Deconstructing The Office as a joke at the meta level

The Office is my favorite show of all time. Period. I watched it obsessively everyday for about four years, until it was taken away by NBC and plugged into a far inferior viewing experience. Lots of people have written illuminating articles on what makes The Office funny. I’d like to write a much inferior article on the structure of The Office as a meta-joke.

Executive summary: Michael Scott is someone who thinks he is in a movie (but he really is).

Michael Scott is a boss and a man. A successful boss is portrayed by cinema to be someone who leads from the front, is inspirational, keeps the morale high at the workplace with humor and charisma, and goes the extra mile in treating everyone as family. He has a nice house, a nice car, and a big fat paycheck that everyone else envies. A (heterosexual) man, as portrayed in cinema, is someone who has a beautiful girlfriend/wife, makes grandiose romantic gestures for said girlfriend/wife that are well-received and appreciated, and finds it easy to find dates from amongst the available women in his community until he finds said girlfriend/wife. Note that Michael Scott is known to be someone who has watched a lot of tv. There is an episode in which he says that all he did as a child was watch movies and fantasize about when he could have a life that his movie idols did. This is pretty similar to kids watching Kung Fu movies and fantasizing about when they’d be throwing a roundhouse kick to kill the bad guy and save the city.

Things Michael does as a boss:

  • He sends funny emails and cracks crass jokes in the office in an attempt to keep the morale high. He probably thinks that he indeed is funny and charming enough to pull it off. The joke is that he’s not.
  • Michael does think that his co-workers are family, and constantly emphasizes this in arguments with Corporate in New York. Of course he runs out of the building first when he thinks that the office is on fire, randomly fires one of his employees just to save face, and only wants to hang out with the more popular Jim and Ryan instead of his most loyal employee Dwight, who arguably does treat him like family. This is probably more similar to someone who wants to climb the popularity ladder at a high school than person looking after his family. This perhaps shows the clash between Michael’s cinematic duty to look after his employees, and his temperament of looking only after himself.
  • He takes responsibility for saving the company when Corporate has decided to shut down the Scranton branch, and actually camps outside David Wallace’s house with Dwight in order to confront him.
  • He has the company give him a fancy convertible, which is not a suitable car for the weather as Dwight points out. He attaches a lot of value to this car as a status symbol, and initiates a high-decibel screaming match when Dwight ridicules his choice of car.
  • Michael thinks he has a fat paycheck, and makes it clear multiple times on the show that the other employees (especially Darryl from warehouse) would sure love to be in his position.
  • He makes a promise to the kids in a nearby school that he would pay the whole class’s college tuition if they could make it into college. The basic assumption that he makes is that he is a successful man, and that his success would only accelerate in the years to come, enabling him to make such a largesse.
  • When Michael buys a house, he flamboyantly announces to the whole Office that he is taking a personal day for exactly that purpose. The house of a successful person like him is supposed to be grand, unique, and befitting a man of his stature. Of course the joke is that his house looks pretty nondescript in a row of houses that look exactly the same, and he in fact confuses another house to be his at first, seeing as they all look identical in their suburban mediocrity.

Michael as a heterosexual man:

  • He proposes to Carol at the Diwali party, thinking of it as a grand romantic gesture. He doesn’t consider the fact that they’ve only been on a handful of dates.
  • Michael climbs atop the bow of the ship at the Office party on Lake Wollenpaupack and shouts “I am the king of the world”, a la Leonardo di Caprio’s character in Titanic, thereby elevating himself to romantic moviestar-status in real life.
  • Michael tries to be the exemplary boyfriend, as portrayed in movies, even when Jan manipulates him and treats him badly. This of course leads to pent up frustrations and trophies being flung at TVs. Had he discussed his misgivings with her earlier on, they could arguably have had a healthier relationship.
  • Michael lies to Jan that he’s dated Pam in the past, thus building up an imagined past in which he had dated pretty women, much like his cinematic idols.
  • Michael cares a lot about how his girlfriends look. He agrees to date Jan despite her abusive behavior because she got breast implants, cites her athletic body as a reason to not break up with her, and also boasts about her body to a future date. He also talks a lot about Holly Flax’s butt before he asks her out, and of course treats Phyllis and Meredith badly because they don’t have an athletic build. He probably thinks that he should only date “hot” women, because all the successful men in movies do. He even imagines Catherine Zeta-Jones to be constantly throwing herself at her boss Michael Scarn- the cinematic version of himself.

