So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

Quick thoughts about Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed , a compelling, charming exploration of the ‘great renaissance of public shaming’, its mob psychology and the individual stories of the people involved:

– lots of the negative consequences of public shaming described in the book would be mitigated if it was harder for US corporations to fire people.

– i think part of what makes internet shaming hard to wrap your head around (and which I don’t think Ronson ever really deals with) is the scale – both how many people get involved, and the disproportion between the individual actions (the shameful tweet, the individual shaming responses) and how the consequences. People kill themselves, or get fired, but no single act is the cause (“no snowflake feels responsible for the avalanche”). It is hard to make sense of the this world where unimportant actions generate massively important reactions.

– Is Ronson being a bit disingenuous when he says he is interested in shaming because he has been a perpetrator? Maybe he’s called someone out online, but I doubt he’s ever sent the kind of abuse he describes in book (death and rape threats etc).

– Who are those guys, anyway? I understand that he didn’t want to write a book about trolling, but they seem like an integral part of the story. I don’t meet anybody who speaks like that offline (and rarely online). Who are these people? And if they are us, why are they like this online?

– There wasn’t enough talk about specific platforms, and the choices they’ve made that enable the dynamics discussed. Let’s face it, when we talk about social media we mostly mean facebook and twitter. Both are really good at letting complex chains of speech/action be taken out of context, and at generating outrage around that. The internet doesn’t have to be this way. Why is it?

– Not enough about politics, and related moral tribalism. The outrages (memorably labelled in the book ‘a cathartic substitute for social justice’) are moral outrages, often with an explicit political agenda (e.g. anti-racism). Paging Jon Haidt

– I would love to hear more analysis of public pressure, and why specific actors feel the need to bow to it (or not). It seem that when one of the corporations in the book fires someone because of a badly worded tweet, they aren’t making a judgement about the truth of the claim that the person is sexist (or whatever), but rather that the truth of that claim has become irrelevant. The victim needs to be fired because everyone says they need to be fired. How do you get out of situations like that?

Guardian excerpt of the book: ‘Overnight, everything I loved was gone’: the internet shaming of Lindsey Stone

Jon Ronson on twitter:

intellectual self-deference science

Don’t trust your sense of fascination

When a researcher tells me their research topic is fascinating, I get a sinking feeling, like when someone announces they are going to tell me about the dream they had last night. Here’s something I’ve learnt in my time as a scholar: finding something fascinating isn’t a good guide to what actually is fascinating.

There are plenty of questions which I used to find fascinating. Topics which, for years, I would have said fascinated me, but which now I think are of little interest. That feeling that something was a deep question, that it promised – somehow – to help reveal the secrets of the universe, wasn’t to be trusted. With a bit more thought, or experience, my fascination in a topic turned out to be a dead end. Now I think those topics are not productive to research, they don’t promise to reveal anything. What appeared to be a mysterious contradiction was just a blunt fact, a universal symbol turned out to be boring particular.

I’m not going to give you an example, because I don’t want to focus on a specific case, but on that feeling of fascination which drives our curiosity, which must in some form be the foundation of a research programme.

Personal fascination is a poor guide to a good research topic, but it has also been the guide for the research I’ve done of which I’m most proud, and which I think makes the most important contributions.

The trick is to not to blindly trust your fascination, but to draw it out. Can you explain why something is so fascinating? Can you show the connections to wider topics? Can you show that suggested explanations are inadequate?

Without action all you have is a feeling, which has as much currency with other people as when you try and explain one of your dreams. You may feel deeply involved, but there’s no compelling reason for other people to be.

Fascination you can’t share is just self-indulgence.

(Obligatory reference to Davis’ 1971 paper on the sociology of being interesting in sociology: Davis M. S. (1971). That’s interesting! Towards a phenomenology of sociology and a sociology of phenomenology. Philosophy of the social sciences, 1(2), 309-344.)

intellectual self-deference politics psychology

Facebook’s persuasion architecture and human reason

Facebook is a specific, known, threat to democracy, not a general unknown threat to our capacity for rationality

Zeynep Tufekci has a TED talk ‘We’re building a dystopia just to make people click on ads’. In it she talks about the power of Facebook as a ‘persuasion architecture’ and she make several true, useful, points about why we should be worried about the influence of social media platforms, platforms which have as their raison-d’être the segmentation of audiences so they can be sold ads.

But there’s one thing I want to push back on. Tufeki’s argument draws some of its rhetorical power from a false model of how persuasion works. This is a model in which persuasion by technology or advertising somehow subverts normal rational processes, intervening on our free choice in some sinister way ‘without our permission’. I’m not saying she would explicitly endorse this model, but it seems latent in the way she describes Facebook, so I thought it worth bringing into the light, pausing just for a moment to look at what we really mean when we warn about persuasion by advertising.

Here’s Tufeki’s most worrying example: targeted Facebook ads aimed at mobilising, or demobilising voters, which are effective enough in changing voter turn out to swing an election. She reports an experiment which tested a fairly standard ‘social proof’ intervention, in which some people (the control group) saw a “get out and vote” message on Facebook, and others (the intervention group) saw the same message but with extra information about which of their friends had voted. People who saw this second message were likely to vote (0.4% more likely). Through the multiplier effect of the social networks they were embedded in, the researchers estimate that 340,000 extra people voted that otherwise wouldn’t have.

Now 340,000 votes is a lot, enough to swing an election, but it would be a mistake to think that these people were coerced or tricked into acting out of character by the advert. These were people who might have voted anyway, and the advert was a nudge.

Think of it like this. Imagine you offer someone an apple and they say yes. Did you trick them into desiring fruit? In what sense did you make them want an apple? If you offer apples to millions of people you may convert hundreds of thousands into apple-eaters, but you haven’t weaved any special magic. At one end, the people who really like apples will have one already. At the other, people who hate apples won’t ever say yes. For people who are in between something about your offer may speak to them and they’ll accept. A choice doesn’t have to originate entirely from within a person, completely without reference to the options presented to them, to be a reasonable, free, choice.

