On getting nerdswiped

I used to often worry about the fact that I was never really focused on a research problem. I would hear about researchers making amazing discoveries after single-mindedly pursuing their goal for months and years, and I would often think that that would never be me. Instead of focusing on one thing, I would pursue whatever struck me as interesting in the moment, and of course that wouldn’t last very long.

I have spent the last month or so, however, obsessing on a problem that my advisor gave me. I wasn’t on a deadline. I wasn’t even expected to solve the problem. We both agreed that I should focus on a simpler problem for my thesis. However, I somehow started spending all my time on it.

Over the last week, it has gotten to the point where I have trouble sleeping because of it. I go to sleep thinking about it, and wake up early in the morning still thinking about it. When I try to distract myself by reading a book or watching something on Netflix, I find myself returning to it within minutes.

It would be interesting to introspect on why I was particularly nerdswiped by this problem, and whether this insight can be harnessed to generate interest in other problems in the future. Some reasons that I could think of:

  1. I was making progress on the problem. When I tried this problem in the past, I was making no progress, and was not even sure that I had the right “picture” in mind as to what was happening. However, this time we had a pretty good idea of what was happening. I knew that I “had it in the bag”. Perhaps this motivated me to push harder.
  2. More importantly, my advisor’s insight into what the solution should “look like” considerably narrowed the solution space for me. After that, it was mostly about making sure that certain pieces fit. This transformation of a somewhat difficult task to a much simpler task was perhaps what made me much more interested in the problem.

In some sense, narrowing down the possible set of solutions was what made me very interested in the problem. This is similar to what happens in a crossword, when you have found all letter except one or two. You know that the solution can be found after a few minutes of thinking. You know that you are close. That is when you can’t stop thinking about the word.

Previously, I wasn’t as interested in the problem because the solution space was huge. I wasn’t sure that I even knew the techniques that would perhaps be required to ultimately solve the problem. The possible size of the solution space turned out to be the biggest obstruction to getting interested in the problem.

Hence, when we talk about famous scientists and mathematicians obsessively chipping away at problems, we are perhaps only observing the fact that they were “smart” enough to reduce the solution space on their own, and hence knew that they were close to a complete solution. Achievement is not a result of focus. Focus is a result of smartness and achievement.

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The network effects in human behavior

Actions come before thoughts.

I make coffee for my roommate everyday. It felt really awkward at first, as I don’t really have a lifelong habit of cooking for others. In fact, I felt a strong revulsion at first. I didn’t really have to do it. It’s not like anyone else was making coffee for me. I’d have to clean the coffee strainer, find a clean up, etc. Every morning. Before they woke up. But I pushed myself through this. Expectedly, this became easier with time. More surprisingly, it make my outlook towards them much more positive in almost every other facet of our interactions. I now notice more clearly when they are uncomfortable, or want something that I can help them with. I am more forgiving of bad interactions, and, in some cosmic sense of the word, have more “empathy”.

Let’s explore this further.

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin was a man of many talents, not the least of which was giving pretty good advice. When asked how to convert a hater into someone who likes you, Franklin have the following counter-intuitive advice to offer (paraphrased):

When someone doesn’t like you, ask them for their help in something. Decency will compel them to help you. And after helping you, their demeanor towards you will improve.

I have long pondered this surprising piece of advice. I once heard on a podcast that this is an example of “cognitive dissonance”. Your thoughts only rarely lead to action. It is your unconscious habits and patterns that lead to most of your actions. Thoughts only serve to justify those actions to yourself. There is a lot of scientific evidence to back this up. When patients that had just come out of a coma were told that they had done certain things (which they had not), and asked why they had done those things, they could instantly come up with reasons. We are unmatched in offering justifications, real or imagined.

Now suppose you force yourself to do something good for someone. Your brain will feel a compulsion to justify why you did that thing for them. Most often, it’ll come up with “that person is good, and is deserving of the help you offered”. Hence, you are now more motivated to help them out the next time they need your help. This becomes a positive feedback loop, which may lead to you offering your help to that person for the rest of your life and maintaining a high opinion of them.

Relevance to my life

I’m not a completely garbage human being. I donate 10% of my earnings to charity. I volunteer my time and effort to raise funds for some organizations. I also almost always lean towards radical honesty. However, I can also be extremely selfish and short-tempered, hurting people close to me in the process. This duality is easy to understand: the charitable person was born out of the need to copy people I admire. The selfish and short-tempered person is, in some sense, who I “am”.

I slowly realized that in order to change “who I am”, or change my thoughts, I had to first change my actions. I started small. I started by making coffee. Forcing myself to plan gifts for loved ones on their birthdays. Calling people who I hadn’t talked to in a long time. Although these are things that come naturally to most people, they didn’t come naturally to me. At all. I had to fight against my natural instincts to do these things.

