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.
[Read more…]

In praise of the most important relationship

This is a repost of an (only slightly facetious) article I wrote in 2015.

Where much of fiction is devoted to the most tumultous kinds of relationships–those of lovers, family, and enemies–let us never forget that there is another kind of relationship which is much more important, and in fact essential to everyone’s daily functioning.  I speak, of course of the stranger.

I am infinitely grateful for all the strangers in my life, all seven billion of them.  I am enriched by the fact that they don’t know who I am, and waste no time thinking of me.  The great number of conversations we don’t have is a source of great joy.  And it’s heartening to think about how much we care about each other, under a thick layer of distant abstraction.  It’s a special kind of love, the kind that is tolerable in large quantities.

And yes it is true that I don’t mind losing a few strangers, that losing a stranger can even be a happy occasion.  But that’s just the kind of relationship that strangership is.  Another way of looking at it is that strangership is such an abundant gift that it’s no problem to skim a little off the top to form more mundane relationships.

[Read more…]

Paper: First observation of gravitational waves

This is a repost from February, when LIGO reported its first observation of gravitational waves.  This is relevant because last month LIGO reported its second observation, also resulting from inspiraling black holes.

Today, the Laser Interferometry Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) reported the first observation of gravitational waves. You can read about it in The New York Times (warning: autoplay), on Sean Carroll’s blog, or in comic form. I went straight to Physical Review Letters.

As an undergrad, I did some work on LIGO. Specifically, I was a data analyst looking for exactly the kinds of gravitational waves here observed. Anyway, I’m happy to play the role of your local expert, providing some context and answering any questions.

[Read more…]

What are topological defects?

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2013, back when I was willing to take the time to explain physics stuff, and generate lots of images too.

Donut and Coffee
(image source)

It’s often said that topology is the branch of mathematics where they can’t tell the difference between a donut and a coffee mug. They each have a single hole (the mug’s handle and the donut hole), and that’s all that matters. If I may overanalyze this joke, the point seems to be that topology is so disconnected from our everyday experience. How is this useful?

I wish to explain one particular use of topology in physics: topological defects.

A topological defect is a sort of knot that exists in the microscopic structure of a material.* You can move the knot around from atom to atom, but you can’t untie it. We’ll get into how that works soon enough.

*Material is a vague term for “stuff”. Later I’ll discuss a few different materials including magnets, liquid crystals, and superconductors [Read more…]