Sunday, September 7, 2014

Overreaching Metaphors

There is an excellent and fascinating article on metaphors and the brain.  I linked it uncritically on Facebook because I was mobile and my problems with it take some explanation, but I do have problems with it. Specifically the claims about consciousness and AI which seem to me unsupported.

First, I love the insight about how metaphors are connecting words and concepts that are already connected through our memories of experiences.  That's genius and my intuition is that it is absolutely true.

It seems to me that how well and reliably this phenomenon will show in the scans is going to depend on how evocative the phrases are for an individual, and what exactly they evoke.  The metaphorical "kick the habit" conjured a specific imagined scene for me, I was kicking an unwanted thing, and hard, right leg in full swing like punting a school-yard soccer ball for distance, toes curled up to strike with the ball of my foot.  The idiomatic conjured nothing for me, I simply translated "kicking the bucket"="dying" and moved on.  I have no idea where this saying comes from, so I cannot imagine it in a way that relates to the context.

But it isn't just my ignorance that can make the phrase fall flat.  "Bought the farm" also means to die, and I have an explanation for why: GIs who died were covered by SGLI, and by dying paid off their families' farm-related debts.  But this isn't evocative for me, it's a euphemism that references some bureaucratic after-effects of death.

And some of the difficulty in their data may simply lie in how different people perceive and experience these different phrases.  In this part:

Textural metaphors, too, appear to be simulated. That is, the brain processes "She’s had a rough time" by simulating the sensation of touching something rough.
I did not imagine a texture at all, but a car ride down a pocked and rutted dirt road, jostling me to the point of needing to use my muscles to protect my spine from the jolts.  If they had imaged my brain I might have been firing circuits for contracting my core or something, but I would not have been thinking about my fingers on sandpaper. I might have been a false negative in their study, if it did not account for this variance in how people connect these phrases to their experiences.

I also think that there may an an element unmentioned - our ability to correct malformed information.  Like Google's "Did you mean..." we can read a phrase with typos or other errors and usually correctly search for what the intended meaning was.  I have more than once found someone's clever meaning only because a literal translation failed and I was forced to go back for a second look to see what this phrase could be rounded to (metaphor!).  This ability to locate (metaphor!) meaning despite "errors" or other unexpected features seems like it might be relevant not just to solving CAPTCHCAs, but to using and comprehending metaphor.

Ok, on to the criticism.  This really bothers me:

If cognition is embodied, that raises problems for artificial intelligence. Since computers don’t have bodies, let alone sensations, what are the implications of these findings for their becoming conscious—that is, achieving strong AI? Lakoff is uncompromising: "It kills it." Of Ray Kurzweil’s singularity thesis, he says, "I don’t believe it for a second." Computers can run models of neural processes, he says, but absent bodily experience, those models will never actually be conscious.

The article has convinced me that metaphor in language is connected to the interconnectedness of our experiences and memories.  But:

1) It has not shown that use or comprehension of metaphor is necessary for consciousness.
2) It has not shown that cognition is embodied.
3) It seems to assign importance to the body itself rather than to the richly connected memories of inter-related information that was collected (via the body) and stored during events that these words map to.
4) It seems to be missing that our bodies function as very rich interfaces between the world and our brains, and that there is no reason why computers might not have analogously rich interfaces.

To #1, I will simply point out that there are human beings with very limited comprehension of metaphor.  This is one of the known limitations of autism.  I don't think we have any basis to suggest that autistic people are not conscious based on this.

#2 and #3 are related.  Having a body is certainly relevent to making the connection from the word "affection" to the memories of giving or receiving affection, to the memories of warmth, and back to the word "warmth".  But if we're abstracting to non-human minds, what matters is a symbol connects to both a literal meaning and a web of related experiences, which then correlate strongly to another category of experiences, represented by yet another symbol.  You don't need a body to do this, you need your memories to exist in an interconnected, relational web.

If you have a context of someone responding to a poor-quality comment on a blog with "Your little YouTube comment has contributed much to the conversation." then there are multiple non-literal leaps to be made.  First, this isn't literally a YouTube comment, so it must be referring to them in some way?  What patterns does that bring up?  YouTube comments are often terrible, ranty, poorly punctuated.  Ok, so that's a possibility.  "contributed much to the conversation." doesn't seem to make sense.  The comment doesn't seem to be appreciated by anyone else, or to have many redeeming qualities.  This must be sarcasm as well as metaphor.  Finally the diminutive "little" gives us an additional clue that this remark is disparaging the commenter.  We conclude with high probability that we have correctly understood the phrase as sarcasm with the use of metaphor to call out a shitty (metaphor!) comment.  You do not need a body to comprehend or experience any of that.  You need an internet connection and human language comprehension.  Memories have been invoked, for me of cringing while reading the comments on some YouTube video.  That part is human, but the computer could have some other computer-like experience stored in association with those comments, and still understand or create this metaphor, or even create metaphors that humans could not comprehend because we lack the relevant experiences.