What makes The Office funny and Michael Scott a pathetic figure is that he confuses movies for real life. But is that it? Movies are not real life; is that the basis of all the humor in The Office? I think it goes a little deeper than that. It’s not that Michael Scott was someone who was doing clearly wrong things. Good bosses should indeed lead from the front, treat employees as family, keep the atmosphere light with jokes, etc. However, what Michael Scott doesn’t get is context. Although they should keep the atmosphere light, the jokes used to do so should be….good. His “that’s what she said” was incorrigibly un-funny after a point, and became a meme for his ineptitude, instead of keeping the atmosphere light. Although good bosses should indeed fight for their employees and treat them as family, they should also ensure that the employees are being productive, are not engaging in unethical behavior that could be harmful for the company. Michael tries to protect Meredith when he finds out that she was exchanging sexual favors for discounts, tries to prevent downsizing and then fires someone at random, etc. Similarly, men should make romantic gestures for women they are dating, be charming at dates, be accommodating towards women they are dating, etc. However, Michael proposes to someone he has not been dating for very long, and does not even love (note that he tries to kiss Pam in that very episode, proving that he couldn’t have been too beaten up about his breakup). He thinks Jan being abusive towards him is something he is just supposed to put up with because “that’s what women do”. When he realizes he’s on a date at the bowling alley, he suddenly switches to behaving like an idiot, although he thinks he is being charming and magnetic, employing the usual cinematic tropes of tying a stem with his tongue, etc.

In some sense, although he’s doing the right things, he’s doing them wrong. This is what makes Michael a tragic figure along with a funny one: he just doesn’t have the mental apparatus to process feedback from the external world and change his behavior accordingly. He thinks that if he keeps behaving like his heroes on the screen, he will soon see the kind of success that they see. Movies are life without context; the Cliff Notes version of the much longer novel. Borrowing from them can give you the bullet points of what you should do, but these bullet points are useless unless you read the whole novel and place those bullet points in context.

But what is the meta joke here? Michael Scott is indeed in a movie! He is being filmed by a documentary crew. The joke that the producers of the show have played upon us is convincing us that a person who believes that movies reflect real life, and that behaving as one does in a movie will lead to comparable rewards in real life, is an idiot…..and they’ve done so through a movie…..which in turn was shown through a TV series.

Movies are not real life. Start behaving like a normal person. And start doing so quickly before BBC points a camera at your face and rakes in millions of dollars by streaming it simultaneously in several countries around the world.

Where do religious fundamentalists find the motivation

Religious fundamentalists are people who sometimes carry on attacks to spread their version of religion at the cost of others’ lives. Some questions that are often asked of them are: How can you justify killing others in the name of God? Which God asks you to kill innocent people? How can you possibly be representatives of a religion that proclaims love and peace as the highest ideals? All of these are great questions. However, as a grad student who sometimes struggles with motivation to edit papers and get them ready on time, I often have a question that nobody else is asking: where do they find the motivation to do so much work?

What are some reasons that they could be motivated to work very long hours, without adequate nutrition or sleep, single-mindedly focused on their objective?

  • They are responding to a call that is greater than themselves. In some warped sense, God is commanding them to carry out his wishes. Hence, this task takes clearly higher priority over all others. Procrastination is perhaps about not having one task with clear priority.
  • Their task at hand is of infinite value. If they die in the course of their duty, they will be in heaven for eternity. This is of course of infinite value. If I write another paper, although it will add value to my profile and perhaps some lesser value to Mathematics, the value added will not be infinite.
  • They are on a tight deadline, and are perhaps being hunted by the police/army. Hence, they are in fight and flight mode. This would of course make them work purely on adrenaline. This is something grad students have experienced just before a deadline. I don’t have to force myself to work for longer hours before a deadline; my anxiety just takes over and gets the job done, albeit in a not-so-great manner.

