Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A modified prisoner's dilemma simulation


Over a year ago, I wrote a series of posts about the evolution of iterated prisoner's dilemma strategies.  Since it was so long ago, I will briefly recap, although reading the previous posts may be necessary.
  1. I explained what the iterated prisoner's dilemma game is.  Then I program a simple evolutionary simulation where there is a population of individuals who play iterated prisoner's dilemma games against each other.  Rather than intelligently choosing strategies, the individuals blindly follow strategies determined by their "genes".

  2. I explain an important scientific paper which demonstrates the existence of so-called "Zero-determinant strategies" (ZD strategies).  These strategies allow one player to unilaterally determine the score of their opponent, or unilaterally enforce a linear relationship between their opponent's score and their own.  The paper claims that this should lead to extortionate strategies in evolution.

  3. I explain a response to the ZD paper.  In some sense, ZD strategies may "win", but this does not mean they are evolutionarily stable.  The paper explains conditions for evolutionary stability, and shows that several key ZD strategies are not evolutionarily stable.
In this, the final post of the series, I will modify my evolutionary simulation in light of what I learned from the papers.  I actually modified the simulation a long time ago, but I stalled while trying to figure out what parameters to use.  It was difficult to find a mutation rate which was low enough to allow for population stability, but high enough that the simulation would operate in a reasonable amount of time.

My primary conclusion, therefore, is that researchers in this field have their work cut out for them.  I could see using a supercomputer on this problem, and more fully exploring different variations.  But I'm not trying to contribute to the field, I'm just doing this for fun, and to better understand the field.

Modifications in the simulation

Here are the things I changed in my simulation in light of what I read in the literature:
  • Previously, each individual was specified with three parameters.  Now I use four, because these individuals remember not only whether their opponents cooperated or defected in the previous round, but also remember what they themselves did.

  • Previously, I calculated the average outcome after ten iterations of the prisoner's dilemma.  Using mathematical techniques from the literature, it now calculates the average outcome after an infinite number of iterations.  This modification eliminates the need to know what individuals do in the first iteration.  Also, the calculations don't work with "pure" strategies, so every individual always has at least 0.1% chance of cooperation and 0.1% chance of defection.

  • I switched to a payoff matrix of 5/3/1/0, which is the standard in literature.

  • Previously, the individual with the highest score reproduced, and the individual with the lowest score died.  In the literature, the chance of reproduction is proportional to score, and a random individual dies.  I found that the reproduction process makes a huge difference, because it's the difference between trying to be better and trying to be the best.  I changed it so that reproduction rate is proportional to score, and death rate is proportional to five minus the score.
I note that the literature seems to prefer a different mutation process than what I used.  I had individuals constantly mutating their parameters by small amounts.  They instead gave each individual a small chance of mutating a single parameter to a random value.  Both methods make sense.  If behaviors are controlled by many genes, there will be a large chance of small mutations; if behaviors are controlled by just a few genes, there will be a small chance of large mutations. I tried both ways, but stuck with my method because it was easier to make the simulation stable.

The results

The following comes from a population of 40 (which is far smaller than the populations used in the literature).  Each generation, each player plays against two randomly chosen opponents.  Then reproduction and death is assigned by the scores, and the genes of each individual are mutated by a random number between -0.005 and 0.005.

A million generations are shown.  It takes about seven minutes to run.

Here I plot values as they change over the generations.  The thick black line shows the average score (right axis).  The other four lines show the probability (left axis) of cooperating given the outcome of the previous iteration.  For example the CC line shows the probability of me cooperating if we both cooperated in the previous iteration.  The CD line shows the probability of me cooperating if in the last iteration I cooperated and you defected.  All of these values vary through the population, but what's shown are the population averages.

You could be forgiven for thinking that it all looks like a bunch of noise.  This is basically why my simulation stalled.  Is it all just noise from genetic drift?  Do I need a lower mutation rate or larger population?  Or am I biasing results by changing the parameters until the noise is reduced to my satisfaction?  I'm not paid enough to figure it out.

But you can see a few strategies showing up over and over:
  • Defection.  All colored lines are near zero, and the average score is near 1.
  • General cooperation.  In the literature, evolutionary simulations converge on the so-called general cooperation strategy, (0.935, 0.229, 0.266, 0.42).  My simulation is a bit different and not very stable, but you can see similar results whenever the green line is high and the other colored lines are low.
  • Tit-for-tat.  This is the (1,0,1,0) strategy, when the green and orange lines are high, and the others are low.  It only appears a couple times, but seems stable.
  • Other hybrid cooperation strategies (green plus blue, or green plus aqua) occur repeatedly, and generally precede a descent from cooperation to defection.  If I were to give this a narrative, it's sort of like the population goes soft on crime, and then the criminals take over?
  •  I find myself very puzzled by the aqua only strategy, which occurs twice.  I call it the "submission" strategy, since it means that if you cooperate and your opponent defects, then you may just choose to cooperate again.  I don't understand how this could possibly be evolutionarily stable.  This was the sort of thing that made me wonder if my simulation was being wonky.  But here it is:

I also wanted to do a quick test to see how much the different strategies resemble ZD strategies.  I didn't figure out how to define resemblance though, so that was a dead end.

In summary, you can see the results are complicated, and that's why you have to pay researchers money instead of making them work for free.

Extra: Battle of the Sexes

My boyfriend was really curious what happens if you try the same simulation in an iterated Battle of the Sexes game.  In Battle of the Sexes, there is a married couple, and the husband wants to go to a monster truck rally, and the wife wants to go to the opera, or something ridiculously gendered.  Anyway, each person prefers to get their own choice, but going together is still preferable to going separately.

This is pretty easy to do with the same script I already wrote, I just need to replace the payoff matrix 5/3/1/0 with 5/0/0/3.

This is largely an afterthought, so I'm just running it for 100,000 generations.  The left axis shows the probability of giving in, given different outcomes of the previous iteration.
(ETA: I realized the legend is ambiguous.  "My choice" represents the probability that I will give in if in the previous iteration both me and my spouse went to my preferred event.  "Your choice" is the probability that I will give in if in the previous iteration both me and my spouse went to my spouse's preferred event.)

That was really straightforward.  If you're playing an infinite number of iterations of Battle of the Sexes, the evolutionarily stable strategy is to mostly avoid giving in.  But once somebody finally does give in, they continue to give in.  It's funny that the average score hovers around 3, instead of 4.  I guess it's common to have evolutionary players who just never give in.

I suppose this supports the idea that the Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma is really complicated, and it's not just that my simulation is noisy.


This is the last 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

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas music

This is that most wonderful time of the year when we all ask the question: Is it ethical for society to subject us all to music that some people enjoy, and others do not?

Sure, some people have a net gain from the music.  Probably even most people.  In fact, it's probably a net gain overall.  But if the gain requires coercively harming a minority, is it truly worthwhile?  It's sort of like the Omelas situation, where the success of a utopia relies on perpetually torturing a little kid.

I'm being facetious here, and anyway the rest of the year we're subjected to pop music.

Lately I've been listening to Penderecki.  He's a living classical composer, considered influential in the avant-garde movement.  Here's one of his most famous pieces, from 1960:

Do you think it would be ethical to play this music in public spaces?

In case you prefer something a little more tonal, later on Penderecki moved away from avant-garde music, and composed things like this Christmas Symphony:

It sounds practically like 19th century music.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Writing a novel: Month 8

This month was a relatively successful one, for my novel.  I doubled my word count, and sent it out to some (not all) of my test readers.  Feedback was negative, which is a good thing because I can improve!

Today, I'd like to talk about the mixed messages I get as a writer.

At Thanksgiving, one of the questions my mother asks me is "Are you going to continue with your PhD?"

I can't believe I'm hearing this!  I try writing a novel, and suddenly people ask if I'm continuing with my PhD program?  Nobody ever asked that in relation to any of the other hobbies I pick up.  When I started blogging, no one ever asked if I would continue with university.  When I picked up guitar, no one ever asked me if I was planning to switch to being a rock star.  When I picked up origami (and even made a small profit from it), no one ever asked if this meant I was giving up physics.