I would argue that it is the ability to recognize patterns in experiences and to make associations between them that matters.  We do this with a body, but you could do it with a fiber connection to the internet.  You wouldn't experience kicking a soccer ball that way, but you would experience other things that could be turned to metaphor.

I'd tell you a UDP joke, but you might not get it.

For #4, essentially, I wish to argue that computers could have bodies for the relevant purposes.  It seems to me that the human experience depends on a lot of bandwidth of information coming in all the time.  This comes to us through our body, through our five senses.  All of the visual information, hearing in stereo and with meaningful information derived from varying arrival times, multiple senses of touch all over the body, complex smells and tastes.  We're collecting huge amounts of information about each moment, and it allows us to notice the patterns and associations, to turn events into richly experienced memories, and to connect them also to our feelings and values.  Our values, I think, are purely in the mind, but our feelings are in a way a feedback loop to the brain.  It both causes and detects those chemical signals.  They are an input to the brain that senses the brain itself.  You want to be not-sad.  Bob usually correlates with sadness.  Avoiding Bob probably also avoids feeling sad.  Sure, it's complex, it's sophisticated, but is it fundamentally different from what computer systems could do?  I don't think so.

Our bodies also allow us to interact with the world.  I work in automation, so simplistic computer systems that detect and respond to and control events in the world are commonplace to me. Many people probably read this and think of a PC, but I do not.  I imagine a machine with the power to detect and affect the world.  Their interface is comparatively poor, and inflexible.  A complex system might have 10s of thousands of bits of I/O, but this doesn't compare to the richness of information that is flooding our minds all the time.  Computer vision systems tend to be looking for some purpose determined features, so even though they might transmit a lot of video information, what is really being parsed and used is comparatively poor.  Outputs are similarly limited, usually throwing some switch or varying the power level of some motor, or perhaps moving a 6-axis robot arm.  Our modern systems are probably less complicated than an insect in many ways, and my intuition is that we need to reach the complexity of mammals before consciousness starts to arise.  But perhaps not.  Consciousness could be some multiplication of the power of the mind by the richness of its input.  No one knows how consciousness works, so it is hard to speculate well.

What would the boundary of a computer's body be?  If it controls a relay that turns on a pump that runs a domestic water system, where does its body end?  The relay?  The building?  The pump?  The pin on its processor that commands the relay?  One critical defining feature of our bodies is that we have a wealth of information about them.  A healthy human will have a lot of information about what is happening to a limb without needing to look at it - our bodies are constantly communicating information not just about the world, but about the body itself.  In this sense, nothing in our pump control seems like a body at all.  What if instead, basic systems were covered with sensors for detecting state and damage?

What if the power cable jacket to the pump contained legions of temperature sensors, inductive current detectors, continuity detectors for locating nicks and cuts?  Now a short would not just be inferred from the data, it could be said to be felt.  "I experienced a cut in my cable a short time ago.  I can no longer feel the current coursing through the parts of my cable past that point.  The temperature of the not-flowing parts of my cable is falling, and the temperature of the flowing parts of my cable is rising.  The current flow is higher, but erratic.  The temperature at the cut is rising particularly quickly.  This connects to other memories where my cable was damaged and shorted to a nearby steel column, and created that awful green arc, the color of which I can now see reflecting off of the walls.  I know what I will see when I turn my vision system to look upon my cable, it is cut at the middle, and I am shorting out.  I must act, and soon." Such a machine might appreciate humor about similar machines making tragic mistakes, or horror about the unimagined going wrong.  Fundamentally, its experience seems similar in the important ways to a person having their arm sliced open, or at least it could be designed so that this would be true.

In this way the cable becomes part of the computer's "body" in a meaningful way.  The pump it feeds does not, unless it too is given a richness of sensory feedback.  So I think computers could have bodies, without necessarily mimicking human bodies as androids do.  But it seems to me that the richness of input is what really matters, and with the existence of the internet, that really does not require a body.  Or, alternatively, the whole internet could be considered its body, but I have some trouble comprehending that framing.

Friday, August 22, 2014


(This is a supplemental guide for defeating a boss in the game World of Warcraft.)

There are a lot of good Kanrethad guides and I'm not going to duplicate all that here, but I do want to point out some specific epiphanies that were helpful to me.  I downed this with Astazha on Drak'Thul (who I cannot post as for some reason) at ilvl 520 with full gems/enchants/reforge but no consumables.  Kanrethad died a bit less than 5:30 into the fight, a little before the second wave of Fel Hunters.  It took me a dozen or so tries.

