Gruffaloes and Finite Games

One story that my daughter knows well, rather too well, is the story of the Gruffalo. This is a story of a mouse told in two parts.

In the first part, the mouse fools a fox, an owl and a snake from eating him by convincing them that he’s having lunch, tea and dinner respectively with a supposedly imaginary creature named “Gruffalo”. And when they each ask him what the Gruffalo is like, he makes up stuff fantastically (terrible teeth in terrible jaws, turned out paws, etc.).

Except that midway through the story there is a kahaani mein twist, and the mouse actually encounters the gruffalo. In the second part of the story, the mouse tells the gruffalo that he is going to have lunch, tea and dinner with the fox, owl and snake, and prevents the gruffalo from eating him. And the mouse lives another day.

It is evidently a nice story, and the rhyme means that the daughter had mugged up the entire story enough when she was barely two years old that she could “read” it when shown the book (she can’t read a word yet). However, I don’t like it because I don’t like the plot.

One of the most influential books I’ve read is James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games. Finite Games are artificial games where we play to “win”. There is a defined finish, and there is a set of tasks that we need to achieve that constitutes “victory”. Most real-life games are on the other hand are “infinite games” where the objective is to simply ensure that the game simply goes on.

From the point of stories, the best stories are ones which represent finite games, where there is a clear objective, and the story ends in “victory” or “lack of victory” (in the case of a tragedy). The Good, The Bad and the Ugly has the finite aim of finding the treasure buried in the graveyard. Ganeshana Maduve has the finite aim of YG Rao marrying “Shruti”. Gangs of Wasseypur has the finite aim of the Khan family taking revenge on Ramadhir Singh. Odyssey has the finite aim of Odysseus returning home to Penelope. And so forth.

Putting it another way, finite games make for nice stories, since stories are themselves finite, with a beginning and an end. A story that represents an infinite game is necessarily left incomplete, and you don’t know what happens just outside the slice of action that the story covers. So infinite games, which is how life is lived, make for lousy stories.

And the gruffalo story is an infinite game, since the “game” that the mouse is playing in the story is survival – by definition an infinite game. There is no “victory” by being alive at the end of the day the story covers – like there is no she-mouse to marry, or a baby mouse to see for the first time, or a party to go to. It is just another day in the life of the mouse, and the events of the day are unlikely to be that much more spectacular than the days not covered by the story.

That is what makes the gruffalo story so unsatisfying. Yes, the mouse played off the fox, owl and snake against the gruffalo to ensure his survival, but what about the next day? Would he have to invent another creature to ensure his survival? Would the predators buy the same story another time?

I don’t know, and so the story rings hollow. But the rhyme is good, and so my daughter loves the story!

Correlation and causation

So I have this lecture on “smelling (statistical) bullshit” that I’ve delivered in several places, which I inevitably start with a lesson on how correlation doesn’t imply causation. I give a large number of examples of people mistaking correlation for causation, the class makes fun of everything that doesn’t apply to them, then everyone sees this wonderful XKCD cartoon and then we move on.

One of my favourite examples of correlation-causation (which I don’t normally include in my slides) has to do with religion. Praying before an exam in which one did well doesn’t necessarily imply that the prayer resulted in the good performance in the exam, I explain. So far, there has been no outward outrage at my lectures, but this does visibly make people uncomfortable.

Going off on a tangent, the time in life when I discovered to myself that I’m not religious was when I pondered over the correlation-causation issue some six or seven years back. Until then I’d had this irrational need to draw a relationship between seemingly unrelated things that had happened together once or twice, and that had given me a lot of mental stress. Looking at things from a correlation-causation perspective, however, helped clear up my mind on those things, and also made me believe that most religious activity is pointless. This was a time in life when I got immense mental peace.

Yet, for most of the world, it is not freedom from religion but religion itself that gives them mental peace. People do absurd activities only because they think these activities lead to other good things happening, thanks to a small number of occasions when these things have coincided, either in their own lives or in the lives of their ancestors or gurus.

