Tinder and Arranged Scissors

For those of you who have been following my blog for a while know, I was in the arranged marriage market for a brief period in 2009, before Priyanka magically materialised (from the comments section of this blog) and bailed me out. I may not have covered this in any of the Arranged Scissors posts that I wrote back then (ok I alluded to this but not really), but I had what I can now call a “Tinder moment” during the course of my time in the market.

So on this fine day in Bangalore, I was taken to this Marriage Exchange called Aseema. The name of the exchange is quite apt, since based on two data points (my own and one acquaintance’s), if you go there your search for a spouse is literally endless.

My uncle, who took me there and who was acting as my broker-dealer for that brief period, told me that they literally had binders full of women (note that this was three years before Romney), and that I could search leisurely if I accompanied him there on Saturday morning.

My uncle didn’t lie. This place did have several binders full of women (and men – I too ended up in one such binder after I signed up) and four binders that said “Smartha (my subcaste) Girls” were pulled out and handed over to me. My uncle probably expected me to spend a few hours ruminating through the binders and coming up with a shortlist.

It was nothing like it. Each profile in the binder followed a standard format. There was this 4 by 6 full-length photo. You knew where to look for educational qualifications. And professional summary. It was like LinkedIn meets Facebook profile picture. And that was it.

I remember having some criteria, which I don’t remember now. But once I had gone through the first few pages, it became mechanical. I knew exactly where to look in a particular profile page. And quickly come to a judgment if I should express interest.

Thinking back, I might have just been swiping (mostly left – I came up with a grand shortlist of one after the exercise) on Tinder. The amount of time I spent on each profile wasn’t much more than what the average user spends on Tinder. Except that rather than looking only at the photo, I was also looking at a few profile parameters (though of course whether I would want to sleep with her was one of the axes on which I evaluated the profiles). But it was just the same – leafing through a large number of profiles in a short amount of time and either swiping left or right instantly. Talking to a few other friends (some of it at the now legendary Benjarong conference) about this, my experience seemed representative (note that I’m still in anecdata territory).

Maybe there is a lesson in this for all those people who are designing apps for arranged marriage (including the venerable Shaadi.com and BharatMatrimony.com). That even though the stated intent is a long-term relationship, the initial process through which people shortlist is no different from what people follow on Tinder. Maybe there surely is a market for a Tinder-like arranged marriage application!

Finite and infinite stories

Recently I started reading a book called “Finite and Infinite Games”. I’m barely through the Kindle sample, so can’t comment much on the book, but I want to talk about a related concept – finite and infinite stories.

An important feature of the story is that it is “finite”, and has a fixed ending. For example, if you take Lord Of The Rings, the story is primarily concerned with whether Frodo can destroy the ring by taking it to wherever it came from before Sauron can get his hands on it. Once either the ring is destroyed or Sauron gets his hands on it, the story is essentially over, and doesn’t concern about any subsequent events.

Thus, as you plough through either the books or the movies, you condition yourself to the story “ending” at one of these two finalities. And in this particular story, considering that both of these are epochal events, all characters have a horizon no longer than the time required for one of these two events to happen. In other words, most books and movies are “finite stories”, and efforts in those stories are optimised for such finiteness.

Real life, however, is different, in that it is “continuous”. Whatever happens, in most cases, life simply goes on, and hence you need to optimise for the long term. Let’s say, for example, that you are going through a tough time at work and want your current assignment to end. And while you are at it, you look upon your life as a story, where the success or failure of your current assignment is an epochal event. Consequently, you will use a strategy that optimises your performance until this epochal event.

And then this event happens. Let’s say the assignment is a success. Then, life has to move on and another assignment gets thrown at you. Except that you’ve thrown all you had at the previous assignment, and now have no energy left to deal with this one.

In that sense, real life is like an “infinite story” (though death adds a degree of finiteness to this). However epochal certain events seem, unless they are life-threatening, one ought to think for the long term and plan for beyond the event. For unlike in the books or the movies, the story never ends.

Sleeping with the enemy

No, this has nothing to do with the 1990s movie based on which some 3 or 4 Hindi movies (Fareb, Agnisakshi, etc.) were made. This is more of the philosophical concept of how you deal with people you don’t like.

The standard reaction with someone you don’t like is to avoid them. This is perhaps how we have evolved – the first response to “danger” or something you don’t like is to “run”. Consequently, if you know that something or someone unpleasant lurks somewhere, you avoid the place and the person.

Yet this is not the optimal strategy in all cases. Let me illustrate with an example from Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle, a story set in the late 1600s in Western Europe. One of the chief characters is Eliza “de la Zeur”. The polite but mostly dumb Etienne de Arcachon would have made several attempts to woo her, and marry her, but she harbours a deep dislike for him and his family.

