Saturday, December 21, 2013

Cerberus cube

 Cerberus Cube, a model of my own invention.  Ignore the other model leaning on it on the left side.

Many of the origami models I post are simply things I found in books.  I like the idea of making my own models, but it's quite difficult.  One of the easier ways to go is to start with an known module, and join these modules in an unusual way to create a new model.  (I know they sounds similar, but I use "module" or "unit" to refer to the individual pieces, and the "model" to refer to the completed whole.)

So I started with one of the sturdiest modules in modular origami: the Sonobe unit.  The Sonobe cube is so classic that it was the very first modular origami I made:

The Sonobe cube.  Instructions are available on the internet.

The sonobe unit is a simple square with two pockets and two tabs.  If you take six of these squares, you can make the Sonobe cube.  But there's no reason to restrict the squares to a symmetric configuration.  You can also attach the squares to make 3D tetris pieces, for example.  What's more, there's no reason that the squares must be flat.  You can fold the square in half to get two 45-45-90 triangles.  You can combine these triangles to get unlimited number of shapes, such as the Sonobe icosahedron.

In the model shown at the top, I used this method to make three conjoined Sonobe cubes.  Why that shape?  It's nothing special or planned, I just wanted to combine Sonobe units in some creative way, and see what would come out.  I think of it as the "cerberus cube" because it has three heads.

Perhaps one of these days I'll make a ton of Sonobe units and combine them into something more fantastical.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Can analogies ever be arguments?

When I was at that gaming conference, populated as it was by English academics and the like, I was bothered by the overuse of analogies.  Sure, I liked the analogy between gamer shame and queer shame, for what it was worth, but that was one hit among several misses.  I felt much less enlightened by the analogy between video games and candy (and subsequently between candy and sex).

Indeed, one of my initial reactions was, "Wait, can analogies even be used as arguments ever?"  You can introduce and illustrate new ideas through analogies, but can you really demonstrate anything with an analogy?  If you observe that X and Y are similar to each other in some ways, this does not demonstrate that there are further similarities.  When two things are analogous to each other, you can never say where the analogy ends and the disanalogy begins--not without observing directly.

On the other hand, it would be wrong to categorically dismiss analogies as arguments in all circumstances.  I'm sure there are examples of proper arguments by analogy out there, even if I can't think of them in that moment when I'm blinded by English professors.  It would be helpful to consider a few recent examples where I used analogies on this blog, and critically examine how I used them.


In Oppression Olympics: A balanced perspective, I make an analogy between the way that people get excited about that one trading card they found in a booster pack, and the way that people get excited about that one argument that they were able to think up on their own.

This analogy fails as an argument.  It does not demonstrate that people have a tendency to get attached to arguments, the way they do to trading cards.  I was merely asserting that this is the way things are, and hoped that readers would agree.  If I wanted to present a real argument, I would refer to psychological research.


In Negative may be better than the alternative I made an analogy between the "negative" labels atheism and asexuality.  I said that people have come up with "positive" alternatives to atheism, and that these alternatives have had both costs and benefits.  I then argued that the costs and benefits would also apply to asexuality.

I think this comes closer to a valid argument from analogy.  The key point is that there are underlying patterns in the way we interact with identity labels.  Therefore we can predict a certain amount of similarity between them.  This is by no means a perfect argument, but then any argument about social trends is going to be messy.


In Why video games are so flammable, I have a brief simplistic discussion the economics of video game consoles.  I model it as monopolistic competition with a strong economy of scale effect.

In a way, every argument based on a model is an argument from analogy, because I'm analogizing it to that model.  Even if I'm doing something as simple as adding up money, I'm making an argument by analogy because I'm analogizing money to the abstract mathematical concept of numbers.  This is a valid argument, because economic models are built on a certain number of premises, and we know those premises are approximately correct.


Based on these few examples, here I will draw some conclusions.  Analogies are often not used as arguments at all, but rather as tools to illustrate concepts.  However, there are cases where analogies can be used as arguments.  Arguments from analogy are at their best when they most resemble arguments from models.  If you want to argue that two things are similar, you can't just observe a few similarities and hope that other similarities follow.  Rather, you argue that the underlying patterns or laws are similar, and therefore the consequences of these laws should be similar.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

On the Prodigal Son

Even though I said that the Bible is boring, there are perhaps a few decent stories.  For example, I think the story of the prodigal son is decent enough, though very simplistic.

The prodigal son is a parable told by Jesus.  A father has two sons.  One son leaves with his inheritance to live in sin.  But then he gets in trouble, and comes back to his father begging to be one of his servants.  His father throws a celebration for the return of his son.  The brother complains because he's been faithful all along, and doesn't get a celebration for it.

At least in Catholic tradition, it's an allegory for God's forgiveness.  One tension in the concept of forgiveness is that it hardly seems fair to people who did not need to be forgiven.  And yet, the father's motivation makes sense.  The brother is thinking of it in the long-term perspective (the prodigal son caused a lot of harm).  But the father is thinking of it in the short-term perspective (right now he gained a son).

Of course, if you want to know what's really unfair in the story, consider the servants.  The sons are privileged over the servants just because of who they were born to.  Who do the servants represent? Gentiles?  But never mind that part.

Even though the story is meant to explain something about God, a fictional entity, it's still useful as a meditation on forgiveness in general.  Why do we forgive?  How do we balance the values of fairness and forgiveness?  How do we avoid people taking advantage of forgiveness?

But I'd say that the God aspect of the story largely diminishes its value.  Since the father represents God, I guess the father basically has an unlimited amount of resources, so forgiveness is easy to him.  And nobody can fool God, so that's not really a concern.  Lastly, because the father is God, that means the father is just supposed to be right, and the brother is just wrong.  It would be more interesting to see them as making two valid points which are in dialogue with each other.

And since I'm nitpicking, the story also fails the Bechdel test. :P

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Oppression Olympics: a balanced perspective

"Oppression olympics" is a derogatory expression used to describe the argument that group X has it worse than group Y.  Oppression olympics is bad for several reasons:

1. When people want to argue that group Y has it better than group X, this often involves trying to minimize or ignore some of the problems faced by Y.
2. Oppression Olympics often obstructs discussing and solving smaller problems, as if larger problems were the only ones we should focus on.
3. Oppression Olympics often ignores or erases the diversity of experiences within X and Y.  For some individuals in group X, the biggest problems they face might be similar to those faced by group Y.

Take, for example, a recent essay by Chris Stedman, Atheism is not the "new gay marriage" (via Friendly Atheist).  Stedman complains about the constant comparisons between atheism and LGBT rights.  Stedman is in part obstructing discussion of some atheist problems.  For instance, how are we supposed to talk about atheists telling people about their atheism without an analogy to LGB "coming out".  Are we to develop the concept of "atheist coming out" from the ground up, rather than building on the perfectly good work done by LGBT activists?

Stedman is also ignoring the diversity of experiences within the LGBT community.  For instance, I'm lucky enough that I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I don't worry about hate crimes or housing discrimination.  I worry more about weird reactions from relatives and friends, which is a problem shared by many atheists.  A reductio ad absurdum of Stedman's argument is that I cannot analogize my experiences to those of LGBT people even though I am literally part of LGBT.  Further reductio ad absurdum: LG people cannot compare themselves to B people, who can't compare themselves to T people, who can't compare themselves to trans people of color. 

On the other hand, Chris Stedman makes many correct and valuable points.  Despite the derogatory title, "Oppression Olympics" are in fact beneficial for several reasons:

1. If we never talk about it, people may tend to think group X and Y have similar difficulties, or similar levels of difficulty.  This could lead to ignoring or erasing problems that are not shared between the two groups.
2. If we compare the situation of group Y to the past situation of group X, then this tends to imply that the problems faced by group X are over.

