Authorial intent is magic!

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2015, although I changed the title.

The author is magic

Death of the Author” is a famous 1967 essay by Roland Barthes regarding the interpretation of literature.  He argues that the intentions and context of the author are irrelevant when interpreting the author’s work.  At most, the author provides a single interpretation, which must compete with all other interpretations.

Intent! It’s fucking magic!” is an influential 2010 essay by Kinsey Hope regarding the moral judgment actions.  There’s a common circumstance wherein a person tries to justify their mistakes by emphasizing their good intentions.  The essay snarkily observes that good intentions have the strange and magical power to erase all harms.  “Intention isn’t magic” has become a common saying among activists.

Though the two essays live in completely different contexts (literary criticism vs moral discourse), I would argue that the sentiments behind each are substantially similar.  Indeed, in the modern age, when we increasingly look at popular works of fiction through moral lenses, and when “actions” often consist of tweets or other comments, it is questionable whether they even live in different contexts.

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The Fine-Tuning Argument: A walkthrough

The Fine-Tuning Argument (FTA) is one of those standard arguments for the existence of God. The argument goes that humans can only arise when the parameters of the universe are tuned exactly right. And while it’s possible that we just got lucky, the argument goes that it’s far more likely that God did the tuning.

The standard way to talk about the FTA is delve into a bunch of math equations.  Not that there’s anything wrong with math, but here I wanted to write an in-depth overview that doesn’t talk about the math.  There will, however, be a lot of physics.  The goal here is not to refute the FTA (although refutations will occur incidentally), but to explore it, and to understand how we test hypotheses about the universe.


(Links to be added later)

1. The Fine-Tuning Argument: A walkthrough
2. Prediction distributions and inflation
3. Ignorant hypotheses
4. Anthropic reasoning

Perma-link to entire series

The parameters of the universe

The core premise of the FTA is that the universe is fine-tuned. Which is to say, the probability of life looks like this:

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Public ignorance/awareness of science

Have you ever read one of those news stories reporting that Americans are shockingly ignorant of science? For example, here’s an article saying that a quarter of Americans think the Sun orbits the Earth.

And if you found that shocking, brace yourself for the next one. According to this article, a quarter of Americans think the Sun orbits the Earth!

Okay, so both of the news articles are saying the same thing. But one of the articles is from 2014, and the other is from 1988. They’re both reporting on an NSF study, which has been repeated every couple years for three decades. They always ask whether the Sun orbits the Earth or the Earth orbits the Sun, and they consistently find that about a quarter of USians don’t know or get it wrong. They also ask if electrons are smaller than atoms, if lasers focus sound waves, and if antibiotics kill viruses.* News sources like to put the Sun/Earth statistic in their headlines, because it sounds the most shocking to readers.

You might guess from my tone that I’m a bit more apathetic about the whole thing. Yeah, it’s bad that USians are ignorant of elementary astronomy. But science is not a collection of factoids, and factoids are not the most important component of scientific literacy. As far as facts go, there are way too many for anyone to know all of them, and it’s difficult to judge which facts are more or less important for people to know.  If a fact is “basic” and “obvious”, that might make it socially unacceptable to be ignorant of it, but it also might make it less important to know, given how easy it is to look up the answer.  In my opinion, it’s far more important for people to understand scientific reasoning, like how experiments are designed, and how to read graphs.

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Link Roundup: May 2018

Before I get to the link roundup, I’d like to mention an update I’ve made to an old post.  It was about an optical illusion you could make with origami, and now I’ve added nicer diagrams so that you can actually follow along and make it yourself.

IS SONIC 2 ABOUT CAPITALISM??!? (H Bomberguy video) – Ignore the title, this is a retrospective on gaming webcomics, especially the comic Control-Alt-Delete.  Hey, I’ve been into webcomics for a long time, I remember when people loved to hate CAD.  I think part of the reason was that webcomics were a new medium to most people, and we weren’t used to the fact that of course lots of webcomics are bad, and so what?  But the other major reason was that CAD was extremely popular.  I think it was easier to treat the author and his fans as having irrationally bad taste, instead of really examining what CAD said about gamer culture at large.