No model of human rationality is harmed by the offer of these apples.

Our choices are always codetermined by ourselves and our environment. Advertising is part of the environment, but it isn’t a privileged part — it doesn’t override our beliefs, habits or values. It affects them, but it no more so and in no different way than everything else which affects us. This is easy to see when it is offers of apples, but something about advertising obscures the issue.

Take the limit case — some political candidate figures out the perfect target audience for their message and converts 100% of that audience from non-voters into voters with a Facebook advert. Would we care? What would that advert — and those voters — look like? They would be people who might vote for the candidate anyway, and who could be persuaded to vote for someone else by all the normal methods of persuasion that we already admit into the marketplace of ideas / clubhouse of democracy. They wouldn’t vote for a candidate they didn’t sincerely believe in, and the advert wouldn’t mean that their vote couldn’t be changed at some later point, whether by another advert, by new information, by arguing with friend or whatever.
There are still plenty of reasons to worry about Facebook:

  • Misinformation —how it can embed and lend velocity to lies.
  • Lack of transparency — both in who is targeting, who is targeted and why.
  • Lack of common knowledge —consensus politics is hard if we don’t all live in the same informational worlds.

Tufeki covers these factors. My position is that it hasn’t been shown that there is anything special about Facebook as a ‘persuasion architecture’ beyond these. Yes, we should worry something with the size and influence of Facebook, but we already have frameworks for thinking about ‘persuasional harm’— falsehoods are not a legitimate basis for persuasion, for example, so we are particularly concerned to hunt down fake news; or, it is worrying when one interest group controls a particular media form, such as newspapers. Yes Facebook persuades, but it doesn’t do so in a way that is itself pernicious. Condemning it in general terms would be both misplaced, a harm to any coherent model of citizens as reasonable agents, and a distraction from the specific and novel threats that Facebook and related technologies constitute to democracy.


Using ffmpeg to convert all images in a folder to video

I take lots of photos on my phone, a daily record of the mundane and notable. These photos sit in folders, mostly unlooked at. Here’s one way to grok what you’ve been taking pictures of: make a video which shows them at a rate of 3 per second.

Cribbing from this: How to transform all the images from the current directory to a video in FFmpeg?
and this: Resizing videos with ffmpeg/avconv to fit into static sized player (comment)

The thing that makes this slightly more complex is that the photos are different sizes (some are portrait, some are landscape) and I want them to maintain their aspect ratio in the video, which means padding the portrait photos with some black space for the output.

In a terminal define output height and width variables (so, for photos from my phone):



ffmpeg -framerate 3 -pattern_type glob -i '*.jpg' -vf "scale=iw*min($width/iw\,$height/ih):ih*min($width/iw\,$height/ih), pad=$width:$height:($width-iw*min($width/iw\,$height/ih))/2:($height-ih*min($width/iw\,$height/ih))/2" video.mp4

Click here to get a breakdown of what this is doing via People with longer attention spans may want to reduce the framerate (3 per second is nice if you have lots of photos of the same scene, but a bit quick for single photos).

Obviously I have assumed you are using linux and have ffmpeg installed


In praise of idleness

a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work… the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work

Bertrand Russell (1932). In Praise of Idleness

politics systems

Cognitive Democracy

This leads us to argue that democracy will be better able to solve complex problems than either markets or hierarchy, for two reasons. First, democracy embodies a commitment to political equality that the other two macro-institutions do not. Clearly, actual democracies achieve political equality more or less imperfectly. Yet if we are right, the better a democracy is at achieving political equality, the better it will be, ceteris paribus, at solving complex problems. Second, democratic argument, which people use either to ally with or to attack those with other points of view, is better suited to exposing different perspectives to each other, and hence capturing the benefits of diversity, than either markets or hierarchies.

From ‘Cognitive Democracy‘ by Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi (2012, ‘unpublished’ article in preparation)

politics sheffield

Privatisation – now a game the whole city can play

Sheffield City Council have made a 25 year contract with Amey PLC, in which tax money pays Amey and Amey maintain the roads. Part of road maintenance is looking after roadside trees, of which there are many, and many which are mature trees of all the character and hazards that trees many many decades old have. Amey has made plans to begin its contract period by cutting down 18% of the trees, which hasn’t been wildly popular. Some have suggested that Amey are responding to the simple economic logic of considering 25 years of tree care costs (vs the one-off cost of just cutting down as many as possible in the first few years).

Part of the Council-Amey contact is that both parties can fine the others for breaches of contract. Most of the contract has been redacted, which isn’t confidence inspiring. One rumour is that if, due to protests, Amey are not able to finish their planned tree felling they will be able to fine the Council. This would mean that protesters, through their taxes, would be paying more to the company they are protesting against.

Part of the aspect of this that interests me is that the contract moves the locus of political power from the Council to a multinational. Some opposition to privatisation is about profiteering by companies, but if you are worrying about roads being repaved and trees maintained then profits are less concerning than the fact that you now don’t have any influence as a citizen over the management of public property. Amey don’t need popular support in Sheffield, and however much people hate the Council, the Council’s hands are tied (seemingly).

Now, some enterprising citizens of Sheffield are trying to streamline the process of raising road maintenance complaints. The Amey contract with the Council means that if they don’t adequate maintain the roads, including responding to complaints about their work, then the Council can fine them.

technical notes

Check and restart vpnc VPN on Ubuntu Linux

I run Ubuntu 16.04 Linux and use vpnc for my vpn (which runs at the command line, rather than through the network manager). This link tells you how to run vpnc at startup, but really I wanted to have the vpn monitored and automatically restarted if it drops. Here’s how I did that.

