technical maturity miscellany

(c) Alberto Magnelli (c. 1909)

I am often guilty of comparing down in socioeconomic matters - that is, when questions of UK social justice come up, my first thoughts are things like, “Yeah, but the British minimum wage is in the top 15% of global incomes”. I assess the British working class by reference to the global working class. This comparison is true and important, but for some purposes it is also stupid, since it distracts from ratios that would justify domestic intervention (ratios like the change in real wage over the past four years, or the change in capital’s share in national income in the past thirty).

When discussing British policy*, unless giant public transfers to GiveDirectly are in fact a politically viable option, it does not serve justice to paint the locally poor as globally rich. The point is that some people are grossly inefficiently rich on any reading, and it’s these that policy should hunt.**

However, remember that the converse – comparing up, to a better arrangement – often means making a comparison with something that doesn’t exist, never has, and may not be able to. (Or else, with Sweden.)

* As opposed to the (more) rationally amenable policy of the ideal state or other gathering.

** Similarly, when people (or I myself) complain about the tedium or inauthenticity of white-collar jobs, I retort, “But think of how painful and miserable and cold and hungry and scared and ignorant our savannah ancestors were. You have Holocene-world problems, and there is always an alternative". True, true, true and still not quite the point.


It’d be one thing if I was consistent in comparing down; we could then explain it as lack of ambition or imagination. (Look at the title of this blog!) But of course I compare up all the time - when I play music, I feel bad because I am not Coltrane; in writing, I am often aware of not being Nietzsche, or even Clive James. Also, when my food goes bad I opt not to eat it – when I might instead compare down to having no food at all and a skeletal death, curled up in the corner.

Also, gratitude: we know pretty well that intentionally reflecting on what you’re grateful for is a mentally healthful act. (It's comparing down to an alternative where you don’t have the things.) But it’s conservative, potentially; saying “what I have is good” reduces your incentive to improve the situation. Are the two package deals 1) gratitude & conservatism, or 2) aggro, envy, & progress? Yes, I think so, but we can always try to alternate.


For the first time in a year I really want home internet access. I want an m4a convertor, and a script that downloads TVTropes and the Stanford Encyclopaedia*, and to know the Gaelic for Gordon. Also I want the history and present disposition of the Argentine punk band Boom Boom Kid, and to hear my DJ mate’s new playlist, and to prove to my flatmate that Pluto has not been reinstated as a planet by an appropriate authority, nor do Chinese people customarily use newspaper for condoms.

Why go without? After all, there’s no strong argument against it: the ‘information overload’ hypothesis is really not well-founded, the educational potential of the net is, at last, better than most IRL schools’ [citation impossible], and one can avoid almost all of the unbelievably horrible things on it almost all of the time. I go without because four hours a week at the library is enough and because, these dry days, I actually read instead.

(There's also a sort of grey behavioural reason: when you have intermittent shortages of something, you can actually value it more, because you're prevented from getting habituated to it and using it in less satisfying, inefficient ways. "You don't take for granted what can't be taken for granted", basically. Žižek somewhere uses this as an argument in favour of Communism's inherently shoddy supply chains, but he says a lot of things.)

* Why download them? Perhaps this inclination is the same call obeyed by those tense Americans who stockpile beef jerky and isotonics in the cellar.


Think I've cracked why Rousseau annoys me so much: he’s a perfect storm of three things I cannot abide: loudly false social theory, self-inflicted suffering blamed on others, and certainty.


Words I have enjoyed lately:

  • ‘Destinesia’ (n., the state of not knowing what you went into this room for),

  • ‘Cryptomnesia’ (n., source amnesia, possibly leading to accidental plagiarism).

  • ‘Logophobia’ (n. see below)

  • ‘Undruggable’ (Corporatese a., compound which is not a commercially viable treatment)

  • ‘Disfellowship’ (Jehovah’s Witnessese, v., to formally shun an apostate)

  • ‘Sanforize’ (v. to process cotton in such a way that it shrinks fully before going on sale; by extension, to be Procrustean.

  • ‘Administrivia’ (n., Banal knowledge of procedure, file locations, system settings and all the little things that a vast number of people now must retain in the name of work)

  • ‘Poptimist’ (n., person who finds aesthetic or emotional or intellectual value in popular art, particularly music)

  • ‘Badwidth’ (n., capacity for malice)

  • 'Chipil' (Spanish n., the shock of anguish that builds before one cries);

  • ‘Kula’ (Trobriand n. and v., extraordinary trading circle in cultures around New Guinea, participation in which constitutes the traders’ public identity; by extension, any economic activity that is primarily status-seeking.)