Anecdotally, some individual atheists seem unappreciative of many of the problems faced by LGBT people as a group.  Sometimes, they only seem to be aware of a few LGBT issues, particularly the legal battles that get so much mainstream attention.  Sometimes they seem to think that the battle for LGBT rights will be over in a few decades (the continuing struggle for racial justice argues that it would take much longer).  Other times, it seems like atheists think LGBT issues will all but disappear when religion all but disappears.

What I'm trying to say here is that when people argue over the "oppression olympics", both sides are right, and both sides make valuable contributions to the discussion.  It seems like the two sides are disagreeing with each other, but much of it is a sort of pathological disagreement.

It's sort of like... trading cards.  When you buy trading cards, you often buy them in random booster packs.  Sometimes you find a really cool card in your booster pack, and you become attached to it.  Later, you argue with other people about how great this one card is, even if objectively speaking it isn't really any better than other cards you could have gotten.

Likewise, we get attached to arguments.  Lots of people think about Oppression Olympics, and depending on individual context and chance, we each think up some particular point to make about it.  We get attached to this one insight, and then we argue with other people that our insight is the best.  When really there are multiple correct insights to be had on both sides.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Negative may be better than the alternative

This post was crossposted on The Asexual Agenda.

Earlier I saw a post by Anagnori expressing a sentiment I've seen several times before: Why do we have to define asexuality in a "negative" way, in terms of what asexuals don't experience?

The desire is there, but for the most part no one is really able to come up with a "positive" alternative.  So no one really knows what it would be like to have a "positive" form of asexuality.

However, I can analogize it to another "negative" label that has come up with "positive" alternatives: atheism.  Atheism is also defined as a lack.  But there have been many attempts by many groups to come up with "positive" alternatives.  Words like "humanist", "skeptic", "secularist", and "freethinker" are examples.  And even where these labels are not used explicitly, many "atheist" communities de facto have positive values--people not sharing those values are either pushed out or made to feel out of place.

This strategy has costs and benefits.  The benefit is a more coherent goal, and more power to achieve that goal.  The cost is divisiveness.

Division isn't really a bad thing in itself.  For instance, it's not bad that the atheist and asexual communities are divided, that just makes sense!  In terms of atheist communities, I don't really mind if supernaturalist atheists aren't part of my community--we don't have much in common anyway.  No, what's wrong with divisiveness among atheists is that atheism is not just a political cause, but also a minority identity.  (I developed this idea more in a post on my blog.)  Atheists can in principle have all sorts of political views, and yet they may still need community support by virtue of being a minority in a religious society.  If some people feel unwelcome in mainstream atheist communities, or worse, there are big clashes between different atheist communities, that's the price we have to pay.

When I apply these costs and benefits to asexuality, it just doesn't make sense to turn asexuality into a more "positive" label.  Is there a particular need for a more coherent goal?  Is it worth the divisiveness?

Asexuality serves more as a minority identity than a political cause.  If you find an alternative positive meaning, it will exclude people.  For example, you could create a definition in terms of queerplatonic relationships (ie strong relationships that are neither friendships nor romantic), but personally I'm not interested in those relationships.  I'd be willing to politically advocate for their legitimacy, but not to participate in them.  If asexuality were a political cause, that would be fine.  But since it's a minority identity, it's not fine, it's exclusionary.

Another example: A lot of asexuals (especially in the blogging community) are very pro-feminist.  Feminism--there's a positive value for you.  But do you feel comfortable with branding asexuality as a kind of feminism, perhaps the kind of feminism that emphasizes sexual diversity, loves reductionism, and has sophisticated views on "sex-positivity"?  Those things are great, but given how often asexuals feel their identities delegitimized, I'd like to reduce the pressure on asexuals to be anything in particular.  (In contrast, I'm just fine with atheist communities where atheism is closely associated with feminism.)

So based on my experience, I just don't see a "positive" definition of asexuality as being a good thing.  I think it would lead to misery.

Of course, arguments from analogy are always sketchy.  Would we come to the same conclusion if we considered other analogies?  There's probably something to be learned from non-binary people, for instance.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Bible is boring

Because I hang out with atheist student groups, the Bible comes up every so often.  My official position on the Bible is that it's more boring than The Lord of the Rings.  I tell people this as a way of changing the subject--many atheists just won't let go of the implication that The Lord of the Rings is awful--and as a way of reminding people that there is no accounting for taste.

Oh, but underneath the talk, there is accounting for my taste.  I know why I feel the Bible is boring.  It has to do with my Catholic upbringing.

Catholics are known deemphasizing the Bible, as compared to protestants.  This makes historical sense, since Protestantism was caused by the printing press and mass literacy.  And I think it's generally true today, or at least it's been true in my experience.  I never owned a copy of the Bible.  As a kid, I never read it.

As a kid, I only ever heard Bible readings during the Catholic Mass.  Catholic Masses are said to be particularly boring among Christian services.  I myself was so bored by Mass that eventually I refused to go against the will of my mother, many years before I quit Catholicism.  It didn't help that when I was young I had auditory processing difficulties, made all the worse by the echoing acoustics of a Catholic church.  I could maybe understand the Bible readings if I focused really hard, but what was the point?  It was all so boring and pointless, like the rest of Mass.

When I was older, I did read parts of the Bible.  I went to a Jesuit high school, and we had a class in scripture.  We didn't read the whole thing, just bits and pieces considered important in Catholicism.  For the most part, we learned about the general structure, and what various books were about.  I don't remember much of it.  I remember the motivations of the different gospels, and I remember a few of Jesus' parables.  Mostly I remember it being incredibly boring, just like nearly every other book we read in high school.

Dear readers, did any of you have the same experience of hating nearly every book you read in high school?  It seems to be a common experience, though I'm not sure why.  Is it because teenagers just don't appreciate the kind of books that English teachers think are edifying?  Is it because the reading is forced?  Whatever the reason, I felt that way about the Bible.  This isn't entirely rational, of course.  I'm sure there are some books I read in high school that I could read again and discover that they were quite decent all along.  But in the Bible's case, I'm sure I would still find it terrible.

For one thing, I know that what I saw in high school were the "good" parts of the Bible.  It can only get worse from there

For another thing, what I know about the Bible just doesn't line up with my taste in reading.  I don't like reading "so bad it's good" stuff.  I generally don't like "classic" literature.  I don't think it is important to recognize cultural references to classic literature (what good does that do for me or for society?), and anyway I already recognize most Bible references because of my education.  What I like in a book is willingness to criticize itself and its own messaging.  I also like books that focus on the subtleties and ironies of modern social interactions--not really the kind of thing that translates across millenia?

Some atheists will argue at length about what is the "correct" interpretation of the Bible, mostly so they can accuse various Christians of not following it.  Sometimes I think these arguments are a bit sketchy (but no more so than Christian interpretations), but mostly I just don't care. There may be some utility to such an argument, but since I have no interest in investing the time, I prefer to argue that it doesn't matter.  The Bible isn't an authority on what's right, nor on what's wrong, so a person's degree of faithfulness to the Bible is irrelevant to my moral approval.  I don't even consider faithfulness to the Bible to be a measure of religiosity or Christian-ness.  After all, I came from a Catholic background, where the Bible was deemphasized, and I don't think Catholics are any less Christian for it.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Why video games are so flammable

With Black Friday upon us, the flame wars over next-gen gaming consoles have really been heating up.  Which will win: the Wii U, XBox One, or PlayStation 4?  No one truly knows, but gamers everywhere agree that everyone else is wrong and should feel bad about being so stupid.

While I don't intend to make a habit out of discussing economics, I do think that video game flame wars can be understood within economics.  The problem is twofold:
  1. There is limited space for video games and video game consoles, and everyone knows it.
  2. Video games are in a state of monopolistic competition.
Video game producers are most efficient when they make fewer, larger games, for many reasons.  Developing a game is a one-time cost, while actually manufacturing the game is cheap.  Selling more copies of a game is not a matter of paying for more manufacture, but paying for better advertisement and development so that more people want to play.1  Note that it's much easier to advertise one big game than to advertise many little ones.  The main reason to have more smaller games is to better cater to different tastes (e.g. see the indie game industry).

