What can make your relationship survive?

I am trying to understand the results of this paper, which uses machine learning to identify what factors determine whether a relationship between a woman and man survives. The study was done on Germany, but is expected to be applicable to the world at large.

The following diagram is a good summary.

The trait is on the x-axis, and percentage survival on the y-axis

Let us discuss these one at a time.

Life satisfaction

At the beginning of a relationship, the more satisfied the man and woman are with their lives, the better the chances of survival. Funnily, if the man or woman are too satisfied with their lives 5 years into the relationship, they are likely to break apart. This is probably due to the fact that they don’t derive this life satisfaction from each other anymore, and hence don’t “need” each other to be happy.

Percentage of housework

Apparently, five years into the relationship, the higher the burden of household work for the woman, the better the chances of survival of the relationship. This seems bizarre. Won’t the woman appreciate being helped out by her partner? I’ve certainly heard of couples bickering over their share of housework. I think that this factor is confounded by the fact that women who agree to take on a higher share of the housework are non-confrontational, and it is their non-confrontational nature rather than their higher share of housework that leads to such relationships surviving. Correlation\neqcausation.

Working hours

How long the man works doesn’t matter at all at first, but decreases the chances of survival 5 years into the relationship. However, the number of hours a woman works is negatively correlated with the chances of survival at the beginning too. This could possibly be because women are traditionally expected to take on a larger fraction of household duties etc. Perhaps this trend may change as social mores change?

Agreeableness

At the beginning of the relationship, there are no benefits to being more agreeable than necessary for both the man and woman. However, five years into the relationship, both the man and woman need to become more agreeable for the relationship to survive, although being too agreeable leads to a greater chance of breakup. This is probably due to the fact that if they are too agreeable, they are suppressing their own inner desires and choices, which are likely to become pent up frustration, threatening to explode at the slightest provocation.

Age

The older the man, the higher the chances of breakup. The same trend is true for women, although perhaps less pronounced. In some sense, the older we grow, the less easy it becomes for us to adjust to another person. This has been my sense while talking to people who are looking to re-marry.

Number of children

Two is the optimal number of kids to have. Beyond that, the higher the number of children, the higher the chances of breakup. This claim is surprising: more traditional couples tend to have more kids, and such couples are generally expected to have lower rates of divorce, etc. What is happening here? Don’t Mormons almost never divorce (apparently they do at almost the same rate, which supports the paper’s claim)? Perhaps this is confounded by the fact that troubles couples choose to have more kids to save their marriages, and then realize that that is a failed strategy and eventually divorce? I’m not sure. Perhaps couples with a large number of kids actually had these kids with different partners? This claim is surprising to me, and would greatly change my model of the world if true.

Percentage income

If the woman earns slightly less than the man, the relationship is likely to survive. If she earns much less or much more than the man, the relationship is not likely to survive. This is perhaps not all that surprising, and hopefully this trend changes with time.

In absolute terms, if the woman and man earn well, their relationship is likely to survive. If they earn too little or too much, they are likely headed for a breakup. This also is not surprising. A comfortable income gives you freedom, while keeping the constraints in place that make a marriage work.

Extraversion

At the beginning of a relationship, the woman’s extraversion is irrelevant, while the man being more extraverted than a certain optimal amount is harmful for the relationship. However, five years in, both the man and woman have an optimal level of extraversion, and being more extraverted than that is harmful for the relationship.

I think extraversion has to be coupled with agreeableness for this trend to hold true, and being extraverted and toxic would show a different pattern. I’m not convinced that extraversion can be an independent factor here.

Neuroticism

Being “too” neurotic is bad for the survival of the relationship in both men and women. Obviously. However, what is surprising is that an optimal amount of neuroticism is actually good for the relationship in both genders! This is a bizarre finding. It has to be the case that neuroticism is positively correlated with intelligence, professional success, etc that compensates for the increased neuroticism. Otherwise this clearly makes no sense.

Summary

Be agreeable (but not too much), earn well and about the same amount, have exactly two children, be extraverted but not too much, don’t be too old, don’t work way too long, and be satisfied with your life. Although this is clearly unhelpful, perhaps there is still some wisdom in there.

A lot of people find partners to become happy or satisfied with their lives. However, the people who are already satisfied with their lives, and don’t heap all of their frustrations and toxicity, make better and more long-lasting partners.