Slowly, these things became easier to do. It became less awkward to give my roommate a cup of coffee, order some surprise takeout food for my parents, etc. More importantly, I started to feel a compulsion to do other things for the people around me that I wasn’t actively practicing. My mother told me about a bad interaction she’d recently had, and I sat on my sofa feeling bad for hours for her. My roommate expressed some frustration with me, and I didn’t feel like arguing back because I understood their side. I was slowly developing empathy.

There is some “I am growing into a better person” side to this article. But there is also some interesting science behind this self-experimentation. If empathy can be thought of as a network of habits, composed of many nodes, we don’t need to activate all nodes to become empathetic. Lighting up only one of those nodes was also enough to bring all the nodes alive. For instance, I wouldn’t need to make a habit of wishing people on their birthdays, calling people regularly, helping them whenever I could, etc all at once. I would just need to make a habit of one of those things, and the other things would start coming naturally to me.

Are all human habits parts of networks? Does making your bed every morning make you a more responsible and independent person in general? Does becoming good at the piano make you a better musician in general? How else can we exploit these network effects to metamorphose into less crap version of ourselves?

Love and p-hacking

The following is a real conversation I had with a fellow graduate student (name and identity appropriately changed).

I knew that our relationship was doomed, and we were only being self-destructive by continuing it behind everyone’s back. However, my phone was once out of battery, and I was stranded in the middle of the city. Suddenly, I saw my boyfriend in the crowd. I called out to him, and he helped me get back home.

What are the chances that the one time I’m in desperate need of help, I would see my boyfriend? That had to be a sign from a higher power that we were meant to be together.

This graduate student was a star student from one of the Indian Institutes of Technology, and was set to have a great academic career. However, she was embroiled in a relationship that was destroying both her academic standing and her mental peace. Because she’d seen a “sign” from god.

This reminded me of my classmate from my Masters program, who was widely considered a “brilliant but lazy” mathematics student. He saw a “sign” from God, and decided that he must move to a certain city where his crush had moved. He took a large loan to fund his further education in that city. He never met his crush in that city, who refused to respond to his messages, and also failed out of his program.

How could the “signs” from God have been so wrong?

P-hacking is concept that is well-known but less well understood. Suppose you want to show a correlation between the rise of gun violence in American cities and the rise in chocolate consumption. You take 100 cities in America, and study their gun violence and chocolate consumption rates. Out of these 100 cities, it is possible through random variation alone that one city may show a positive correlation between the two variables. You then isolate that city, and claim to all your peers that you have indeed discovered that your hypothesis is true. “The more you eat chocolates in Denver, the more people you shoot!”, you may shout from rooftops, perhaps threateningly brandishing a Hersheys bar if you’re in Denver.

In other words, you didn’t start with “Let me explore whether a higher chocolate consumption leads to more gun violence in Denver.” You just took a large database, which may contain some untrue correlations purely by chance, and isolated those patterns.

P-hacking is akin to a scam in the statistical paper-publishing industry. Moreover, it is also effectively what my two friends above were doing.

The female graduate student didn’t start with “If I am ever stranded without my phone, and I see my boyfriend, I will take it to be a sign that we are meant to be together.” She didn’t have a hypothesis to begin with, which she could then have tested. Over the course of years (and hence a large dataset), she just saw an unlikely event, and retroactively interpreted that to be a sign. Similarly, my friend from my masters program hadn’t narrowed down his definition of what a sign from God could be.

This may seem to be a flimsy premise to write a blogpost on, but I often see intelligent people, who I’d love to see succeed, self-obliterate grandly because they may have seen some of these “signs”- that they’re meant to be with that one person who is effectively as nourishing to their dreams as cyanide. If you know these people in your life, shake them by the shoulders and make them read this post (or perhaps a better post on p-hacking). Our friends deserve our condescension and forced blogpost reading.

What’s an example of a “sign” that is not a result of p-hacking? It is one in which you first choose what the “sign” should be, and then observe whether you’re given such a sign. Thereby, this.

Types of desires

A lot of the online literature about narcissists says that narcissists don’t really have desires. They are scared to have desires, because they will then have to work towards those achieving them, and then face the possibility of failure. Consequently, narcissists want to attain their wishes of wealth, fame, etc by accident. The analogue of the girl slipping and falling into the hero’s arms. Some examples are: winning the lottery, somehow opening a billion-dollar startup, uncovering a law of nature that no one has thought about before, etc. Let’s explore this idea further by classifying the type of desires that one may have.

  1. Primary desires– These are desires that compel a person to a specific form of action. Examples include “I want to write a book on medieval architecture in France”, “I want to go to Italy”, “I want to open an electric car company”, etc. These desires generally don’t have a secondary goal in mind. These are the kinds of desires that change the world.
  2. Secondary desires– These are desires that have a secondary goal in mind, but still compel a person to action. Examples include “I want to do whatever makes me rich”, “I want to do something that makes everyone think I am very smart”, “I want to be thought of as someone who heralded a scientific revolution”, etc. If I want to do anything that makes me rich, I will have to find something that has made other people rich, and spend lots of time and effort developing that skill. However, I may inevitably keep second guessing myself. What if my attempt at getting rich is sub-optimal, and that I should do that completely different thing instead?
  3. Tertiary desires– These are desires that do not compel any action. Examples include “I want the situation to evolve in such a way that my present skills and capabilities are sufficient for making me rich, successful, etc”. In some sense, these desires preclude the necessity of making a choice, and consequently avoid the possibility of making a wrong choice. What if your chosen method of getting rich was wrong all along, proving that you were stupid?

