I read popular physics: Orbital Aggression

This is part of my series where I read physics articles in Scientific American, and publicly ponder what choices in life brought me to this point. This month’s “physics” article is not really about physics at all, but that’s the bed I made.

The article is titled “Orbital Aggression” (paywalled), and it’s about the possibility of space war. Space war refers not to war rained down from space, but rather war that targets satellites. Especially in the US, satellites play an important role in communication and imaging, such as transmitting credit card transactions or monitoring weather. They’re also used by the military, again especially the US military, which occupies every corner of the globe.

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Reflections on my family

In queer culture and media, there is a lot of emphasis on one’s “found family” or “chosen family”–families composed of people who are not related by blood. This is because a lot of LGBTQ people face rejection from their family of origin, and so if they want a supportive family they need to build their own from the ground up. Found families are not an LGBTQ-exclusive idea, but sources say that it originated in LGBTQ communities, and the associations continue to be very strong. In fictional media, found families are everywhere–we like our ensemble casts!–but queer media tends to go a step further, and hold it as a central theme.

I am fortunate enough that I have never been in want of a chosen family. I mean, I did, in the literal sense, choose my husband to be part of my family, but that doesn’t really fit the theme of a “chosen family”, which is more commonly understood as a group of close friends. So for me, found families are not real. They are a trope that I see in fiction that does not correspond to anything in my life. It’s kind of like living Los Angeles, where it never snows, and being surrounded by cultural depictions of winter as a snowy season.  I’m not complaining, I’m just remarking on how it puts my own experiences in context.

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From the Archives: Evaluating FiveThirtyEight

This is a repost of a simple analysis I did in 2012, evaluating the presidential predictions of FiveThirtyEight.  What a different time it was.  If readers are interested, I could try to repeat the analysis for 2020.

The news is saying that Nate Silver (who does election predictions at FiveThirtyEight) got fifty states out of fifty. It’s being reported as a victory of math nerds over pundits.

In my humble opinion, getting 50 out of 50 is somewhat meaningless. A lot of those states weren’t exactly swing states! And if he gets some of them wrong, that doesn’t mean his probabilistic predictions were wrong. Likewise, if he gets them right, that doesn’t mean he was right.

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Drowning, again

cn: sexual violence, and sexual coercion in particular

I’ve said before that sexual violence is a lot like drowning: it does not look like how it looks in the movies. That’s what every lifeguard needs to learn, if they are to help people in need. It is what advocates against sexual violence need to learn too.

When I point out that a story is an example sexual violence, I get shock and disbelief. That is understandable; it does not look how you expected. Now you can adjust your expectations to what sexual violence really looks like.

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A 2D voting sim

I made a Monte Carlo voting simulation. No particular reason, I just think it’s neat.

Okay, so I was thinking about the Median Voter Theorem, which says that the winning position in an election is the position of the median voter. Of course, this conclusion only holds under certain assumptions, and none of those assumptions are actually true. And yet the conclusion is approximately correct in many situations. That’s why we care disproportionately about the median congress members (like Susan Collins), the median Supreme Court Justices (like Roberts), and the median “swing” states (like Pennsylvania).

But it should be obvious that the median voter fails in a lot of ways. In particular, it doesn’t predict the political polarization that occurs in US politics. And there are plenty of possible explanations: voter turnout, third parties, primary elections, politician’s charisma factors, multidimensional political spectra, and so on. But I’m not sure which among those explanations are most important.

The voting simulation won’t answer any of these questions, I’m just setting the context. One of the assumptions of the Median Voter Theorem is that political preferences exist along only one dimension. I thought I’d try running simulations with two dimensions to see what would happen, and to make some pretty graphs.

Plot showing all the voters and candidates along a two dimensional spectrum.

Voters and candidates in a 2D space

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Link Roundup: November 2020

As usual, I bring you a collection of articles from the past month that I found particularly interesting.

Effective Altruism is logical, but too unnatural to catch on | Psyche – Alan Jern discusses why Effective Altruism is psychologically and morally counterintuitive.  This is very different from my own discussion of Effective Altruism, where I am most critical of the realities of the community and its priorities.  While Effective Altruism makes counterintuitive decisions in trolley problems, I don’t really consider that a problem with Effective Altruism, rather our flawed moral intuition is the problem, and Effective Altruism addresses that problem by offering community support and discussion.  In any case, I feel like it’s rarely a choice between altruism and family; the majority of one’s resources are usually spent on oneself, so altruism tends to come at one’s own expense first.

Inside Foxconn’s empty buildings, empty factories, and empty promises | The Verge – A bit late for this story, but this was just engrossing.  In 2017, republicans gave huge subsidies to bring a Taiwanese manufacturer into Wisconsin, and it was a huge scam and corporate nightmare.  As recently as last month, Trump was still claiming that Foxconn would keep its promises.

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Creators and their brands

Back in 2018, I invented the idea of content granularity, which is a measure of how large each chunk of content is when a creator produces a stream of content. I observed that creators usually try to be consistent in their granularity, and discussed the “coarse-graining death spiral” where creators feel the need to put more and more effort into each chunk until it is unsustainable.

Today I’d like to talk about other ways that creators enforce consistency in their content streams. For example, a creator may produce content focusing on a particular topic. Or perhaps they have a gimmick, which may be applied to one or multiple topics. Or maybe the one thing that is most persistent about their content, is their personality (either genuine or performed). Whatever it is that provides consistency, I will refer to as the creator’s brand.

As I write about this, I am totally thinking about that satirical music video by Brian David Gilbert, advising creators on establishing a brand.

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