Video game console producers have even more reason to be large.  Besides the large development costs of video game consoles, gamers also want consoles with games on them (especially games exclusive to that platform).  Consoles won't get many games unless there are many consoles to go around.  Whenever game developers port a game to a console, or make a console-exclusive game, their market is restricted by the number of console owners out there.2

The important number here is the ratio of the optimal size of the video game industry to the optimal size of a video game or video game console.  For consoles, that number appears to be 3-5.  For games, it's much larger, but still noticeably discrete if you focus on major companies.

The second problem is that video games are in a state of monopolistic competition.  That means that the products of different companies are all different, and are not perfect substitutes for one another.  Thus different consumers might have different preferences.

This puts consumers in a sort of Battle of the Sexes game.  The best outcome to a consumer is if they buy the games and consoles they want, and everyone else follows even if it's not what they most want.  But if everyone buys something else, the consumer has to choose between buying what they want (even though a worse-selling product will suffer in value) and buying what everyone else is buying.  People don't like being in this situation, and it's clear whose fault it is: other consumers!  Flaming those people may vent anger, and also persuade more consumers to one's own side.

There are, of course, other causes as well.  Video game consumers are particularly well-informed.  Also I think people just like flame wars.

It will be interesting to see how the games industry changes over time.  Development and advertisement costs may go down.  The market may expand to include a wider array of consumer tastes.  Porting games between platforms may get easier.  How will this affect the number and size of video games?


1. In a list of the most expensive video games, older games spent a lot on manufacturing, but more recent ones spend on development and advertising.   For example, GTA V (2013) spent 51% of its budget on development,, 45% on advertising, and only 3% on manufacturing.
2. Any smaller consoles face these difficult problems.  This is why people often mock consoles like the Ouya or Mojo.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


Meenakshi Mukerji's Tuberose.

This is one of the prettiest models I have.  Each module, rather than being a flat polygon, is a spiky flower shape.  It works especially well with Harmony paper, which is a brand of origami paper produced by Grimmhobby that has color variations across the paper.  There is no coloring pattern: each of the twelve modules is uniquely colored.

If I may ramble about my origami paper, I have a few different brands, and it's surprising how different they can be.

Harmony paper is great, but the color scheme doesn't work for just any model.  It also feels like the paper is slightly rectangular (!).  Grimmhobby's washi chiyogami (seen here) is very pretty, but noticeably thicker than other paper, which makes it hard to fold.  I have some paper made by Daiso Japan (seen here) which is easy to fold, but has a noticeable grain in one direction.  And for some reason it's harder to reverse folds.  Lastly I have paper from a German company, Folia Bringmann.  The colors are very bold (and both sides are colored), but I'm sorry to say that the colors fade over time.

These are things you start to notice when you make models out of thirty squares or so.  If I had to buy more paper I'm not sure what I'd buy--they all have their strengths and weaknesses.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

In which I think about monopolies

This is part 2 of my previous post.

Why, in a competitive market, are the quantity and price at the intersection of supply and demand?  The answer is that buyers and sellers are not monolithic entities.  As long as the price is above the intersection, a new seller can make money by producing new goods at the marginal cost and selling at the marginal value, even though this lowers the price, resulting in net losses for other sellers.  As long as the price is below the intersection, a new buyer can produce value by paying more for goods, even though this makes it more expensive for all other buyers.

On the other hand, if sellers really are a monolithic entity, then we have a monopolistic market rather than a competitive one.  Under monopoly conditions, the single seller may not wish to sell as much, since whenever the prices decreases, they eat all the losses themselves.

The single seller is free to set the price such that their utility US(p,q) is maximized.  The constraint is that they cannot sell more than buyers demand.  US is defined for all p and q, but we want to determine the maximum US specifically along the demand curve (which as I explained previously, is the same as the marginal value curve).1 $$\frac{\mathrm{d} \text{US}}{\mathrm{d} q}|_{p=\text{MV}(q)} = 0$$ $$\frac{\mathrm{d} \text{US}}{\mathrm{d} q}|_{p=\text{MV}(q)} = \frac{\mathrm{d}}{\mathrm{d} q}(\text{MV}(q)*q) - \text{MC}(q)$$ $\text{MV}(q)*q$ is the seller's revenue, the price of goods times the total quantity sold.  $\frac{\mathrm{d}}{\mathrm{d} q}(\text{MV}(q)*q)$ is therefore the marginal revenue.  So in a monopoly, the quantity of goods is at the intersection of marginal revenue and marginal cost.  The price of goods is set to the maximum that demand will allow.  Let's look again at figure 1.

Figure 1: Monopoly

In a competitive market, the quantity and price are given by the intersection of supply and demand, or marginal cost (MC) and demand (D).  In a monopoly market, the quantity is given by the intersection of marginal cost (MC) and marginal revenue (MR), and the price is given by the demand (D) curve.

Figure 2: Monopsony

I've left out analysis of a monopsony, because it's exactly the same.  Instead of a single seller, there is a single buyer who chooses the price to maximize UB while constrained to the supply curve.

In the previous post, I said it was confusing that the "marginal cost" in figure 2 means something completely different from the "marginal cost" in figure 1.  In figure 1, the marginal cost is the cost to the seller to produce one more unit.  In figure 2, the marginal cost is the cost to a single buyer to buy one more unit (including the additional cost from prices being raised).

Next I want to discuss "deadweight loss", which is the sum total utility (of both the buyers and sellers) lost compared to a competitive market.  When people trade goods for money, both the buyers and sellers benefit.  For the buyer, the goods have more value than the money paid.  For the seller, they are paid more than it cost to produce the good.  I already showed this in my previous post when I gave expressions for utility functions UB and US.  However, it helps to have a graphical interpretation of the utility.

Figure 3: Visual representation of utility to buyers (a) and sellers (b)

First, consider the buyer (figure 3a).  The total value of the goods to the buyer is given by the area under the marginal value curve (red).  But to get the total utility we must also subtract off the price paid for the goods (blue).  Next consider the seller (figure 3b).  The cost of production is given by the area under the marginal cost curve (green).  The utility to the seller is equal to the total price paid to buy the goods (blue) minus the total cost to produce them (green).

In figure 1, the utility to buyers is shown in red (consumer surplus), while the utility to sellers is shown in blue (producer surplus).  Relative to a competitive market, a monopoly has two effects.  First, the producer gets more utility while the consumer gets less.  Second, the sum utility is smaller, by an amount shown by the yellow "deadweight loss" area.

Now that I've learned about the concept of deadweight loss, I understand a bit why some people think a "free market" is best (although clearly there need to be restrictions on monopolies, so I think "free" is a misnomer).  But given that this is only the simplest market imaginable, it's not clear that it generalizes to more realistic markets.

Even in this simplest case, I question the meaningfulness of the "total utility".  I think, for instance, there is some intrinsic utility to a more fair or more even distribution of wealth.  The distribution of wealth that results from a competitive market basically bears no relation to what is fair.

And there's another problem that comes from the initial uneven distribution of wealth.  The utility to the consumers is not measured directly, but implied by how much money consumers are willing to spend.  But if you think about why some consumers are less willing to pay for a good, it's not necessarily because they derive less value from the good.  Often it's because they are poorer, and therefore place a higher utility value to the dollar.  Thus the utility to the buyers is not equal to the amount of money they would pay.  It only seems that way if you convert utility to dollar units, ignoring that dollar units are larger to some people than to others.

One way you can fix the problem is by redistributing all wealth evenly.  I think there might be a few kinks in that particular solution though...

