Don't Shoot the Symptom

The usual disclaimers about not seeing outside my life experience apply.

This is my last rant on social issues. I find it amusing that I feel compelled to put the warning above, even though it's almost tautological.

I saw the latest James Bond film (Skyfall) several months back, and was afterwards surprised to find that there's some backlash on the blogosphere. Not because the film was badly made - most critics praised the cinematography - but because the women in the film were disposable Specifically (spoiler alert):

  • Bond seduces the sex slave Severine, with full knowledge of her past
  • Bond fails to save Severine due to bad shooting, despite a minute later overcoming his captors
  • M (played by Judi Dench) is killed, and is replaced by a man
  • Moneypenny is reduced from an active agent to a desk job

Now, these things (especially the first one) are certainly bad things to portray, but I wonder how out of the ordinary they are. That is, because the film is a work of fiction but set in a close-to-real world, these events in themselves may not be misogynistic, although the selection of their portrayal might be.

Let me try to make this idea more clear. The events in a work of fiction, which is set in the real world, could be representative while still being misogynistic. We could, for example, write a fictional book with the vilest, most sexist human trafficker as the protagonist, and have them get away scot-free at the end. The events and characters in such a novel would certainly be misogynistic, but they would also be realistic (as in, such people exist in the world). The question is, is the work as a whole misogynistic?

I think the underlying question - which applies not just to feminism, but also to heteronormativity, stereotypes, and so on - is the act of criticizing people for being realistic. Back to Skyfall, 27% of senior positions in six US intelligence agencies are held by women; 22 of the Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs. That is, if the writers of Skyfall had wanted to determine, at random, whether the new M should be male or female if the statistics of reality were followed, three out of four times the new M would still be male. The other portrayals are less defendable, although again there is a question of whether it was unrealistic.

Moving outside of fiction, complaining about realistic sentiments is actually quite common. I caught myself doing it for a couple weeks, when I noticed how infrequently the asexual perspective is brought up. I was started to get annoyed at this, until I remembered that asexuality represents maybe 1% of the population. Even if this is an underestimate, sexual people are still in the vast majority, and I should not expect to find the two be represented equally frequently.

This asexuality example is not particularly compelling one, but other, less politically-correct examples are everywhere. One such case is the struggle between meritocracy and equality in, for example higher education (this is also an issue for Silicon Valley). In the ideal world, universities would like to select their students purely on the basis of their academic achievements. The problem is that, since education opportunities are not equally given to everyone, those with the most "merit" tend to be Caucasian and, to a lesser extent, Asian. This means that if we attempt to continue with meritocracy, the student population at the most prestigious universities will no longer resemble the demographics of the country at large. Note that this is not due to the universities being actively discriminatory, but that as a result of societal/structure issues, the result is a discriminatory one. For universities, the solution is often to ignore pure meritocracy and instead accept students based on a mix of merit and equality. Silicon Valley, on the other hand, has no pressure to make this change, and as a result has increased the economic inequity in the Bay area.

Here's an even more contentious example. "In 2008, the [homicide] offending rate for blacks (24.7) offenders per 100,000) was 7 times higher than the rate for whites (3.4 per 100,000)." If we take this seriously, that means all else being equal, the black person you just walked pass is seven times more likely to be a murder than the white person you just walked pass. If we were to take precautions against murder based on the estimated likelihood of being the victim of an attempted murder, we should be more cautious when around a black stranger. But this is, of course, entirely inappropriate (and possibly unethical); as with the meritocracy case, the resulting action is discriminatory even if the logic that led to it, and the statistics that the logic is based on, are both sound.

I could continue to list examples, but instead I'll highlight the lesson. The point here is not that we should stop caring about these issues, but that we need to separate the realistic reaction to an undesirable circumstance, from the undesirable circumstance itself. Sometimes these are not separable - the reaction may itself further perpetuate the circumstance (think victim blaming and rape culture) - but often the reaction is merely a symptom of the underlying problem. This is especially important for people who want to fix the undesirable circumstance, as removing the reaction would not solve the problem. For everyone else, separating the symptom from the cause will maybe help quell your frustration.

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On Vulnerability

I think a lot of times we use words without really understanding what they mean. I don't mean this in the "here's a new word let's use it" way, but that often the use of a word has more meaning than might be found in a dictionary. "Vulnerability" is one such word.

I started thinking about this word over the summer, when I was having a conversation with a friend. I was sharing a personally-meaningful quote with them, when they told me that I'm making them feel vulnerable. I didn't pursue it at the time, but afterwards I thought it was strange: since it was me who was saying something personally meaningful, how was it that they felt vulnerable?

The dictionary definition of (psychological) vulnerability is the feeling of likelihood of being hurt. While this seems correct on the surface, it is also insufficiently nuanced. We do not, for example, feel vulnerable while succumb to a disease, nor when facing a tiger. (Granted, not having experienced either, I can only speculate; but these scenarios doesn't evoke the description of vulnerability to me.) At least, it's not the disease or the tiger, in and of itself, that leads to the feeling of vulnerability.

I started thinking of instance where we might describe the feeling as vulnerable:

  • discussing personal trauma
  • giving a sincere compliment
  • sharing a secret

Of these three, the second one about compliments needs elaboration. Imagine a friend who has gone through a rough period. You meet up with them after being out of contact for a couple years, and find that they have moved, with a new job and a circle of friends; they seem to have moved pass their previous difficulties. You want to them that you're glad that they're okay, and more than that, that you're proud that they've managed. The latter, in particular, seems to evoke feelings of vulnerability.

Weirdly enough, the breakthrough came for me from considering whether there were people who would never be vulnerable. Specifically, I was thinking those with impaired affect: the sociopaths, the schizoid, and so on. It was a hunch, but it seemed to me that the stereotypical emotionless sociopath wouldn't feel vulnerable, not because they don't feel things, but because they don't care about the reaction of others.

If my hunch is correct, it would mean that vulnerability is not so much about the fear of getting hurt, but about the fear of indifference to some strong emotion. This is what connects the three examples above: it's that the person feels strongly about the subject (trauma, compliments, or secrets), and they fear that this feeling might be dismissed as unimportant.

A more recent experience of mine seemed to confirm this explanation. I was meeting a friend for dinner, someone whom I used to have a crush on; she knew this, but I was rejected, and I eventually got over it. A couple days before, I suddenly learned that her boyfriend (who I also knew) was visiting, and would be joining us as well. Upon learning this, I was suddenly ambivalent about the whole thing, which puzzled me. It wasn't exactly romantic jealousy, since I no longer desired a relationship with her. Eventually, though, I realized I was feeling vulnerable about the dinner and, by the above definition, I figured out that I was afraid she would somehow downplay my previous feelings for her by, for example, openly making out with her boyfriend. Nothing of that sort happened, of course, but I felt better knowing the source of my feelings.

That, I think, is one of the best reasons for figuring out the true meaning of words: it lets you more quickly understand what is going on when you are tempted to describe yourself with it. I'm not sure if this is really a subfield of philosophy or linguistics - the study of semasiology or lexical semantics comes close. Regardless, I've been thinking a lot about what people mean when they use different words (also on the list: "true", as in this "expresses something true [about people]"), and I thought people would be interested in my thought process.

PS. I'm aware I never finished the story about my friend; this is deliberate, as the quote I shared reflects as much about them as it does about me. This makes it somebody else's secret, and not my story to tell.

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A Rambling on Effortlessness

There's a quality that's been popping up in many places, and I want to take the time to, if not nail down what it is, at least feel its edges.

There are many guises to this thing. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, it's called Quality. In The Timeless Way of Building, it's also called quality. Abraham Maslow calls it self-actualization. Both the Kingkiller Chronicles and the Sword of Truth series call it rare, or at least, that someone who has it is a rare person. In Finite and Infinite Games, that person would be called a player of infinite games. Buddhists and Taoists would probably call it mindfulness or presentness. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi might call it flow. For the lack of a better word, I will call it Effortlessness, because it's most recognizable in that form.