Let's put this in perspective.  I wrote about 7k words of my novel, and there were about 10k words in the novel I scrapped.  This is less than 20k words over the course of 8 months.  How many words did I write for my blog in the same amount of time?  I estimate 50k words.  But somehow, writing a book signals a greater time commitment.

Another thing that happened this month was National Novel Writing Month.  Every November, hundreds of thousands of people attempt to write a complete novel with at least 50k words.  This is quite an undertaking, and most people don't succeed.  I've heard that the resulting novels are usually terrible and require a lot of editing.

But still, this isn't something people quit their jobs for, not for just one month.  Writing fiction can be a career for some people, but for most people it isn't.  More often, it's just a weighty hobby.  For me, it's not even that, it's a light hobby.  There was no way I'd write 50k words in a month.  I wrote about ten times less than that, mostly while riding the bus to and from work.

Here's another kind of writing that people do: fanfiction.  Personally, I can't stand fanfiction.  The quality is just too low.  The only fanfic I ever really read was HPMOR, and even there I feel like I'm struggling with Yudkowski's awful prose and peculiar plot obsessions.

But I don't begrudge people writing for the pure love of writing and stories.  On the contrary, I admire it.  And who is to say my writing is any better?  Test reader feedback isn't positive enough to justify such a view.

And that's fine with me.  I would love to be a great author and get published, but that's not the real goal here.  If the small amount of time I commit isn't enough to get to the finish line, it's not a big loss.  The goal is to enjoy myself, and I am already accomplishing that.

Monday, December 15, 2014

What is an apology?

There are countless cases in the news where a public figure does something wrong, and we all collectively ask, "Why don't they just apologize?" or "Why don't they apologize the right way?"  In the mean time I've often thought, "Why does anyone apologize ever?  What is an apology aside from a collection of emotions with no rational analogue?"

An apology is a sort of script.  Alice wrongs Bob.  Bob demands an apology from Alice.  Alice apologizes.  Bob forgives Alice.


Alice refuses to apologize.  Bob is angered and seeks other means to punish Alice.  He could deny her trust, deny her social status, or even punish through legal means.

But what's in it for Alice?  What's in it for Bob?  As far as Alice is concerned, the outcome of apologizing is clearly better than that of refusing to apologize.  As far as Bob is concerned, punishment may provide either a psychological or game-theoretic value--why should any of that change just because Alice arranges some words in a particular way?

We've all been in Alice's place at one time or another, so we intuitively know the answer.  Apologizing is humbling, and feels bad.  Refusing to apologize feels empowering.  This is backed up by psychological research (and reading the intro to that paper helped frame some of the thoughts in this post).  Thus, Alice is weighing the psychological benefit of refusing to apologize against the potential for reconciliation upon apologizing.  And if Alice feels bad about apologizing, this serves some of Bob's psychological and game-theoretic needs, in place of punishment.

It's crucial to the script that Alice can actually prove that she feels bad when she apologizes.  Anyone can just say that they feel bad.  And yet, we have the phenomenon of the "non-pology".  A non-pology is when someone tries to apologize, but since they don't actually feel bad about their wrong-doing, it comes across as insincere.  It seems that people are not very good at mimicking sincerity when it comes to apologies.  Thus when people sound sincere, this often suffices as proof.

Apologies start to make more rational sense now.  However, they only make rational sense because we're living in an irrational psychological landscape.  In particular, we need that:

1. Apologizing feels bad.  Refusing to apologize feels good.

2. People are bad at mimicking sincere apologies.

3. People are good at detecting insincere apologies.

This psychological landscape needs an evolutionary explanation--although not necessarily an adaptive explanation.  I will not offer any specific hypothesis, although I will compare it to the phenomenon of the Duchenne smile.  People have two kinds of smiles, the kind they make spontaneously, and the kind they make voluntarily.  We are able to spot the spontaneous smile, called the Duchenne smile, and it appears to us as the "truer" smile.  And yet, despite the advantages a Duchenne smile, most people are unable to make one at will, unable to mimic sincerity.  Why did this evolve?

In any case, thinking this through has given me a better understanding of why people apologize, and why they don't apologize.  An apology is a way of communicating psychic pain, one that we are naturally bad at faking.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Atheists react to queer religious people

I was happy to see that Alex Gabriel talking about how queer activists give way too much credit to Christianity, and how this excludes queer atheists.  I was even happier to see this picked up by other atheist blogs, including Heina Dadabhoy and PZ Myers.  (And once Myers picks it up, it's likely to get more reactions from there.)

I feel this topic is under-discussed, and thus when people finally talk about it, so many different feelings and issues get swirled together.  I myself have a lot of mixed feelings which are difficult to disentangle.  It helps to contrast the perspectives of Dadabhoy and Myers.  Dadabhoy brings up her many negative experiences in queer activism:
When I volunteered for the No on Prop 8 campaign, the local dispatch center was a church. At on-campus LGBT events, many of the speakers were religious and talked about their god as if everyone believed in that sort of deity.

The worst experience I had was at a local conference about mental health and LGBT issues. Fully half of the panels were about religion, and every panel had a representative of what was euphemistically referred to as “the faith community.”
PZ Myers, being straight, doesn't have the ground-level experience with LGBT activism, and instead talks about the way religion is used to justify everything:
The problem is that Jesus and Mohammed and Moses are completely malleable imaginary authority figures who can be invoked to justify anything — Jesus simultaneously blesses the peacemakers and comes with a sword in that muddled book of myths, the Bible, so pacifists and warmongers are both happy to adopt his ‘philosophy’.
These are two distinct issues.  There's the practical issue, that LGBT activists are very religion-friendly, and not very atheist-friendly.  And there's the theoretical issue, which is that the pro-LGBT arguments within Christianity and Islam just aren't very good.  It's important to distinguish these issues because there are contexts where only the practical issue is present, or only the theoretical issue is present.

There are some religious traditions which are much more plausibly LGBT-friendly, from a theoretical standpoint.  In particular, I point to Unitarian-Universalism, and Shin Buddhism.  I also point out that most religious traditions are much more ambiguous about other queer groups, such as asexuals and genderqueer people.  And yet LGBT conferences can still be dominated by religious perspectives in a way that is exclusive of ace and genderqueer atheists.

There are other cases where the theoretical issue is present, but the practical issue is not.  Many people, myself included, have complained about the dominance of religion at the big NGLTF conference, Creating Change.  And yet, Zack Ford, a major critic, says it has not always been this way:
I’ve had numerous conversations with folks in the movement about the phenomenon, and the consensus has been that this embrace of religion is new, and a swinging of the pendulum away from what used to be a very toxic environment for any discussion of religion to an environment eager to reconcile with religion.
In the past, LGBT groups frequently excluded religious queers, which is not a situation I endorse.

It's also important to remember that the "LGBT community" is far from a united community.  There are LGBT activist organizations, but nearly every non-activist group subdivides by individual letters.  Furthermore, most of these groups are local, and don't really interact with each other.  Without an activist agenda, why would they?  What I'm trying to say is that while LGBT activist groups may be dominated by religion, in my experience this is not consistent among all queer communities.  Some may even have the pendulum swinging the other way.

Having seen a lot of the practical issues associated with queer atheists, I find myself a little uncomfortable with atheists who focus exclusively on the theoretical issue of reconciling queerness and religion.  The pendulum can swing both ways.  We're not talking about the general US population, which is 73% Christian.  We're talking about LGBT people, who, in the US, are 47% non-religious.  My own community, the ace community, is 59% non-religious.  We absolutely need to continue discussing the theoretical issue of reconciling queerness with religion, but we need to be careful about the practical issue of how that feeds back into queer communities--all queer communities.

I have the sense that many atheists, when they see Christians arguing that the Bible is actually LGBT-friendly, really don't like this.  It seems so hypocritical, and utterly inconsistent.  In fact, it subjectively feels even more inconsistent than the belief that Jesus is God.  I think we should examine why we feel this way.