In one of my lectures a few years back I had remarked that one reason why humans still mistake correlation for causation is religion – for if correlation did not imply causation then most of religious rituals would be rendered meaningless and that would render people’s lives meaningless. Based on what I observed today, however, I think I’ve got this causality wrong.

It’s not because of religion that people mistake correlation for causation. Instead, we’ve evolved to recognise patterns whenever we observe them, and a side effect of that is that we immediately assume causation whenever we see things happening together. Religion is just a special case of application of this correlation-causation second nature to things in real life.

So my daughter (who is two and a half) and I were standing in our balcony this evening, observing that it had rained heavily last night. Heavy rain reminded my daughter of this time when we had visited a particular aunt last week – she clearly remembered watching the heavy rain from this aunt’s window. Perhaps none of our other visits to this aunt’s house really registered in the daughter’s imagination (it’s barely two months since we returned to Bangalore, so admittedly there aren’t that many data points), so this aunt’s house is inextricably linked in her mind to rain.

And this evening because she wanted it to rain heavily again, the daughter suggested that we go visit this aunt once again. “We’ll go to Inna Ajji’s house and then it will start raining”, she kept saying. “Yes, it rained the last time it went there, but it was random. It wasn’t because we went there”, I kept saying. It wasn’t easy to explain it.

You know when you are about to have a kid you develop visions of how you’ll bring her up, and what you’ll teach her, and what she’ll say to “jack” the world. Back then I’d decided that I’d teach my yet-unborn daughter that “correlation does not imply causation” and she could use it use it against “elders” who were telling her absurd stuff.

I hadn’t imagined that mistaking correlation for causation is so fundamental to human nature that it would be a fairly difficult task to actually teach my daughter that correlation does not imply causation! Hopefully in the next one year I can convince her.

Ramayana and Weight Training

There are several interpretations of the Ramayana. As AK Ramanujan compiled, there are more than “three hundred ramayanas“. In some versions, Ravana is Sita’s father. In others, he is her brother. Yet others have been written from Sita’s point of view. And some from Hanumantha’s. And some from Ravanas.

In fact, the Ramayana (contrary to the sanitised Ramanand Sagar version we were fed by Doordarshan) is a fascinating enough epic that there can be millions of interpretations of the story. So let me add mine.

In my opinion, the Ramayana is a shining example of the virtues of Strength Training, especially barbell training. I’ll illustrate this with two key episodes from the epic.

The first is Sita’s swayamvara, where Rama beats off all competition to be able to marry Sita. The test is rather simple. There is a rather heavy bow that the suitors should lift and then string. My interpretation is that most other suitors who had come to the swayamvara were “convenational gymmers” who spent hours every week honing their biceps and triceps and ignoring training their large muscles.

Basically, like most “gym rats” you see at most conventional gyms, these suitors focussed on the lifts that made them look good rather than those that gave them real strength. Rama, on the other hand, practiced simple barbell lifts, and was especially adept at the deadlift. So after all the shower-offs had failed, Rama walked up and deadlifted the bow (the weight was such that no other lift was possible) and strung it. And married Sita.

The other episode comes much later in the epic, when the scene of action has shifted to Sri Lanka. Angada, the monkey prince, has gone to Ravana’s court in the form of an advance party to negotiate Sita’s release before Rama declared war on Lanka. Ravana insulted him, and so Angada refused to budge until he had had an audience. Various members of Ravana’s court tried to physically dislodge him (as Angada had challenged them to do so), but Angada remained firm, with his feet firmly planted in the ground.

Clearly, Angada did squats, and members of Ravana’s army who fooled themselves into strength by solely concentrating on the arms didn’t realise that someone (who squatted) could have such heavy and firm feet. And so they failed to dislodge him.

Now to find episodes from the epic that show the virtues of the press and the bench press.