Let us now ask these questions of ourselves. Are grad students responding to a call that is greater than themselves? Well, they sometimes are, especially if they are writing papers that answer fundamental questions of their field, or perhaps those that are truly uncovering a secret of the universe. But mostly, no. Are grad students doing something of infinite value? See the above. Are grad students often on a deadline that would make them work faster? Not the way graduate school works in the United States.

Perhaps the way to make yourself work for longer hours is to not download the latest productivity app, but to find something to do that is greater than yourself, and has infinite value. Also, work with self-imposed deadlines. Elon Musk built rockets because he wants to transport the whole of humanity to Mars in the case of an existential crisis; he was also on a deadline, because the Earth is likely to face an existential crisis within this century. You want to write a paper that will add one line to your CV. Do you see why he works 18 hours and you work 7 minutes before going on Reddit?

Assorted links

  1. I read the following passage in Marginal Revolution:

 Overall I find the secret to the Beach Boys (and some Beatles) listening to be their sound world.  Interpret the Beach Boys through John Cage!  Listen to a simple song such as “Vegetables,” but on a very good sound system or with head phones.  Surrounded by silence.  Or pick some of the other works from the Smile period, or even Wild Honey or the top cuts on Sunflower, such as tracks 7-10.  Try to discern the sound of the air behind the music, the silences, and the tautness of the sounds that are sent your way.  Internalize that understanding (if you are trying this for the Beatles, pick the noises at the end of “You Never Give Me Your Money.”)  Carry that understanding of the sound world with you every time you hear a Beach Boys song.  At first you will hear that sound world in the “pet sounds” at the end of the album, most of all the train, and then will you will hear it throughout the entire album.

My mind melted when I read this. That is exactly the reason why I cannot stop listening to the Beatles after all these years. The ambient sounds add depth to the recordings; as if there is a lot going on, and the song is just a quick peek into that layered world. Tyler Cowen has successfully deconstructed the Beatles on his economics blog.

2. A personality trait I’ve grown to value:

Finding value in things that are thought to be unimportant by others. A person on my WhatsApp list shares images of funny cartoon hippos almost daily. A fellow graduate student once shared a video of a clear starry night that was initially posted on the official Facebook page (and not on a hipster website that only that student was privy to). A girl I knew in college shares video recordings of herself whistling along to songs. Another fellow graduate student posts funny patterns of flowers and pebbles that she finds about town. Note that none of these things are hard to do, or a demonstration of some innate talent. These are in some sense “beneath” the people trying to prove themselves to the world. Purely mundane. Yet these people find value in them.

3. The Best and Least Known Psychoanalyst. I hope to read up more on Lacan soon.

It’s never the big things

A couple of weeks back, a lot of people were predicting that Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of Britain and the party-animal-in-charge of the illegal Covid parties at 10 Downing, would resign soon. Someone said they’d be surprised if Johnson lasted the week. I was surprised. I’d surely heard about these parties; however, I didn’t think this was a big-enough issue to actually oust Johnson from the PM post that he had skillfully blundered his way into for many, many decades. The consensus seemed strong, however, and I fully expected Johnson to dry-hump his way right out of Downing Street at the end of the week.

And then….nothing happened. The issue has mostly died down, and Boris remains firmly in charge. Let me use this inane political observation to talk about Scarlett Johansson.

One of the movies that has always stuck with me is He’s just not that into you. It’s a fine-not great movie, as you might guess from the IMDB rating. However, the reason that it has stuck with me is the manner in which Bradley Cooper’s wife asks him for a divorce. Some context: Bradley Cooper is cheating on his wife with Scarlett Johansson. His wife finds out. Cue- divorce/revenge music. However, his wife forgives him. In fact, she seduces him in a valiant effort to rekindle her marriage. Her husband’s unfaithfulness only leads her to latch on harder to him. However, she soon finds out he had been lying to her about not smoking, and had been smoking all this time behind her back. And….it is now that she tells him that she’s leaving him, and that she hopes that he smokes his way to lung cancer and a painful death.

