Thursday, December 20, 2012

Blogging break

Some bloggers will have holiday-themed blogging during the holidays, but my preference is to relax and take a break.  See you in a week or two.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

There's knowing and there's knowing

This was crossposted on The Asexual Agenda.

I have a lot of gay friends who are friends through my boyfriend.  Recently some of them heard that I was asexual, and they started quizzing my boyfriend when I wasn't around.  This is pretty nasty for reasons I'll get into later.  But what's odd is that I've known them for years and been out the entire time, and they only realize now?

Mind you, I don't come out to each and every one of my friends by sitting down with them to have a "talk".  Rather, I'm out on Facebook.  I say asexuality-related things a few times a year, and I have photos of myself at SF pride.  I'm carrying the X in "ASEXY".  How much more obvious can it get?

It's possible, and understandable, that some of my friends just don't pay attention to Facebook.  But I also think that people have to be paying very close attention, or the idea of asexuality just bounces off their head.  I say "I'm asexual." on Facebook, and people just carry on.  Then someone else says, "Did you hear, miller is asexual!"  Then suddenly they realize that it's a real thing, and it's important.  I wasn't just vaguebooking.

But in fact, I did the same thing before I was out to myself.  I learned about asexuality before really learning about asexuality.  I had asexuality explained to me years before I realized asexuality was a real possibility, but I had promptly forgotten it.

I had asexuality explained to me by T-rex:

dinocomics asexuality
See the full comic at Dinosaur Comics

I don't remember reading this comic but I know I read it.  Back in my freshman year of college I was really into Dinosaur Comics, and I read the entirety of the archives.  Which means I read this one as well.  But I must not have thought much of it.  It's just another one of T-rex's ideas (T-rex is enthusiastic about ideas).  Utahraptor himself corrects T-rex's attitude: "You're treating asexuality like an amusing trinket, rather than a real sexual orientation", but this still failed to penetrate into my head.

What it took was not merely a reference on a popular webcomic.  What it took was seeing a whole community of people discussing asexuality.

And for my friends, numerous references on Facebook weren't enough.  Only when it's part of the gossip does it seem significant.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Draining a tank

This is a puzzle of my own creation.

There are nine identical 10-gallon tanks in a 3 by 3 square (the image shows the view from above).  One of the corner tanks is full of water, while the rest are empty.

You may open or close any of the walls between adjacent tanks.  If any walls are open, then the amount of water in all the connected tanks will equalize.  Assume that they equalize fast enough that you can't close walls in the middle of the process.  You may have multiple walls open at once.  For example, if you open all the walls, then each tank will have 10/9 gallons in it.

Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to open and close walls in such an order that you drain as much water out of the filled tank as you can.  What's the best you can do?

See the solution

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The "Santa is real" narrative

Last year, I talked about how lots of kids actually believe in Santa.  This was surprising to me, because I  previously thought Santa-belief was a just as much a myth as Santa.

In particular, I remember lots of Santa-related movies, where the kids believe in Santa but the adults do not, and it's the kids who are right.  This is mostly a general impression, but to name a specific example, I watched The Santa Clause (starring Tim Allen) several times when I was young.  These movies did not strike me as strange at the time, but they strike me as strange now.

The moral of those movies was essentially, "Santa is real, and you kiddies should believe in him."  It just seems like a rather wacky moral to me.  It doesn't seem like the kind of thing which is appropriate to kids.

On kids shows when I was growing up, the morals were usually much more straightforward and incontrovertible.  "Don't give in to peer pressure."  "Don't be greedy.  Share."  "Be self-confident." "Eating too much candy is bad for you."  "Looting and polluting is not the way."  "One day you'll like girls.  Like like."  That kind of stuff.  The only things with questionable morals were the breakfast cereal commercials.

And then Santa.  Geez.  The moral is, "You should believe, because it's adorable when kids do that.  You should also believe because Santa happens to be real even though the parents believe otherwise.  Your parents are wrong."

I... I just don't understand the appeal of this narrative.  Why do parents promote this to kids?  I assume there's some religious appeal, but it doesn't make sense even within my mental model of a religious person.

(I believe the relevant TVTropes article would be Values Dissonance.  I also referred to Cereal Vice Reward.)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Inner triangle area solution

See the original puzzle

There's a more elegant way to do this puzzle, and a less elegant way.  First, I'll show you the less elegant way.

We can associate the points with vectors t, u, and v.  This is useful because you can express any point on the line between t and u as x*t + (1-x)*u for some value of x.  See spoiler image.

Anyway, you can go through the algebra and calculate that point A is at (4/7*t+3/7*u+1/7*v).  The rest will be left as an exercise to the reader because I'm going to move on to the more elegant solution.

There's a more elegant solution involving center of mass.  Let's suppose that there are weights at each of the corners of the triangle, and that the center of mass is at point A.  How much weight must you place at point A?

See spoiler image

You have to place weights with ratios 4:2:1 on points t, u, and v respectively.  If you only consider the weights on t and u, then their center of mass is at B, with weight 6.  And so we can conclude that point A is 6/7ths of the way from point v to B.

The rest is simple geometry.  Triangle tAB is 1/7th the area of tvB, which is 1/3rd the area of tuv.  So triangle tvA is 6/21 of the entire area.  The same argument can be applied to triangles tuC and uvE.

If you sum up tvA, tuC, and uvE, the remaining area is 1/7th of the total, so that is our answer.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Help me go to Creating Change

Creating Change is an annual conference held by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.  The next conference is January 23-27, in Atlanta, Georgia.  I will be on a panel called "Asexual Voices", which will represent many different parts of the asexual spectrum.

There is currently a fundraiser to pay for hotel and administration costs.*  Please help if you can.  Below is a video explaining why this is important.

*I pay for my own flight, and I have a scholarship to pay for registration.  If the project is overfunded, the extra will be used to get non-profit status for AVEN and AAW.

Last year was the first year that Creating Change had any asexual workshops, and I hear it was a huge success.  Among other things, that led directly to the inclusion of asexuality in the Trevor project.  This is wonderful, because if there are any common causes between asexuals and other queer folk, suicide prevention is certainly one of them.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Just how bad is evolutionary psychology?

This week there was more bloggy drama because Rebecca Watson and evolutionary psychology (eg see John Wilkins).  I won't comment on the Watson-related drama, but I am interested in the evolutionary psychology (henceforth EP).

Nearly everyone on both sides of this drama agrees that popular EP is terrible.  The question is, how deep does it go? 
  1. Journalists are misinterpreting and exaggerating studies.
  2. Journalists understand correctly, but pick out terrible studies from a generally reputable field.
  3. There are large sections of EP which are just bad, but attract more media attention.
  4. EP is rotten all the way through.
Case study: Argumentative Theory

The trouble is that you can hardly talk about EP without talking about specific examples of EP.  And if you only have a few examples, people can accuse you of not having a large enough survey.  But it's hard to investigate more than a few examples, because we're lazy and/or have jobs.

I'm among those people who are lazy and/or have jobs, so I'm just going to use one example, and it's not even a new example.  I wrote about this in 2011:
Someone sent me a link to a NY Times article called "Reason Seen More as Weapon Than Path to Truth". [...]  It's about "argumentative theory", which claims that human reasoning evolved to win arguments, rather than to reach truth.  In this view, even our many cognitive biases are adaptations to improve debate skills.  This goes against the more common view that cognitive biases represent limitations of natural selection.

Given these two diverging views, I was curious about the evidence for each side.  But I was disappointed in how little evidence the article presented.  In fact, it presented no evidence at all!  I've decided the article is a self-referential parody.
So the NY Times article was terrible.  But was it terrible because there's no evidence for argumentative theory, or is it terrible because the journalist botched the evidence for argumentative theory?  The answer lies buried in this fifty-page review on which the NY Times article was based.

Yeah, I'm not going to read through fifty pages.  But my boyfriend read through it.  He said that it was a good review of fallacies and cognitive biases, but did not advance any other kind of evidence for argumentative theory.  In his opinion, the biggest hole in the paper was its failure to give any account of the evolution of persuadability.  How can anyone win arguments if no one ever gets persuaded?  I asked him if the paper at least showed evidence that cognitive biases lead to winning more arguments, and in his recollection it did not.

