Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Paper: The value of hypocrisy

As promised, I will discuss this paper, "Power and Corruption" by Úbeda and Duéñez-Guzmán (henceforth U&DG).  The main point of the paper is that it is possible to maintain cooperation in an evolving population if there is a sub-population of corrupt police.

Yes, in this paper, corrupt policers are a force for good.  In a simple evolutionary model, you will have a population of cooperators and defectors, and the defectors always win out.  The question is if we can enforce cooperation by having "policers" who punish defectors, incurring a personal cost to do so.  This paper concludes that it is possible, but only if we allow policers to be "corrupt".  A corrupt policer simply means that they punish defectors while simultaneously defecting themselves.  They're hypocrites, in other words.

I'm not an expert in this field, but a couple years ago I discussed another evolutionary game theory study, where completely different conclusions were reached.  As I surmised, this is because different models were used, and here I briefly explain the difference:
  • In the other model, the population plays a game called the Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma.  Individuals pair up, and play the prisoner's dilemma with their partners repeatedly, while responding to their partner's strategy.  The players in that model used "mixed" strategies, meaning that their decisions were determined by continuously varying probabilities.
  • In the U&DG model, the population plays the "Corruption Game."  In this game, there are four strategies: cooperate, defect, honest police, and corrupt police.  Here, the players use "pure" strategies, meaning that they just pick one of four discrete options.  This vastly simplifies the problem.
 Here is an example payoff matrix for the Corruption Game:

[image modified from paper]

The upper left gray square is just the prisoner's dilemma.  But each player also has the option of being a policer, which means they will spend one point to punish a defector.  In this example, the defector gets penalized 10 points if they're a policer, 20 points otherwise.

It's only an example because you can replace these numbers with arbitrary parameters that obey certain conditions.  Which is what they do in the paper.  The paper finds that the situation depends on the arbitrary constants, specifically on how powerful policers are relative to non-policers.*  There are three regimes, helpfully illustrated by these three triangles:

Each point in space represents a possible mix of different strategies among the population.  The black circles indicate stable evolutionary equilibria; the white circles unstable equilibria.

The triangle on the right shows what happens if policers are not so powerful.  There is only one stable equilibrium (d) in which everyone defects.  The triangle on the left shows that if policers are very powerful, then a second equilibrium (k) will appear, describing a population of entirely corrupt policers.  In the middle triangle, there is an equilibrium (x) consisting of a mix of cooperators and corrupt policers.  The x point has better outcomes for society as a whole, despite the corruption.

U&DG have a lovely model, although it's not very optimistic, and rather simplistic.  It may apply to many situations but I'm not sure how well it describes the situation with police officers, who are publicly funded, after all.  If we give police officers less power, that won't make them disappear, because we can just increase wages until enough people want to be officers.  Also, I would have thought that corrupt police officers get along with each other.

Next time I'll discuss another paper, which appears to overturn these conclusions by demonstrating another equilibrium in which everyone is an honest policer.

Duéñez-Guzmán EA, Sadedin S (2012) Evolving Righteousness in a Corrupt World. PLoS ONE 7(9): e44432. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0044432


*Specifically, the constant that matters is q+d, as compared to p and s in this payoff grid.  Policers are powerful if q+d < s, and weak if q+d > p.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

"Game theory's cure for corruption"

I found a sweet article about power and corruption in the context of evolutionary game theory, and how to stop it.  A taste:
In virtually all the eusocial insects, a few workers surreptitiously lay eggs of their own, eggs that can grow into reproductive males. By diverting shared resources away from the nest, these workers selfishly reduce the fitness of their nestmates. They play the system for their own advantage.
Wow, so I actually did not know that cheating attempts were a thing for eusocial insects.  The author, Suzanne Sadedin goes on to describe many other examples, including cancer and police corruption, and explains some profound conclusions evolutionary game theory research!

The initial conclusion of the research is that corruption is inevitable.  At best, you can have police who prevent corruption in all the non-police, but you cannot prevent corruption in the police themselves.  However, Sadedin's research showed that there is another evolutionarily stable state where there is not corruption.  This state, called "righteousness", has everyone policing each other on equal terms.

Sadedin notes that we are righteous with respect to some things, like murder, but corrupt with respect to others, like infidelity or digital piracy.  Indeed, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as there are certainly drawbacks to righteousness.  But understanding the difference could be quite useful, since we can discuss which issues are best treated with "corruption", and which with "righteousness".