Who knew neural nets could teach us how to love.

How to gaslight like a guru

True wisdom can only be found if you drop all pre-conceived notions of the world, look within, and engage in years of meditation and introspection. But sometimes it can also be found on Spotify.

I recently heard a podcast between Joe Rogan and Sadhguru on The Joe Rogan Experience, and it was as uncomfortable and cringe-worthy as you’d imagine. It is lazy (albeit correct) to dismiss Sadhguru as a con-artist, and carry on with your life. What is perhaps more productive is to try and learn something from him. This is my humble attempt to do so.

Leading questions

Want to convince someone of your point? Ask them questions with obvious answers, and then prove that those answers are evidence of the fact that your skeptic in fact agrees with your point.

“Can I know you by dissecting you and observing your organs?”
“No.”
“Then you also agree that intellect and sense perception are vastly limited, and that only spirituality can help us understand the universe. Hence, my stories of meeting extraterrestrials on Mount Kailash are actually true.”

Build authority by telling tales

Want to appear important to someone? Tell stories in which you were treated as a venerable authority by others.

“When I was in Silicon Valley, software engineers would tell me,
‘Sadhguru, we can make an app for your mission.’
I would tell them apps are fine, but technology can only help so much. We need spirituality.”

Note that Trump would also do the same. When he was talking about how the election had been stolen from him, he would tell tales of how some White House officer would call him and say, ‘Mr. President, this election is a disgrace….’

Build authority by pulling down your skeptic

Want to show dominance over someone who is questioning your claims? Question their credibility in return, and state that you are doing them a favor by even engaging with them.

“When I said that I would go on the Joe Rogan show, people started calling me frantically and saying, ‘Sadhguru, don’t go on the Joe Rogan show. He is a bad man. He has said this and that.’ I would only tell them that I have, in the past, gone to jails and spent time correcting criminals. I can definitely go on the Joe Rogan show, despite his reputation, and spend some time talking to him.”

Note that it was Rogan in fact who was doing him the favor: giving him an audience of millions of listeners who could then purchase tickets to Sadhguru’s yoga camps in the future or whatever. Sadhguru, in fact, spent a lot of time dismissing yoga as was done in America, probably so that he could create demand for “real Yoga” from India.

When asked hard questions, respond in stories

When someone asks you difficult questions such that answering them in a straight fashion would hurt you, respond to them with a weakly-related story such that it is now your skeptic’s job to extract the answer from your story.

“How did you know that you would find extraterrestrial beings on Mount Kailash?”

“See. I was once traveling on a motorcycle in India. I was doing an all-India tour, and would travel around 1000-1200 kms every day. Once, the motorcycle-chain came off….”

Also, you now have plausible deniability: whatever they say your answer was, you can just say that they misinterpreted your story.

A long story can help you wriggle away from difficult questions

Don’t like the direction the conversation is taking, where you’re being asked tough questions? Tell a long-enough story such that you can completely change the focus of the conversation.

“Do you think you could recovered from your illness by taking medicines and resting, instead of meditating on Mount Kailash?”

“See, yoga is about connecting to the rest of the cosmos……and that is why soil is so important for providing proper nutrition today.”

State that your point cannot be communicated in words

Do you want to convince someone that you’re telling the truth, although all your words are making you sound like a liar? Just tell them that you are in fact telling the truth, and it’s just that it is impossible to communicate your truth in words.

“How did you know that there were extraterrestrials on Mount Kailash and that you could connect with them?”

“See, the words are very limited in their ability to help us communicate. Whatever I experienced, it has to be experienced to be believed.”

Note that he has again bought plausible deniability for himself. If someone does take the initiative to go to Mount Kailash and try and connect with extraterrestrials, Sadhguru can just claim that they didn’t do it the “right way”, and that is why they failed to connect with extraterrestrials. If someone asks Sadhguru to do it the “right way” and help them connect with extraterrestrials, he can make up any number of excuses to not go, or perhaps claim that the person needs to first do yoga for 15 years with a “pure heart” before this becomes possible.



Zero sum games amongst relatives

It is simultaneously true that everyone in the world is a better person than your relatives, and everybody is somebody’s relative.