Following, James Coyle’s instructions, but changing the location of the script (because of this thread):

1. Make a script which checks vpn status and restarts it if necessary

1.1. Create file (at the terminal enter)
sudo nano /usr/local/sbin/
1.2. Copy and paste this into the file
if ifconfig tun0 &> /dev/null; then echo "---VPN active---"; else sudo vpnc; fi
Save and exit. The first line marks the file as a script. The second does the work, which I stole from here
1.3. Make this file executable (at the terminal enter)
sudo chmod +x /usr/local/sbin/

2. Now create a cron job to run this script every minute
1.1. Open root cron jobs list (at the terminal enter)
sudo crontab -e
1.2. Add this line to the end
*/1 * * * * /usr/local/sbin/
Save and exit

And we’re done. You can also worry about where your crontab logs are, and how to check they are rotated daily (so don’t grow infinitely in size). This should be set up as default, so you don’t need to worry about it.

quotes science

“But sir, what hypothesis does your experiment disprove?”

But I will mention one severe but useful private test – a touchstone of strong inference – that removes the necessity for third-person criticism, because it is a test that anyone can learn to carry with him for use as needed. It is our old friend the Baconian “exclusion,” but I call it “The Question.” Obviously it should be applied as much to one’s own thinking as to others’. It consists of asking in your own mind, on hearing any scientific explanation or theory put forward, “But sir, what experiment could disprove your hypothesis?” ; or, on hearing a scientific experiment described, “But sir, what hypothesis does your experiment disprove?”

Platt, J. R. (1964). Strong inference. Science, 146(3642), 347-353.


in Ancient Day, Waylaid

The lit mosaic of the wood
Stayed me at the turn of the road
To stare
At Autumn standing there
In Joseph’s coat; a tree
Golden, and bright, and free
For head; his feet
In the rich earth were set.
The wind
Was tugging blind
At the fierce rainbow rags, the tattered turban,
Under a fitful sun.
Ambushed by beauty,
I a new creature, stand in Ancient Day,
At the turn of the road
By trees that bleed
And fill my eyes with plunder!
Is there no climax then? No ripe-as-thunder
Sudden, and strong?
Nought to be done
But only stand and stare and travel on.

‘Autumn’, by Mervyn Peake, written (c. autumn 1937), in Collected Poems (2008),

intellectual self-defence quotes

Popper on scientific objectivity

…science and scientific objectivity do not (and cannot) result from the attempts of an individual scientist to be ‘objective’, but from the friendly-hostile co-operation of many scientists. Scientific objectivity can be described as the inter-subjectivity of scientific method…

Two aspects of the method of the natural sciences are of importance in this connection. Together they constitute what I may term the ‘public character of scientific method’. First, there is something approaching free criticism. A scientist may offer his theory with the full conviction that it is unassailable. But this will not impress his fellow-scientists and competitors; rather it challenges them : they know that the scientific attitude means criticizing everything, and they are little deterred even by authorities. Secondly, scientists try to avoid talking at cross-purposes…In the natural sciences this is achieved by recognizing experience as the impartial arbiter of their controversies. When speaking of ‘experience’ I have in mind experience of a ‘public’ character, like observations, and experiments, as opposed to experience in the sense of more ‘private’ aesthetic or religious experience; and an experience is ‘public’ if everybody who takes the trouble can repeat it…

This is what constitutes scientific objectivity. Everyone who has learned the technique of understanding and testing scientific theories can repeat the experiment and judge for himself.

Karl Popper, The Open Science and Its Enemies, Chapter 23 (p217-218, Vol. II)


enough of experts

Michael Gove has become infamous for saying that we (the British) have “had enough of experts”. Here’s the context (FI= Faisal Islam, the interviewer):

FI: But let’s just look at this now, the leaders of the US, India, China, Australia, every single one of our allies, the Bank of England, the IFS, the IMF, the CBI, five former NATO Secretary-Generals, the Chief Exec of the NHS and most of the leaders of the trade unions in Britain all say that you, Boris and Nigel are wrong. Why should the public trust you over them?

MICHAEL GOVE: I’m not asking the public to trust me, I’m asking the public to trust themselves. I’m asking the British public to take back control of our destiny from those organisations which are distant, unaccountable, elitists and don’t have their own interests at heart.

FI: Elitist? Elitist? The Lord High Chancellor, a conspiracy of elites? It sounds like Wolf Hall.

MICHAEL GOVE: Well I haven’t seen Wolf Hall but the one thing that I would say is that the people who are backing the Remain campaign are people who have done very well thank you out of the European Union and the people increasingly … [Applause] … absolutely. The people who are arguing that we should get out are concerned to ensure that the working people of this country at last get a fair deal. I think the people of this country have had enough of experts with organisations from acronyms saying that …

FI: The people of this country have had enough of experts, what do you mean by that?

MICHAEL GOVE: … from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong because these people …

FI: The people of this country have had enough of experts?

MICHAEL GOVE: Because these people are the same ones who have got consistently wrong …

FI: This is [inaudible] politics this isn’t it? This is Oxbridge Trump.

MICHAEL GOVE: No, it’s a faith, Faisal, in the British people to make the right decision.

Full interview transcript here, video of the interview here.


a post-creole continuum

From wikipedia: “William Stewart, in 1965, proposed the terms acrolect and basilect as sociolinguistic labels for the upper and lower boundaries respectively of a post-creole speech continuum”….
“In certain speech communities, a continuum exists between speakers of a creole language and a related standard language. There are no discrete boundaries between the different varieties and the situation in which such a continuum exists involves considerable social stratification”.

And so:

18 different ways of rendering the phrase “I gave him one” in Guyanese English (from Bell, R.T. (1976), Sociolinguistics: Goals, Approaches, and Problems, Batsford).



Too smart for facebook?

It interests me how the generations younger than me have changed their social media habits.

Whilst the professional-age world seems happy with twitter and facebook, younger people have moved their attentions elsewhere (you can google for the evidence of this, here I am relying on a completely unsystematic sampling from biased personal experience).

Is this because they want to avoid the social media that their parents are on? Because they are driven by a relentless and fickle need novelty and illicit thrills? Maybe in part, but there’s also a logic to the specific social media networks which are in vogue.