Naturally I'm obligated to believe what my boyfriend says, but you're welcome to look at the paper yourself.  Massimo Pigliucci also read the paper independently, and had an even more negative opinion.

But maybe this is just one bad paper that the journalists picked out because it was bad.  It's hard to say without being familiar with the field.  However, there are measures that even a non-expert can use.  According to the Web of Science, "How do Humans Reason? Arguments for Argumentative Theory" was the most cited paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 2011, receiving 38 citations.  As for Behavioral and Brain Sciences, it has the highest impact factor in the category of behavioral science, and third highest impact factor in the category of neuroscience. It's possible that all 38 citations are saying, "Look at this terrible paper", but I doubt it; by all accounts this is a very authoritative paper.

Now that doesn't mean that all of EP is bad.  It could be that only one segment of EP is bad, a large enough segment to cite this paper 38 times.  Given that even anti-EP people agree that at least some parts of EP are decent, this is a good place to settle our inquiry.

TL;DR: I read an awful article about EP, and found that the awfulness comes from the researchers, not the journalists.  It was also a very authoritative study in its field, though this does not imply that all of EP is bad, just parts of it.

Discussion: What is the problem?

First let me note that there is nothing politically "incorrect" or "correct" about argumentative theory.  I have no problem with it, and argumentative theory seems like a reasonable possibility.  Unlike many of the other EP studies that people complain about, it clearly has nothing to do with race or sex.  You may hypothesize that people oppose EP because its conclusions are at odds with liberal politics.  My own hypothesis is that the racism and sexism just draws people's attention to the shoddy arguments that exist in EP.

And what are those shoddy arguments?

If I may generalize based on the above case study and a few other examples I have seen,* evidence for EP (at least that which appears in major media) comes in this form: Based on our theory, human evolution should have selected for trait X.  We did an experiment confirming the prevalence of X across cultures.

*Since I am only waving at other examples vaguely, you are welcome to distrust my conclusions from this point on.

Part of the problem is that it's hard to guard against post-hoc theories constructed just to fit the evidence (whatever that evidence might be).  There's nothing to stop researchers from performing the experiment first and then coming up with an EP theory to justify the results.  Alternatively, it could be common wisdom that X is common, and the EP theory is created to explain X.  Occasionally it turns out that the common wisdom is mistaken, and EP theories can be falsified in this way.  Yes, EP is falsifiable!

But you can imagine there are plenty of cases where the common wisdom is correct, just not for the reasons supposed by EP researchers.  In these cases, the EP theory will never be falsified by the kind of evidence they come up with.

In the case of argumentative theory, an alternative hypothesis that correct reasoning is more adaptive, but also costs a lot of other resources, or is otherwise difficult for evolution to achieve.  The paper points at all our cognitive hiccups, but this is just as consistent with my theory as it is with argumentative theory.  You can also imagine other reasons why cognitive biases might be adaptive.  For example, perhaps they allow you to lose arguments more often, which is good because winning arguments doesn't win friends.  Or cognitive biases could lead to more cautious behaviors (eg mistaking the wind for a tiger is better than mistaking a tiger for the wind).

TL;DR: The study is not bad because it is politically incorrect, it is bad because it makes "obvious" predictions.  These "obvious" predictions might be wrong, falsifying the EP hypothesis.  But falsifiability is not enough, because even if the "obvious" predictions are right, there are many explanations besides EP.

Some defenses of Evolutionary Psychology

The great thing about this drama is that several people are mounting defenses of EP, making it easier for me to gather some of their points.

Chris Hallquist talks about why large brains must be an adaptation.  Big brains are very costly, so there has to be some adaptive value to offset this.  He also mentions the theory that women are more "picky" about sex partners than men because women have to invest more in children.  This theory is evidenced by a cross-species study which verifies that in animal species with two sexes, the sex with more investment in offspring is the pickier one.

Those kinds of evidence overcome my objections, and so I do not object to them.  There could be further objections that I am not aware of, but for now I accept the null hypothesis that this is good science.  However, neither of these arguments apply to argumentative theory, which I still think is bad science.

Ed Clint also gives a quote by Elliot Sober from Philosophy of Biology:
Adaptationism is first and foremost a research program. Its core claims will receive support if specific adaptationist hypotheses turn out to be well confirmed. If such explanations fail time after time, eventually scientists will begin to suspect that its core assumptions are defective. Phrenology waxed and waned according to the same dynamic (Section 2.1). Only time and hard work will tell whether adaptationism deserves the same fate ( Mitchell and Valone 1990).
My interpretation of this quote is that adaptationism is not the assumption that everything is adaptive, it is a way of picking research topics.  You look at a trait and start with the theory that it is adaptive, not because you believe it's true, but because among all the possible hypotheses that's the best one to start with.  (This could be compared to methodological naturalism.)  Something like argumentative theory is just the beginning of a project.  And once argumentative theory becomes a big enough question, scientists will finally perform a solid, expensive experiment.  (I'm sure the cross-species study, for instance, must be quite expensive.)

I believe my interpretation is corroborated by this EP FAQ linked by Ed Clint:
It is true that many functional hypotheses have been offered for a variety of psychological phenomena, and it is also true that most of these hypotheses are probably wrong. However, hypotheses outnumber established theories in just about any field you care to name, and evolutionary psychologists are no less discriminating than other scholars.
I think this is a fair defense of EP, though it leaves a few questions.  Why do researchers so happily talk about their hypotheses to the media as if they were true?

And at most, it leads me to a middle ground between the two sides.  If I read a story, or a scientific study proposing an adaptive explanation for a human trait, should I believe it?  No, I should not.  Because in the field of EP, the adaptive hypothesis is just the starting hypothesis.  It's the idea that the researchers toss around, until it gains enough weight and they bring in the real evidence.  Should I believe in argumentative theory?  No, not at all.  Should I believe in the pickier women theory?  Yes, but only after I heard about the cross-species research.

TL;DR: There are some kinds of evidence in EP that I find persuasive, such as cross-species research.  Another defense of EP is that adaptationism is not so much an assumption of EP, as it is simply a good starting point.  If that is the case, then I should reject adaptive claims from EP until I'm sure that they've advanced beyond the starting point.

Holding hands

My new favorite webcomic is O Human Star (occasionally NSFW).  It's about a man who dies and goes to the future, where he must confront his gender identity issues in cyborg form.  Classic!

Anyway, these few panels made me nostalgic.

I remember back in middle school when my girlfriend wanted to hold hands with me.  Why?? I did not understand the appeal.  That's just something you do to be socially identifiable as a couple, right?  It didn't make sense at all.

Much later when I dated a guy for the first time, I was surprised that I actually wanted to hold hands with him.  Weeeeird!  Anyway, he refused, possibly because he was closeted.  I didn't realize quite how oppressive the taboo against men holding hands was until then.

Nowadays, my boyfriend and I hold hands all the time and generally engage in a lot of PDA.  Straight people are usually too embarrassed to say anything, but our gay friends occasionally complain.  Ha, like they can stop us!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Privilege as bias

Some months ago, there was a comment scuffle on my other blog.  One person, let's call them Alice, complains about transphobia and ablism in a particular forum.  Another person, let's call them Bob, says that the allegations are too vague.  Bob asks for a link and talks about recollection bias.  Alice responds angrily, and among other things accuses Bob of being part of a privileged group.  Bob asserts that this is ad hominem, and confesses dislike for the very idea of "privilege".

Bob is likely not alone in this perception, that the main function of "privilege" is to discount people's opinions based on who they are.  When a privileged person says something an underprivileged person doesn't like, they can claim that the privileged person's opinion comes from privilege, and should therefore be discounted.  This allows you to reject other people's views independently of their content, and thus it cannot help you achieve a greater approximation of truth.

It's hard to argue with that, if "privilege" is just used to indiscriminately dismiss people that you disagree with.

But there's also a way to translate "privilege" into skeptical terms.  When someone is called out on their privilege, the translation is that they've been accused of bias.  The paradigmatic case is when a white person expresses their personal impression that racism isn't a big deal these days.  Of course, impressions come from personal experiences, and it hardly needs saying that people have different personal experiences.  People also suffer from inattentive blindness, and thus are unlikely to notice comments or actions which don't hurt them personally.

