Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Stoic Hat

Stoicism is the new black. Or maybe only in the circles I frequent.

I have a friend, who I have known for years now, who extols the virtues of Stoicism to me. My partner, who has been with me for four years now, enjoins me to stoically endure whenever we're out for a long walk and my feet start to tire (personally, I'm a fan of finding the easiest solution). And of course, I used to study Latin. It's pretty much impossible to study Golden and Silver Age texts without coming across Stoicism.

Despite all this, I'm still not completely sold on it. Partly it's because I've got a physicist's brain; I'm just too lazy to endure hardships. I will if I have to, but my mind's set on finding ways around them. This is basically the entire reason I enjoy coding - I'm not enough of a Stoic to do something by hand when I could automate it in the most elegant way possible. (And coding and Stoicism don't mix, I find - at least, not without plenty of cursing.) The other reason is that I feel it's a bit...well...incomplete.

At least, I did when I was younger. As I've gotten older, I've come to really appreciate apatheia as equanimity - accepting your impressions (initial reactions to a situation) but trying to examine them rationally. It fits in with a lot of what's helped me in my recovery. Apatheia as not giving a fuck is also something I find attractive - I've been much happier and more level-headed since I stopped worrying what other people thought of whatever I was doing.

My friend linked me to this interview with Massimo Pigliucci, who is quickly growing on me as my problematic fave/intellectual cat toy. I've since banned myself from looking at that site, since I would bankrupt myself buying all the books people recommend, but it stirred something in me.

I have a copy of Epictetus' Of Human Freedom sitting on my shelf. I read it as a teen and wasn't much impressed with it; Epictetus seemed like a smug old man who didn't understand that not all choices are created equal. Then again, I've changed a lot since I first read it. I thought to myself that I'd like to reread it and see whether I react any differently now that I'm a little more receptive to Stoicism.

Of course, I have a paper to write and a book to review so I can attempt to get published and build my CV and maths to practice, and so I was thinking I probably wouldn't read that book for quite a while, even though my eyes lingered on it.

Life has a funny way of messing with you, though.

Out of the blue, my phone rang. I've been going through a rough patch of anxiety and had politely explained to my friends that I wasn't feeling well and probably wasn't going to be easy to contact. Mental illness makes for unpleasant phone conversations. Mental illness accompanied by depersonalisation and derealisation makes for worse ones.

My voice, already cracked and alien, dwindled to a whisper as I ended the call. It feels like I cracked something in the friendship too. It took a while to return to myself.

After firing off a quick message to my partner, I tried to return to work as well. It wasn't happening. Every time I tried to write about gravitational waves, my mind refused to co-operate. Instead of calmly ordering sentences in a logical order, it swirled with deep-seated unease and needling questions and guilt, pervasive guilt at the way I was acting.

Those were my impressions. But as I began trying to think of what I could do in this situation, I thought of Stoicism again. I thought of the debt I owed to Stoicism, too. My shutting down of those negative thought patterns came fundamentally from Stoicism.

I put on orange and yellow music (I have synaesthesia, which affects how I perceive timbre and pitch) to match the colour of the sunlight and my curtains, and to match the cover of my little orange volume of Epictetus. I vented to my partner. And I sat down and just thought.

After doing this, where am I now? My paper still hasn't been finished and it's not going to write itself. My anxiety is still here and unfortunately I don't think I can throw more Stoicism at it. I'm still feeling reclusive and withdrawn. I still need to fix what I have broken.

But I am calm, which means I can think rationally about all these things. (In fact, once this blog post is done, I'm going to finish my paper.) And I'm learning that it's important to take my damn time. I can do things on my own schedule, more or less. I don't have to run around answering to any random individual in order to avoid pain.

And who knows? I might even come out the other end with a slightly more favourable opinion of Epictetus...

Monday, 22 August 2016

3 Questions: Anna Frebel on searching for the oldest stars

3 Questions: Anna Frebel on searching for the oldest stars: New book details astronomers’ hunt for clues to the early universe.

...ok, so it's an older book now, but it's still really good - Frebel has a real gift for analogies.

Friday, 19 August 2016


I'm putting this here because I don't feel like I have anywhere much to put them and I need to put something somewhere.

There are two strands to my thoughts:

I need to say no more often
I waste too much of my life trying to appease people, so very much of it. I can't keep doing that. It upsets me and makes me anxious, and it makes me resent people. I need to stop worrying so much about getting the blessing of others and start worrying more about what my emotions are telling me I can and can't handle.

I know this sounds very selfish. It is very selfish. But trying not to be selfish is wearing me very thin.

I want to go to a place where I can't be found
This is very close to saying no. As an introvert, feeling like I constantly have to meet people's expectations all of the time is overwhelming. Social media - which used to be my escape - is making it worse, because it comes with the expectation that anyone can contact you all of the time.

