Gervais, Reframed

I’ve been doing more reading of Venkat’s (@vgr) writings as of late, mostly driven by a friend, far more well versed in Ribbonfarm than me, who’s references and worldview I’d like to better understand. I got a copy of The Gervais Principle a few weeks ago, and finally got a chance to dig into it this weekend. 

Briefly, the Gervais principle is an analysis for how human interactions play out in organizations. Venkat’s discussion leans heavily on examples from The Office. In fact, I’d argue that it’s one part organizational theory, two parts literary criticism of the television series. If you’d like to read the whole thing (and I highly recommend it) Venkat has made the entire series of essays available on his Ribbonfarm blog.

I’ve been getting a lot of mileage lately out of the, now long running, realization that there’s often multiple plausible interpretations for any set of human interactions. Communication is layered; human intention is rarely straightforward; it’s a widely acknowledged fact that our brains filter out patterns that make sense to it from the vast actuality of stimuli that occurs at any given time.

What we see is a lossy view of the world. This lossiness gives rise to the plausibility of misunderstanding, of differing valid interpretations.

While the best piece of criticism of the GP comes naturally, from Venkat himself (in an analysis of how other theories of organizational behavior mechanics can be fit into the Gervais Principle’s triangle) what I’d like to do in this post is provide an alternative framing for viewing office politics. I’d like to put a different lens on the view of the organization that the Gervais Principle — a beautiful piece of cinematic crit[1].  The savage imagery of bureacratic interactions belies a dark worldview of organizational machinations, one that I’d argue isn’t necessarily true.


Sociopaths, in their own best interests, knowingly promote over-performing losers into middle-management, groom under-performing losers into sociopaths, and leave the average bare-minimum-effort losers to fend for themselves.

The Gervais Principle, source Ribbonfarm

In the way that only brilliant pieces of writing can, Gervais got under my skin. It’s an insightful, compelling, and, in the case of The Office references at any rate, incredibly predictive. It’s also frustrating, flat, and not very instructive. Most damning of all: I find that I don’t personally fit into the framework. Clearly there’s something missing here.

What Gervais Gets Right

The org chart of any company is messy and illogical. It is true that men who talk to upper management as peers, often get treated and rewarded as peers. (and the corollary, men who talk to upper management as sycophants, often get treated as loyalists). Self-interest is a valuable currency in organizational politics; so is blamelessness and the ability to claim ownership of “successful” projects.

A lot of people who don’t run the company or have the social skills to treat upper management as peers spend most of their time at work making friends and building a reputation for themselves in some unrelated field. Favors get traded at every level of the organization; personal brand and likability are hard currency that can be traded on. Middle managers can be loyal, self-satisfied individuals, a caste of like minded individuals who understand their role in protecting the organization and grooming new members for their ranks. Like understands like.

These are all true, and accurate observations about human social structure. They’re true of large organizations especially. 

Life, from a Different Angle

There’s two ways to view evolution. One, the most widely accepted and talked about in our current age, is through the lens of death. That is, evolution is driven by who survives long enough to pass on their genes to the next generation.

The butterflies with large spots on their wings? They’re ones that fool would be attackers into believing they’re animals, not tasty prey.

Ebola virus? Hasn’t wiped out humanity yet because it kills its host too fast to be able to spread to other humans fast enough.

Evolution isn’t a steady winnowing of the most competitive versus the best camo, however. It’s punctuated, it’s messy, it’s faster and more live than terminal survival. There’s bacteria involved and environment and random gene mutations, and, from at least one scientist’s perspective, cross-species love. It’s not about who eats who, but whom seduces whom.

Likewise, there’s another way to look at office politics. Venkat’s Gervais principle asks us to look at them through the lens of a sociopath: pitting the losers against each other, laughing at the clueless’s devotion to a job when they’re clearly the pawns of the situation. Viewing corporate hierarchy through this lens isn’t wrong, in fact. Much like seeing evolution only through the lens of death, it’s useful and instructive and leads to deep insights about the motivations and attitudes of your coworkers. 

However, it’s not particularly useful for driving change or moving within the structure that you’re surrounded by. Most people who subscribe to a death cult think that the only way out is in a coffin. Similarly, if you believe in evolution and only see movement and change as possible via death, you’re missing the deeper, broader implications of the here, of the now.  If evolution has set and fixed who you are — beta, alpha, omega, sociopath, loser, clueless — then you are stuck to act out the script that your genes established.