Think of your favorite athlete, or artist, or dancer. Imagine them doing their work: while they're focused, what they do always seems effortless. There's a simplicity and elegance in their movement, and they act as though what they're doing is the most natural thing in the world.

Except that effortlessness is not quite the word for it, in that it's not correct. Take the best climber, say, Adam Ondra. Here he is climbing one of the world's hardest routes. Except for the crux, he looks effortless - as exemplified by the need to have a disclaimer that "no adjustments have been made to the speed of the climbing". We all know that Ondra spent a lot of time and effort to get to this stage; Bill Ramsey calls it the box of pain, which is to say, you're choosing between the pain of failure or the pain of training.

There's an old joke about how, to be a great painter, all you have to do "make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally" (I stole this wording from Zen and the Art). Part of the joke is that being perfect is harder than being a great painter. To paint "effortlessly" is not, in fact, effortless; it may be effortless in the moment, but much effort is put in to make it look effortless.

That's the first hint about the nature of effortlessness. Effortlessness is never something that the participant feels in the moment; I doubt Ondra thought the route was effortless while climbing it. He might, however, think that it was easy afterwards. Psychologists call this the remembering self, as opposed to the experiencing self. I suspect it's the same reason I feel protected. I often know how much time I actually put into research, but afterwards it always seems like it's nothing. When I first realized this, I tweeted, "For someone with a pretty huge ego, I tend to trivialize my accomplishments."

We've all had moments where we're so focused on something we forget about time passing, and only afterwards can we look back and think, "that was awesome!" I had one such experience at Red Rocks last year, climbing this 5.6 crack. Usually, after I climb something, I can replay most of the moves; on that particular route, I just remember feeling awesome coming out, and have no recollection of what happened on it.

Here, the idea of effortlessness intersects with that of flow. I personally think that it's the same thing as presence - because all your energy is focused on what you're doing - but that seems contrary to what Buddhists call mindfulness, which instead brings to mind an inherent meta-level of conscienceless. I'm not trying to be mystical here; take this passage from Zen and the Art:

But the biggest clue seemed to be [the bad mechanics'] expressions. They were hard to explain. Good-natured, friendly, easygoing - and uninvolved. They were like spectators. You had the feeling they had just wandered in there themselves and somebody had handed them a wrench. There was no identification with the job. No saying, "I am a mechanic." At 5pm or whenever their eight hours were in, you knew they would cut it off and not have another thought about their work. They were already trying not to have any thoughts about their work on the job. In their own way they were achieving the same thing [my friends] were, living with technology without really having anything to do with it. Or rather, they had something to do with it, but their own selves were outside of it, detached, removed. They were involved in it but not in such a way as to care.

Of course, Pirsig here was trying to get at what he called Quality. Somehow, the internal description of "caring", of attachment and presence, shows through to observers. Pirsig also raised the example of someone who does something for amusement - and to that person's surprise, other people notice these small things. There's a sense of playfulness to this, drawing in the idea of games. This is why, I think, you cannot teach someone to be effortless. You cannot tell someone to be playful - or as Karse would put it, "to allow for possibility whatever the cost to oneself", as opposed to seriousness, which is to "press for specified conclusion."

It's curious that Maslow has listed all of these ideas under what he calls the metaneeds of the self-actualized. By this definition, the self-actualized desire effortlessness and playfulness. Despite this connection, it's unclear to me how these attributes are all connected. There is a certain je ne sais quoi about them, in how they cannot be taught and cannot be described. I think the point of this post is just to mention all these related concepts, so I can find them again as I keep thinking about these ideas.

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Two Ambigrams

Earlier this year I tweeted that I was excited about something that I couldn't reveal at the time. The something is actually an ambigram, which I design on occasion. I first learned of the idea from Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, in which ambigrams played a major role. Incidentally, the ambigrams in that book were designed by John Langdon, who commented on my previous post about ambigrams and psychology. I designed my first ambigram back in 2004, and have done several more since, mostly as gifts to people.

My best work up till the beginning of the year was a birthday gift I made for my friend Emily.

One interesting thing about this design is that there is no i. The m flows directly into the l; the i is an illusion created by the tittle above the last stroke of the m. I actually made a version with the i, but it isn't as elegant, and I stuck with this version.

The ambigram I made earlier this year was a going-away gift for my friend Laura, who moved to join her boyfriend Neale in Philly. Neale had moved there about a year ago, but I failed to make a gift for him then. The idea was therefore to make a gift for each of them. Having a complexity addiction, however, made me wonder whether I can make the two gifts interact somehow, to represent their relationship.

Long story short, here's the result:

It's actually very difficult to see what's going on; it's better to show each one separately:

Individually, each half-circle isn't anything special: it's just their names in some fancy typeface. Together, however, is where the magic happens. The more observant of you will have noticed that the letters in laura and neale are not independent. In fact, they share all but the middle letter: the ra in laura turns into the ne in neale, and the le in neale forms the la in laura. Here is the combined circle again, with some highlighting: laura in red, neale in blue, and the overlap in purple.

The r/n were easy to merge; the crux of the design was in the a/e. It had to look good enough as both for each name to be readable; this was mostly done by adjusting the length of the closing stroke and of the swash. neale presented an extra challenge: if the e's can be read as a's, then what should happen to the remaining a? I was lucky in that a has two variants. Having used the single-story variant for the merged glyph, in the end I created the double-story variant from scratch, making a Frankenstein glyph from various bits of different letters.

The final part of this is the presentation. As you saw, the combined circle is hard read, which meant that each half-circle would have to be independent. I hit on the solution of printing each on a transparency, then put in a cardboard frame for sturdiness. This way, each card would individually show a single name:

But when stacked and aligned, it shows the full ambigram:

Typographically, I still like my emily card more, but in terms of the final product, this surpasses the former by far (which I had simply printed on cardboard). This is not just because you can fiddle around with the cards until they align, but because the re-interpretation of the letters is so unconscious. None of the few people I tested the ambigram on realized that the a changed to an e (or vice versa) until I pointed it out to them, despite them moving the cards into position and reading back out the individual names. This goes to show how powerful our preconceptions are in interpreting what we see.

I do not have any future ambigrams planned, although I do have a different art project in mind. Maybe I will share that when I'm done.

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Understanding Privilege: An Attempt

The usual disclaimers about not seeing outside my life experience apply.

Many of the blogs I follow, including those of my friends, often write about social issues. One concept that keeps coming up is privilege. The idea, according to Wikipedia, is to highlight not only the disadvantages that some people face, but also how the advantaged may not recognize that they are so. This concept is most commonly applied to gender and race, but people also talk about heterosexual privileges and able-bodied privilege.

Coming from a technical background as a straight (if asexual) Asian male, I have never quite understood the idea of privilege. To me, it seems like a mere reframing of the same issues around gender, race, sexuality, and disability discrimination. Maybe it makes the societal origins more visible, and how discrimination may be passive instead of active, but I don't think that's true of most discussions of privilege. As such, the idea of privilege seemed a little redundant.

The definition of privilege, however, is in some sense broader than discrimination. One of my problems with privilege is that it can be applied to a lot of things other than gender and race. An lo, I found articles about the literacy, food, and water privileges. These are not attributes that we commonly associate discrimination with, and it is difficult to imagine what it would mean to discriminate against those without water. (It should be noted that the lack of some other universal human rights do get discriminated against; this is the case for the lack of housing, or what might be called the shelter privilege.)

The article which originally introduced the idea of privilege is Peggy McIntosh's White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. In it, the author noted that when confronted with male privilege, men

[have an] unwillingness to grant that they are over-privileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged. They may say they will work to improve women's status, in the society, the university, or the curriculum, but they can't or won't support the idea of lessening men's.

McIntosh goes on to note that there are different kinds of privilege, that "some... should be the norm in a just society[, while] others... distort humanity of the holders as well as the ignored groups." The implication is that, for the former type of privileges, it is sufficient to grant the same privileges to those currently without them, while for the latter types the current holders of those privileges must also give them up.