  1. WhatsApp offers end-to-end encryption. As well as one-to-one messaging you can use group chat for the sort of thing you might use twitter @ messaging or facebook chat, with better privacy.
  2. YikYak offers anonymous location-based chat. Obviously they’ll bust you the moment the law wants your details, but if you are just after hook-ups or advice about embarrassing personal problems this is good enough anonymity to protect your identity from your employer (or partner, or friends).
  3. Snapchat messages disappear after a number of seconds, offering the illusion of impermanence for web-messaging. So different from message boards or most IM, where casual banter from years ago is stored for eternity.

So in this way new social media offers some sort of address to three of the big threats of life online: lack of privacy, irrevocable binding of your online actions to your offline identity, and permanent records of even your tiniest online actions.

Maybe The Youth aren’t so fickle and short sighted in their use of social media after all.

Cross-posted at Medium


Optimal training in aikido, part 1

How does anyone know what to aim for in perfecting aikido technique?

Aikido is a Japanese martial art. Traditionally, Aikido doesn’t feature competition or sparring, rather you take turns to practice the movements, consisting of various locks and throws. After a demonstration by the instructor (sensei), your partner (uke) simulates an attack and you (tori) perform the technique with a level of fluidity, speed and mercilessness matched to your skill and the skill of your partner. After a few goes you swop roles. After a few rounds of this, and maybe the sensei offering some one-to-one comments, the sensei demonstrates another technique and you find a new partner and take turns to practice again.

There are variations, and some other elements of practice, but for many people this is the main way they improve their skill at the art.

I am interested in the best way to get better at aikido (what should we do during training?), and the related issue of what the ultimate target of practice is (what defines a movement as good or bad, better or worse?). There are a few reasons why these issues, for aikido, are not obvious.

Martial arts in general are fighting systems, so they are meant to make you better at fighting. The problem with this is that you can’t train in real fighting (unless you like injury or litigation), so the different martial arts all adopt proxies, which introduce rules to stop people getting hurt. At the same time, the rules of the proxy-fights make them bad simulations of real fights, so if you optimise your skill to be good at a proxy-fight you may build into your technique blind spots for which you haven’t trained (or even for which you have trained yourself to be particularly susceptible). Examples: sparring which is stopped when it goes to the floor, outlawed moves (kicks to the head, eye gouging, various locks and breaks).

Many martial arts convey information about forms outside of ‘live’ contest situations. So Judo, Karate, etc all have a varying emphasis on practising the techniques separately from sparring or competition, and sometimes very formalised routines called kata, outside of competition.

Aikido’s situation is that it teaches some techniques which are too dangerous to do in competition. If your opponent resists it either won’t work or you’ll break one of their limbs. This means that when you practice these techniques you need a high degree of trust and consent from your uke. In a sense the uke is letting you progress the move to the end —they have to start the move as if they don’t anticipate what you are going to do (even though you’ve probably done it with them only seconds before), and then as the technique develops they have to react in such as way as to protect themselves from injury (typically by rolling or flipping).

So when we practice aikido we practice with the cooperation of someone who is, in some sense, letting us do the technique, but we are aiming to perfect a technique which will work on someone who isn’t cooperating. In fact, we want to develop technique which works on someone who is doing more than just not cooperating, they are actively trying to hurt us. The first issue is how to develop effective technique for antagonistic situations from practice which is predicated on cooperation.

The second issue is that, there are usually many ways to make a particular technique ‘work’ (and usually each school or each sensei will teach subtle variations). Is there any principled way to discriminate between these variations?

In a competition based martial art you have a method for answering the questions about the superior variations — if technique A helps people win, it’s good. If technique B is often defeated, its bad. Note that even here you don’t get away from doing some extra thought: because competitions are proxy-fights we still distinguish from legitimate wins and technical wins which are within the rules but would never work in any situation other than the one defined by the rules. People who train exclusively to win competitions, but using gamesmanship and techniques which exploit rule-loopholes are viewed with scorn — they’re optimising the wrong problem.

But in martial arts without competitions, like aikido, you don’t even have the opportunity of this objective but potentially misleading method. We practice the techniques, develop a feel for ‘what works’. And different styles teach different things. How do we decide between them? How do you know you are aspiring to an aikido which has even the possibility of being effective outside of the practice hall?

If you think the answer to this is “you just need to be honest with yourself” then I think you’ve overestimated our ability to do that, and/or underestimated the difficulty of gaining insight into the target of what we’re trying to learn.

Aikido is based around a system where knowledge of the art is passed down from the most senior grades. This system suggest that aikido has some true form which is passed down, like a secret, to each generation. This is obviously falsified, both by the historical fact that aikido was invented by a single individual in the 1920s and by the realisation that none of his students since can seem to agree entirely of how it should be practiced.

The idea of ‘revealed truth’ in aikido also contradicts what we know from the psychological science of motor learning, where self-guided discovery and practice based refinement of movements are known to be key to skill learning.

A useful contrast is other domains of motor skills, sports. Although coaching is important, in something like soccer, there’s a large component of learning through discovery — get on the pitch and kick the ball. The difference to aikido is that aikido doesn’t have a pitch. In soccer you can see how your practice has paid off in the match. In aikido, you practice for a match you hope to never play.

One response to this is to say “Fine, aikido isn’t realistic — I’m doing it for other reasons” which is fine (and probably the wise choice if you started out wanting to know self-defence, aikido is not first place to learn that). However, this response leaves the problem of what you are trying to learn unsolved. Aikido is fun, and beautiful, and patterned by the same constraints of human bodies and movement as dancing, but although it is a lot like dancing, it isn’t dancing. It references combat, but it isn’t clear to me how that reference can be meaningful when the people teaching it and practicing it no longer engage in combat as a profession (contrast the Samurai of feudal Japan).

Cross-posted at medium


making universal singularities into transcendent entities

In these terms the isomorphism between models and what they can model can be explained as a coactualisation of the same diagram, or of different but overlapping diagrams. In that chapter we went on to argue that the main danger of this account is making universal singularities into transcendent entities, entities existing entirely entirely independently of the material world. But this potential pitfall can be avoided by always treating diagrams as immanent to matter, energy and information: while the objective existence of diagrams may not depend on any particular material, energetic, or informational mechanism, it does depend on the actual existence of some mechanism or another. If this account turns out to be correct then it will point to an intimate link between ontology and epistemology. And the existence of such a link, in turn, will constitute a powerful argument for breaking with the ontology we inherited from the classic Greek philosophers, an ontology based on the general and the particular, and an incentive to develop a new one based on the individual singular and the universal singular.