Yet, at an opportune moment, when all seems doomed for her, she decides to marry him. This comes across as a massive surprise (sorry for the spoiler there) for the lay reader who likes to steer clear of his enemies, but a little analysis reveals that this was her best strategy at the moment. Rather than steer clear of her enemies, she actually commits to sleeping with one of them. And as the book reveals (no more spoilers), it indeed turns out to be a masterful strategy.

Sleeping with the enemy is also an important strategy when it comes to international relations. If there is a country that you feel threatened by, and which you think might invade you, you should seek to increase (rather than decrease) trade with that country. While this may not be intuitive, the increased trade increased the cost of attack for the potential aggressor, since the invasion will ruin its own economy. One of the reasons for the prolonged tension for the Cold War was that back in those days, the US and the Soviet Union didn’t trade much with each other. Analysts talk about impending “US-China tensions”, but this will never come to bear, since these two superpowers trade considerably with each other.

The strategy has important implications in business also. Sometimes it is easy to be driven by emotions in your business – there might be a person or firm that you don’t like due to historic reasons, for which the intuitive reaction is to “have nothing to do with them”. That, however, can lead to suboptimal outcomes since by doing so, you are denying yourself the opportunity of profiting from them. Unpleasant as the company or firm may be, if there is a way in which you can profit from them, it is irrational to not take it! And it doesn’t matter to you whether such an action can help or hurt this unpleasant counterparty.

My school diary used to come with a “saying” at the bottom of every page. These sayings didn’t change over the years (for the people who had said such sayings had long been dead by the time I went to school), and they would get recycled all year round in “thoughts for the day” on the blackboards. One of them said “to smile at an enemy is to disarm him“.

I invite you to suitably modify this saying in the context of this piece.

Shoes and metrics

The best metric to measure the age of a pair of shoes is the distance walked in them

My latest pair of “belt chappli” (sandals with a belt going around the heels) is only ten months old, but has started wearing. Walking long distances in the said sandals has become a pain. The top is nice, the sole is fantastic, but the inner sole has gotten FUBARed. Maybe it was a stone that got stuck under my feet which I didn’t notice. Maybe it was several such small stones. But with the inner sole “gone”, time is nigh to possibly retire the chappal.

But then a good pair of sandals is supposed to last much longer (and I did 2 longish foreign trips in this period where this chappal didn’t travel with me). Historically, good sandals have lasted two years or more. And it is not that this one is cheap. I paid close to Rs. 2000 for it, and it’s branded, too (Lee Cooper), and I had found it after a lot o difficulty (three months of searching). That it has lasted less than a year is not fair.

But then the question arises as to whether I have the right metrics in place. The number of months or years that a pair of shoes lasts is an intuitive metric of its quality, but it is not the right one. For, a pair of shoes doesn’t wear when it is not worn! Of course there might be mild wear and tear due to weather conditions, but for a pair of shoes made of good leather, that can be ignored.

So maybe the best metric for a pair of shoes is the amount of time it is worn? Then again, while a shoe might wear while its worn, it doesn’t wear too much when it’s at rest –  I mean its shape changes to fit the wearer’s foot (over the medium term) and that might cause some wear and tear, but in the long run, there is unlikely to be much wear and tear at rest.

From that perspective, I hereby declare that the best metric to measure a shoe’s performance is the number of kilometres walked or run in it (latter causes significantly more wear and tear, but let’s assume that walking shoes and running shoes are mutually exclusive (which they’re not) ). This is an excellent because it takes care of a number of features that correlate with the wear and tear, and is not hard to fathom.

Going by this metric, my current pair of “belt chappli” has put in considerable service. Over the last ten months, the frequency of going on “beats” in Jayanagar has gone up, and the distance covered in each beat, too. Having pretty much stopped driving, I walk more than I used to, and this is my default shoe for such perambulations.

The problem now is the search cost – good belt chapplis that fit my feet are hard to find. It’s a liquidity problem, I think (:P). Maybe I should just consider getting the inner sole replaced and get on with this one.

Cake cutting, Dutch auctions and chit funds

Last night at what started off as high tea but ended up as dinner (for me, at least), Baada and I shared a cake. The cake was delivered to our table along with a (rather sharp) knife. I used the knife to cut  the cake into two, and Baada chose one of the two pieces (inexplicably he chose the smaller one). That way, we had achieved the most efficient method of splitting a piece of cake between two people.