If you believe that finding and cultivating clueless people to be your fall men is the only way forward in the org chart, you wouldn’t be wrong. You’d also be limiting yourself into the reality where the only organization you know and see are ones that are the playgrounds of self-interested sociopaths. Perhaps this is a worldview you think you’d enjoy, because in your imagining of it, you’d be the sociopath. The Gervais interpretation is seductive because it explains your, the loser’s, hatred for your middle managers’ apparent idiocy. It excuses your slacker mentality. (Let’s be honest, the middle manager type probably isn’t spending many cycles reading into bureaucratic revenge porn).

This is not to say that there aren’t self-interested sociopaths at work who have developed a coded, aristocratic way of sorting peerage, or that some workers’ attitude and relationship with employment is entirely fixated on the transactional and formulaic (it’s just a job).  But there are other ways to understand these dynamics.

A Classification With Moral Precepts

Personally, I find Jane Jacob’s Guardian vs Commercial syndromes to be quite accurate for understanding organizations, as well as uplifting. Her identification of core values of different mindsets provides a blueprint for understanding the core values of people and social groups. (It’s not all rosy though — the monstrous hybrids truly are monstrous, but for a clear and specific corruption of values.)

A quick mapping, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the syndromes. Jane establishes two guiding value systems (Jane calls them ‘moral precepts’) for human organization: guardians and commercial. Guardians shun trading, seek vengeance, treasure honor, respect hierarchy and value loyalty. Commercial types shun force, compete, value honesty, respect contracts, and collaborate. (You can find the whole list of attributes and values on Wikipedia).

You can sort organizational structures themselves into these categories — ‘commercial’: open source software projects, manufacturing firms; ‘guardian’: the army, sales organizations; and ‘monstrous hybrids’: modern police forces, the mafia.

Although I think that most actors inside of a bureaucracy tend toward the guardian mindset, you can loosely map sociopaths and the clueless (definitely the most clueless) as operating from the guardian mindset; losers tend to float more commercial, depending on the broader industry that the organization is framed within.

Importantly, the guardian/commercial split offers something that the Gervais principle does not: a cohesive framing for understanding the value system of the syndromes. Being able to ascribe a value system to a ‘clueless’ person grants them a dignity that the sociopathic ‘clueless’ label would seek to rob them of.  Loyalty and honor above honesty may not be a value system that I subscribe to, but it is one that I can, albeit grudgingly, acknowledge as valid, and learn to at least respect, if not one that I can personally work within.

In Exitus

I love the Gervais Principle. It’s masterful, it’s insightful, it’s opinionated. Its insights are thrifty, efficient, and honest.

I feel that I haven’t quite lived up to my promise to show a lighter way of viewing self interest, rather I bowed out and pointed you instead towards Jane Jacobs’ syndromes; I’m afraid that a value framework and deep appreciation for the game is all I’ve got to offer.

Appendix: Situating Myself, Gervaically 

Let’s see if I can do it using what I learned from another lossy framework — I’m an early Scorpio with a double helping of Aquarius influence in my rising sign and moon. This maps loosely to a passive-aggressive honest sociopath who fails miserably at working towards my own self-interest. I tend to be employed in organizations at the Loser class. As an organizational operative of the Sociopathic bent however, I find that my principle motivator often leans toward revolution. This manifests itself in either organizing revolt*, in face of the obvious injustices meted down by the actually self-interested, or in doomed attempts at drumming up organizational support for exploring new projects or business ventures.

I tend not to last very long or exist very happily when embedded inside large, dysfunctional organizations, as I find office machinations endlessly fascinating, wholly distracting, and completely rage inducing.

*AMA about the time I successfully organized a lower-class faction at Walmart to (almost) sweep the end of summer intern awards.

[1] As an aside, the Gervais Principle is the best writing I’ve ever seen on my favorite usage of television — as a brilliant foil for the structure of our own reality. It reminds me of a short piece on political lessons from a few TV shows I wrote a few years back, with a more political than organizational bent.