1. This illustrates a mathematical distinction between derivatives and partial derivatives.  When we have a function of two variables, like US(p,q), the derivative isn't uniquely defined unless we specify a particular direction in the (p,q) plane.  So we restrict the (p,q) plane to a particular curve, and find the slope along that curve.  The partial derivative is the slope along a p=constant curve.  But here I take the derivative along the demand curve.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

In which I think about supply and demand

Note: this post makes use of $\LaTeX$.  That means it requires javascript, and cannot be viewed in a reader.

Earlier, I was entertained by learning a little bit about monopoly and monopsony.  I know I am very ignorant of economics, and that this is pretty basic stuff.  But perhaps readers can gain some insight by watching me learn things for the first time.  Or if there is no insight to be gained by my readers, at least I benefit from the writing.

I read about monopoly and monopsony on Wikipedia.  My instinct as a physicist is to (initially) ignore all real-world details and understand the simplest and most abstract problem.  So of course I go straight to the graphs.

Figure 1: Monopoly
 Figure 2: Monopsony 

These graphs were very confusing when I saw them for the first time, for several reasons:

1. It seems the axes are backwards.  It seems like prices are the independent variable, and the quantity of trades is the dependent variable, yet prices are on the vertical axis, while quantity is on the horizontal. 
2. I thought a "competitive market" leads to the quantity (Qc) and price (Pc) at the intersection of the supply (S) and demand (D) curves.  And yet in Figure 1, it's at the intersection of marginal cost (MC) and demand (D), while in Figure 2, it's at the intersection of supply (S) and marginal revenue product (MRP).
3. Under monopoly conditions, the quantity (Qm) is instead at the intersection of the marginal cost (MC) and marginal revenue (MR).  Under monopsony conditions, the quantity is at the intersection of marginal cost (MC) and marginal revenue product (MRP).  What's confusing is that marginal cost (Fig 1) and marginal cost (Fig 2) are completely different, even though they have the same name.

Explanations from Wikipedia were not forthcoming, because for some reason there's more emphasis on real world examples rather than mathematical abstractions.  It's cool though, because I can do the math myself.

Perhaps more fundamental than the supply and demand curves, are the utility functions of the buyers and sellers, which I'll call UB and US respectively.  These are functions of both quantity (q) and price (p).  US is related to the cost of producing q units, which I'll call C(q). $$\text{US}(p,q) = pq - C(q)$$ Similarly, UB is related to V(q), the value of having q units. $$\text{UB}(p,q) = V(q) - pq$$ The supply curve tells you how many products the industry is willing to sell, given a certain price point.  Basically, the supply is equal to the quantity such that US is maximized.  The demand curve tells you how many products consumers are willing to buy, given a certain price point.  Basically, the demand is equal to the quantity such that UB is maximized.  In mathematical terms,
$$ S(p)=q|_{\frac{\partial \mathrm{US}(p,q) }{\partial q}=0}$$ $$D(p)=q|_{\frac{\partial \text{UB}(p,q)}{\partial q}=0}$$ from which we can derive $$\frac{dC}{dq}(S(p)) = p$$ $$\frac{dV}{dq}(D(p)) = p$$ $\frac{dC}{dq}$ is of course the marginal cost (MC in figure 1).  So that means the marginal cost function is the inverse of the supply function.  If you plot them on the graph, they will be the same curve.  (People who aren't math purists might say they are in fact the same function.)  $ \frac{dV}{dq}$ is the marginal value (which in the context of employers buying labor, is called marginal revenue product, MRP in figure 2).  Since the marginal value is the inverse of the demand function they will also be the same curve on a graph. 

This solves my confusion on points 1 and 2.  While supply and demand are naturally functions of price, marginal cost and marginal value are naturally functions of quantity, so it makes sense to put quantity on the horizontal axis.  And in both figures, the competitive market rate is in fact at the intersection of the supply and demand curves, even if the curves are not labeled as such.

This post is too long, so I will break here.  Next time, I will talk about why a monopolistic market is different from a competitive market, and also "deadweight loss".

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Things I don't understand: health insurance

This will not be an intelligent post.  I do not have intelligent things to say about health insurance..  I do not understand health insurance: what is good about it, what is bad, and the impact of various policies.  I am also unable to make sense of what the internet tells me about health insurance.

Health insurance costs money, and what it gives in return is money.  But if that were all, it seems like you can't really win against an insurance company that is still in business.  Why is insurance ever worth it?

Most insurance is about reduction of risk.  If you don't have homeowner's insurance, a house flood could financially ruin you.  But if the cost of home repairs were spread out over all possible worlds, it might be easier to handle, even if there is some overhead going to an insurance company.

Of course, there's always this problem where different people have different levels of risk.  Either there ends up being price discrimination, or insurance becomes too expensive for people with low risk, or insurers refuse to sell to people with high risk.  I think Obamacare is meant to solve this problem by encouraging everyone to buy healthcare regardless of their level of risk, and by putting restrictions on price discrimination.

Although it also seems that risk reduction is not the only function of health insurance.  Why does health insurance pay for regular check-ups, and why is it so expensive to pay for health care independently?

Maybe it's a little like restaurants.  In theory, restaurants should be cheaper than cooking at home, because they benefit from economies of scale.  In practice, restaurants are often more expensive because they offer service, space, and food quality.  The economy of scale, the service, the space, and the food quality often come in the same package because it's efficient to do it that way.  Perhaps the same is true of health insurance: risk reduction and regular check-ups come in the same package because it's efficient to do it that way.  I'm not sure why though.

One idea is that preventative screenings are cost-efficient, but people irrationally avoid them because they cost money now.  By reducing the marginal cost of preventative screenings, health insurers actually make health care cheaper by bypassing a psychological obstacle.

Another idea is that health insurers are able to allocate people to doctors or health care providers more efficiently than independent buyers of health care.  Or they reduce administration costs.

One last idea is that health insurers create a monopsony, which is like a monopoly except instead of one seller, there is one buyer.  Because there are fewer health insurers than people, they have more power to tell health care providers to lower their prices.  I barely understand how a monopsony works, but it causes prices be lower than the "efficient" market value, whatever that means.  It seems to me that the more of a monopsony there is for health care, the more of a monopoly there is for health insurance, and I don't understand how those things interact.

Many progressives advocate going further than Obamacare, adopting a "single-payer" system.  I don't understand what the impact of this would be.  I guess it would create more of a monopsony?  People on the internet say it will reduce administration costs.

Dear readers, do you understand health insurance, or no?

Monday, November 11, 2013

Thoughts on gamer shame

When I went to the Queerness in Gaming Conference, a couple speakers made an analogy between the shame people feel for being queer, and the shame they feel for spending too much time playing video games.

This analogy is sort of a rhetorical trick.  Everyone in the audience already considers queer shame to be mostly bad or unjustified, and the analogy frames the conversation such that we automatically think gamer shame must be equally bad or unjustified.  Nonetheless, I find it to be a good analogy, because it draws "gamer shame" to our attention, and gets us to think critically about it.

Upon reflection, gamer shame is something that has long been present in my life, without me really thinking about it.  I think it's the way I was brought up: my parents always tried to put a limit on how much games me and my brothers played.  Now I replicate those same attitudes towards myself, and towards my boyfriend as well.  Not without my boyfriend's permission of course--he knows he lacks a bit of self control, and that social encouragement is helpful to him.

Gamer shame also comes with a stereotype: the unhygienic middle aged man who still lives in his parents' basement, and plays WoW all day and night.  The speakers made the interesting observation that when people try to show the positive face of gaming, they usually show people playing with friends on a couch.  This image says, "Gaming is a social activity for socially functional human beings."  It's as if gaming is only acceptable when it's on-the-couch multiplayer, and any form of solo gaming is unacceptable.  We can draw a comparison to the way the image used to advocate gay rights is white gender-conforming men in long-term monogamous relationships.