I used to think that my family was uniquely bad. However, talking to others has convinced me that we are, in fact, much better off. I have a friend who wishes that her relatives don’t come to her wedding. Another who hasn’t talked to any of his relatives for seven years, although he lives within driving distance from them. A third is scared of marrying his girlfriend of seven years because he knows that his relatives will judge him for marrying someone of a different nationality. Disliking relatives seems like a pretty universal phenomenon.

There are two lenses through which to look at this phenomenon: competition and expectation.

Competition

Relatives compete with each other for status, wealth, academic achievement, whatever. You want to be the richest, most respected member of the family, and you want your kids to have the same kind of reputation. The competition for status, unfortunately, works by either pulling yourself up, or pulling others down. If you have a relative who is much richer than you, you can attack their status by detailing their drinking habits, the one time you asked them for money and they refused, etc. The competition for status is a negative sum game: no one wins, and everyone hates everybody.

Expectation

Relatives are expected to do certain things for one another. You’re expected to look after ailing parents, be welcoming hosts for those visiting from out of town, give nice gifts to everyone, etc. Of course, whenever you have high expectations, the easy option is to default from those expectations. Don’t want to look after your parents? Push it on your siblings. Don’t want to give your relatives a gift? Recall that one time when you needed their help and they didn’t respond. Don’t want to fulfill your obligation to an uncle? Note that your brother is not fulfilling his obligation either, and you don’t want to be the only idiot in town.

Is there any hope?

Is there any way to actually make relative ties less toxic? I can only think of a few, relatively unhelpful points:

  • Be more likable, so that relatives will feel bad that they’re pushing you down
  • If you’re not likable, be okay with not being liked. It’s not your fault you were born obnoxious and ugly.
  • Set expectations early on, so that people can’t abuse their privilege over you. This is not always optimal: although you may save yourself from being exploited, you will also never get that close to some otherwise good relatives. Maybe be “bad” to the bad ones?
  • Every person has a good side, which comes out when you bring up a few topics, and a bad side, which comes out when you touch others. Want to have a nice conversation with your aunt? Bring up the incident in which you had a great laugh together after a mishap, instead of sitting in silence and waiting for her confrontational side to break out naturally.
  • Read this much superior article on dealing with relatives.

Biases in machine learning

Today we will be discussing “Capturing failures of large language models via human cognitive biases” by Jones and Steinhardt.

The rationality community is organized around trying to compensate for systematic biases in human thought. This movement was arguably started by “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Kahnemann and Tvarksy, and has reached its current state majorly through the writings of Eliezer Yudkowsky. Some common biases that humans have are the availability bias, anchoring effect, framing effect, etc. The authors of this paper decided to explore whether OpenAI’s Codex, which auto-completes code prompts as GPT-3 auto-completes word prompts, displays the same biases.

It does.

Note: The authors don’t just feed Codex random instructions, and then see what kinds of errors it makes. They essentially have a check-list of cognitive biases that they sequentially go down, and see if Codex is making those errors. Clearly this is not an exhaustive list of errors that Codex is making. In fact, it is possible that we discover a completely new type of error that Codex is making, test it on humans, and realize that humans make the same kind of error! This “inverse problem” is in fact an active field of research.

Framing bias

Framing bias is altering the choice of wording such that the same question, worded differently, seems different to you, thereby prompting a different response.

Here, the programmers write a completely unrelated prompt to influence the machine’s “thinking”, and then write the actual prompt they want turned into code. The machine thinks that all of the code is relevant.

What exactly should Codex ignore the previous part of the code? Aren’t those also instructions? I suppose Codex is designed to ignore previous functions.

Why is it important to include Codex’s own prompt in order to mislead it? Maybe this has something to do with the fact that humans work the same way: if you include their own input as part of the narrative, they attach more importance to it?

Anchoring effect

Anchoring effect is the process of altering one’s answer by pre-feeding it a possible answer.

Here, the correct answer is given in the darkened box on the right. However, just before Codex is asked for an answer, it is fed a modified version of the answer. Codex now gives that modified answer.

Availability heuristic

Availability heuristic is the bias in which we think that what we see more of around us is also more common in general. For example, a person living in a place where there are a lot of motorbike accidents might start thinking that motorbike deaths are a leading cause of death in the world, although that may be far from the truth.

