Discovering ourselves

Descartes said we think, therefore we exist. But do we really know what we think?

Note that whatever I am going to describe in this post is based completely on my own experience, and I am not aware of any research in this direction. Hence, make what you will of this n=1 experiment.

Introduction

I was recently listening to the audiobook of How to Change by Katy Milkman. It was unusually good when compared to other self-help books, and offered great advice on how to beat procrastination, etc. The emphasis of the book was on human psychology. One section that particularly struck me as insightful was that giving advice to people (about how to improve their lives, treat their kids, etc) is almost always misguided, because everyone is acutely aware of their flaws. They know that they are lazy, short-tempered, whatever, and can also think of insightful ways to overcome them! Despite knowing all of this, they are unable to change.

This struck me as remarkably true. I know that I procrastinate on work, take on ambitious projects that I don’t complete, devote all my time and energy to something else when I should be focusing on completing my assigned tasks, spend too much time on my phone etc. I also know that I can overcome these by getting accountability partners, paying money to someone when I don’t accomplish them, setting locks on my phone, etc. However, despite knowing both the problem and the solution, I fail to stop these and improve my life. Was it impossible for me to get some control over my own life?

I had recently started writing a couple of pages every morning to clear my head. I would often write about procrastination, getting work done on time, not spend time reading other books when I had my textbooks to read, etc. I would often give myself advice on these pages. “Keep your phone inside your room and don’t use it except at one hour intervals” or something of the sort. This is the sort of thing that the likes of Katy Milkman and Jordan Petersen ask us to do: to advise ourselves as if we were advising a friend. Despite standing on the shoulders of such behavioral therapy giants and writing very useful advice to myself, I would inevitably find myself lying on my couch and scrolling endlessly through my phone within the very hour.

Something had to change.

Experiment and Observation

Instead of giving myself advice, I started using my morning pages to try and write out my exact mental process that leads me to destructive behavior like procrastinating on projects that are important to me, using my phone obsessively, etc. After a couple of days, I was shocked by the results.

It turned out that I wasn’t even (completely) aware of my thought processes that led to such behavior. It sometimes took 5-6 iterations of writing my thoughts out before my “deeper thoughts” could come to the fore and bleed on to the page. Although what I discovered about myself is perhaps too personal to put on a public blogpost, I could trace a very clear line to my past errors in judgement, and how these underlying thought processes led to those. I will try to explain one of those thought processes below, that was completely hidden to me before this.

I discovered that like most other people, I wanted to be someone special (famous, important, etc), instead of doing something special. These are related concepts, but they are slightly different. I have never done homework assignments well, for instance. Whenever I would get a homework assignment, I would, without fail, keep it in my drawer, and look at it only on the day of submission, when I would scribble something half-arsed and get mediocre marks. But it wasn’t that I was lazy and spent all of that time just sleeping instead of working on my assignment. I would instead work hard and try to read up on the latest research and science, hoping against hope that I would land on a project that would make me a famous scientist. Would doing homework make me famous? No. Would doing my shitty school project make me famous? No. Then I’m better off trying to study other things that might give me more of a chance to become the person I envision myself becoming.

This sounds egotistical and misguided. And of course it is! It is grossly stupid, and has led to a lot of self-destructive behavior on my part in the past. I wanted to be someone great instead of doing something great. And the subtle difference between those two made all the difference. Of course this is not the full extent of what I discovered.

What is miraculous is that as soon as I discovered these hidden thought processes, I found it very easy to change my behavior. On thinking about it more, I found a useful analogy for this phenomenon: these thought processes are like missiles that are shot from your unconscious mind. Your conscious mind, on the other hand, is equipped with an anti-missile system that may save you from these destructive missiles. However, you have to be aware of the exact location of the missiles so as to be able to shoot them down and prevent damage to your life. Giving yourself bookish advice is like shooting those anti-missile systems in the dark, hoping that you’ve hit something. You have to know exactly how your subconscious mind works, so that you can prevent it from torpedoing your life.