Manual DeLanda (2011) ‘Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason’, final paragraph


Quote #307: from Mughshin to Bai

Later Musallim and al Auf argued how far it was from Mughshin to Bai, where Tamtaim and the others were to wait for us. I asked al Auf if he had ever ridden from the Wadi al Amairi to Bai, He answered, ‘Yes, six years ago.’

‘How many days did it take?’

‘I will tell you. We watered at al Ghaba in the Amairi. There were four of us, myself, Salim, Janazil of the Awamir, and Alaiwi of the Afar; it was in the middle of summer. We had been to Ibri to settle the feud between the Rashid and the Mahamid, started by the killing of Fahad’s son.’

Musallim interrupted, ‘That must have been before the Riqaishi was Governor of Ibri. I had been there myself the year before. Sahail was with me and we went there from…’

But al Auf went on, ‘I was riding the three-year-old I had bought from bin Duailan.’

‘The one the Manahil raided from the Yam?’ Bin Kabina asked.

‘Yes. I exchanged it later for the yellow six-year-old I got from bin Ham. Janazil rode a Batina camel. Do you remember her? She was the daughter of the famous grey which belonged to Harahaish of the Wahiba.’

Mabkhaut said, ‘Yes, I saw her last year when he was in Salala, a tall animal; she was old when I saw her, past her prime but even then a real beauty.’

Al Auf went on, ‘We spent the night with Rai of the Afar.’

Bin Kabina chimed in, ‘I met him last year when he came to Habarut; he carried a rifle, “a father of ten shots”, which he had taken from the Mahra he had killed in the Ghudun. Bin Mautlauq offered him the grey yearling, the daughter of Farha, and fifty riyals for this rifle, but he refused.’

Al Auf continued, ‘Rai killed a goat for our dinner and told us …’, but I interrupted: ‘Yes, but how many days did it take you to get to Bai?’ He looked at me in surprise and said, ‘Am I not telling you?’

From “Arabian Sands“, by Wilfred Thesiger

books politics

Graeber on Pinker

David Graeber’s “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” tells the story of the erosion of social economies by market economies, fueled by a nexus of cash, war and slavery. The way Graeber tells it, the history of Western Civilisation is a history of incredible violence – both the actual violence of colonialism, slavery and debt enslavement, and the moral violence of the conceiving of the self as an isolated individual with ownership over her body and her rights.

I try and summarise the book here and have some commentary here.

Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined“, published the same year, presents a very different view of history. Pinker’s analysis supports the idea that 21st Century western society is a utopia of non-violence, in which deaths and physical harms by violence have been progressively contained and diminished over historical time. Part of this argument is the claim that per-agricultural societies are or were dangerous, homicidal places – he quotes statistics showing that something like 30% of male deaths in some foraging societies are murders. One ‘civilizing factor’ in Pinker’s account is the growth of the state and the state’s monopolising of violence.

Recently Graeber put out an “ask me anything” on twitter, so I asked him to comment on Pinker’s book, and the opposite reading of the history of violence and state power that it offers to “Debt”. He was kind enough to answer, and for convenience I concatenate his replies, made via twitter here (you can see them in the original form by starting with my original question).

Graeber: “He’s wrong [i.e. Pinker is] […] Almost anyone who’s ever had a choice of living under states & the “terrible violent” places he decries choose the latter.
take native americans & settler – captured settlers who had option of returning to their families often refused to; indigenous people who were offered right to stay in settler society, even adopted into families, invariably escaped the moment they could

same thing seems to happen with Amazonian societies today

so anyone who knows what life is like in both sorts of society, then has a choice which to live in, never chooses states


his argument that one social order was self-evidently superior is clearly false

This argument from choice doesn’t really seem to engage with Pinker’s argument: people might choose non-state societies AND they be more violent. Pinker’s account of violence in pre-state societies is contested in the scholarly literature, so it is hard for a non-anthropologist like me to judge. Plausibly, Pinker’s thesis can still hold if the historical span is restricted to the period from (horrifically violent) early state societies to now – but that leaves open a wide range of anthropological possibilities for how society could be organised and avoid violence. In other words, it leaves as distinctly more plausible the alternatives that Graeber’s anarchist thought supports.


how psychology has progressed

Several decades ago, an eminent psychologist defined the field of psychology as ‘a bunch of men standing on piles of their own crap, waving their hands and yelling “Look at me, look at me!” ’ Fortunately, things have changed quite a bit over the years, and the field is no longer composed entirely of men.

Daniel Gilbert, referencing George Miller, in Gilbert, D. (2002). Are psychology’s tribes ready to form a nation?. Trends in cognitive sciences, 6(1), 3.


Max Bazerman’s question: If you had to make this decision again in a year…

If you had to make this decision again in a year, what information would you want, and can you get more of it now?

One challenge executives face when reviewing a recommendation is the WYSIATI assumption: What you see is all there is. Because our intuitive mind constructs a coherent narrative based on the evidence we have, making up for holes in it, we tend to overlook what is missing. Devesh, for instance, found the acquisition proposal compelling until he realized he had not seen a legal due diligence on the target company’s patent portfolio—perhaps not a major issue if the acquisition were being made primarily to gain new customers but a critical question when the goal was to extend the product line.

To force yourself to examine the adequacy of the data, Harvard Business School professor Max Bazerman suggests asking the question above. In many cases, data are unavailable. But in some cases, useful information will be uncovered.