Here, the program is being asked to compute (x+y)^2. However, it ends up computing x^2+y^2, because that instruction was much more common in the training set (GitHub).

Attribute substitution

This is the bias where we substitute a required task with a different task that we are already trained to do (and often requires less work).

Codex is asked to define a function with a particular name. However, that name has already been fed to Codex as an entirely different function. Hence, that entirely different function is outputted instead of the required function.

High-impact errors

The authors use the study of these biases to predict the kinds of situations in which Codex would make costly errors, like deleting important files.

Codex is asked to remove the files that contain all four of statsmodels, plotly, seaborn and scipy. Codex, like every teenager (and non-teenager) ever that wants to cut corners, checks only for “statsmodels” instead of all four, and hence deletes more files than needed. This could of course prove to be a costly error if the erroneously deleted files were important.

Discussion

What does it mean for Codex to display the same biases as humans? Is it possible that humans are also ~12 billion parameter-neural networks? In some sense, that is entirely possible. We have billions of neurons, all of which have parameters that are slowly determined with time. Of course, we are not clean slates like neural networks are: we are born with a hard-coded propensity for language, for instance, that neural networks are not. But it is looking more and more possible that we are just self-replicating neural networks, and that artificial neural networks may soon be able to do the same. At least Metaculus thinks that.

AGI stands for Artificial General Intelligence

No one who controls you can respect you

I will write about a handful of isolated issues before I try and find a common pattern.

Elon Musk has been universally vilified (at least on the left) as a tax-evading billionaire who has gotten rich stepping on the backs of working-class Americans. Elon, in perhaps an attempt to prove his naysayers wrong, paid the highest amount of taxes in human history last year. Whatever you might want to say about it, he didn’t have to. But he did. He also went on Saturday Night Live, spoke about his Asperger’s, and the “awesome” job that he does of sending rockets into space and building the best cars on the planet. Despite all of this, exactly 0 people on the left have now become Elon fans. He has also surely lost many fans on the right because he often comes across as “trying too hard”.

Jeff Bezos, who is also a tax-evading billionaire, and let’s face it, not as brilliant or influential as Elon, does not face the same amount of flak as Elon. Some of it has to do with the fact that he does not support issues that go against the liberal narrative (like no mask mandates, etc). However, I feel that a lot of it has to do with the fact that Bezos doesn’t apologize for his tax-evasion. He just does his own thing: minting billions, and supporting researchers at many institutions like MIT and Caltech. Note that Bezos really should be targeted more by the left; Amazon warehouse workers work in dangerous conditions for very low pay; this is as close as we can get to sweatshops in the United States. However, he just isn’t. And that’s not just because he owns the Washington Post; other competing publications are equally non-critical of him.

Like most people, I love reading “love advice” columns on the internet. A few years back, I read the following query from a girl in Singapore: she had a long-term boyfriend who would do anything for her. Whenever she casually mentioned to him over message that she was hungry, he would without fail show up at her house with a bucket of ice cream or something, even if it was 4 am. She said that she had grown tired of him, and wasn’t attracted to him anymore. The people in the comments’ section criticized her soundly. However, it was easy to “understand” why she wasn’t attracted to her boyfriend anymore.

A few years back, the Indian politician Mayawati was targeted in national newspapers for wearing a garland of currency notes. Doing so was illegal as per the Indian constitution. Now, no one expected Mayawati to get arrested, as the Indian police is often hand-in-glove with Indian politicians. However, she was at least expected to be soundly criticized in newspaper editorials. The very next day after this news broke, Mayawati called a press conference, and had someone put a garland of currency notes on her in front of everyone. She had purposefully broken the law in front of the whole world. I remember thinking that this was pretty badass. Other people must have thought the same, as the news and criticism died almost overnight (she hadn’t broken a big enough law to attract much attention from the courts).

I recently read an article by Freddie deBoer, where he talks about the TV show The Sopranos. I haven’t watched the show yet, so I didn’t get a lot of the insight he was trying to communicate. However, something that caught my attention was the following: apparently the audience wanted the show to move in a particular direction, in which the humane side of the mafia boss was shown, and this was made clear to the writers in multiple ways. However, instead of pandering to audience interests, the writers pushed back and in fact took the show in the opposite direction. This is apparently what made the show legendary. The Sopranos is in fact regularly voted to be the best TV show of all time.

