mandatory personal development module blues

"After these sessions, we often see people start to notice their Myers-Briggs type coming into play in everyday life, and being more analytic about the types of those around them. Really using it, really thinking about it."

(The birth of tragedy.)


"So, what do you think of your test results?"
"I would prefer not to."
"I don't agree with it."
"Ah sure - people often find something a bit off with it, at first. Have you added in your epicycles?"
"Yes, but twenty more badly conceptualised variables don't really help matters. It's not the particular type that's the problem, but the typology. Two of the dichotomies are simply false; they do not trade-off in my mind, nor in the population's minds; they feign the use of a single interval scale without actually picking out a single real variable; and you force binary choices in the test in order to cover up the unimodal normal distribution that actually characterises each of the "dichotomies". You fail to distinguish how I feel about myself from how I think of myself from how I want to be from how I am. It is all symptom, no sign."
"O K... Why not just pick one for now, provisionally? We've got a lot of derived exercises to get through."
"Because they're not real. I don't mind boxes, but they must be real."
"Maybe the types have an effective kind of reality, because so many people take it seriously - for instance your HR manager."
"I try not to let social reality affect my beliefs about real reality."
"Borders aren't real, but you observe those."
"Yes: that's action, not belief. It is generally necessary to let social reality affect your actions. But Myers and Briggs won't shoot me if I ignore them."
"OK, but even granting you that the downside of refusing to accept it is minimal, what's the upside? "
"You could have just told me 'I think I am very smart'."
"Honesty and class."

(Heavily stylized on both sides.)


After two days I get desperate, conspiratorial. This can't be for real: there's no content here. But then, why is the org paying for it?

Maybe it's to make us grateful to return to our desks, reminded, as we are, of how good actual work is, by comparison. Or maybe it is to identify any ornery and noncompliant workers who made it through the HR net in the first instance, for a true dissenting soul could never make it through these four days without showing their shame. Or maybe it is because they simply do not know how to promote human flourishing but do not know they do not know.


An enormous stroke of luck: that one can learn from people who know nothing. The world would be totally intolerable, organised any other way.
(The typical American film, na├»ve and silly, can – for all its silliness and even by means of it – be instructive... I have often learned a lesson from a silly American film.
– Wittgenstein)


A three-player, known-length iterated Prisoner's dilemma is set up. No initial discussion. Payoffs are the standard unitless numbers. No objectives given. I swear I am not making up the roles the players settled into; a Homo economicus, an ineffective altruist and a noise generator walk into a bar:
A: "It's totally straightforward: for known-length PD against rational opponents, the only Nash equilibrium is 'always defect', because it only makes sense to defect in the final round, and the inference to prior rounds is timeless". Note he wasn't told his loss function, he wasn't told that negative scores were non-fatal (or that they allowed for "losing least"), and he certainly knew that his opponents would not be economically rational. But heedless, in the grip of theory: defected each time.

B: "Look, can we just stop and think for a second?" Opened with green, tried green after every negotiation round.

C: Random co-operation, based on his reading of body language. 7 defects out of 10.
All the scores ended negative, between one and ten rounds of points under par. Everyone was a bit mardy afterward. This was not the lesson they wanted us to learn.

(I would name my role in all this but now I'm blushing, look.)


Fake negotiations ensue. Is your influence over me still influence if it's concerning something I don't care about at all?


The facilitators have a marked prejudice against "closed" questions. (Also known as truth-apt questions, also known as efficient questions, also known as answerable questions, also known as well-defined questions.)


I am called opinionated. But, then, what's the opposite of 'opinionated'?

Vague? Blank? Not there? (I am that I am.)


Someone should write an inventory measuring specific recalcitrance to psychological inventories. You just ask as many obnoxiously oversimplified questions as possible, like "What's more important, logic or compassion?" and disregard all the answers: just measure how much their eyes roll.


Everyone is compartmentalised. They claim to value hard neat reason when in a business game, but react very negatively to counterintuitive argument in any other context.

Why is this bad? Why not contain multitudes?

Because if you leave yourself naturally carved-up, you will be inconsistent. If you're inconsistent, you guarantee additional avoidable wrongness in your life. If you fail to minimise your wrongness, you will cause unnecessary harm at some stage. And that's a sin.


Feedback sheet: "How much did you learn this week?"

"You mean to ask 'How many true things did I learn from the material you intentionally presented this week?', but it suits me to write down my answer to a different one, 'How many words with nominal meanings did I hear, and how much did this experience inadvertently produce in me a very strong sense of self via acute alienation and a demonstration of my critical ability?', because I am a softie.

(Was very pleased with myself for finding a humane way of expressing ultimate displeasure, and in their own terms: "This is not my learning style.")

notable nonjargon jargon

Technical books often use seemingly nontechnical, apparently normative terms: you're marching through your dense and spidery notation, and suddenly you tread in a gob of ordinary language. Some of the most important concepts in the formal sciences are of this sort, in fact:

  • well-behaved. "not weird; having all properties suitable for the present study; not in violation of any of the assumptions we just made". One of the big offenders, used everywhere and never defined truly, only by context. Usually "well-behaved compared to an unrestricted superset we don't want to handle right now".

  • well-defined. "unambiguous; blessed with just one interpretation". One of the core differences between the formal sciences and other enquiry. Terminology in other fields is nowhere near as clear as this (not even ones which seem highly formalised, like Spinoza's Ethics or Wittgenstein's Tractatus or half of Spencer-Brown's Laws of Form *). The temptation is to call work in those fields not even wrong; for, if your rules are ambiguous, they cannot specify mathematical functions, and thus can never use the awesome machineries of truth known as Analysis and Computation. They can, however, provide never-ending controversies - ink for the ink mill, authors for the author mill.

    (see also well-formed in logic, meaning "syntax compliant"; and well-specified in American math and theoretical computer science: "sufficiently precise to be implemented in a general programming language").

  • embarrassingly. Roughly: "surprisingly easily". Writing distributed code is a neat and torturous art, often involving heavy functional analysis. But some operations - like counting elements, or matrix multiplication - are completely trivial to break into unordered subtasks, thus embarrassing the compsci PhD who is tasked with it. Very close to "distributive".

  • almost always : "P=1, except in the case of infinite sample spaces". Now, this looks like probabilists suddenly turning all hand-wavy and saying "IT'S BASICALLY DEFINITE, shut up shut up shut up". But it is actually used for infinite sets, where you can have theoretically possible events with probability tending to 0 (but not strictly 0). (see also "almost all - "every member except for this finite set of members" - and almost everywhere)

  • eventually. "after some finite time or iterations; sufficiently large". (Yes: in between sheaves of equations you will see people saying "almost surely eventually correct".)

  • With high probability: This one actually is "basically definite".

  • probably approximately correct. In the evaluation of machine learning functions: "neither under- nor over-fitted, as right as can be, with high probability".

  • arbitrarily. "how ever". No matter how large the number you pick.

  • by abstract nonsense. "using category-theoretic arguments which I take all of you to be familiar with"

* Half of philosophy is the attempt to make large, old, awful concepts well-defined in this high sense (as they put it: "to give necessary and sufficient truth-conditions for"). Now, it has been truly and sadly noted that mathematics is the subfield of philosophy that humans are good at - the only one we can successfully define in. But it's an unfair fight: mathematicians get to invent all the clean concepts they need, and ignore anything that doesn't fit; philosophers are duty-bound to encompass incoherent, foolish, and artefactual nuances of legacy ones. They are to be admired all the more for persisting in the face of total generational failure (and also teasing).