Surely lying about smoking is a less serious offense than cheating on your wife. Logically, she should have either left him when she found out about the cheating, or stuck with him despite knowing that he was lying about not smoking. Fine. There’s some more context here: her father had died from smoking. Hence, she was adamant that her husband not smoke. But still! Cheating is a much worse thing than lying about smoking! This was a plot point that defied logic….and yet seemed so real. This is a pattern that I have observed in real human relationships as well. People forgive each other for the biggest mistakes, and then one small misstep after that causes them to just lose it and be horrible to each other. What causes this?

I really don’t know. If I were to make a guess, I would say that forgiving someone for a big transgression takes a lot out of you, but it’s possible; and relatively common. However, we don’t have much more forgiveness or patience left to give after that. Even a small mistake after that often leads to the unleashing of wild pent-up frustrations. For example, Tiger Woods’ wife forgave him the first time she found out about his cheating. It was only on repeated transgressions that she finally clubbed him to golf ignominy.

How does one deal with such a situation? Never make a big mistake? Seems hard, as the entirety of humanity seems to do it pretty often. Never make even a small mistake after a big one? Seems even harder. There are no easy answers to be honest; relationships are hard. The only real answer is to Polyjuice into Boris Johnson; but let’s face it. If you could be Boris, you’d already be Boris.

Some abstracts from social science papers

  1. The following is the abstract from “Vaccination nudges“:

But what about the troves of research that have shown nudges to be largely ineffective, at least in education? One possible takeaway is that nudges work when the effort required to negate the nudge is too high. For instance, cancelling the vaccination appointment takes some effort. This, combined with the “it is probably good to get vaccinated” is what finally drove people to the vaccination centers.

This also offers an interesting counterpoint to Abhijit Banerjee’s strategy of getting people to vaccination centers by offering them free food.

2. “Are Fairness Perceptions Shaped by Income Inequality?

So people are generally right when they think that their country/society has income inequality. This seems to be an affirmation of a fairly commonplace belief.

3. “The Legacy of Authoritarianism in a Democracy“:

So does India’s recent backslide into dictatorship imply that we will soon develop a strong opposition that will reduce the Bharatiya Janata Party to irrelevance? Hmm….

4. “Facebook Shadow Profiles

Let us break this down. Suppose you don’t have a Facebook profile, or you have deactivated it. About the 52% of the websites you visit have a “Facebook share” option, or are tracked by Facebook cookies. These pages allow Facebook to keep a detailed record of your presence on the internet, thereby making a “shadow profile” of you. If you choose to make a Facebook profile in the future or re-activate your previous Facebook profile, all of the data from your “shadow profile” will be integrated with your current profile, offering you more targeted ads.

This is the scariest thing I have read about in a long time.

4. “The Transfer Performance of Economic Models

So….overfitting in machine learning is real, and one should follow fundamental principles in understanding the world (in general) rather than depend solely on data. Or, perhaps economic principles are not detailed enough to work in specific cases to a high degree of accuracy, but are general enough to offer robust predictions in most cases. Perhaps one should start with general principles, and then use machine learning to fine-tune predictions?

Can language models predict medium-run stock price movements?

So if you plug in a company’s annual report to a (possibly improved) version of GPT, it is going to form a pretty good prediction of how the company’s stock is going to do over the next year. But it will do much better if you plug in news articles instead of the company’s annual report. Later on in the introduction, the paper says that their language model did a maximum of 10 percentage points better than a random stock movement classifier.

Media slant is contagious

It’s like in high school, when popular but divisive figures induce their admirers to become more like them, while forcing their haters to distance themselves even more.

An economic model to evaluate optimal policy in the midst of a pandemic

Contrast this with policies that were initially heralded as brilliant: the complete lockdown in Taiwan and New Zealand, the 21 day lockdown in India, strict lockdowns in California, etc. Perhaps Joe Rogan did have something smart to say after all.

The wage gap

Here are some commonly held beliefs about the wage gap amongst genders:

  • Women are paid less than men…..but, they do have to take time off to give birth to children. They end up costing more to companies than male workers. Shouldn’t it make sense in a perfectly Capitalistic society to pay them slightly less?
  • Let us say that the wage gap is too large to be justified by the above alone. But wouldn’t it make sense for the wage gap to still exist, albeit in a slightly reduced form?
  • Let us say that companies have a moral imperative to pay women equal wages as men, even if they end up costing the company more. Large corporations are morally entitled to uplift the condition of women, even at the cost of their profits. But doesn’t that take away from what makes Capitalism work and….fill in the blanks….lead ultimately to Communism, impoverished nations and those same women living in much worse conditions?
  • Isn’t it possible that women are paid less than men because they are primarily employed in different kinds of jobs? For instance, most receptionists are women, and most CEOs are men, perhaps due to anti-feminist societal tendencies in the past. Wouldn’t it make sense for the wage gap to exist if women and men, on average, are doing different kinds of jobs?

