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.

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.

Music and Class in India

I was in middle school when I started listening to American music (we called it English music) and watching American TV series (on Star World, for those in the know). Soon, I was listening to a lot of Backstreet Boys, and watching a lot of Friends, Dexter, etc. It was a strange feeling. Although I enjoyed consuming all of that content, I obviously couldn’t relate to much of it. Society in India was very different. People were a lot more discrete about dating than Joey, for instance. In fact, the concept of dating as such did not really exist. People mostly just decided to get into a “relationship” right away. And the word “relationship” too was a new thing! In the generation before ours, such liaisons were called “affairs”, and were essentially looked down upon as dishonorable and irresponsible. If you were having an “affair”, you were probably bad at studies and hence didn’t have much professional hope anyway, reneging on your duties towards your family, and blowing through their hard earned money. It was with this cultural mindset that I watched my favorite American TV characters trying to get dates with everyone in sight, laughing loudly with the soundtrack each time. It was surprisingly easy to co-exist in two contradictory worlds.

The same can be said about American music in India. I started with listening to pop, and soon progressed to classic rock like Michael Learns to Rock or the Eagles. Metal was still too weird for me, and I never quite took to it. But it was not just me. Almost everybody in my class listened to English songs, and we took pains to memorize the lyrics so that we would be able to sing along with those songs in class or wherever. A part of it was obviously an intention to signal status….and that’s not exactly the same as wealth, or caste. Class could, in some sense, be built by an exposure or affinity to “the West”. If I was a a low caste person in India with not a lot of wealth, I could still signal class if I knew the lyrics to a lot of American songs and knew what was up in the West. If I knew who Kirk Hammett was, for instance, I was in, my family circumstances notwithstanding. However, this was rare. Most times, caste, class and wealth would be in alliance. If you were born into a high caste family with wealth, you were likely to be exposed to Western influences, and hence earn “class” as well.

Fine. So we all consumed a lot of American content to signal “class”. So what? Well, a natural outcome of this is that some people wanted to do this professionally. We have a very large number of rock bands in India that are still chasing the kind of fame that American rock bands see all over the world. Our film industry is full of filmmakers exposed mainly to western influences (often educated there), and often base their whole storylines in the “West” if their budget allows. Although the TV industry has mainly withstood the onslaught of western influences, they end up merely being the Indian versions of loud telenovelas that are often derided by our generation on social media. Essentially, we are invested in producing a lot of “westernized” content in India partly because they seem nice, and also partly because we want to signal “class”. But this never quite catches on. There are no Indian rock bands that regularly rule the music charts. Overly western-ised Bollywood movies regularly fail to recuperate their investments. Hence, this strategy has repeatedly failed to produce an authentically Indian voice that can resonate with the people.

But what is the authentically Indian voice? Is it the Hindustani or Carnatic music that we sometimes hear when our calls are kept on hold? I don’t think so. I would go so far as to say that most Indians (especially those living in rural India) have never even heard much classical Indian music, if any. Carnatic music was historically cultivated in Tamil Brahmin households, and has strong caste roots. Moreover, Hindustani music has also mostly been developed in esteemed Muslim or Hindu households, and was not commodified for the plebs until very recently. If you are a lower caste person working the fields in Madhya Pradesh, chances are you haven’t heard much of either kind music. It’s like the French saying that caviar is representative of regular French food.

In their search for the authentic music of India, some music outfits have tried fusing Indian classical music with rock, jazz, etc. And by my estimation, they’re musically brilliant! However, they have still eluded making it big. So what is the real music of India?

There are two ways of looking about it. If you talk about reach, then the real music of India is mainstream film music. Wherever you travel in India, you are likely to be blasted with Bollywood or regional film music. In my city of Kolkata (erstwhile Calcutta), you will often experience loud Bollywood music blaring all around you. The rich and poor equally enjoy dancing to the latest chartbusters that play on TV and radio stations all day every day. Hence, the real music of India is a bastardized offspring of Eastern and Western influences, packaged together with lavish sets and dancing film stars.

The other way of looking at it is, of course, status signaling. The reason why most of us started listening to English music was to signal our “class”. However, soon listening to English music became too mainstream, and people needed an alternate way to signal class. Thus, a lot of Indian college going hipsters began celebrating Anurag Kashyap and his brand of rustic, “authentically Indian” movies like “Gangs of Wasseypur”. I’m not saying that the movie wasn’t good. It was. However, the wave of appreciation that the movie saw was clearly culturally counter-revolutionary. It was a way for the urban elites to tell the masses that they, the rarefied and gentrified, still had their feet planted firmly on the ground, and perhaps understood real India better than the frauds who were trying to appropriate their superior class by listening to English music.