  • 不是东西 (Mandarin, lit. ‘neither east nor west’; 'you are nothing'.

  • 半糖夫妻 (Mandarin n., lit. ‘half-sweet couple’: romantic partners who live apart during the week, often as a conscious attempt to preserve romance);

  • 调情 (Mandarin v., lit. ‘throw feelings’; the verb to flirt)


For people to behave as though their aim were to maximize a utility function, it is only necessary that their choice behavior be consistent. To challenge the theory, you therefore need to argue that people behave inconsistently, rather than that ‘they don’t really have utility generators inside’. As for the critics who claim that economists believe that people have little cash registers in their heads that respond only to dollars, they haven’t bothered to study the theory they are criticizing at all.

– Ken Binmore

For a long time I outright rejected utility functions as a silly, unfruitful way of thinking about humans. Functions are so far from how we understand ourselves – and anyway I was on a hippyish anti-formalism kick – and anyway the only contact I’d had with them was through the reactionary confection called microeconomics. (Or, more properly, normative neoclassical micro [NNM].)

But I found myself reading experimental psychologists on the things that actually, generally contribute to the human good, across cultures and across that deeper gulf, between individuals. And then collating these lists, and dividing them into their emotional and eudaemonaic parts, and ranking and relating them. And that’s a (decision-) utility function: the right causes (or constituents) of psychological benefit, in the right order.* This is precisely the kind of work that really does benefit from applying maths. (Maths, note, not ‘arithmetic’.) My accidental conversion has clarified the quiet necessity of utility functions, which are usually thought of as deluded, inhuman point-scoring devices, where they are thought of at all.

So from a certain elevation, it’s impossible for a clever agent not to have a utility function (if we add, somewhat dishonestly, ‘whether consciously or not’). Sure, humans are in fact neither consistent nor maths-loving enough to live up to the strict standards called, in these places, 'rationality'. (Definition of humanity: that which violates axioms.) Sure, the version taught in sophomore economics pretends, for the sake of a short lecture, that everyone’s is the same. (And moreover omits almost everything valuable, like the happiness of others, and mental goods like knowledge, and aesthetics, and ideological mobility, and simplicity of means...**)

* Clearly what I end up with here is not a function at all, but a half-assed objective list theory instead.

** Note that the NNM model also omits the large, craven Darwinian part of us – that which loves pecking order and relative resentments. Remember that, while Homo Oeconomicus is incapable of kindness, she is also never malicious or destructively proud or self-sabotaging). It’s this latter point – the omission of our petty evil from the model – that is by far the strongest argument against H. sapiens being H. oeconomicus, or even close relatives.


There is no greater sign of a fool than the thinking that he can tell at once and easily what it is that pleases him.

– Samuel Butler

So we have at least one utility function (which is not to say we are one). But we know about our grab-bag of utility functions only by indirect inference; we have them alongside other contradicting functions and higher-order functions; if we have just one, we'll never work it out.

So what? What does A General Ordinal Human Utility Function add, in exchange for its risky uniformity? Well – if you accept that you’re probably a fairly ordinary human, as many humans are – its prescriptions could actually divert you from things falsely thought to be good – e.g. loadsa money, fame, children. It can be a razor – “why am I doing this? What good does it do? None. So, I won’t do it.”

ANYWAY, the foregoing is so I can do a reductive summary of some psychologists (mostly Daniel Gilbert tbf):

  • Eudaemonia is a function of positive emotions, true beliefs, long, meaningful relationships, and progress on transcendent goals.

  • Positive emotions are a function of genes, love, health, absorption in tasks, absorption in oneself, sense of control over one’s outcomes, relative success***, and perceived existential momentum.

  • True beliefs are a function of exposure to evidence****, memory, methodological scepticism, curiosity, and rationality. Probably.

*** Relative to one’s peers and not any absolute measure, sadly.

**** I say this rather than "experience" because that implies anecdotes, and, while anecdotes are evidence, they are the lowest form, after rumour.


Discomfort with using maths to predict or prescribe human behaviour is a common feeling, and hardly baseless – there’s a long history of bad metrics, bad uses of good metrics, and false dawns behind it. But the core of the opposition is emotional: it would remain even if all economists and psychologists were always scrupulous and sophisticated modellers who reminded us that their constructs have limited validity and whatnot.