Quantum Rhetoric, An Introduction

Ideas are powerful, particularly ideas that help to shape our understanding of what reality is. Stuart Brand once said that the only real news is the revelations that science brings us about reality. What I’d like to do with this blog is to take a host recent science news and tell you a story about that news. I’d like to build a new framing for how we think about reality, one that’s based in real, solid news from the scientific frontier.

This aim is, by nature, philosophical. The news that I present and the framing for it — none of these things are novel. I’m not the first person to write about the multi world interpretation or to explain how spooky action at a distance has been observed. The framework for thinking about it, isn’t something I’ve seen elsewhere. I’ve been calling it quantum rhetoric. Quantum because it’s rooted in what quantum behavior tells us about the nature of reality; rhetoric because it provides a coherent, rich vocabulary for thinking and conversing and understanding each other and our world.

If physics is the study of the laws that describe the behavior of all things, quantum mechanics is the search for equations that generically describe the actions, movement, and relationships of the smallest, most fundamental particles in existence.

An interesting property has recently been discovered about quantum mechanics. That’s that many things we can know about the minute movements of these tiny particles aren’t fixed, but rather probabilistic. Our modeled understanding of an electron’s movement, for example, used to be simply expressed as a set of concentric rings, each ring representing a different “level” of energy. These rings, in a sense, are a lie. Electrons don’t move in set trackways about a photonic center. Their true location about a nuclei is better expressed as an electron cloud – a map of probabilities that depicts where an electron resides at any given moment. The behavior of the electron isn’t tracked — it’s probabilistic.

It turns out that probabilities are a fundamental property of quantum behavior. Feynman shows that light,its particle wave duality that’s never been fully resolved, at least not at a high school physics level of understanding, is largely a probabilistic process as well. The location that a light beam ends up is but the sum of its probabilities.

There’s some fishiness to these probabilities, however. A fishiness that has long perplexed even the most leading of lights in the physical field. Einstein called it “spooky action”. In many ways, this observed fishiness breaks laws — the speed of light limitation for how fast information can travel, probability itself. You can see this fishiness at work in two ways. David Deutsch, in his book The Fabric of Reality, outlines one such experiment.

The dual slit experiment, as it’s called, involves setting up a screen in front of a light source such that light can pass through two slits in the screen. Light particles are then sent through the screen, one particle at a time, kind of like a ball being thrown between slats in a fence. If the ball was covered in paint and there was a white wall behind the fence, when you throw a single ball, what pattern would you expect to see on the white wall?

The naive, normal physics of everyday things rules would suggest that you’d only see a single mark from the ball, or one shaft of light in the case of light particles. The reality, however, is much stranger. What you end up observing is a wave like interference pattern. One particle was sent, but it appears to be interacting with unseeable and immeasurable other particles, leaving not a single shaft of light on the wall, but instead a wavelike pattern, of interfering ripples.

You can solve this “problem” of waves and get the light beams to act in a rational manner in two ways. First, by closing off one of the slits in the fence. Second, by placing a sensor at one or both of the slit openings, such that you can track with absolute certainty which of the two slits the single light particle passes through. In both of these cases, the light pattern on the wall resolves to a single shaft of light. Something about observing the light passing through the slat seems to “fix” the strange interference problem.

Why? How? These are questions that physicists have some theories about, but as of yet have not been able to settle on a single, unifying framework for understanding why light seems to act like a probabilistic wave in one instance, and a normal “ball” in the other.

Further experimentation has only led to more puzzles of the same type. One such example is entangled particles. What we now call quantum entanglement was most famously observed by two particles being bound in extended unknowablity. The classic entanglement experiment goes as follows.

Take two particles that have been blasted apart by a laser. These particles are known to be spinning in opposite directions, yet which particular particle is spinning left and which spins right, is unknowable at the time that they are split. This state, of being in a joint unknowingness, is called quantum entanglement. The particles are entangled in that their final destiny, left or right, is bound to the fate of the other, yet both are in a state of suspended decision.

This may seem like a strange way to talk about the spin of two particles. If these were balls in an urn, one black and one white, it’d be a simple calculation of probability to figure which ball you might get when pulling one out at random. When you reach in, you have a fifty fifty chance to get the white ball. The same goes for the black ball — fifty fifty. Once you’ve drawn the white ball, you know with absolute certainty that the ball you’ve left behind must be black. So which ball will you get when you pull one out? It’s a toss up.