Which brings me to my last confusion about privilege: all this academic discussion is great, but what is the (now consciously) privileged supposed to do with this information? On the blogs I follow, privilege is mostly brought up as an argument for the privileged to be more sensitive (or, as this comment eloquently puts, "Shut the fuck up and listen"). More condemningly, privilege has been used to explain the prevalence of rape jokes on the internet. Michael Kimmel, in the foreword to Privilege: A Reader, suggests that the task (of privilege researchers and advocates) is "to make visible the privilege that accompanies and conceals that invisibility [of being white, straight, male, and middle class]." But then he continues:

While noble in intention, however, this posture of guilty self-negation cannot be our final destination as we come to understand how we are privileged by race, class, gender, and sexuality. Refusing to be men, white, or straight does neither the privileged nor the unprivileged much good. One can no more renounce privilege than one can stop breathing. It's in the air we breathe.

So what are we to do? Kimmel's analogy with breathing is apt, considering the discussions of food and water privileges. That his words are in a book is, itself, a sign of the literacy privilege that he holds. Everything we do is a product of privilege of some kind or another - here I am, typing this blog post about privilege (intellectual) on a personal laptop (wealth), in a text editor I learned to use (education), that I will publish on the web without fear of filter or governmental backlash (internet, or freedom of speech). There are potentially an infinite number of privileges to check, and it's unclear to me what results are desired. Deterrence of privileged speech does not apply equally to sexism and to the internet, and the idea of privilege doesn't contribute to distinguishing the two. While I appreciate new viewpoints as much as the next person, I'm not sure we need the idea of privilege simply to teach a lesson of respect.

I want to end with an example of privilege checking that made me further hesitate on the idea of privilege. A friend's blog (to which I will not link) quoted a blog post motivating people to leave their jobs and travel the world. In the middle is this passage:

You can say farewell to your family, your friends, and if they love you, they'll let you go, they'll know it's not forever. You'll make new friends on the road, people from near and far, from all walks of life, with one thing in mind: to travel. You might be surprised at the hospitality of strangers who will love you like family, usher you into their dwellings, give you a place to rest your blistered, wandering feet, and a plate of home-cooked food to eat.

My friend found that the whole post "reeks of privilege", and said specifically of the first sentence in the excerpt above that some people may "have family to support (not everyone can care only for their own needs)." The first part of this reaction I agree with: it's definitely true that many people have to support their families. (Although, I suppose this in itself is a privilege, considering the alternative of being orphans in a war-torn country.) What struck me was the second part, how people who "care only for their own needs" are privileged. Depending on your viewpoint, these people are variously described as "selfish" all the way to "sociopathic". Neither ends of this spectrum are attributes people find desirable, so calling them privileges seems at least odd. Certainly, not being close to your family gives you advantages - such as the freedom to travel - but if everything that gives you benefits is a privilege, then the idea is so dilute as to be meaningless.

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Generalizing the Turing Test

Are people familiar with the Turing test? Named after Alan Turing, the WWII British mathematician and code-breaker, it was proposed as a way of testing whether computers are "intelligent". In addition to inventing this test and helping break the Enigma, Turing is also famous for the conception of a Turing machine, a mathematical construct that is useful for understanding computation in the abstract. Unfortunately for Turing, he was also homosexual, and was prosecuted by the state for it after the war; this eventually led to his suicide. In 2009 - 55 years after Turing's death - the British government formally apologized for its treatment of Turing, and only earlier this year, in 2013, was he officially pardoned for his crimes.

Turing is also the subject of an upcoming biopic, The Imitation Game, starring Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch. The title of the film is, in fact, based on the Turing test (or rather, is famous because of the test). In the Turing Test, a computer and a person both try to convince a human judge that they are human. The judge can only communicate with both parties through text, but they can ask questions. A computer or a program is said to have passed to the Turing test if, over multiple conversations, the judge cannot reliably and correctly label which is the person and which is the computer. In some sense, the computer needs to be imitating a person, whence the name of the game.

(It can, of course, also go the other way, to have a reversed Turing test: the goal could be to convince the judge that both participants are computers. This doesn't make sense as a test of intelligence, but the idea is the same. You can also try to convince the judge that they're a computer...)

Setting the question of whether the Turing test is a good test for whether a computer is intelligent, the test is nonetheless elegant in its design. There are several crucial elements of the design, that the computer is not "the most intelligent" or "the most human like" compared to other computers, and that the judge is not simply deciding whether one conversant is a human or a computer; these features mean that the computer must match the human in performance. Further more, because the judge can ask the computer any question they want, the computer must be able to talk about any subject the judge could think of. Thus, even though no one has a good definition of "intelligence", the Turing test at least allows us to apply a "know it when I see it" criterion.

For the most part, familiarity of the Turing test has remained within the academic fields of computer science, psychology, and philosophy. I was recently surprised, however, that it came up in an economics article. In this article, it is suggested that liberal economists can successfully present conservative economic arguments, while the same cannot be said of the opposite, for a conservative economist to present liberal economic arguments. The author therefore proposes a variation of a Turing test: put him (a conservative) in a room with five liberals, and see if people can tell who's the fake; then put Paul Krugman (a liberal) in a room with five conservatives, and again see if people can tell who's the fake.

What, then, is the more general version of the Turing test? The Turing test is really a special case of a discrimination test. The key, however, is that the Turing test is being used as a criterion: if the computer cannot be distinguished from a human, then we shall consider it as intelligent. This means that, crucially, we do not need to define the exact attribute that we are judging by, only that it behaves indistinguishably from the real thing. While we do not have a perfect definition (or even a good one) of intelligence, the beauty of the Turing test is that we don't need one to decide that a computer is intelligent. This may be a very behavioral definition of intelligence - it doesn't address the Chinese room problem, for example - but it's better than endlessly debating the definition of intelligence.

Of course, the Turing test, clever as it is, is not the silver bullet for all indefinable attributes. In fact, there are strong restrictions on when the Turing test will be useful. For one, the judge must be familiar with the attribute that is being judged; for example, I would not be a good judge of liberal/conservative economists, since I myself cannot tell the difference. More generally, the more discerning the judge, the more "powerful" the Turing test becomes. Additionally, the attribute being judged must be different from how the attribute is generated. In the original Turing test, what we cared about was whether the computer is intelligent, not how it came to be that way (that is, whether it does so through neurons or silicon). This means that care must be taken to remove elements that may give the distinction away, which is why the original test uses text as the medium of communication, as opposed to a face-to-face conversation, which would detract from the task of judging intelligence.

It is curious to me that, despite spending some time on this post, I cannot think of a single application of the Turing test. The closest I've come is for driverless cars, and using the Turing test to see whether they drive safer than humans do. Such a test would involve putting human and computer in simulated drives, and having the judges simply watch a recording of the performance without knowing which is which. While such a test would show that self-driving cars are as safe - if not safer than - humans, it is also unnecessary: the metrics for safety seems sufficiently well-defined that we don't need a Turing test, and that any old comparison would suffice. This is nothing more than an argumentation from lack of imagination, it may seem that we are simply not trained to think of tests in this way. More often, when we think of an attribute we want to measure, we define the attribute such that it is measurable, or else we give up trying to get any accurate measurements. Maybe the Turing test is a good way to attack some of these measurements we've given up on.

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Author's note: Sunday's post will be delayed due to climbing.

Let's get the elephant in the room out of the way: I'm asexual.

Or at least, I would consider myself practically asexual, in the same way that I'm practically atheist, since you can't prove a negative (meaning I'm technically agnostic, but that word is already taken). I originally wanted to put "I identify as asexual", but I didn't quite know what "identify" means. I also considered "I think I am asexual", but in the end I decided to keep it simple, stupid.