I happen to like on-the-couch multiplayer games a lot, since that's what I would always play with my brothers growing up.  But it's not as if I don't also play games solo.  The fact that one is more socially acceptable than the other seems ridiculous.  Most other media are also consumed alone.  We read books alone.  We listen to music alone.  We watch TV alone.  Movies are often thought of as a social outing, but it's not as if people interact with each other much while they're in a theater.

In general, I think it is good to think of gaming as just another medium.  Spending time on video games is no less worthwhile than reading a novel or watching a movie.

At the same time, gaming is a very unique medium (as all media are unique).  One thing that's very different about video games from other media is that length is usually a selling point.  By contrast, when's the last time a movie was ever advertised as being very long?  I think this is because video gaming often serves the function of killing time, and serves it well.  Video games are usually built to be engaging, compelling, or hard to quit.  This is a great thing, but can also lead to conflicts between what someone wants in the long term and in the short term.  I don't know that "gamer shame" is justified, but surely "gamer self-control" has its uses.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Solutions: Don't step on the grass

See the original problem

The "Don't step on the grass" puzzle was something I saw once, but at first I couldn't find it.  It turns out it came from Wu : Riddles, under the header "Samwise and Gandalf".  It involves Samwise trying to dig up a telephone line being used by Lord Sauron.  My flavor text is much more banal in comparison.

I was surprised at the depth of this puzzle.  Not only was every initial solution I found wrong, but so was every second solution.  Here I'll show some of the suboptimal solutions.  (The final solutions will be hidden as spoilers.)  Below each solution is the length of fence, assuming that the polygon has unit sides.

My first solution was to have an X across the square.

Square: 2*sqrt(2) = 2.828

This of course suggested radially symmetric solutions.  So I looked for the best radially symmetric solutions for the pentagon and hexagon.  For the pentagon, this involved a tricky geometric construction which I show below (the circle crosses the center of the pentagon, and line segments are colinear with the centers of circles).

Hexagon: 6*sqrt(3)/2 = 5.196
Pentagon: 4.396

Commenter Secret Squirrel found better solutions, so I immediately realized that radial symmetry was a bad constraint.  I soon found the following solutions.

square: 1+sqrt(3) = 2.732
pentagon: 3.728
hexagon: 4.5

Finding that square solution was a breakthrough, because it made me realize the importance of 120 degree angles.  To make a physics analogy, it's like you have bubbles.  Bubbles shape themselves to minimize surface area.  If three bubbles are adjacent to each other, they'll form flat surfaces with 120 degree angles.  This led to an improvement in the pentagon solution.

Pentagon: 3.580

I also found another solution to the pentagon, which is not quite as good.  Also, commenter Rain found a solution for the square which was 2+1/sqrt(2).

Pentagon: 3.588
Square: 2+1/sqrt(2) = 2.707

Even though the above two solutions are excellent, they could still be improved with 120 degree angles.  The hexagon solution was the right idea, but could be improved with a little rearrangement.  Here are the final solutions:

Square: sqrt(2)+sqrt(6)/2 = 2.639
Pentagon: 3.544
Hexagon: 1+sqrt(3)*2 = 4.464

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Morality and game theory

I'm rather busy with work right now, so maybe now's a good time to ramble about not-fully-formed thoughts.  This kind of writing takes less effort because I don't need to do research for it, and readers are invited to do most of the thinking.

In Sam Harris' book, The Moral Landscape, the eponymous landscape is basically a metaphor for a utility function.  If we as a society make certain choices, that will put us somewhere on this landscape, and our height determines how good the outcome is.  To Sam Harris, morality means finding the highest peaks on the landscape, and going there.

Sam Harris' metaphor exemplifies the view that morality is a calculation.  Figure out what we want, figure out the best way to achieve it, and that's moral.

In everyday practice, morality often seems to serve a different function.  Here are actions I do on a regular basis that I consider to have moral character: I clean dishes after using them, instead of leaving the task to others.  I try to recycle as much as possible.  I try to be polite and make my coworkers feel comfortable.  All of these I do not because they benefit me, but primarily because they benefit others.

The fact of the matter is that we are always trapped in prisoner's dilemma (or similar games) of varying sizes.  If I didn't wash the dishes, that would save me time, but cause more work for others.  If none of us washed dishes, the sink would get dirty.  Appealing to morality is a way to motivate people to cooperate.  If someone doesn't cooperate, morality also offers us a mechanism to punish or shame them.

Now the tricky thing is, cooperation is not moral in every prisoner's dilemma.  Here are some examples:

1. It is not moral for corporations to cooperate with each other by raising prices together.  This can be argued from a utilitarian perspective, since the cooperation helps corporations, but causes greater harm to consumers.

2. Often it's not morally obligatory to give up property or our self-autonomy just because it might help someone else.  We tend to place special value on rights like these.

3. We don't consider it immoral for a nation to have a military.   If every nation has a military of equal strength, this is worse than the world where no one wastes resources on it.  Yet the world where no nation has a military is unrealistic, so we don't expect nations to be cooperative to that degree.

Can you think of other situations where cooperation in prisoner's dilemma is not necessarily moral?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Queerness and progressive game design

Earlier, I attended a conference on queer theory, game studies, and game design.  This inspired in me several topic ideas.  I will start with the one that is most directly related, and most reactionary.  One of the conference's major themes was how to find queerness in games beyond the literal inclusion of queer characters.  Queerness isn't just in the characters, it's in the image of gamers, in the broader narrative themes, in the way we play games, and in the design and mechanics.

There are many great ideas in there.  But some ideas... Well, they're "productive" ideas in the sense that it's helpful to discuss them, but they're ultimately bad ideas IMO.  In particular, several conference speakers decided that queerness in games can mean conforming to their particular ideas about progressive (and transgressive) game design.

For example, it was repeated many times that queerness means choices in your video games.  Queerness means transgressing the prescriptive definitions of a "game" made by formalists.  Queerness is playing a game and making your own objective rather than using the one designated by the designer.  One presenter even said queerness means fluidity in the rules of the game (this being the context of tabletop RPGs).

The overall message I seem to be getting is that queerness is Indie.  Which maybe sounds just a little too much like self-flattery when it's coming from a bunch of queer indie game designers and queer indie game lovers.

Don't get me wrong, I love indie games.  These days I've been playing more AAA games, but indie games are often the ones pushing the envelope, ultimately resulting in a better future for all games.  But though queerness is great and progressive game design is great, they don't really seem to be the same thing.

If queerness is reduced to themes of human variance, fluidity, and transgressing norms, then you'll find these themes everywhere you want to find them.  (You'll find these themes in AAA games too, but I think people at this conference were less interested in finding them there.  It was said during the conference that buying AAA games is supporting capitalism, but we shouldn't shame people who do it because maybe they just don't have the cultural capital to really be aware of the indie games out there.)  And yes this is a problem.

It's sort of like... Dumbledore being gay in Harry Potter.  Author J. K. Rowling said that Dumbledore was gay, but it's not really clear from the books themselves.  So the bottom line is that this queer "representation" may not be satisfactory to many queer readers.  Therefore, it's best not to overplay the queerness of Dumbledore, because frankly we can do better than that.  Similarly, it's best not to overplay the queerness in games, because many queer people are not going to be satisfied just by progressive game design, and we can do much better than that.

I can also imagine other problems with equating queerness and indie gaming.  Imagine a queer person feeling that their queer cred is under question because they are disinterested in indie games.  I don't think this is a likely scenario, but it could be likely if the queer indie ideology at this conference were widespread.  It's even more problematic to say that fluid game rules are queer, because even when it comes to sexuality, queer does not necessarily mean fluid.  Plenty of trans people felt they were always the gender that they are, and plenty of bi people do not feel that their orientation fluctuates from gay to straight (which is a common misconception about bi people).