Entangled particles are like this urn, with a black and a white ball, with one exception. Instead of reaching into the urn, let’s say that you bounce one of these unknown particles through a filter. The filter is set up such that only left-spin particles can pass through it. If we took a ball, while blind folded, from the urn and then threw it to a judge who would accept only white balls, we’d expect the ball to be accepted half of the trials. We’d expect the same for particles passing through a “left only” filter. What actually happens is far stranger. Instead of a fifty percent pass rate, we get one hundred percent. If you change the filter, from a left filter to a right one, your pass rate remains at 100%. The particle that passes through the filter is the right spinning particle and the particle not passed through spins left.

That’s the same as saying I’m going to throw balls at a white judge, and then only drawing white balls. Then you say, ok, I will only throw balls at this black judge, and then proceeding to only draw black balls from the vase. The vase still contains two choices, black or white, but you’ve managed to predict with 100% certainty which ball you will draw based on the type of judge that looks at your ball.

How can these particles manage to spin the correct direction, every time? Are the particles communicating? Are you the luckiest physicist in the world? Einstein was perplexed by these results, so much so that he termed the phrase “spooky action at a distance” to describe how these particles managed to spin exactly opposite yet the correct way for the filter every time.

Every time.

These results of entanglement and the infallibility of the filtering mechanism have been replicated at great distances. The spooky action persists. Are the particles communicating? Are they traveling back in time? How is it that a single physicist can be so lucky, so many times in a row?

If the particles are communicating, physics has a problem. That problem is called the speed of light. Einstein himself showed that nothing, especially not information, can travel faster than this speed. The synchronized behavior of the particles is instantaneous, however. There is no delay between measuring an unknown particle with a “left spin” filter (thus making it left spinning) and observing a particle with right spin. If lightspeed still matters, then these particles aren’t communicating.

What else might explain the physicists unfathomable luck?

David Deutsch posits that the explanation for this is simple — that we don’t in fact live in a universe, but rather a multiverse, a multiverse constructed out of all the possibilities that can physically exist. Our multiverse is defined by the probability set. One universe of a black ball drawn, another with a white.

This multi world interpretation, or MWI as it’s colloquially known among the physicist set, explains the spooky action as follows: entangled particles are an urn of two balls, one black one white. There are two different universes that exist, forward in time. One universe in which you pull a black ball. Another in which you pull the white.

You can deterministically decide which universe you’d like to exist in. You do this by picking a filter through which you would like to observe the world — either the black filter or the white filter. Selecting the black filter and then applying it to the urn, or entangled particles, fixes you into the reality where the ball is black.

The dual slit experiment and the filtered entangled particles share one key commonality: the power of observation and its undeniable role in fixing the observed results. This is important. The probability of what ball will be picked has moved from the random chance of the universe to an explicit choice on the behalf of the observer. The observation is the sound of a universe, of two possible, being chosen.

Quantum rhetoric is simply this: the reckoning of existence in a branching multiverse, that becomes fixed into a coherent reality.

Reflecting on Intelligence

My friend John recently published a pretty thoughtful review of Flowers for Algernon. I really liked his multiple interpretations of intelligence and wanted to add one of my own.

It’s been a long time since I last read Flowers, but the story has stuck with me. Briefly, it’s about a low IQ man who goes through a medical experiment which raises his IQ to astronomical levels, only to have it eventually regress to his original baseline.

In my mind, it’s a great story because it starkly questions so much of what we understand about ‘intelligence’ — what does it mean to have a high IQ, or a low one for that matter? Is intelligence itself life-making? Culturally, Americans are pretty obsessed with intelligence qua intelligence, both in the negative fearful sense and awe-struck aspects. We love and fear our geniuses, our cultural panthenon of modern gods is almost entirely devoted to them.

John’s review highlights a good number of different ways of understanding or interpreting the story. I’d like to add another, more personalized interpretation of why “IQ” can be isolating. 

What is IQ?