I) Basic structure of the encounter:
After the Pit Lord is summoned, a demon summoning will take place every 60 seconds.  That 60 seconds just repeats over and over with the different demons.
Summon Demon 
30 seconds later Chaos Bolt
15 seconds later Cataclysm
15 seconds until next Summon Demon

This makes it easy to anticipate what is coming, to move your Pit Lord in advance for the Fel Hunters, or whatever.  In between those times he will put the debuffs on you every 15 seconds or so, and then do other dps stuff to you like soul fire and rain of fire.

The Cataclysms are a minute apart, and with charge on a 20 second cooldown you can easily get an additional charge in every minute when the demons come out, either for mechanics or dps on the boss.  The first slot where there is supposed to be a Cataclysm after the Pit Lord, he doesn't actually finish it.

II) I used multiple guides and spent a lot of time configuring my keybindings, macros, and weak auras to make the fight as convenient as possible, and combined that with the experience gained during wipes.  I used the methods in this video guide for dealing with the demon events specifically, as well as for my demonic circle placement.

III) Use demonic circle for avoiding Chaos Bolt, not demonic gateway.  Use the placement shown in the video guide.

IV) You have a lot of heals and defensive cooldowns:
Pit Lord Heal - 220K on a 20 second cooldown.  Use it.  He'll be fine.
Healthstone.  Embertap (but sparingly, you want those Chaos Bolts.)

Twilight Ward.  Sacrificial Pact.  Unending Resolve.  Possibly Shadow Bulwark if you sacced a VW (see below, Singe Magic fans.)  Use them if things get out of hand.  Likely times are: getting aggro from a gaggle of imps, needing to eat a chaos bolt, enslave demon gets dispelled by fel hunters.  If you're encountering more than one of these in a fight before your cooldowns are up then you probably just need to practice the mechanics more.

III) Dispels.  This is an important mechanic.  It is possible to be sloppy with dispels and still get a kill, but put that out of your mind.  You can and should get this perfect.  Annoying Imp stuns are unacceptable.  Seed gets cast about every 15 seconds, and expires in 15 seconds. Fel Flame Breath is on a 10 second cooldown.  Macro it, set up Weak Auras to notify you when the debuff is on, and dispel it every time.  The agony debuff does trivial damage unless you let it tick for a very long time, and it will be dispelled whenver you cleanse the Seed, so agony can effectively be ignored.

Singe Magic is a poor substitute because it only dispels one debuff, and at random.  I sacced my imp on my kill but never used Singe Magic, and I'm of the opinion that you do not need it and could sac the VW for the additional defensive cooldown if you wanted to.

A lot of guides talk about positioning yourself to damage the boss when cleansed, but this is a distant tertiary concern, a point of polish that you do not need.  Just get the debuff cleansed. If you're out of range the Pit Lord will come over and do it, so just mash the macro and it'll be fine.  The only other thing you'll need Fel Flame Breath for is aggroing the imps and the Doom Lord, but it's on a 10 second CD and those summons are 10 second channels, so you've got plenty of notice.  I use a separate keybinds for cleanse self and damage target versions of Fel Flame Breath.

IV) Don't stand in the fire.  RoF ticks for about 3% of your life.  Kil'Jaden's Cunning helps a lot for movement without breaking your rotation too bad.

V) Demons.  I won't re-hash the whole guide.

Imps: see these as a resource to draw embers from.  Keep rain of fire on them (more than one if you need it to cover more area) and chaos bolt the boss with the embers that generates.  You're not in a hurry to get them down.  If you still have some stragglers when returning from the next Chaos Bolt line of sight, clean them up then before Cataclysm and Fel Hunters.  This is the other reason I don't take Mannaroth's Fury: I don't want more aoe dps, I want longer ember farming.

Fel Hunters:  Don't panic if you lose enslave.  You have a lot of CC.  Howl of Terror.  Shadowfury.  Banish.  Fear.  Pop an AOE CC, pop defensive cooldowns, and then use your judgment to burn or CC the fel hunters, and get your enslave back up.  If this goes south you'll need to use demonic circle to avoid Chaos Bolt before you're done resolving it all.  Just get that enslave back up in time for Cataclysm.

VI) You can soulstone in this fight.

VII) There is a repair anvil where you respawn.

VIII) Make good use of the double damage debuff on the boss following charge.  Have embers ready for Chaos Bolts, and use dps cooldowns without endangering your ability to burn the Fel Hunters (who you should also charge as shown in the guide.)

IX) Get the enslave demon glyph.  If you don't, then even with a macro you will sometimes enslave right as he is charging, and while the charge won't hit you it will still be on cooldown and you'll miss your first opportunity for double damage while interrupting his first Curse of Ultimate Doom.