I'm also very interested, because a couple of years ago, I looked into some papers on evolutionary strategies in the iterated prisoner's dilemma.  Based on the way Sadedin discusses the problem, I suspect that a completely different model system is being studied, and I would absolutely love to learn the details.  The two relevant papers are:

Úbeda, F. and Duéñez-Guzmán, E. A. (2011), POWER AND CORRUPTION. Evolution, 65: 1127–1139. doi: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2010.01194.x

Duéñez-Guzmán EA, Sadedin S (2012) Evolving Righteousness in a Corrupt World. PLoS ONE 7(9): e44432. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0044432

So when I have time I'll take a look and report back.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Writing about writing about writing

One of the reasons I stopped writing so much about my attempt at a novel is that I hated all the encouragement I got.  It's not as if every bit of praise caused a jab of pain.  Rather, it was weeks or months later that the flattery slowly began to sour on me.

The first problem is that whenever I talk about my novel, it turns into an advertisement.  It gives me all the negative feelings I get from self-advertisement.  But unlike self-advertisement, I don't actually get any sales out of it.  It will be a long time before this novel is published, if at all.

Advertisement has never been my goal.  I just want to dabble a completely different kind of writing from what I'm used to, blather about all the junk that I learn, and vent about petty insecurities (see: this post).  I am not attempting to be deep or impressive.

The second problem is that I feel like people don't get excited about quite the same things I do.

For example, I feel burdened by the pervasive expectation that I am writing sci-fi, fantasy, or YA.  I want to write realistic (or surrealistic) literary fiction, but I can hardly tell what that means, or how it might be different from more popular genres.  I feel disconnected from most online conversations about writing, because I never know when the ideas that float around really pertain to what I'm trying to do.  I am used to living on the long tail of culture, but this is one instance when it really starts to grate, and I start ranting about geek cultural hegemony.

And people aren't sold on my novel, they're just sold on the premise.  In particular, readers of The Asexual Agenda were excited that I would have an asexual character.  This is understandable, since clear asexual characters are extremely rare in fiction, and indeed I wouldn't write asexual characters in if I didn't find the idea exciting myself.

But my mind already skips ahead to a future era.  Some day, there will be lots of ace characters in every conceivable medium and genre.  And 90% of everything will be crap.  I want judgmentalism, discernment.  I want stories that are different, even in the hypothetical world where there are lots of things to be different from.  I want to talk about what happens in the stories, not just the fact that the stories exist.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Nintendo as cultural import

Tauriq Moosa had a good article on people of color in video games.  The article kicks off with a discussion of Rust, a western game which recently added POC to its previously all-white population.  In a simulation of reality, each player is stuck with one race forever, with no way to change it, not even by restarting your character.  I'm marveling at the sheer artistic brilliance of that idea.

You can read that article, but I'm going to go in a different direction.  As is typical of discussions of race in video games, there is a lot of focus on dark-skinned POC in western "realistic" games.  While this is certainly a worthwhile topic, it doesn't really address my experience as an east-Asian American who mostly plays Nintendo.

Japanese video games are fascinating, because they're possibly the most significant foreign cultural import to the US.  We here in the US are used to exporting our culture to the rest of the world, and experiencing Japanese imports is the closest thing to knowing what it feels like for other people in the world.

As I said, this topic is fascinating, but I also don't know what to say about it.  I am no student of Japanese culture, and I don't really understand which aspects of Japanese media are informed by Japanese culture.  There's something significant there, but I don't know what it is.  Is... is this perhaps what it's like for the rest of the world to experience US culture?  Hell if I know.

Indeed, it seems that most people in the US simply ignore the Japanese-ness of these video games.  The most obvious marker of a foreign culture tends to be the portrayal of non-white characters.  However:
  1. Most Nintendo games have cartoony aesthetics, and often no humans at all.  Compared to the "historical accuracy" excuse, this is a much more plausible reason to not portray different ethnicities.
  2. Japan, being colonized by the US after WWII, tends to portray a lot of white people, and otherwise admire white characteristics.
  3. Even when Japanese games portray characters that they think of as Japanese, Americans think of them as white anyway.  It doesn't help that Japanese people portray themselves with all sorts of hair colors.
For example, is Link white?  He may have blonde hair and blue eyes, but I think he's Japanese.  His facial features are Japanese, though they're not as exaggerated as they would be when Americans try to portray someone as distinctly Japanese.  He also obviously falls into the bishonen boy archetype, which Americans just interpret as androgyny.

