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.