Asexual, because reasons

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2015, primarily for an ace audience.

I grew up in a family that never talked about sex or even really relationships and intimacy. Of course I was still surrounded by sex in media, my peers, etc, but I never got “the talk” or had any discussions about sex within my household. My therapist wanted me to consider if that could have influenced my disinterest in sex and lack of sexual attraction.

–Seen on AVEN

I don’t feel sexual attraction to people but I know my antidepressants repress my sex drive so I don’t know what I feel naturally and what’s been taken away from me if that makes sense.

–A question seen on Asexual Advice

In a world that continually erases Asian (male assigned) sexualities I was coerced into asexuality. It is something I have and will continue to struggle with. My asexuality is a site of racial trauma. I want that sadness, that loss, that anxiety to be a part of asexuality politics. I don’t want to be proud or affirmed […]

Alok Vaid-Menon

There’s a common theme among people questioning whether they’re asexual. What if I’m really this way just because of _____? Replace the blank with “trauma”, “hormones”, “medication”, “my age”, “gender dysphoria”, “abuse”, “anxiety”, “repression”, or “upbringing”.
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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…]

The PBR Theorem explained

The PBR theorem is another theorem of quantum mechanics, which could go alongside Bell’s Theorem and the Kochen-Specker Theorem.  I wrote this explanation in 2011, before the paper was officially published in Nature.  Since then, it’s been recognized as a moderately important theorem, and it has been named after its three authors (Pusey, Barrett, and Rudolph).  But at the time I didn’t really know whether it would become important.

There’s a new paper on arxiv called “The quantum state cannot be interpreted statistically“.  It has a theorem which proves that, given a few basic assumptions, the quantum state (ie the wavefunction) must be real, rather than a merely statistical object.  Nature has an article which mostly just harps on how “seismic” the paper is. 

Nature (correction: the article’s author, not Nature itself) compares its importance to Bell’s Theorem, which is a very important result indeed from 1964.  Bell’s theorem proved that if there were “hidden variables” underneath the quantum state, then entangled particles must be communicating with each other faster than light.  I’ve explained Bell’s theorem in the past.

I felt the news coverage left a lot of unanswered questions.  What do they even mean by the “statistical interpretation” of quantum mechanics?  Roughly how is it proven?  What is the difference between this and Bell’s theorem?  I found the answers in the arxiv print, and will attempt to summarize them.

What does the “statistical interpretation” mean?

Let’s say that we have two ways of flipping a coin.  The first method leads to a 50% chance of heads, and a 50% chance of tails.  The second method rigs it so the coin always comes up heads.  Let’s say that I flipped a coin by one of these two methods, and showed you the result.  If the coin were tails, you could figure out which of the methods I used, but if it were heads, then you would not know which method I used.

Now say that I have two ways of preparing an electron.  And suppose that you measured the vertical spin component of the electron.  If I use the first method, there is a 50% chance the electron is spin up, and 50% chance spin down.  If I use the second method, the electron will always be spin up.  If I prepared the electron by one of these two methods, and you found that the electron is spin up, you would not know which method I used.

But electron spin is a little trickier than coin flips, because you can measure the spin component in any direction.  Suppose you had tried to measure the horizontal spin component, would you always be able to tell which method I used then?  The answer is no.  But perhaps there is yet another way to measure it?

The authors equate the “statistical interpretation” with the following: Given any two different ways to prepare a quantum state, there is a nonzero probability that the result is consistent with either method of preparation.  In other words, no matter what kind of measurement we make, there is a chance that we’ll get an outcome that doesn’t tell us anything.

What’s the difference between this theorem and Bell’s Theorem?

Bell’s theorem requires that you take many measurements and compile statistics of these measurements.  Once you are confident enough in your statistics, you can show that the probabilities are incompatible with the “hidden variable” view of quantum mechanics.

This new theorem requires only one measurement.  One measurement, and you’re done.  (Of course, if you have a noisy experiment, you may need to repeat it to build confidence in your result.)

Of course, the new theorem and Bell’s theorem also have a slightly different set of assumptions, and slightly different conclusions.  But I think the primary difference is that the new theorem requires one measurement, while Bell’s theorem requires compiling statistics.

Roughly how is it proven?

As an example, let’s take the two methods of preparing an electron that I described above.  It turns out that no matter what measurement I make, there is a chance of an outcome that is consistent with either method A or method B.

But we can be tricky.  Let’s duplicate the machine that prepares the electrons, and assume that these machines are independent of each other.  Now there are four methods of preparation:

  1. A and A (ie both machines use method A)
  2. A and B
  3. B and A
  4. B and B

Suppose that there is a chance that the first machine will produce an electron that is consistent with either method A or method B.  There is also a chance that the second machine will produce an electron that is consistent with either method A or method B.  Therefore, there is a chance that both machines produce electrons which are consistent with any of the four methods.

But it turns out that there is a measurement we can make with four possible outcomes. And each outcome is inconsistent with one of the methods.

