Invisible people

Some people are invisible. Not really to eyes and such, but invisible in studies and statistics, we know nothing about them. They’re the dark matter of humans, but please don’t call them dark humans.

Suppose there was a gene, let’s call it gene X, that predisposes you never to participate in any study as a subject. It makes you decline all requests to record your data for research purposes and refuse to ever vote for anything.

Carriers of gene X might be at increased risk for cancer. They might be invulnerable to hemlock. They might all individually have an IQ of exactly 120.2. Maybe they never forget where they left their keys, or grow an extra belly button during their third puberty. Possibly they’re all called Alex and stop aging when 50 years old, only to suddenly die on the day they turn 90 years old. Hell, they might be 20% of the world population, favour the Libertarian Party and think Estonia should have won the last Eurovision song contest. We’d never know because nobody can study them.

On the other hand: suppose there is some subpopulation that always participates in studies, and forms a big fraction of participants in nearly any study. It makes sense to want to be a part of this subpopulation, because that way every study ever will be more descriptive of you. Luckily, you can become part of this group simply by committing to participate in every study you are asked for from now on. Except that reading this post might have caused you to make that commitment while you would never have done so yourself. You can now only become part of a new subpopulation, the one that commits to being studied after reading a participation bias-based suggestion to do so.

Veg*n dishes versus constrained optimization

Mathematical optimization is concerned with  problems of the form \text{maximize~} f(x) \text{~ for ~} x \in X for some set X \subset Y and function f : Y \to \mathbb{R}. In this post, we’ll think of Y as the set of possible restaurant dishes, X\subset Y as the set of dishes satisfying certain constraints like being digestible, non-poisonous and not containing human flesh. The function f to optimize is some combination of price, healthyness and taste.

A first observation is that for any X' \subset X the maximum of f(x) over X' is no bigger than the maximum over X, for if x \in X' attains the maximum of f(x) over X', then also x \in X, so the maximum of f over X is at least f(x). In normal words, if you restrict your diet, you can miss out on good dishes, but never gain access to better dishes than on an unrestricted diet.

From this, we could deduce that you should never pick a vegan dish in a restaurant because the non-vegan dishes were made with fewer restrictions and hence can only be better than the vegan dish. Same for choosing recipes to cook yourself. Before I was vegan, this was my conscious reason for always choosing dishes with meat.

But is the deduction true? I don’t think so. Because, unbeknownst to many, the meat dishes are actually constrained to contain meat. I don’t know why, but my two prime suspects are Goodhart’s law impacting the reasoning above, or meat-eaters being scared of vegetables.

As it turns out, making a good vegetarian meal takes non-zero skill, contrary to making a good meal with meat. In my experience, this causes chefs to put actual thought into their vegetarian dishes, causing these to actually be tastier than most dishes with meat. So the argument from mathematical optimization actually gives the wrong answer here!

On rainbow t-shirts and colleagues

Shopping for pride t-shirts is non-trivial. Few pride t-shirts look halfway decent, and few t-shirts look good on my big man-shoulders. Imagine my delight when I found this pretty one at the Human Rights Campaign shop in San Francisco. I bought it back when I was a student a year ago, and I have been wearing it regularly ever since.

The simple student life is passed. These days I am a PhD student, and I periodically visit conferences and workshops in various countries. One important part of these activities is to meet people and develop a professional network. I wonder, is it appropriate to wear a pride t-shirt to a conference?

On the one hand, I might not want to come out to colleagues I meet for the first time. Moreover, it might be seen as an overt political statement in an otherwise apolitical environment.

On the other hand, my field could use more queer visibility, and, most importantly, deliberately not wearing my pride shirt is also a political statement. Not an identifiably visible one, but a political statement nonetheless.

It is misguided to think anything can be apolitical. Everything is either overtly political or political by omission. The only choice is, whose politics will I adhere to? I proudly choose my own.

Heteronormativity in STEM

There are abysmally few women in mathematics. I had taken 35 math and CS courses in my bachelor’s and master’s before I first had a woman lecturer. It makes me feel demoralised and alienated. I feel lonely when I see that nobody in my field looks like me, which makes me doubt whether research is the career for me, no matter how happy I feel when I’m working.

There are efforts to make STEM more inclusive to women. In the long run, those hopefully help to improve the gender balance in these fields. But they also help in the short term, as an occasion to meet other women in different areas who are in the same situation. Bonding over sexism is an excellent way to stave off loneliness.

Meetings on women in STEM do leave me emotionally drained for another reason: they are drenched in heteronormativity. It’s all talk about how women are giving up their academic career or working part-time because they’ve got a husband and kids and their husband earns more money or whatever the cishets are worrying about these days.

Screenshot of Heidelberg Laureate Forum @HLForum tweeted ""Behind every succesful woman stands a strong man". Anna Wienhard credits her husband and mentions this as one of the success factors in her career. The crowd applauds. Just as important: mentors, determination, decision making. #HLF18" which got retweeted by dr. Wienhards institute HITS gGmbH @HITStudies who added "We fully proudly retweet this quote by @HITStudies group leader Anna Wienhard #HLF18 @HLForum"

It is frustrating on two levels. First off, it feels like people are saying that only straight women have a place in academia. They probably don’t explicitly mean it that way, but there is a message in their language, and it is not a friendly message. Secondly, if the straight cis women’s issues were the main issues, then why are nearly all cis women in STEM straight? If 10% of the people in the field are women, but only cis women in relationships with men were getting pushed out of STEM careers, then half of all women in STEM [w]ould be LGBTQI+. [But that is not the case.]

Traveling while vegan

Whenever I start doing a new thing, I try to find other’s experiences with it and make sure I don’t gloss over any obvious pitfalls. But, somehow, I completely missed all the articles about traveling as a vegan. It is very unpleasant.

The past few weeks I have been visiting conferences for work. By itself, that is exhausting; waking up early, spending all day attending talks, meeting new people and otherwise talking shop. But being vegan somehow makes it even worse.

Getting food at a foreign grocery store is as unpleasant as first starting veganism like being a new vegan again – you have to look at all the lists of ingredients because you don’t know which products are vegan. But harder, as the ingredients are written in French.

Having lunch and dinner with colleagues is worse. If you’re unlucky, 9 out of 10 restaurants don’t serve any vegan dish. This makes having lunch with a group of people you don’t know non-trivial. You have to be loud and assertive enough to make sure they don’t go to a wrong restaurant and leave you behind. Doing so does not come naturally to me. And when people do agree to find another restaurant it is reluctantly.

Oh well. Worth it.

Awkwardness doesn’t exist

Alex: Urinals are so awkward, I don’t get why they are a thing. Like, I’ve asked some men, and they all think it’s awkward. How did you feel about them back when you went to men’s restrooms?
Beth: I don’t know, I don’t get any of this.
Alex: What do you mean.
Beth: Awkwardness doesn’t exist. Something is only awkward if you make it awkward. It is up to you to not feel uncomfortable.
Alex: I don’t get it.
Beth: Let me think of something to illustrate my stance… Oh, I’ve got it!
“Don’t you think it’s super awkward if someone is wearing their socks inside out? Like, I feel like I should say something about it, but then again, I don’t want to seem like the sort of person that checks other people’s socks. Oh my god, it is just so awkward and people shou-”
Alex: I get it you can stop now.