That said, accusing people of privilege-induced blindness is a pretty shitty argument, because accusing people of cognitive bias is a shitty argument.  Or at least, it's very hard to make persuasive case out of it.

For example, suppose someone believes in chemtrail-related conspiracies, and your response is to talk about the systematic bias which causes people perceive agenticity where there is none.  It may be interesting to discuss, especially to third parties, but your debate opponent will likely remain unconvinced.  For one thing, simply asserting a cognitive bias doesn't mean that it's there.  Why should your opponent accept your assertion just on your say so?  And for another, just because they have a statistically higher probability of having a certain set of false beliefs does not mean that this particular belief is false.

Another example: suppose someone believes that a particular forum is terrible, and your response is to talk about recollection bias.  You're obviously not going to convince someone that their memory is wrong just because you've cited the fact that memories can be wrong.

(In general, I support the idea of privilege, but at some point I'd also like to enumerate its many problems and failings.  Also at some point I'd like to discuss the failings of "name that fallacy" style argumentation, but my thoughts aren't fully formed.)

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Does physics make you less religious?

I'm sure that this has never crossed your pure and innocent minds, but as a godless physicist, I fit into a sort of godless physicist stereotype.  But is there any truth to the stereotype?  Does studying physics tend to make you less religious?

Nope!  At least, not undergraduate physics.  According to this longitudinal study, studying biological or physical sciences has no overall effect on the religiosity of students.  Humanities and social sciences have a negative effect.  Education and business have a positive effect.  Or that's what the summary says.

I looked at the paper too, and as you'd expect there are a few more wrinkles.  It seems that studying physical sciences does have a slight negative effect on the self-assessed importance of religion, but no significant effect on religious attendance, whether the church should have less influence, or other religious measures.  For some reason engineering causes people to think the church should have less influence, and that less should be left up to God, but there was no significant effect on other measures.

This is in addition to a larger background trend where average religious attendance declines 12% in the 5-6 years after high school.  It also ignores the selection effect where the kind of people who enter into certain majors are more or less likely to be religious in the first place.

The study does not report raw religiosity scores in different majors (presumably it was reported elsewhere), but it does discuss how religiosity affects what majors students switch into.  Higher religiosity scores predict a higher probability of switching into education, humanities, biology, and a lower probability of switching into social sciences.  There appears to be no significant affect on switching to physical sciences.  Higher religiosity also increases the chance that people will go to college.

So on average, science doesn't make people less religious, and we have the evidence to show this.  If it seemed otherwise, that was an illusion caused by your limited and biased sampling of reality.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Liberationism in atheism?

On my other blog, I wrote about the liberationist/assimilationist distinction in LGBT politics.  Basically, we have the choice of emphasizing that LGBT people are the same (assimilationism), and thus deserve equal rights, or emphasizing that LGBT people have the right to be different (liberationism).  For those of us who don't live in the land of politicking and soundbites, it's obvious that there's no contradiction between the two messages.  But when it comes down to the overall message of the movement, and funding priorities, there's a lot of conflict.  For instance, a lot of people question the prioritizing of same-sex marriage, when it's basically only important to LGB people who want monogamous relationships which conform to current marriage norms.

So I was thinking about whether this distinction is useful in other movements as well... say the atheist movement.  Are there atheist liberationists and atheist assimilationists?

I enjoy drawing parallels between different social movements that I participate in, but in this case my answer is no.

Emphasizing similarities and emphasizing differences are two strategies for achieving social acceptance and equal rights.  But my sense is that this isn't really all that vocal atheists fight for?  Sure, it's partly about fighting for social acceptance, but it's also about criticizing religion, fighting for the acceptability of criticizing religion (which should be no more taboo than criticizing political beliefs), and fighting against policies and social values that are boosted by religious beliefs.  Instead of arguing over different possible strategies to gain social acceptance, atheists instead tend to argue the priorities of their different goals.

 I suppose that this is the blogging equivalent of publishing negative results even when they're less interesting.  But maybe there's more to say about this?

The primary distinction drawn in atheist circles is the militant/accomodationist distinction (I use pejorative terms for each side because there is a lack of neutral terms).  Might this be mapped to liberationism and assimilationism somehow?  Assimilationists argue that accepting LGB people provides a large benefit for a rather minimal change to the status quo, while liberationists argue that a large change to the status quo is called for.  You could say that "militant" atheists want to change the status quo more drastically than "accomodationist" atheists.

This could mean nothing, but my sympathy for the "militants" grew when I learned more about queer politics.  I saw people like PZ Myers and Greta Christina applying their "pull no punches" attitude equally to religion and to queer and feminist politics.  By contrast, Friendly Atheist has been more equivocal about feminism and assimilationist in its queer coverage.  My views assimilationism/liberationism are mostly moderate, but the "moderate" views of queer people tend to be much more liberationist than the "moderate" views of straight people.

Eh, I don't know.  The connection seems weak.  Any thoughts?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Quantum interpretations are scientific

Quantum Mechanics is famous for having multiple interpretations.  Among them, the two most common interpretations are the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI) and the Copenhagen interpretation.

According to the Copenhagen interpretation, when you measure a system that is in a mixed quantum state, then the system "collapses" into a definite state (that is, a state that gives you only a single result for your measurement).  There are different probabilities for the system to collapse into different states, but it will always be a definite state.

In contrast, MWI says that there is no collapse.  Rather, when you measure a system in a mixed quantum state, now you are in a mixed quantum state.  One component of your state consists of you having measured one outcome; another component consists of you having measured the other outcome.  These different components don't interact with each other, and evolve independently.  The ultimate consequence is that the entire universe is in a mixed state with many components that don't interact with one another.  Thus the name "many worlds".

MWI and the Copenhagen interpretation give identical predictions in all experiments.  So it's impossible to falsify one in favor of the other.  That's why some contend that the interpretation question is non-scientific.  I do not agree, for two reasons:

1. Different interpretations suggest different directions for future theories.
2. Experiments might have something to say about Copenhagen vs MWI after all.

1. Directions for future theories

I want to quote something Richard Feynman said.  Not because Feynman said it, therefore it was right, but because Feynman put the idea into my head.  This occurred in a lecture series Feynman gave at Cornell (specifically, the second lecture, section 8).  Feynman explained that there are three different ways to state the law of gravitation:
  1. Each object senses where all the other objects are, and feels a force towards each object of magnitude GmM/R^2.
  2. There is a gravitational potential in every point of space, governed by laws that only look at its surrounding neighborhood, without looking at far away objects.  The gravitational force is determined by this potential.
  3. Given a start and end point, an object travels by the path that minimizes a particular quantity.
So the question is, which of these theories is correct?  Is this a scientific question?  Feynman said:
They are equivalent, scientifically; it is impossible to make a decision, because there's no experimental way to distinguish if all the consequences are the same.

Psychologically, they're very different in two ways.  First, philosophically, you like them or don't like them--training is the only thing you can do to beat that disease.  Second, psychologically they're different because they're completely unequivalent when you go to guess at a new law.

As long as physics is incomplete, and we're trying to find out the other laws, and to understand the other laws, then the different possible formulations give clues as to what might happen in another circumstance.  And they become not equivalent in psychologically suggesting to us to guess as to what the laws might look like in a wider situation.
Physics has developed a lot since we discovered the law of gravitation, so we know for a fact that the different interpretations have different uses.  The second theory has helped us understand some of the fundamental character of quantum field theory.  But the third theory gave us Feynman path integrals, which are related to Feynman diagrams, an easy way to represent fundamental particle interactions.  The first theory has not been very useful, and that's that.

MWI and the Copenhagen interpretation are in the same situation as the law of gravity.  They're equivalent in terms of predictions, but they lead to different ways of thinking which suggest different directions for expanding physical theories.  The first thing that comes to mind is that MWI is deterministic and unitary (meaning it is deterministic if time plays backwards too).  That's useful because it suggests that we can continue coming up with fundamental laws that obey time-symmetry.  There may be other uses too.

As I argued in "Multiverses are scientific", scientific ideas can serve many roles.  There are observations, hypotheses, experiments, theories, predictions, and so forth. Quantum interpretations also fulfill a role in science--they suggest different directions for future theories.  They do not fulfill the role of hypotheses which can be tested.  And that is okay, because not all scientific ideas need to fulfill every single role at once.  A hypothesis doesn't also need to be a theory, and an interpretation doesn't also need to be a hypothesis.  So the fact that the interpretations are not falsifiable doesn't necessarily mean it is unscientific.