From Before You Make That Big Decision… by Daniel Kahneman, Dan Lovallo & Olivier Sibony in Harvard Buisness Review. The idea is similar to Gary Klein’s idea of the pre-mortem. Both, in the style of ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ type questions, ask you to take a perspective which is less involved in the decision immediately in front of you, to facilitate exploration the counter-factual space around the way things are (or are as you imagine them), and to return with questions you didn’t think to ask previously.


we know that we are not only these things

At the opening of his 1986 work The Blind Watchmaker Richard Dawkins wrote: “This book is written in the conviction that our own existence once presented the greatest of all mysteries, but that it is a mystery no longer because it is solved. Darwin and Wallace solved it.” This passage highlights the gulf that now exists between the accepted secular-atheist worldview of our culture and the reality of how people live and experience their lives. Because although Dawkins may feel that he has solved our mystery — and although science has indeed solved part of it — the fact is that we do not feel solved. We do not live our lives and experience our lives as solved beings. In the same way, no intelligent person could reject what we know to be our kinship with the animal kingdom. Yet few people would rejoice in being referred to as a mere animal. Being described as “mammalian” may shock and even stimulate for a bit, but to live as though we were animals would be — we know — to degrade ourselves. Whether we are right or wrong in this, we do feel that we are more than this. In the same way, we know we are more than mere consumers. We rebel when we are talked of as mere cogs in some economic wheel, and some people will even vote Green as a result. We rebel not because we are not these things, but because we know that we are not only these things. We know we are something else, even if we do not know what that else is.

Douglas Murray, 2015, in Standpoint magazine: ‘Is The West’s Loss Of Faith Terminal?

intellectual self-defence

Dan Ariely teaches you how to say “no”

Dan Ariely has this autoreply keyed up, so that by typing a single word he can send you this email:


This is a very interesting and important topic and close to my heart. But sadly, my life is so full these days that I don’t even have time for the things I’ve already promised to do. I even have a few of my own projects that I haven’t been able to find the time to work on. Not to mention that I have projects with close collaborators that I promised to work on and haven’t been able to.

So while this sounds exciting, I know at the end of the day, it would just put me in a deeper spiral of obligation and place even more constraints than I have now. I hope you understand but I have to decline.

Wishing you all the best and lots of luck.


books Me

For argument’s sake

cover of ebook
I have (self) published an ebook For argument’s sake: evidence that reason can change minds. It is the collection of two essays that were originally published on Contributoria and The Conversation. I have revised and expanded these, and added a guide to further reading on the topic. There are bespoke illustrations inspired by Goya (of owls), and I’ve added an introduction about why I think psychologists and journalists both love stories that we’re irrational creatures incapable of responding to reasoned argument. Here’s something from the book description:

Are we irrational creatures, swayed by emotion and entrenched biases? Modern psychology and neuroscience are often reported as showing that we can’t overcome our prejudices and selfish motivations. Challenging this view, cognitive scientist Tom Stafford looks at the actual evidence. Re-analysing classic experiments on persuasion, as well as summarising more recent research into how arguments change minds, he shows why persuasion by reason alone can be a powerful force.

All in, it’s close to 7000 words and available from Amazon now

intellectual self-defence

Please no rhetorical questions

Rhetorical questions are generally difficult to deploy effectively in a piece of writing. When debating with someone over the Internet their use is particularly ill-advised, for at least three reasons.


Reason #1: Would clarity benefit from rephrasing as a statement?. Clarity benefits if you rephrase as a statement.

You can probably rephrase what you mean as a statement, which will be clearer and more explicit. Go on, try it. Rephrase your rhetorical question, and add your answer. The person you are arguing with now has less chance of missing what you are really trying to say. Communication is hard. Communicating with someone who disagrees with you is extra-hard.

Clarity benefits if you rephrase rhetorical questions as statements.


Reason #2: Isn’t it obvious what I mean?. It isn’t obvious what you mean.

In our face-to-face communication we rely on a bunch of non-verbal channels to convey additional information. This is crucial when what we mean is different from exactly what we say. In written language these channels – tone of voice, gesture, etc – are missing. Moreover you can be less certain of what your audience knows or assumes. For these reasons, things like sarcasm are notoriously difficult to pick up on over the Internet. Like sarcasm, rhetorical questions assume a shared understanding to allow you to convey what you mean without stating it explicitly. So, by using a rhetorical question you are taking a risk that your real meaning will be understood by your reader. That is an unnecessary risk, don’t take it.

It isn’t obvious what you mean. Rhetorical questions ask your reader to infer your real meaning. Be kind, just tell them.


Reason #3: Don’t we all know the answer to this one?. We don’t all share the same assumptions.

Rhetorical question assume a shared framework, something you cannot assume when you are disagreeing with someone. If you want to focus on the substantive disagreement you have with someone, don’t dance around it with rhetorical questions. Say what you mean so your reader can respond based on that, rather on what they have to guess about the inspiration for your questions.

The clue is in the name – rhetorical questions are for rhetoric, persuading an audience, a passive mass rather than a particular individual who has the right of reply. If you are arguing on the Internet you should have the courtesy not to treat a singular reader or small group of readers who want a right of reply as an audience. They have a considered opinion which you need to listen to. They may even want to understand what your considered opinion is. You do them – and your opinion – a disservice if you deploy rhetorical questions, which obscure your meaning in favour of self-satisfied point-scoring.

No, we don’t all the know the answer to your rhetorical question. We don’t agree, so we probably don’t share common assumptions. Rhetorical questions assume we do, so you should particularly avoid them in argument.

intellectual self-defence

physics as necessary but not sufficient to explain causation in complex systems

Ellis (2008) has an account of the nature of top-down causation in complex systems. He says there are at least five established forms of top-down causation – ways in which the higher level properties of a system can have causal power over the lower level elements (in contrast to the reductive view which would say that all behaviour of a system can be explained by the lower level properties : the physics is primary approach).

For me, the value of the paper is a single thought: physics provides the necessary, but not sufficient conditions, for explaining human behaviour. Without our physical natures – our undeniable existence as material beings, governed by four primary physical forces – we would not be, but to understand our being you need more than an account of the component materials and their governing forces.