Maybe I should backtrack and say what it means to be asexual. As a point in the spectrum/space of sexuality, it has a different meaning from the biological sense of the word (eg. "asexual reproduction"). Here, I'm taking an asexual to mean someone who does not feel sexual attraction. Again, as with atheism, having a group defined around a negative means that the members will have a lot of other differences. There is a distinction, for example, between someone's sexual orientation and their romantic orientation; many people on r/asexuality, for example, are also aromantic (that is, they don't feel romantic attraction), although I remain heteromantic (contrary to what I wrote several days ago). There are also divides between people who will and will not have sex, people who find sex disgusting, and so on. Note that this definition of asexuality is silent on sexual arousal and libido. We can argue whether these things are independent, but here I assume they are separate phenomena.

I don't remember when I first learned about asexuality - it probably wasn't more than two years ago - but I do remember that for a long time I didn't have a good understanding of what it is. Not that I would say my understanding is good now, but at the time, the diversity in the people who identify as asexual confused me. It's ironic that the definition of asexuality is the least useful to those who are asexual; after all, if you've never experienced sexual attraction, how do you know you're missing it? It doesn't help that the separation of sexual arousal from sexual attraction is not intuitive; it's unclear to me how you can be aroused by porn but not feel sexual attraction. The relationship between attraction, arousal, and libido still eludes me.

It was only earlier this year when I really started thinking about what asexuality meant, and whether it was a label I'd apply to myself. In hindsight, this questioning period didn't feel that long. Looking over my journal, within a space of two months, I had almost entirely accepted "asexual" as a generally accurate description of myself. I still had various doubts, of course, if not due to the negative-proof thing, then due to the possibility of demisexuality, where sexual attraction only occurs after establishing emotional connection. (Tailsteak, of Leftover Soup, comments that this suggests the theoretical position of anti-demisexuality, where someone is only attracted to people they have no emotional connection with. Symmetry for the win!).

Even before this year, before I heard of asexuality, I've noticed that my calibrations of feelings for people might be off. Robert Sternberg has a triangular theory of love, where the legs of the triangle are passion, intimacy, and commitment; the passion component had always bothered me, since I have never felt myself as worked up as other people seem to be. I had never thought of people as "hot", even though I've heard it often enough to know what it means. The biggest clue, though, was probably that whenever I think about sex, I have to remind myself that to other people, sex is not just an activity to maintain/increase intimacy in a relationship, but also one which people engage in for physical pleasure. While I can intellectually understand the sentiment, it's not something I've ever felt. The whole hook-up culture has, therefore, always felt foreign to me. Rather than saying that I realized I'm asexual, it might be more accurate to say that I discovered the asexual label, and found that it applied to me.

Since recognizing myself as an asexual, I have often wondered how much this trait has (unconsciously) influenced my thinking. For example, my quibble with objectification (here and here) probably stems from my lack of sexual attraction. More than just a thought experiment, it's a way for me to explore how sexuals see and classify the world. Fundamentally, it's about whether and why someone's physical assets (which I'm not attracted to, at least sexually) is treated differently from someone's mental assets (which I am attracted to). My philosophical nature, of course, plays a part as well, but I suspect that if I were not asexual the question would not occupy as much of my spare time.

Another train of thought in which I could identify the influences of asexuality is the boundary be friendships and relationships. Perhaps this should not be as difficult a question for me, given that I'm heteromantic, and therefore have this distinction at least between men and women. And partially this may be due to me being male, meaning that, according to legend, I treat all women as potential partners, while women have a much cleaner distinction between the two. Regardless, given the central role that sex plays in people's definitions of romantic relationships (and I've had conversations with multiple people about this), I was curious how they imagined this would change for asexuals. I have yet to hear a good answer, although almost everyone agrees there is something aside from sex that distinguishes the two.

A final question, which came out of a conversation with a friend. When I asked her to explain the importance of sex to an asexual, she paused, then suggested that sexual attraction may be a sensory dimension by itself. This was a hypothesis I could not immediately dismiss. I don't think sexual attraction is as central as one of the five senses, since we don't have the organ to detect it, as eyes do for sight. I don't even think it's as central as one of the other, less-well-known ones. Still, my friend may have a point. The best analogy I know comes from Raymond Smullyan's The Tao is Silent, where he compared the Tao to melodies:

Suppose two people, one a musician and the other extremely unmusical, are listening to a theme. The unmusical one admits frankly, "I hear the notes, but I don't hear the melody"... The true Taoists... directly perceive that which they call the Tao (or which others call God, Nature, the Absolute, Cosmic Consciousness) just as the musical directly perceives the melody. The musician... obviously has a direct experience of the melody itself. And once the melody is heard, it is impossible ever again to doubt it.

Who's to say that sexual attraction is not some similar sense, more of an inability to recognize a pattern than the inability to receive a signal? The analogy is not perfect; I can recognize the pattern of what people are sexually attracted to, it's just that the same pattern doesn't elicit any response from me. Still, if the difference between sexuals and asexuals runs this deep into physiology, then I'm not sure the experiences between the two can ever be fully described.

In the end, I consider "asexual" as merely a convenient label for the psychological phenomena (or lack thereof) that I experience. I haven't felt relieve, or conversely, any stress, from this new understanding of myself. If I run with the idea of sexual attraction as a sense, then maybe my experience is comparable to someone with synesthesia. And since I have asked questions of my synaesthetic friend, I suppose people should feel free to ask me questions too.

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Nerd: A Retrospective

One of the few instances of shopping I remember as a kid probably also says the most about me. This was around 1999, and software was still sold on CD's. Back then, Hong Kong had a giant market for bootleg software. The Wan Chai Computer Centre, then and still one of the biggest specialty malls for computer related stuff, was simply store after store of ripped games and productivity products. I remember spending my slowly-earned pocket money on some deal - any three CDs for some special price. The three CDs I chose: Rise of the Robots, Populous: The Beginning, and... Microsoft Encarta 1997. Actually, I'm not sure if the first two were what I bought (they were both games I eventually owned), but I am certain Encarta came from that incident.

I think even then, my parents were shocked that I would spend money on reference software. I myself cannot tell you why I did it, except that I did. I still have fond memories of the thing: the encyclopedia came with an interactive orbit simulator, where you have to set the Moon's initial position and velocity such that it is captured by Earth. There was also Mind Maze, a trivia game where you must find your way out of a grid of connected rooms.

Now that I've jogged my memory, Encarta wasn't even the only educational software we had. I remember spending hours on Operation Neptune and Treasure Galaxy!, both of which were by The Learning Company. Ditto for Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, the full version for which includes a two-inch-thick geography reference. I also had a virtual observatory, and one where you're in this cave-turned-museum, and you can move around and watch crystals and minerals grow. I think the last two are both by DK, but I can't find any reference to it.

In retrospect, a lot of my nerdier and more academic interests exhibited themselves early. I remember in primary school (that's grade 1 to 6 for you Americans) having more than a few Dorling Kindersley reference books, including one on space (who doesn't have one of those?), one on dinosaurs (or one of these?), one on gemstones... As I grew older, my collection of of non-fiction books continued to expand, now adding books on the occult and on philosophy. I somehow read Thomas More's Utopia in middle school, as well as Sophie's World. I suppose this is humble-bragging, but I think it's also representative of my childhood.

It's curious that, despite the above description, I've slowly stopped identifying myself as a nerd. It's not that I have lost interest in these topics, but my definition of "nerd" has changed. In pop-culture, nerds are more highly identified with people who follow particular franchises: Star Trek/Wars, Middle Earth, Doctor Who, Dungeons and Dragons, Halo... While I have enjoyed some of these universes, I am also deficient in much of the canon; for example, I have yet to read Dune. I don't follow any TV series (maybe with the exception of Sherlock), nor am I a gamer, video, tabletop, board, or otherwise. By these definitions, then, I'm not a nerd.

It's fun to speculate about the origins of these two different meanings of "nerd". Being in academia, and computer science at that, you would expect them to be nerd stereotype incarnates. But, in fact, most of my friends in computer science are not hardcore gamers (with the exception of a group who plays board games), and while pop-culture references do come up, they do not form the backbone of our discourse. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are instead more likely to have diverse academic interests, who would read books on sociology, math, or philosophy for pleasure.

