Friday, September 27, 2013

Atheism as minority, atheism as political cause

This is part of my "Fantastic Primer" series, which incorporates a few fictional elements.  In particular, if I were to write an atheism 101 in earnest, it would look quite different.  Please read the introductory post, which explains the premise.

On the rarity of Atheism 101 
After writing "A skeptically-oriented Asexuality 101", the natural next step is to write an Atheism 101.  I am much less prepared to write an Atheism 101, because it's simply not done very often.  You can find a few 101s online, but nothing on the scale of asexual education material out there.  Think a bit about why this is.

I propose that it's because atheists simply aren't as interested in producing "allies".

Queer people need political allies.  There are a certain number of queer people, and a certain number of non-queer people, and the goal is for us to all live happily together.  But, as I've already said, atheism is a quasi-political issue.  I don't expect atheists and theists to get along any more than I expect liberals and conservatives to get along.

But perhaps I speak too soon.  This is one of the central tensions of movement atheism.  On the one hand it's a quasi-political group.  On the other hand, it's also a minority identity.  There are some causes that are common in every minority identity, regardless of the content of that identity: fighting against discrimination, getting recognition, and creating a community.  In these causes, I would be happy of allies.

Here I present an idiosyncratic atheism 101.  If you participate at all in the asexual community, you've probably spoken with many atheists, and already realize that they are ordinary people, and not nihilists who hate god and worship themselves.  Instead I will talk about what atheists want.  It's a way to explore the differences between political causes, and minority causes--and to blur the lines between the two.

Atheism is a civil rights issue

Atheists, at least in the US, are a minority religious group, but without being a religion per se.  We share a lot of causes in common with minority religions.  A historic example is the removal of sponsored prayer from public schools in 1963.  Sponsored prayer in public settings is basically rubbing the Christian majority rule into the faces of everyone who is not Christian.  And it seems like every week I hear of another school or city council that is having sponsored prayer.  Oh look, here's a story from yesterday.

There also seems to be discrimination that is particularly aimed at atheists.  Stereotypes abound about atheists being particularly angry or pushy.  Groups like the boy scouts and AA aren't inclusive of atheists.  Many atheists feel the need to remain closeted to their families or to the public.  These things reflect a distrust of atheists that is both acute and systematic.

Separation of church and state

Some discrimination is instituted by the government or public policy.  For example, it's easier for a church to file for tax exemption than a non-profit organization, and the IRS always turns the other way when churches break tax laws by engaging in political campaigning.  I see this as a violation of the separation of church and state, and I hope it is ruled unconstitutional in the future.

There are also lots of public policies which don't literally violate the separation of church and state, but seem to violate the spirit of it.  When you legislate religious morality, you're applying it to secular people who may not believe in that morality.  Public policy should be secular, because it needs to accomodate everyone, not just the majority religion.

But when I think of examples of legislated relgion, I think of same-sex marriage opponents, pro-lifers, and people trying to displace education about evolution.  These are pretty much political issues.  See how we shifted from civil rights issues to partisan politics.  In my experience, the vast majority of atheist activists are either liberal or libertarian, and I suspect the former is more prevalent.

Social justice and inclusivity

Because the atheist movement is predominantly liberal, especially on social issues, it is strongly affected by the feminist and social justice wars.  (People on Tumblr seem to think that Tumblr has some unique brand of social justice, but as far as I can tell, it's not so different from what's happening all over the rest of the internet.)  Most atheists fancy themselves anti-sexist, anti-racist, pro-LGBTQ, etc.  But then, you have the usual problem that people aren't always as anti-sexist or anti-racist as they think they are.  And so you have atheists who think they support women, but who oppose anti-harassment policies at conferences.

That particular flame war is still burning a year after the fact.

I bring this up, because there's an interesting intersection between political and minority causes here.  On the one hand, atheism is a minority identity, which means we need to build a community to support ourselves.  That community needs to be inclusive, which means minimizing extraneous political causes.  People argue that feminism is such an extraneous cause, and should be kept separate from atheism.  If atheists want to fight for feminism, they can join the feminist movement separately.  There are two counter arguments.  First, feminism is not extraneous, because a lot of sexism is religiously motivated.  Second, we at least need some basic feminism (eg anti-harassment policies) to truly be inclusive of women.