On some level, believing that Jesus was a queer ally is more sensible than believing Jesus was God.  We at least know that allies exist.  The Bible doesn't say Jesus is an ally.  It doesn't say Jesus is God either.  Besides, it's a work of fiction.  I think the fact of the matter is we're simply more used to Christians believing Jesus is God, and so even as we reject that belief, we take it more for granted.  When Christians believe Jesus loves gay people, that seems more unusual, and thus somehow worse.

I do not see queer Christians as any worse than other Christians.  On the contrary, I like queer Christians better, because they're probably not homophobic.  Straight atheists can complain all they want about bad epistemology and the irrational justifications used within religion.  However, I can only be so principled before I care about the results of beliefs, irrational or not.

Queer religious people should be treated the same way as other religious people.  They absolutely deserve some space to talk about their particular issues and beliefs amongst each other.  But they cannot demand freedom from criticism, and cannot pressure critics into silence.  General queer spaces, just like general society, should be kept secular.  Currently, LGBT activist groups are not very inclusive of atheists.  They can't brush us under a rug just because they're afraid of what it will do to their image.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Why I find LessWrong fascinating

As it says in the title of the blog, I'm a skeptic.  That is to say, my attitudes and modes of thinking have roots in the modern skeptical movement and community.  The skeptical community is interested in a cluster of ideas, which I roughly illustrate below:

[Image: Skepticism is surrounded by the words Critical Thinking, Science, Anti-Pseudoscience, and Religious Skepticism]

For a variety of reasons, I've moved away from skepticism, more out of disinterest than disagreement.  But I'm still very fond of the value of critical thinking.  I like learning about cognitive biases and fallacies.  I like the idea of judging an argument based on its form rather than on one's prejudices about the particular topic.

In fact, I wouldn't mind if critical thinking were treated with a little more rigor.  The skeptical approach is constrained because it's mostly geared towards countering strange and harmful beliefs of other people.  If there were a little more focus placed on the sloppy thinking within ourselves, we might be able to move beyond mere fallacy-spotting, and hammer down some of the subtler details of rational thought.

The LessWrong community looks like that critical thinking utopia.  LessWrong is the name of a website founded by Eliezer Yudkowsky in 2009, although it more broadly refers to the community that grew around that website.  Yudkowsky had previously gained popularity by writing his "Sequences" on the blog Overcoming Bias, which mostly covered topics in critical thinking.  As the name implies, the Sequences built on each other progressively, enabling them to reach dizzying heights.  So here we have a community based on using critical thinking more rigorously, as a tool for progressive self-improvement.

So I have a bit of an affinity for the LessWrong community.  And in fact, I've read a lot of LessWrong material, including a lot of stuff about decision theory, nearly all of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, plus a scattering of blog posts whenever I get linked.  I'm familiar with a decent amount of LessWrong lingo.

But I don't read LessWrong on any consistent basis, basically because of the major TL;DR factor.  It's all fine and good when I want to read one particular major article that I've been linked, but in general the website is unreadable.  They've embraced the progressive structure of ideas, and so everything is thickly woven with required premises and lingo.  I especially dislike the lingo.  I hate that they either don't know how or don't know when to speak in plain language.  I hate that nearly every neologism is secretly a sci-fi reference.

It's also clear that LessWrong is not just a generic community focused on critical thinking.  Just as skepticism has other components in addition to critical thinking, so does LessWrong:

[Image: LessWrong is surrounded by the words Transhumanism, Critical Thinking, Effective Altruism, and Utilitarianism.  Keeping in mind that I'm not part of this community and may not correctly identify what they consider most important.]

The part that should raise the most eyebrows is transhumanism.  I'm going to get some of these details wrong, but they believe that we will develop artificial intelligence which will be powerful enough to take over the world.  They hope to ensure that the AI will be friendly to humans, rather than antagonistic.  People are encouraged to donate to the Machine Intelligence Research Institute which was founded by Eliezer Yudkowsky and is affiliated with LessWrong.

I would not be able to refute any of these claims, and can only express general uncertainty about any specific claims about the future (AI in the future, sure, but beyond that??).  Mostly, I just don't care about transhumanism because I'm too pessimistic about our power to predict anything useful.

And then there are other weird things about LessWrong.  Like the obvious preoccupation with specific intellectual heroes, particularly Eliezer Yudkowsky.  Or the common acceptance of fringe science, like cryonics and cold fusion.  Then there's Roko's Basilisk, although personally I find that more amusing than damning.  I'm more bothered by the neo-reactionaries, a spinoff group from LessWrong.  Neo-reactionaries... advocate for monarchy?  Explicitly believe in discrimination by race?  Due to LessWrong's value system, they're obliged to take it seriously.

I like the idea of LessWrong.  But closer examination just makes me appreciate the more populist aspects of the skeptical movement.  The accessibility of skepticism may have made it a more chaotic crowd, but chaos may be preferable to insularity.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Zinnia Star

Zinnia Star, by Meenakshi Mukerji

I made this model as a gift for a friend of mine who is a teacher.  After it was completed, it occurred to me that it would collapse under the weight of all the children in her classroom, so I did the forbidden and added some glue.  It was quite sturdy afterwards!

The shape here is a great stellated dodecahedron.  I thought that was odd at first, because I look at it and I see triangles.  There are 20 triangular pyramids in the model.  Dodecahedron = 12 pentagons, and icosahedron = 20 triangles.  So why is it called a stellated dodecahedron rather than an icosahedron?

Stellation is the process of constructing polyhedra by extending the facial planes past the polyhedron edges of a given polyhedron until they intersect.
To stellate a dodecahedron, you need to extend out each of its planes.  If you extend them out, you can get progressively larger stellations (right column of images from Wolfram):

It's neat to rotate around this figure and try to imagine the tiny dodecahedron inside.  Although I already gave the model away...

Friday, December 5, 2014

Julia Serano's "marked groups"

Generalizing about social movements

The other week I saw a talk by Julia Serano, author of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity!, and Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive.  She also has a super sweet blog.

This particular talk was based on Excluded, which is about the way that minority movements exclude other minorities.  Feminists have a history of excluding lesbians.  The gay movement has a history of excluding women.  Both of those movements have a history of excluding people of color.  And then moving on from that, feminists have a poor track record with transgender people, gay/lesbian people have a poor track record with bisexuals, and so on and so on.

Julia Serano draws from her personal experience as a bisexual femme tomboy transsexual woman.  Since she's part of several different groups which have been excluded, she hopes to make some general theories about how the exclusion operates, and how to combat it.

I am totally in favor of this conversation, since it's something I often talk about myself.  I started out as an atheist activist, and then became an asexual activist, and I've found it very interesting to compare and contrast.  However, I'm a little less optimistic about making broad generalizations, because it seems to me that bisexuality, transgender, and femme issues, despite being very different, are basically nextdoor neighbors.  Atheism isn't even on the same block.  And what happens when we consider other minority groups, such as poor people, criminals, people attracted to minors, or people in poor countries?

For example, one strategy Julia Serano advocated was unification.  Feminists thought gender was everything and ignored LG issues, and LG activists thought sexual orientation was everything and ignored women's issues.  If the movements had been more unified, they would have avoided this problem.  But should every pair of issues be unified, just because some people are affected by both problems?  What about the disadvantages of unification, such as when a broader umbrella causes more group-specific issues to get lost?

This is not to say that we shouldn't try to make general theories.  I think even when these ideas turn out to be wrong, they don't cause much harm, and instead lead to lovely discussions.

Marked and invisible groups

Julia Serano presented at least one idea that I thought might be widely applicable.  She proposed the idea of a "marked group" vs an "unmarked group".  For instance, transgender people are marked, and people who are not transgender are just considered "normal".  When a group is marked, they are "sticky", in that stereotypes, assumptions, and everything tend to stick to that group.  When a group is unmarked, we don't think of them as a unified group at all.