2. How to (possibly) verify MWI

First, I need to explain how the Copenhagen interpretation and MWI, despite their differences, vary continuously into one another.  Consider a thought experiment where a mechanical device detects whether a radioactive atom decays within a half-life.  If it does, then it turns on a laser pointer, which provokes a cat to run through a hallway.  At the other end of the hallway, I can see if the cat appears or not.  Whatever I see, I publish my results for other scientists to see.

The question is, when does the collapse occur?  Does it collapse when radioactive atom observes itself decaying?  Does it collapse when the mechanical device observes the radioactive atom?  Do the mechanical device and radioactive atom both collapse when the cat sees the laser pointer?  Do the cat, device, and atom collapse when I see the cat (or not)?  Do the cat, device, atom, and I all collapse when other scientists see my results? Etc. etc.

If you answer "no" ad infinitum, you are taking the MWI.  But if you eventually answer "yes", you are taking the Copenhagen interpretation.  To make the Copenhagen interpretation similar to the MWI, all you have to do is say "no" lots of times before eventually saying "yes".

We don't know the answer to all those questions, and cannot know.  But we do know the answer to the first few is "no".  We can verify that small systems are in mixed states because we can measure interference effects.  With more complex systems, it's harder because of the sheer randomness that occurs when you have lots of particles at a non-zero temperature.  In my knowledge, the largest quantum system created was 40 microns in length, and needed to be cooled down to 0.1 K.

It will be hard to push that limit, but we definitely could, in very small steps.  We could push the Copenhagen interpretation closer and closer to MWI, though we will never quite reach it.  Alternatively, MWI could be falsified if it's found that mixed states do not exist past a certain point (ie if no interference is found where it is expected).


People sometimes say that MWI is unscientific, because it posits parallel worlds that cannot be observed.  This is mistaken because it assumes that every single idea in science needs to be verifiable.  Scientific ideas may also serve other roles, such as suggesting future directions for theories which themselves would be experimentally verifiable.  Secondly, it so happens that MWI is partially verifiable in very small increments.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Inner triangle area

I haven't posted a puzzle for a long time.  So here's one.

I start with any old triangle.  I construct the three red lines shown above by the following:
1. Take one side of the triangle and divide it into thirds.
2. Draw a line from the one-third point to the opposite corner.
3. Repeat for the other sides of the triangle.  Make sure to pick the appropriate one-third point so that it resembles the above figure (which is to scale).

Find the ratio of the area of the pink inner triangle to the area of the large black triangle.  Prove it.

See the solution

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Why ace community demographics matter

This was cross-posted on The Asexual Agenda.

Some time ago, I did analysis of the 2011 Asexual Awareness Week Community Census.  It is the largest asexual community survey (~3400 respondents) that we have.  Now I find myself referring to it time and time again, because it is so relevant to virtually everything we talk about in the asexual community.

For example, a common dynamic in the asexual community (especially AVEN) is that people feel so alone, and want to find other people who are just like them.  "Aren't there any other aces who experience _____???"  The other day I reassured someone on AVEN that plenty of aces feel repulsed by sex.  But  I can say more than that.  Repulsed people are in the majority in the community (55%).  You may have felt alone, but that was just a matter of perception!  A lot of times when people feel alone, it is just a matter of perception.

Of course, not all the things we talk about in the community are common.  For example, many people doing visibility work are quick to tell people that aces can also have or enjoy sex.  And that's true.  But sometimes people complain that this is too confusing.  If people who have sex and like it can be asexual, does the word even have any meaning?

But it isn't really that confusing, as long as you have a sense of perspective.  Yes asexuals can like sex, but it's only a small minority (1% of asexuals, 4% of gray-As, and 11% of demisexuals, 4% overall).  Doesn't it make sense that at least some asexuals would like sex?  And even though I am among those 4%, I think it's perfectly sensible for people to frequently discuss things that are relevant to only 96% of the community.

Or consider the perpetual debate over whether heteroromantics and aromantics are queer.  Did you know that only 22% of the community is heteroromantic?  And only 13% of those people identify with the LGBT community?  I'm not going to forsake queer heteroromantics just because they make up a measly 2% of the community, but it should give us a sense of perspective.  When we argue that heteroromantics have the right to some space in LGBT communities, we should remember that most heteroromantics aren't interested in exercising that right.  I'm more worried about aromantics, among whom 31% identify with the LGBT community.

Besides the critical perspective offered by the survey, there's a lot of stuff that's just plain interesting.  For instance, you can see some of the differences between AVEN and tumblr, the two major asexual communities of today.  Compared to tumblr, AVEN has more men (16% vs 11%), more heteroromantics (25% vs 17%), and fewer bi/panromantics (19% vs 27%).  This isn't too surprising if you're familiar with the respective cultures of tumblr and AVEN.

Currently, even further analysis of the data is in the works (not by me).  What other trends will we dig up?

Math links

There's a cool video of a generalized version of Conway's Game of Life.  Normally, the Game of Life involves a bunch of squares in a grid turning off and on, but in the generalized version involves points on a continuous plane turning on and off.  (via Mathpuzzle)

Also, I'm a little incredulous that this "School of Hard Sums" is a real TV show.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

How well did Nate Silver do?

The news is saying that Nate Silver (who does election predictions at FiveThirtyEight) got fifty states out of fifty. It's being reported as a victory of math nerds over pundits.

In my humble opinion, getting 50 out of 50 is somewhat meaningless. A lot of those states weren't exactly swing states! And if he gets some of them wrong, that doesn't mean his probabilistic predictions were wrong. Likewise, if he gets them right, that doesn't mean he was right.

I thought it would be more informative to look at Nate Silver's state-by-state predictions of Obama's vote share. That way, Nate could be wrong even in states like California.  So here's what I did for each state: I took the difference between the final prediction of FiveThirtyEight, and the vote share reported by Google this morning.  Then I divided this difference by Nate's margin of error.  See the results in a histogram below.

What the figure shows is that Nate's predictions were more accurate than Nate himself claimed!

The mean of the actual distribution is -0.14, which means that Obama did slightly worse than Nate predicted, but by an amount that can be explained by random error.  The standard deviation of the distribution is 0.5, which means that Nate predicted an error that was twice the actual error.

Of course, Nate's reported error is likely due to expected systematic error.  For example, if all states were slightly more in favor of Obama, that would be a systematic error.  Assuming that Nate Silver predicted a spread of 0.5, he must have expected a systematic error of about 0.85 in one direction or the other.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Cloud Atlas and yellowface

On this blog I talked a bit about Cloud Atlas, the novel by David Mitchell, and I anticipated the film, released last week.  I was dismayed to find that the film makes use of "yellowface", using cosmetics to make white actors appear Asian.  This has been criticized by Jezebel and the Media Action Network for Asian Americans.

I should say that I very much liked the film, though not quite as much as the novel.  It's an epic that connects six different stories from 1849 to after the apocalypse.  It's the sort of complicated movie I wish were more marketable to the public (but it was a flop).  Nonetheless, I believe in disconnecting how much I liked the movie from recognizing the problems with the movie.  I should not feel like I have to defend the movie just because I liked it.

The basic gimmick of the film was that the same actors played in each of the same stories, sometimes in major parts, sometimes in minor parts.  The stories occur all over the world, and involves many different ethnicities.  One of the stories occurs in a future Korea, and many non-Asian actors are made to look Asian.  Here are a few examples (scrounged from the Cloud Atlas Wiki):

The top left character is one of the major characters of the future Korea story.  The other two are minor characters.  The wiki claims that the lower one, who must have appeared for all of one second in a three hour film, is played by actress Halle Berry.  Frankly I'm not sure I believe that one.

I think the top two look like Vulcans.  It was actually really distracting when I watched the film, even aside from whatever problems of race.  I get the sense that the make-up artists are among those people who can't tell Asians apart, and therefore can't tell an unconvincing Asian when they see one.  Not that there's anything wrong with having trouble distinguishing Asian faces, but surely it should be a required skill in this particular job?