One great way to figure out these hidden thought processes is writing. I don’t have a clear explanation of why writing helps with this while just sitting on the couch and thinking doesn’t, but it does work. Hence, if you’re looking to change things about yourself, you first have to find out who you really are; in other words, how your subconscious really works. And for that, you will have to write and re-write about yourself, until you’re convinced that you know who you are and what you really think.

The gift of your complete, undivided attention

I’m almost 30. And I think I’m finally learning how to talk to people

I lost my grandmother a couple of years back. I still vividly remember that I got to know this through a message that my sister sent me. My head began spinning, and I had to sit down for some time to process the information. My grandmother and I had drifted apart in the last few years, and it was disheartening to not have completely made up with her before her demise.

The last time that I had met her, she tried to talk to me about her impending death. Everybody knew that she was unlikely survive beyond a year or two. However, as soon as she brought up the topic of dying, I dutifully shushed her and told her that nothing would happen to her. She would get better very soon, and all would be well. She looked down with a sigh, and said “Let’s see what happens”. The conversation ended there, and I left after some time.

I’ve replayed that conversation in my head a lot of times. What should I have done differently? My grandmother probably wanted to reflect on the concept of death by talking to me about it. Had she laid out all her stories and feelings in front of me, she could have had an epiphany which would have helped her reconcile with the ending of human life. However, before she could do any of that, I just ended the conversation with a “don’t worry, you’ll soon get better”.

I was recently reading the book “Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre” by Keith Johnstone. In a small footnote, Johnstone talks about how nurses are trained to talk to patients. I will reproduce the notes that I took on this section.

Therapeutic techniques are the techniques that nurses should use to talk to patients, while non-therapeutic techniques are those that they should be careful to avoid. Of course, these techniques can (and should) be used with people in general, and not just patients in mental asylums.

On reading this section, I realized that I was basically doing almost everything wrong while talking to people. Let us explore some of those mistakes below:

  • Reassuring- I chose to reassure my grandmother that nothing would happen to her, instead of just listening to her attentively
  • Giving approval- If I wanted to get along with someone, I would just signal my approval with whatever they were saying. This didn’t always get me close to them, as they would probably suspect that I was being insincere.
  • Rejecting/Challenging- I would commonly reject or challenge a political opinion during a conversation, instead of finding out why the person held that opinion
  • Advising- A lot of times, I would offer unsolicited advice to friends who would tell me about their problems, without listening to them fully.

Instead of doing all of the things that I’ve mentioned above, I could have just offered the person I was talking to my complete, undivided attention. Let us explore some hypothetical scenarios below:

What my conversation partner saysWhat I shouldn’t sayWhat I should say
I have been feeling lonely for a long timeYou should join some Meet Up groupsSince when you have you been feeling this way?
I think the Democrats have it all wrongI think you’re wrong, the Democrats have been doing greatWhich of their policies do you most disagree with?
Grad school is a nightmare, and I wish I’d never comeExactly, this is hellI see. Is it the work pressure that you dislike?
I don’t get along with my family. I created a ruckus at a family gathering. They refuse to acknowledge my presence, and have cut me offThey can go to hell/ you should be more accommodating of your familyDid they cut you off after your incident at the family gathering, are the two unrelated?

When people tell you their story or their opinion, they are often searching for clarity in their own thoughts. Help them find it. Ask questions, find connections between different parts of their story, ask them to explain something in more detail. Gift people your complete, neutral (don’t agree or disagree with things they say), undivided attention. Be curious about what they’ve been through. Let them arrive at their own epiphanies and meaning, on their own terms. Facilitating someone’s clarity of mind is often the greatest gift you can give them.

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.

Lessons from trying to go vegan

Not everybody hates Osama bin Laden. Even Hitler has some fans, and Thanos many more.

But everybody hates vegans.

I decided to go vegan a few years back….and I told everybody. I had expected some backlash. But it became a funny free for all in which the only thing people knew about me was that I was vegan (the socially accepted statistical correlation between being vegan and being stupid is ~1). I was too old by then to really let it affect me, and I also made quite a lot of friends this way! But it was still surprising to see why my diet would be that big an issue. I was still a regular idiot in a non-animal friendly way in every other aspect of my life.