I hope this illustrates the impossibility of truly separating the political causes of atheism, and the minority causes.  But there is a distinction in that minority causes invite allies, while political causes do not expect any.  I hope all readers can at least support atheists as a minority group by opposing discrimination, stereotypes, and governmental establishment of religion.


The Secular Coalition for America has a good list of political goals.
Greta Christina has a good list of things that piss atheists off.

The Fantastic Primer series:
1. Introduction
2. Why I don't trust you
3. Yes, I'm one of those atheists
4. A skeptically-oriented Asexuality 101 
5. Atheism as minority, atheism as political cause
6. Atheism and asexuality: a historical comparison  
7. Why atheism and asexuality taste great together 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Puzzle: Don't step on the grass

I was suddenly reminded of a geometric puzzle.  This puzzle is not original, but the thematic content is mine.

There is a patch of grass on a high school grounds.  It's shaped like a square (each side being one unit long).  The students aren't supposed to walk on it, but they do.  You could prevent them from walking on the grass by surrounding it with a fence.

But you can save on some fencing by exploiting a key fact about these high school students: they will only ever walk through the grass in straight lines.  So as long as you build enough fences to block all straight lines through the grass, you can prevent students from walking through it.  (Note that paths skimming the edge of the grass don't count, but paths cutting through the corners do count.)  What's the minimum length of fencing necessary?

If that puzzle is too easy, imagine that the grass is shaped like a regular hexagon.

I don't know if this will help, but there's a website which lets you construct geometrical shapes, as if you had a ruler and compass. Here is a square to start, and here is a hexagon.

I would have asked about a grass field shaped like a regular pentagon, but it's quite difficult.  Try it if you're brave.

See the solution

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Cuboctahedron plus

Cuboctahedron.  I made this in the days when I thought it was cool to have every face be a different color.

Today, I'll show you the first Archimedean solid I made, the cuboctahedron.  Many modular origami models are based on the Platonic solids.  In a Platonic solid, every face is the same regular polygon, and each vertex has the same number of polygons around it.  In an Archimedean solid, there are at least two kind of polygon faces.  There are 13 kinds of Archimedean solids (under a particular definition).

The cuboctahedron can be seen as a cube, where each of its vertices have been cut off.  Or it can be seen as an octahedron where each of its vertices have been cut off.  Thus the name.

Funny story about the cuboctahedron.  I created the model myself, using a standard square module, and inventing a simple triangle module.  Later, I got a book by Tomoko Fuse, and she has the exact same method!  Furthermore, she had a bunch of ideas about things you can add onto the cuboctahedron to make new shapes.

The cuboctahedron, half-way transformed into a cube.  Note that I made this much later, after I figured out that it's good to repeat the same color sometimes.

As I said, the cuboctahedron can be seen as a cube with its vertices cut off.  By adding extra paper, I can add those vertices back on.  Here I added only four of the vertices, so it's not yet a cube.  Instead it's a different polyhedron, that is neither a Platonic solid nor an Archimedean solid.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Prisoner's Dilemma and evolutionary stability

In the last post of this series, I discussed a paper which established the existence of so-called ZD strategies in the iterated prisoner's dilemma.  Using a ZD strategy, you can either unilaterally choose your opponent's score, or you can enforce a linear relationship between your opponent's score and your own.  You can choose an extortionate ZD strategy, wherein small increase in your opponent's score results in a larger increase in your own score.  Here, your opponent's best strategy is to cooperate fully, even though you reap most of the benefits.

The paper claimed that this is a powerful strategy against an evolutionary opponent, since you can cause your opponent to evolve into a tamer form.  Here, I will discuss a paper which disagrees:

Adami, C. & Hintze, A. Evolutionary instability of zero-determinant strategies demonstrates that winning is not everything. Nat. Commun. 4, 2193 (2013).

Evolutionary stability

A key concept in this paper is that of evolutionarily stable strategies.  As the title of the paper says, winning is not everything, and what makes a strategy "win" is not the same as what makes a strategy evolutionarily stable.

When we say that one strategy "wins" against another, we imagine the two strategies facing off directly, and the winner getting the higher score.  In symbolic terms, let E(X,Y) be the expected score of strategy X when playing against an opponent with strategy Y.  X wins against Y if

E(X,Y) > E(Y,X).

But when we say that one strategy is evolutionarily stable against another, we imagine that there is a population where one strategy is most prevalent.  We ask if mutations of that strategy will ever gain a foothold.  Rather than having X and Y face off against each other directly, they both face off against the most prevalent strategy, X.  X is evolutionarily stable against Y if

E(X,X) > E(Y,X).