I can confirm that tertiary desires are what narcissists have. In some sense, a lot of our desires are constructed in childhood, when we are surrounded by fairy tales. Most fairy tales induce tertiary desires. Cinderella was not someone who willed a better future for herself through hard work and intelligence. She was always the “true princess”. It was world (the prince, the glass shoe, etc) that changed around her to gift her a royal future.

Maybe narcissists have a tendency to import narratives from the books and movies that they’re exposed to into their own lives. And the narratives around us are mostly those that glorify what we already are, instead of what we can become.

The escape velocity of Jupiter

Rahul Gandhi, universally recognized as the village idiot of Indian politics, once, somehow, used the phrase “the escape velocity of Jupiter” in a political speech. I’m quoting from the speech below:

The escape velocity for earth is 11.2 km/sec while that of Jupiter is 60 km/sec. In India we have the concept of caste. There is an escape velocity here also. For a Dalit to achieve success the escape velocity required is that of Jupiter. More effort is needed.

It’s not even that bad an analogy. The “suppressed” classes would have to work harder to succeed in India. But then again, Rahul could have used a less astronomical analogy. He could have used “disabled runner competing with able runners”, or perhaps even “Rahul Gandhi competing with Narendra Modi”. But he chose to borrow an analogy from extra-planetary Newtonian physics that was probably lost on almost everyone.

It was widely thought that Rahul was trying to appear “smart”, in order to counter his widespread image of being “dumb”. Because this effort was so transparent, it only led to more ridicule.

Now I can sympathize with that. I have often given people cause to think less of my cognitive abilities. And in order to counter that, many a time have I dreamed up fantastical scenarios in which I say or do something very smart, that forces people to reassess their previous image of me, and conclude that they were mistaken about my lack of smartness. However, much like Rahul Gandhi, all my efforts in that direction have only led to more ridicule. Perhaps people smarter than Rahul and I are needed to dig us out of our intellectual graves.

Winston Churchill, writer, politician and racist par excellence, was famous for his sharp wit and earth-shaking putdowns. Given below is a sample:

Women (to Winston Churchill): If you were my husband, I’d poison your coffee.
WC: If you were my wife, I’d drink it!

https://upjoke.com/churchill-jokes

All of these jokes follow a similar pattern: someone would try to mess with Churchill, and Churchill would deftly show them who’s boss with a witty reply. Needless to say, such jokes enhanced his reputation as a smart man who shouldn’t be messed with.

However, what is perhaps surprising is that he made almost all of these jokes up! He literally wrote these jokes up, and then asked his subordinates to spread stories of “when Churchill gave these hilarious replies”. A loser move, if there ever was one, that worked wonders!

What lessons can one learn from Churchill? Creating a reputation for intelligence is not a one-person job. You can’t say or do something very “smart”, and hope that people will think highly of your intelligence. You have to “defeat” someone in an intellectual battle to be thought of as “smart”. And, like in the case of Churchill, these intellectual battles don’t even really have to take place! As long as some people believe that you won an intellectual battle, they’ll take you to be smart.

Let’s think of some situations in which people may think you are smart:

  1. You do really well in a competitive exam, thereby beating other people.
  2. You and another person have a bet on a fact or logical puzzle, that you win.
  3. You think of a solution to a problem before everyone else.
  4. You earn much more than other people, and didn’t have an advantage like family wealth or opportunity.

Situations in which people do not think you are smart, but only think you’re annoying:

  1. You quote an obscure philosopher to make your point. People may think you’re snooty, but not necessarily smart.
  2. You tell everybody about the book you’ve been reading recently.
  3. You tell people you only listen to Jazz from the 60s, and that all other kinds of music are too lowbrow for you.
  4. You write a WordPress blog.

This is a pattern followed in being considered as rich, good-looking, whatever. Being rich in absolute terms counts for very little. Although you may be able to afford most of what you want, you won’t be thought of as rich unless you’re richer than the people around you. The same goes for being good looking, etc. Humans give you status only when you have defeated someone else in a status battle. It is a zero-sum game.

I don’t mean to proselytize, but being considered as “kind” does not follow the same pattern. You don’t have to be the kindest individual around to be considered kind. You only have to be “kind enough” or “helpful enough”. Hmm…maybe there’s something here…

Understanding Roe vs Wade

What does Roe vs Wade say?

It says that the Supreme Court does not have the power to enforce the right to abortion. It is not a part of the Constitution of the United States (like the right to bear arms, etc), and the job of amending the Constitution is that of elected lawmakers and not the judiciary.