As music evolves in India, people will soon find another way to signal their class. They may start listening to old European music, or perhaps even Bhojpuri music ironically. However, the real music of India will always remain Himesh Reshammiya’s chartbusters, or perhaps Badshah’s “rap”. At least for some time to come.

Status signaling in academia

This is how math grad students talk:

I don’t really understand this very simple concept. What is the essence of this object, and why was it needed at all? I perhaps need to construct ten different examples or think of alternate definitions before I can successfully narrow down what this means.

No. Not really. This is how math grad students (including me) talk:

Oh you’ve heard of cohomology, but what about quantum cohomology? This *insert name* French mathematician has done some amazing work in this regard, and here’s a fairly advanced book that discusses it.

Of course this changes with time. As grad students become more competent in the latter half of their PhDs, conversations like these become more rare. However, there are still a lot of big words thrown around without caution.

Almost all of this can be explained by status signaling. Graduate students work in fairly isolated and non-overlapping research areas, and are hence free from the academic competition that their undergrad experiences entailed. However, there is still an intrinsic human need for them to signal to each other their relative intelligence and their imagined positions in the status hierarchy. And what better way to do this than to lob some polysyllabic words from their research fields, waiting and hoping for their audience to become suitably impressed, who in turn are getting ready to lob some long words of their own.

However, status signaling explains much, much more than just grad school conversations in lowly student bars. Robin Hanson claims that it explains almost all of modern human society. The more I think about this article, the more true it rings. The post below is also majorly influenced by the genius of this article by Freddie deBoer.

Status signaling in academia

If you’re a researcher in the United States or any other “First World” country, how would you signal your status as an intelligent and capable scientist? You would try to discover something new, create a new technology, or perhaps prove famous scientists wrong. Note that these do run the gamut of almost all avenues still open to researchers in these countries to signal their superior positions in the status hierarchy. They do really have to create something new.

However, if you are a researcher in the “Developing World”, perhaps in a country like India, things are slightly different. You can of course signal status by creating a brand new technology, or perhaps invent a paradigm-shifting theory. However, you can also earn status by being proficient at the newest fields and technologies that were only just created in the “First World”, and that your other colleagues are too slow or stupid to understand. Given below are some conversations that the author has created out of thin air

Are you aware of Machine Learning? Oh it is so interesting. There was recently a paper in the journal Nature on how it has come to beat humans at Chess and Go. We are using this esoteric kind of unsupervised learning in our lab to harvest data on genes.

You must have heard of Bitcoin. But have you heard of Blockchain? It is the technology that all cryptocurrencies are based on. I have included a module on it to teach my students in the Financial literacy course, and also regularly lecture corporations on their importance. Cryptocurrencies are the future, and it is a shame that our country doesn’t understand it yet

Oh you’re interested in learning String Theory? Well the first thing that you have to do is read the latest paper by Edward Witten. Oh you can’t understand the Math in it? Well, keep trying, and one day you will. I believe that the math used in that paper should be taught in elementary school itself.

The last conversation is real. The former Physics grad student (who then quit Physics to completely change fields) was perhaps trying to signal his own intelligence by saying that the latest paper by Witten was easy to read. It is in fact highly advanced, and would perhaps take most Physics or Mathematics researchers many months if not years to understand. Definitely not elementary school material.

Do we see a pattern? If I am a researcher working in India, I don’t really need to create whole new technologies or paradigms. A much easier way is to just import those paradigms from the “West”, become proficient in them before others (or at least in throwing around the relevant buzzwords), and consequently signal that I’m smarter and a more capable researcher than my colleagues. Of course other ways of signaling this are writing more papers than my colleagues, having my papers published in better journals, having a higher h-index, etc. Although the best way to signal status is still creating something brand new, the other ways are just so much easier that the law of “least work” precludes those from ever happening in the developing world.

I recently read the following comment on a substack article (that I cannot recall):

Chinese and Indian research is basically a paper mill. Let’s get real, nothing of value ever gets produced there.

As an Indian researcher, I felt bad upon reading this. However, this did ring true in significant ways. Although scientific advances do come out of India from time to time, nothing is usually big enough to “hit the headlines”. Of course there is one major exception: the claim by IISc scientists to have achieved superconductivity at room temperature for the first time in history. No one was surprised when this was proven to be a fraudulent claim. Another such claim doing the rounds these days is a Nature article published by an NCBS lab, which also turned out to have fraudulent data. One of the best research labs in the country willfully manipulated data to have their paper published, wasting taxpayers’ money and further reducing trust in Indian research.

This contrasts with my experiences as a student in India. My classmates and colleagues were some of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and I continue to correspond with and learn from them. Why was it that a country, with so many intelligent and hard working people, not capable of creating a good research culture that can contribute something meaningful to the world? I think that it is a case of misplaced incentives.