  • Outcome 1: inconsistent with method 1
  • Outcome 2: inconsistent with method 2
  • Outcome 3: inconsistent with method 3
  • Outcome 4: inconsistent with method 4

What is this special measurement?  It’s not straightforward.  In quantum mechanics, we can measure things like position, momentum, and spin.  But we can also measure things like helicity, which tells you whether the spin and momentum are in the same direction, without telling you what direction that is.  Similarly, we can measure whether the electrons have spin in the same direction or opposite directions.  The measurement described in the paper is sort of like that, but more complicated.

The same theorem can be generalized to any two methods of preparing a quantum state.  Suppose that one method always produces a spin up electron, and the other produces a spin up electron 99% of the time.  All you have to do is have N duplicates of the electron-producing machine (in this case, N=15 suffices), and take a special measurement.  No matter the outcome of this measurement is, it is inconsistent with one of the 2^N possible methods of preparation.

The conclusion is that any two distinct quantum states are not just “probably” different, but always different.  You just need a tricky measurement to show it.

Is this paper as groundbreaking as Nature claims?

I don’t know.

I used to think Santa was a myth

I know I said I’m on blogging break, but I still want to do my monthly repost thing.  This is a classic I wrote in 2011.

‘Tis the season for anecdotes…

I didn’t ever take Santa very seriously when I was younger. Or at least, not as far as I can recall. And I thought that no one else took Santa seriously either.

I mean, kids believing in Santa, that’s just something that happens in the movies, right? There are countless movies depicting little kids who believe in Santa Claus. They’ll write letters to Santa. They’ll wait excitedly at the stairs for Santa to come, deliver presents, and eat the cookies and milk. Kids believe in all these elaborate legends and rituals, sometimes even in the face of disbelief from their parents or older kids.

Of course, in these movies, Santa also happens to be real. But Santa isn’t real. So why should I think that belief in Santa be real? For me, belief in Santa was all part of the mythos, along with the elves, reindeer, and red suit. [Read more…]

Japanese “herbivore men” hold a mirror to our culture

This is a repost of an article from 2013. There were a lot of comments on this one, probably because it upset MRAs.  To MRAs I say, cry more.

Herbivore men briefly explained

The Japanese subculture of “herbivore men” seems to hit the news every so often.  Here is a recent example in the Guardian: Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?  What exactly is going on over there?

I’m no expert in Japanese culture, but my coblogger on The Asexual Agenda, Queenie, is an expert.*  I will defer to what she’s written about herbivore men.  My summary: In Japan, men are expected to be “carnivores”, aggressively pursuing relationships with women.  But many men in metropolitan areas have become “herbivores”, being less assertive in relationships, more sensitive, and even willing to be friends with women (in Japan this is a big deal).  And there’s probably other stuff as well, like their attitude towards money, jobs, and fashion.  Women of course are expected to be herbivores to begin with, although there is also talk of carnivore women.

*She’s actually an expert in Japanese religion, but close enough.

In Japan, herbivore men are sometimes the subject of moral panic because they’re not forming relationships, are defying Japanese gender roles, and may be contributing to the declining birth rate.  Cry me a river I say.  People aren’t obligated to make babies just to uphold the national birth rate, and if Japanese people really wanted population growth so badly they could try being less racist and accept more immigrants.

In the English speaking world, the reaction to herbivore men is… different.  Sometimes, the reactions really say more about our own culture than about Japanese culture.

Here I will briefly show the reactions coming from three different groups: mainstream news, asexuals, and men’s rights activists. [Read more…]

Made in Criticalland

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2014.  Relevant to my recent review of the Sokal paper.  Note that the blog Scientia Salon is now defunct.

Massimo Pigliucci started a new blog Scientia Salon, which is already bearing fruits.  I enjoyed this essay by Alan Sokal (yes, that Sokal) about academic postmodernists and extreme social constructivists.  In the 80s and 90s there were many such academics claiming that science was entirely based on prejudices.  Interestingly, Sokal claims that they have now backed off from the most extreme views, particularly because they were upset at the way the Bush regime used postmodernism to justify its anti-science policies.

Sokal’s primary citation for this is “Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern” by sociologist of science Bruno Latour in 2004.  I thought it was worth a read. [Read more…]

Some PTSD statistics

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2015.

I occasionally read social science papers, and I think it’s worth sharing what I find, even though in principle you could read about it yourself. This time I read about statistics on Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the US, and my particular interest is in PTSD from sexual assault and rape.

A good basic overview of PTSD can be found from the US Department of Veteran’s Affairs:

Diagnostic criteria for PTSD include a history of exposure to a traumatic event that meets specific stipulations and symptoms from each of four symptom clusters: intrusion, avoidance, negative alterations in cognitions and mood, and alterations in arousal and reactivity.[1]

According to the National Comorbidity Survey (NCS), about 7.8% of people in the US have experienced PTSD in their lifetime. This is reinforced by the NCS-R (a replication of the original study) which found 6.8% prevalence. However, just because someone has suffered from PTSD doesn’t necessarily mean they’re still suffering; Only 3.5% have had PTSD in the past year.[2] Here’s a timeline of PTSD recovery:

A graph showing how long it takes for people to recover from PTSD. There are separate curves for people who get treatment and people who don't get treatment. The study extends for 10 years, with about a third never recovering.
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