I was prompted to write this article because I came across this youtube channel. It’s called the Vegan Teacher, and features a woman who is around 55-60ish, and talks about the merits of going vegan. She is pleasant, engages with the comments, and doesn’t act all high and mighty. I will reproduce some of the comments she gets below:

Someone: *Breathes* That Vegan Teacher: Is that air VEGAN?

Alternative title: “Crazy Vegan Lady goes apeshit all over opinions.”

Every comment was something along these lines; calling her stupid, commenting on her lack of breasts, etc. I felt really bad on reading these comments, and left the only supportive comment on her video. I thought I’d be violently abused, and was bracing myself for a long evening of online fighting. However, I was essentially ignored. It’s the indifference that always hurts more.

Why do people hate vegans?

I think the most common sentiment expressed against vegans is that they act holier than thou. Vegans start proselytizing about their inherent moral superiority on the very day that they stop consuming animal products. No one wants to be told that some random dude (or old lady on youtube) is better than them because they stopped drinking milk.

Fair enough. If you’re truly a “good person”, you will stop consuming animal products and not declare it to the world. You’ll buy soy milk and keep it to yourself. No one wants to hear about how you are changing the world while we are apparently destroying it.

I find that this argument, although fair in its place, doesn’t quite capture the issue at hand. Eating animal products is indeed, at this very moment, worsening the long term climate of the planet. It is proven beyond doubt that animals feel pain (for the interested, pain is correlated with the complexity of the neural circuitry inside the body, and animals have been proven beyond doubt to pass that threshold of neural complexity. Even chickens. Trees have not). We are enslaving billions and billions of animals every year, keeping them in horrible conditions, forcibly impregnating them for milk, or killing them for meat. Will my not discussing veganism help in making the situation better for them? Am I not shunning some kind of amorphous social responsibility towards them when I buy soy milk quietly and mind my business?

Well I suppose you could make the argument that if I shut up, people will like me more, and might be convinced that I’m not trying to prove some kind of moral superiority. With gradual exposure, they might slowly become convinced to maybe give veganism a shot…..But this sounds like a slow process, assuming that it happens at all. And animals are dying in millions every single day. Shouldn’t we all be panicking for causing immeasurable pain to all the species on the planet? Wouldn’t the correct time to become vegan be this very moment? Well people could always argue that you will only gain haters by being preachy, but might gain supporters if you play the long game. This feels horrible if we think about the animals losing out on their lives everyday, but I suppose it would be a more sane strategy.

Another reason that people have given to hate vegans is that they’re hypocritical. Celebrities who declare their new found love for veganism on Instagram, but are soon caught eating seafood, are derided on the internet. Better to be a cow eating troll than a hypocritical vegan. I have also often failed to be vegan, and have had dessert or pizza when no other option was available at restaurants. I’ve faced some backlash over this. Although these hypocritical celebrities and hypocritical non-celebrities like yours truly were arguably causing less harm to the environment and less pain to animals on average, we compromised on our lofty ideals, and were hence untrustworthy.

This dovetails perfectly with a paper that was recently published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Let me reproduce the abstract below:

In short, the public perception of your morality (and hence your worth as a human being) is not based on the effect of your actions. It is based on your predictability. If you say you’re a bad person, and you do bad things, that is much better than saying you’re a good person and then doing bad things sometimes. This will obviously ring true for everyone reading this. Don’t say one thing and do another. However, it is a cognitive bias none the less. If you’re always on the lookout for mistakes that your vegan friend might make, you’ll probably catch some big ones. However, you can probably have a bigger impact on the planet if you assess the outcomes of your own actions. Of course hypocritical vegans (celeb and pleb) also have a long way to go in managing expectations and not standing on shaky pedestals of moral superiority. Again, all of this is about public relations and managing expectations, and not really about saving animals. Discussions about an issue are almost never about the issue. They’re about people making the issue. That is why cows are better than people.

