Which expectations am I confounding?

This essay was written for the Carnival of Aces, which is this month themed on “relationship stages”.  It has also been cross-posted to The Asexual Agenda.

There are strong cultural norms regarding the proper trajectory of a romantic relationship. In my mind, they start with initiation: one person asks the other person out. The couple has a few dates, and then they “go steady”, whatever that means. Eventually, they meet each other’s parents, they start living together, they get engaged, and get married.

Since these are cultural norms, you’d expect them to be everywhere. You’d expect to find lots of popular articles describing them as the way “all” relationships work. But when I recently searched “relationship stages”, I found something different.

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Arguments and folding

It’s said that in Poker, the correct strategy is to fold at least half the time. This is because in a two-player game, you’re bound to lose half the time, and folding minimizes the cost of losing.

By analogy, we should be folding about half the time in arguments too. In an argument where one person is right and the other person is wrong, about half the time, the person who is wrong is you. And if you’re wrong, then the best course of action is to change your view.

Granted, there are plenty of arguments when both people are right, or both people are wrong, or neither person is making any sense at all. Also granted, you may be the kind of person who is wise and educated, and who mostly chooses YouTube commenters as opponents.

Lastly, on consideration of the game theory, it turns out you shouldn’t necessarily be folding quite half the time.

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Ideological recoil

I want to identify a common pattern that occurs across all sorts of political and quasi-political arguments. The pattern is this:

Alice opposes a certain ideology. She thinks the ideology is a significant factor in a wide variety of problems. She has many opinions and notions which are based entirely on opposing that ideology, or correcting its errors. She has a tendency to see the ideology in many people, including people who don’t see it in themselves.

I would describe Alice as recoiling from an opposing ideology. That ideology takes up a large amount of conceptual space in her mind. Many things are seen in relation to that ideology. This can be particularly frustrating when you interact with Alice, and she sees you in relation to the ideology she opposes. Alice tends to think you’re either with her or against her.

In the past, I’ve described this as Alice as being “reactionary”, since her views are based on a reaction against the opposing ideology. I switched to a synonym for two reasons. First, “reactionary” is sometimes defined as a particular variety of far right-wing politics. Second, “reactionary” has a negative connotation, and I want a more neutral term. When someone recoils from an idea, I’m not saying that’s good or bad–it could be either. Maybe Alice is recoiling too much and it blinds her. Or maybe she’s recoiling exactly the right amount.

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Report: Information theory

Today I’ll look at the paper that established information theory: “A Mathematical Theory of Communication“, by Claude Shannon in 1948. (mirror link)

We’ll start out with my favorite sentence in the paper:


The above sentence shows glimmers of sense, which is astounding given that it’s generated randomly without any considerations of grammar or meaning. Of course, this may not seem so impressive in a world where we have Google Autocomplete and the What would I say? Facebook app. But it all started here!

Shannon’s paper considers a very general problem: communication. Communication means taking a particular message and reproducing the message at a different location. Another way of thinking about it is that you are selecting the actual message from a large number of possible messages. Information is a quantitative measure of the ability to select the correct message

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You are the center of the universe

People have been asking me: “If the Big Bang began at a some point in space, then what–”

Hold it!  The Big Bang did not begin at any point in space.  The Big Bang is everywhere, it has no center.  The standard analogy is that space is like the surface of an expanding balloon, and as you can see a balloon has no center on its surface.

big bang balloonImage from “Misconceptions About the Big Bang“, which incidentally is a really good article.

People find this confusing though, since balloons do have centers (not on their surface).  Scientists also say that the universe as we know it used to be the size of a grapefruit.  Doesn’t a grapefruit have a center?  Well you got me there.  So where’s the center of the universe?

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Information theory in puzzles

I was first introduced to information theory through puzzles regarding scales and fake coins.  Consider the following:

You have 9 coins, but one of them is fake!  They all look the same, but the fake coin is slightly heavier.  The only tool you have at your disposal is a balance scale, which lets you weigh one set of coins against another.  You can only use the scale twice.  Can you determine which coin is fake?

I will not present the solution, but I will explain why you need to use the scale at least twice.  Since any one of 9 coins could be fake, there are nine possible answers.  You can only distinguish between 9 possibilities if you perform tests that have at least 9 possible results.  Each time you use the scale, there are 3 possible results (tilt left, tilt right, or stay balanced).  Therefore, you need to use the scale twice so that there are 3*3 = 9 possible results.

Understanding the underlying principle is key to creating more puzzles of this variety.

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What was once groundbreaking

A big disconnect I have with geek culture is that I don’t share their taste in fiction.  I think the most celebrated sci-fi and fantasy stories are just bad.  For instance, Star Wars.

This will be a spoiler-free discussion, entirely avoiding reference Episode VII, and focusing purely on a common defense of the original Star Wars trilogy, which is that it was “groundbreaking”.  To me, this is not a defense of Star Wars, but a condemnation.

When you praise Star Wars as groundbreaking for its time, it doesn’t really function as praise, but as an explanation.  It explains why other people value Star Wars.  More to the point, it explains away why other people value Star Wars.

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