Rinku: sooo Japanese.

Of course, officially, Link is Hylian, and he lives in a world with Gorons, Zoras, and, ummmm, the Gerudos.....

A race of dark-skinned thieves, not racist at all, Nintendo.  From ZeldaWiki.

I also think the preoccupation with cartoony aesthetics might be peculiarly Japanese?  But nobody seems to talk about that.

So given the Japanese influence on video games, you'd think we'd see a lot of East-Asian representation in video games.  And we do, more so than TV or movies or books.  But it's less representation than you might think because most characters are indeterminate, or appear white to American audiences.

Instead of character representation, I think we mostly get a lot of Japanese cultural influence.  But I don't recognize or understand the cultural influence, and as an Asian American it's not my culture in any case.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Modal logic semantics

This is part of my series on debugging the ontological argument.

At this point in the series, we will shift gears, switching from predicate logic to modal logic.  Modal logic has produces some of the most complicated and interesting ontological arguments, but it is also a fascinating topic all to itself.  In this post, I will simply cover the necessary background on modal logic.

In modal logic takes propositional logic and adds modal operators.  In standard modal logic there are two modal operators denoted $\square$ and $\Diamond$.  A modal operator takes in any proposition P, and produces another related proposition.  The proposition $\square$P means "It is necessary that P", and the proposition $\Diamond$P means "It is possible that P".  The symbols are also related to each other by
$$\square = \lnot\Diamond\lnot\tag{1}\label{ref1}$$ $$\Diamond = \lnot\square\lnot\tag{2}\label{ref2}$$
(Note that \ref{ref1} and \ref{ref2} are equivalent to each other.)

The next question to ask is, what does it mean to be necessary?  What does it mean to be possible?

The key thing to understand is that $\square$ and $\Diamond$ don't have any inherent meaning at all.  They are just symbols which obey certain rules.  To talk about their meaning, we must shift from talking about logic to talking about semantics.

What we can do is create a semantic model, from which all the logical rules follow.  In general, there will be many possible semantic models which generate the same logical rules.  I will discuss one particular semantic model created by philosopher Saul Kripke in the 1950s and 60s.  I should warn that this is an exercise in rehashing the Wikipedia article, but Kripke's work is so important that the exercise is worthwhile.

Kripke Semantics

I can't think of a better way to explain Kripke semantics than with an illustration:
Figure 1.  If you borrow any of my images, please credit me.

Each of the gray ellipses represents a possible world.  A possible world has a true/false assignment to every proposition.1  In other words, if we have any proposition P, it may be true in some possible worlds, and false in others.  We say that world u "satisfies" proposition P (commonly denoted "u $\models$ P") if and only if P is true in world u.  This is called the satisfaction relation.  The satisfaction is a function whose arguments are a possible world and a proposition, and whose output is a boolean.2

One of these possible worlds (in darker gray, labeled t) is the actual world.   That's the one we live in!  We say that a proposition is true if the actual world satisfies that proposition.

I also drew lots of blue arrows going between possible worlds.  This arrow represents the accessibility relation.  If there is an arrow drawn from world w to world u, then we say u is "accessible" from world w (commonly denoted "w R u").  Worlds may also be accessible from themselves, or they may be inaccessible from themselves.

The big green box is the set of all possible worlds.  The set of all possible worlds, along with the accessibility relation, is called the frame.  The frame, along with the satisfaction relation, is called the model.

There are many different frames I could have drawn.  I could have drawn a different number of worlds or I could have connected the arrows in different ways.  I am not saying that there are many "possible" frames, because remember we're still trying to define what "possible" even means.

In Kripke semantics, $\square$ and $\Diamond$ are interpreted as follows:
$$[w \models \square P] \Leftrightarrow [\forall u \epsilon W ~(w R u \Rightarrow u \models P)]\tag{3}\label{ref3}$$ $$[w \models \Diamond P] \Leftrightarrow [\exists u \epsilon W ~(w R u \wedge u \models P)]\tag{4}\label{ref4}$$
Allow me to translate.  We say that a proposition P is necessary with respect to world w if P is true in all possible worlds accessible from w.  A proposition P is possible with respect to world w if P is true in at least one possible world accessible from w.