These beliefs are fairly commonplace. I’m not trying to take moral high ground here. I’ve definitely thought about these questions myself, and I’ve never been able to address them successfully. These beliefs have now been proven to be wrong.

Consider the abstract of Taste-based gender discrimination in South Korea.

The wage inequality increases with prejudice against women, independent of all other societal factors.

But what if:

  • These results don’t hold up in America, or other nations around the globe?
  • What are the confidence intervals for the “attribution to prejudice against women”?
  • If only one-third to one-fourth of the female earning disadvantage can be attributed to prejudice, it is possible that there are other more important factors at play that influence the wage gap. What are those?

I think doing a high-powered study of this question in several countries would hopefully aid in shifting the societal understanding of this question.

Note that this study is contradicted by The Gender Wage Gap: Extents, Trends and Explanations, which says that the wage gap persists because women work shorter hours in general or take more time off, and that they generally take on roles with lower compensation. Prejudice against women has decreased in importance as a factor that influences that wage gap, although it cannot completely be discounted.

A few case studies in weight loss

  • For the last 7 years or so, I have weighed x kg (x is an embarrassingly large number + 10). Doing large amounts of cardio would cause my weight to decrease to x-2, but dropping such an unsustainable exercise regimen would cause it to jump right back to x. Eating an unhealthy amount of junk food would cause my weight to jump to x+2, but switching back to regular food without any additional restrictions would cause it to flip right back to x. It’s almost as if my x is an equilibrium weight for me, and introducing massive changes in my routine would only temporarily change my weight to x\pm 2.
  • I know an Instagram influencer who regularly posts “before” and “after” pictures as part of sharing her weight loss journey. The “before” photo shows her quite overweight and unhealthy, and the “after” photo shows her thin, slightly muscular, and really just brimming with health. We should start doing whatever she’s doing, right? Well…there are aspects of her weight loss that she keeps less than public on her social media. The “before” overweight her was just a temporary phase. She was, on average, not overweight, even before she started her grueling diet and exercise regimen. Moreover, even today when she eventually derails from her diet and exercise for even a week, she starts looking more or less like she did before she started trying to lose weight. It seems like even she has an “equilibrium” weight that she keeps switching back to as soon as she’s not able to maintain her strict diet and exercise routine.
  • I know multiple people who managed to shed lots of pounds and body weight almost overnight by following the ketogenic diet. However, as soon as life hit and they had to get off the diet, they regained most of their body weight within a couple of weeks. The loss of fat was perhaps as dramatic as its gain.

What do I want to communicate with all of this? Perhaps one of the most influential things I have ever read is a series of posts on Slime Mold Time Mold, titled “Studies on Obesity”. The first post in the series is this. The author, a graduate student at a top university and funded by all sorts of prestigious organizations, concludes after years of study that our body regulates our body weight like a thermostat regulates the room temperature. Let’s probe this analogy deeper.

Let us assume that a thermostat is supposed to keep the room temperature constant at 25 degrees Celsius. If we suddenly open the windows to let in cold air from outside, the room temperature will drop. However, the thermostat will now work extra hard to push the room temperature back to 25 degrees. The heater will start blasting really hot air, and the room will only rarely get below 20 degrees. Moreover, when the door is closed, the room will soon return to 25 degrees. The same happens when you try to warm up the room.

Similarly, the body too has a body weight thermostat (in the lower part of the medulla oblongata) that works hard to maintain your equilibrium body weight. If you start starving yourself or eating loads of high-fat food, your thermostat will ensure that you don’t veer too far from your equilibrium weight. Moreover, as soon as you return to your regular routine, your weight will shift right back to your equilibrium weight.

