Friday, September 8, 2017

Evil Sloth

Controlling your diet is hard, but I found it easier when I learned (this is true), gut bacteria send signals to your brain to make you crave the kind of food they like.

In other words, if you eat sugar, you're empowering sugar-eating bacteria to make a home in your gut.

And once they're in there, they will never stop ringing the bell to make you bring them more sugar.

I realised cutting sugar is not a diet, it's a revolution! Those sugar-hungry aristocrats have been in power long enough. Time for new management.

There are few motivations stronger than overcoming a conspiracy - as political activists have discovered. Telling people "this secret organisation is to blame for all your problems" really gets them going. So anthropomorphise your problems, and you'll find suddenly they're much easier to tackle.

Exercise, for example. You're lying in bed thinking "I should get up and go for a run". Why haven't you got up yet?

It's because the Evil Sloth is manipulating you! He wants you passive and weak so that his tiny sloth larvae can keep feeding on your energy.

Screw you, Evil Sloth! I'm not letting you exploit me.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Spindown D20

Just a little something for the Magic players in the audience - I designed a net for a really nice (IMO) spindown D20. Each number is aligned so that the number above is literally above and the number below is literally below it. The faces are also shaded to indicate how the numbers flow into each other.

Here's how the finished die looks:

And here's the net. If you make one, I'd love to see - tweet a photo to @LaurieCheers!

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Do not stare directly at the truth

Sometimes - even though it sounds impossible to the mathematically minded - the question of what is true in reality is literally a matter of opinion.
The world as it actually exists is stranger than we poor humans can conceive. All things we'd intuitively call "real" are emergent behaviours of an utterly alien underlying system. Our brains are like insects crawling on a TV screen, thinking that because they see patterns in the phosphors, they understand. Since we can't perceive or relate to what's really happening, we make theories and try to explain them with words and with mathematics... but mathematics speaks to the head, not the gut, and words are at best a poor sketch of one aspect of the real thing. If you ask a question about something in the sketch, there's a good chance your question has absolutely no correspondence with what's actually happening.
We call such questions philosophy and religion.
But still, since our sketches are all we have, people cling to them, and will argue passionately about which one is correct. (The answer, of course, is that none of them are, and the world as we imagine it doesn't even exist... but we shy away from that truth because then how do we live? It gives us no advice about how we nonexistent beings should behave).
The wise man understands that to best interact with other humans, you must be prepared to communicate at their level. As such, an illusion that millions of people believe in may acquire, like the Matrix, a kind of weight and legitimacy. And questions about it, like questions about a fictional universe, can develop their own accepted "canonical" answers and fan theories.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Psychology and Taxes

This post was adapted from my reply to a Reddit thread about taxes.
"People pay taxes because if they don't they go to prison, no one pays taxes out of solidarity and if they did they would be pretty stupid."
"There is a reason why every country has laws against tax evasion. If there wasn't, do you really think anyone would pay?"
Ok, so it's obvious that lots of people would choose not to pay taxes if there was no consequence for it. There are people who steal too, and I'm sure if it were legal, they'd steal more.

But honestly these comments break my heart a little. Our society is now so fragmented, with capitalism/selfishness so thoroughly established as the default mode of thought and people thoroughly disenfranchised and disillusioned with the government, some people can't even imagine contributing to society as something anyone would do voluntarily, or rationally.

How and when is it rational to voluntarily pay taxes? Well, unfortunately when we're talking about national taxes, there are such huge numbers involved, the system tends to be hard to empathize with. (On which more later).

So let's think about a smaller scale situation. Imagine I live in a small village of 100 people, and there's a maintenance team who collect money from the other villagers to help maintain the roads, trim the hedges, plant flowerbeds, etc.

If everyone contributes, everyone gets these benefits at a fair price.

If I refuse to contribute, the team still have 99% of the money, which is probably good enough - so effectively, I get all these benefits for free! That's pretty great for me.