Figure 2.

If you're not sure you get it, here are some examples of statements which are true in the model shown in Figure 2.
1. $w \models \Diamond P$
2. $w \models \Diamond Q$
3. $u \models \square \lnot Q$
4. $u \models \Diamond P$
5. $v \models \square Q$
6. $\lnot (v \models \Diamond Q)$

S5 modal logic

Kripke semantics raises new question.  What does it mean for one world to be "accessible" from another?  We need another layer of semantics to explain that one.

There are actually multiple meanings we can assign to the idea of "accessibility".  For instance, we might say that a world u is accessible from world w if and only if u is a possible future of w.  If that is the meaning, then all accessibility relationships are one-way only, and no world is accessible from itself.

Another interpretation of "accessibility" is that world u is accessible from world w if and only if both worlds obey the same physical laws.  In this interpretation, all accessibility relationships are two way, and every world is accessible from itself.

The modal ontological argument does not require any particular interpretation of "accessibility".  However, it does require that "accessibility" conforms to a few specific rules.  Specifically, we want the following conditions:
$$w R w\tag{5}\label{ref5}$$ $$w R u \Rightarrow u R w\tag{6}\label{ref6}$$ $$w R u \wedge u R v \Rightarrow w R v\tag{7}\label{ref7}$$
\ref{ref5} is the reflexivity condition, and it says that all worlds are accessible from themselves.  \ref{ref6} is the symmetry condition, and it says that all accessibility goes both ways.  \ref{ref7} is the transitivity condition, and it says that it is always possible to access the worlds which are accessible through another accessible world.

Here is an illustration of a frame that fulfills the above conditions:

Figure 3.

With these rules, the frame can always be partitioned into one or more subframes.  In Figure 3, the subframes are {t,v,x}, {u,w}, and {y}.  Within each subframe, each world is accessible from each other world.  However, there is no access between  distinct subframes.  Since the different subframes are inaccessible from each other, we might as well just consider the one subframe that includes the actual world and ignore the rest.

These conditions on accessibility create S5 modal logic.  S5 contains additional axioms, which I show below for completeness.  It's not necessary to understand these axioms unless you want to follow the modal logic proofs step by step.
$$\text{If P is a theorem, then}~ \square P\tag{N}\label{N}$$ $$\square(P \Rightarrow Q) \Rightarrow (\square P \Rightarrow \square Q)\tag{K}\label{K}$$ $$\square P \Rightarrow P \tag{T}\label{T}$$ $$\square P \Rightarrow \square\square P\tag{s4}\label{s4}$$ $$\Diamond P \Rightarrow \square\Diamond P\tag{s5}\label{s5}$$
Among other things, these axioms imply that there are no meaningful "meta-modalities".  For example, the statement "it is possible that it is possible that P" is just equivalent to "it is possible that P."


Modal logic is interpreted through a "frame", or a set of possible worlds.  S5 modal logic, which is the kind used by the modal ontological arguments, requires that the frame is partitioned into one or more subframes.  One of these subframes contains the actual world.  $\square$ P means that P is true in all possible worlds within our subframe.  $\Diamond$ P means that P is true in at least one possible world within our subframe.

But here's what we don't know.  The frame can consist of any number of worlds, as long as there's at least one world.  The frame can be partitioned into subframes in any number of ways.  If I describe to you a possible world, even if you agreed that it exists you wouldn't necessarily agree that it's accessible.

I have final important point.  The frame isn't real.  The frame is a construction to help us understand what's going on.  We can equally well choose a different frame, and that frame is no more or less true than the first.  When we talk about S5 modal logic, we're not making an assumption about what the frame "really" is, we're just choosing to confine our discussion to a particular kind of frame.


1. Each possible world can also be considered to have its own set of objects.  However, this isn't really relevant, since we won't be discussing predicates in modal logic until later.

2. I'm using basic computer programming terms, and I'm not sure how much I can assume people understand them.  A "boolean" is simply a single bit of information, containing the value "true" or "false".