X) I don't think you need the purification potion.  510 gear is easily obtainable with a couple weeks in LFR and on the Timeless Isle, and is more than enough gear to end this fight before enrage.  If you want to use pots I'd go for Jade Spirit as pre-pot and during an imp phase when you'll be farming embers with Rain of Fire.

XI) Be patient.  Master one thing at a time.  It is worth it to adjust your UI or find a new macro anytime you realize that you would benefit from better information or easier control. Don't just try and try, learn something or improve something concrete between each attempt.

Good luck!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Kajieme Powell and minimal force

On Tuesday, St. Louis police shot and killed Kajieme Powell.  There are multiple reports of Powell having a knife, so I will accept that as true even though I cannot see one in the video.  A few things:

1) Powell is acting erratically, even aggressively.  I do not expect police to allow such a person to come within knife range of themselves.

2) The police description of the incident does not match the video in several places.  Their story makes the police sound better and more justified than they are.
  •  (a) The police have their guns drawn immediately upon exiting the vehicle.  
  • (b) Powell was way more than 2-3 feet away when they fired.  
  • (c) He never did hold the knife high or in an overhand grip.  It is not even obvious to me at all from the video that he has any weapon in his hands, which are down at his side and swinging as he walks.
3) Two police officers are there, and they both opened fire shooting Powell a total of 12 times, including 2 after he was already clearly down.  It's excessive to say the least.  Then they cuffed his corpse, just to be sure I guess.

It is possible that Powell could have been talked down if a different approach had been taken from the beginning.  It's also clear in the longer video that Powell was agitated, borderline unhinged, and seemed to be seeking a confrontation with police, possibly even seeking this outcome.  I think at the moment that the police pulled the trigger, that some force was justified, or about to be (assuming that there was actually a knife in his hand.)  But let's talk about using the minimal force required.

Even if your only available solution is guns, at that range they could have shot him once, or possibly twice, and then given that a second to see how the situation was changed.  Twice is a lot of times to get shot.  You can always shoot him more if he keeps advancing like the Terminator on PCP, but we do not need to immediately invoke a hail of bullets. 

In other words, you can start small, if shooting someone can even be called that, and escalate if required.  What we see is more like a switch that flips into "and now we're going to kill you" mode.  Also, were guns the only available solution?  I don't know for sure, but there were two police officers and it was obvious to both of them that force might be needed, because they both had their guns drawn.  One can keep a gun trained on Powell while the other switches from gun to taser, or gets the bean bag shotgun, or whatever options they have available.  Fucking mace.  Something.

I also realize that this shit happens quickly, but that's what training is for.  20 seconds is a blink when you're caught off-guard, but it's an eternity to respond when you already know what to do.  Have the police in St. Louis been trained to deescalate situations using the minimum required force?  I see no evidence of that.  I see bullies with guns.  This is not just a failure of the officers on scene, it is a failure of their training and management and leadership.  Their chief of police is not just failing Kajieme Powell and the public, he is failing the officers that work under him.  Either these two officers do not care that they killed this person, or they killed him because they didn't know how to not kill him.  Either way, that is a serious problem.  We need to go beyond merely asking if there was any minimal justification for a shooting, and ask instead whether it was necessary because it was the only remaining option.

The Huffington post link shows the incorrect police statement and then the shooting itself.  It is a video of a man being shot to death for real, so be warned.  The link has a longer video showing more of the before and after.  Both are disturbing.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Seralini: GMO Maize and Giant Rat Tumors

Some very dramatic pictures have been making the rounds, purporting to illustrate the extreme danger of GMO food.  Images like this one:

which comes from this article claiming that the Seralini study shows how dangerous Monsanto's Round-Up ready maize is, and that this should be a wake-up call to the world to ban GMO foods in general.

I mean, you don't want a tumor larger than your head, do you?

I have some sympathy for the anti-GMO movement.  I think it is reasonable to proceed with some caution here.  I am not eager to consume new-to-our-species substances without compelling reason because this does at least open the door to unexpected detrimental effects.  Even less so if there are not long-term studies for it.  Worries about contamination of non-GMO crops seems legitimate to me, not because the GMO crops are necessarily a problem but because I am wary of actions that are difficult to reverse.  I just have a conservative (literally, not politically) mindset here.  But here I have laid out a steel-man of the anti-GMO movement, and not a description of what it really is.

I'm also not very well educated on the topic, and am weighing in seriously for the first time because one thing at least is really clear:

This Seralini study is bullshit.  I really couldn't say it better than this analysis by VIB in Belgium.  Please go read it and come back.  It's 11 pages, very layman accessible, and a good general education on how to conduct scientific experiments and why this one in particular is worthless.