But what if everyone realizes this? If enough people refuse to contribute, there won't be enough money to cover the maintenance costs, which means potholes in the roads don't get fixed, hedges and weeds grow out of control, and everyone suffers.

This is very similar to a situation from game theory, called "the prisoners' dilemma". Police use it in real life to get criminals to accuse each other. It works like this...

A pair of brothers are suspected of a murder, and are being interrogated in separate rooms. The police have enough evidence to convict them both of petty theft, but they really want evidence about the murder. So the interrogator offers them each a deal: either we arrest you for the theft, or you accuse your brother of murder right now. If you do that, you're free to go.
And shortly after, the interrogator adds more pressure: your brother already ratted you out! You're going down, but we'll take it a bit easier on you if you implicate him too.

Suppose I'm the criminal considering my options. I don't know whether my brother has really ratted me out. If he did, my best move is to accuse him back so they'll take it easy on me. And if he didn't, my best move is to accuse him, and walk away a free man.

In other words, regardless of what he's doing, my best move is always to accuse him. And yet, if we can just keep silent, the police have no evidence to pin the murder on us - we'll both be out in a couple of months!

That's the core paradox of the prisoner's dilemma. We get the best overall outcome if everyone cooperates... But an individual can always improve his personal situation by not cooperating. And yet, if enough people follow this logic and don't cooperate, the result is the worst possible outcome for everyone.

In other words: if everyone acts only in self interest, they all lose!

Since this situation comes up so often in cooperative situations, and humans have evolved to be cooperative animals, we actually have developed instincts to stop us hitting the "all lose" outcome. How do we do it? The simplest answer is to change the payoffs so that it no longer functions as a prisoners' dilemma. For example, if I know that my mother will kill me if I accuse my brother of murder, suddenly my decision becomes much simpler. Would I rather go to jail, or die?

Every human society exhibits a distaste for people who act selfishly to get an advantage over other people. We call it "fairness" or "justice", and it's how our species puts a thumb on the scales of the prisoners' dilemma. It's not quite as powerful as the threat of my mother killing me, but it does affect our decision making in a similar way.

So that's what's going on in the village. If everyone pays their maintenance fees, they can all have a nice village. And it shouldn't be too hard to persuade everyone to chip in, thanks to our sense of fairness.

Unfortunately, our species also evolved to live in small tribes that were hostile to each other - which means we find it very easy to divide the world into what psychologists call an "ingroup" (people we identify with) and "outgroup" (anyone else). The ingroup is typically seen as diverse, trustworthy, "real people", whereas the outgroup are faceless, interchangeable, untrustworthy, and generally "not real people". This simple principle is at the heart of patriotism, racism, religious factionalism, and just about every war humans have ever fought.

When it comes to working with an outgroup, humans have no instinct for fairness. Quite the opposite.

So how does this relate to taxes?

Well, national taxes are basically the same as the village's maintenance fund... except that now the village has a million times more people. In a group that large, human cooperative instincts break down; it's very hard to think of millions of strangers as part of our ingroup.

So in that situation, we can easily lose track of the idea that we're cooperating for our mutual benefit, and instead slip into a mindset where the government is "The Man" - a hostile force taking our money, to be resented, and outwitted when possible.

How do we avoid hitting the "all lose" outcome of the prisoners' dilemma in this new, more hostile situation? We change the payoffs in a different way: If people will no longer cooperate just because it's the fair thing to do, we add in a credible threat that they'll be caught and fined if they don't.

So in conclusion - Is it rational to voluntarily pay taxes? Yes. Is that an assessment that human brains are naturally bad at? Unfortunately, yes.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

bool Person.isEqual(Person b) { return true? }

Gender equality is certainly getting a lot of air-time lately. I read Rock Paper Shotgun's article on the subject today. Then I spent a while reading the reddit thread that's substituting for RPS's own comments. Then I read some hilariously sexist blog responses. And wow, this is an incredibly difficult subject to think clearly about.