EDIT: It seems that the Supreme Court announcement says that whether abortion should be performed should be a decision taken jointly the doctor and the patient, and lawmakers cannot intrude on that. I am quoting it below:

This means, on the other hand, that, for the period of pregnancy prior to this “compelling” point, the attending physician, in consultation with his patient, is free to determine, without regulation by the State, that, in his medical judgment, the patient’s pregnancy should be terminated. If that decision is reached, the judgment may be effectuated by an abortion free of interference by the State.

I am not sure whether the Supreme Court can stop state legislatures from making abortion laws. Hence, these might just be empty words. Moreover, we are again in the scenario where a conservative doctor may trample on a woman’s individual right to have an abortion and force her to have the baby anyway.

It also seems that the overturning of Roe vs Wade was preceded by Dobbs vs Jackson, in which the Supreme Court found that the Constitution does not confer a right to abortion. This wiki article is a good summary of Dobbs vs Jackson. A charitable understanding of the situation might be that the Supreme Court was forced to conclude in Dobbs vs Jackson that there was no constitutional precedence for a right to abortion. This ruling was in direct contravention of Roe vs Wade. Hence, for the purposes of self-consistency, the Supreme Court also overturned Roe vs Wade.

An uncharitable reading might be that the Supreme Court used its ruling in Dobbs vs Jackson as a weapon to overturn Roe vs Wade.

But isn’t the right to abortion a basic human right? Doesn’t the Supreme Court have a duty to enforce a basic human right?

The Supreme Court is not discussing the moral nature of the issue, but only the legal nature. If the right to abortion is indeed a moral right, the people of the country too will see it that way, and then elect lawmakers who will make the right to abortion part of the constitution.

Okay, so why don’t state legislatures make abortion legal?

A large part of the population, and consequently a large fraction of lawmakers, see abortion as immoral unless the life of the mother is in danger. Hence, many states (like Texas) will not make abortion legal.

What exactly is the abortion law in conservative states like Texas?

This is a good summary of the abortion law in Texas. Fetuses cannot be aborted after a faint heartbeat is detected, which is generally 6-7 weeks into the pregnancy. There is no exception for rapes, incest, etc.

Doesn’t the fetus become a person when a heartbeat can be detected? Why should the fetus be killed? Even if it is the result of rape or incest, it is not the fetus’s fault!

Why draw an arbitrary line at detecting a faint heartbeat? Why not say that each sperm is a potential person, and hence make masturbation illegal? Also, bringing up a child that is a result of rape or incest can be extremely traumatizing for the mother. We have to prioritize the already living over the will-be-living.

The point about the sperm was totally arbitrary. When you make a pizza, for instance, the dough is not equivalent to the pizza, although it is perhaps the fundamental ingredient. If you throw away the dough, you’re not throwing away the pizza. However, when the pizza has been in the oven for a while and is beginning to look like one, throwing it away at that point would be equivalent to throwing a pizza away.

Well, continuing that analogy, the dough doesn’t begin to look like a pizza after being put into the oven for 1 minute. Similarly, a fetus doesn’t become a person at 6 weeks. It begins to do so at around 23 weeks. This is reflected in California’s abortion law, which allows abortion up to roughly 23 weeks.

But isn’t a heartbeat a universally accepted sign of life? Of a person?

Although there is historical precedence for treating a heartbeat as a fundamental indicator of life, another way to look at the issue is to note that a “person” is a form of life that can survive outside of the uterus. A 6 week old fetus cannot survive outside of the uterus, while a 23 week fetus can.

But a 6 week fetus will inevitably become a 23 week fetus, right? Isn’t killing a 6 week fetus morally equivalent to killing a 23 week one?

Would you say masturbating is equivalent to killing a baby? Would you say that throwing away an unflattened ball of dough equivalent to throwing away a pizza?

Let’s flip the script. Killing a man of 30 is more morally egregious than killing an old man, right? The young man had so much more left to experience. Similarly, killing a child is much more morally egregious than killing a man of 30, because that child had hardly seen anything in life. Shouldn’t it consequently be more morally egregious to kill a 6 week old baby than killing a 23 week old baby, 30 year old man or old man?

But then shouldn’t masturbating be the worst possible sin? Shouldn’t not procreating be a sin? Shouldn’t we be procreating as much as we can? Every life that we don’t bring on Earth is a life wasted.

Well, okay. If we continue to procreate at every opportunity we get, we won’t be able to lead a happy life, or even have the resources to nourish our children. Hence, some balance has to be stuck between procreating and doing other things.

But let’s get back to the nitty-gritties. As of today, if a woman needs to get an abortion, she can get it before 6 weeks even in conservative states like Texas. If she needs to get one even after that, she can travel to a liberal state like California to get one. Is overturning Roe vs Wade really going to substantially hamper a woman’s efforts to get an abortion?

Well, it seems that women normally take five to six weeks to realize that they’re pregnant. Hence, by the time that a woman even realizes that she’s pregnant, abortion will become illegal for her in a state like Texas. Now she will have to travel to another state to get an abortion.