Call the fear of human behaviour being explained and, particularly, predicted, logophobia.* Say first that it is part intuitionism, part wishful thinking, and part sour grapes. Later, characterise it as a philosophy with certain distinctive tenets. (Flattery will make it easier for people to accept that they hold it already. And admitting you have an empirically naïve philosophy is the first step.) E.g.:

  1. A belief in the general superiority of intuitive reasoning.**
  2. A belief in the irreducibility of intuitive reasoning.
  3. A belief that emphasis on objectivity harms oppressed groups (since e.g. it’s likely to be technical, and they have reduced access to technical education).

* Academic radicals of the lC20th were in the habit of calling people with technical concerns logocentrists. This had a specific and meh scholarly meaning, but is used as an insult meaning “person who believes that facts are the main thing, and who thus keeps women down (or something)”. Qualifying this diss with the observation that it is a fact that some facts change in response to human agency,*** and that oppressive beliefs are errors, as well as morally wrong: so be it.

However, the entertaining and original philosopher of practical reason Nicholas Shackel shames my choice of name:

I unite them under the term [postmodernism] because, philosophically, they are united by a sceptical doctrine about rationality (which they mistake for a profound discovery): namely, that rationality cannot be an objective constraint on us, but is just whatever we make it, and what we make it depends on what we value. Opponents are held to disguise their self-interested construction of rationality behind a metaphysically inflated view of rationality in which Reason-with-a-capital-R is supposed to transcend the merely empirical selves of rational beings.

Let us name this sceptical doctrine. How about “logophobia”? It has much to recommend it. Patronising, question-begging, pre-emptive of further thought, ensuring easy evasion of the merely Gradgrindian question of the truth or falsity of the doctrine, so permitting us to move on swiftly to the fun of abusing logophobics. What more could one want from a term?

Alas, I am a dogged rationalist, and have renounced the pleasures of sophistical trickery. Instead I have named the doctrine “alogosia” to convey its denial of reason’s objectivity, and its purveyors “alogosists”, of which postmodernists are only the most recent.

** I say 'general' because you'd have to be dim to say that System 1 is never superior to explicit reasoning - e.g. at quickly removing your hand from a fire. And of course there's all sorts of ways you should seek skills in both. But for anything involving expensive or irreversible decisions, like those involving other people's well-being, please back away from the gut.

*** Or, more metaphysically expensively: it is a fact that potentialities are facts (?)


(c) Alberto Magnelli (1918)

...love, in some of its forms, is something that seeks to move beyond the very question of justification. No one asks me to justify my being related to my father or uncle or brother. I just am related to them… Love seeks to become a mere fact about how things are, one that stands beyond the challenge of justification. (That is one reason why it is usually already a sign of the breakdown or crumbling of a relationship, marital or friendship, when the question of justification comes back into view.)

the Anonymous Anti-Ethicist of 2003

It is icky to consider one’s romantic relationships as collections of properties. Even so, the extra-emotional side bears scrutiny; it is almost enough on its own:

  • Having the dumb delight of being in a tiny clique;
  • The economy (especially on rent);
  • Having a bed heater;
  • Having a reason to cook;
  • Having location (someone knowing where you are);
  • Having insurance against locking oneself out of one’s house;
  • Having the holy fact of inclusion in all someone else’s plans.


Some popular stereotypes of white people: they whine, they are bad at dancing and jumping, they suffer a basic inconsistency between actions and stated democratic principles. Perhaps these are America's doing, that land of the ridiculously specific racial generalisation.

The one I’ve found to have stuck, globally, is the white as potato eater. I heard this repeatedly in both China and Tanzania, and have read about it popping up in Latin America, where we first stole them. Indeed, my love of what Swahili speakers call ‘Irish potatoes’ raised chuckles in the way fried chicken might, in nastier quarters. Also, in Shanghai’s gay scene, a man who prefers white partners is a ‘potato queen’.

(While we’re at it, Chinese has loads of interesting slang for white people. The original was 大鼻子 (‘big noses’), but there’s also the (gendered) 三八 (“three eight”??), 老外 (‘ol’ stranger’, more of an honorific), the suggestive Cantonese 鬼佬 ('ghost dude') and archaic Cantonese 洋鬼子 (‘ocean ghost’). Some idle Beijing teenagers did once shout '紅毛鬼' (red-haired devil) at me, but clearly from a distance and without much conviction. (“Watch out, dude. I’ve heard those white guys all have these weird fighting powers. I think they call it ‘Ememay’.”))