A lot of people argue that animals eat other animals, and humans are animals. Hence it’s fine. We’ve been eating animals for millions of years, and we should continue to do so. This argument is slowly losing favor with time. Animals are also known to abuse and rape females, eat their offspring, steal into nests and eat others’ offspring, etc. Should we also do the same? Modern humans have the option of raising themselves above the moral clusterfuck that evolution has hardwired within us. We might do well to take this opportunity.

What would a correct pro-vegan strategy look like?

First, we need vegans to get down from their moral pedestal. How can they do that? They could detach their identities from the message. They could write anonymously. Hence, their preaching wouldn’t boost their real-life images or wages.

I don’t think this will work. PETA is a faceless organization, and its massive ad campaigns don’t really benefit anyone’s image. There are lots of anonymous vegans who talk about veganism on Reddit as well. However, both PETA and these commenters are universally hated.

I honestly think that the only way to convince other people to become vegan is to make it easier for them to become vegan. When cheap imitation meats flood the market that taste identical to actual meat, people will slowly be tempted to give them a go. I am tempted to say that governments should subsidize imitation meats at the beginning so as to create a market. But seeing as government subsidies for education, housing etc mostly serve to ultimately jack up prices, I feel that a technological push is the only thing that can really propel this market into sustained growth. If my grocery store sells both beef and imitation beef at the same prices, and they both taste exactly the same, I might decide to decide to give imitation meat a shot because **waves hands** cows and feelings and such.

If you’re vegan and reading this, a better use of your time than proselytizing is learning some food technology to make this possible (and I would do well to remember this as well). I mean c’mon. How hard can it be to make soy taste like milk, cow, chicken and pig?

Ancient games in modern times

I really can’t play any sports. I was never picked for games of cricket or football, and the only sporting event I have ever gotten a prize for was in grade 4, when I was the engine for my house team.

Therefore, you should take my unsolicited opinions about Olympics and sports very seriously.

The Olympics

India’s Neeraj Chopra recently won a gold medal in Javelin throw at the 2020 Olympics. Some people thought that this was amazing that we should be proud of our Olympic contingent, whilst others were quick to point out the fact that India had one only 1 gold medal, whilst our neighbors to the North had won 38. I, on the other hand, was confused about why we have a Javelin throwing contest at all.

Olympics were first held in ancient Greece, when it mattered how fast you could run or how far you could throw a javelin. The strength of your army, and hence, the security of your very household depended on it. If your army couldn’t hurl heavy objects at the enemy or your messengers couldn’t run fast enough to keep communication lines open on the battlefield, the enemy would roll into your city and kill you and your family for game. Physical prowess was often the sole determinant of whether one would survive to see the next day.

The games also had a political motive for the Greek city-states that were constantly at war with one another. Let me quote from the wikipedia article:

During the celebration of the games, an Olympic Truce was enacted so that athletes could travel from their cities to the games in safety. The prizes for the victors were olive leaf wreaths or crowns. The games became a political tool used by city-states to assert dominance over their rivals. Politicians would announce political alliances at the games, and in times of war, priests would offer sacrifices to the gods for victory. 

Greek city-states used the Olympics to demonstrate their physical capabilities, and also gauge that of others, so that they could decide whom they should ally with if a war broke out. The utility of these games spilled onto the real world, and had very real consequences.

The world has obviously changed a lot since 400 BC. Most educated persons now spend most of their time sitting in front of computers, working hard to make rich people even richer. Farming is becoming more and more mechanized, and even armies rely more on their weaponry and less on their physical power. Suffice it to say, being able to throw a javelin really far has no real world utility.

So what does that mean? Should we stop these games completely? For some reason, this seems wrong. I enjoy watching team sports for instance. There is a lot of strategy involved in those, and team sports generate a lot of revenue for individual owners and countries and such. However, individual athletic events have no such relevance. 230 million people are not going to tune in to watch the English Premier Long Jump. Training athletes for these events costs countries a lot of revenue, and almost none of this revenue is recovered. Long jump cannot be a spectator sport, even if you throw in some cheer leaders and Rihanna. It’s just someone jumping really long.