There are some potential mitigating factors (which I am about to explain are not very mitigating).  The main protagonist of the Korea story is played by the Korean actress Doona Bae.  And throughout the movie, actors are switching races and genders all the time.  For example, Doona Bae plays a white woman (in 1849), and a mexican woman (in 1975).  Halle Berry, besides playing the above character, plays a Jewish woman (in 1931), cameos as an Indian woman (in 2012), and plays a protagonist who happened to be Latina in the book.

Doona Bae as Sonmi-451.  Taken from the wiki.

But it's not a symmetric situation.  Asian actors and characters are frequently excluded or sidelined in American film.  Here you have a story that calls for and demands Asian actors, but they still cast one of the two major characters as a white actor.  And originally, Doona Bae's role was promised to Natalie Portman.  WTF.  Would it have been so hard to cast the two main characters with Asian actors, and give those actors minor parts in the other stories?  Before I heard anything about the movie, I publicly said I was looking forward to the multiracial cast, so you know I'm disappointed.

Or alternatively, if it's really so hard to find good Asian actors, they could have just left the actors white.  They may be living in future Seoul, but surely future Seoul also has ethnic minorities who are culturally Korean and take on Koreanized names?  I noticed that in the post-apocalyptic story, they briefly show a bunch of people who were dark-skinned in the novel, but in the movie they didn't bother giving the actors blackface.  The dark skin is thematically important because it's supposed to show a racial role reversal from 1849--the technological civilization is made of dark-skinned people while the native islanders are light-skinned.  But the movie quite reasonably decided not to show this because that would require giving actors blackface.  But for some reason, it's okay to give actors yellowface even when there is no major theme hinging on their being ethnically Asian.

Lastly, I do not think it is coincidence that they cast an Asian woman but not an Asian man.  I note that IMDB mentions three other Asian actresses with minor parts, but no men.  For some reason Asian women are more sexualized and thus more appealing to American audiences.  So there's that annoying gender dimension as well.

Mike Le argues that it is problematic because it puts "a megaphone to the lips of an A-list actor so he can announce “chink” before an audience of millions."  As I understand it, he means that white actors are free to enact Asian stereotypes and exert excessive control over the public image of Asian Americans.  I agree that this is a problem in general, but in this case I'm not sure what particular stereotypes they were enacting aside from the stereotypical appearance depicted by the terrible make-up job.  So I disagree with Mike on this particular point.

In summary, Cloud Atlas used a white actor to portray a major Korean character, using a distractingly bad make-up job.  But the main problem is that they continued the practice of excluding Asian actors from American film, this time even when the script demands Asian actors.  If they could not find Asian actors, they should have left the characters white, just as they left white actors white when they played canonically dark-skinned characters.  I also find it disturbing that they cast several Asian women, but no Asian men.  All in all, this diminished my enjoyment of the film.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The founding fathers

Next time you hear about the founding fathers of the U.S., remember that the founding fathers are responsible for our plurality voting system and the electoral college.  And that's why Ohio is electing the president.

In fact, originally, the vice-president was to be the runner-up.  The founding fathers sure knew what was best.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

My tolerance for BS

Recently I was asked (in private communication) how I'm able to tolerate so much BS, despite being all into critical thinking.  My interlocutor, of course, had some specific examples of BS in mind, and the simplest explanation was that I simply didn't agree that those particular examples were BS.

But this still raises the question, how does my enthusiasm for critical thinking affect my standards?  Do I sniff at fallacies all the time?  Do I only read blogs and news sources that feature consistently sound reasoning?  Do I choose friends and communities based on their critical thinking skills?

In my opinion, it doesn't really raise my standards much, in terms of what I read and who I associate with.

In part, someone who argues well is indistinguishable from someone who I agree with a lot.  So if I surround myself with people who I perceive to argue well, that's a recipe to surround myself with people who agree with me.  That might be nice, but it's not exactly a critical thinking value.

The other problem is my general sense that nearly everyone makes bad arguments some of the time.  It's just not feasible to limit myself to those who don't.  Another way of putting it is that I disagree with everyone, so I'm not particularly bothered by the fact that I disagree with any particular person.  I don't think skeptics are reliably better, they just think about it more often.

I do have a tendency to recognize fallacies and cognitive biases wherever I go.  I've joked that many of my friends are cognitive biases personified.  There's Rationalize-All-Established-Habits, Everyone-Must-Hate-the-Same-Things-As-Me, I'll-Believe-What's-Flattering-or-Politically-Convenient, Take-the-Most-Dramatic-Interpretation-Possible, etc.  And of course my boyfriend, Inattentional-Blindness.  But I can't blame my friends for being human.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Not to be confused with fluidity

This was cross-posted on The Asexual Agenda.

One of my pet peeves is when people mix up the following things:

1. Being between orientations
2. Fluidity in orientation

Because I am gray-A, I am between orientations.  That does not necessarily mean that I am fluidly switching back and forth between allosexual and asexual.  It's not like I'm asexual for most of the year, but the local ace meetup group has to avoid scheduling on full moons.  No, I feel sort-of-not-really-attracted to people on a daily basis.

Of course, some people might experience fluid orientation.  If someone's level of attraction varies from month to month, that's a pretty decent reason to identify as gray-A.  If someone's level attraction slowly varies over their lifetime, I'd say it's up to them to choose which labels are most convenient at which times.

Wouldn't you know it, this is a confusion with bisexuality as well.  I think the Bisexual Index put it best:
Often you'll hear long winded definitions of bisexuality include the word 'fluid', or 'changeable'. Some bisexuals like the word, because it feels to them like their sexuality does change over time. One day you might be only fancying long haired people, the next week all your fantasies might be about office workers, or pizza-delivery-people. Or you might not - some people have a type and stick to it. That's fine with us. But why do people who aren't bisexual like the word?

Because it explains away the gender attraction - they can't get their head around people liking more than one gender, so they couch it in terms of the attraction changing, flowing, from same-sex to opposite sex and back again. When non-bisexuals define bisexuality as "fluid" what they usually mean is "no-one can be genuinely attracted to more than one gender at the same time, so it must be about being gay some days and straight others".
Likewise, when people assume that gray-A is necessarily about being attracted to people very infrequently, I think it's because they just can't grok the idea that anyone can be inbetween at every instant in time.

Next on my pet peeves list: when people confuse fluidity and choice.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Poe's Law is unflattering

Poe's Law says that there is no parody of religious fundamentalism so ridiculous that it won't be mistaken for the real thing.  Alternatively, it says that it is impossible (or very difficult) to distinguish between sincere religious fundamentalism and a parody.

PZ Myers recently came down against Poe's Law, and said he was sick of people referring to it.  This surprises me because as far as I know, PZ is still the most widely read atheist blogger, and I see commenters on atheist blogs referring to Poe's Law all the time.  People are always saying "It's a poe," which either means, "It's another parody that fooled us," or, "This is yet another instance where it's hard to tell whether it's a parody or not."

I don't agree with PZ Myers' argument:
Declaring something to be a “poe” is a minimizing tactic; it’s a way to pretend that a real problem doesn’t exist. Are you really going to try to delude yourself and others into thinking that the Tea Party, Fox News, and the whole goddamned Repuclican party are an act put on by snarky liberals?
That's not really the impression I get.  When people call something a Poe, I don't think they are trying to deny the craziness of conservative religion.

In fact, my impression is the opposite.  What people mean is, "Okay, well maybe this time it was just satire, but the fact that some among us were fooled is a testament to how crazy fundamentalists have gotten!"

In other words, calling something a Poe is not a way of denying how crazy religion is.  It's a way of taking satire, which is something that constitutes no evidence whatsoever, and twisting it into still more confirmation that religion is crazy.

Instead of turning satire into confirmation bias, there are far more unflattering conclusions we can draw.  For instance, we could conclude that the person declaring "It's a Poe" is so unfamiliar with the fundamentalism they oppose, that they can't recognize it when they see it!  Or we could conclude that they are unable to recognize humor or unable to recognize sincerity.  Or perhaps satirists of religious fundamentalism are generally incompetent.