I am so very, very tired of running around doing things on other people's terms for fear of their wrath. I am so very, very tired of being constantly distracted by my phone. I miss reading. I miss writing. I miss deep focus. I have, hopefully, some science writing work coming in to build my name slowly. I have a paper on gravitational waves I need to write. I have a project I want to work on.

I want to retreat into solitude and my inner mind. Not forever. But my inner world is a rich one and a tranquil one and I want to spend some quality time in it.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of...

...Gravitational waves?!

Yes, you read that right. The universe is alive - or should be - with the sound of gravitational waves.

I'm very late to the party, but the LIGO Scientific Collaboration have released a video of the "chirp" black holes make as they spiral in towards each other and merge. A low rumbling quickens and quickens until it becomes a high whoop, the sound of two black holes crashing into each other (this crashing is technically known as a merger). For a brief moment the black holes are bright enough to outshine all the stars in the universe.

It's a beautiful moment. It's beautiful to be living in an age where we can hear these things. It's beautiful to be able to detect these events within months of each other.

The universe is alive with sound and light in ways we are privileged to see today.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Q&A: Rainer Weiss on LIGO’s origins

Q&A: Rainer Weiss on LIGO’s origins: MIT physicist developed the concept for LIGO as a teaching exercise.

Not been updating because I have a 2700-word article to write and I'm trying to be on a break, but this is fascinating!

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Everyone's a Snowflake

Yes, that means you too.

In recent years, it has become common to accuse your opponent (or some arbitrary group of people) of being a special snowflake, that is, of being invested in the idea that they're special without having to prove it to anyone. This usually goes along with a diatribe about how special snowflakes are easily offended, and about how this is a bad thing, proof of their spiritual weakness, and so on for another poorly typed Facebook comment, or supposedly witty thinkpiece (much like this one - hurrah for self-deprecation!), or something of the sort.

I happen to think these comments make about as much sense as doing this:
Don Quixote tilting at windmills
But why? After all, aren't young people very easily offended these days?

Let me speak. As an entitled, whiny millennial, I'm below the median age for most developed countries. To put this in plainer English: most people are older than me.

The stereotype of the whiny millennial is often conflated with the stereotype of the social justice warrior or regressive leftist (basically the same thing), an extremely vocal social media user who adheres to ideas about privilege theory and feminist theory which have been common in academia for decades but which have only recently come into the mainstream. This stereotype of the social justice warrior is unsurprisingly...very easily offended!

frost on window
Pictured: a gathering of millennials.
I have been hanging around in these circles for a while now - mostly because these ideas do a good, if heavily flawed, job at explaining US society. If you were brought up with a mix of liberal and socially conservative ideas like me, it's a weird place to be; while both liberalism and establishment conservatism focus heavily on the idea of reasonable debate, social justice circles reject the idea of reasonableness as tone policing (RationalWiki is the most neutral source I can find on this). This makes it very difficult to ask questions or get much of an idea of what's going on, unless you sit and listen to a bunch of weird angry ideas for several weeks. This is exactly what I did, but I have more patience than most. While liberalism and establishment conservatism at least pay lip service to the idea of open debate, social justice circles almost entirely reject it to the point where discourse is sterile. Shouting down anything remotely critical of established ideas has probably morphed into taking offence easily.

Anyway, while being a whiny millennial I had a thought: if young people, particularly those in social justice circles, are the most easily offended, surely we should make up most of the outrage?

I admit that I haven't done a systematic survey on this. This is anecdotal evidence. On the other hand, so are anecdotes about social justice warriors.

snow on evergreen
While I lean predominantly left of centre, I'm in a precarious position: I'm critical enough of most social theories and emphasise individual liberty too much to stay in social justice circles, but I like enough of privilege theory and feminist theory to get me categorised as one of the dreaded SJWs (or SWJs, for those who are too outraged to proofread). Happily, this puts me in a great position to observe both groups. Because I don't give a shit about ideological purity, I also have friends and acquaintances from all over the political spectrum like a normal person and I do my best to read things which challenge my point of view.

What I've discovered from this is that everyone, regardless of politics or age or gender, regardless of any particular trait, has a personal bugbear: freedom of speech, religion, being considered complicit in oppression, video games, fandom, or the hypothetical relationships of fictional characters, and so much more. Everyone has that little button you can press to make them froth at the mouth, because something in that button is something they strongly identify with for whatever reason. That's offence. That's all it is. And it takes more work than simply disassociating oneself from millennials, or SJWs, or feminists, or whoever the Target of the Week is. It takes acknowledging that button and challenging it, and being humble, and wondering if you might be wrong.

But it's okay to be offended, and it's okay to be a snowflake. We're all as flawed as each other.
That's you. That's me. That's everyone. That's okay.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Numbers Matter

We live in a dark age.