I'm not going to go through all of those criticisms blow by blow.  I do want to draw particular attention to this:

The results of Séralini et al.’s experiment show that there were fewer
deaths among the male animals whose diet comprised food with 22 or 33% genetically modified maize (= negative control) (the left hand side of the figure below). This is remarkable given that the genetically modified maize was herbicide tolerant, and no new properties that may have had health advantages for the rats. We see the same result after Roundup was added to the drinking water. There were fewer deaths among the male rats that had drunk the highest concentration of Roundup than among those who had drunk pure water (the right hand side of the figure below). And this while Roundup certainly does not contain any known life-extending properties. The researchers should have taken these observations as a warning that there was something wrong with the experiment, because if these results were correct it would mean that consuming large amounts of genetically modified NK603 maize or Roundup would be a way to live longer. These strange findings are not interpretable because as noted previously there is something fundamentally wrong with the research design.

I built a computer program that mimics the trial structure using a random 57% chance of tumor development in any rat in the control group or any of the 9 experimental groups.  Just pure random noise, structured to duplicate just the female trials in the Seralini experiment (so 100 virtual rats.)   I ran this 10 times, and never once failed to have an experimental group with a higher tumor rate than the control group.  Sometimes the tumor rate in an experimental group was double that of the control.  I am, of course, failing to report negative results and ignoring all of the same problems that Seralini has been criticized for.  If this is how you run and report your experiments, you can make them say anything.  It would be dumb luck if you didn't get this result.  If your findings are not distinguishable from random fluctuations, you do not have findings.  Here is a randomly selected and typical result from the program, based on the naturally occurring tumor rate in these particular rats:

Rat group 1: 6 tumors.
Rat group 2: 8 tumors.
Rat group 3: 6 tumors.
Rat group 4: 6 tumors.
Rat group 5: 4 tumors.
Rat group 6: 8 tumors.
Rat group 7: 5 tumors.
Rat group 8: 6 tumors.
Rat group 9: 5 tumors.
Rat group 10: 5 tumors.

Unless you have selected Group 2 or 6 as your control (I am using 1), you have experimental groups that show at least a 33% increase in the incidence of tumors, supposedly caused by whatever distinguishes those experimental groups from the control.  This is meaningless. It is a lie with numbers.

To put it all another way, if you design an experiment like this and selectively report your results like this, you could prove that literally anything causes giant tumors in rats during long-term trials, because the reason for these results is random variation in a population of rats with an already very high incidence of tumors.  Playing Mozart?  Giant rat tumors!  Beige walls on their cages?  Giant rat tumors!  Lots of affection?  Giant rat tumors!

This combined with the way negative results were ignored, criticism has been dodged, and only dramatic photos released really leaves me with the impression that the experimenters had an axe to grind and are being deliberately deceptive.  This is what it looks like when you cannot trust a source.

Here, from the Seralini website, is their 10 things you need to know about the Seralini study.

Not a single one of those 10 points is actually addressing any of the criticisms presented in the analysis I linked, though they try hard to make it sound like the criticism of their study is baseless.  This is an inadequate response at best, and I am inclined to read it as dishonest.

The only thing I find compelling about their arguments is the need for long-term studies and a healthy skepticism for what a negative result in a 90-day trial can really tell us.  But here, I must confess my personal ignorance of how to do this science properly, and note that the source agreeing with me has shown itself willing to compromise the truth to make a point.

From the Natural Independent article:

"The new Monsanto GMO study is considered to be the most comprehensive to date involving the feed/crops and Roundup, which is perhaps why it is drawing such a large reaction across the web from concerned consumers."

If that is a true representation of the results out there (and it may not be, I don't know), then it is an acknowledgement that the anxieties about this crop have no basis in evidence.  If you're anti-GMO and care about the truth, you need to stop referencing this study.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Talking about problems is not a superweapon.

Dan Fincke shared this article (not as an endorsement by him) and I found it both interesting and troubling.  (TW: contains some examples of racism and slurs against women.  Also, I quote some of these below.)

You should give it a read because it's long and I'm going to try to be a little sparing with the quotes.  There are also some good points in there (at the beginning, mostly.)

(You do not need to read but he also links to this old Livejournal post, The Sixth Meditation on Superweapons which makes it clear that this "superweapon" concept is something he's been working with for a while.  It seems that not all of those posts are available publicly right now, but you can find what he has on LJ with this quick googleEighth and Ninth mediations are here.  The thing most glaring to me about these posts is that he doesn't grok feminism and it seems like that's what this whole superweapons thing is really motivated by.  I will try to focus on the main post, but I think the subtext here is "Not All Men Are Like That, generalized and in 1000 words or more", so I'm going to address that as well.)

The author, Alexander, breaks his piece down into sections.  I don't yet have much to say about section I.  It's an example of people talking past each other in an argument that is related to group identity.