As researchers, our main incentive is discovering new truths about the world around us. However, an equally important (if not more important) incentive is signaling to others that we are intelligent. And by the law of “least resistance”, we want to find the shortest and easiest path to do so. Being versed at the latest “western” theories and technologies is a much easier path than actually creating something from scratch. Hence, we inevitably choose that path. Setting up whole labs devoted to reinforcement learning, creating a research group on String Theory in all major universities, etc.

Status signaling in other domains

One form of status signaling that is often on display is between researchers and entrepreneurs. When Elon Musk invented Neuralink for instance, lots of neuroscience researchers gave interviews in which they said that Musk had not created anything new, and was merely mooching off of their research that had been in the public domain for many years. Musk, on his part, emphasized that writing papers that no one reads is the easy part, and actually engineering products and bringing them to the world is the much harder part, that only he purportedly had done. Hence, researchers and entrepreneurs often engage in status battles.

Another form of status battle takes place between different economic strata. For instance, slightly lower earning professions (like researchers, bureaucrats, etc) are often engaged in status battles with high earning professions like bankers, tech workers, etc. The “we don’t get paid very much, but we are smarter and do what we love” refrain is often heard from researchers who actively hate their lives under the aegis of university bureaucracies, but want to signal a higher status. Of course the “how come you are smarter if I am the one earning much more money” retort is then in turn heard from bankers consultants, who lead an overworked and sometimes miserable existence in order to be able to signal a higher status.

Conclusion

Robin Hanson claims that most of what we do is status signaling. I want to strengthen this claim by saying that almost all of that we do is status signaling. We don’t really want to understand the world. We want to be perceived as understanding of the world, or at least as curious about the world. We want to signal our good looks by recalling stories of people expressing interest in us, our intelligence by talking about reading books and studying in reputed colleges (some take it too far and discuss IQ test scores), our virtues by talking about the disadvantaged and how we have stepped in to help them, etc. Very often, this leads one away from actually trying to understand the world, helping the disadvantaged, etc.

Of course, writing this post itself is an attempt to signal my status. I’m trying to prove that I’ve caught on to other people who indulge in status signaling, and that I myself am above all this. However, it would also be of immense value for me if I’m able to figure out a way to escape taking part in status battles with the people in my life. And if I remain in academia, it would enrich my life to no end if I’m able to pursue my curiosity without indulging in status games with the rest of the researchers in my field. Here’s to hoping.

Disentangling objective functions

I am currently reading the book Feeling Great by Dr. David Burns, and am finding it to be very insightful and helpful. In fact, I would highly recommend it to any person that has chanced upon this fetid corner of the internet. I apologize in advance for the self-help nature of the rest of the post.

In Chapter 3, the author talks about a Harvard student who is depressed because she is unable to get good grades and be the academic superstar that she had always been before this. She has been undergoing a lot of mental trauma for months now, and has finally come to her counselor for help. Now imagine that the counselor gives her two options:

  1. There is a “happiness button” that the student has to press, and then all her sadness will go away instantly, although her grades remain unchanged. Let us suspend belief for a moment and imagine that such a button actually exists
  2. The student does not press the happiness button, and continues living her life in pursuit of better grades and circumstances

Which option do you think the student will choose?

On close reflection, you may soon realize that the student will inevitably choose the second option, and not the first one. Although she does want to be happy, she wants good grades even more than mere happiness. She has made her happiness conditional upon academic success.

In life, we often entangle our happiness with our goals or ambitions. We say “if I become very rich or very successful in my field, I will be happy”. What inevitably happens is that we either don’t reach our desired goal, or when we do reach it, we realize that our goals have now shifted. We now want to be better than the other people who have achieved the same goals. Only then will we be happy.

What is perhaps more tricky to realize is that we need not do that. Happiness has nothing to do with achieving goals. Happiness is perhaps being at peace with ourselves and celebrating the present. This can be achieved by reflecting on the miracle of life and the universe, or perhaps injecting morphine into one’s eyeballs for the slightly more adventurous. However it is achieved, it actively has nothing to do with our goals. Hence, we will do well to disentangle our two aims of being happy and being successful. Both of these aims are valuable and worth pursuing. However, they are not related. Our being happy has nothing to do with being successful.

Humans have many objective functions like wealth, fame, happiness, meaning, quality of relationships, etc that they want to maximize in their lives. Maximizing any (or all) of these functions will add great value to one’s life. However, these objective functions needn’t have anything to do with one another. I can be happy without wealth, fame, meaning, etc….much like Sisyphus. I can also be wealthy without fame, happiness, meaning, etc. Entangling these functions can potentially take away value from our lives. For instance, if I entangle my happiness with fame and wealth, which means that I decide that I will be happy only when I’m rich and famous, then I lose out on the possibility of being happy if I’m not able to attain my goals of being rich and famous. Hence, keeping these functions separate and disentangled can only be to our benefit.