In the case where E(X,X) = E(Y,X), then X and Y seem to be on equal footing, so we need to consider higher-order effects.  X may be the most prevalent strategy, but at least a few individuals will mutate into Y.  So at least some of the time, the opponent will be Y rather than X.  X is weakly stable against Y if

E(X,X) = E(Y,X) and E(X,Y) > E(Y,Y),

and X is weakly unstable against Y if

E(X,X) = E(Y,X) and E(X,Y) < E(Y,Y).

Already we can vaguely see how cooperation might be an evolutionarily stable strategy, even though it is unstable from a game theory perspective.  A key to evolutionary stability is how well you do against opponents that are like yourself.

Why ZD strategies don't work

Consider the ZD strategy where you unilaterally choose your opponent's score.  This isn't actually that great from the perspective of evolutionary stability.  For the ZD strategy to be evolutionarily stable, we want

E(ZD,ZD) > E(O,ZD),

where O is some other strategy.  But by unilaterally choosing your opponent's score, you force

E(ZD,ZD) = E(O,ZD).

At most this ZD strategy can be weakly stable.   In fact, ZD is weakly unstable against many other strategies.  For example, they show that it is always weakly unstable against the Pavlov strategy.1  This is not only shown in the equations, but in a couple simulations.  These simulations pit a ZD population against a Pavlov population, and show that Pavlov dominates.

There's also another kind of simulation which allows strategies to mutate and evolve freely (as opposed to being constrained to just ZD and Pavlov).  In these simulations, if you start out with a ZD population, and have a very slow mutation rate, the population eventually settles on the "general cooperation" strategy.2  This is interesting, because the ZD strategy is evolutionarily stable against the general cooperation strategy.  Even though a ZD population would beat out a general cooperation population, small mutations cause ZD to be unstable, but do not cause general cooperation to be unstable.3  This is a second, distinct sense in which ZD is an evolutionarily unstable strategy.  The paper calls this "mutational instability".

But so far I've only discussed the kind of ZD strategy where you unilaterally choose your opponent's score.  The paper briefly considers extortionate ZD strategies, and finds that they do even worse.  When an extortionate strategy faces off against itself, it results in mutual defection.  This makes it very unstable.  Extortionate ZD strategies do in fact tame opponents into cooperation--and this will result in cooperators replacing the existing ZD population.

I have a criticism of this paper.  The paper only considers these two kinds of ZD strategies, which were the ones mentioned explicitly in the original ZD paper.  However, there are plenty of other ZD strategies not considered.

Communication: a force for evil?

In the BBC article about this paper, it's implied that the reason cooperation evolves is because of communication.  This is basically the opposite of what the paper says, no joke.

The paper says that perhaps ZD strategies can be evolutionarily stable against more cooperative strategies if ZD players recognize each other.  This isn't so much about communication (since communicators can lie) but about visible indicators of one's genetics.  If ZD players recognize each other, and selectively cooperate with each other (but not with mutants), this makes it more stable.

But there are a few problems with this solution.  First, if ZD players can recognize other ZD players, it stands to reason that other kinds of players can do the same.  Second, it's possible for other players to evolve "camouflage" to look like ZD players.  This would result in some sort of camouflage/detection arms race.

Explanation of my simulation results

The conditions for evolutionary instability very nicely explain the results of my simulation of the evolution of the iterated prisoner's dilemma.  In my simulation, I showed cyclic evolution from defection to tit-for-tat to cooperation, and back to defection.  After some thought, this makes sense, because each strategy in the cycle is evolutionarily unstable against the next one.  However, the instability of defection against tit-for-tat is extremely marginal, so I can see why the simulation seemed to get stuck in defection for long periods of time.

I was surprised to find that one of the simulations in the paper is quite similar to my own.  There are a few critical differences which I will discuss later.  It's become clear to me that in the next installment of this series, I will redo my simulation, with modifications in light of what I have read.


1. The Pavlov strategy is to cooperate if and only if the previous game was mutual cooperation or mutual defection.  The notation is (1,0,0,1).  The Pavlov strategy is strange, but it plays well against itself because it always leads to mutual cooperation regardless of the initial game.

2. The general cooperation strategy is (0.935, 0.229, 0.266, 0.42).  In the literature, simulations have established that this is the dominating strategy under the condition of low mutation rates.