Seeing as unwanted pregnancies disproportionately affect women living in poverty and working minimum wage jobs or being homeless, these women will now be forced to take a break from work, and somehow find a way to pay for a weeks’ long trip to another state in order to have an abortion. Is it really that difficult to imagine that a lot of such women will choose to instead opt for unsafe and illegal procedures to get rid of their fetuses, thereby injuring their health?

Okay, I see that there is a moral argument to making abortion easily available to women. But let’s talk statistics. How many women die to the unavailability of abortion?

Consider the following passage from this link:

So how many lives will easy access to abortion save? Clearly there’s an upper bound of 700. Hence, less than 700 lives will be saved from all over the US if abortion is made freely available.

EDIT: I suppose there would be more deaths than 700, now that women who had access to abortion no longer have it in at least 13 states. I don’t have the numbers, and haven’t been able to find reliable statistics anywhere. We can do simple upper bound calculations though.

The Guttmacher Institute says that there were 930,160 abortions in 2020.

Unsafe abortions cause 3 more deaths per 1000 abortions than safe abortions. Even if we assume that all abortions in the US become illegal, and hence unsafe (this is a crazy upper bound), the number of extra deaths after overturning Roe vs Wade would be \frac{3}{1000}\times 930160=2790. We can further refine this number by using the fact that only 13/50 states have outlawed abortion. Assuming a uniform distribution of abortions (which may or may not be a good assumption), we get \frac{13}{50}*2790=725. This agrees with the earlier figure of 700, and I am now more confident in this statistic.

That’s not a lot of lives. The US government kills many, many more than that each year in its imperialist adventures. Aren’t there other issues that we should be focusing on, that can perhaps save more lives?

Well, the point is that overturning Roe vs Wade is the first step towards a truly intolerant state of affairs, in which the Supreme Court also reverses its rulings on same-sex marriage, contraception, etc. The Supreme Court has historically been a bulwark of individual freedom against majoritarian conservatism in states like Texas, etc. If the Supreme Court keeps claiming that it does not have the power to guarantee individual freedoms that were not enshrined in the constitution, and that this is the prerogative of lawmakers, then this could be a truly backward step for society in the United States.

But shouldn’t people abide by the decisions of their lawmakers? If you don’t agree with them, don’t re-elect them!

Well, majoritarian democracy does not always lead to the protection of individual minority rights. The majority in any country will try to undermine the minority. This is why individual freedom has to be guaranteed by the Supreme Court, and not legislatures. Texas, for instance, may never elect a government that supports same sex marriage; at least in the near future. However, homosexuals in Texas should have the right to marry, as long as they don’t infringe on the freedoms of others.

Can’t Biden bring back Roe vs Wade, then? Why wait for state legislatures?

Well, it seems that he can, but he has used up all of his bargaining chips getting his economic bill approved by the Republicans.

EDIT: It seems that what the article actually says is that Biden needs at least 60/100 votes in the Senate to get the bill passed. Although ordinary bills need a simple majority of 51/100, bills that may lead to a filibuster need 60/100. The Senate comprises of:

Notably, the Senate prevented a bill that would codify abortion in a 51-49 majority earlier this year. Hence, it is unlikely that Biden would be able to get this bill passed in the near future.

Let us look at historical precedence. Women’s right to vote was passed in the House, and not imposed by the Supreme Court. African-Americans’ right to vote was also passed in the House, and not enforced by the Supreme Court. Shouldn’t we hope for the same in the case of abortion, instead of asking the Supreme Court to perform an unconstitutional duty? On the other hand, hundreds and thousands of women will suffer and die before we see the kind of societal change needed to codify the right to abortion. Don’t we have some sort of moral obligation to prevent this from happening?

In some broad sense of the word, the “right to abortion” is not the “will of the people of the United States”. Both the centre and the state legislatures do not have enough votes to to get this bill passed. However, individual rights have rarely been the “will of the people”.

Suboptimal naming conventions

Music

Like everybody else with functional ears, I love the Beatles. Surely, the dizzying heights of their universal fandom preclude any exhortations of their greatness from me. However, something that has always struck me was their rather pedestrian name. Beatles. They referenced perhaps one of the more unremarkable insects found everywhere, and then changed one letter; like that made a difference. Consider the following passage from Rolling Stone:

The beetle does not even carry any of the connotations you’d want your band name to carry. If you had to go the insect route, “The Moskitos” would arguably have more of a zing to it. Deadly and infectious. I could see those being useful connotations for a rock n roll band. Even “The Silkworm” might have somewhat worked; what with the turning over the earth to bring up fresh soil. Throw in some Asian fusion music in your repertoire, and you have a decent name. But the “Beatles”? Let’s find a rather unremarkable, ugly insect that is not deadly but merely annoying, and name our band after that.