Of course, one may think that entangling my happiness with wealth and fame may make them more motivated to attain wealth and fame. Although this sounds convincing, this is not how things work in practice. We can’t “decide” what will make us happy. It is possible (and entirely common) that even when we attain our goals of wealth and fame, we are unhappy. An analogy is you deciding that you will turn 30 only when England wins the Football World Cup. You can’t really decide how and when you turn 30. Similarly, being happy cannot be arbitrarily entangled with any other objective function of your choosing. It has to be pursued and attained on its own terms, independent of other objective functions.

Thus ends my spiel for the day. If you think that I am slowly drifting away from reviewing scientific papers to writing crappy self-help posts, you’re right on the money.

HIV rebound

The paper that I’m writing about today is “The size of the expressed HIV reservoir predicts timing of viral rebound after treatment interruption” by Li et al. I will quote passages from the paper, and then try to explain what all of those fantastically long words mean.

Objectives:

Therapies to achieve sustained antiretroviral therapy-free HIV remission will require validation in analytic treatment interruption (ATI) trials. Identifying biomarkers that predict time to viral rebound could accelerate the development of such therapeutics.

This is one of a whole host of papers that deals with identifying biomarkers that can aid in the permanent treatment of HIV-positive patients. What does permanent treatment mean? When HIV-positive patients are put on an active treatment regimen, the treatment is often spectacularly successful…..until the treatment stops. Then, patients see a violent relapse. However, there are some patients (we’ll call them super-patients) that don’t see a relapse at all. Researchers are now trying to figure out what it is about these patients that helps them not relapse when treatment is stopped, and whether these conditions can be re-created in all patients. Simple.

Methods:

Cell-associated DNA (CA-DNA) and CA-RNA were quantified in pre-ATI peripheral blood mononuclear cell samples, and residual plasma viremia was measured using the single-copy assay.

What is single-copy assay? Here is a direct quote from this paper:

This assay uses larger plasma sample volumes (7 ml), improved nucleic acid isolation and purification techniques, and RT-PCR to accurately quantify HIV-1 in plasma samples over a broad dynamic range (1–106 copies/ml). The limit of detection down to 1 copy of HIV-1 RNA makes SCA 20–50 times more sensitive than currently approved commercial assays.

Essentially it is a new-and-improved method of measuring the amount of HIV RNA in your blood plasma.

What are the results of this experiment?

Results:

Participants who initiated antiretroviral therapy (ART) during acute/early HIV infection and those on a non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor-containing regimen had significantly delayed viral rebound. Participants who initiated ART during acute/early infection had lower levels of pre-ATI CA-RNA (acute/early vs. chronictreated: median <92 vs. 156 HIV-1 RNA copies/106 CD4þ cells, P < 0.01). Higher preATI CA-RNA levels were significantly associated with shorter time to viral rebound (4 vs. 5–8 vs. >8 weeks: median 182 vs. 107 vs. <92 HIV-1 RNA copies/106 CD4þ cells, Kruskal–Wallis P < 0.01). The proportion of participants with detectable plasma residual viremia prior to ATI was significantly higher among those with shorter time to viral rebound.

So people who start HIV treatment early have a more successful treatment overall, and it takes a longer time for the disease to rebound even when the treatment is stopped. This largely aligns with common sense and disease rebounds seen in other diseases like cancer. What is more surprising is that patients on the non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor-containing regimen also see the same kind of success. Let us explore some of the words in this phrase. A nucleoside is a nucleotide, which is the basic building block of DNA and RNA, minus the phosphate group. Reverse transcriptase is the process of constructing complementary DNA sequences from RNA sequences (reverse transcription, because regular transcription constructs RNA from DNA). So constructing DNA from RNA without the help of nucleosides helps in treating HIV? Maybe this newly constructed DNA helps the immune system figure out how to fight the HIV RNA in the plasma? I’m not sure.

Moreover, higher levels of cell-associated HIV RNA lead to a shorter rebound time after treatment is stopped (ATI). This also makes sense. Treatment should only be stopped when RNA levels have decreased considerably. This is something I also came across in the book “The Emperor of Maladies” by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Cancer treatment, whether it be chemotherapy or a strict drug regimen, is often stopped when the patient supposedly feels cured for a duration of time. However, the cancer often rebounds very quickly. This tells us that treatments, whether they be for cancer or HIV, should be carried on for much longer than they are today, and the patient feeling “fine” is not a good marker for when the treatment should be stopped.

Conclusion:

Higher levels of HIV expression while on Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) are associated with shorter time to rebound after treatment interruption. Quantification of the active HIV reservoir may provide a biomarker of efficacy for therapies that aim to achieve ART-free remission

This is a repetition of the above. Stop treatment only when HIV RNA levels are low. This will increase the time it takes for the disease to rebound. Essentially, disease treatment aligns with common sense. Who knew.