But what about those people who we all know (primarily through the internet) who managed to lose more than a hundred pounds? Well, taking the analogy of the thermostat, they kept the room open to cold winds for way too long (they exercised hard for extended periods of time and ate very little carbs). Finally the temperature dropped to 0. However, should they return to their previous lifestyles, their body weights are likely to jump back to the original figure.

So what is perhaps the only way to lose weight without having to keep doing lots of exercise and eating only celery? We need to change our thermostat settings. We need to somehow tell our body thermostats to change the equilibrium weight. Then we would not need to work hard to maintain our desired body weights. The next generation of diet pills, that are in the process of getting FDA approval, aim to do precisely that.

The Double-Wrong

What exactly is a double-wrong? Let me give you some examples before I try and supply a definition.

  • You have an acquaintance who you is always rude to you at social gatherings. You are thinking about having a frank conversation with them, but then decide to be the bigger person and be very nice to them the next time you meet. You’re extremely nice and polite. But they continue to be rude. You drop the plan of being nice instantly and confront them.
  • You have a friend who never picks up the check during meals in restaurants. You are thinking about splitting bills equally in the future, or just not going out with them. But then you decide that friendship requires sacrifice, and you treat them to a very nice dinner. Your friend still refuses to pick up the check at future meals. You lose it and confront them.
  • Your partner keeps arguing with you, and of course your argue back. One day you unilaterally decide to try and be a better partner, and completely stop arguing back. This doesn’t change your partner’s behavior, and they keep arguing with the same intensity. You drop your plan of being nice, and return to the old ways.

In most cases, when one person wrongs another, the other person wrongs right back; at least when the two people involved are equal in power, status, etc. However, when people who are important to you are involved, sometimes you feel the urge to be the bigger person and not respond to their wrongdoings in kind. You decide to not argue back with your siblings, do the dishes even though your roommates refuse to, whatever. Behind every such decision to be nicer than the other person is the certain hope that your modified behavior will compel the other person to change their own behavior, and that this will repair your relationship. This, of course, almost never happens. Maybe the other person is too angry to even notice that your behavior has changed. Maybe they feel that they are right in shouting at you and that you are finally right in listening quietly. Whatever be the reason, you quickly decide that yours is a failed strategy because it didn’t produce the effects you wanted. You feel that first you were being wronged; subsequently you tried to be the bigger person person, and then you were double-wronged. You go right back to being an inconsiderate friend, partner, whatever.

In a lot of ways, double-wrongs have shaped my life. Sometimes I was being a jerk, and people would try to be nice to me and give me a second chance. And I continued being a jerk. They eventually cut ties with me, and I lost valuable people. Sometimes other people were being jerks, and I tried to be the bigger person, and they continued being jerks, when I decided to cut them loose and go my own way. What surprised me when thinking about this is how pervasive this has been. People have almost always given me second chances. Similarly, I have almost always given friends/partners/relatives second chances. People are nicer than you’d think. And despite this, we lose so many people along the way.

Something that has worked for me in the recent past has been budgeting. For instance, when I decide to give people second chances, I may think of a number of times the other person has to wrong me before I confront them. This number is generally around five. This helps in the following way: if I am the bigger person to someone for five successive interactions, there is a higher chance that they’d notice the effort I was putting in and consequently modify their behavior. More importantly, when I decide to become the bigger person without budgeting, I am setting an unlimited budget for niceness; in other words, I decide to be nice to the other person in all future interactions, even if they are horrible to me in each of those interactions. Needless to say, unlimited budgets never work. Let me try and give an example below:

Your roommate never does the dishes. You decide to be the bigger person, and keep doing the dishes. You feel like a really good person, and you leave the sink empty and clean. The next morning, you again see the sink full of dirty dishes. You realize that this will keep happening every single morning. Although yesterday you thought it would be possible for you to keep doing this everyday, the infinite future with its infinite days of dish-washing while your roommate probably sniggers at your obsequiousness is too much to bear. You snap and confront your roommate.

An infinite budget for kindness is too much budget for anyone to be comfortable with all the time. What actually ends up happening is that a person snaps after just one day, thinking an infinite budget to be untenable. This is the reason that having a number like “five” can be helpful: you know that there is an end in sight. As soon as your five days are up, you can feel quite morally justified in confronting them so that the whole situation is not overly unfair to you.