Monday, June 15, 2015

Race is allowed to be complicated

Rachel Dolezal has recently made news for allegedly misrepresenting herself as black.  Note that I am not a newspaper, and I don't necessarily keep up with every single update, and my opinions are subject to update pending further details.  What I know is that she is a leader of a NAACP chapter.  She has four black adopted siblings.   Her two estranged white parents recently came forward saying that she has been misrepresenting herself as black.

Probably the weak point is the story is, has she really been representing herself as black?  The NAACP still seems to support her, saying they accept leaders of all races.  When asked directly by journalists, she gave a dodgy answer, which suggests that she tells people it's complicated, rather than telling people she's black.

I don't really know what it's like to be black, although from a half-Asian perspective I find the treatment of black/white boundaries in the US to be rather... black and white.  There's this one-drop rule, where if you have even a little black ancestry, then you're just black.  And there's hardly any discussion of black culture or the black community as separate from blackness itself.  I'm not saying that the way we think about blackness is wrong, I'm just saying that it's not the only logically coherent way to think about it.

Here's what I know about my own experience:

In college, I somehow ended up in the Filipino retention program (they had similar groups for most minority ethnicities) and I had to awkwardly tell my assigned mentor that I'm not really Filipino.  Sweating, I launched into an explanation of how I probably told the university I was Filipino, though I didn't remember it, and how my mother immigrated from the Philippines but she's ethnically Chinese, but it's not like I lived in the Philippines personally so I guess I'm just Chinese, I mean, half-Chinese.  I was also born in Korea but that doesn't make me Korean.  The mentor told me I was in the right place, but I wasn't sure and felt uncomfortable about it most of the time.  But now I think she was right.

Honestly, I've felt pretty white most of my life.  I am white, or half at least.  I've felt more Asian in recent years mostly due to having a white boyfriend.  We find our respective family's practices to be bizarre at times and I'm getting a better sense for Asian cultural markers in my experience.  These days I understand that English is an official language in the Philippines, and Catholicism is the main religion, and that's why I missed out on some of the more obvious aspects of being a second generation Chinese immigrant.

In short, race is complicated for me, and I sometimes identify as Filipino despite not having any Filipino blood.

I don't know what it's like to be black in this country.  There are some completely different things going on, with opression more closely attached to perceived race than to immigrant culture.  There's also a much more severe history of opression and appropriation.  There are probably good reasons why black and white groups are treated in such black and white terms.

But when there's one individual who says her experience is complicated, there's nothing inherently ridiculous about that.  I can certainly think of problematic motives for such a stance, but it's not necessarily wrong, and honestly how would I know?

Instead I would defer to people who know much better than me: the NAACP.   The NAACP has been supportive of Dolezal, and cites her impeccable track record as an activist.  That's good enough for me until such a time that NAACP changes its story.


I also heard from news sources that people on twitter are talking about Dolezal in terms of transraciality and comparing it to transgender.

Transraciality is one of those things that tumblr haters constantly hold up as an obviously ridiculous identity, in complete disproportion to its prevalence as an actual identity.  So I don't see the point of talking about transraciality, since no matter how good or bad it is, it's already been the subject of far more hand-wringing than it could possible deserve.

There's also the really obvious issue that without any clear group of proponents of of transraciality, there isn't any good way to verify the accuracy of its characterization.  You can attack the motivations of transracial people all you want but it's kind of pointless if I don't know whether it's their actual motivations.

In fact, how the hell do I know that purported transracial people are even identifying as transracial?  That's basically what's happening here, since to my knowledge Dolezal has never identified as transracial at all.  This entire line of argument is just taking all the internet stupid and smooshing it together.

Friday, June 12, 2015

A critique of secular humanism

The main problem with secular humanism is that it's too reactionary.  The movement seems designed to counter the accusation that non-religious people have no morals, or have no positive ideas to offer.  It's fine and good to offer a positive moral vision for non-religious people, but because of its reactionary nature, secular humanism mostly only achieves the appearance of a positive moral vision.

Vague Positivity

Secular humanists want to offer a positive moral vision, but don't want to actually pay the cost of excluding significant numbers of non-religious people. And what better way to express vague positivity than through the medium of the manifesto?  Indeed, manifestos are littered throughout humanist discourse.