Poe's Law, it's just a stupid internet meme.  People like it because it's a common cultural touchstone.  But like most stupid internet memes, its only value is self-referential emptiness.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Current research: All-nighters for science

Sometimes I run experiments at the Advanced Light Source.  You can read more about it here or here, but the basic idea is that there is a beam of electrons going around in a giant ring, just like a synchrotron particle collider.  But in a particle collider, they have to worry about losing energy to radiation; at the Advanced Light Source, the radiation is the whole point.  All around the ring, the x-ray radiation is used for a diverse number of experiments, from biology to materials science.

Anyway, the result is that thousands of scientists come every year to do experiments.  Even though there are a dozen different places around the ring where experiments can run simultaneously, "beam time" is in high demand.  So every semester there's this process where we propose experiments, and get assigned specific days to run experiments.  Typically, we get assigned 24 hour blocks.

So when I run experiments at the Advanced Light Source, that means I'm working for 24 hours straight.

Here's how a typical experiment might go:

Hour 1: I load samples into vacuum and wait for it to pump down.  I wait for the liquid helium to cool the sample.
Hour 2: I try to align the X-ray beam with the sample.  Is it not showing because it's not aligned or is one of the settings wrong?
Hour 3: The staff scientist comes by and instantly solves the problem we've been working on for the last hour.  We fiddle around with the settings to see if we can get the signal to look better.
Hour 4: Geez, I'm already tired, and beam time has hardly gotten started.  But finally, we can take our first data, a quick fermi surface mapping.
Hour 5: The computer crashes repeatedly.  Even the staff scientist is puzzled for a while.  I'm hungry, so I produce dinner from thin air.  Just kidding, I painstakingly cooked all of that food the previous night.
Hour 6: This data doesn't look quite right.  Maybe we can solve the problem by taking more data?
Hour 7: Maybe it would look better if we tried a new sample?  We spend an hour switching to a new sample and cooling it down.
Hour 8: We've learned from our mistakes, and this time it only takes an hour to get the sample in the right place.  It doesn't look much better than the previous sample though.
Hour 9-12: Finally, we can take our data again.  I sort of nod off, only staying sufficiently awake to start new scans every hour.  I heat up more food and try reading my book, but soon I don't have the short term memory to get through long sentences.
Hour 13: Apparently, the light polarization was all wrong, and that's why the data didn't quite look the way we wanted.  Good thing we figured it out early and didn't waste too much time.
Hour 14: I argue with my coworker over the best way to ration our time.  Better statistics, better resolution, more data points, it's all a trade off.  We take test scans trying to figure out our best options.
Hour 15-23: Now we start really taking data.  Strangely, I feel more awake now, even though I no longer have to think very much.  I do my physics homework.
Hour 24: We're done with our main plan, with one hour to go.  We spend 20 minutes arguing over the best way to spend the last 40 minutes.

Hour 48: We discover that all the data we acquired was useless because the sample wasn't cooled properly despite what the thermometers said.

Experimental work is frequently a shaggy dog story.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Three ways for definitions to be wrong

When I was younger and newer to critical thinking, I was fascinated by definitions, and how they relate to truth.  Definitions... they can't be wrong!  If I define a floob as a four-sided triangle, then every instance of a floob will be a triangle with four sides.  If that sounds like a paradox, the paradox is resolved by the fact that there are no instances of floobs.

But that's a simple example because "floob" is a nonsense word.  Things get trickier when you define a word that has colloquial meaning, or when you give a single word multiple definitions.  If you switch between two definitions in the middle of an argument, you've committed the equivocation fallacy.  This is described with a famous quote from Through the Looking Glass:
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone. "It means just what I choose it to mean - neither more or less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all."
(Humpty Dumpty then proceeds to define the words that appear in "Jabberwocky".)

But even if you stick to one definition, there are ways that a definition can be wrong.  Here I present three different ways I think a definition can be wrong.  This list may not be exhaustive.

1. A definition is descriptively wrong if it does not match the way the word is used.  For example, if I define "glory" as "a nice knockdown argument" (Lewis Carroll's example), this is wildly different from the way "glory" is commonly used.  If we say a dictionary is wrong, then what we mean is that it is descriptively wrong.  After all, the entire purpose of a dictionary is to describe the ways words are used.

2. A definition is wrong in application if someone purports to define a word in one way, but in practice uses it another way.  For example, if someone defines a pencil as a long thin piece of wood with a tube of graphite inside, but later refers to a mechanical pencil as a pencil, then their definition was wrong in application.  Either they failed to entirely describe what they think of as a pencil, or they were mistaken to include mechanical pencils in that category.

3. A definition is morally wrong if we judge that using that definition will lead to harm.  For example, I might say that it is morally wrong for altmed people to talk about "energy fields", not because physics has a monopoly on the words "energy" or "field", but because those words lend an air of science to something undeserving.

Note that we may still accept definitions if they are wrong in some ways.  For instance, we may use descriptively wrong words if we're trying to change the language.  It is appropriate to include morally wrong definitions in a dictionary.

Whenever you call a definition wrong, a fun exercise is to determine the exact way in which it is wrong.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The topology of opinion space

The purpose of an analogy is to explain an idea by relating it to something simpler.  Unfortunately, what I consider to be simple is not the same thing as what most other people consider simple.  Because of my math and physics education, I often think of analogies relating to math and physics.  To most people, these "analogies" only end up making things more complicated.

Here's an analogy in that vein:

When we want to describe people's views and opinions, we usually don't simply list out their views and opinions.  Instead, we try to simplify by describing it with an axis.  For example, liberal vs conservative is an axis.  If this axis isn't enough to describe what we want to describe, then we add more axes.  Religious vs secular.  Socially liberal vs socially conservative.  Isolationist vs interventionist.  We also invent axes to describe various other things in life, like sexual orientation or personality.

We sure love our axes!  That's why we have such things as the Political Compass, the Klein Orientation Grid, and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

But what is the mathematical structure of an axis?  Most people are implicitly thinking of the interval (0,1), or possibly (-inf,+inf).  All the above quizes basically use an orthotope in Rn, where n is the number of axes.  The greater n is, the more sophisticated the model is, supposedly.

But speaking as a student of maths, why R?  R, the set of real numbers, is a mathematical space with an awful lot of unnecessary structure to it.  R has addition, multiplication, subtraction, and division.  What does it even mean to take the sum or product of two opinions?  0 is defined as the addition identity element (ie x+0=x for all x), but there is no need for this concept if there is no addition.  Likewise, 1 is defined as the multiplication identity element, and there is no need for that either.

If you take all that away, what remains is not R, but a special metric space, which we'll call S.  It's a metric space, because we're imagining that we have defined the distance between any two points in S.  A distance function is basically a special function which takes an unordered pair of points in S, and outputs a positive real number (unless the two points are the same, in which case it outputs the distance 0).  The distance function must also obey the triangle inequality.  S also has some additional properties beyond being a mere metric space.

But I find myself wondering, is it necessary to even have a metric space?  I feel like it doesn't really make sense to say that my political view is equally distant from two other political views.  In other words, I find myself puzzled by the idea that between any two political views, there is another one which is exactly in the "middle".  What does the "middle" even mean?  In my humble opinion, what we view as the "middle" is very subjective and reactionary.

We could also define distance according to the results of the questionnaire.  But I do not think this solves the problem of subjectivity.  Instead, it merely pushes aside the problem of subjectivity onto the person designing the questionnaire.

To try a more objective distance function, we could define the distance as the percentage of people between the two points.  For example, if I'm introverted, and you're more introverted, we can say that the distance between us is equal to the percentage of people in the world who are more introverted than me, and less introverted than you.  But this would give us weird results.  For example, we could never say that lots of people are gathered in one particular part of the axis, since by definition people are evenly distributed along the axis.

My preference is to not think of an opinion axis as a metric space at all.  Instead, I think of an opinion axis as a topology, one that is topologically equivalent to (0,1).  However, there is no distance, and there is no middle.  Or at least, there is no natural way to define a distance or middle.  Instead, we can only talk about whether one opinion is to the left or right of another.  And we can talk about whether a third opinion is between the first two opinions.  But we can't talk about whether the third opinion is closer to the first or the second.