But wait. Countries still get to demonstrate their physical prowess right? Let’s explore this a little bit. It would seem clear to any viewer of international sports that physical prowess is not national. It is genetic. If you are 5′ 8” and want to become a sprinter, there is probably a black person in Jamaica who is faster than you, even if you receive better training than them and are ten times more patriotic than them. Although training does make a difference at the highest level, there are some necessary genetic pre-requisites. I mean, C’mon. That is why India has to resort to fielding Dutee Chand, a female athlete with abnormally high testosterone levels, to be able to have a stab at athletic medals, and $(&^%^(*& has to resort to widespread doping. A peek at the 100 m medalists at the modern Olympics should further convince you of this point. Countries gain very little by putting so much money into training athletes. No one is going to form a military alliance with Jamaica because they have a lot of people who can run very fast.

I’m still proud of Neeraj Chopra though, and I wish to become friends with him…..in case I ever need someone impaled 87.58 metres away.

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.

The loss of nuance

Dictatorship is the death of nuance

Someone’s WhatsApp status

I’m currently going reading the book “Feeling Great” by Dr. David Burns, and in many way it is one of the most important books that I’ve read. Dr Burns is the founder of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is the pre-eminent technique used to process PTSD, past trauma, anxiety, etc without medication. The most important technique introduced in the book is the introduction of nuance in your thoughts. How does that go?

For instance, I had a not-so-great college experience. There are certain memories associated with it that make me cringe and go spiraling despite having been in two other institutions since. I fear encountering certain people in my future again, and go into morbid details of how those interactions will be terrible and how I will feel terrible at the end of it. The book’s approach is this: the thoughts that come to me are all justified. Those indeed were bad memories, and it might indeed be terrible to meet those people again. In fact, it is good that I am scared of such things happening, because I want to protect myself from negative experiences. Hence, my anxiety is good. However, I’ve set my “anxiety dial” at 98/100, when it should be much lower. For instance, I only had a handful of bad memories with people I spent years and years with. Hence, most memories were neutral or positive. Secondly, it is unlikely that I will meet those people again, and it is again unlikely that they will be terrible even when we meet after so many years. Hence, I should instead turn the dial down to 5/100 or something. This helps me feel better, and more in control about my situation.

Let me dissect this a little bit. My brain wanted to dump facts into two buckets. Something is either possible, or it is not. Is is possible that I meet bullies from my past again and that they give me a terrible time? Yes. It is factually possible. Then, I would start spiraling. My brain refuses to deal with the more nuanced notion that although this is possible, it is unlikely. That is what the “anxiety dial” thing does. It gives me a measure of how likely something is, which my brain is not intuitively capable of processing. It is the introduction of nuance that is the first step in dealing with trauma. However, it is not just processing our past memories that needs nuance. Nuance is needed in how we process the world around us.

Politics

I was prompted to write this article after reading Postpolitics by Leighton Woodhouse. He talks about how the news media has essentially discarded nuance to create a shock culture of news consumption. Someone thinks that hate speech should not be persecuted? They are either a champion for free speech, or a bigot who wants the world to burn. They can only be either of those two things. This creates sharply divided opinions between the consumers of CNN on the left and Fox News on the right, and leads to further mudslinging and political polarization.

What would the introduction of nuance in this situation be like? We can introduce a bunch of dials like before. There can be a “bigot dial”, which goes from “people of all races can come into America and I will share all that I have with them” at 0/100, to “America should be reserved for White, Christian Europeans, as they clearly are the superior race” at 100/100. The person above might be at 60/100, say. We can also have a “free speech” dial, which goes from “No one should be allowed to say anything that goes against my beliefs” at 0/100, and “Everyone can say whatever they want, even if it is of a personal nature against me and my family and can cause harm to me” at 100/100. Let’s say that the person above is at 55/100, and wants freedom of political speech without fear of persecution from “the Commies”. The dial scores of 60/100 and 55/100 provide a much more nuanced view of the person, and in fact are scores that both the Right and the Left might agree on! Hence, perhaps political polarization may be alleviated greatly by the introduction of nuance.