You can take a look at the most recent manifestos of the IHEU, the AHA, and the CSH.  They appear to be written as if they didn't want anyone to disagree. The most common themes are ethics and reason.  As opposed to people who throw their lot in with evil and irrationality?  When you dig down, the particular kind of ethics they favor are consequentialism plus human rights, which is something.  But it's still too broad to indicate any particular stance on a specific issue.

The most specifics we get are from CSH, which seems to be in favor of the UN.  However, I have not gotten the impression that this is a major thing among people who identify as humanists.  This is a problem, because statements of humanist principles are either maddeningly vague, or they're too specific and don't represent the views of most self-identified humanists.  I conclude that there is hardly anything that actually unites humanists.

At most, secular humanism seems to indicate, in the US, nonreligious views and liberal politics.  I guess that's useful, for what it is, but it doesn't get you very far.

Vagueness in humanism today

The problems with vague positivity become acute when we consider the current context of the atheist movement.  The most important dispute in our community is the feminist wars.  Surely, secular humanism should be taking a stance on that?  But in my experience, identification with secular humanism is not indicative of any particular stance on the feminist wars.  Greta Christina agreed:
Many humanist groups have a huge diversity problem. Many humanist groups are overwhelmingly made up of older, middle-class, college educated white men — and while the groups typically embrace the idea of diversity in theory, some individuals in them can be very resistant to the idea that maybe their lack of diversity is partly their responsibility, and that they should maybe consider changing the way they do things. And I can’t tell you how many humanists I’ve talked with who have been total douchebags about feminism: insisting that humanism is superior to and more important than feminism, that feminism is exclusionary and anti-male, that they “don’t see gender” and anyone who does is the real sexist, and that the best way to make sexism disappear is to ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist. Humanism in theory is on board with social justice — but the practice can be very different indeed. If every atheist who’s sick of sexism and misogyny in the atheist movement picked up their stakes and moved to humanism, it wouldn’t make these problems magically disappear.
This is a monumental failure on the part of secular humanism.  Wasn't the whole point to take "positive" stances on issues that matter?  I would think this a travesty if I didn't already think that humanism was about appearance over substance

Instead we have the Council for Secular Humanism, run by CFI.  I think it's cool that CFI runs the African Americans for Humanism and Women in Secularism.  But I'm also reminded of the time that their CEO Ron Lindsay gave a tone-policing opening speech at the Women in Secularism conference, or the entire string of drama surrounding Ben Radford.

Respectability politics
Part of offering an "appearance of a moral vision" is maintaining appearances.  This image-consciousness echoes from the individual level to the community level.

On the individual level, "humanist" has long been used as a softer alternative to the hated word "atheist".  To be clear, I think this is a fine thing to do.  I personally would rather subvert atheist stereotypes by loudly identifying as an atheist, but this is an expression of my own privilege.  Some people might be made unsafe by an atheist label, or perhaps they don't feel comfortable with it themselves.  I would be a terrible person to take that tool away from people who need it.

But on the large scale I do not support it.  It's a bit like queer people being in the closet.  Being closeted is important for many people and it would be heartless to accuse them of being unhelpful to the cause.  But it would also be wrong to advocate more people staying in the closet.

On the community level, secular humanism has produced several notable communities like The Sunday Assembly and The Humanist Hub at Harvard.  These communities have periodic gatherings reminiscent of protestant church services.  I've been to the Sunday Assembly, and it isn't really for me, but I am still in favor of them.  It's good to have nonreligious communities that fill the social roles that churches did, because there are definitely people who want that.

On the other hand, I don't like the kind of media coverage they attract.  For example, a recent NYTimes Op Ed lauded the potential of the Sunday Assembly to fill that church-shaped hole in all our hearts, and criticized it for not doing enough to bring moral philosophy to all the heathens.  That makes me wonder, why do we expect sing-along gatherings to be the future of atheist moral thought?  Why focus on this particular atheist social trend, among all others?  I bet atheist blogs are far more effective at teaching its participants moral philosophy, but nobody ever writes op-eds about how blogs are filling church-shaped holes.

It feels like a kind of respectability politics.  Somehow, it's more appealing to the mass media to talk about the "next step" in atheism, to talk about how atheists are just now developing new moral values and building new communities.  As for me, I must be one of those angry "new atheists" with no community at all, or at least not one which will be recognized as a substitute for church.  As far as I can tell, even a lot of Christians don't care for church, and there are all those religions where weekly services aren't really a thing, but nevermind those inconvenient facts.

