration is completely free and open.