Thinking about the “greats”

Reading Gandhi’s “My Experiments with Truth” was one of the most formative experiences of my life. I suddenly became vegan (and struggled to maintain it), tried to donate money, and resolved to become a less terrible person in general. However, I constantly had to deal with other people saying “Gandhi sucked because he probably had sexual relations with the young women in his coterie”. The truth was more complicated. He probably did ask them to lie naked with him to see if he was tempted to have sexual relations with them (he said that he did not, and felt protective towards them instead), but it is unclear if they actually had intercourse. Regardless of what actually transpired, it was morally wrong of Gandhi to do so because he was in a position of power in regard to these women, and asking them to do so, even if they consented to it, is wrong. Hence, let’s call Gandhi a lustful bastard and end the discussion. Right?

This feels wrong on the inside. Although Gandhi did do the above, and it was bad, he also did so many amazing things. He introduced nonviolent methods in India which were copied the world over to amazing effect. He fought against the religious persecution of Muslims in India, the denigration of lower castes, the cruelty of the meat industry, etc. For several years, he used to go and clean the toilets in the houses of the lower castes, if only to deny the superiority that his own higher caste gave him over others. This is pretty frickin amazing. He truly was one of the greats. Hence, instead of clubbing him into the “god” or “evil person” categories, we can instead use a “goodness” dial, and give him a 92/100 or something, acknowledging that although he did make mistakes, he also did an amazing amount of good. One may also argue that he also tried to subvert the legacies of Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh, and give him an even lower score of 70/100 or something. However, it is undeniable that the discussion around Gandhi needs more nuance.

The same goes for people like Einstein, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, etc. Einstein was great, but look, he was wrong about Quantum Mechanics. Moreover he also had multiple affairs. Fine. But he did invent General Relativity!! That is really frickin awesome. It is a scientific discovery so unrivaled that only Newton can begin to have the same position in Science as him. And Newton spent most of his time studying alchemy. Hence, Einstein would probably get a 90/100 on the “human” dial. The same goes for Jobs being hard on his employees, Elon Musk shitposting on Twitter and making fantastical promises that he can’t deliver on, etc. Elon is single handedly changing the world with his cars, rockets and underground tunnels. He’s not just your friendly neighborhood dogecoin scammer. He probably gets a 95/100 on the “impact” dial.

The human brain is capable of much. However, it is not capable of nuance. That has to be a skill that we train ourselves in, so that we may navigate the world more easily, and have a more objective picture of reality.

Neuroscience and Indian law enforcement

Let’s face it. Raj Kundra probably does own a mobile app that uploads pornographic videos. The app is called Hotshots, and some satisfied consumers of the app, perhaps out of a sense of duty to their fellow Indians, have uploaded content from the app to multiple porn sites on the internet. Hence, Kundra’s masterpieces are freely available to be viewed for all connoisseurs of Indian creativity.

But why is any of this wrong? There are multiple issues at hand here. First of all, is consuming or producing pornography immoral? Reading the wikipedia article on Pornography in India was about as much fun as you’d expect. Let me quote a gem from the article:

In October 2018 the government directed Internet service providers to block 827 websites that host pornographic content following an order by the Uttarakhand High Court. The court cited the rape of a 10th standard girl from Dehradun by four of her seniors. The four accused told police that they raped the girl after watching pornography on the Internet

The implication is that the accused would not have raped the girl if they’d not watched pornography. Of all rapes that have ever occured, how many are a result of the rapists having watched porn immediately before? I don’t seem to have the statistics, but probably very few. Rape has been a problem for thousands of years. Invading armies have raped whole towns and villages. In the Nanjing Massacre in 1936, the invading Japanese army raped 30,000-80,000 women in one province. Hence, rape is probably more about a differential power structure than the availability of pornography.

But we can make an even stronger point! Pornography actually reduces rape and sexual assault.