Question that has been neglected in epistemology: rather than “what is knowledge?” or “what justifies belief?”, ask, “what is good knowledge?” *

Example: the Avogadro constant – the number of particles per fixed quantity of any substance – is 6.02214129×1023 . Also, the names of the Kardashian sisters are Kim, Khloé and Kourtney.

What does standard straw-man epistemology have to say about these two facts? Well, it might say that justifying belief in the second fact is much more direct and precisely accomplished; naming is a social stipulation, performatively true, and so theory-free; detecting the names of the Kardashians requires no extra scientific instrumentation, and no endorsement of unobservable entities like ‘molecules’. Assuming that both facts are knowledge (true, justified and suitably defeasible and so on), why is the first fact better knowledge?

For a start, let’s break the idea of the quality of knowledge into generality, durability, novelty, and utility. (A brief dude-bro justification of these: Generality, because explaining more of the world at a stroke is cool. Durability, because having to learn updates to facts you’ve already learned is not cool. Novelty, because surprising things are most cool. Utility, because the world sucks and some facts lead to it sucking less. Cool.)

Avogadro’s constant is absolutely general over all known elements; it has resisted 100 years of increasingly refined detections; it’s not new, but neither is it a household name and that’s really what I mean by novel; and it is very useful indeed in medicine, manufacturing, and research of all sorts. By translating any substance into a precise chemical measure, it links everyday experience to the micro-world that most of industrial civilisation depends on.

The fact of the names of the Kardashians is not at all general (applying to almost none of its natural set, “people with names”), not very durable (e.g. one day one of their names might change to Kim West), is quite novel (particularly taking the three sisters as a unique trigram), and totally useless (except for answering pub quiz questions). “QED.”

I suppose the quality question is neglected because 1) it isn't very contentious, and 2) a large part of the correct account will consist of the account shrugging its shoulders and conceding that most of the value of knowledge depends on millions of specific factors unamenable to philosophy, because utility depends on goals, and goals should depend on people. Another objection might be that this isn’t epistemology at all. Should epistemology have nothing to do with the evaluation of knowledge, once established as knowledge? (De praxes non disputandum?)

* I’m aware that Jonathan Kvanvig started a vaguely related debate with his book The Value of Knowledge, but that’s much more interesting and meta-epistemological than this. I also know that information science has its own hierarchy of epistemic things: first, data (observations), then information (summary of observations), then knowledge (critical synthesis of multiple bits of information). Good good, still not quite it. I do not mean “good” as just the practically applicable, or moral consequential, though these things will surely play a big role.


I feel cleaner after doing philosophy. Though I should know better, it is as if it were washing off the muck and amniotic concepts of my Darwinian ancestry and Anglo-European upbringing. This is the case even when I uncover inconsistencies in myself. The exposed surface shines; scar tissue doubly so.


When people talk about their career they mean their external career, the sequence of economic roles they have suffered. Only this of your history is decisive, because the point of talking careers is to gauge your ‘success’ against others’. Since everyone can understand a sequence of jobs as being more or less successful, the conversation is a handy reduction for the small of soul.

What gets relegated, in this pecking-order conception, is the internal career – one’s intellectual development, or, friendships, or whatever other projects you do for their own sake (a modded car, a garden, a long-form kata).

The internal career is of primary concern only to hippies, the religious, and (some of the remaining) artists and scholars. My whole blog’s an intermittently interesting attempt to chart mine; the shit I have done for cash doesn’t come in to it, yet. Certainly some of our contemporaries manage to avoid splitting themselves into two independent half-lives; of course there are external careers that are internally fruitful. (We sometimes call them vocations, an originally religious term. But no-one with a real vocation ever had any need of God telling them to do it.)

Mostly these people share a helpfully obsessive personality – in recent times, see Wittgenstein*, Isaiah Berlin, or, on a fleeting vita activa note, Chris McCandless. Where they survive, they receive adulation and found Schools of Thought. Where they don’t, they attain the dubious rewards eternal youth and saccharine biopics.

* The proximate reason that Alexander Grothendieck suffered is that he was utterly obsessed with two things in tension: pure mathematics and social justice.


Is writing arrogant? Is to write always to lecture? – Do you have to feel superior to lecture? Is the answer no as long as you keep putting question marks at the end?

(c) Alberto Magnelli (1971)

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