## 09/11/2013

### mathematical desire

Model of romance for you. Say there are two functions: A(y) – person x’s attraction to person y – and R(y), their respect for y. Then, two inverse composites: R(A) and A(R). Assume they can come apart (be non-monotonic), and sexually active people then fall into some intersect of 8 exhaustive romantic functions:

1. R(A) is proportional: Beauty's halo. (X is shallow.) [A(y) up --> R(y) up]
2. R(A) is inverse: The mind's revenge. (X is sadistic.) [A(y) up --> R(y) down]
3. R(A) negatively inverse: Hm. (X is maybe insecure.) [A(y) down --> R(y) up]
4. R(A) negative proportion: Reverse halo. (X is nasty-shallow.) [A(y) down --> R(y) down]

5. A(R) is proportional: Just and rational desire. (X is blessed.) [R(y) up --> A(y) up]
6. A(R) inverse: The mind's disdain for the body. (X pedestalises.) [R(y) up --> A(y) down]
7. A(R) negatively inverse: Masochism. [R(y) down --> A(y) up]
8. A(R) negatively proportional: Dignity (or purity). [R(y) down --> A(y) down]

Quelle surprise, those that have attraction determining respect (5&8) are the humane ones. But there are more perverse strategies than healthy ones, and can you say you’d be surprised if this were borne out empirically?

James points out the need of a reflexive self-respect variable, R(x), to really see the shape of an ordinary relationship (since we're drawn to people who are in some respect better than us). [If R(x) > R(y) --> A(y) down.] and [If R(x) < R(y), A(y) up.]

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"It is equally fatal to the spirit to have a system and to not have a system. One will simply have to combine the two."
- Novalis

Now, the exercise is laughably incomplete, missing as it does dozens of salient variables* as well as the internal poetic significance - what feels to be the whole point. (For any given individual, I would guess the above R-squared of the above at less than 0.3.) In fact just adopting this nasty economic-sociobiological posture dissolves the thing's poetry. But nothing can talk about everything.** The model’s as simplistic as can be and still illuminating, and that's the interesting bit; how much of us can you show up, how surprising can you be, with just two quantities and four relations. To me the options seem to be: entertain theories***, or settle for courageless commonsense (in which I include intuition). Aporia – the aseptic procedure for handling the debilitating pathogens, ideas – is a rare talent. Its opposite, human dogmatism, is the default but it's our failure, not theory’s.

When is a model unacceptably distorting, though? (Can we model that?) People who take the above line must be clear with themselves about when models become liabilities. This happens when: the class of mathematics used is too restrictive for the class of problem (generally true of human affairs, though do note Nate Silver-style stats); when the use of precise maths implies we have solutions where we have none or can have none; and above all when the model obscures more of the phenomenon than it uncovers. There could be good theories we wholly lack the maths for. People who think formally about people should remember they are heuristics: we use theory as a conditional reminder of the complexity of people, rather than a predictive or exhaustive encapsulation of them.*****

* e.g. The self-respect differential, simple proximity, parental influence, inverse parental influence, y's place in local pecking order, degree of shared interests, romantic anosognosia (or the whole subsystem of casual criteria)...

** You might say that theoretical silence preserves more than any theory can state, but I think you'd do silence too much honour. It doesn't mean anything to mean everything, and implying anything's the same.****

*** This claim is close to ludicrous fiat, saved from it only by my saying ‘theories’ rather than ‘a theory’.

**** What about Tractarian silence? Sure it's a peerlessly beautiful thought, but people divorce it from the properly hellish mathematical world that gives it its punch and significance. No-one is a Tractarian (except the very ill), because life would be intolerable without the nonempirical kinds of meaning the Tractatus shoves out of language and almost out of life.

***** All right, all right, let's say you've justified precise theorising about fuzzy humans. Why cloak it in maths, a rhetorical device that repels 80% of even the educated world?******

****** Look, it's a joke, A JOKE I TELLS YA!

XKCD (2000)

### on not finishing books

Sometimes it’s hard to finish books because I've become someone other than the person who started it and don't share their goal of reading it. There’s a grand compliment in there – ‘this book changed me, man’ – but any book that takes more than a week is liable to fall foul of young people’s mutability in this way.

Many unfinished books are started so we can say we’ve read them: they are plugs for gaps in cultural armour. We often fail to see these through because they tend to the interminable – cf. Gibbons’ Decline and fucking Fall – and because our motive’s so base, baseless in the first place. Plugging could be noble – the will to improve oneself – but it's more often an ignoble fear of looking ignorant (rather than the excellent fear of being ignorant). The educated world keeps up an arms race in which indifferent bystanders are gunned down by fully-auto sneering, where books are secondary to the concept of themselves. This side of ‘literary’ culture, call it the consumerism of the immaterial, is scarcely different from more obvious consumerism about designer labels and very large cars. Each of the games motivates the player with identity concerns, providing us with superficial status by association and not via anything actual like form or content.

Relatedly: we can stop reading out of simple disappointment (because misled by hype) or simple disgust (because of unbearable prose). I’m no aesthete, but on occasion I’ve had to bail out because of style; bad translations from e.g. Swedish or Chinese, academic work of any field from the last 50 years.

Finally there are books you haven’t finished reading even when you’ve read to the last page. The hermetic, or meaningless, or stodgy, or countably infinite: Finnegan’s Wake, Pound’s Cantos, Moby Dick, Infinite Jest. Whether it’s worth returning depends on how poncey your peers are, or how much you trust the book’s ineffable reputation (which will be to the same extent you distrust your ability to actually read).