Let's start with some unarguable stuff - Nobody can seriously claim that sexism doesn't exist. I mean, just look at the hate-filled comments on any webpage that brings up this topic.

But that in itself doesn't mean much. Ten minutes on the internet should be enough to show you that all opinions are held. Heck, some people believe that it's a good idea to fly a plane into a tower block, bomb a marathon or shoot up a school. People have always done horrible things to one another. In the end, some people will always be jerks, and worse; I can't imagine any movement would realistically hope to change that.

So what, then, is the real goal of feminism? (I'm aware that there are conflicting factions; just trying to boil down to the essence here.) Now that the inequalities built into the legal system have been mostly abolished, what exactly would constitute a success here?

Most of the material I've seen (such as Anna Sarkeesian's controversial (though in my opinion, coherent and well-written) videos) tries to point out what we might call "accidental sexism": widespread patterns of behaviour, by both men and women, which are not maliciously done, and often well-intentioned, but nevertheless contribute to gender inequality.

However, this is where it gets awkward. When we get away from obvious negative stereotypes, what actually constitutes sexism? Men and women, when you get right down to it, are really not equal. They inherently have a different average life expectancy, height, weight, strength, aggressiveness, a different pattern of mental skills (for example, women tend to score higher on language, and men on spatial awareness), and so on... and most fundamentally, a different relationship with childbirth. In fact, the difference between maternity leave and paternity leave is one of the few remaining gender-specific laws in many countries.

Is it sexist to say that men are physically different from women, or to act in accordance with such differences? Surely not - if a doctor advised his female patients to maintain the same BMI as his male ones, he might be liable for a malpractice suit. (Well, probably not. But he certainly wouldn't be in accordance with standard scientific advice.)

And yet, and yet... it's a slippery slope, isn't it? So many of the differences between men and women are not inherent, physical or genetically based things, but actually cultural conventions - to pick a less-controversial example, the association of girls with the colour pink. It's clearly arbitrary: study different cultures and historical periods, and you find different color associations; or a lack thereof.

So let's explore that. Is it sexist to associate girls with the colour pink? I can't see that this is inherently bad - no more sexist than associating girls with the word "girl", or with the female symbol . I mean, yes, I've certainly seen complaints about the pink-saturated "Lego for girls" range, but I don't think those objections are about the pinkness per se: it's the implicit declaration that the other toys are "Lego for boys" that upsets people.

Which leads to an interesting thought experiment - what if they made a "Lego for Native Americans"?

It's easy enough to imagine a Lego set about Native Americans: you'd have Lego totem poles, minifigs holding bows and wearing head-dresses, and little Lego buffaloes. I'll be surprised if it hasn't been made already. Oh, hey, look, it has:

However, can you imagine a Lego set specifically targeted at Native American children? To be honest I don't know enough about their culture to even imagine what that would look like... but clearly, its mere existence could be taken as an insult. (If that doesn't ring your alarm bells enough, can you imagine "Lego for African Americans"?)

Ok, so we seem to have a valuable distinction here! Lego about Native Americans seems fine; Lego for Native Americans seems obviously racist.

...which, in turn, begins to explain why the pinkness is a problem: it's just a signal, very clearly, that we're dealing with Lego for girls, not merely Lego about girls.

So let's explore that. Why is it sexist to make toys for a female audience? I mean, marketing folk always identify a target market for their products - "cat lovers", "people with families", "people who ride bikes"..... ah, but in asking the question, it answers itself. Target markets are about identifying what people do, and/or what they care about. If your target market is "women", or "native americans", have you identified anything about what they do or care about? All you've identified is a stereotype.

Compare "Lego for Chinese people" (which seems like an obviously racist concept) with "Supermarkets for Chinese people" (which are commonplace and inoffensive). What's the difference there? Simple enough: supermarkets for chinese people are actually catering to something real, not just a stereotype. They're primarily "Supermarkets for people who need ingredients for chinese food".