UCLA researchers surveyed recollections of porn use among law-abiding men and a large group of convicted rapists and child sex abusers. Throughout their lives, the sex criminals recalled consuming less porn. More evidence that porn is a safety valve. Instead of committing rape and pedophilia, potential perpetrators find a less harmful outlet, masturbating to porn.

Around the millennium, partly in response to the availability of Internet porn, Japan, China, and Hong Kong relaxed laws that restricted its availability. In all three places, as porn became more easily available, sex crimes decreased.

Using Czech police records, American and Czech researchers compared rape rates in the Czech Republic for the 17 years before porn was legalized with rates during the 18 years after. Rapes decreased from 800 a year to 500. More porn, less rape.

This also ties in with our general experience. The wide availability of pornography has in fact hindered men from interacting with the opposite sex, especially in countries like Japan. The largest consumers of porn are probably incels.

Alright, so we have established that pornography cannot be blamed for an increase in sexual abuse. Is it still bad? This is a more nuanced question. I do believe that the actors working in pornographic films are often abused and traumatized. Although they agree to act in such films out of their own volition, they are often left traumatized as videos of their sexual acts remain in circulation for the duration of their lifetimes, affecting their relationships with their families, etc. Hence, these videos should be up for deletion whenever desired by the actors (after say a year of being on the internet, so that the companies may recuperate their costs). This affords the actors some modicum of control over their future. However, I do believe that there is nothing inherently immoral about people engaging in sexual acts or watching them, as long as everything is consensual. Any person who has read this far probably agrees with this.

Alright fine. Porn and let porn. But where do neuroscience and Indian law enforcement come into this?

Neuroscience

I was recently listening to the audiobook of “The Hidden Spring” by Mark Solms, a reputed neuroscientist from South Africa. The book claims the brain learns through instruction and experience to preferentially activate various neural circuits, while inhibiting others. For instance, if you’ve recently been swindled of a lot of money by a close friend, you will start becoming less trusting of people. Your “suspicion” neural circuit will be much more active than your “trust” circuit, and you will probably say no if someone asks you for a loan without an adequate guarantee. It is this preferential activation of neural circuits that gives humans their individuality. For instance, your brain might preferentially activate your “trust” and “sympathy” circuits, and my brain might activate its “suspicion” and “hatred” circuits. As a consequence of this, you will probably be a more empathetic person than me and have many more friends, whilst I remain a neurotic loner.

So how is any of this related to the Indian law enforcement? Well India is the most rule-abiding country in the world. At least going by the number of rules it has. It, by very far, has the longest constitution in the world, and is decked with all kinds of laws and rules and directive principles and such that are supposed to govern all aspects of our lives. It contains common sensical laws that implore you not to kill your fellow human, and also goes into the minutae of how to send in your registration papers for your new house to the registrar within a couple of weeks with two passport size photos, or your registration will not be accepted unless you pay a 300 rupees fine. But this doesn’t begin to explain the genius of it. It is much more magnificent than the human brain, as you might appreciate below.

Writing laws is not too difficult. However, knowing when to apply them requires much more intelligence and creativity. The Indian law enforcement is not stupid like those in other countries, who supposedly try to apply all laws to everyone equally. They are composed solely of the best and the brightest. The artists. The Picassos of knowing whom to apply the laws to, whom to really apply all possible laws to, and whom to consider above the law and grovel in front of. The differential activation of neural circuits pales in comparison to their differential application of power.

How does it all work? Well, like I said before, India has laws for everything. It’s not really red tape. It’s a red curtain, hiding you from progress and all other material gains that may corrupt you. If you want to do anything at all in India, it is not possible to follow all the laws. If you want to open a company, some officer looking for a bribe may tell you that you didn’t follow Section %(*&^ Clause B, which asks you to take a no objection certificate from the Department of Fisheries down the road. And he’s right. Because there is indeed such a law! Because there are multiple laws for everything. And if you follow all the laws, there will be little money or motivation left for anything else.