This makes me question how the stereotype of a nerd even started. The origin story of hackers as tabletop gamers now seem less plausible to me. If that is only a myth, then something else must have connected academics with gamers. I don't think it's the social ineptitude, either, and neither groups are obsessive about what they do. Wikipedia suggests that in academia, nerds are more likely to be interested in science, mathematics, engineering, linguistics, history, and technology. If I had to guess, it has something to do with finding interesting combinations in complex, rule-based systems. This doesn't jive with the history aspect though, and it's surprising that law nerds is not a thing.

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The Quantified Self

This post means that I'm a third of the way through NaBloPoHaMo (National Blog Posting Half Month). So far I've managed to stay ahead of the posting schedule about two days, which is good because I'll be in Kentucky next weekend, without internet access. I don't expect there to be a problem, although I won't be able to announce new posts on Twitter. If I do fall behind, I'll make a special post to say so.

To celebrate this endeavor being a third done, and to give myself a break, this post will be mostly graphical. By "graphical", I mean "chartical" and "plotical"; these are all data visualizations of some data I have about myself. I'm not part of the quantified self movement, but I do have various pieces of collections of data about myself. My journal, for example, which I've kept for eleven years and has over 1.75 million words, is a rich source of information about myself. I've started projects to data-mine my journal multiple times, although I have never settled on a good enough method to do so. I also use Mint, which keeps track of my finances, and I use AskMeEvery to track my sleeping times (because I keep claiming that I don't need much sleep, but have never backed it up with data). There are a few other sources I could have drawn from to make pretty pictures as well, such as my command line history and my journal search history, and also my Google/Twitter/Facebook dumps, but I have less interest in those.

So here are three cool graphs. They are made with gnuplot, using Python for preprocessing. Having written the scripts for this post, the next step is to unify the scripts into pure Python. This will be a good excuse to learn matplotlib, which finally supports Python 3.

This first graph comes from my journal (and which I've shared on Twitter before). I measured the Flesch-Kincaid reading scale of each of my entries, then averaged the numbers for each month. I took the color scheme from a Dark Horse Analytics presentation, and I think it came out quite well. I was surprised how linear (slope = 0.38 grades/year) the result is, although there also seems to be a slight sinusoidal component that gets noisier over time. Before you laugh at my 9th grade writing level, I challenge you to calculate the same for your own recreational writing, while keeping in mind that most of the blog posts I've written in the past two weeks are around 10th grade. The only writing of mine that goes above that are my scientific publications, which rank in at 13th grade.

The second graph shows where my spending went over the last four years, since I started using Mint in 2009. There are eleven categories here, representing the ten categories with the largest total spending, with an additional catch-all "other" category. I've hidden the scale (or rather, it's all percentages), although you can probably figure out the real amounts if with some estimates. I will tell you that the red at the bottom is rent, and that the dark purple, on the left side, is credit card payments; you can tell when I've stopped using a credit card. Having made this graph specifically for this post, I have no insights, except that it would be fun to further analyze this data.

The last graph shows when I've gone to bed and gotten up in the last three months, at 15 minute resolution. The y-axis requires some explanation; it shows a day from one noon to the next, with the midnight being the transition to the day marked on the x-axis (which I've hidden anyway). There are some gaps for this data, notably in October, which all come from camping trips when I can't be bothered with clocks. In terms of summary statistics, min = 5hrs, first quartile = 6.75hrs, median = 7.25hrs, third quartile = 8hrs, max = 10.25hrs; the mean is 7.30hrs, with a standard deviation of 106 minutes. This is a below average amount of sleep, but not so low to be ridiculous; it only barely supports my claim that I don't sleep much (although it's silent on the issue of whether I need much sleep). In case you're wondering, my sleeping and waking times only have a correlation of 0.48, which is fairly low; I suspect that if I separate the weekdays from the weekends the correlation will be higher, but I have yet to do that analysis.

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Restriction-free Relationships

I want to explore a curious trend in interpersonal relationships. For the purposes of this post, I will restrict myself to four types (stages) of relationships: strangers, acquaintances, friends, and significant others. Not all relationships have all four stages, and a lot of subtleties are left out, but it illustrates a point that applies to the missing pieces as well.

What does it mean for two people to be acquaintances instead of strangers? The status of a relationship is, of course, a Color: there's nothing in the physical composition of two people which classifies them as acquaintances. This particular Color is determined by whether the two people have been introduced before or otherwise know each other. Behaviorally, however, there are observable differences: acquaintances will say hi if they pass each other in the hallway; they might make ask about each other's family, and so on. Importantly, these are behaviors that would be considered weird for strangers perform, and it would be bordering on inappropriate to ask about a stranger's family. We might say, then, that acquaintances have (implicitly) given each other permission to perform these actions.

More generally, there are four types of attributes I want to examine in social relationships: permissions, freedoms, obligations, and restrictions. Permissions, as demonstrated above, are behaviors that it is now acceptable to do (say, as an acquaintance). Freedoms are, in some sense, the opposite: it is something you were doing before, but is now acceptable to not do; an example might be the need to avoid meeting someone's gaze. On the other hand, obligations are things that you are now required to do (for example, a nod of the head to an acquaintance), while restrictions are things that you are not required to not do (for example, yell at an acquaintance for no reason). These describe changes in how two people relate to each other, as they progress through the stages, from strangers to acquaintances to friends to significant others. The exact behaviors differ from relationship to relationship, but these examples seem to be relatively universal, and in either case, the general idea survives.

As you might have noticed from the description, these concepts are symmetric:

may must
do permissions obligations
not-do freedoms restrictions

That is, permissions are about what a person may do, freedoms are about what a person may not-do, and so on. There is a duality between the do's and the don't's, since one can always be framed as the inverse of the other. To take an example from above, the freedom from having to avert your gaze can also be framed as the permission to match someone's gaze. This relates to the philosophical idea of action, but since that's outside the scope of what I want to talk about here, I will keep all four terms for clarity.

Given this scale, how do the four stages of interpersonal relationships differ? Examples of behavior for acquaintances have already been given, so I will move on to behavior for friends. As friends, the permissions granted are increased: friends are allowed to insult each other, which acquaintances may misinterpret or take offense by. That in itself is also a freedom, from worry about easily offending someone. The obligations of friendship are harder to define; some people would say that you are obligated to provide emotional support, although I feel this is more elective than a requirement, especially for friendships among men. I can think of no additional restrictions on friends beyond those of between acquaintances either.

If we review the trends at this point, it would seem that the permissions and freedoms grow as a relationship deepens, while the obligations and restrictions remain minimal; even the ones that do exist are mostly the ones expected of polite human beings in general, not ones that apply specifically between friends. We might expect that this trend continue to hold when friends become significant others; we would also be wrong.

When people begin dating, the permissions (eg. sexual contact) and freedoms (eg. needing to present a particular image) continue to increase, but somehow, a host of obligations and restrictions also come into play. The most prominent of these may be the restriction of sexual fidelity, or otherwise known as "not cheating". (I must again emphasize that these behaviors are not universal, although it seems to be accurate for the majority.) This restriction is particularly notable, because its scope is not between the two people in the relationship, but between them and everyone else. Translated into the friendship context, it would be the equivalent of requiring your friends not to be friends with someone else; while these kinds of people do exist, they are usually not the kind of people we want to be friends with in the first place. There are obligations too; there is a definite expectation to provide emotional (as well as financial) support, as well as the expectation that the relationship will be somewhat long-term, especially for marriages.

That romantic relationships have obligations and restrictions that friendships don't is not a bad thing a priori. Evolutionary psychology suggests that the difference in biology between men and women has led to sexual jealousy, and obligations and restrictions may be a way of making people feel secure, that was eventually got adopted into the societal narrative of relationships. Since obligations and restrictions are often desired by both parties in a relationship, man people can in accordance with them voluntarily, without questioning whether they want these obligations or not. Given how ingrained these expectations are in society, I suspect that most people are not even aware that alternatives exist.