Thus, the term "cisgender", to label people who aren't transgender.  Now, if we want, we can think of cisgender people as a marked group of their own, removing some of the conceptual disparity between cis and trans people.  Of course, trans people remain as the marked group, and a minor change in language can only do so much to counteract that.

Here's why I think the idea of a marked group is generalizable:  It even applies to careers.  I'm a physicist, and that marks me as different in many contexts.  People tend to assume that I know all about cosmology and want to talk about it.  People assume I'm really smart and that I cultivate a secular spirituality.  Of course, this is not a very strong marking, and the assumptions people make aren't particularly bad ones.  But it's easy to see how the same processes can go wrong when a group is more strongly marked, and the assumptions more negative.

Consider another group, asexuals.  Are asexuals marked the way that transgender people are?  For the most part, asexuals are invisible, which is like the polar opposite of marked.

On her blog, Julia Serano has discussed the way that activist language changes over time, primarily so that people can avoid being stuck with "bad" words.  Serano imagines that once the groups are no longer marginalized, the language will stop changing so quickly.  This stands in contrast with asexual language, which seems to change radically every five years.  Asexual language does not develop to replace bad words.  Instead, people coin words to describe experiences that they feel people haven't talked about enough.

In a way, asexuals are voluntarily marking themselves, and marking their various experiences.  This is not without its disadvantages.  It may lead to stereotyping.  Perhaps one day it will allow a more coherent anti-asexual movement.  But these are still preferable to invisibility and obscurity.

Serano has also talked about the way that activist movements change strategies over time in response to the changing context.  What's adaptive in one generation can be maladaptive in another.  She recommends embracing ambivalence--"recognizing that certain ideas or objects may simultaneously posses both good and bad qualities, especially depending upon the context in which they occur."  I suggest that we should also embrace ambivalence with respect to being marked or unmarked.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Five awful things about "God's not Dead"

I saw God's Not Dead, a Christian film that appears to be based on that absurd chain e-mail about the brave Christian student who faces down an atheist professor.  This movie got a 16/100 on metacritic, but still ended up a big box office success.  If you want to know what happens in it without watching it, I recommend this synopsis.

In the world of God's Not Dead, atheists are horrible people who mock their girlfriends in public, abandon people close to them when they're dying, and secretly hate god.  The movie joyously depicts atheists dying by cancer or car accidents, and gloats over their last minute conversions.  Also, all atheist arguments are arguments from authority or assertion (oddly, so are the Christian arguments).

But a lot of that has already been said.  So here I present five things that were awful or bizarre about God's Not Dead that had nothing to do with atheism.

1. The girlfriend from middle school

The main character, Josh Wheaton, mentions that it's his sixth anniversary with his girlfriend.  He's a college freshman.  ...  I suspect the writers didn't think the math through, and just wanted it to seem like they had a long-time commitment.

The six-year commitment makes it all the more devastating when they break up!  Josh's girlfriend demands that he stop trying to challenge his professor, because they need to get good grades so they can go to law school together, like God wants.  Josh stands his ground, so she threatens to break up with him, and then she does.  Wow, how did they stay happy together so long in such an obviously abusive relationship?  Josh, naturally, has no emotional reaction to the breakup whatsoever.

2. A distillation of Muslim stereotypes

Another character, who is utterly unrelated in any way to the protagonist, is Ayisha.  In the presence of her "traditional" Muslim father, she wears what I think is supposed to be a niqab, although it's not remotely accurate.

Her whole plot arc seems to be based on the view that Muslim women wear covers because of direct coercion by male figures in their life, such as their husbands or fathers.  This is pretty much explicit when a student goes up to her and says, "I wish you didn't have to wear that".  Later, when Ayisha converts to Jesus, her father, who loves her very much, beats her and kicks her out.  Gee, I knew these were Muslim stereotypes, but I've never seen them represented so succinctly.

3. The car that won't start

Two Christian pastors are trying to drive... somewhere.  It was explained at some earlier point in the movie, while it was still throwing random characters at us, and I didn't know there was anything worth paying attention to.  But they can't get there because their car won't start.  And then a car rental guy drives a car over to them, and that car won't start either!  And then the scene with the car rental guy is repeated again, for good measure.

Get this: the car rental guy is going to audition for a role in Death of a Salesman.  Why is that relevant?  Who the hell knows?  I don't even understand how he gets to his audition without any transportation.

This whole time I'm thinking, obviously their car doesn't start because God doesn't want them to get on a train that God plans on crashing.  Turns out it's actually because God wants them to convert an atheist and then dance over his grave.  Props to the movie for being unpredictable.

4. That Chinese kid

There's one Chinese student on campus, and he is a visiting student from China.  His entire story arc is that he converts to Christianity, which his family finds inconvenient because maybe the Chinese government won't let his brother visit the US anymore (??).

I am Chinese American, and this is one of the most blatant examples of tokenism I've ever seen.  Couldn't they imagine that some Chinese people actually aren't from China?  It's also suffering from White savior syndrome, wherein a white American male hero rescues a foreigner from his ignorant foreign culture.  I'm pretty sure the Chinese Christian communities are much more effective at converting Chinese people, thanks.

5. The Duck Dynasty cameo

Early in the movie, a character has an interview with the guy from Duck Dynasty.  This served no purpose whatsoever, except to allow some celebrity to spout stuff about Jesus and ducks.  Later I found out from the synopsis that the interview was supposed to be hostile, because the character is an angry blogger.  I totally missed that because the rest of the blogger's story arc is about how she's dying all alone from cancer.

In case you didn't get enough of Duck Dynasty, he makes a second cameo.  For no apparent reason, he shows up at a music concert and encourages everyone to participate in a viral texting campaign (send "God's not dead" to all of your contacts!).  This is, of course, a very good idea, and is well-received by all.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The tone argument, in retrospect

In an earlier post, I talked about the "tone argument" in the atheist blogosphere, and how that argument basically disappeared in 2011.  The tone argument accused atheists of being too angry, too mocking, or otherwise uncooperative.  Of course, mockery and anger are two very different things, but all these differences tended to get glossed over, and I'll gloss over them here as well.

Because I saw so much about the tone argument, and because it so suddenly disappeared in 2011, whenever I see anything resembling the tone argument, I think to myself, "Ugh, we already resolved this argument years ago!"

However, this is excessively dismissive of me, and basically amounts to relying on popular opinion.  What if the popular opinion is wrong?  What if it's only popular among the people who remained in the atheist communities?  Furthermore, even if popular opinion is correct, we need to examine the extent to which it is correct.  I have never believed, for instance, that anger is completely correct in all situations at all times.

So here I present a serious treatment of the tone argument, with the benefit of hindsight over years of atheist blogging.

Angry atheism is a stereotype

The key to understanding the tone argument in an atheist context is understanding that the angry atheist is a stereotype.  The stereotypical atheist is rude, strident, loud, smug, and a general asshole.  I can't tell you how many stories I've heard of people who knew an atheist in high school who argued vehemently with anyone who would listen.  I do not doubt these people existed, but it's odd how angry high school atheists become the prototypical atheist, and whenever atheists are nice, it's such a reversal of expectations.

It's easy to see the cultural underpinnings of the stereotype (in the US), even without being a great student of culture. Religion is considered to be a bit of a taboo topic, even more than politics.  It's not something you're supposed to bring up at dinner.  And if you identify as an atheist, you are explicitly saying that you disbelieve all the major religions in the US.  Your very existence is far too impolite, far too loud, far too angry.

The consequences of this stereotype--like the consequences of any stereotype--are far-reaching and complex.  On the one hand, you have people who simply say that the stereotype is wrong.  "I'm not angry!" they say, or alternatively, "Personally, I'm angry, but lots of atheists I know aren't!"

On the other hand, you have people who reject the implicit norm behind the stereotype.  "What's wrong with being angry?" is the question.  And so these people talk up the value of being angry, and in the process become angrier than they would be otherwise.  Additionally, they will be more likely to frame things in terms of anger, even if the same emotions wouldn't be framed as anger in other contexts.  I don't think atheists are any more vocal than US liberals, for instance, but liberals are far less likely to think of themselves as "angry" or "strident" about their views.