This isn't much to go on, but we can add a little structure by adding landmarks.  For example, the Kinsey Scale defines 7 landmarks of sexual orientation with the integers between 0 and 6.  Calling the landmarks by numbers is misleading, because we can't talk about the distance between two landmarks.  We can't, for instance, say that the distance between 3 and 4 is the same as the distance between 0 and 1.  Nor can we say that there is anything "special" about these landmarks, any reason we couldn't have chosen different landmarks.  But we can talk about being to the left or right of various landmarks.  For example, a person could be between 4 and 5.  That tells us something.

What are the advantages of thinking of an opinion axis as a topology?  It seems like we actually get less information this way, since we simply can't talk about distances.  But I prefer it this way because I think it eliminates the bad information, or at least emphasizes that it is bad information.  The fact that we can't talk about distances is an advantage, because distances don't really make sense.

Friday, October 12, 2012

My position on emergence, as a physicist

Rationally Speaking is starting a new series on emergence.  So far, I like it merely because it starts out by talking about Renormalization Group theory, which comes from condensed matter physics.  Finally, the philosophers are talking about my field, rather than all that stuff about cosmology and particle physics.

I should take this opportunity to explain my position on emergence as a condensed matter physicist.  And yes, here I am speaking as a physicist, not because my study of physics has compelled me to view it one way or another, but because physics has greatly influenced my view.  I can definitely imagine another physicist coming to the opposite conclusions as me, but surely their opinion would also be greatly influenced by their study of physics.

In a way, condensed matter is all about emergence.  Condensed matter is about throwing ~100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms together, and trying to predict what they will do.  It is not an easy task.  Consider: a single helium atom is already an unsolvable problem, because it's just too hard to solve the quantum mechanical equations for the nucleus and two electrons.

How do we solve the problem?  Approximation upon approximation upon approximation upon approximation etc.  Really, there are too many approximations stacked up to fully comprehend them all at once.  One could say that condensed matter physics is the art of making approximations, and using experiments to test that they're sufficiently approximate.

An approximation is all about throwing out information, clearing out some of those irrelevant details so that we can zoom out and see the big picture.  In fact, Renormalization Group theory is literally about zooming out.  In the theory, we zoom out by some scaling factor--say, if we removed every other atom, and the remaining atoms were 1 micrometer apart from each other, instead of 0.5 micrometers.  What laws governing this sparser atomic lattice would cause them to behave just like they did in the original atomic lattice?  That is, how are the parameters, such as the coupling strength between atomic neighbors, affected by zooming out?

Renormalization Group theory explains the behavior of phase transitions (like gas to liquid) by showing that when you zoom out on a liquid, the parameters change in a different direction than when you zoom out on a gas.  It's a very powerful theory.

On Rationally Speaking, emergent behavior was defined in the following way:
The idea being that a phenomenon is emergent if its behavior is not reducible to some sort of sum of the behaviors of its parts, if its behavior is not predictable given full knowledge of the behaviors of its parts, and if it is somehow new.
I'm sort of on board with emergence, but I'm sort of not.  Emergent behavior is everywhere, and in particular it's right in front of me on my desk every work day.  Call emergence an illusion if you will, but by that standard so is superconductivity, which IMHO is a pretty hard-sciencey thing.  I suppose I'm taking the slippery slope here:  I think superconductivity is a real thing, therefore emergence is a real thing, and therefore even highly-emergent patterns like the stock market and the internet are real things.  Yes, I'm willing to bite the bullet and say that the internet is real, despite appearances to the contrary.

But at the same time, I think the standard way of describing and understanding emergence is all wrong.  As with the above definition, emergence is about something new that appears in the big picture.  But having worked with emergent systems, I do not think it's about adding something new.  It's about taking information away.

Perceived patterns do not indicate a greater amount of information, they indicate less information.  Usually, a pattern would consist of many things repeated over and over.  Repetition and redundancy do not convey more information.  Repetition and redundancy do not convey... oh, you get it.

When you find emergent pattern that is difficult to predict, the problem isn't that you can't reduce it to fundamental physics.  The problem is that you have to reduce it far, far beyond fundamental physics.  You have to eliminate large swaths of useless information in increasingly creative ways.  You have to do experiments on all levels to make sure that you didn't lose any of the important information.

Alternatively, you can take a more phenomenological approach, and "guess" the result of the information-elimination based on empirical observation and intuition.  I get the sense that this is what many people call emergent behavior, because by taking guesses they're adding something new.  Guessing is an tried-and-true practice used everywhere in science, so I'm cool with that.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Currently reading

I started reading The Book of the Long Sun, by Gene Wolfe.  I read The Book of the New Sun last year and liked it a lot, so I'm trying more by the same author.

Like The New Sun, The Long Sun takes place in the distant future where technology has gone all the way, and regressed back again to a sort of fantasy setting.  It centers on Patera Silk, the priest of a church in a poor quarter.  They have a religion where they read randomly selected passages from their sacred text, and make live animal sacrifices in front of a big sacred computer screen in hopes that the gods will appear on it.  Silk is on a quest given to him by the Outsider, the one god who does not live in the internet.

Geez, it all sounds kind of silly when I describe it!  And that's before even mentioning the cyborg nun.

This has got to be the most Catholic work of fiction I have ever read.  I find it bothersome, actually, though I have to admit it is interesting.

A lot of the themes in the book are about wrestling with the weaknesses of Catholicism (as Catholics see them).  There's the extremely hierarchical, and sometimes-uncaring Church organization.  The seemingly pointless and archaic rituals.  The vow of celibacy in the holy orders.  The faith and doubt in the face of divine absence.  The many different conceptions of God (represented by the many gods of a polytheistic religion).  And one of the major themes is loving and working closely with sinners, rather than avoiding them for fear of catching something from them (Patera Silk's friends are thieves, whores, and the like).

These are all common themes in modern Catholic self-criticism.  Which is cool.  But sometimes Catholics have internal conflicts which just don't translate over to a secular worldview.  Like celibacy for instance: What is the point of the vow of celibacy, if any?  But for me, I don't feel conflicted at all in saying that a major Catholic practice is simply pointless.

One of the interesting things about encountering religion in novels is that we as readers are free to speculate on how truthful the religion is (and which parts).  Our speculations can be independent of our views of the real world.  Our speculations can be right or wrong (if they are confirmed or contradicted later in the book), or they could be indeterminate (if the book leaves it open to interpretation).

Monday, October 8, 2012

Funniest moments in the California Voter Guide

The California proposition system is a little ridiculous, and the most ridiculous part is the arguments that appear in the official voter guide.  Besides the BUZZWORDS IN ALL CAPS, they also never make rebuttals.  Rather than using the "rebuttal" space to address their opponents' points in any way, they just repeat the same points that were in their "argument" space.  This allows everyone to make really silly arguments, and it's only the most outrageous ones that ever get rebutted.

I'm going through the eleven propositions highlighting moments I thought were funny.  I'm not an especially informed voter, but writing this motivates me to inform myself a bit more.  Note that I may point out silly things said even by the side I agree with, but I make no claims of impartiality or balance.


Proposition 30 temporarily increases sales tax by 1/4 %, and increase the marginal income tax rate of filers who earn over 250K a year (that number is larger for joint filers and households).  The $6 billion additional revenues will prevent impending $6 billion cuts to education programs.
[Opponents:] PROP. 30 IS NOT WHAT IT SEEMS: It doesn't guarantee even one new dollar of funding for classrooms.
"NOT WHAT IT SEEMS" sure is an all-purpose argument.  I found this funny because the proposition is explicitly meant to prevent cuts, not to increase spending.

Proposition 31 reforms something about the budgeting process, and I don't really understand it.
[Supporters:] [Proposition 31 will] Prevent state government from spending money we don't have.
As I recall, California is in debt, and thus all the money we spend is technically money we don't have.  For some reason, I think eliminating the entire California budget is not a winning proposition.

Proposition 32 prohibits unions and corporations from using payroll-deducted funds for political purposes.  It also prohibits them from making "political contributions", which is one of multiple ways to spend money on politics (it does not prohibit "independent expenditures", which are another way).

The proposition is kind of funny in itself.  It's supposed to look "fair", because it applies to both unions and corporations, but only unions really get money from payroll deductions.  Corporations get money from profits.
LOL buzzwords and generic arguments.
[Opponents:] [Prop. 32] costs Californians over a MILLION DOLLARS for phony reform.
If you put it in all caps, it sounds like a lot, but in reality that's pebbles.