Well known or not, the are models where the obligations and restrictions are more lax. The most common is the family of practices which do not require sexual fidelity, such as polyamory and open relationships. Although less restrictive than mono-amory, they are not necessarily restriction free; elements of exclusivity remain, as there are often stipulations about whether and when one partner can have sex with someone outside the relationships, as well as limits on the amount of emotional investment allowed. Friend-with-benefit and no-strings-attached type relationships have similar restrictions on emotional investment.

Alternatives to other aspects of normal relationships are harder to find. I don't know if a word exists for romantic relationships where partners do not provide emotional support, even though this is almost the default among friendships. The lack of expectation for the relationship to last seems to be equally rare, although again common between friends. At least, I have not heard of people celebrating any anniversaries of friendships (outside of the friendship forming over a particular event), while the time frame for celebrations for couples seem to shrink by the year month. These celebrations do not directly suggest that the partners want the relationship to last, but it does suggest that many future celebrations are expected.

(EDIT: The above two paragraphs are not being fair to polyamorous relationships; many in the community also question using length as a metric for relationships. See the comments for details.)

If we remove obligations and restrictions, what is left are relationships based on permissions and freedoms - the permission to cuddle and have sex, the permission to have long conversations about any topic, the permission to access your thoughts and feelings; the freedom from all the other pressures that society normally exerts on you, the freedom to truly be yourself, the freedom to do whatever you want.

I'm not sure whether such relationships are possible, and if they are, whether there is a reason to prefer them over traditional relationships with obligations and restrictions. From the single conversation I've had on this topic, it's unclear to me whether the need to impose these obligations on others can be deliberately reduced; if they can't, that restriction-free relationships (or, if you prefer to be positive, permission-based relationships) remain a thought experiment. Regardless of whether it can be made into reality, I must admit that such a relationship holds a lot of appeal to me, as I would not be bound by anyone, and others would be similarly not bound to me. Such a conception of relationships would also bring it in line with acquaintanceships and friendships, while blurring the line between all three. I myself have never been clear on the boundaries anyway, but that would be the topic of another post.

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Mental Objectification

DISCLAIMER: I’m new to the discussion about objectification, and being a heterosexual, cis-gendered, upper-middle class Asian male makes me blind to a lot of things. Please let me know if I miss something obvious. Also, TRIGGER WARNING: rape is briefly mentioned as a point of comparison.

Imagine you’re a woman, walking home after work one day. You pass a local bar, where a couple people are just coming out. One of them, a young man in a T-shirt and jeans, sees you nearby and leers, “Hey Sexy...”.

You might think this is a typical scene, and maybe you’re even experienced it before (I apologize for my gender). But now imagine the scene again: you’re walking by, the young man looks at you, and leers, “Hey Intelligent...”. How would your reaction be different? I imagine this second scenario feels more acceptable, or at least weirder and less offensive, while the first one is repulsive and objectifying. The question is, why?

One answer that comes up almost immediately is that the first scenario is objectifying, while the second one isn’t. For me, objectification is not well defined enough to make this argument either way; specifically, I don’t see why we can’t have mental objectification. Consider the criteria for objectification. The above-linked Wikipedia article quotes from Martha C. Nussbaum’s paper, from which I reproduce this list of “seven ways to treat a person as a thing”:

  1. Instrumentality: The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his or her purposes.
  2. Denial of autonomy: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.
  3. Inertness: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in agency,and perhaps also in activity.
  4. Fungibility: The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable (a) with other objects of the same type, and/or (b) with objects of other types.
  5. Violability: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in boundary-integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into.
  6. Ownership: The objectifier treats the object as something that is owned by another, can be bought or sold, etc.
  7. Denial of subjectivity: The objectifier treats the object as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.

To give Nussbaum credit, she refuses to say whether these criteria are necessary or sufficient. Still, all of these criteria (except for the last) applies to using someone for mental stimulation as well as using for sexual stimulation. Consider, for example, the fictional Brothel for Slaking Intellectual Lusts in Planescape: Torment. By the in-game description, the Brothel was established

to give those lustful fevers that strike the mind more avenues of expression rather than the simply carnal. Much pleasure can be had in conversation and engaging in the verbal arts with others. [...] This brothel is intended to slake the lusts of even the hardened intellectual. It is designed to stimulate the mind, to heighten one’s awareness of themselves and others, to create new ways of experiencing another person. It is for those who seek something more than the shallow physical pleasures.

More succinctly, the brothel aims to satisfy any intellectual urgings its clients might have. The “prostitutes” in this fictional brothel are objectified just as much as prostitutes in real brothels – except that it’s their minds the clients are after, not their body. (I’m not suggesting that prostitutes are inherently objectified; I’m simply saying that if sexual prostitutes are objectified by their clients – which seems likely – then the same line of argument applies to mental prostitutes.)

This discussion about objectification is technically a digression from the two scenarios presented, since whether the scenarios are examples of objectification is debatable. None the less, the discrepancy between discussions about sexual and mental objectifications is noteworthy. The latter may not be a pressing problem for feminists – I have no doubt that sexual objectification is much more prevalent than mental objectification – but the ratio should not be so great as for me to not have heard about the latter at all.

Returning to the central question then: why does “Hey sexy...” evoke a more viscerally repulsive response than “Hey intelligent...”? One major difference stands out between sex and the brain: while we could tie someone up and force them to have sex with us, we can’t do the same to make them tell us stories or argue in a debate. This objection, however, only holds superficially. While a person cannot be held helpless to engage in an argument, they can be blackmailed into doing so. The difference is therefore not a matter of consent; we can imagine that the young man in the scenarios can get what he wants either way with sufficient coercion.

There is another avenue of inquiry that leads to a dead end: that of the intellect as a more prominent definition of self. This is to say that, for most people, who they consider themselves to be is more dependent on their thought processes than on their physical appearance. If we take this hypothesis for granted, however, it would imply the theoretical orientation of someone who finds “Hey intelligent...” more repulsive than “Hey sexy...”. All this would require is that their physical appearance determines more of their sense of self than their intellectual prowess. This inverted reaction seems unlikely, and for that I dismiss this hypothesis about self-image. (Although if someone does have these beliefs, I would be very interested in talking to them.)

This leaves me with just two hypotheses (which may have been obvious to some of you from the beginning).

My first hypothesis is that “Hey sexy...” is more repulsive solely because of cultural/historical reasons. As my friend suggested, women have never been judged by their brains. Greeting a woman with “Hey sexy...” is, therefore, as loaded as it would be to greet a black person with “Hey nigger...”. In this case, the word “sexy” brings with it the historical inequality between man and woman, and therefore the objectification of the latter. “Intelligent”, on the other hand, carries no such cultural baggage, and therefore elicits less of a reaction. Interestingly, "sexy" is unique in that it is the only complimentary (if interpreted literally) adjective that may apply to oppressed groups (through its connection with women; I think this is a stretch too); we can't use "black", "queer", or "faithless" as compliments, but we can with "sexy".

My second hypothesis is that “Hey sexy...” is more repulsive because of the negative cultural connotation associated with sex. I have to admit while this hypothesis is attractive (because it’s an association people can choose to ignore), it doesn’t hold up well in cross-cultural comparisons; as far as I know, “Hey sexy...” is still repulsive regardless of which society it is uttered in. Regardless, this suggests the thought experiment of other greetings, such as “Hey violent...” or “Hey prostitute...”. Only the latter of these evokes repulsion (in my simulation of a woman), which suggests that sexuality is heavily involved, since the former is also viewed negatively in modern society. It should be noted that sexiness (as general physical attractiveness) is the only non-modifiable, positive trait

In the end, I don’t quite understand the reactions to “Hey sexy...” as compared to “Hey intelligent...”, or even a third metric such as “Hey caring...”. There’s no a priori reason that sexual objectification has more emotional impact than mental objectification, and yet this seems to be the case. Can anyone tell me what I’m missing?