In section II, Alexander talks about the weak-man fallacy (similar to straw-man) which he defines as:
"The weak man is a terrible argument that only a few unrepresentative people hold, which was only brought to prominence so your side had something easy to defeat."

Love it.  Great definition, and a real problem that is prevalent in many conversations.  Alexander then goes on to describe criticisms which, at least at a literal level, are only attacking the people who actually hold the minority (weak-man) position being criticized, but which are written to imply that there is a problem with the entire group, and not just the sub-group being specifically criticized.  Things like:

“I hate atheists who think morality is relative, and that this gives them the right to murder however many people stand between them and a world where no one is allowed to believe in God”.
In section III he talks about how these statements "re-center" a category.  I like this, too.

Section IV goes on to talk about how this re-centering causes the group to be less trusted and may "inoculate" the listener against trusting that group so that the listener cannot seriously and fairly consider the defamed group's more defensible positions.  That's all good, too.  At the end of section IV he says this:

"Likewise, when a religious person attacks atheists who are moral relativists, or communists, or murderers, then all atheists have to band together to stop it somehow or they will have successfully poisoned people against atheism."

That sound you hear is mental tires screeching.  I'm just going to leave aside the complexity of moral relativism or communism and address the murderers, because his point is not about the specific problems.  It's about circling the wagons to defend people who share a group identity with you no matter what they have done wrong.

1) Defending murder or other unethical behavior in an attempt to protect a group identity is wrong.
2) Defending murder or other unethical behavior because of a shared identity with the perpetrator actually hurts the image of the group rather than helps it.
3) His framing implies a false choice between defending the larger group or not defending the larger group. The correct response is to condemn the murderer and if someone is unfairly linking murderous behavior to the group identity of atheism, address that fallacious link directly.  Alexander's framing will exclude the possibility of this 3rd option over and over, and I won't beat it to death each time.

In section V, Alexander uses a story about a hypothetical future czarist Russia to show how a lot of literally correct criticisms like those in section II can be part of a campaign to marginalize a group:  Jews, in this example.  I think the important thing to notice here is that sometimes an otherwise fair criticism calls attention to group identity or makes it prominent in such a way as to make that a slander against the group as a whole.  This is really obvious in:

"The next day you hear people complain about the greedy Jewish bankers who are ruining the world economy."
because the real problem is greedy bankers, regardless of their religious group identity.  This statement carries an implied "...and this is reason number N why you should hate Jewish people." This is discernible to most of us, I think.

It may be less obvious in:

"A Jew killed a Christian kid today."
until you realize that there are lots of ways to communicate the event without choosing religious identity as noteworthy.  "Child murdered."  "8-year old killed by complete stranger."  "Teacher murders student."  The original sentence carries an implication that these religious identities are important enough to take up valuable space in the event summary, that perhaps the child was killed because she was Christian, and that the murderer did it because she was Jewish.  The in-group listener is intended to hear "You should be afraid of those out-group people murdering your children."  If the group identities are not actually relevant then the implication is deeply unfair, and becomes an implied attack on the Jewish group identity.

1) Alexander seems to be arguing that statements which are not individually problematic enough to challenge lead to a "memeplex" that is a serious threat to a particular group.  I think the individual statements used in this example (and his others) are indeed problematic enough to criticize.  He seems to have noticed this in section II:

"What are the chances a black guy reads that and says “Well, good thing I’m not a thug who robs people, he’ll probably love me”?
but does not seem to have identified the problem with the statements with enough clarity to move from simply being uncomfortable to pointing at why there is cause for concern.  I hope this helps him clarify that.  (Sincerely, I do.  I think this alone untangles much of what he is getting wrong here.) Major points of the post rest on the false equivalence between criticisms that have this problem and criticisms that do not.
2) In the example he gives, the Jews are a vulnerable minority with something to fear from a majority that is clearly racist against them.  This power dynamic is critical to why the example is so chilling, and is one of the main reasons why some of the comparisons Alexander is about to make will not be valid.  They are living in a system that has it out for them.  They are oppressed.  Another group has disproportionate power over their group, over their safety, over their well-being.

Section VI.  He applies this to feminism, and seems to draw an equivalence between what feminists say and what MRAs say. I will return to this last because I think criticizing the arguments of feminism is his real point. 

Section VII is an example of someone who is personally persecuted by Westboro Baptist Church and saying:
"People! We really need to do something about this Westboro Baptist Church! They’re horrible people!"
and then religious people shout this person down by saying they don't want to be lumped in with WBC.  This is intended to represent the other balancing concern, that people with real things to criticize may be silenced by a group that feels attacked.  Notably, the criticism in this example doesn't generalize at all so it's just bizarro land that these fictional religious folks are so offended by the criticism of WBC.