Liverpool FC: 2014 vs 2019

Last night I watched the first half of the Champions League semifinal between FC Barcelona and Liverpool FC, going off to bed when the score was 1-0 in favour of Barcelona. I woke up this morning to much dismay to see that Liverpool lost 3-0, but I’d constructed this post in my head when Liverpool was trailing 1-0, and so executing now.

It’s about the difference between the title-challenging Liverpool of 2014 and the title-challenging Liverpool of this season. Luis Suarez, in a brilliant interview with Sid Lowe, had mentioned that the current team is much better than the 2014 team, but last night’s Champions League game suggests that the two teams five years apart are simply two very different teams.

Last night Barcelona went ahead with a goal from Suarez in the 25th minute. It wasn’t an easy goal. There was a cross from the left by Jordi Alba, and Suarez got ahead, and managed to get the precise touch required to put it past Alisson into Liverpool’s goal. Liverpool had dominated the game until then, but with that one little half chance Suarez had converted.

Ten minutes later Sadio Mane got a chance to equalise, from a broadly similar chance. It was another ball above the defence from Mo Salah, but Mane hit it to the sky. And that was representative of Liverpool this season – both Mane and Salah have required lots of chances to score.

In that sense, Liverpool’s defence and midfield this season is far superior to the title-challenging side of 2014, when Suarez led the line. Back then few chances were created, but Suarez and an in-form Daniel Sturridge would take most of them, meaning that even with the midfield creating few chances and the defence leaking lots of goals, Liverpool could mount a challenge.

One could only imagine how this season’s team would have performed with someone of Suarez’s finishing ability leading the line. Salah, Mane and Firmino are no doubt a brilliant front three, but their conversion rate is low. If only one of them had a higher conversion rate, we wouldn’t have been struggling in both the League and the Champions League this season.

 

Couples on trains

When I first visited London in 2005, the way some couples travelled on the underground caught my fancy. The usual algorithm would be that the taller partner (usually the guy) would hold on to the bar on top, and the other partner (usually the girl) would stand holding him. I clearly remember seeing this enough times back then for it to be a pattern.

I returned to London in 2017 to live there, and interestingly, this way of couple travel had gone missing. I don’t know if there was a cultural shift in the way that people travelled. My best guess is that it’s due to carriage redesign – in 2005, most of my travel (and thus observation) was on the District Line, and the District Line had got a whole new (and modern) set of carriages by 2017.

Perhaps it was the design of the old carriage (which possibly had too few railings to hold on to) that encouraged this couple behaviour. And the better designed new carriage meant that this way of one partner holding on to the other wasn’t that necessary.

The other explanation I have for this is personal – in 2005 I was a much under-exposed 22 year old who would notice every single act of public display of affection. And so every time I saw a couple travel this way (or kiss on escalators at tube stations) I would notice. By 2017, I was much better exposed, and didn’t find PDA all that fascinating and so didn’t notice even though I did many many train journeys.

In any case, the reason this observation about London trains becomes pertinent now is because of the Bangalore Metro, which seems to be showing shades of London 2005 behaviour. At least on four or five occasions in the last one month I’ve seen couples travel this way on the Bangalore metro – one holds the handrail on the ceiling, and the other holds the partner.

I begin to wonder if this is a necessary step in the evolution of any city’s metro system.

Telling stories with data

I’m about 20% through with The Verdict by Prannoy Roy and Dorab Sopariwala. It’s a fascinating book, except for one annoyance – it is full of tables that serve no purpose but to break the flow of text.

I must mention that I’m reading the book on the Kindle, which means that the tables can pose a major annoyance. Text breaks off midway through one page, and the next couple of pages involve a table or two, with several lines of text explaining what’s in the table. And then the text continues. It makes for a rather disruptive reading experience. And some of the tables have just one data point – making one wonder why it has been inserted there at all.