PS. Maybe embodiment has something to do with it?

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Invisible Colors

Often, when I have conversations with non-computer-science people, these "conversations" often resemble "arguments". One recurring argument is how we decide whether something has a particular property. To give a concrete example, we might try to figure out whether a critical review (of a book, say) is authentic, that is, that it was derived from the true beliefs of the literary critic. It turns out that the disagreement runs deeper than literary criticism, and I want to address that in this post.

Sidenote: the core ideas in this post were inspired by another article. I think I push the idea a little further here, and also give better examples, so feel free to read the article and come back. At the very least, it’ll plug any explanation pitfalls in this post.

The big takeaway of this post is that sometimes we care about properties of objects that cannot be found in the make up of that object. To use a simple examine, my name is “Justin”, but if you take me apart atom by atom, there is no “Justin-ness” property to be found anywhere. Note that this is not simply the distinction between a system of components versus individual components; the “circulatory system” may not reside in any individual atom, but we can point to some group of atoms (ie. the heart, blood vessels, etc.) and say that they make up the “circulatory system”. In this case, the circulatory system is the result of the interactions of atoms; the same cannot be said of the name “Justin”.

Maybe a real-world example would make the point clearer. In business, when you receive funding from some source, sometimes there will be stipulations for how you may use that money; this is the case for the US government. Closer to home, the Computer Science and Engineering Graduates (CSEG) student group gets money from the University of Michigan, but they can’t use that money to buy alcohol. At the same time, CSEG also collects money from graduate students; this money can be used to buy alcohol. To keep these funds separate, CSEG actually has two bank accounts, and is not allowed to arbitrarily move money from one to the other (for some definition of arbitrary). There is no difference between the money in these two accounts, of course; money is fungible, and merchants would happily accept money from either. But to abide by university regulations, CSEG must distinguish between the two, and only use one of them to buy booze. In finance, this distinction is called the Color of money, a term I will adopt here (and also used in the source article above, although for a different reason).

If we want to get technical, Color-like properties are ones that do not exist in the object itself. We can take apart CSEG’s two bank accounts (they won’t be happy about this), and nothing in the account will say that one can be used to buy beer. Nothing in the external world can tell us the Color of the accounts; instead, Color is something that we need to keep track of ourselves. In memory research, properties like Color are called “non-projectable”, because the outside world cannot give us this information (if you want to be poetic, it cannot “project” the information into our heads). What this usually means is that Color is not about the object itself, but about the history of the object. When we say that this account has a Color of “cannot buy booze”, what we mean is that the money in this account came from the university and not from students. It’s how the money got there, not what the money is, that defines this distinction.

Since Color is not an intrinsic part of an object, we can do strange things with it. For example, CSEG can do tricks to change the Color of money, by paying for some social event (for example, rock climbing), then charging grad students to attend. The money with the “no booze” Color is now spent (notably, not on booze); the money that CSEG now has came from students, and so has the “yes booze” Color, even though these two may be the exact same amount. We have now changed the Color of money, and can do different things with it (eg. a bar crawl). This is, of course, a form of money laundering, but no one seems to mind.

I want to return to computer science now, and give another example of Color: whether a file is subject to copyright (this was the example in the source article). Let’s say I have three copies of a song (say, this one), which I got from different places: one I got from the artist as a gift, one I got as a digital download from iTunes, and one that I got from a BitTorrent file-share. From the computer’s perspective, these three files are exactly the same, down to every 1 and 0 at the binary level. (This is not strictly true, but we’ll run with it for now.) The computer can’t stop me from making a copy of my iTunes version for a friend – not because it doesn’t have the power to, but because it doesn’t know which one came from iTunes. There’s nothing in the bits that say whether I’m legally allowed to copy a file; the legality of that operation is a Color.

For obvious reasons, this is a big problem for lawyers. To make sure everyone is paying for their music, they want to impose restrictions on what people can do with their files, so they come up with digital rights management (DRM). They require iTunes to add extra 1’s and 0’s to their files, so that my computer knows it’s from iTunes, and can stop me from making copies; in computer science jargon, this is called metadata, since it’s data about the data itself. The problem is that metadata doesn’t change the file in any intrinsic way; it merely adds some numbers to the end. If I want, I can decide to add this metadata myself – or more likely, remove this metadata – and all of a sudden my computer can again copy files from iTunes.

(In reality, there’s the issue of encryption – changing the file in some way that requires special knowledge to read. This is a bigger problem, since encryption is designed to make its reversal – “removing the metadata” – difficult. But none the less, if the encryption can be reversed (ie. if the file can be decrypted), the file can again be read and copied.)

If all this computer science stuff seems complicated, it turns out that the same problem exists in meat space. Copyright, ultimately, is about the ownership of an idea, and ownership applies equally well to real objects. Let’s say you and I both own the same coffee mug, which are identical in every way. I can take both, move them around behind my back, then bring them back out and ask you which one is yours. You can’t tell, of course, because the mugs are identical; you are now in the same position as the computer with the three files.

“But wait!” you say, “I can just stencil my name onto my cup, and now my cup is different! What do you think of that?” You’re right, of course, but that’s the point: your name on your cup doesn’t really mean that you own the cup. I can, for example, also stencil your name on my cup; nothing stops me from doing this, and the cup is still mine, even though it has your name on it. The ownership survives regardless of what changes you make to your cup and what changes I make to mine; it does not depend on the physicality of the cup, and is therefore a Color.

(Encryption in this case, I suppose, is equivalent to locking up your mug. Even then, nothing stops me from picking the lock and claiming the cup is mine.)

As the source article pointed out, it’s not that computer scientists don’t care at all about Color. When we need a random number (excuse me, a randomly-generated number), we are a lot that the numbers are actually random. Theoretically, rolling a die and getting five 6’s consecutively (6, 6, 6, 6, 6) is just as likely as getting any other sequence (say, 4, 6, 5, 1, 6); they both have (16)5=17776=0.000129 probability of happening. But, like any Color, randomness is not in the sequence itself, but in how the sequence is generated. Which is why we care about how a random number generator works, precisely because we can’t tell just by looking at the numbers. In the ideal case, we’ll have the source code, so we can mathematically prove that the generated numbers are random; in practice, we leave this job to a small subset of people, and trust that whatever random number generator we use is good enough.

I am finally ready to go back to my opening example about authenticity in literary criticism. In real life, the discussion came about because my friend mentioned that in the school of New Historicism, critics frame the piece of literature in its historical context; they might, for example, comment on how colonialist ideas show up in Shakespeare’s works. This is notable because the idea of colonialism wasn’t around during Shakespeare’s time; it is only in hindsight that we can point out these influences. I then asked the question of whether a critic can pretend to be from a different time period, and review a work from that perspective; an example might be to review Shakespeare as someone from a inter-stellar civilization. My friend was rather horrified, and said that such a review would be science fiction and not literary criticism, that it would not be authentic. I then modified my example: what if a critic is familiar with modern psychology, but pretended not to be, and wrote a review using psychoanalytic theories? Would such a review be accepted into literary journals? My interest at the time was more about the need for scientifically-accurate literary criticism, but it also touched on the issue of authenticity. Given my friend’s previous vehement reaction, I was surprised to hear that such a review would be publishable, despite, of course, it also being inauthentic.