"Atheists who talk about the Westboro Baptist Church may be genuinely concerned about the Westboro Baptist Church. Or they may be unfairly trying to tar all religious people with that brush."
And you can tell which by reading what they wrote and checking it for unfair implications against all religious people.  This isn't going to be on the next episode of Unsolved Mysteries.
"Religious people have to fight back, even though the Westboro Baptists don’t deserve their support, because otherwise the atheists will have a superweapon against them. Thus, a stupid fight between atheists who don’t care about Westboro and religious people who don’t support them."
I'm not going to beat that dead horse.  I swear I'm not.

In section VIII the dead horse continues unbeaten.  Alexander talks about group identity and then brings us back to the example in section I.  Most notably:
"Alice, for her part, didn’t bother bringing up that she never accused Beth of being careless, or that Beth had no stake in the matter. She saw no point in pretending that boxing in Beth and the other careful self-diagnosers in with the careless ones wasn’t her strategy all along."
This is the concluding paragraph, and I think it's worrisome that Alexander ends on this note.  No solution is actually proposed for the general case.  Should we not criticize anything that isn't a group-wide problem?  Are we supposed to pretend that groups do not exist? Should we all just pick a group, circle the wagons, and see who is left standing?  When the dust settles and our group is victorious, what shall we do with all the awful people in our group identity that we "had to defend"?

As best as I can tell, and I am basing this in part on his other LJ posts on the topic, Alexander's real point here is that feminism should not be criticizing men who do X because that is a weak-man argument and a Very Unfair Superweapon.  So basically, this seems to be a very elaborate Not All Men. I won't untangle that here, it's been done elsewhere. 

Notably some criticisms such as "Sure, white men–you were brought up to feel entitled to anything you wanted..." are fairly assigned to a group identity.  That behavior is a direct result of how white men are socialized, and there is no effective way to talk about the problem without talking about the group identity that it is fairly associated with.  The greedy Jewish banker is probably still greedy if you remove the Jewish identity, but the entitled man is probably not still acting entitled in those ways if you remove the male identity.  Mentioning the group identity is not an attempt at defamation here as it was in "Jew murders Christian child.", it is pointing at a relevant or central detail.

I don't even know where to start with his point that some MRAs being willing to acknowledge that not all women are "skanks, attention whores or predators."  This isn't an example of someone noticing that a truth about members of a group is not true about all members of the group.  It is a slur used to injure members of the group that they do not approve of, and to threaten the rest if they step out of line.

I also want to talk about why men are not Jews living under hypothetical future czarist Russia. 

In the general case of men being criticized for X by feminism:
1) Men are in a position of power and privilege in our society (I am speaking as an American here.)
2) Men are not an oppressed, vulnerable group.
3) Usually, X is not being criticized in an attempt to defame men, as it was in the Jewish example, it is being criticized in an attempt to address an injustice, as it was in the WBC example.  There do exist feminists who speak about men in general in unfair and malicious ways, but I am not going to allow the conversation to re-center feminism around them because that is not the norm.
4) Men often feel defensive when they hear these criticisms.  (And please note that I didn't need to say "some men" but you still probably understood that it was implied.)  I certainly did for a long time, and then I realized that it wasn't useful or justified.  I started really listening and figured out that my feelings were being hurt by things that hadn't actually been said or implied. And I was doing this because I had pre-conceived notions that feminism was going to be hostile to me as a man.  Apprehension was overriding comprehension.  Here is a quote from his Sixth Meditation:
"Sometimes I read feminist blogs. A common experience is that by the end of the article I am enraged and want to make a snarky comment, so I re-read the essay to pick out the juiciest quotes to tear apart. I re-read it and I re-read it again and eventually I find that everything it says is both factually true and morally unobjectionable. They very rarely say anything silly like "And therefore all men, even the ones who aren't actively committing this offense I'm arguing against, are evil", and it's usually not even particularly implied. I feel like the Jew in the story above, who admits that it's really bad the Jewish guy killed the Christian child, and would hate to say, like a jerk, that Christians aren't allowed to talk about it."
If it's factually true, morally unobjectionable, and doesn't contain unfair implications, then maybe your feeling of defensiveness is unjustified.  The comparison to the Jew in your parable is false, because the evilness of the Jewish identity in that parable was strongly implied and you've acknowledged that this wasn't the case here. 

Maybe, just maybe, you're experiencing an inoculation effect against feminism.  I certainly was.  But yeah, weak-man arguments negatively re-center perception of a group, and this is bad.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Elliot Rodger, masculinity, and me.

Miri wrote about this shooting in her post: Masculinity, Violence, and Bandaid Solutions.