3. I believe that this result may depend on the particular implementation of the mutation.  The implementation used is that there is a very small chance that an individual will replace one of its four numbers with a new random number between 0 and 1. This is different from the way I implemented mutation in my simulation, for instance.

This is part of a miniseries on the evolution of Prisoner's Dilemma strategies.
1. Evolution of prisoner's dilemma strategies
2. Extortionate strategies in Prisoner's dilemma
3. Prisoner's Dilemma and evolutionary stability
4. A modified prisoner's dilemma simulation

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The fluidity uncertainty principle

This was cross-posted on The Asexual Agenda.

This is a silly observation only I would ever make.

Every physicist should know that frequency and time are complementary variables. They’re related by an uncertainty principle, similar to the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics governing position and momentum. The more precisely you know the position of a particle, the less precisely you can know its momentum. The more precisely you know its momentum, the less precisely you can know its position.

Likewise, if you want to precisely know the frequency of something, you have to average over a long period of time. If you want to know how the frequency changes over short timescales, you must accept an inherent uncertainty in the frequency.

One of the ways in which people are different from each other is in how frequently they’re sexually attracted to other people. However, our sexualities are not always constant throughout our lives. Therefore, you can describe (one aspect of) sexuality with a frequency, and you can say that this frequency changes over time.

But there’s a fundamental limitation to how precisely you can know frequency and time together. If you want to talk about how someone’s frequency of attraction varies from year to year, then it is impossible to pin down this frequency with precision greater than once a year.

Mostly, this doesn’t matter. If you’re attracted to about ten people a year, then what does it matter if you’re not sure if it’s actually nine or eleven people a year? Who can even count up that high anyway?

However, if you’re very infrequently attracted to people, and experience high fluidity, then we enter what I’m going to call the quantum sexuality regime. Here, the fluidity uncertainty principle reigns.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Sexual assault without trauma

The latest uproar in the atheosphere is that Richard Dawkins mentioned that he was sexually assaulted by a schoolmaster when he was 11.  He said it was "extremely disagreeable", but it did not do lasting harm.  The same schoolmaster assaulted many kids Dawkins knew, and he says he thinks it didn't do lasting harm to any of them.  You can see the quotes and context on Friendly Atheist.

Incidentally, I said on Tumblr a few weeks ago that I was a victim of sexual assault.  There were two separate incidents where some drunk guy at a party repeatedly sticking their hand down my pants, despite me physically trying to pull it out.  One guy was a stranger, the other was (and is) a friend.  I was not upset by either incident, much less traumatized.

However, unlike Dawkins, I do not generalize my experience.  Just because I didn't get significantly hurt does not mean that others are not significantly hurt.  That's sort of like saying, I fully recovered from cancer when I was younger, therefore cancer is not as bad as it's usually made out to be.  Rather insensitive, yes?

My own experience isn't even generalizable to myself.  There was a third incident where I had sex at a party.  I've interpreted it as consensual, but one could argue otherwise given that we were both drinking.  I was very upset by the incident over the next month (although I wasn't traumatized in the long term).  I think this incident was different largely because of where I was in life--I had recently come out at the time.

In the comment thread on Friendly Atheist, multiple people are suggesting that Dawkins actually was traumatized, and the trauma prevents him from admitting it.  Just to take an example:
His downplaying of the scenario probably was how it damaged him. He writes it as if it was happening to someone else. And that's a way people cope with these issues.
This is sort of like saying, you think you recovered from cancer, but you must not have because cancer is just too awful.  Or like saying, you think you're not in pain, but clearly this is just a pain-induced delusion.  I'm not sure it even makes sense to say that a person experiences pain or trauma without being aware of it.

And I find it personally offensive.  They are not just telling Dawkins that his experience isn't real, they're telling me that my experience isn't real.  No, really, I was not upset by those two incidents.  And I know because I can compare to a third incident which did upset me.

I don't like what Dawkins said about sexual assault, but I believe him when he says it did not do him lasting damage.  This is within the range of experiences of sexual assault.  It is both important and humane to acknowledge this.  It is important, because when someone comes forward with a story of sexual assault without trauma, it should not be so shocking so as to shatter the blanket condemnation of sexual assault.  It is humane, because it helps victims of sexual assault admit that they were assaulted (my understanding is that it's common for victims to not admit it), even if they did not respond to it in the "standard" way.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Skeptical arcana

In France, my roommate was from Russia, but studied in the US.  He seemed to be some sort of 9/11 truther.  Or maybe he was just playing the devil's advocate, he liked to do that.  He didn't know much about the subject, but seemed to think that it was reasonable to think that the US government allowed a terrorist strike so that they might justify an attack on Iraq.  He compared to some terrorist attacks in Russia that he thought were staged by the government.  (Looking it up, I'm now sure he was talking about the Russian Apartment Bombings.)