Probably an obvious point, but succinctly put and useful to have on hand when faced with reductionists, or when trying to figure out the proper role of human agency in a strictly physical universe.

Ellis, G. F. (2008). On the nature of causation in complex systems. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 63(1), 69-84.


Quote #304: Knuth versus email

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.

(Donald) Knuth versus email


Learning, Motor Skill, and Long-Range Correlations

Nourrit-Lucas et al (2015) compare expert and novice performance on a ski-simulator, a complex task which is often used by human movement scientists. Acquiring skilled performance on the ski-simulator requires you to learn a particular form of control as you shift your weight from side to side (van der Pol form of damped oscillations).

Their main result involved comparing the autocorrelations (which they call serial correlations) of participants’ performance. The participants were instructed to move from side to side as fast, and widely, as possible and these movements were motion tracked. The period of the oscillations was extracted and the autocorrelation for different lags calculated (other complexity measures were also calculated, which I ignore here). The autocorrelations for novices were positive for lag 1 and possibly for other short lags, but dropped to zero for longer range lags (5-30). Expert’s autocorrelations were higher for shorter lags and did not drop to zeros for any of the lags examined (showing positive long-range correlations in performance).

Figure 3, Nourrit-Lucas et al (2015)
Figure 3, Nourrit-Lucas et al (2015)

Nourrit-Lucas et al put an impressive interpretation on their result. It undermines, they say, that motor learning involves merely a process of simplification, unification or selection of a single efficient motor programme. Instead, they say “Expert performance seems characterized by a more complex and structured dynamics than that of novices.”

They link this interpretation to the idea of degeneracy, in which learning is the coordination of a complex network so that multiple functional units become linked to all support given outcomes. “This enrichment of neural networks could explain the property of robustness of motor skills, essentially revealed in retention tests, but also the properties of generalizability and transfer”

They cite modelling by Delignieres & Mermelat (2013) which links level of degeneracy to extent of long-range correlations. Whilst they admit that other complex networks are also capable of producing the long-range correlations observed, I would go further and say that a “simple-unitary” model of motor learning might also produce long-range correlations if there was some additional structured noise on performance (e.g. drift in attention or some such). Novices of course, would also have this influence on their performance, but perhaps it is swamped by the larger variability of their yet to be optimised motor system. I don’t see why the analysis of Nouritt-Lucas excludes this interpretation, but I may be missing something.

I also note that their result contrast with that of van Beers et al (2013), who showed that lag 1 autocorrelations in experts at at an aiming task tended towards zero. They interpreted this as evidence of optimal learning (ie neither under- nor over- correction of performance based on iterated error feedback). The difference may be explained by the fact that van Beers’ task used an explicit target whilst Nourrit-Lucas’ task lacked any explicit target (merely asking participants to, in effect, “do their best” in making full and fast oscillations).

The most impressive element of the Nouritt-Lucas study is not emphasised in the paper – the expert group are recruited from a group that was trained on the task 10 years previously. In Nourrit-Lucas et al (2013) she shows that despite the ten year gap the characteristic movement pattern of experts (that damped van der Pol oscillation) is retained – a truly impressive lab demonstration of the adage that you “don’t forget how to ride a bike [or equivalently complex motor task]”.


Delignieres, D., & Marmelat, V. (2013). Degeneracy and long-range correlations. Chaos: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Non-linear Science, 23, 043109.

Nourrit-Lucas, D., Tossa, A. O., Zélic, G., & Delignières, D. (2015). Learning, Motor Skill, and Long-Range Correlations. Journal of motor behavior, (ahead-of-print), 1-8.

Nourrit-Lucas, D., Zelic, G., Deschamps, T., Hilpron, M., & Delignieres, D. (2013). Persistent coordination patterns in a complex task after 10 years delay: How validate theold saying “Once you have learned how to ride a bicycle, you never forget!” Human Movement Science, 32, 1365–1378. doi:10.1016/j.humov.2013.07.005

van Beers, R. J., van der Meer, Y., & Veerman, R. M. (2013). What autocorrelation tells us about motor variability: Insights from dart throwing. PloS one, 8(5), e64332.

intellectual self-defence

The Moral Arc

I am seeking suggestions for things to read on a specific topic, which I am struggling to articulate. I would like to read an analysis of how individuals understand their own moral development. Moral philosophers have accounts of what is moral, how it should be understood. This lacks the first person perspective I want to explore – I want to read something that takes seriously the subjective moral life as it is, not as it should be. Experimental philosophers have accounts of differences in people’s responses to moral dilemmas. This is too static – I want to read something that takes seriously our ability to change morally, and particularly to be agents of our own changes in belief. Biographies, particularly of spiritual or political figures, have first person accounts of moral change – why people lost their faith, or changed faith, in deities, parties or principles – but these don’t allow the comparison across people that I’d like.

I wonder if such a book exists. Something like “In a different voice“, but with more emphasis on adult development, or The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, with a specific focus on moral change.

The motivation is to escape the implicit model of many psychological accounts, which portray people as passive information processors; at their worse stimulus response machines, but even at their best as mere suboptimal rational agents. I’d like to think more about people as active moral agents – as having principles which are consciously developed, seriously considered, subject to revision, passionately defended and debated. Then, of course the trick is to design empirical psychology research which, because it takes this perspective seriously, allows this side of people to manifest rather then denying or denigrating it.


Habits as action sequences: hierarchical action control and changes in outcome value

Dezfouli, Lingiwi and Balleine (2014) advocate hierarchical reinforcement learning (hierarchical RL) as a framework for understanding important features of animal action learning.

Hierarchical RL and model-free RL are both capable of coping with complex environment where outcomes may be delayed until a sequence of actions is completed. In these situations simple model-based (goal-directed) RL does not scale. The key difference between hierarchical and model free RL is that in model free RL actions are evaluated at each step, whereas in hierarchical RL they are evaluated at the end of an action sequence.