So you basically have two groups pulling in opposite directions.  There are atheists who play down the stereotype, because the stereotype is wrong.  And there are atheists who play up the stereotype, because they argue that there's nothing wrong with fitting the stereotype.  The "tone wars" of atheism started out by outsiders applying the angry atheist stereotype to atheists.  And then the conflict burned on because of conflicting ways for atheists to deal with the stereotype.

So whenever you think of atheists as angry, the two questions you have to answer are, "Are you sure that they're as angry as you perceive?" and "What's wrong with being angry?"

Is anger useful?

Besides being an issue of stereotypes, anger (or lack thereof) is also a big part of how a social movement operates.  If you're a rationalist-idealist, you might believe that you can persuade everyone by arguing calmly and rationally, but "rationalist-idealist" is practically a contradiction in terms.  Truly calm and rational arguments would mostly succeed in getting everyone to tune out.  For instance, it takes a very special kind of person who is willing to read loooong blog posts, and blogs already aren't exactly models of rigor.  Anger and mockery are important and necessary tools to get people to pay attention.

And yes, it is true that arguing angrily can turn people off.  I'm sure you can even find some SCIENCE which says as much.  But I am extremely skeptical of the SCIENCE, because it ultimately presents a very limited part of the wide range of settings of a social movement.

Try to imagine the most stereotypical setting where atheists argue against religion.  For me, I imagine an everyman atheist and an everyman Christian arguing over a game of chess.  Or maybe there's an atheist with his Christian family at Thanksgiving, and there's some conflict over the practice of saying grace.  Maybe the scientific studies apply to those sorts of "normal" situations.

But you know, neither of those "normal" situations has ever happened to me.  Arguing with people one-on-one just isn't a thing that happens on any regular basis.  The truly normal setting for me is I blog, and some people freely choose to read it.  Most of the readers are already atheists.

What about other settings for arguments?  Say that you're not talking with religious people at all, but talking with other atheists and trying to build a community.  Say you're not an everyman, but a trans woman, and you're dealing with religious people who insist you're really a man.  Say you're an activist, and you're trying to convince politicos that you're a force to be reckoned with.  Say you aren't using anger as a tactic, you're just genuinely angry, and the ability to express that anger is your main motivation for getting into activism in the first place.

Scientific studies might provide some useful insights about the way people think.  It's good to know a bit about the backfire effect.  It's good to know that expressing anger tends to make you angrier, rather than "venting" it.  But I deny that this means that a social movement should not use anger or mockery in general.

Is anger honest?

Aside from whether anger is effective as a strategy, there's also the question about whether anger is an honest strategy.  We're frequently stuck in this situation where it doesn't matter who is right about the argument, it matters who wins.  But in the atheist movement and rationalist community more generally, we tend to value honesty, and we generally want to win arguments if and only if we happen to be on the right side of the argument.

There certainly appear to be some cases where anger is unfair, or encourages confirmation bias.  For example, anger pushes some people out of the conversation.  And it often appears that angry people are more likely to "dig in" to their mistakes.

But perhaps not everything is as it seems.  While some people would feel pushed out by an angry argument, other people would feel pushed out of a conversation where "calmness" is enforced, especially in the presence of a stereotype which makes them appear angrier than they really are.  Furthermore, when I looked up anger and confirmation bias, it appears that anger tends to decrease confirmation bias.

I am less sure about mockery than about anger.  I have seen many instances of atheists mocking religions where I thought the underlying criticism was incorrect or unfair.  But I could be wrong about that too.  Maybe my perception is distorted, and I simply attribute these things to mockery when they're unrelated.

We can also ask the same questions about whether "friendly" tactics are honest.  One of the most effective ways to convince people of something is to make personal connections and socially surround them with opposing views.  We're used to seeing this tactic used by religious groups.  It's difficult to tell people, stop being so friendly, but it sure feels dishonest in some way that's hard to place.


The tone argument is wrong because it's based on a stereotype of angry atheists.  Not only do people perceive atheists as angrier than they really are, they underestimate the value of anger in a social movement.  Lastly, while anger sometimes appears to be associated with cognitive biases, it's far from clear that it is any worse in this regard than being friendly.

In my opinion, the ultimate reason the tone argument fails is because it overreaches, trying to make a universal statement about the value of anger.  But in a social movement there are so many vastly different contexts that it is difficult to make any universal statement.  If at some point, the "angry" atheists were to argue that everyone should be angry all the time, then this argument would similarly fail.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Personal thoughts on the four campfires of art

Scott McCloud is a cartoonist, and the leading theorist of comic arts.  In his book Making Comics, McCloud proposed the idea of the "four campfires of art", also known as "tribes of art" or "passions of art".  It's a way of dividing art or artists into four types.  But perhaps it's better understood as dividing art into four aspirations, since any particular artist or work of art can draw from multiple campfires.

For a description of the four campfires, here's a good blog post, or you can see what McCloud himself says in his TED talk or in this interview.

Image taken from McCloud's TED talk.

In addition to those links, I offer a very brief description:
  • Classicists focus on beauty, and mastery of the artform.
  • Animists focus on content, trying to present their story or ideas in the clearest way possible.
  • Formalists focus on form, exploring the contours of the medium.
  • Iconoclasts focus on truth, especially by targeting artistic conventions which gloss over truth.
Though McCloud is coming from the perspective of comics, they also may apply to other art forms, such as fine arts, literature, movies, music, and video games.

I find these four campfires to be personally validating, so much to the extent that I cannot offer any general commentary on them, and only offer my personal feelings.

I take one look at the four campfires, and it's blatantly obvious which one I fall into, both in my appreciation of art, and in my recent attempts to write a novel.  I'm an iconoclast. I really like fiction that deconstructs common tropes.  I like art that turns common moments into objects of fascination.  When I set out to write a novel, I end up writing a novel about a narrator whose major flaw is too much trust in tropes.

I also appreciate formalism and animism, but the campfire that is hardest for me to understand is classicism.  I think the category somewhat suffers from its association with "classic" art, because I think that most of the time when artwork gets immortalized as "classic", it's not because the artist set out to do so.

For example, is Shakespeare a classicist?  A lot of Shakespeare focuses on the details of the plot, and linguistic wit of the characters, both of which are animist values.  However, regardless of artistic intention, perhaps classicism is the main thing people get out of Shakespeare today, if only because the other values don't age as well.  I don't know, I don't really care for Shakespeare.  Or classic works in general, really.

I find the four campfires personally validating, because I really like art, but this is hard to explain when I'm not much into popular art, and dislike most classic art.  Also, my favorite thing to do with art is complain about it.  But it seems there's still a place for me at one of the campfires.

Which of the four campfires would you say you value most?

Monday, November 17, 2014

How identity is like a democracy

This was cross-posted to The Asexual Agenda.  I always end up writing these essays which almost exclusively concern people in the asexual community, but I thought readers here might find it interesting since it applies to identity politics more generally.

Why do the kids these days have so many words and identity labels?

That's the question we ask year after year.  But isn't that funny?  If it's the same thing year after year, why does it seem like kids these days are especially bad about it?

It's certainly true that some years provide more fertile ground for words than others.  For example, there were a lot more new asexuality-related words in the years 2000-2010 than in the years 1990-2000.

But a lot of the perceived change is an illusion.  Previous generations also had lots of words and identity labels.  Some of those words became established, and now you take them for granted (eg hetero-/bi-/pan-/homo- romantic, gray-A, demisexual).  But for every successful word, there were a dozen unsuccessful words.  You don't see them anymore, because they died.

I can provide many examples, being on AVEN since 2009, and having read a lot of community history.  There were the "sensual" orientations, such as homosensual, etc.   There was primary and secondary romantic and sexual attraction (ugh).  There were all the alternatives for gray-A and demisexual.  There were the concepts of "gay asexual" or "straight asexual", which were synonyms for romantic orientation.  And a bunch of other terms that failed so quickly that they're hardly worth mentioning or remembering.