Sunday Sermon: Buddhism Sucks, Too – The treatment of Buddhism by anglophone atheist communities has always been problematic.  Buddhism is incredibly diverse, and has had a very long history across a very large part of the world, but atheists tend to flatten it into nothing but a philosophical and peace-loving counterpoint to western religions.  Marcus Ranum has the right idea by not even attempting to summarize Buddhism as a whole; instead he discusses how Tibetan Buddhists don’t live up to the image.

I’ve often thought that atheist attitudes towards Buddhism are the consequence of a movement that has systematically left out Asian Americans.  Or maybe it’s the other way around?

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The ethics of educational experiments

Rebecca Watson had an interesting article/video about the ethics of A/B testing. A/B testing is a type of experiment often performed by tech companies on their users. The companies split users into two groups, and show two different versions of their software/website to each group, and measure the results. The problem is that when scientists perform experiments on human subjects, there’s a formal ethical review process. Should tech companies have an ethical review process too?

Of course, this question is being raised as a result of a specific experiment performed by a specific company. Pearson produces educational software, and performed an A/B test where some students were shown motivational messages. They presented results at a conference, and part of their conclusion was that this was a promising methodology for future research. But is it really, if they didn’t comply with the ethical standards in science? They certainly didn’t get consent from all those human test subjects.

Watson also brought up another case from 2014, when Facebook performed an experiment that changed the amount of positive/negative posts people saw in their news feeds. They published a study, and it was called “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks”. Sounds pretty bad, eh?

Watson seems to conclude that A/B tests should get consent, at least in the case of Pearson. But I think this is going too far. The thing is, A/B testing is absolutely ubiquitous. Watson says, “having worked in marketing and seen A/B tests, it’s just a normal thing that companies do,” but I think this understates it. My fiance and I were trying to figure out how many A/B tests Google has running at any time, and we thought it might be one per employee, implying tens of thousands of experiments. And most of them are for boring things like changing fonts or increasing the number of pixels of white space. If we judge A/B tests on the basis of just two tests that appear in the news, “cherry picking” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

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Origami: Curvature experiments

Pizza wedge model sitting on top of a copy of "Folding Techniques for Designers: From Sheet to Form" by Paul Jackson

Pizza Wedge, a design/experiment by me

I acquired a copy of Folding Techniques for Designers: From Sheet to Form, by Paul Jackson.  It has a rather unusual, but refreshing perspective.  Basically, it tries to avoid the origami tradition entirely, and instead focuses on folding as an element of design.  Several chapters are occupied by simple ideas about pleating paper.  The reader is encouraged to experiment, and this is just one basic experiment.

The Pizza Wedge is not technically challenging to create, but its simple and abstract nature leads one to contemplate the little details.  One emergent property of the paper is the negative curvature (i.e. the saddle shape).  When you crease a paper back and forth, on the macro scale the paper compresses in one direction.  When I added the “crust” of the pizza, that suppressed the creases, which has the effect of stretching the paper on one side.  The stretching and compressing leads to negative curvature.

I include a second experiment below the fold.

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Tessellation symmetry

This is (the last) part of my series about symmetry in origami.

A tessellation is a set of tiles that fill up a 2D plane. And I do mean the entire 2D plane, infinite in extent. When we talk about origami tessellations, these are models that could hypothetically fill a 2D plane, if we had an infinite amount of paper. In practice, an origami tessellation is finite, but for the purposes of discussing symmetry, we will imagine them to be infinite.

example origami tessellation

An example of an origami tessellation, the Rectangular Woven Design by David Huffman

Previously, I only discussed two kinds of symmetry transformations: rotation, and reflection. However, many tessellations have repeating patterns, and this in itself is another form of symmetry. Are there other kinds of symmetries that we forgot? Let’s take an inventory of all the possible kinds of symmetry transformations.

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