If progressive game design means bucking some common sexist, racist, cissexist, or heterosexist conventions, then sure, that's more queer.  It would be great to come up with new fantasy races, rather than the rather racist ones inherited from Tolkien.  It would be great to have some new mechanics which make it easier to tell stories about groups in relation to society (rather than the usual stories about a single straight white male hero).  It would be great to offer the player more choices about character genders (ie more than two) and sexualities.  New ideas in narrative and game design are essential to improving the experience of queer players, but progressive game design in itself is not sufficient.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Conference report: queerness in gaming

Not the target audience

I attended the Queerness in Gaming Conference (QGCon) this weekend.  It was a unique intersection of topics: game design, the academic study of games as a medium, and queer theory.

I was not really in the target audience for this conference, since I neither design games, nor work in a remotely related academic field.  I am a mere consumer of games.  Probably a conference like GaymerX would have been more appropriate for me.  But even though I was not the target audience--in fact, partly because I was not the target audience--I found it to be full of ideas that were novel and fascinating.  And though I will not apply any of this knowledge, it was thoroughly stimulating, and could enhance my enjoyment of games.

Being a typical ungrateful blogger, I will talk at length about all my disagreements with things in the conference, while glossing over the stuff I agreed with.  But one should not infer that I disliked the conference. Even listening to talks I disagree with is a joy.

In particular, there was a lot of critical theory in the conference (literary criticism, postmodernism, or whatever you'd like to call it).  In the world of skeptics, I'm relatively sympathetic to postmodernism, but that's like saying that in the world of gender studies, I'm relatively conservative.  A lot of critical theory is still nonsense to me, and this conference provided many egregious examples.  For much of this post, I may be teetering on the edge of a rant, but I'll try to save the rant for another time.

More than representation

The most striking thing about the conference is how little it discussed queer character representation in games.  Speakers uniformly believed that there are many more ways to find queerness in games.

For example, stories can have queer themes without having any queer characters.  Jack Halberstam talked about how once we moved from 2D animation to 3D animation, cartoons became more capable of depicting crowds, and thus featured more stories about large groups.  So you get stories about conflict between groups, which is more reflective of the conflict between queers and normative society.

Some mechanics of games were also described as queer. If players can decide for themselves the traits of their character, this allows them to express something different or unique about themselves.  Unfortunately, choices also tend to be constrained, such as to a gender binary.  Or perhaps the choices have no real impact on the game (eg, the NPCs in Skyrim will hardly react to the protagonist's race, even though there's supposed to be signficant racial tension in the world).

There are also many ways we can apply queer theory to how we play games.  Samantha Allen and Kathryn Bond Stockton both made a fascinating analogy between the way people are shamed for being queer, and the way they are shamed for being gamers.  There are also some interesting problems in the way gamers are presented in order to buck their negative image.  Namely, social gamers are emphasized, and solo gamers are deemphasized.  Another interesting parallel was between The Art of Failure and The Queer Art of Failure.  The latter book is about the way that the system of success and failure enforce cisheteronormativity by describing queerness as failure.  The former book is about how we like games even when we fail at them, much the same way we enjoy tragedies.

And there were lots more analogies; speakers really liked analogies.  Sex and gaming was a particularly common analogy.  Moral panic over kids playing games is like moral panic over kids being gay.  The power structures and role playing in games are like kink.  There was a lot of Freudian comparison of joysticks and first person shooters to penises (I think only some of this was serious, although it is my humble opinion that ironic Freudianism is no more acceptable than serious Freudianism).  One speaker compared the censorship of sexual content in imported games to the blocking of homosexual immigrants earlier in US history.

I liked speaker Adrienne Shaw, who talked about doing some ethnographic studies of gay gamers.  She found that most of them don't care so much about having character representation.  They care more about the homophobia, and the image of the white heterosexual cis male gamer.  She critiqued the idea that if we just got more gaymers together, representation would automatically follow.  Female gamers have been around for a long time, and yet the structures of exclusion have not been dismantled.  Furthermore, even if game producers did decide to cater to the queer market, this would only include the least marginalized among queers, and would not be a complete solution.

But yes, representation too

There were, of course, also lots of talks about representation.  I particularly liked talks about history.  Bill Jahnel talked about the (very problematic) history of queer representation in comic books.  Hanna Brady talked about the (also extremely problematic) representations of race in fantasy, and also had a bunch of cool book recommendations.  Evan Lauteria had a short but fascinating talk about the way early Japanese games were localized in the US.  In particular, he compared Poison from Tekken and Flea from Chronotrigger, both trans villains.

There was also lots of talk of more modern representation, from Bayonetta to Dominique Pamplemousse to Bioware.  While I enjoyed these talks, I seem not to have written many notes on them... but they were a presence!

I also enjoyed the open arcade, which was a showcase of indie games with queer themes in various forms.  It included a couple Twine games, an interactive fiction, and a puzzle platformer that told me it hated me.  Indie games, of course, are much more able to have queer themes and appeal to niche audiences.  My favorite one, of course, was the puzzle game.  Triad was a short puzzle, designed by Anna Anthropy, in which the goal was to fit three people on a bed without anyone falling off.  And I entered this conference thinking that there wasn't much opportunity for queer representation in puzzle games.

My greatest disappointment with the conference is that Anita Sarkeesian was there, but I did not even realize until after it was over!

Potential future topics

Attending QGCon, especially the parts I disagreed with, inspired in me several blogging ideas.  Most of these ideas extend beyond just this conference.  I outline them here:
  • Labels are maps, not walls
  • Can analogies be arguments?
  • Queerness and progressive game design (and why they're not the same)
  • People should bring out their disagreements rather than acting like we all agree
  • Academic queer theory vs internet queer theory
  • thoughts on gamer shame
I hope readers enjoy these topics, and I apologize for procrastinating the completion of my other two running blog series.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Japanese "herbivore men" hold a mirror to our culture

Herbivore men briefly explained

The Japanese subculture of "herbivore men" seems to hit the news every so often.  Here is a recent example in the Guardian: Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?  What exactly is going on over there?

I'm no expert in Japanese culture, but my coblogger on The Asexual Agenda, Queenie, is an expert.*  I will defer to what she's written about herbivore men.  My summary: In Japan, men are expected to be "carnivores", aggressively pursuing relationships with women.  But many men in metropolitan areas have become "herbivores", being less assertive in relationships, more sensitive, and even willing to be friends with women (in Japan this is a big deal).  And there's probably other stuff as well, like their attitude towards money, jobs, and fashion.  Women of course are expected to be herbivores to begin with, although there is also talk of carnivore women.

*She's actually an expert in Japanese religion, but close enough.

In Japan, herbivore men are sometimes the subject of moral panic because they're not forming relationships, are defying Japanese gender roles, and may be contributing to the declining birth rate.  Cry me a river I say.  People aren't obligated to make babies just to uphold the national birth rate, and if Japanese people really wanted population growth so badly they could try being less racist and accept more immigrants.

In the English speaking world, the reaction to herbivore men is... different.  Sometimes, the reactions really say more about our own culture than about Japanese culture.

Here I will briefly show the reactions coming from three different groups: mainstream news, asexuals, and men's rights activists.

Mainstream news reactions

In Japan, the moral panic over herbivore men isn't really about sex.  It's about relationships.  If herbivore men formed sexless relationships, that would be entirely ordinary in Japanese culture (although I think it's assumed that once a couple gets married, they will immediately start producing children).  But these men aren't forming relationships at all!

Of course, in English news sources, it's all about the sex.  You can see from the titles of the stories:*

Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?
Japan's 'herbivore men' -- less interested in sex, money
The Herbivore's Dilemma: Japan panics about the rise of "grass-eating men," who shun sex, don't spend money, and like taking walks.
No Sex, Please, We're Young Japanese Men
Japanese leads the way in sexless love

*There are also a few counterexamples.  Notably, NPR focuses on their rebellion against gender roles.
Ironically, if you look closely at what the Japanese correspondents actually say, rather than what the news source says, you can see some of the truth leaks through.  In The Guardian, a correspondent says:
...many are turning to what she terms "Pot Noodle love" – easy or instant gratification, in the form of casual sex, short-term trysts and the usual technological suspects: online porn, virtual-reality "girlfriends", anime cartoons.
Wait, if it's about the sex, what's the problem with casual sex and short-term trysts?  Answer: it's not really about the sex, but English news sources seem to think it is.

