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.


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?

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.

Status battles in The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov is one of the most famous books in the history of literature. It was also Einstein’s favorite book. However, my appreciation for the book proves that (much) lesser mortals also have much to gain from reading it.

The book swings primarily between the author’s third person narration of events, and the psychoanalysis of the characters responsible for those events. The narration of events can sometimes be boring and dated. A gentleman of high rank goes to visit a lady, who looks upon him with suspicion because he is not adequately respectful in her esteemed presence. A lady of pure virtue wants to sacrifice herself to a man she doesn’t love out of the goodness of her heart. There are some allusions to “feminine” jealousy, the differences between the artificially sophisticated Europeans and the living, breathing Russians, etc. We don’t live in a world with nobility and fainting ladies and such anymore. Hence, this book can be very dated at times, and the reader begins to question Einstein’s sanity in recommending this book (I mean, he was also wrong about Quantum Physics, wasn’t he?).

Interspersed between the narration of said events is the author’s psychoanalysis of the characters, which by extension provides for a wide ranging discussion on philosophy, religion, etc. These sections are mind numbingly brilliant. I am not a sophisticated reader. I don’t know my Nietzsche from my Deepak Chopra. Even for idiots like me, the insights that Dostoevsky communicates, sometimes almost as an afterthought, make me stop reading and highlight furiously, amazed that someone could have this level of insight into the human mind. In my opinion, Dostoevsky anticipates both Freud and Carl Jung, and their philosophies lie embedded in this novel. Towards the end of this novel, I was basically highlighting whole pages on my Kindle. However, my intention in writing this post is not just to praise the book. I feel that Dostoevsky needed a little Robin Hanson to make some of his points about human nature even more transparent.

The main plot of the book is that a lowlife landlord by the name of Fyodor Karamazov is killed, and his eldest son Dmitri Karamazov is blamed for the murder. Both father and son were after the same woman, Grushenka, who was playing them off each other for sport. The father Fyodor had cheated his son of a sum of 3000 roubles, and had told Grushenka that he would give that money to her if she decided to choose him and become his wife. Dmitri, suspicious that Grushenka would indeed choose his father, breaks into his father’s property to prevent this. When the gardener of the property confronts him, Dmitri hits him in a moment of madness, and then runs away.

Let us delve a little deeper into Dmitri’s past. He was born into a high rank, and was a decorated army officer. However, he was loose with his money and morals, and tried to seduce virginal teenagers wherever he could, often abandoning them later. On the flipside, when a poor but beautiful woman asks him for 4000 roubles to save her ailing father, and was ready to sleep with him and do his bidding, he gives her all his property without asking her for any favors. That poor girl later becomes rich due to an unexpected inheritance, and also his fiancé. She tolerates his unfaithfulness, and also gives him 3000 roubles when Dmitri is penniless, despite knowing that he would only use the money to seduce the prostitute Grushenka. He takes the money, lowering his status to the lowest dregs, and does exactly that- try to seduce Grushenka. However, he also finds it beneath him to not try and return his fiancé’s money. Hence, he asks his father Fyodor for his 3000 roubles that he is rightfully owed. He is denied this, and then beats up his own father, threatening to kill him later. And so on.

When Dmitri is later accused in court of killing his father, the prosecutor explains his behavior to be like that of a pendulum, capable of containing both the highest of virtue and the lowest of vice. He gave away his last penny to a lady he didn’t ask anything of. However, he later took money from the same lady to cheat on her. He was ready to stoop to any kind of manipulation to get money from people. However, he only wanted the money to pay back his debt to his fiancé, so that she would not think he was a thief. Hence, he was a man who could be swayed by wild passions of any color, whether right or wrong, and he would be completely consumed with them without moderation. A man perpetually in control of his instincts and devoid of rational thought. An animal.

This is a fantastic explanation. However, a simpler explanation would probably suffice. Dmitri always wanted to maintain a higher status than anybody else. When he fought his father for those 3000 roubles, he didn’t really do it out of greed. Dmitri was famously generous with his money, and had reportedly spent 3000 roubles in a single night while partying with the villagers and raining champagne and chocolates on them. Also remember that he had given away all his money to his now fiancé without expecting anything from her. He didn’t need money for any expensive purchases for himself. However, he felt slighted by his father’s manipulation and control, and felt that his status had been lowered relative to his father’s. He had been outmaneuvered, and proven stupid. Hence, he beats his father and threatens him for the money so that he could prove himself to be the alpha, thereby raising his status in the process.

When he gave his now fiancé all his money, he didn’t do it out of a sense of generosity or love. In fact, it was implicitly understood between them that she would have to sleep with him for the money. However, at the last moment, he gives her the money and turns away, mocking her and sneering at her. He had gained something far more precious than intimacy- a clear status superiority in relation to another human being. She was ready to do whatever he said. And he turned her down on a whim. This was as big a status victory for him as he’d ever experience.

The only person that Dmitri didn’t try to defraud or bestow generous gifts upon was Alyosha. This was mostly because Alyosha never challenged Dmitri to a status duel. Whenever Dmitri talked to him, Alyosha never passed judgement or him or ask him for any assistance. Hence, Dmitri was never in a position to lose or gain status. Alyosha only lent a patient ear. Dmitri could be himself in front of him, without engaging in status battles.

Another person who engaged in frequent status battles was Grushenka, the prostitute who was playing with both father Fyodor and son Dmitri. She was abandoned by her husband-to-be, thereby lowering her status to the dregs. To compensate for this, she would charm men (like Fyodor and his son Dmitri), and then laugh at them as they would kill and maim each other to gain her affections. In this way, she would elevate her status to be above theirs. Her current status grab was in compensation for her status loss in the past.

I think that a lot of the world and people’s actions become simplified when looked at through the length of status. We don’t really need to work 12 hours a day at jobs we hate to earn buckets of money that we’ll only stash in the bank, or perhaps buy houses that are too big for us or cars that are too fancy for us that we’ll mostly only drive at 60 to jobs that we hate. We need the status that comes with all of that. We want the people in our lives to think that we managed to amount to something. That we have something that no one else has. That we are special. And The Brothers Karamazov shows that the fainting ladies and chivalrous gentlemen of the past centuries also had the same needs. Perhaps Robin Hanson and Keith Johnstone are on to something here when they say that society is mostly about status signaling and status battles.

IMO 1981, Question 3

I had a great time solving the following question a couple of nights back. More so because I’d failed to solve this question in the past.

This question is completely unapproachable if you try to use algebra. However, generating simple examples helps.

Let me try and write down some solutions to (n^2-mn-m^2)^2=1: they are (1,2), (2,3), (3,5), (5,8)... Do you see a pattern? The answer becomes a two-liner as soon as you observe this.