It has been an interesting mathematical problem as to how to split a piece of cake between three people, since the above algorithm doesn’t work. The problem has been solved, but is rather complicated with several cases, involving one person cutting a piece, the second person trimming it and offering it to the third, followed by further complications. I won’t bother describing it further here. And then you have the problem of extending the solution to N people sharing a piece of cake.

But then, there is an elegant solution, after all, which I found in Alex Bellos‘s excellent book Alex Through the Looking Glass a couple of days back. As Bellos describes,

One ingenious method invented in the 1960s, which can be used for any number of people, concerns a moving knife. The knife is positioned at the side of the cake and then moves very slowly across it. When someone shouts ‘STOP!’ the knife slices at that position. The person who shouted out receives the slice. The knife then continues for the remaining participants.

It is not hard to see how this works (it assumes that the players, unlike Baada last night, want the largest possible piece of cake while being fair). If you call too early, you end up with a smaller piece of cake than you’re entitled to, and so you wait. You call too late, and someone has already called for it. So with every player playing the optimal strategy, this moving knife strategy results in each person getting their fair share.

While reading this cake-cutting strategy, I got reminded of the Dutch auction. In such an auction, the house starts with a very high price, which drops slowly (represented by a clock, usually). And as the price drops, when one of the buyers is willing to pay the price at that moment, they bid for it, and the object gets sold at that price. While it is a “first price auction” and buyers may not disclose their true willingness to pay (in the hope of getting the item for a lower price), the advantage is that it’s quick, and hence used for auctioning things such as flowers.

It works the same way as the cake-cutting algorithm in that if there is a well-defined value for the object being auctioned (this is rarely the case in practice), it makes sense to bid exactly at the point when the price equals this well-defined value.

This method of cutting cakes and auctioning flowers is also similar to how chit funds work in India. In a chit fund, you have N people who invest money into a pot at N different points in time. Each time, the money thus collected is auctioned to the person who needs it the most, and the price of the auction is determined by the amount that the person is willing to “let go” of the maximum amount. This amount that is thus let go of is distributed to the other participants (with the house taking a commission).

This is exactly similar to the cake cutting case. Think about it!

So it is very interesting that a fundamental feature of Indian homegrown finance, the chit fund, draws from important concepts in maths and game theory. We’re truly great!

 

Days of the week in Bahasa

Most languages name  their days of the week after a single source, and this is usually consistent across languages. For example, the original Latin names for the days of the week came from “planets” – Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn respectively. And this got copied into various languages.

So the days of the week as we know in English are derived from the names of these planets or Gods representing them (Thor giving Thursday and so on). Indian names for the days of the week are direct translations of the Latin names. And some days have multiple names in Indian languages, all of which mean the same thing.

So you have Ravivara and Bhaanuvara and Adityavara, all of which refer to Sunday, and all of which precisely translate to “Sun day”. The more formal name for Thursday is “bRhaspativara” but more commonly referred to as “Guruvara”, with “Guru” being the more common name for bRhaspati. And so forth.

Based on this background, I found the names of the week in Bahasa Indonesia, which I observed from signboards (Bahasa uses Roman scripts, so one level of Rosetta stoning can happen from signboards), rather interesting.

The names are (starting with Sunday):
Minggu
Senin
Selasa
Rabu
Kamis
Jumat
Sabtu

Ok I got that from this link as I was writing, but what I got from signboards yesterday was the names of Friday, Saturday and Sunday (Jumat, Sabtu and Minggu respectively). And I found it fascinating since it seems like they come from multiple sources.

So Jumat, it appears, is the day of prayer, or Juma. Considering that Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country (it’s not funny how empty restaurants are during lunch nowadays, since it’s Ramzan), naming Friday as “the day of prayer”, using the Muslim word for prayer, is absolutely logical.

Sabtu for Saturday is obviously derived from “Sabbath” – another day of prayer but for a different religion (Judaism). It looks like it’s derived from European names for Saturday – Saturday in Spanish is Sabado, for instance. So actually, in this case we are seeing a wider adoption of naming the day of week after its religious significance than the associated planet.

And Minggu, it appears, is diminutive for Domingo, the Spanish and Portuguese word for Sunday (and perhaps there are similar names in other European languages). And it appears that “Domingo” has nothing to do with the Sun, but instead is derived from Latin for “God’s day” (since Sunday is the day of the Christian God, who famously took rest on that day).

So it’s interesting that Bahasa has names for three days of the week which are not based on the planets, but on different versions of “God’s day”, with multiple origins among them! Or rather, that Bahasa has three “God’s day”s, with each referring to a different god.

I’m reminded of this store that existed a long time back close to where I currently live. It was called “yellAdEvarakRpe stores” (store with the grace of all gods).