Asexual reactions

Generally speaking, asexuals aren't likely to confuse disinterest in sex with disinterest in relationships, because we talk about that distinction all the time.  But news sources say herbivore men are rejecting sex, so you can hardly blame asexuals for taking this at face value.

If you think herbivore men are avoiding sex, then the parallels with asexuality are obvious.  A few people think it might be related:
"I've been thinking that asexuals are probably not the tiny minority that we think we are.  Perhaps Japan is simply the first country to come to terms with these feelings. "
But this really strains credulity.  Asexuality obviously cannot account for the 60% of urban young men who are not in romantic relationships.  There are clearly lots of other better explanations.  Many asexuals feel compelled to point this out:
"I don't think they're asexual, they're just choosing to focus their priorities elsewhere."

"We really need to keep in mind here, that not showing an interest in sex does not necessarily equal asexuality."
But even though herbivore men are not identified with asexuality, the moral panic over herbivore men is identified as being similar to the moral panic over asexuals.
"That little part of me that secretly wants everyone else to be asexual, too, makes me root for those Japanese guys, though, and get annoyed when everyone always calls this trend a "problem." "

"If it makes a lot of practical sense to choose that lifestyle and those people who do so feel happy and fulfilled, why the hell is everyone freaking out?! Oh, that's right, because having sex is a Basic Human Need and those people who have little interest in sex are clearly unhealthy and need help. "
All these comments come from threads on AVEN's world watch forum.

Men's Rights Activist reactions

When my Queenie wrote for The Asexual Agenda on herbivore men, I was surprised to see an influx of wayward googlers with MRA (Men's Rights Activist) inclinations.  In particular, I remember there was someone who writes for A Voice For Men who seemed to think that we were accusing herbivore men of being misogynistic, even though Queenie's piece was obviously sympathetic to herbivore men.  But perhaps I shouldn't make too much of people being confused on the internet.  At least MRAs seem to understand that herbivore men aren't about rejecting sex.

If you're unfamiliar with MRAs, there was a recent article in The Beast about them.  MRAs are one of the most malicious groups on the internet, and basic human decency compels me to abhor them.  However, this doesn't mean that every particular thing they ever say or advocate is wrong, and for the purposes of this post, I will consider what MRAs say about herbivore men in isolation from other things they say.

In the MRA world, herbivore men draw obvious comparisons to Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW).  MGTOW are "going on strike" on marriage and fatherhood, because they realize the deck is stacked against them:
Men are beginning to recognise their appalling vulnerability when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex, and they are individually waking up to the ridiculous risks they face. Almost 70 per cent of divorces are now initiated by women, and typically it is the man who stands to lose everything — his children, his home, his future income and his reputation. With suicide being the biggest killer of young men in the UK, and with those experiencing relationship breakdown being at the highest risk, he also stands to lose his life.
If we want a glimpse of what the future may hold, we only need to look to Japan where those who reject their traditional masculine role are referred to as "grass eaters" or "herbivore men".
-Why are men going their own way when it comes to relationships?
Another vlogger suggests that herbivore men might be caused by Japan's change to the Western family court system after WWII.

MRAs also seem to draw herbivore men in opposition to feminism:
...apparently, the feminist situation got so bad that Japanese men actually get more pleasure from anime and video game characters than from real women.
The women aren't happy, and some have labelled the behaviour "misogyny"
-The situation of men in Japan
But this opposition appears not to reflect reality.  Searches for herbivore men and feminism mostly turn up MRA sites talking about how they're opposed.  I found very few feminists even talking about herbivore men.   There's one Jezebel piece titled Japan's "Herbivore Men" Refuse To Adhere To Stereotypes which vaguely implies approval of the trend.  I think because feminists often criticize MGTOWs (and it's not hard to see why given the above quotes), and because MGTOWs sympathize with herbivore men, they assume too quickly that feminists would also criticize herbivore men.


Herbivore men are an interesting generational trend in Japan.  In English mainstream media, what really grabs attention is the idea that they are not having sex (even though this is not the part that is considered shocking in Japan).  In asexual spaces, asexuals see the panic over herbivore men as being similar to panic over asexuality.  In MRA spaces, herbivore men are associated with MGTOWs, and are thought to have similar motivations.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

An atonal earworm

I have a fondness for 20th century classical music, because that's when composers really start to peel off the layers of conventional tonality.  That said, I am not sure I'm a fan of twelve-tone serialism, which is the musical movement that went the farthest in the quest to defeat tonality.

Serialist composers would constrain their music such that it would go through every one of the twelve tones before coming back to the first one.  The sequence of twelve tones is called a "tone row".  This was intended to prevent it from being in any particular key.  For example you couldn't say it's in the key of C, because C is only ever played within a tone row with other equally important notes.  But oddly, this constraint often isn't sufficient to defeat tonality.  Even when you have a random sequence of twelve notes, our minds tend to pick out some pattern, and fit it into a key.

Mathemusician Vi Hart has a great video about serialism, which includes a few serialist compositions that are intentionally tonal:

Vi Hart talks a bit about The Owl and the Pussycat, a song by Igor Stravinsky.  But she doesn't play it because it's copyrighted.  But there are other people are willing to violate copyright, so here it is:

But before I move on, I have to talk about these silly lyrics. I was disappointed to learn that Stravinsky didn't write them himself.  Instead, they come from a poem by Edward Lear:
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
   In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
   Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
   And sang to a small guitar,
"O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
    What a beautiful Pussy you are,
         You are,
         You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!"
The rest of the poem describes how the owl and pussycat buy a ring from a pig and get married by a turkey.  Mysteries in the poem abound:  How can they spend a year and a day searching for a ring right after the pussycat delivers the line, "too long we have tarried"?  Why do they only get one ring: which of the two will wear it?   What is a runcible spoon?  I thought the incongruities were just too absurd, until I remembered that "rockabye baby" is a lullaby about a baby falling to its death.

As for Stravinsky's music, it sounds like all the notes are wrong.  But I may have an unusual opinion: I think it is catchy.  As in, I literally caught the singer's melody in my head.  I had a serialist earworm.

This raises the question of whether my earworm accurately reflects the song.  Is it truly an atonal earworm?  Or is my mind interpreting the music as being in a particular key?

This can be tested with an experiment!  A couple days after listening to the song, I transcribed it from memory.  Then I transcribed the original song, almost finishing the first stanza before giving up.  Here are the results:

Each line represents one of Stravinsky's tone rows.  In blue is Stravinsky's tone row (I ignore repeated notes for simplicity).  The other colors show the corresponding notes that were in my earworm.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my earworm is full of inaccuracies.  Besides getting a bunch of notes just wrong, there are also a few sections that were shifted up or down by an interval.  There are also some missing parts.  I hadn't at all remembered the line, "And sang to a small guitar."  And lastly, my earworm gets completely derailed in the last line ("What a beautiful pussy...").

The last line is different from the others, because it's not really a tone row.  The note F is repeated three times!  D# and F# are also repeated.  Perhaps Stravinsky didn't follow tone rows strictly.  Or I transcribed the notes wrong (transcription is hard).  Or the singer sung the wrong notes (who would know?).  In any case, there's one part of the line that stands out as having conventional tonality: the sequence C#, A#, B ("-ssy you are!").  This is called an "authentic cadence", and it tends to establish a key of B.

The authentic cadence is such a strong structure that it appeared in my earworm, albeit shifted to the key of D.  And then it seems like the entire line got derailed into a key of D major.

No wonder my earworm is so inaccurate in this spot.