Hence, the unwritten law of the land is that you can get past all the red tape if you know which hands to grease, and don’t piss off people more powerful than you. If you are reasonably powerful and wealthy in India, no laws apply to you. The constitution is completely irrelevant to you. You can open whatever business you want, do any kinds of transactions, and you’ll be fine. However, if you piss off anyone more powerful than you, they can soon come up with a thick booklet of rules that you’ve violated since getting on the bus that morning. And they’ll be right. You probably have violated those rules, because let’s face it, you have to violate rules to be able to breathe in the country. And now you’re screwed. You’re done for. You will be assassinated in the media, people will hate you for being anti-national, and moving to Pakistan will be the only door that is open to you.

So what happened in the Raj Kundra case? He was accused of selling pornographic videos by Poonam Pandey, who has her own pornographic app and an Only Fans account. He was also accused of violating her contract. Soon, Sherlyn Chopra, who also her has own Only Fans account and a pornographic app, reported him to the police for selling pornography. Recently, Zoya Rathore, who is the top actresses in the pornographic videos on the Hotshots app, reported to the police that she was asked to audition for the videos on the app, but she refused. She apparently did not act in them. Despite already having multiple pornographic videos of hers online on the Hotshots app. The magical realism needed to warp reality to this extent will make Salman Rushdie weep with joy.

Kundra, probably having anticipated trouble for selling pornographic content in India, ensured that the company wasn’t Indian. He would shoot content in Singapore and other countries, upload them on the app in the UK, and only then allow consumption of the videos in India. Imagine the app to be like the PornHub app. Out of Indian law enforcement’s jurisdiction. Hence, seeing as they could not prosecute him for owning the app, the Indian law enforcement charged Kundra with forcing girls to shoot pornographic videos.

How do you exactly force someone to shoot pornographic videos? There are lengthy contracts that actors have to sign before shooting begins, and they are monetarily compensated for those. Heck, those videos may sometimes have a higher quality of acting than many college drama productions. That is exactly what happened in this case as well. Hence, it is likely that none of these charges will hold up in court. However, Kundra and his family have been vilified in Indian media, and will probably have to leave the country for any semblance of sanity.

Well, law-shlaw. We need to protect Indian morality. Kundra can’t be allowed to do it. But what about the fact that every major Indian city has brothels. The Prostitution in India wiki page says the following

Prostitution is legal in India. A number of related activities including soliciting , kerb crawling, owning or managing a brothel, prostitution in a hotel,child prostitutionpimping and pandering are illegal. There are, however, many brothels illegally operating in Indian cities including MumbaiDelhiKolkata and Chennai. UNAIDS estimate there were 657,829 prostitutes in the country as of 2016

So if you’re a person asking a prostitute for sex, or owning a brothel, you should be put into jail. Let’s face it. Hundreds of thousands of Indians buy sex from prostitutes every day. How may are put in jail? OK, let’s assume that catching them red handed is difficult. But every one knows where the brothels are! Why doesn’t the police just go and raze them to the ground?!

We have a unique situation at hand. The Indian law enforcement is, at this very moment, aware of hundreds of thousands of people who engage in prostitution, create and produce pornographic content in India, create distribute and screen softporn “B grade” movies in India, etc. However, it chooses to arrest and malign a random dude who made sure to not violate Indian pornographic law by creating and uploading all of his content outside of India. Moreover, his chief accusers are other pornstars, who currently have their own active pornographic apps!

This is the genius of the Indian law enforcement. The fact that they have a bazillion laws is not the crux of it. The crux of it is the fact that if they don’t like you, or if they have orders from their political overlords, they will open their thick rule book, and find some laws that you are in violation of. You uploaded a facebook post criticizing the local MLA? Arrested under “Intent to cause disturbance”. You’re the sole witness against rioters in Gujarat? Well you didn’t file a report before taking a leave for a day 21 years back, so you’re hereby arrested. And they’ll be right each time. And you’ll hold your head in your arms and scream as loudly as you can, as they take you away in chains. And they’ll display your face to the whole world before they ruin your life. You fucking pornographer.

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.