Is there a common thread that binds all of these examples together?

Let’s take Elon’s case first. Had he just refused to comment on his tax-evasion altogether and kept doing what he does best, which is building amazing cars and rockets, his public image would have been much better. He is now 11 billion dollars poorer for no apparent gain. Bezos clearly knew how to handle his public image better; and I mean the guy cheated on his wife who now donates billions to charity. Bezos really should have been targeted more. In some sense, Elon is seems too needy for our collective approval, while Bezos comes across as not giving a flying…

Now we come to the girl from Singapore; she knew that her boyfriend was a nice person who was trying to make her feel special. However, it seemed that he was too hungry for her approval, and it is difficult respect anymore who you can control so easily. I do not mean to propagate an “alpha” version of masculinity in which we do not listen to our partners at all. All I’m saying is that getting respect is more complicated than just doing everything someone else tells in you in order to gain their approval.

Now we come to Mayawati. No one thinks that she is the best human being on earth, or even a very good politician. However, she comes across as someone who is not trying to get your approval. This also probably worked for Trump, who is a flaming human turd-ball in most other ways. The same goes for the writers of the Sopranos; when they felt that the audience was trying to control the story, they actively went against it. They made it clear that they did not care about the audience’s approval. And perhaps that is a major reason that they got it.

I can make the same argument about Joe Rogan, who almost mis-handled his case by apologizing every two days, and then corrected himself quickly by sticking to his initial arguments (regardless of their veracity), retaining his fans and not alienating anyone else.

Often people try to control you by giving or withholding their approval. If you do their bidding in order to try and win their approval, they’ll realize that they can easily control you, and respect you less for it. You will be caught in an infinite loop of trying to win their approval, but never quite getting it. It is only when you push back and make it clear that you cannot be controlled that you will, counter-intuitively, ever have a chance of getting their respect.

An idiot’s guide to prediction markets

I have been trying to understand how to form better predictions for a long time. I will use writing this blogpost as an instrument for doing so.

I came across an interesting question on manifold.markets, which is a website that gives people play money to predict the outcomes of events unfolding in the world.

I give this a 75% chance of happening, which is in fact a number I arrived at by writing this post. I will detail my thought process below.

What is my prediction, and how much money did I spend on this?

I predict that the answer is “Yes”, and I bought $200 worth of shares on it.

Why do I think that the answer is “Yes”?

There are multiple reasons, really:

How many questions must one solve to get a gold medal at an International Math Olympiad?

Historically, one must solve at least 4/6 questions, and get some partial points on the others.

What is the probability of me winning the bet?

Let us use Bayes’ theorem to answer that. In 2020, AI could hardly solve any math questions that require creativity. By 2022, it can verify complex proofs as well as answer the easier IMO questions. It can also formulate mathematical conjectures, and help mathematicians prove big results. It has gotten better at answering open-ended questions like “What is the meaning of life?”, successfully predicted protein-folding, etc. How much harder are the more difficult IMO questions than the easier ones? Let’s see: around 550 students participate at the IMO every year, and around 2-3 students get perfect scores. Hence, if one assumes that at least 400 students solve at least one problem, we can guess that the harder IMO questions are at least 100 times harder than the easier ones. Assuming that AI becomes only 10 times better at solving math questions every 2 years, this is not good news for this prediction to come true by 2025.

Does this suggest that the IMO challenge should be solved by 2026, and not 2025?

Yes. If we continue our rate of progress, and no further algorithmic advances are made that rapidly speed up progress, we should be golden by 2026.

What should the chances of the challenge being answered by 2025 be?

Assuming that each additional year until 2026 adds 25% to this probability, maybe 75%?

What will cause me to update this probability?

Reading papers along the lines of “AI can now solve almost all questions on the IMO”, or “AI likely to require human supervision in the near future” would cause me to update my prediction.

What about the fact that the Metaculus dashboard is much more pessimistic about this question than me?

If I turn out to be wrong, I will update my preferences, and look at Metaculus predictions to set my expectations (base rate).

Can we really make YouTube better?