You might think of words as having definitions, a collection of necessary and sufficient conditions.  But first and foremost, words are tools.  We don't adopt words merely because they apply to us, we adopt them if we find them useful.

Here are some of the things identity labels are useful for:
  • Identifying something about yourself, so that you may better understand it.
  • Feeling like you share an experience with other people who also use the word.
  • A tag to collect similar discussion.
  • A way to communicate something about yourself.
  • A rallying call for a community or social movement.
Note that most of these things require that you are not the only person using the label.  You can't use an identity label to share experiences if no one else uses the label.  You can't communicate with it unless you're in a context where enough people understand it.  You can't organize a social movement unless a lot of people are on board.

That's why, when words become unpopular, they don't just die a little.  They die completely.  Most people just don't have a use for an unpopular label. 

Using an identity label is like voting for it.

When you adopt a word, you are saying, "This word is useful to me."  And you are also giving the word more power.  You are opening up new ways to use the word.  And this is a good thing, because it means that the best words, the ones that most people find useful, become the successful ones.  The ones that people do not find useful become unsuccessful.

Crucial to this process is the freedom to vote.  People need the freedom to determine if a label is useful to them, or if it is not useful to them, independently of whether the label technically describes them.  If people are required to use a word just because it describes them, then this would ruin the whole process and lead to the creation of bad terms that we all use but no one likes.

It's certainly acceptable to campaign for or against a word.  Many established words became successful because someone campaigned for them.  For example, "demisexual" originally had success because AVEN user OwlSaint campaigned relentlessly for it circa 2008.  And I've campaigned against words before, like the primary/secondary attraction mentioned earlier.

On the other hand, there are certain campaign strategies that seem unfair.  For example, it seems unfair to outright tell people, "You shouldn't use that word," or, "Sounds like you're ____," especially when you're saying it to baby aces who see you as an authority figure.  You should be teaching baby aces how to vote, not telling them which way to vote.

I also think it's unfair to go straight to the public and use new words in visibility efforts.  That's taking too many shortcuts, and you may just be advocating a word that will die later on.  But there is a large gray area here.  In my history of doing presentations, I've been far too conservative, hesitating to use words that later became much more popular.


Once a word becomes established, it may stick around for a long time.  But that doesn't mean that there is no longer anything to vote on. 

We also vote on the meanings of words.

The asexual community is especially prone to thinking that words have clear definitions with necessary and sufficient conditions, because that's the way the word "asexual" is usually presented.  In fact, this idea is widely rejected in cognitive science and philosophy of language.  Most words don't have necessary and sufficient conditions, they have "prototypes".  Whether something belongs to a class or not depends on how similar it is to the prototype.  Stereotypes are basically a kind of prototype, so when people complain about stereotypes, they're trying to broaden a word away from a particular prototype.

The result of all this, is that words can be fluid.  Definitions are attempts to pin down the meanings of words, which is an extremely useful thing to do.  But definitions are not the ultimate reality of what those words mean.

In particular, there is always a lot of negotiation of the boundaries between words.  For example, if you experience just a tiny bit of sexual attraction, how much is needed to push you from asexual to gray-A?  If you yourself are on that boundary, that's for you to decide!

Just as we need the freedom to vote on which words to use, we also need the freedom to vote on what they mean.  Therefore, people should feel free to use a word even if by your preferred definition, that word does not describe them.  This allows us, as a community, to negotiate what are the best meanings for existing words.

This democratic process is the way that our language has been created.  Please continue voting!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Writing a novel: Month 7

This month I made modest progress on my book, finishing a few chapters.  I stalled for a bit while writing a chat log between the narrator and protagonist.  The narrator lies a lot, so the chat logs serve the purpose of being more reliably true.

Let me take this opportunity to talk about one of my major inspirations.  Let me tell you about Homestuck.  Explaining Homestuck to people is an exercise in absurdity and futility, so much so that "Let me tell you about Homestuck" has become a meme.  But it will help that I'm not actually trying to convince anyone to read Homestuck, I'm just trying to explain what it is.  (See the author's explanation for a more persuasive effort.)

Homestuck is a webcomic, and an epic satire of video games and the internet.  Unlike most webcomics, it makes full use of its online medium, including animations, music, hyperlink shenanigans, flash games, and more.  And Homestuck is really really long, longer than the entirety of Harry Potter, and more dense too.  Despite the high barrier to entry, it is extremely popular, with a very active fandom.  Most notably, Homestuck fans were able to raise 2.5 million dollars for a spinoff video game.

I've been reading Homestuck since the beginning in 2009, although I don't really participate in the fandom.  I honestly think Homestuck is one of the greatest works of my generation.  But I'm not trying to sell you on it, so I don't feel the need to explain all many great things about it.  I'm just going to pull out one aspect that I find inspirational.

Homestuck captures the modern communication age better than any other work of fiction I have ever read.  Homestuck is about a bunch of kids who live across the world, but who can nonetheless be close friends, through the medium of instant chat.  They are all excited to play a video game which promises, among other things, to provide a means for them to meet each other.  As someone who spends a lot of the time on the internet, that's touching.

Aside from that, all the characters, the humor, and the entire aesthetic of the comic has clearly been shaped by the internet age.  It's a world where people can have really obscure hobbies, where writing style blends into personal identity, and where ideas are often imported from the fandom.

The ways that other works of fiction deal with the communication age doesn't even come close.  Just think of all those movie plots that rely on no one having a cell phone.  If we can't handle cell phones, how will we ever handle smartphones?  And think of all those google-search and email montages.  Who thought those were a good idea?

Even cyberpunk.  I haven't read much cyberpunk, because it kind of makes me angry, but from what I can tell, it's based on a bunch of tropes that were attempts to predict what the computer age would look like in the future.  I read part of Snow Crash (and then stopped, because the hacker hero archetype really annoys me), which envisioned an internet a bit like Second Life.  That's nice, but I'd like to see more fiction with the benefit of hindsight.

I started talking about Homestuck because I mentioned that I was writing some chat logs.  Honestly, the idea of fictional chat logs is so closely associated with Homestuck for me, that it makes me feel like an imitator.  And a poor one at that, since I'm pretty sure I'll never be as good a writer as Andrew Hussie.  On the other hand, I would really like to see modern communication and its aesthetics to become more common in fiction, to the point where it no longer feels like an imitation of any particular work.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Why I support a guaranteed basic income

I've been a radical social liberal for a long time, but agnostic about most economic issues.  Macroeconomics is black magic, after all.  Nonetheless, over the past few years my economic politics have skewed more and more liberal, even though I don't blog about it much.

For example, one hypothetical policy I would support is a policy of giving everyone money.

That's a policy that I never would have supported when I was younger.  Even when I was a teenager, I understood that money is a fictitious entity.  If everyone had more money things would just cost more.

Put another way, say we had enough bread and houses to provide food and shelter for a million people.  If you gave everyone money, then prices would just rise until only a million people can afford bread and houses.  The same number of people would starve and go homeless, because it's not really a money issue, it's an issue of how much resources we have.

On the other hand, if you give everyone the same amount of money, that has the effect of redistributing wealth.  It would reduce inequality, basically.  And there really would be fewer starving and homeless people, because we would invest less in producing luxury goods for the most wealthy, and invest more in producing additional bread and houses for the poor.

One thing that colors my view is that I'm part of the millenial generation.  I'm entering the workforce in a time when unemployment is higher than ever.  What do unemployment rates say about our society?  It's possible that it means we're just allocating resources poorly.  But the other interpretation is that we have a surplus of labor.  We're too efficient at producing the goods that we need.  This is a bad thing only because employment is the primary way we distribute money.  If individuals can't find jobs then they're in financial trouble.  The easy solution is to distribute money by other means.

I think the unemployment levels are really just the tip of the iceberg.  When people are desperate for jobs, they'll accept worse jobs.  I'm coming from a cynical grad student perspective, and one of the things I despise is the workaholic culture in academia.  People expect you to work longer than normal hours.  And in order to advance to professorship, most people have to spend years in postdocs for low pay.  You just have to put up with it, because there are too many other people who want your job.