Let’s start off by saying that I don’t think I really understand what IQ measures. It seems to measure something real and tangible and descriptive about a capability of a mind, but the exact what isn’t something I feel qualified to opine on. Intelligence is something that we Americans use to bludgeon each other with, both in the has too much and doesn’t have enough sense. Given the propensity for abuse, it feels safest to talk from personal experience, as that’s both personally trustworthy (I trust my experiences) and also hard to generalize.

I’d like to conjecture that IQ is roughly a measure of someone’s ability to grasp and draw conclusions about reality based systems. Under this definition, there’s a few things that become important. The first, is your ability to notice and understand the nature of the reality that you exist in. This includes the ability to notice and appreciate deep details. Venkat retweeted a great article a few days back, about how being successful at systems building required this almost maniacal attention to details, how even beautifully simple constructions such as a set of stairs require a niche and complete understanding of the realities of angles and the nature of how wood bends.

It’s been a while since I’ve taken an IQ test, so I went to look one up online to test my theory about the ability to notice and appreciate the depth of detail about reality. I ended up doing this ‘might you be qualified to apply to Mensa’ test that doesn’t actually give you an IQ score. Instead it tells me that I got 28 out of 33 answers correct, or 84%, using an unlimited amount of time — if I had to guess, I probably didn’t spend any longer than 30 minutes on it. The whole thing is minute pattern matching. I never do very well on the number pattern ones but exposure to computer science has made it easier to spot certain patterns; my visual pattern matching skills have definitely improved in the last decade or so.

More interesting, in my mind is that I could probably tell you which of the 5 questions I got wrong. Tests like this don’t give you credit for knowing when you’re wrong or need more information — chalk that up as at least one concrete aspect of ‘intelligence’ that this IQ test is under counting. Being certain about what I know and why is relatively new ground for me, so maybe most people wouldn’t notice it.

But I noticed. And that’s the whole point of these tests. They’re all reasoning from patterns, drawing conclusions based on scant yet important information. It’s literally a rough measurement of what you notice about the reality aka pattern that they’re presenting to you. One nice thing about such encapsulated puzzles is that they’re guaranteed to provide at least enough signal to draw conclusions from — that level of guarantee is a rare thing for real world observations.

Noticing, then, is a large component of what IQ is a measure of. In fact, I think that I can strongly say that the skill this test is judging for is noticing and the consequent ability to draw a conclusion from the set of observations. IQ then, is a measure of what you notice and can predict from those observations.

The Nature of Alienation 

Charlie, in his ascent up the notice-patterning ability scale, finds himself increasingly unable to communicate with the woman character who fills the role of teacher, friend, and lover. At the pinnacle of his observation/pattern-matching performance, he’s as alienated from her as he was at the lower end of the IQ spectrum.

Why would the ability to notice things about reality make it difficult for you to interact with others?

One way of interpreting this is to say that a higher IQ means that what you notice about reality is far different from most people. Your shared context for what there is to see about the world and what that leads you to know about reality are so radically different that you are, in all practical ways, living in a different reality. Alienation, then, is the diverging of contexts such that communication loses a lot of its ability to be compressed. You have to send more signal to get ideas across, as the contexts break down.

In some ways, this is not unlike the struggle that Americans are having with the divergence of news outlets view and presentation on reality. An IQ-observation gap is one based, presumably, on the ability to pick out greater detail or signal from the same set of images. Modern ‘social’ media in the US  is taking the secondary tack of presenting two different images of events — each that lend to a differing interpretation such that the reality you experience as a consumer of political news can be entirely skewed by who you follow. It’s hard to know ‘what to believe’ when multiple images are presented. It’s even harder to communicate between these two realities, because the details that you’ve observed and picked up from the images presented to you are so incredibly disjoint as to have robbed us of the common context needed to have more compressible communication. In this reading, the political alienation across the aisle is real and quantifiable.

In Exitus

Charlie eventually loses both his ability to notice detail, as well his memory[1] of what it was even like. Eventually he falls back into a state where he’d like to know what it’s like to be able to see the details of reality that other, ‘normal IQ’ people see.

Kind of puts that old aphorism “the devil is in the details” in an entirely new light.

[1] Memory definitely plays a part of intelligence, but given the test that I took and the points that followed from those observations, I think this post can stand independent of a discussion on the importance and influence of memory. It’s definitely important and plays a large role, but there’s a nuance to observing details that doesn’t rely on memory.