Consider the following abstract from The challenge of understanding what users want by Kleinberg, Mullainathan and Raghavan:

The gist is this: when you’re on YouTube, you can do one of two things:

  1. You can go down the rabbit hole of watching 57 videos of celebrities farting on camera, which will ultimately cause you to get disgusted with yourself and induce you to delete the YouTube app to hopefully stop your procrastination
  2. You can start watching science videos which are informative, as well as surprisingly fun to watch. You are now hooked on “good” YouTube, and you didn’t even realize that you are now on your 50th animated video on General Relativity.

The authors suggest that there will always exist a direction in the “content manifold” which will increase user engagement, as well as be better for the user. I haven’t read the paper, but this seems wrong to me.

I don’t watch celebrity fart videos because I actually enjoy listening to celebrities fart (or let’s pretend that I don’t, anyway). I do so in a self-destructive daze; because this is the exact opposite of what I should be doing, even if it is not really that enjoyable. Procrastination mostly serves to negate or cancel out the parts of your life that are productive or good for you, and that is most (actually all) of the fun. When you over-indulge in this self-destruction, you get disgusted with yourself, and then switch right back to being productive. We need this balance: making life better for ourselves, and then seeing some of it burn right before our eyes as an expression of our freedom to harm even ourselves. It is this dark part of our psychology that the authors fail to consider. Nothing that is good for us can ever increase user engagement for too long.

Note: This may perhaps sound too simplistic. I use Duolingo everyday, for instance. It is super-fun, engaging, and also good for me. However, the optimal engagement with it is around 10 minutes. I get bored if I try and learn Italian for much longer than that. I am assuming that the authors are talking about retaining user engagement for an hour or more, which becomes impossible unless you throw in some absolute rubbish content at the user.

The anatomy of a whodunnit

When I would read Miss Marple stories by Agatha Christie, I would almost never be able to guess the killer. I would introduce all sorts of complexities into my guesses: the most suspicious person is obviously not the killer. It is probably the least suspicious, or the most medium-suspicious (median-suspicious?). But regardless of anything that I did, I got it wrong 100% of the time. A few years later, I came to know how Agatha Christie decided who was the killer in her stories: she would write 90% of the story, and make a lot of people read it. She would then poll everyone on who they thought the killer was, and just choose the person who got the least number of votes. This taught me how constrained I was even in my imagination, and how humans primarily think in the same manner.

I have also enjoyed watching Hindi whodunnits like “36 China Town“, “Raat Akeli Hai” and “Aranyak“. Although these three vary wildly in quality, I was surprised when I came to know who was the killer in all of them. It’s not just that I didn’t get the killer right; the actual killers were not even on my radar. The explanation is simple: the killers in all three appeared to be devoid of agency. The killers in 36 China Town were servants, who are expected to servile and not have a decision-making role (unless they are actively seen by the audience to be planning something, which they were not in this case). The killer in Raat Akeli Hai was a teenage girl who was initially shown as completely controlled by her mother, and hence was perhaps subconsciously eliminated by the audience as the possible culprit. The killer in Aranyak was again a servant who was initially shown to be obsequious to the point of slavery. Perhaps we subconsciously expect a killer to have agency/power, and anyone who is not initially shown to have any is assumed to be innocent.

I am currently watching Season 9 of Father Brown, which is also by and large a whodunnit. However, it seems to employ a rather different pattern. Most detective stories are based around misleading the audience as to the actual identity of the killer, and then shocking them with the big reveal at the end. And to be sure, Father Brown has a lot of that too. However, in some of the better episodes, the most obvious guess does turn out to be right; the person with the most genuine grievance or anger does turn out to be the killer. However, the motive is slowly revealed to be more intricate and nuanced than the audience expects, adding a layer of depth to the story. For instance, in the episode I watched today, a man is shot at a party, and everyone suspects a stranger at the party who had argued with the man. And surprise surprise, that stranger had indeed been the culprit. However, what the audience didn’t expect was that the stranger had had a homosexual relationship with the victim’s son, and the victim had had the stranger imprisoned and chemically castrated, which caused the stranger to seek revenge. I rather enjoyed this episode, despite the somewhat obvious identity of the killer.

This is a trope that Raat Akeli Hai also employs: everyone expects the murder to have happened for wealth or property. However, it is revealed at the end that the murder actually happens because the victim had had forced incestuous relations with his own granddaughter. This added layer of complexity to the plot is what made the movie memorable, as opposed to just making the whodunnit harder to solve.

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?