Scott Alexander gets married

The influential blogger Scott Alexander got married last week. In honor of his wedding, I’ve decided to write a short note on how he has influenced my life over the last few years.

I first heard about Scott Alexander’s blog slatestarcodex from friends in India who I’d only ever met on Facebook. I tried to go through the posts, and hardly understood anything. He wrote 15-page-long posts on the latest pharmacological research, detailed analyses on genetics, etc. I didn’t understand any of it. And I couldn’t understand why I should care about any of it.

After getting on and off his blog a few times over the years, I slowly became a regular reader. Some of his most memorable posts are the ones where he would introduce a famous book or researcher, summarize their thesis, write down very convincing arguments in support of that thesis whereby the reader would be convinced that the book or researcher made total sense, and then do a complete 180 degree flip and completely demolish the whole book/paper. I’ve often been made to feel stupid or inadequate in life. But reading slatestarcodex has been the only time when I’ve throughly enjoyed the process. Scott Alexander presents an upper limit to how intelligent many of us, or at least I, will ever be. Some of his most memorable posts are listed here.

When Scott went offline for about 6 months because he was being harassed by New York Times, I would go to his blog multiple times a day to see if he was back on. I remember spending a long weekend arguing with people on Twitter over whether Alexander’s identity should be revealed by New York Times. My recollection of that weekend is that I learned nothing, but just felt much angrier at the world. I sanely decided to get off Twitter, and my quality of life vastly improved.

I also started blogging about research papers outside of my field a couple of years back. I was of course trying to copy his style. Although I decided to put that on hold because I thought I should try and focus on my own research, I feel that that was an incorrect decision because I really enjoyed the process of reading a completely new research paper and opening tens of wikipedia pages to understand its contents. I will hopefully get back to it very soon.

When I was undergoing a serious mental health crisis last year, Scott Alexander decided to write a post on depression. He recommended an audiobook in this post, that I promptly downloaded and also suggested to my friends who were going through something similar. Each of my friends who has listened to the audiobook has benefited greatly, and of course so have I. I do one particular exercise from that book every morning, and it remarkably improves the quality of the rest of my day. I was so enthusiastic about proselytizing about that book that I also forwarded it to people I hadn’t talked to in years in the hope that there was a slim chance that it would make their lives better. This of course was overreach, but the book really is that great.

Of course I don’t agree with Scott on everything. For instance, I disagree with his review of the book “The Body Keeps the Score”. I also think that Yudkowsky’s brand of Rationality, which Alexander espouses on his blog, is fairly limited in its scope to improve human thinking, although to be fair Alexander makes the same point in a Less Wrong post. However, Scott Alexander has in no uncertain terms vastly improved the quality of my life over the last few years. I am thankful to him, and wish him well for his future endeavors.

Afghanistan and the Turing Machine

How do societies modernize? One day they realize that their ways have gotten older, and they transform overnight into liberal democracies with equal rights for all.

Not really.

Afghanistan

The US invaded Afghanistan to spread democracy, women’s rights and universal love (there was something about hegemony in the Middle East, but those are just rumors). It rained money and support (and bombs, and missiles, but again those might be rumors) on the Afghans, providing them with a red-carpeted ramp to democracy and prosperity. Music academies were encouraged and funded, women were encouraged to take leadership roles, and there was even a women’s football team!

So what happened?

https://www.prb.org/resources/most-women-in-afghanistan-justify-domestic-violence/

Why wouldn’t Afghanistan appreciate and adopt the awesomeness that America was gifting to them on a silver platter? Why do they stick to their “medieval” practices, and refuse to engage with the changing world?

The brain as a Turing machine

A Turing machine is a computer-like device that “manipulates symbols on a strip of tape”. How does it do that? Imagine that the Turing machine is trying to manipulate the symbol on a particular cell. The machine can exist in any of n states. Depending upon the state it currently is in and the current symbol on the cell, it decides how to manipulate the symbol and which cell to move on to next.

In other words, the state of the Turing machine keeps changing depending on its current state and what symbols it encounters on the tape.