It is an age where truth doesn't matter and where learning is dismissed as elitism, a world where people latch onto the words of demagogues who promise them authenticity in a world which has none. It is an age - yet another age - where we persecute groups for political power and prestige.

We are on the edge of something terrible and unspoken.

I am an optimist. I believe we can pull ourselves back from this edge, if we have radical political overhaul and evidence-based policy. For the latter part at least, we will need numbers.

In the age where people have had enough of experts, it's going to be difficult to get people to trust numbers. In many ways, mathematical manipulation represents everything popularly presented as elitism: mathematics is abstruse and frequently inscrutable to those who haven't spent several years studying its ways. Arguments made from mathematics are dry and emotionally unavailable. Economics (and crashing the economy) is based on incredibly fancy mathematical models with somewhat questionable applicability. It's no wonder that evidence-based policy, with its reams and reams of data, is getting utterly trashed by populist appeals to our psychology.

Traditionally, the response to this has been utterly ineffective. The political class have utterly ignored mathematics in favour of ideology. Scientists of all stripes do attempt to combat this, but they have their own research to do too. Besides, outreach is difficult and scientists are as fallible as the rest of us once they venture outside their specialty. Some people have even been outright dismissive, because pissing off a large group of people and driving them into the arms of demagogues is definitely the best thing to do.

I could attempt to defend the value of numbers with more numbers. It probably wouldn't convince people who are already disdainful of numbers. I could shout at people who dislike numbers. That would only convince them that numbers are for elitist snobs. So I'm going to do my best to defend numbers with a heartfelt appeal to emotion. Maybe others can do better - and I'd like to see them try - but I intend to lay the groundwork for such an approach.

I'm going to start by conceding a point: on their own, numbers don't necessarily matter to the average person on the street. What are they going to do with a 2.57 or a 4.6? But outside of certain branches of mathematics, numbers exist as a representation of what's going on, a way of expressing what's going on down the street in terms of what's going on in the wider world.

They are important because of what they represent.

I'm going to make a point now that's so straightforward I hope it doesn't come off as condescending. Numbers are important because they represent you, and me, and your family, and your friends, and your neighbours, and your communities, and your country, and the world. Each number is a representation of us. Each rise or fall in a number reflects real people being affected, not just some nebulous elite class.

Numbers also matter because of their scope. When you look at what's going on, you can see what's going on in an extremely limited area around you. You can see the people you interact with, and maybe the people those people interact with. Beyond that, it's difficult to see very far. Having numbers is like having a view from everywhere at once, because it allows you to see so much more. Think about how the world seems so big when you walk everywhere, and how much it shrinks when you drive or fly. That's what using statistics feels like. It feels like being able to see everything all at the same time...

...well, not quite everything. We use numbers as a representation of many things because numbers are easy to work with. There are problems with this.

Firstly, not everything can be quantified - how much you love your partner, how much you hate your job, how happy you are...sure, you can try to put it on a scale from 1 to 5, but there's always going to be some ambiguity in how different people interpret those scales. I love numbers, but I don't believe everything should be quantified.

Secondly, quantification is fallible. The numbers you get out depend on the numbers you put in - and it's easy to skew the numbers you put in. You can cherry-pick your sample to be small, or disproportionately from one demographic (over 60, or from Lydd, for example...). Those are just two examples. You can also report relative risk (relative jump in a percentage) as opposed to absolute risk. You can play around with your results until you demonstrate something of statistical significance for one particular group. Though numbers are a powerful representation, they're often distorted. I would consider myself as bad as any demagogue if I didn't openly acknowledge this.

So why care about numbers and quantification in the first place if it's so easy to distort data?

It's an important question. I'd be doing you a disservice to gloss it over.

My answer is idealistic: because just as it's possible to distort data, it's possible to be aware of possible biases and distortions and design metrics accordingly. It's possible to critically evaluate statistics and decide whether they're reliable or not. It's possible to judge what is a fair representation and what is not without politicians and the media getting in the way. It really is, with mathematical training, but also to a certain extent with experience. I particularly recommend Ben Goldacre for all things to do with bad and heavily manipulated data, and Respectful Insolence. For hard mathematical skills S1 and S2 statistics (and integration) are needed, but speaking from experience, most of understanding statistics is about experience and getting a "feel" for the data. That probably accounts for why numbers are seen as so abstruse and remote - most people will never touch an integral. If you're most people in the UK, you probably dropped maths after GCSE.

I appreciate that most people simply will not have the time to learn about calculus and data handling - but a good way to get a feel for how statistics work and why numbers are important is to read Goldacre or Respectful Insolence, or many of the other science advocacy and skeptic blogs out there. Because numbers are important and they do matter, both as a powerful representation of our world and as a tool which is often misused.