Proposition 33 allows auto insurance companies to discriminate prices based on whether the person has been covered by auto insurance over the past five years.  Exemptions are made for people who didn't have auto insurance due to layoffs or furloughs or military service.  The opponents point out that the proposition is 99% funded by Mercury Insurance's chairman.
[Named supporters include:] Estercita Aldinger
Small Business Owner
Another buzzword!  Guess what small business it is.  Hint: It's auto insurance.

Proposition 34 repeals the death penalty, and applies retroactively to people already sentenced to death.  The proposition also gives a one-time $100 million to law enforcement.  The legislative analyst estimates that it will otherwise save at least $100 million a year in court costs.
[Supporters:] Evidence shows MORE THAN 100 INNOCENT PEOPLE HAVE BEEN SENTENCED TO DEATH in the U.S., and some have been executed!
Look where in the sentence they stopped using all caps.  One wonders why they're talking about the entire U.S. rather than just California.
[Opponents:] Abolishing the death penalty costs taxpayers $100 MILLION OVER THE NEXT FOUR YEARS AND MANY MILLIONS MORE IN THE FUTURE.
This is so hilariously misleading.  The $100 million is not an ongoing cost, but a one-time cost which was attached to the bill but appears otherwise unrelated to the death penalty.  I don't know where the "many millions more" comes from, but I'm going to believe the legislative analyst instead.
Well, sure, Jerry Brown would know.  And I bet the California court system agrees.  If the courts thought any of them were innocent, they wouldn't be on death row!

Proposition 35 increases penalties for human trafficking, requires that traffickers register as sex offenders, and that sex offenders provide information about their internet activities.  There's some other stuff in there too.

The bill is opposed by sex workers, but they're obviously fighting a losing battle because hardly anyone is going to have sympathy for Erotic Service Providers Legal, Education, and Research Project, Inc.

The part that I found funny was that the opponents were obviously such amateurs.  Instead of using the traditional ALL CAPS, they instead provided urls to articles.  Who's gonna bother typing all those things into their browsers?  It's like they think the way to win an election is to provide information, rather than to mislead and appeal to emotion.

Proposition 36 reforms the three strikes law such that the third strike must be a serious or violent felony (rather than any old felony).  Some people convicted under the three strikes law may petition to have this new rule apply to them.  The legislative analyst estimates that this will save $70 million a year, increasing up to $90 million a year.
[Opponents:] A hidden provision in 36 will allow thousands of dangerous criminals get their prison sentence REDUCED and then RELEASED FROM PRISON early.
It's not exactly hidden.  It's right there in the official summary!
[Opponents:] 36 WON'T REDUCE TAXES.
Yes indeed.  It is not a tax reduction bill.  I read the summary.

Proposition 37 requires that genetically engineered foods be labeled as such.
[Supporters:] Proposition 37 will help protect your family's health.  The FDA says "providing more information to consumers about bioengineered foods would be useful."  Without accurate labeling, you risk eating foods you are allergic to.
That sure is a quote mine if I ever saw one!  I also like how they switch to talking about allergies as if that were a relevant point.
[Opponents:] [Prop. 37] EXEMPTS [from labeling] TWO-THIRDS OF THE FOODS CALIFORNIANS CONSUME--including products made by corporations funding the 37 campaign.
That just makes me wonder how they are counting foods.
[Opponents:] [Prop. 37] would cost taxpayers millions.
There's an error there: they forgot to put "MILLIONS" in all caps.

Proposition 38 is another bill that temporarily increases taxes for education funding, just like proposition 30.  The tax looks less progressive, and I get the sense that 38 has less support than 30.  Proposition 38 and 30 are conflicting initiatives, and the one that gets more votes is the one that will take effect.  (Technically, if 38 gets more votes, part of 30 will still go into effect.)
[Opponents use this as a section title:] $120 Billion Income Tax Hike on Most Californians
Here they inflate the numbers by omitting the fact that it's $120 billion over 12 years.
[Opponents:] If you earn $17,346 or more per year in taxable income, Prop. 38 raises your California personal income tax rate by as much as 21% on top of what you pay the Federal government.
There are two jokes hidden here.  First, by 21% they really mean that for certain tax brackets, the income tax increases from 9.3% to 11.3%.  Second, the tax bracket for which this occurs is not the one above $17,346, but the one above $500K. lolmath.  This one was so shameless that it actually got mentioned in the rebuttal!

Proposition 39 changes the way multistate businesses calculate the taxes, leading to an increase in annual revenues of about $1 billion.  $550 million of that is dedicated to energy efficency and clean energy jobs, while the rest would likely be spent on public schools and community colleges.
[Named proponents include:] Tom Steyer, Chairman
Californians for Clean Energy and Jobs

Jane Skeeter
California Small Business Owner
 My boyfriend pointed out that Californians for Clean Energy and Jobs was a front organization.  If you look up Tom Steyer, he does many notable things, and Wikipedia doesn't consider Californians for Clean Energy and Jobs to be among them.  I was interested to see what "small business" Jane Skeeter owns.  Apparently, it's a glass sculpture company.  Actually, that's kind of cool!
Everyone is using the all caps buzzwords!

Proposition 40 is a referendum to approve the new state senate districts created by the Citizens Redistricting Commision, which was created in 2008 to reduce gerrymandering.  Apparently, no one opposes Proposition 40.

My boyfriend had to explain this one to me.  People may challenge state senate districts by making a state proposition.  Confusingly, the challengers want a NO vote on the proposition, since by convention a YES means approving the districts.  Here, the NO sponsors appear to be senators who wanted more gerrymandered districts for this election.  However, the California supreme court ruled that even if Proposition 40 got voted down, it would only apply to the next election, not this one.  Following this ruling, the sponsors withdrew their campaign.

By withdrawing their sponsorship, the senators are basically admitting dishonesty.  If they truly thought the districts were bad, they would continue to ask for a NO vote.  But they really only wanted a NO because they thought it would help them get reelected this one time.


Wooo democracy.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Dream: Rowling's book

I dreamt that I read a negative review of J. K. Rowling's new book on tumblr.  The reviewer's main complaint was that she kept on referring to the island as "Duji", which is basically like calling it "dinosaur poop".  So I thought, "Okay, whatever, now I want to read this book."

And then the feeling remained after I woke up.  Of all the reasons to want to read a book, this has got to be the most irrational.  What was it even called, The Unclaimed Houseguest?  (Nope, it's The Casual Vacancy.)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Aikin and Talisse on civility

Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse have a post on 3 Quarks Daily talking about what it means to be civil in an argument.  Their main pointseems to be that civility is not merely about civil tone, but about representing opponents correctly, receiving opponents' arguments, and presenting arguments that are relevant to your opponents.
Chief among these concerns the need for those who disagree to actually engage with each other’s reasons.  This requires arguers to earnestly attempt to correctly understand and accurately represent each other’s views.  For similar reasons, arguers must also give a proper hearing to their opponents’ reasons, especially when the opponent is responding to criticism.  In addition, when making the case for their own view, arguers must seek to present reasons that their opponents could at least in principle see the relevance of.  We can summarize these ideas by saying that civility in argument has three dimensions: Representation, Reception, and Reciprocity.
Those are some good argumentation practices.  The idea is to lay out some structure that we can all agree on.  We should all be able to agree that the structure will clear the road to truth, even if we disagree on which way that road goes.

I'm not sure about that third principle, though, since theoretically any reason that is relevant to yourself can be relevant to your opponent.  The example they give is using the Bible to argue against secularists who support same-sex marriage equality.  I don't feel that this is a "uncivil" argument, it's just a really bad argument.  I would rather people not make bad arguments, but at the same time I don't feel this one is a threat to the very structure of argumentation.

I also liked another part of the post:
Argumentation is the process of articulating our reasons for holding our beliefs.  The point of articulating our reasons is to put them on display so that they may be examined and evaluated.
This is generally my attitude towards arguing my opinions.  I'm not handing you opinions from on high, I'm displaying them for your examination and evaluation.  I also try to display the weaknesses in my own opinions when I see them, because that seems like it would be relevant to your evaluation.  However, showing one's own weaknesses probably isn't so great a practice in more adversarial arguments, like politics.  I mean, you might as well have your opponent do the work of finding your weaknesses.

(via The Thinker)