I have recently begun to realize that this is a fantastic description of all kinds of complex networks, whether we’re talking about the brain or society. For example, how our perspective on a certain issue changes depends almost entirely on what our current perspective is, and what we encounter in real life. Imagine that I am an 18th century slave owner in provincial America who is brought up to believe that slaves are essentially animals and hence must be treated like beasts of burden. This is my current state. If I have an encounter which convinces me that slaves are treated unfairly (think of this as the symbol on the strip of tape), I won’t immediately start thinking that slaves are the same race as us and hence should be freed immediately. I will probably be led to this conclusion only after multiple encounters of a similar nature, through which my mental state would change several times before I got ready to fight for my suppressed brethren.

Let us take a more modern example. Most people in the world eat some form of meat. We are brought up to believe that animals are inferior to us and hence we ought to eat them to survive, even Jesus ate meat hence we are justified in doing the same, meat is too delicious to let go off for flimsy reasons, worms and insects die in agriculture too, etc. This is our current state. If we have encounters in which we see sheep and cows getting killed for meat (think of this as a symbol the Turing machine encounters on the strip of tape), we might develop a slight aversion to meat. However, we may still keep on consuming meat. If we have multiple such encounters (we get equally delicious soy alternatives to meat, the environmental impact of meat becomes even more apparent, it is proved beyond reasonable doubt that a vegetarian diet reduces chances of cancer and cardiovascular disease, etc), we may slowly move towards a state of veganism.

Much like a Turing machine, our perspective cannot just jump from the initial state to its final state. It has to go through multiple intermediate states before it reaches its destination.

How is any of this relevant to Afghanistan?

America’s attempts to spread democracy and women’s rights in Afghanistan are misguided because they want Afghans to jump directly from a state of conservatism to a state of western liberalism. We can’t just expect women, who are brought up to believe that it is for their own good that they must be beaten by their husbands, to start discarding these beliefs. They will slowly and painstakingly have to realize that they are the societal and moral equal of their husbands before they can start believing that they should not be beaten. Neither can we expect Afghans to overnight want a secular society with freedom of speech. They have been brought up to believe that their true ruler has to be a divinely appointed Caliph. They have to read world history and realize how misguided this idea has been in the past, before they can accept democracy as a workable alternative.

Poking holes in this model

Let us try and poke some holes in this model to see if this holds up.

Afghanistan was not always a conservative society. Kabul was resplendent with sights like those below in the 60s

Would it be so hard to just hop back to the modernity that Kabul possessed?

Let us draw an analogy to present-day India. It has a quickly ballooning youth population that mostly lives by liberal western ideals, dates freely, and is steeped deep in women’s rights. Does that mean that India has a liberal society?

Societal beliefs can be well represented in the form of a normal curve.

If we imagine “liberal beliefs and lifestyle” to increase from left to right, in every society we have a small number of people who are either very conservative or very liberal. Both the Afghanistan of the 60s and the India of today have a small number of liberals in the cities, and a small number of ultra-conservatives outside of urban centers. However, most people lie in the middle. A typical man in India may believe that women should not work but take care of the household instead, but may refrain from regular beatings. Hence, it would be erroneous to say that the Afghanistan of the 60s or the India of today are liberal. They just had (have) liberal subpopulations.

What the Taliban has done is that is has quashed those liberal subpopulations in Afghanistan. Hence, although it may be unpopular amongst educated Afghans with liberal ideas, it is mostly aligned with current Afghan values and beliefs.

I think it may be even more complicated than that. Regardless of the state of liberalism in the country, Afghans may believe that the Taliban represents the “purest values of Islam”. Hence, Taliban may be representative of religious perfection. This is an aspect of societal acceptance that I got from reading a Pakistani’s take on Taliban’s recent takeover of Afghanistan. Taliban may be the embodiment of religious aspiration in Afghanistan.

So how does all of this fit with my model of society and perspective as a Turing machine? Well, although liberal pockets may exist in the Afghan society, most of the population is still in a conservative state. In order to create lasting change in Afghanistan, it will not do to just create some liberal pockets through American propaganda. The mean of the normal curve will have to be shifted. This can only be done like one changes the state of a Turing machine: slowly, and through lots of intermediate stages.

A liberal Afghanistan won’t be built in a day.