So that's the key; it's sexist to market things to a stereotype of women's needs, but it's not sexist to market things to real women's needs. ("Tampons for women", anyone)?

And the thought of things "for women" leads to another thought - the stupid "men's magazines", and "men's TV channels". Clearly, making something "for men" is just as poorly-defined as "for women". Are these channels sexist? Their idea of what men are like certainly seems to pander to stereotypes - obsessed with sport, cars, tits and violence. Which means... yes, I suppose they must be sexist. (And heck, that's even before we consider their idea of what women are like.)

So let's explore that. I had to deduce that this portrayal of men was sexist! Why does it feel so different from sexism towards women? I guess it's partly because the feminism movement has sensitized us to such issues as they apply to women. But underneath that, more fundamentally... stereotypes of men just don't seem like a threat. I don't think any men go around in fear of being dismissed on the basis of that kind of gender stereotype - "oh, a man; you must be aggressive and obsessed with your football team". It doesn't feel as though the men's magazines are really affecting my life by portraying men this way.

And why is that? Well, fundamentally, I think men just get portrayed in so many different ways in the media, and in culture in general, that no one portrayal seems universal. For every "football hooligan" stereotype, there are plenty of "scientists", "poets", "soldiers", and so on: so many different portrayals that they don't affect the perception of the gender as a whole. Honestly, I find stereotypes of awkward nerds more threatening than stereotypes of "men" as a whole.

And that's interesting too - why is that? Simply because "awkward nerd" describes me better: I feel like parts of it apply to me, and by the nature of stereotypes, the parts that fit you make them stick to you. And that makes the rest feel threatening. I imagine some rural americans likewise feel threatened by the "redneck" stereotype. "Yes, my family lives in a trailer, I like country music and I drive a pickup truck; why would that mean I'm toothless, unemployed or inbred?"

Ok then - what happens when there's a stereotype of your entire gender? "Yes, I am female and have breasts; why would that mean that I'm a passive participant in my life, or that my best hope is to be pretty enough to make a rich man fall in love and marry me?" I can see why that would be threatening. And the better it fits an individual, the more threatening it becomes.

What is the goal of feminism? I guess I see the objective now: to weaken that stereotype. It's unrealistic to silence the jeering comments - remember, all opinions are held and people will never stop being jerks - but it is realistic to change girls'  perception of themselves. They need to see a range of female role-models.

In fact, not even that - there should be less of a perception that female role-models and male role-models need to be separate things. Anything that people do professionally is a credible life for anyone who can do that thing. Girls need to see that for every "football hooligan" stereotype they could grow up to be, there are "scientists", "poets", "soldiers", and so on. You know; people.

Ok, this all seems nice. But there's one last question that just won't stop nagging me - is that kind of equality a realistic goal? We opened with a discussion about the fact that women are actually different from men. Doesn't that imply there are some jobs, some goals, that are genuinely appropriate/realistic for one gender but not for the other? Well, sure, there are a few obvious ones. Sperm donor, for example, or surrogate mother.

But that's not exactly an interesting example. What about those differences in weight, aggressiveness, height? Surely they count for something? Well, there's something to keep in mind there - those are averages. The tallest women are far taller than the average man. The smallest men are far smaller than the average women. If a job requires someone tall, it's going to exclude a whole bunch of men as well as a whole bunch of women. So that's hardly a cause for excluding all women.

If you read this far, thanks for sticking with me. I learned a lot in writing this essay; I hope you enjoyed it.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Guiding Star

If you open your heart and let the world in,
it can tell you who you are,
how to find true happiness,
and it will be your guiding star

It will tell you, keep your day job,
better buy a second car
you're gonna need that new shampoo
and folks respect a padded bra

Or in fact, you'll find the surgery
gives the best results by far
aren't you happy? we're all happy;
look, you can hardly see the scars