This is not the first book that I’ve noticed that makes this mistake. Some of the sports analytics books I’ve read in recent times, such as The Numbers Game also make the same error (I read that in print, and still had the same disruption). Bhagwati and Panagariya’s Why Growth Matters is similarly unreadable. Tables abruptly inserted into the middle of text, leading to the reader losing flow in the reading.

Telling a data story in book length is a completely different challenge to telling one in article length. And telling a story with data is a complete art form. When you’re putting a table there, you need to be able to explain why that table is important to the story – rather than putting it there just because it seems more rigorous.

Also the exact placement of the table (something that can’t be controlled well in Kindle, but is easy to fix in either HTML or print) matters –  the table should be relevant to the piece of text immediately preceding and succeeding it, in a way that it doesn’t disrupt the reader’s flow. More importantly, the table should be able to add value at that particular point – perhaps building on something that has been described in the previous paragraph.

Book length makes it harder because people don’t normally expect tables and figures to disturb their reading flow when reading something of book length. Also, the book format means that it is not always possible to insert a table at a precise point (even in print, where pagination is an issue).

So how do you tell a book length story with data? Firstly, be very stingy about the data that you want to show – anything that doesn’t immediately add value should be banished to the appendix. Even the rigour, which academics might be particular about, can be pushed to the end notes (not footnotes, since those can be disruptive to flow as well, turning pages into half pages).

Then, once you know that showing a particular table or graph is inevitable to telling the story, put it either in the beginning or the end of a chapter. This way, it doesn’t break the reader’s flow. Then, refer to individual numbers in the middle of the text without having to put the entire table in there. Unless each and every data point in the table is important, banish it to the endnotes.

One other common mistake (I did it in my piece in Forbes published yesterday) is to put a big table and not talk about it. It only seeks to confuse the reader, who starts looking for explanations for everything in the table in later parts.

I guess authors and analysts tend to get possessive. If you have worked hard to produce insights from data, you seek to share as much of it as possible. And this can mean simply dumping data all the data in the piece without a regard for what the reader will do with it.

I’m making a note to myself to not repeat this mistake in future.

Baskets of deplorables

OK this is a political post. You might infer something about my political leanings from this, and you might classify me as a “deplorable”, but I run that risk.

I don’t like the way our politics is turning out nowadays. You are free to interpret “our” and “nowadays” in whatever way you want. What I don’t like is that people seem to wear their political beliefs on their sleeve, and think it is okay to shame and cut contact with people who don’t share their beliefs.

I don’t know when exactly this started – but it was surely sometime between 2013 and 2016. The culmination of this attitude was US Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton describing her opponent Donald Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables“. And that attitude seems to be being taken forward by people of various political dispensations three years on.

I long for the days when people treated their political opinions like their private parts – stuff that existed and was put to good use when required, but not put on display. Nowadays, though, trawl through any social media platform, and you find people making political statements all the time. If you aren’t in a filter bubble, you will surely be seeing flamewars. And a difference in political opinion is no longer just a difference in opinion – you consider someone with differing views as despicable.

I’m friends with a lot of people who hold strong political opinions, and whose opinions might differ from mine. I don’t care about it – since there is plenty to them otherwise that makes them valuable to me, and so I continue to hang out with them.

Some people, on the other hand, don’t think like this. According to them, some political positions are so horrible that anyone who endorses that position is necessarily a horrible person, and not worth engaging with. For them, their political axis is fundamentally uni-dimensional – the world doesn’t exist outside of the dimension that they consider to be a dealbreaker.

As a consequence, any stand endorsed by a politician who endorses their dealbreaker position also becomes a dealbreaker. Political commentary and evaluation is based on who takes the stand, rather than the stand itself. Everything is seen through a political lens, and anyone who disagrees with them is worthy of ridicule.

It is sad that politics has taken over our lives so much, and people consider other people’s political opinions as such an important part of their lives. And the way social media and feedback loops work, I see no way out of this.