There are also governmental jobs which provide no real value to society.  They're just there because governmental employees can vote, and therefore vote to maintain their own jobs.  I would rather just give those people money instead of having them waste their time to get it.

Why a guaranteed basic income?  Why not welfare instead?  There are two reasons, one economic, and the other social.

Earlier, I learned a bit about how welfare works in the US.  People are awarded a certain amount of money, with a certain percentage of their income deducted.  And in order to remain eligible for welfare, people need to eventually find a job.  But if we have a surplus of labor, why require people to find a job?  And deducting a percentage of people's income amounts to an effective tax on the poorest people.  By giving everyone the same amount of money regardless of income, we remove that effective tax (not to mention cut down on bureaucratic costs).

Welfare also has a social problem, since they're perceived as handouts rather than money that is rightly owned by its beneficiaries.  Taking welfare amounts to admitting that you are unable to provide for yourself.  But this isn't really a matter of individual failure, it's a matter of correcting an economic problem that comes from labor surplus.  Thus, nobody should feel bad about receiving money.  If wealthy people receive the same amount of money, it would be harder to stigmatize.

Anyway, I have the impression that this puts me way to the left of US democrats.  Although to be fair, libertarians often support a similar policy under the heading "negative income tax".

Saturday, November 8, 2014

"Diluting" the meaning

Content note: brief nonexplicit discussion of sexual assault

Recently, someone in the comments accused me of using "sexist" too loosely:
I also take umbrage with the casual and loose way in which people throw around the words sexist, racist, islamaphobia, etc. It gets to the point where EVERYONE can be determined to fit into the insanely loose definition of what constitutes one of those caricatures.
But this is just one example of an attitude I've heard from many people.  Whenever anything is called sexist, homophobic, etc., we're said to be "diluting" the meaning of those words.  We're taking attention away from the more serious problems of outright sexism and homophobia.  I've heard the same said about sexual assault.  When we use "sexual assault" to refer to situations where the victim is drinking, we're diluting the meaning of sexual assault.

I have a zany proposal: Yes, I am diluting the meaning, and I am correct to do so.

Seriously, I would love it if sexual assault were punished more often, but more lightly.  I don't like that people who are convicted of sexual assault basically have their lives ruined because sex offender registries exile them out of many urban areas.  I don't like that I would feel bad about reporting sexual assault, because it's unlikely I would believed, and even if I were believed, it could hurt the accused far more than I want to.

I would love it if sexism and racism were recognized to be not just a few bad apples, but a dilute set of attitudes that affect us all.  I think this makes people uncomfortable, because how can EVERYONE be bad?  But let's frame it another way.  Instead of making it about us vs the baddies, it's now about self-improvement!  What a lighter world that would be!  Furthermore, I think this more closely conforms to the way that prejudice actually works.

Another problem with the stronger definition of sexism/racism/homophobia/etc. is that it gets our personal identities all tangled up with the attitudes.  For instance, consider this quote from the above commenter:
The idea is that when you cherry pick a quote, especially a joke, to make a blanket condemnation you are ignoring what [Bill Maher] actually supports.
No, but here's the thing: I was not trying to make a blanket condemnation of Bill Maher just on the basis of one quote.  Maybe he is otherwise an okay person, what do I know?*  The commenter is saying it's so unreasonable to condemn a whole person just based on one attitude.  You know what, I agree!

*To be fair, I do know that he's an antivaxxer, and I condemn him more strongly on that basis.  Some of this animosity towards Maher may spill over into my other comments about him.  But that's largely an independent issue, and obviously not everyone who makes sexist jokes will be an antivaxxer.

And that's exactly why the meaning of "sexist" should become more dilute.  Right now, "sexism" is so strong that it's reserved only for people who are all around terrible about everything.  It would be better if instead it referred to some particular thing, not a whole person, that is objectionable.  It would be great to disentangle personal identity from sexism.

In summary, I wish we could recognize sexism/racism/homophobia/ sexual assault/Islamophobia/etc. more frequently, and also be less punitive about the times when we do recognize them.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Sexist jokes and Bill Maher

I'm a member of the atheist student group at UC Berkeley, known as BASS, and apparently they recently launched a blog.  The first post is about Bill Maher, who was invited as a commencement speaker.  Some students, especially the Muslim student group, did not like that Bill Maher was invited, and they started a petition to stop him.

I basically don't care about Maher speaking at commencement, because I already hate commencement.  It's a long boring ritual that we're strongly pressured to participate in whether or not we personally derive anything from it.  Anyway, I'm not an undergraduate, and it's for the undergraduates to work out.

What I find shameful is the defense of Bill Maher in general, and the defense of "sexist" jokes (in scare quotes because my opponents are contesting that they are sexist):
...let’s take as an example a Tweet that Bill Maher made recently, saying “Dealing w/ Hamas is like dealing w/ a crazy woman who’s trying to kill u – u can only hold her wrists for so long before you have to slap her”.
Now, I agreed with him that the Tweet was objectionable, but I also saw that the moment he started arguing over whether the term “sexist” applied to it, he gave the conversation away to the forces of nonsense.
Calling something sexist just means that it's objectionable, particularly with respect to the gender axis.  If he agrees that it's objectionable, then it hardly seems necessary to argue a point we already agree with.  He appears to be operating under the view that "sexist" is to be reserved for things that are LITERALLY HITLER, whereas my definition of "sexist" is apparently too loose?  It seems clear to me that a looser definition of "sexist" is simply a superior one, because then maybe I can actually use it every so often on things that exist in the real world.

The author then goes on to talk about the real world harm of the tweet:
“It perpetuates the stereotype of women as irrational and insane.”  In whose mind?  Yours?  Maybe if you’re an idiot.
Wow, what a great example of people believing that if they're smart enough, they can overcome cognitive biases.  Only an idiot would ever be taken in by stereotypes.

You don't need to look very far to find lots of research on sexist jokes, and how they affect attitudes towards women.  Here are a few examples from one study:
How many men does it take to change a lightbulb? None let her do the dishes in the dark.

Why do women have small feet? So they can get closer to the sink!
These jokes are, of course, "ironic", because no one actually believes that women have small feet so they can do housework.  The lightbulb joke only mentions a specific woman, and not women in general.  In fact, that one's really making fun of lazy men, not women.  Only an idiot would be affected by these jokes.

Look, we can argue back and forth whether Bill Maher's humor is qualitatively different.  But we don't know if it's sufficiently different, because I didn't see any studies that looked at the finer gradations of sexist humor.  I don't think the problems with Maher's humor can be dismissed out of hand as something that only affects idiots (and certainly not ourselves!).

Oh, and take a look at this concern trolling:
If Feminists attack people who make disagreeable remarks on social media, then – in the public perception, at least – Feminism comes to entail attacking people who make disagreeable remarks on social media, and that’s all anyone needs to know to safely dismiss the brand altogether (e.g. "Feminists?  You mean those people who say you can never call a woman crazy, even if she's trying to kill u?").  If you want to brand yourself as the kind of person who throws a fit whenever a public figure says something unflattering, don’t be surprised when people stop listening to you, even about real issues.
People focus on quotes because it's actually a lot more effective than saying "Bill Maher is islamophobic" or "We have a problem with islamophobia."  "Oh?  Can you give an example?"  Yes, here are some quotes.  No wait, Alex Freeman advised me not focus on quotes, and surely he knows best.

Alex Freeman proposes that instead we focus on actions.  For instance, Bill Maher is my goddamn enemy because he is anti-vaccination, and I got into skepticism precisely to oppose that sort of nonsense.  But let's not focus on anything Maher said about vaccines or Louis Pasteur recanting germ theory on his deathbed.  Let's focus on his actions, and any actions he directly inspired.  I don't know of any such action, so I guess Maher's off the hook!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Trillium Bouquet

Impatient Trillium Bouquet, by Meenakshi Mukerji.  Textbook for scale.