As might be obvious by now, the problem is that the authenticity of a review is not a property of the review itself, but a Color. Two critics can have completely difference view points but write the exact same sequence of words in a review; nothing in the words would distinguish which one is authentic and which isn’t. To be fair, this is not just a problem for literary criticism, but for academia as a whole: any manuscript to be reviewed for publication should be true, but that truth is not a property of the manuscript, and therefore cannot be determined 100% accurately every single time. The difference between literary criticism and (say) computer science is that in computer science, the manuscript contains experimental results; this allows the experiment to be replicated and the results reproduced, thus checking the correctness of the manuscript (albeit after it has already been accepted or rejected for publication). This path to determine correctness (or the criticism equivalent, authenticity) is not open to literary criticism: there is nothing to compare a review against, since a review is by nature subjective, and a different critic cannot “reproduce” the views of the original author. Of course, we’ve actually already encountered this problem before. Correctness in the sciences is like having the random number generator available; if we don’t believe the sequence is random, we can look at the random number generator itself and “reproduce” the results. Authenticity, on the other hand, is like being given a black-box random number generator; we might be able to say something is not authentic if it is painfully obvious (like if the generator always produces 6’s, or if a critic claims to be part of an inter-stellar civilization), but for less egregious violations, there’s simply no way to tell.

I didn’t mean this post to be an attack on literary criticism; it was merely a convenient example (and a true and authentic one; you’ll just have to trust me on this…). The issue of Color comes up in many other places, including within computer science itself, and I’m sure has sparked many debates similar to the one between me and my friend. Color is therefore a useful thing to keep in mind, especially since it makes an appearance in both the sciences and the humanities. Instead of arguing over why it is unrealistic to care about some property, we might invoke the concept of Color and move on to whether and how accurately we can determine that Color instead.

PS. I do want note the irony in how literary criticism as a field cares so much about authenticity, given that they spend a lot of effort separating the creator and the work created; this is the (famous?) “death of the author” view of literature. Somehow, this philosophy does not extend to criticism itself.

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Teaching Active Learning

It’s been a little while since I’ve talked about teaching. Although I only taught for one more semester after that last post, I got involved with the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) to train new non-faculty instructors and help them get feedback. One of the main things I’m supposed to do is to encourage student instructors to use active learning.

The main idea behind active learning is to minimize the time that students spend sitting and listening to a lecture. Research has shown that a student can only pay attention for about 15 minutes in lecture (pdf), after which retention goes from 70% to 20%. Instead of having students merely passively taking in material, active learning would require the student to participate in some way. Some more common ways of using active learning in the classroom include project-based work, case studies, group discussions, iClickers, and so on. These teaching methods are not meant to complete replace the lecture, but to supplement the lecture by forcing students to process the material. Use correctly, active learning does help students achieve the goals of a class.

My first problem with active learning is already present, which is that the term “active learning” is too broadly defined. If we go by the above definition, then something as simple as inviting student questions would be considered active learning. While allowing students to ask questions is a good thing – and while you’ll be surprised how often students don’t feel comfortable asking questions – setting the bar this low means that the majority of teachers are already practicing active learning. If this is the definition of active learning that is being sold, there is no incentive for new teachers to try the more involved and more effective methods. It’s the equivalent of calling driving a sport, which would let everyone who lives in the suburbs to say they do sports and live an “active lifestyle”. Then they congratulate themselves on being active, then never play anything that involves exercise.

The problem is that there is no good, short definition of active learning that precisely captures the idea. Confirmation bias is at fault here. Given the descriptions “making students think” and “more than passively listening”, people who understand active learning think it fits the concept well, failing to realize that if they didn’t know what active learning was, it fits a whole lot more things too. Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix active learning is; they simply have to be presented with example after example, slowly letting their brain learn the fuzzy concept.

Wherein lies my second problem with active learning: we don't spend close to enough time training instructors for them to learn this distinction. At Michigan, a new instructor is required to go through a “full day” of training, which in reality only goes from 9am to 4pm. Not counting lunches, breaks, welcoming speeches, and other non-teaching material (such as policies for the Graduate Employee Organization) leaves maybe five hours of teaching orientation. The first hour is about classroom climate – discrimination, student-instructor dynamics, and so on. The next two hours contains concurrent sessions on different types of instructional duties, such as discussions, labs, office hours, etc. The last two hours is for practice teaching, but since the new instructors are in groups, the actual teaching is limited to five minutes. If you’re lucky, active learning will be brought up, defined, and (briefly) discussed in the concurrent sessions, and maybe again during practice teaching; if you’re not lucky, the term will be thrown around, leaving you none the wiser.

To be fair, Michigan does require new instructors to go through “ongoing professional development”. One of the possibilities here is advanced practice teaching, where the instructor is required to use an active learning technique, selected from a handout. In reality, very few instructors actually do so, partially because the idea of active learning is still abstract, partially because instructors only have ten minutes (a 100% increase!), and partially because the other instructors role-playing as students have no incentive to participate. Often, the most “active” the students ever get is to spend two minutes trying to guess what the instructor wants from them.

I want to make clear that I understand the difficulty of getting this right. There is only so much time both new instructors and the university is willing to spend in training, and having that bit of training is better than not having that training at all. Instructors do have another alternative: to get a Midterm Student Feedback (MSF), which is actually the main component of my job. In an MSF, a third-party facilitator observes a class session of the instructor’s. Then, taking 15-20 minutes of class, the instructor leaves the classroom to allow the facilitator to talk to the students, to see what the students like about the instructor, and what the instructor can change to help the students. As a result, the suggestions are personalized to the instructor, and missed opportunities for active learning will be pointed out. Research suggests that MSFs do have a net positive effect (pdf) on student evaluations of instructors.

Having sat through 15 student-taught discussions, labs, office hours, and so on, I think there is a third problem with active learning which, in my opinion, is the most serious one. Even if active learning is better defined, even if new instructors have enough training to understand what active learning is, they may still be using active learning incorrectly. Good active learning is not simply, say, getting students to talk to each other; the content of what they talk about also matters. Take the example of an algebra class, and consider the following concept question for the iClicker:

How many times does the polynomial y = -2x3 + x2 - 1 touch the x-axis?

  • It doesn’t touch the x-axis.
  • It touches the x-axis once.
  • It touches the x-axis twice.
  • It touches the x-axis three times.
  • It touches the x-axis four times.

This is not an unreasonable question to appear in an algebra lecture, but it’s not an effective one to gauge how students are doing. For one, the question is overly dependent on error-prone algebraic manipulation, so even the students who know how to get the answer could get it wrong. As an iClicker question, it would also take students took long to calculate the answer. Finally, because the problem is specific, it doesn’t test the students’ general mastery of polynomials. (The answer, by the way, is that it touches the x-axis once.)

Now consider this question instead:

If a polynomial touches the x-axis twice, what must be true about its degree?

  • It must have a degree of one.
  • It must have a degree of two.
  • It must have an even degree.
  • It must have a degree of two or more.

This question requires the students to understand and reason about the relationship between the algebraic representation of the polynomial (ie. its degree) with the graphical representation (ie. its roots). If students disagree, it’s also likely to generate discussion, where individual students can try and come up with counter examples. Finally, the answers will tell the instructor how the students are distributed in terms of their understanding, and allow the instructor to adjust the class content as necessary. (The answer, by the way, is that it must have a degree of two or more, since it needs at least two to have two real roots, and any higher degrees can have non-real roots, and therefore would not cause the curve to touch the x-axis.)

The bigger lesson here is that effectively using active learning is more than just the structuring of the class. It also requires the instructor to read the mood of the students, to have a feel for how students will react to certain activities, and to understand where students may have trouble. This is pedagogical content knowledge – not just content knowledge (eg. algebra), not just pedagogical knowledge (eg. active learning), but pedagogy as applied the particular content of a class (eg. what active learning methods work for teaching algebra). Active learning cannot be divorced from the teaching goals of the instructor, the prior knowledge of the students; it needs to be planned for an as integral part of the class, not as an independently-designed silver bullet, to be inserted anywhere for instant perfect teaching. Without these considerations, active learning in the classroom will only ever bear a surface resemblance to good teaching.

Ultimately, I fear that the entire package of being a good instructor cannot be learned outside of extensive practice, with a good dose of innate talent to boot. I don’t know how to force people to reflect on their teaching enough to reach this point. I don’t think the training and services we do provide to instructors is a waste of time, since it’s better than nothing; but I am also skeptical that the training has any large effect on the teaching quality, even if the usage of active learning is increased.

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