To be clear, I don't blame humanists themselves for the coverage they attract.  Some atheists are secular humanists who love wonder, spirituality, music, and sunday gatherings, and that's fine for them.  Some queer people are attractive young white masculine gay men in long-term monogamous relationships, yay for them.  But what about the rest of us deviants?


Secular humanism plays the role of offering positive moral vision for non-religious people.  However, it falls short of this goal, because offering a real moral vision means dropping members who would disagree with it.  Instead, secular humanism takes the path of a vague moral vision that nearly everyone would agree with.  As a result, the secular humanist community fails to take a consistent stance on feminism, despite it being one of the most important topics in the atheist community today.

Secular humanism also plays the role of being the more respectable sibling of atheism.  I don't begrudge people who are able to fit themselves into that box.  However, we should critically examine the cultural values that led humanists to be more respectable and the rest of us less respectable.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Tipping is defecting

Once you're familiar with the prisoner's dilemma game, you start seeing it everywhere.  One thing I argue among my friends is that tipping waiters is a prisoner's dilemma, with tipping corresponding to defecting.

To briefly overview the prisoner's dilemma, it's a game where two (or more) people are given a choice to cooperate or defect.  Defecting is the "selfish" option, in that it leads to more favorable outcomes for the defector at the expense of the "total" good.  It's not possible to sum up multiple people's preferences in a straightforward way (see Arrow's impossibility theorem), but the one thing that's for sure is that if everyone defects then everyone is worse off.

Given the usual association of defection with selfishness, it may seem odd at first to say that giving money away freely counts as defection.  Nonetheless, this is what I claim.  If you live in a culture where everyone tips, and you choose not to tip, then your reputation will take quite a blow.  You may save a little money, but it is not a favorable outcome for you.

And when everyone tips, it creates a tipping culture.  And that makes everyone worse off.

On the waiter's side, it doesn't actually increase pay (since non-tipping wages are simply adjusted to compensate), but rather increases variance.  On a day where the restaurant is understaffed, or where customers are stingier, or where the chef is having a bad day, waiters might earn less.*  It's also not clear why pay should be proportional to meal prices rather than proportional to working hours.

*I don't have any experience, I'm just speculating.

On the customer's side, it makes restaurant prices less transparent.  It increases time calculating bills.  It requires greater use of small change, since it prevents restaurants from charging round-number prices.  And while it might possibly improve waiter service, one wonders why we don't feel the need to give discretionary pay to anyone else.  Perhaps white-collar workers could also be more productive if assigned a boss who assesses the quality of their work hour to hour and pays them accordingly (or not at all)?  Perhaps it would be even better if they had a rotating set of bosses with inscrutable whims?

In short, tipping has a prisoner's dilemma structure, in that tipping benefits you personally but when everyone tips it creates a harmful culture.

I do not mean to say that you should not give tips.  Rather, I would first suggest that sometimes defecting from a prisoner's dilemma is the morally correct thing to do (as I've argued in the past), despite being "selfish" in some sense.  However, it would be nice if there were some top-level action which forced everyone to cooperate.

Sunday, June 7, 2015


I was reading some feminist writing which spoke of being "committed" to feminism.  It said that if you are committed to feminism, then you will believe and behave in a certain way.  And if you don't believe and behave in a certain way, then you aren't committed.  (And that would be bad.)

I may speak sometimes of being "committed" to feminism or atheism, but that is merely a description of how strong my opinions are.  I do not believe in literally committing to a worldview.

Framing commitment as a good thing is much like framing doubt as a bad thing.  It's an obvious overgeneralization.  How can it be good to be committed to X, regardless of what X is?  How can it be bad to doubt Y, regardless of what Y is?  Presumably if you doubt something, you think that thing is wrong and therefore it is good to doubt it.  Presumably if you are not committed to something, you think that thing is wrong and therefore it is bad be committed to it.  Doubt and commitment are both neutral.

I have a lot of very feminist views, but I do not think they are correct because they are feminist.  When we examine an issue, yes, all relevant feminist insights should be brought to bear, but I do not ask myself, "What Would a Feminist Do?"  If my view on a subject disagrees with feminist "tenets", then so much the worse for those tenets.  I would say the same about all my beliefs, no matter how strongly they are held.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Popularity contest

(This is not in reference to any particular incident.)