Today I have a simple model, from Meenakshi Mukerji's "Blintz Base Bouquet" series.  They're all based on the blintz fold, which is simply folding all four corners of a square to the center.

There's one interesting about this model, math-wise.

Each unit consists of two colors.  The major color (blue, light blue, green, or purple) makes the structure of the unit.  The minor color (red, pink, or light pink) is simply inserted for color's sake.  There are twelve units total, making up the twelve edges of an octahedron.

What's interesting is that both the major and minor colors constitute "proper symmetric" colorings of the octahedron edges.  But they are distinct colorings, because there are four major colors, and three minor colors.  Furthermore, the twelve units have all twelve possible combinations of major and minor colors.  Isn't that elegant?

Monday, November 3, 2014

Gay/Bi men need feminism too

Feminism is a tradition of social critique that usually focuses on the problems faced by women.  However, I see the connection to that tradition to be the essential aspect of feminism, not necessarily the focus on women.  A lot of feminism today tries to focus on intersectionality, because in order to fight for women, we need to fight for POC women, queer and trans women, women with disabilities, and women of all body types. Furthermore, feminists often look at gender norms and the way that they hurt both women and men.

Gay/bi male cultures and spaces are usually dominated by men.  Naturally.  But even when there are no women around, feminism is still needed.  I say that with all seriousness, and with no irony.  Gender norms affect men, and they affect queer men too.  And frankly, men's movements which have tried to tackle the problems faced by men have mostly been gruesome jokes, not to mention frequently homophobic.  Anti-feminist men's movements have been nothing less than a curse on our gender, and on all male-dominated spaces.  What gay/bi men need is feminism--and I don't mind that the word focuses on women, because it's sure better than associating with the traditions of men's movements.

A lot of ideas in feminism are directly applicable to gay/bi men.  For instance, there is the idea of the male gaze.  In the context of men who like men, the male gaze does not reinforce gendered power structures, but it does place excessive focus on what gay/bi men find attractive, or rather, what is conventionally attractive.  The result: body image issues are the bread and butter of gay culture.  And it's funny how many articles there are complaining about the issue, while still showing the same photos of conventionally hot guys.  Just as an example, take this article, which a friend recently shared:
Being gay is tough enough as it is, but having to deal with the pressures of not feeling worthy because I don’t have a 6-pack makes me not have that Gay Pride that everyone always boasts about.
And also:
...the thing that bothers me the most [about this site] is the lack of other types of gay men in photos attached to the articles.
...He says, under a rather decent-looking photo of himself.

Yes, this is the kind of person who has body-image issues in the gay community.  It's no surprise that gay men disproportionately suffer from eating disorders.

He then goes through a nice-guy routine (another applicable concept from feminism):
Out of anyone you’ve ever dated I would be the one to treat you the way deserve to be treated. I wouldn’t look at other guys, I wouldn’t make you feel unwanted, and I would never go a day without telling you how much I love you.
This whole attitude is part of the problem, because he's so focused on getting attention from the most conventionally attractive guys, while giving no attention whatsoever to guys less attractive than him, even though they too might "treat him the way he deserves to be treated."  The thought that anyone else might be as "nice" as him is not even considered.

Here's another article which a friend shared: "Is discrimination on Grindr killing gay sex?"  It deals with the well-known widespread racism and body-shaming on Grindr.  While I agree with the general point, the article also says stuff like this:
What does someone in the 1 percent of Grindr's sexual economy look like? He has white skin, he has a weight that begins with "1," he is cisgender, in his 20s, completely able-bodied, has a full head of hair, has either slightly defined or very defined abs, has a dusting of body hair, is masculine and is HIV-negative. These men are what you might call "sexual gatekeepers." Just as the 1 percent of America's economy has unlimited access to the services and privileges they need, Grindr's 1 percent has the privilege of determining who has access to them and when and where they will get serviced.
I find it bizarre to compare the most conventionally attractive men to 1 percenters.  In straight dating, this would be the equivalent of blaming the most attractive women for not giving out sex more freely.  Nobody is obligated to give other people access to their bodies (and don't even get me started on sexual assault in gay/bi cultures).


Based on multiple discussions, I know one of the most common responses to problems in gay/bi male culture is "Straight people have the same problems too."  This may well be true, and I have no idea because I have basically no experience with straight dating.

I suspect that gay/bi men have some things better, and also some things worse.  For instance, racism among gay/bi men appears worse. with many people openly expressing their preference for white men only, and lots of people talk about or even identify as "rice queens" (white men who like asian men) or other similar terms.  The straight equivalent, "yellow fever", is far less common and more pejorative.  It's true that people have their preferences and they're hard to change, but how is it that straight people manage to be so much more polite about it?

On the other hand, comparing to straight people often seems like distracting from the point.  I don't want to wait around for straight dating culture to improve so that male/male dating culture can be dragged along behind it.  Comparisons to straight people are welcome to the extent that they move the discussion forward, but both straight and gay/bi cultures need to be challenged.

(Note: After time of writing, but before time of publication, I noticed Everyday Feminism talking about the same subject.  They don't use the concept of male gaze though, which I know I'm not using in a super precise way.)

Saturday, November 1, 2014

In the face of public criticism

You may not have seen it, but in the last month I was the target of more public criticism than I have ever been previously.  The story is that I'm on the committee which worked on this survey of asexual communities (no longer collecting data, preliminary findings now posted).  I would say the survey is not particularly professional, but neither is there anything horribly wrong about it.  Accordingly, the negative feedback we get is fairly mild.  But we do get some criticism, simply because we're a big target.  We have over 10,000 participants, mostly from Tumblr--and you know, bloggers, they're complainers.

But I'm not going to talk about the specific critiques.  I just want to talk about the experience of getting public criticism.  Public criticism is interesting, because we all engage in it, but few people ever experience much of the other side.  Despite this, we all build mental models of how the targets of criticism react, and how they should react.

The committee, as I said, is not particularly professional, we're just a bunch of disorganized volunteers.  So we didn't bother to come up with an official response to feedback.  We all respond as individuals.  There was one person who thought nearly all the critiques were correct, and felt really bad about themselves.  Another person thought nearly all the critiques were wrong and ignorant--but didn't say anything publicly.  As for me, I use my skeptical values to inform my response.  But I'm well aware that skeptical values are just high-minded ideas, and not practical tips for this specific situation.

Public criticism makes you experience a lot of irrationality.  My closest point of comparison is when I was in a dysfunctional relationship.  In the relationship, I went back and forth, day to day, between thinking the relationship was great, and thinking it was terrible.  In response to public criticism, I went back and forth, day to day, between thinking it would be good to respond to something, and thinking that it would be a bad idea to respond.  Either I'm being irrational on one day, or irrational the day after, although I don't know which it is.  When experiencing these kinds of emotions, I found it was always good to wait a day to see if they were at least time-consistent.

The reason for these conflicting emotions is that there are many conflicting values and priorities.  I want to be able to admit errors and avoid being defensive.  But I also want to be honest about the things I think are not errors.  I want to explain to people why we did what we did.  But I also want to be practical and act in the survey's best interest.

Yes, a big part of it is that explaining the whole truth is not really in the survey's best interest.  If I say too much, I can bias survey results in multiple ways.  And then, it's like I'm using the truth to create lies.  Honesty conflicts with itself!  Another problem, if I slammed a critic for saying something wrong, that would discourage other people from giving feedback, even if those people have good feedback to give.  That feedback is needed to improve future surveys.

To make peace with the fact that some people will just never know why they're right or wrong about the survey, I find it useful to think about the power dynamics here.  The survey team is like the brain, and the complainers are like the feet.  The brain has nearly complete power over the feet.  The feet can only complain.  Sometimes we should not act on the complaints, because we need to walk this hike and there's no way to do it without making the feet at least a little uncomfortable.  Sometimes we should act on the complaints, like if we accidentally walked over some broken glass.  In both cases, the complaints of the feet should be acknowledged and validated.