My beetle is an elephant

This is a repost of an article from less than a year ago, which went on The Asexual Agenda.  I was recently reminded of this article, and I intend to say more on the subject.

Sciatrix once created an influential metaphor for attraction: it’s like everyone has an invisible elephant that only they can see.  These invisible elephants are apparently very important in society, but hardly anyone can be bothered to describe them because it’s assumed that everyone has their own elephant and can see for themselves.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, once described a thought experiment: Suppose that everyone has a box with a “beetle” inside it, but each person can only see their own “beetle”.  Wittgenstein argues that when we talk about “beetles”, we are only referring to that which is in the box.  It doesn’t matter if the boxes actually contain different things, or if the things change over time, or if the boxes are actually empty.  (watch this video)

That feeling when philosophical thought experiments become directly applicable to your daily life. [Read more…]

Physics and p-values

In science, there is something called the “replicability crisis”–the fact that the results of most studies cannot be replicated. This appears to mainly come from psychology and medicine, where meta-studies have found low replicability rates. But it likely generalizes to other scientific fields as well.

At least, when people talk about the replicability crisis, they definitely seem to believe that it generalizes to all fields. And yet, one of the most commonly discussed practices is p-hacking. Excuse me, folks, but I’m pretty sure that p-hacking does not generalize to physics. In my research, we don’t calculate p-values at all!

(Background: p-hacking is the problematic practice of tweaking statistical analysis until you get a p-value that is just barely low enough to technically count as statistically significant. FiveThirtyEight has a neat toy so you can try p-hacking yourself.)

Here I speculate why p-values rarely appear in physics, and what sort of problems we have in their place.
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Stabilizing an inverted pendulum

Like many physicists, I have a fondness for simple physical systems that behave in unexpected ways. Here’s a demo known as “Kapitza’s pendulum”.

For those who didn’t watch the video, it shows an ordinary pendulum attached to a motor. Then the motor starts moving up and down 58 times per second. While the motor is running, the pendulum stands upright, and stays upright even when knocked to the side.

Kapitza’s Pendulum is easily understood by anyone with a degree in physics. But for everyone else, here’s an explanation that could be understood with high school physics.

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Linkspam: February 10th, 2017

Time to get back into these monthly linkspams.

Cartomancer on Greek Masculinity – This is a long but worthwhile article on masculinity in ancient Greece.  What’s interesting is that there are multiple masculinities (just as there are today, of course), as illustrated in Achilles and Oddyseus.

The Intersection of Guess Culture and Sex is Rape Culture – The thesis is in the title, and I agree with it.  When consent is important, such as in the realm of sex, then it is important that consent be clear.  I am not exactly sure what the advantages guess culture has over ask culture, but clear communication is certainly not among them.

The Value of a Vote – ExtraTricky calculates the value of a vote based on the probability that it could have flipped the election (according to polling estimates).  In California, our votes are worth 40 times less than the average vote.  I guess… I guess I already knew democracy was dead, and didn’t need math to tell me so.

Ace Tropes – This is a series about tropes in asexual fiction.  I wrote the first six articles, but it is now being continued by the excellent Sara.  I really enjoy writing about tropes because it’s a way to connect to other people over fiction, without having to have read and liked exactly the same fiction.  I live on the long tail of culture, liking things that hardly anyone else likes, but that doesn’t mean we can never talk to each other.

Storybook endings

I recently saw a movie about two people chasing their dreams. The main theme of the movie was pragmatism vs idealism, and the main conflict in their relationship was when the two people drifted apart from each other on that scale. (Yes, the movie in question was La La Land, but this isn’t about that particular movie.)

The thing about this kind of story is that the interpretation depends a lot on the ending. Do the people in fact achieve their dreams? Or does it turn out that their dreams were unrealistic, and that they were better off pursuing more realistic goals? In effect, the ending of the story is an expressed opinion about whether it is better to be pragmatic or idealistic.

As critical viewers, we might disagree with the story’s opinion. For example, if the ending were too idealistic, we might consider it implausible, because we believe most people with such pipe dreams are never able to achieve them. Or if the ending were too pragmatic, we might criticize it as too dark or cynical. Generally, we wouldn’t accuse an unhappy ending of being implausible. We take for granted some optimism in our story endings, and a cynical ending tends to defy our expectations long before it defies belief.
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Meanderings on violent protest

Recently, there was a protest at UC Berkeley, which led the loathsome Breitbart journalist Milo Yiannopoulos to cancel his talk. Some of you may have figured out by now, this is a local story to me. I saw the protest myself.

Well, I only really walked by the protest on my way home. There were maybe a hundred people at 5 pm, but UC Berkeley says it later grew to 1,500. Protestors were chanting “No Milo! No Trump!” There was someone holding a giant dove. I took a flyer, which was produced by–and then being anti-social I went home and played video games.

Photo of someone holding a giant dove made of cloth and sticks. Another person holds a red flag that says RESIST.Somebody managed to capture the dove. This photo is on the edge of the crowd so it doesn’t tell you how big it was. From Chicago Suntimes, who credits it to Ben Margot/Associated Press.

It was later I heard from Facebook that the protest had turned violent, and the university cancelled the talk. I heard that protestors attacked police, set a portable generator on fire, and then broke a bunch of windows nearby.  There were few minor injuries.

Among my friends, many expressed sympathy for the protest, or were at the protest, but they condemned the violence. They were keen to highlight this particular part of the UC Berkeley statement:

The violence was instigated by a group of about 150 masked agitators who came onto campus and interrupted an otherwise non-violent protest.

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Origami: Six Intersecting Squares

Six Intersecting Squares

Six Intersecting Squares, a model of my own design

Description: 6 squares, each made of four sheets of identically patterned paper.  The squares are organized into three pairs of parallel planes.  Each square has a square hole cut out from the center so that you can see straight through it.

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