Not that this should be mentioned anywhere on the same webpage as the Beatles, but my school band was called “The Nemesis”, which I think is a better name than the Beatles (fight me). For all the “rock and metal” connotations that the name carried, we mainly played easy-to-play popular songs like “Summer of 69”, didn’t do well in the local school band circuit, and disbanded when we graduated, much to the relief of our music teacher. Clearly, having a snazzier name is not a sufficient condition for music band-greatness. But surely the Beatles would not have lost out on anything with a snazzier name, right? It surely couldn’t have hurt? Why didn’t they choose one? Would they have sold less records if they’d been called “Rockin’ Roll”?

TV

Seinfeld is widely considered the best sitcom of all time. By the time it ended, it had been the most watched show in America for five years. I watch it everyday, and can vouch for its sheer genius, its never-ending self-referential loops, and its ability to not take itself seriously. But the name. Seinfeld. Just an unheard-of Jewish surname, catering to a primarily Christian American viewership. What is that?

When I go on YouTube, I know for a fact that I’d rather watch “The world’s smallest man eats the world’s biggest burger” than “Miller”. Couldn’t Seinfeld have given themselves a more eye-catching name? It surely couldn’t have hurt their viewership!

As a child, my favorite TV series was Shaka Laka Boom Boom, which is as snazzy a name as any that a hominid has ever uttered. It carries connotations of magic, explosions…..and other stuff. Now as an adult, I am told that the best TV series of all time are Seinfeld, The Office, The Sopranos, etc. I am pretty sure that if I came across any of these names in the TV guide, I would rather go to sleep than put them on.

Companies

Google.

It is a play on Googol, which is 10^{100}. When the company was first launched, almost no one in the world knew that number. How many times do you encounter that number when you’re paying your bills (although that might change on your next gas station run)?

Two brash young Stanford know-it-alls make a bad pun on a number that nobody knows about, and name their company after it. And it becomes the most recognizable name in the world.

What if they’d named it “infinity”, or some clever variation of that? Would that have really hurt their prospects?

Counterexamples

You don’t quite see this pattern in movies. For instance, some of the best known American movies are “Titanic” (which is really an adjective for big, and also of course a reference to the well-known disaster), “Shawshank Redemption” (redemption or revenge may surely attract someone’s interest), etc. Some outliers are Forrest Gump, Citizen Kane, Ben-Hur, etc, which are spectacularly acclaimed movies without eyeball-grabbing names. However, a clear case for “the best movies always have boring names” cannot be made.

If you think about Hindi movies, some of the most acclaimed movies are “Sholay” (which is really another word for fire or flames), “Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge” (the pure-hearted man shall inevitably win over the bride), Rang de Basanti (color me saffron, which is a reference to the Indian freedom movement), etc. There are certain outliers, like “Lagaan” (literally, tax). However, there are not enough outliers for a coherent case to be made for “boring names”.

A lot of companies clearly seem to buck this trend as well. Think Apple, Amazon, Tesla, SpaceX, PayPal, Facebook, Intel (perhaps a reference to intelligence? EDIT: A friend informed me it stands for integrated electronics), etc. Although Microsoft is not as snazzy a name as some of the others, it does have connotations of miniaturization and software.

Some bands seem to buck the trend as well. “Led Zeppelin” carries all the force of burning transatlantic balloons and flaming mid-air deaths and….lead. Other artists like Black Sabbath, Metallica, Guns n Roses, and Machine Gun Kelly have also experienced musical success, despite their on-the-nose names. However, we can argue that at least one of them is not quite as good as the Beatles. One day you may perhaps agree with me that none of them are as good as the Beatles, although Jimmy Page can certainly make the guitar sing.

Lessons to be drawn

Does having a bad name help? I don’t think that this is the case. I surely wouldn’t have heard any less of the Beatles’ songs if they were called “The Alpacas” or “The Peanuts”. The same goes for Seinfeld; I would still have watched it everyday on my phone even if it was called “The dating life of a bald guy”.

But what about the fact that naming yourself after something with too many connotations holes you into a paradigm? For instance, if the Beatles were called “The Rebels”, they would mainly be expected to make anti-authority ballads. They could never make “She Loves You”. If they’d called themselves “The lovers”, they could then never make “I am the walrus”.

If “Seinfeld” was called “Friendship”, they could never make the backwards-running episode about their trip to India, or Jerry and George’s failed attempt to sell a TV series to NBC in an uncanny self-referential loop.

Perhaps having a neutral name without connotations leaves you free to experiment, and you can evolve with the times instead of being stuck behind your name and the expectations it gives rise to, which of course cannot change with the times.

We see this phenomenon in the fashion industry too. The top brands are “Louis Vuitton”, “Versace”, etc. All of them are named after their founders, and don’t really carry any connotations relevant to the fashion industry (apart from, perhaps, some “French-ness”). Hence, they can release designer lines every year that vary wildly in look and feel without breaking brand.

Hence, perhaps the missing piece of the puzzle is that if your band or brand name does not carry any connotations relevant to your field, you will be free of people’s expectations, and can hence be free to explore, experiment, and change with the changing times.

“Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge” will perhaps become irrelevant in a world that is slowly placing more importance on female agency; the modern woman is not something to be won over by a man. But Citizen Kane will remain relevant. “Led Zeppelin” may become irrelevant in a world where screaming guitar solos and effeminate men shrieking about sex are passé. But the Beatles will continue to remain relevant.

On the Depp-Heard trial

Edit: Read this much superior article that uses Game Theory to allocate blame between Heard and Depp.

Like the rest of the internet, I would also like to offer my fairly useless and inconsequential opinion on the trial.

Amber Heard effectively “lost” her case today. Although both parties have been fined millions of dollars, Heard has been asked to pay much more. Simply put, Depp won.

What does victory mean here? Could Depp prove that none of Heard’s accusations are false? No. There is concrete evidence in the forms of text messages and recordings that Depp was criminally violent towards Heard.

From https://www.thecut.com/2022/05/why-do-so-many-people-think-amber-heard-is-lying.html

What the jury reached a verdict on is the fact that Heard defamed Depp when she wrote her Washington Post op-ed. Which, very clearly, she did. She said that her partner, which the whole world knew was Depp, physically abused her. This was supposed to be illegal after their out of court settlement. Although Heard has argued that she still has freedom of speech, it can perhaps be convincingly claimed in legalese that Heard’s article was illegal, and she should hence pay a fine.

But the legal aspect of the ruling is completely irrelevant to how the world understands the jury’s verdict.

Depp and Heard formed a mutually destructive couple. They both physically harmed one another, but Depp, due to his greater physical strength (and, let’s face it, the drugs) could do more damage. Heard wrote a public exposition about it. The court decided that her exposé was technically illegal after having reached a settlement with him before. This is too complicated a notion for us to process. We need simple binary answers. Depp=good or bad? Apparently, Heard’s exposé being technically illegal = Depp is good, the abuse was all made up, and Heard is a liar.

Heard’s career is now all but destroyed. She will live out the rest of her life hiding from the public, while Johnny might still get a film or two. But regardless of the entertainment that he may provide us in the future, it can’t possibly be as good as the entertainment that he has already given us during the trial. We watched one wronged person absolutely destroy another wronged person’s life in front of the whole world. And we cheered, and laughed, and tweeted, and TikTok-ed.

Reputation between people is often a zero-sum game. Heard wanted to gain some reputation as a “wronged but strong” woman, at the expense of Depp’s reputation as a global celebrity when she wrote her op-ed. Depp wanted to gain his reputation back at the expense of Heard’s when he related tales of feminine defecation. And what a spectacle it was for all of us to lap up.

It is not important to know who was right. Both of them were clearly wrong (although one of them was more morally wrong, while the other was more “technically” wrong). What is important perhaps is to find out what societal structures we can put up, so that mutually destructive couples find it easy to come out of bad relationships. Neither Heard, nor Depp needed this trial, or the consequent mudslinging. Like everyone else in the world, they deserve peace, happiness, and a partner they’re compatible with. But the media is uninterested in making lives for better for people. It mostly only cares about stoking the primeval ape in you that loves watching people destroy one another. And I don’t mean to take the high ground on this. I am as imperfect as the average trial-binging idiot; possibly worse. But in some rare moments of clarity, I do feel bad about aiding and funding the destruction. As an empty but meaningful-to-me gesture, I will end this post by reproducing Amber Heard’s statement below.

Anti-inspiration

I turned 30 a few hours back. This is the proverbial birthday post.

Last week was was one of the more rewarding weeks of my professional life. However, all I could feel was a deep existential crisis. Did it really matter? Wasn’t I getting too old for academic accolades? And to be sure, my family had a similar reaction. They’re proud of me, but they really just want me to marry and just get on with life.

Turning 30 is a pretty big (albeit meaningless) milestone, and I wanted to commemorate it with setting ambitious goals for myself. Maybe I could try and read 30 books every year. Or perhaps try and write one. I could give more to charity. Or maybe I could pick up one of those “non-fungible skills”. However, writing such a post seemed like an exercise steeped in narcissism, and I successfully convinced myself not to write one. Who the heck cares what I do with my life? It’s all equally pointless.

The existential crisis only grew worse over the week. I woke up early every morning and just sat blankly on the sofa, not knowing what’s wrong with me. In some sense of the word, I had lost hope. Life would remain the same after I was 30. I’d do the same kind of thing I was doing right now. My relationships with people would remain the same. And even if things got better, that wouldn’t make me much happier. There was a blackness inside that I couldn’t quite fathom.

A very long time back, Tim Ferris had recommended the book “Already Free” by Bruce Tift. A couple of weeks back, I finally decided to download the audiobook, and was listening to it in the gym today. Tift says that all feelings of shame, guilt, blankness, etc are an attempt by your brain to protect you from something much worse. I tried to think about what my brain may be protecting me from.