Because I've hung out with lots of skeptics, I know a few basic facts about 9/11 truthers.  I know that the movement only became popular around 2006 or so, due to the documentary Loose Change.  I know that it is now declining in popularity after Obama's election.  I know that there is a difference between LIHOP (let it happen on purpose) and MIHOP (made it happen on purpose) truthers.

I know that they make at least a few ridiculous arguments.  In particular, I remember there was a firefighter on TV who said "pull it", referring to pulling the firefighters out of the building.  Truthers argue that "pull it" is controlled-demolition terminology, and that this slip of the tongue gives the conspiracy away.  Probably truthers have less ridiculous arguments, but this is the sort of stuff that we like to laugh about.

I know that I don't have the ability to argue against 9/11 truthers.

9/11 conspiracy theories are too specialized.  You really need to do your research to argue effectively.  It's all very well to look at the surface and mock it for fun.  Or you can listen to arguments and point out fallacies.  But to understanding how to recognize good and bad arguments can only get you so far; what you really need is knowledge.  Without knowledge, the best I can do is defer to other sources.

I think of 9/11 conspiracy theories as belonging to skeptical arcana.  Obscure knowledge is required.  Unless you know your stuff, you can't argue about it.  Your opponent is likely to know more than you, because they're more invested in it.

What other things qualify as skeptical arcana?  Pretty much all conspiracy theories.  Cryptozoology.*  UFOlogy.  Those crank theories that people often mass-e-mail out to physics faculty.  Denial of anthropogenic climate change.

*People often deride bigfoot skepticism, because bigfoot seems so hokey and ridiculous, it would be pointless back-patting to debunk it.  However, I think the ridiculousness of it means that only the most devoted people believe in cryptozoology; they're likely to know much more about the topic than you do.

What doesn't qualify as skeptical arcana?  Creationism is one example.  Most people with a college education understand enough evolutionary theory to rebut Creationist arguments.  And anyone can argue against Biblical authority.

Skeptical arcana is frustrating for many armchair skeptics like myself.  I don't have the knowledge to talk about it, and I'm not willing to put in the effort to research every little thing.  But it is better to recognize this limitation rather than deny it.  I believe the best solution is an institutional one.  We have a community of skeptics, and just a few people need to be experts on any given subject.  Those experts do the research and present the arguments, and the rest of us use them as a reference.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Reading of the past year

I haven't talked about my reading material in almost a year.  That's because I usually write about books because I want book recommendations, but I haven't needed recommendations lately.

In the past year, my interests have turned towards historical fiction.

I read several novels by Kazuo Ishiguro.  One of them, Remains of the Day, is about a butler who reflects back on his life, and realizes that his master was a Nazi sympathizer.  Another, Artist of the Floating World, is about an artist in Japan, who reflects back on his work supporting the Japanese empire in WWII.  There seems to be a bit of a pattern in Ishiguro's work.  The history provides an emotional background, but the main focus is actually the main character, the narrator.  As they tell their story, the reader can see that their perceptions are distorted by what they are unable or unwilling to see.

I also read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.  It's a story of magicians, that takes place in the early 19th century.  Naturally, the magicians set out to solve the greatest problem of their time: Napoleon.  Very fun.

Lastly, I'll mention Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood.  She's generally thought of as a feminist author, and Blind Assassin focuses on a female character who is trapped by gender roles.  But that's not what's great about the book.  The main character's sister kills herself, and leaves behind a novel.  The novel tells the story about a woman and her lover; her lover tells her a sci-fi story.  So it's a story within a story within a story.

Kazuo Ishiguro and Margaret Atwood can be quite dry, and I can only imagine that I would have hated them in high school.  But for now I'm enjoying the high-brow literature (or "snooty" literature, as I like to think of it).  Maybe later I can read some pulpy stuff too.

I was considering reading J. K. Rowling's new novels, only it would take a long time for them to become available at the library.

ETA: If you know me and are on GoodReads, you should add me!