When big name bloggers argue with each other, one of the ways they can insult each other is by belittling the size of the other's audience.  You do realize, that most readers of your blogs have smaller audiences still?

I guess the thrust of the insult is to say that someone has little power, and their arguments have failed to persuade any significant number of people.  But yeah, this insult has problems, and speaks to the bias that popular bloggers have as a class of people.

Now, when the same insults are used by the blog commenters... I don't even know what to say about that.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Should I move to Wordpress?

Ever since Disqus and Blogger started having a syncing failure, I've been thinking, is it time to pick up my stuff and move to Wordpress.com?  (FYI that's the free version of Wordpress, not the self-hosted version.)

Perks: I don't have to deal with Blogger's buggy built-in comments or Disqus's non-syncing comments.  I can finally get rid of comment threading, which really isn't appropriate for the volume of comments I get.  I can have a new blog title that matches the content a little better.

Problems: Moving and updating links is a pain and I'm just not sure it's worthwhile.  I don't actually have a new blog title in mind.  I also have some minor complaints about weird limitations in Wordpress's software.

Readers, your thoughts?

If I make the move, I'll schedule it for October on my bloggiversary.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Origami disasters

People say I have talent for making origami.  Perhaps that's somewhat true, but I think the most important thing is that I like doing it.  Because I like doing it, I spend a lot of time on it and accumulate a lot of experience.  Sometimes experience comes in the form of making mistakes.

Here I present some of my favorite photos, the photos of things that just did not work!

Here is a really early model I made, one of my first attempts to go "off-script".  Following instructions is nice, but I wanted to make my own shapes of arbitrary specification.  I thought this twelve-pointed star would be simple, but in retrospect it was far too ambitious for my skill level at the time.

The model didn't hold together at all!  It was so flawed, there was absolutely no way it could ever hold together!  It only looks fine because I covered it in tape, but by that time it's transgressing the boundaries of the art form.

Later I managed to make the twelve-pointed star by making a simple modification of the Sonobe unit.

Here's a mistake I made which was entirely on-script.  I was making one of Meenakshi Mukerji's "floral balls", I don't remember each one.  It's supposed to be a sphere with a bunch of five-petaled flowers.  Unfortunately, I couldn't make a single flower hold together.

The units were just too small for it to work!  I was using my largest paper (15x15 cm), but it needed to be in a 1:4 ratio, so I had to cut it into fourths.  Maybe I could make it if I were more careful and used better paper but so far I haven't tried again.

At some point I was given a copy of Eric Gjerde's Origami Tessellations.  While I would say much about how easy modular origami is, and how anyone can do it, I'm afraid that I could not say the same of origami tessellations.  If you're not very careful, small errors start multiplying, and everything looks like a crumpled mess!  This is frustrating because I spent a lot of time folding that paper over a hundred times.

This is another origami tessellation gone wrong.  Some people look at this and they can't see what's wrong with it.  Well, I tried using foil paper, and it turns out foil paper just doesn't work for origami tessellations.  You can't really see anything!  I mean, I have absolutely no talent for photography, so that doesn't help either.  But if you could hold it in your hands, you'd see what a mess it really is.

Eventually I was able to successfully fold this tessellation.  Maybe I'll show it in the future.

(Click for larger version)

This is my most glorious failure.  There are 18 octahedra, of original design, using one of my favorite coloring schemes of all time.  They're tangled in some sort of obscure mathematical structure (Hint: they're Borromean rings).  Everyone wants to pick it up.  I'm always telling people not to pick it up, because it will fall apart.

Creating this polyhedral pile was something of a months-long epic.  I wanted the octahedra arranged in a particular pattern, but for some reason it was extremely difficult to attach the octahedra together, and extremely easy to pull them apart.  It went through not one, but two major overhauls in design to get it to work at all.  The connectors are completely different from my original design, and are still really easy to pull apart, but at least they're easier to put back together.  The arrangement of octahedra is completely different from my original design, and it's, uh, kind of chaotic and not at all rigid.  Well, it still looks nice after all that.

Based on the origami disasters I've made, I've learned that the hardest part to master is stability.  It's kind of hard to appreciate that from photos, but that's how it is.  This experience has allowed me to make many successful and stable original designs.