This is what I came up with: I see a lot of people around me who have similar personality traits as me (garden variety narcissists). And they don’t have happy lives. Although some of them may be smart, they have alienated a lot of people in their lives, and suffer grievously. My biggest fear in life is that I will become one of these people. Although I try and improve myself, they may have made similar efforts and failed. What if all I have in store for my life is more of the misery I have already suffered?

My body started tensing up when I thought of this. This is really what I was worried about. I am already “old” in some sense, and life may just be downhill from here. It’s completely possible that I lead a mediocre life, hit 60, retire, and then spend all my life on metaverse or something, lamenting about all that I’d lost and all that could be. That mythical world of counterfactuals that plagues us even on the deathbed.

However, it slowly dawned on me that even if I do lead a mediocre life, do worse than everybody around me and then some, I think I will be okay. If I lose all my money, never get a respectable job, and am looked upon as a failure by everyone, I think I will still be okay. Heck, I can read the cheap Hindi comics that I used to as a kid and pass my time. If my deepest fears come true, and I never recover from my ingrained narcissism, thereby having alienated my family and all my friends, I will still be okay. Sad and alone. But okay.

This reminds me of some of the psychedelic experiences that Ava Bookbear writes about. She was suffering from depression and anxiety issues for a long time, which made her volunteer to be part of a ketamine treatment course. Ketamine is, for all purposes, a psychedelic drug, which of course is the sort of thing that Asian parents disown you over. She writes that when her treatment finally began to have some effect on her, she felt deeply okay with all the past and present issues in her life. They didn’t disappear. She still didn’t have a stable partner. She didn’t have the job that she wanted. Her issues with her family remained. But the drug, in some sense, “took the edge off”. It was okay to have these problems. Those issues didn’t have to take over her life. They had lost their hold over her; their “bite”.

My epiphany felt similar. I didn’t have to make goals for my 30s. My self worth didn’t depend on working harder, getting that high paying crypto job, pumping harder at the gym, making more friends, etc. Of course I should work towards all of that. But even if these things didn’t pan out, and I realized at 35 that I was a stupid, friendless, penniless guy on the street, it’d still be okay. I surely wouldn’t be happy. But I’d be fine. People deal with worse and get through it. I’d survive too.

This epiphany caused an insane amount of dopamine to be pumped into my brain all at once. I just sat quietly in the gym for a couple of minutes, with my eyes closed. I wasn’t scared anymore. Whatever happens, I’ll be okay. I’m glad to be turning 30.

A peek into the vedas

The Vedic Concept of Human Personality by Karel Werner is a fascinating paper on many aspects of human life as discussed in the Vedas. I want to write about the concepts of human personality and immortality as thought of in ancient India.

Human personality

The human personality, as written about in the Vedas, is composed of three layers. The deepest layer is called Aja, and may be thought of as the indestructible life force inside a person. It is not expressed in any real way by the person, and is simply transferred to the next body on the person’s death. The middle layer, called Tanū, may be thought of as the blueprint of the person. It contains details of the physiology of the person, how they will react to situations, their temperament, etc. The outermost layer is Śarīra, and is composed of fire, wind, water, etc. It is the visible manifestation of the person, and is destroyed when a person is burnt upon death. Werner notes that although the Vedas don’t state in any one place that the human personality is shaped by these three layers, it can be inferred from the text as a whole that this is indeed the case.

Although this is a convincing picture of human personality as perceived by the ancients, it seems a too much of a coincidence that Freud’s interpretation of the human personality also contained three layers, with one hidden layer that is largely inaccessible by the person. It is possible that Werner, who wrote this paper in 1978, was too influenced by Freud’s interpretation of the personality, and hence wanted to see the same truth reflected in ancient texts. Regardless of whether this actually happened, Werner does a good job of painting the ancient conception of human personality as sophisticated and nuanced.

Immortality

In Hinduism, it is thought that “good” people, in this case riśi‘s, Aryans who had died in battle, and other people who had devoted their lives to worship, go to heaven (swarga lok), and that bad people go to hell (narak lok). However, what about people who are reincarnated in a different body after death? Do they not go to either heaven or hell?

It was initially thought that the Vedas said that once people went to heaven, they would remain there forever, thus attaining immortality. Similarly, very evil or cruel people would go to hell, and remain there forever in a large pit of fire. Other “average” people, who were not extraordinarily good or bad, would go to neither, and be reincarnated instead. Werner argues that this is the wrong picture.

He says that each person is classified into a good or bad person upon death, and goes to either heaven or hell. But when they get there, they don’t stay there forever. They are soon sent back back to the earth to be reincarnated. Immortality is a gift that is greater than “merely” going to heaven, and that is why there are many verses in the vedas that pray for immortality as distinct from going to heaven. Even the gods, who lived in heaven, didn’t have immortality at first, and only acquired it after the churning of the ocean for nectar (samudra manthan). Hence, it is common for gods to age and die in Hindu mythological stories.

Well, all of this applies only if you’re an Aryan. If you’re some other race, you can do whatever. I think Putin has taken this observation to heart.