This leads me to conclude that while some parts of my earworm roughly represent the original, there's also a tendency for my mind to substitute the atonal melody with a tonal one.  This is more likely to occur as we get further into the song, since I tend to have a poorer memory of those parts.

I wonder if there is any research on how well earworms tend to reflect the songs that they come from.  I daresay that I would have a much easier time transcribing Lady Gaga from memory.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The WXYZ model

 The WXYZ model, by Tung Ken Lam.  Guitar pick shown for scale.

Here it is, the most elegant model in all of modular origami.  It's called the WXYZ model because it is made of four intersecting planes, which we could call the w, x, y, and z planes.

When this model was invented in 2001, it created a whole new branch of modular origami.  Creating an intersection of three planes (the XYZ model) is obvious.  But once we realize that we can intersect four planes, why not more?  Soon we had VWXYZ models, UVWXYZ models, TUVWXYZ models, and so on until QRSTUVWXYZ.

Yes, the naming convention is kind of ridiculous.

The WXYZ model looks like four triangles, but each triangle is really made of three parts.  So it's made of 12 modules total.  If you look carefully, you'll find that the 12 modules correspond to the 12 edges of a cube.

Since the WXYZ model is so iconic, I thought I'd use it in an icon for my sidebar.  Now you can click on this icon for quick access to the origami category on my blog.

Friday, October 11, 2013

A research project shift

Here I'm going to talk a bit about my research, but devoid of any particulars.  This is partly because the vast majority of you wouldn't understand the particulars.  But mostly it's because I can't leak any information on my group's research.

Over the past few months, I shifted research projects.  It wasn't a huge shift.  I'm still in the same research group, studying the same material, using the same experimental technique, but I'm no longer working on the same paper.  This has probably set me back a bit, because I spent a year on my project without any paper to show for it.

The issue was that my advisor and Famous Theorist are both pushing a particular interpretation of my data that I don't agree with.  My interpretation is much less exciting than theirs.  I'm also not sure what experiment I could perform to rule out my interpretation.  My interpretation is along the lines of "this kind of analysis is invalid" rather than a fully-formed theory, so it's not really the kind of thing you prove or disprove easily.

I told a friend about this situation, and he said it was very "principled" of me to drop the project just because I didn't agree with the exciting conclusions.  He didn't agree with this principled stance.  He thought it was better to publish a paper with overreaching conclusions than not to publish at all.  Sure, the conclusions will likely be disproven later, but there's a small chance they'll turn out to be correct.

I'm not sure that I was taking any principled stance.  Maybe if the paper was nearly ready to be published, I'd be fine publishing it even with the conclusions that I disagree with.  But the truth is I'd have to do a lot more work to get to that point.  And if anyone would acknowledge my alternative hypothesis, that would mean even more experiments to rule it out.  I'm not really willing to invest that extra time to go nowhere.

My advisor and I were a bit frustrated with each other's positions.  My advisor was frustrated with me because she thought I was misunderstanding Famous Theorist, and that I wasn't proposing any experiment to test my theory, which she didn't understand.  I was frustrated with my advisor because she was misunderstanding Famous Theorist, and also my own theory.

But I don't mean to make it out like this has been hurting my relationship with my advisor.  There's an easy resolution to the disagreement: I switch projects, and she assigns another student to continue my old one.  It's slightly awkward, because I openly believe that the other student is now stuck in a dead-end project, but I wish them success in any case.

One advantage of switching projects at this time is that I know enough to form my own ideas of what to study.  I had a new idea in France, which I excitedly presented to my group.  My advisor likes when students come up with their own ideas, so she lets me pursue it.

Long story short, I haven't published anything, and I'm not close to publishing anything yet.  Oh well.  Such is the life of a grad student.

Monday, October 7, 2013

How puzzling influenced me

My ghost of internet past

Dear readers, what was your first introduction to the internet?

I'm part of the "millenial" generation, which means I grew up with the internet.  Well, sort of--I didn't actually pay the internet any attention until high school.  The point is, I had internet at such a time that it was important to the development of my identity.

But my introduction to the internet was not through blogs or forums or anything like that.  My introduction was through a small puzzle website called Perplexus.  Surprisingly, the website is still alive after 10 years, with not much changed. Perplexus publishes daily word problems, much like the puzzles that I occasionally publish on this blog (no coincidence there).  The content is user-submitted, and also selected by higher-ranking members.  I wrote over seventy puzzles over the course of three or four years.

I think I've mentioned Perplexus a few times in the past, but never by name or in detail.  I think I've been embarrassed, as I always feel embarrassed by old internet activity.  What an awkward dork past-me was!  I probably said such stupid things!  Not that I remember anything stupid in particular.

But I do remember things.  I remember learning a bit of html code, because some parts of the site require it to make links or line breaks.  I remember learning about combinatorics, the mathematics of counting.  I remember learning modular arithmetic.  I remember arguing about the urn problem, the 1.99999... = 2 problem, and the envelope paradox.  I remember learning about Raymond Smullyan and Martin Gardner.

Some of my memories also demonstrate how Perplexus dominated my internet world.  I learned all the ins and outs of the ranking system, and the complicated queue system for submitted puzzles.  The queue itself seemed like a puzzle to me.  I dug through the forum archives once, because I was interested in the social history of the site.  I read about a kid who was once caught sockpuppeting, on a puzzle website of all places.  That fascinated me, though I did not think it strange.

I looked at the webpages of regulars who had them.  There was a guy who it seemed could solve every puzzle very quickly, and who frequently irritated other members by solving it with a computer.  I respected him a lot.  His personal webpage had a series of essays about why he left Catholicism.  Some time later, I left Catholicism, though I think that's something I would have done anyway.

I do this for fun

At the time I had this philosophy.  Doing puzzles was a thing I did for fun.  Because it was an intellectual activity, I knew that some people might think of it as a useful, virtuous activity, like exercising.  But I rejected that idea, and insisted I was doing it for fun, not to learn things.

Did my philosophy stand the test of time?  Did solving puzzles impact my later life?  I often doubt that it had much effect.  Some stuff I learned was just useless.  Like Polya theory, what's that good for?  Or the method to solve lines-through-points puzzles?  Or coin-weighing puzzles?

But when I describe my life, it seems obvious that puzzles did have an impact.  I still have a fondness for shapes, as you might have noticed.  I still like to joke about set theory.  And it affected my career too.  Because of my problem-solving skills, I always had an easy time in math and physics courses.  I used to joke that I majored in physics because it was the easiest subject, and that was really true for me.  After undergraduate, problems are much more open-ended and un-puzzle-like.  But the skills still transfer over.

On this blog, I also consider issues that are more open-ended and un-puzzle-like.  And yet my approach tends to be the same approach I have to puzzles, if that makes any sense.  A puzzle is not about the answer;  If it were about the answer, then you could just look up the answer and be satisfied.  A puzzle is about the process.  It's about the challenge.  It's about the little mathematical tidbits we learn along the way.

Most importantly, it's about fun.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Another bloggiversary

Today is my sixth bloggiversary.  After the five-year mark, six years hardly seems special.  But six is still a special number, if only because it's the smallest element of the set of non-special natural numbers.  This year in blogging, I launched an origami series, and my "Fantastic Primer" series.

As with previous years, I will highlight some of my favorite posts:

A portrait of an "unsolved problem"
What are topological defects?
Quantum interpretations are scientific

Faith in fiction is hard 
Scouts, Mormons, and doing the wrong things for the right reasons
Questioning atheist org priorities 
Another way of viewing the skepticism/atheism dispute

Just how bad is evolutionary psychology?
Privilege and charity
Gaydar as cold reading

Bayesian reasoning and asexuality
A skeptically-oriented Asexuality 101

Evolution of prisoner's dilemma strategies
Math and Causality
Improving on the queue
Why do I blog?

You can see highlights from previous years by tracking my bloggiversaries backwards.