"The type of masculinity that young boys are taught is not compatible with mental health and with ethical behavior. Full stop. We’re fortunate that so relatively few will take it to the lengths that Rodger did, but I don’t know a single man who doesn’t suffer as a direct consequence of it."

This is so personal to me, and I don't even know where to start expanding on it.  We teach boys not only to sexually objectify women, but that their self worth rests directly on being sufficiently masculine: including being able to be with a woman.  Ideally more than one, but at least that.  Not just any woman, but a hot woman that will meet the approval of other men.  (I will never forget my father trying to tell me gently that my first real girlfriend was not pretty enough, and how my pride turned immediately to shame.  My peers were more blunt.)

We teach them that violence is strength, and crying is weakness.  We teach them to transmute pain into rage to stop the tears. 

Then, if they struggle with dating, it feels like an annihilation of self.  Self-hatred follows, the pain is transmuted to fury without any conscious thought or realization, the hatred gets projected outwards in some fashion or another.  And well, if my masculinity cannot be realized and affirmed through women, I can at least be an appropriately violent Man To Be Reckoned With™.

I have lived this.  My father was a dangerous and destructive narcissist (undiagnosed, but I'm pretty sure), a sexist, a misogynist, a racist, and all around manipulative hyper-masculine entitled douchebag who could charm or terrify as he chose with great effectiveness.  I grew up perceiving him as nearly ideal, because I was a boy, and he was my father.  I am fucked up.  I have always been fucked up.  I have also always felt a strong drive to be a good person; where I saw errors in my father's ways, I strived to do better.  This manifested initially as Nice Guy syndrome, and has evolved over time as I have. I'll be 40 this year, and I'm still untangling these things, still trying to learn what being good is, and be loved, and fill these holes in my soul.  To just be ok.  I am in counseling now, which I took far too long to do (because counseling is not masculine, amirite?).  I figured out quite a bit on my own over the years, but I have caused myself and others a lot of unnecessary suffering along the way.

And while everyone else is appropriately recoiling in horror at Rodger's actions and viewpoints, I cannot read this story without seeing a boy who is all torn up inside.  I cannot read this story without feeling empathy for the killer first because his pain is so close to me.  He was an awful person, but he was not born an awful person.  I would guess that our culture, and some other more specific someones taught him a toxic masculine identity that would ultimately lead to emotional instability and violence.  In my personal manifestation of this, I was more angry at the world in general than at women specifically, but whatever.  It's scary for me to write this: but for the grace of God go I.  And by "God" I mean: Jamie, who was my friend when I felt alone in darkness; Leah, who came into my life and loved me when I could not love myself and did not believe that anyone else could, either; and the pagan community, which introduced me to alternative ways to think about masculinity.  There have been many other guideposts and salves along my journey, but those three kept me from becoming a news story. Maybe I would have kept control of myself anyway, I really don't know, but I was a dangerously unstable young man.  I'm sorry if you're reading this and are now disappointed in me, but it's just the truth, a dark place in my arc that I did not and would not choose.

If I could have one thing for myself, it would be to have been raised by a better dad.  If I could have a second, it would be to have grown up in a better society.  When we ask what to do about these kinds of tragedies, I think we have to look at what we're doing to our boys.

Deep breaths.  Ok, I'm really going to publish this.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

I'm Going to Learn the Language of the Universe

One of the beautiful things about living in our time is the depth of human understanding and the pace of discovery.  If you are interested in the secrets of the universe, and I am, it is an exciting time to be alive.

I've experienced frustration on a number of recent occasions where a scientist or science enthusiast was talking about the implications of a discovery, such as the Higgs boson, or the recent measurement of gravitational waves, and I could only understand a small watered-down portion of what was really going on.

Here I am, living in a world where people unlock the secrets of the universe for me and report back, and I can't even appreciate the answer they've given me because I'm not fluent in the universe's language.  So I'm beginning a journey into math and physics.  Ultimately I want to have an enthusiast's comprehension of both quantum and cosmology, and I know that to really understand these things is to understand them with numbers.  So math first.

I don't know what the exact path forward will be.  I'm starting with my old Calculus text, and I'm going to try to go through a chapter a week.  If that's too much, I'll slow down.  When I'm done with that, I'll figure out what the next hop is.

This will probably take me 4 or 5 years.  I'll be 40 this year.  I figure by time I'm 45 I will at least have made myself aware enough to appreciate what we know, what the big questions are and why, and which frontiers are being pushed.  (And then, when Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres says "You can't do that!  something something Hamiltonian something something FTL signaling", I will have some idea why turning into a cat will break the universe.)

It would be nice to enjoy this journey with other minds, and my schedule doesn't really permit normal classes, so if anyone is interested in this kind of thing or knows of relevant online communities, that would be neat.