The authors note two features of the development of habits. The concatenation of actions, such that sequences can be units of selection, is predicted by hierarchical RL. The insensitivity of actions to the devaluation of their outcomes is predicted by model-free RL. Here they report experiments, and draw on prior modelling work, to show that hierarchical RL can lead to outcome devaluation insensitivity. This encompasses these two features of habit learning under a common mechanisms, and renders a purely model-free RL account of action learning redundant. Instead model-free RL will be subsumed within a hierarchical RL controller, which is involved in early learning of action components but will later devolve oversight (hence insensitivity to devaluation).

Hierarchical RL leads to two kinds of action errors, planning errors and action slips (for which they distinguish two types).

Planning errors result from ballistic control, meaning that intervening changes in outcome do not affect the action sequence.
Action slips are also due to ‘open-loop control’, ie due to a lack of outcome evaluation for component actions. The first kind is where ballistic control means an action is completed despite a reward being delivered midsequence (and so rendering completion of the action irrelevant, see refs 30 and 31 in the original). The second subcategory of action slip is ‘capture error’ or ‘strong habit intrusion’, which is where a well rehearsed completion of a sequence runs off from initial action(s) which were intended as part of a different sequence.

I don’t see a fundamental difference between the first type of action slip and the planning error, but that may be my failing.

They note that model free RL does not predict specific timing of errors (hierarchical RL predicts errors due to devaluation in the middle of sequences, and habitual intrusions at joins in sequences, see Botvinick & Bylsma, 2005), and doesn’t predict action slips (as Dezfouli et al define them)


They use a two stage decision task to show insensitivity to intermediate outcomes in a sequence, in humans.

Quoting Botvinick & Weinstein (2014)’s description of the result, because their own is less clear:
“they observed that when subjects began a trial with the same action that they had used to begin the previous trial, in cases where that previous trial had ended with a reward, subjects were prone to follow up with the same second-step action as well, regardless of the outcome of the first action. And when this occurred, the second action was executed with a brief reaction time, compared to trials where a different second-step action was selected.”

The first action, because it was part of a successful sequence, was reinforced (more likely to be choosen, quicker), despite the occasions when the intermediate outcome – the one that resulted from that first action – was not successful.


Rats tested in extinction recover goal-directed control over their actions (as indicated by outcome devaluation having the predicted effect). This is predicted by a normative analysis where habits should only exist when their time/effort saving benefits outweigh the costs.

The authors note that this is “consistent with a report showing that the pattern of neuronal activity, within dorso-lateral striatum that marks the beginning and end of the action sequences during training, is diminished when the reward is removed during extinction [37]”


They review evience for a common locus (the striatum of the basal ganglia) and common mechanism (dopamine signals) for action valuation and sequence learning. Including:
“evidence suggests that the administration of a dopamine antagonist disrupts the
chunking of movements into well-integrated sequences in capuchin monkeys [44], which can be reversed by co-administration of a dopamine agonist [45]. In addition, motor chunking appears not to occur in Parkinsons patients [46] due to a loss of dopaminergic activity in the sensorimotor putamen, which can be restored in patients on L -DOPA [47].”

My memory of this literature is that evidence on chunking in Parkinsons is far from convincing or consistent, so I might take these two results with a pinch of salt.

Their conclusion: “This hierarchical view suggests that the development of action sequences and the insensitivity of actions to changes in outcome value are essentially two sides of the same coin, explaining why these two aspects of automatic behaviour involve a shared neural structure.”


Botvinick, M. M., & Bylsma, L. M. (2005). Distraction and action slips in an everyday task: Evidence for a dynamic representation of task context. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 12(6), 1011-1017.

Botvinick, M., & Weinstein, A. (2014). Model-based hierarchical reinforcement learning and human action control. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 369(1655), 20130480.

Dezfouli, A., Lingawi, N. W., & Balleine, B. W. (2014). Habits as action sequences: hierarchical action control and changes in outcome value. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 369(1655), 20130482.


Limits on claims of optimality

Jarvstad et al (2014) provide a worked illustration showing that it is not straightforward to declare perceptuo-motor decision making optimal, or even more optimal when compared to cognitive decisions.

They note that, in contrast to cognitive level decisions, that perceptuo-motor decisions have been described a optimal or near optimal (Seydell et al, 2008; Trommershäuser et al, 2006). But they also note that there are differences in the performance conditions and criteria of assessment as optimal between perceptuo-motor and cognitive decisions. Jarvstad et al (2013) demonstrated that when these differences are eliminated, claims about differences between domains are harder to substantiate.

In this paper, Jarvstad et al (2014) compare two reaching tasks to explore the notional optimality of human perceptuo-motor performance. They show that minor changes in task parameters can affect whether participants are classified as behaving as optimally or not (even if these changes in task parameters do not effect the level of performance of an optimal agent). Specifically they adjusted the size and distance of the reaching targets in their experiment, without qualitatively altering the experiment (nor the instructions and protocol at all).

The bound below which performance is classified as sub-optimal depends on a number of factors. The ease of task affects this (for easier tasks observed performance will be closer to optimal), but so does the variability in an optimal agent’s performance, or the accuracy of estimation around an optimal agent’s performance affect. Jarvstad et al conclude that, for this task at least, it is not straightforward to know how changes in an experiment will effect the bounds within which a subject is classified as optimal. They say (p.413):

That statements about optimality are specific and conditional in this way – that is, a behaviour is optimal given a task of this difficulty, and given these capacity constraints included in the optimal agent— may be appreciated by many, however the literatures typically do not make this explicit, and many claims are simply unsustainable once this fact is taken into account.


Jarvstad, A., Hahn, U., Warren, P. A., & Rushton, S. K. (2014). Are perceptuo-motor decisions really more optimal than cognitive decisions?. Cognition, 130(3), 397-416.

Seydell, A., McCann, B. C., Trommershäuser, J., & Knill, D. C. (2008). Learning stochastic reward distributions in a speeded pointing task. The Journal of Neuroscience, 28, 4356–4367.

Trommershäuser, J., Landy, M. S., & Maloney, L. T. (2006). Humans rapidly estimate expected gain in movement planning. Psychological Science, 17, 981–988.