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.

Tigers and Bullwhips

Over three years ago, well before our daughter was born, my wife’s cousin had told us that she likes to watch her daughter’s TV shows because they contained “morals”, which were often useful to her at work. While we never took to the “moral” TV show she mentioned (Daniel Tiger – it is bloody boring), I have begun to notice that there are important management lessons in other popular children’s stories.

So I hereby begin this blog series on what I call the “Kiddie MBA” – basically business lessons from kids’s stories. And we will start with that all-time classic, The Tiger Who Came To Tea, by Judith Kerr. 

The basic premise of this story that remains a classic fifty years after being published is what operations managers call the “bullwhip effect“. Sometimes a business, possibly in trading, can be subject to a sudden demand, which the business will not be able to fulfil given its current inventories.

As a result of this sudden one-time spurt in demand, the business increases its future forecasts of demand, and starts keeping more inventory. This business’s supplier sees this increased demand and increases its own forecasts upward, and increases its own inventory. Thus, this one-time demand “shock” percolates up the supply chain, giving the illusion of higher demand and with each layer in the chain keeping higher and higher inventory.

And then one day the retailer will realise that this demand shock is not replicable and moves forecasts downwards, and this triggers a downward edge in the forecasts up the value chain, and demand at the source comes crashing down.

Being a children’s book, The Tiger Who Came To Tea eschews the complexity of the supply chain and instead keeps the story at one level – at the level of the household of the protagonist Sophie (not to be confused with Sophie the Giraffe).

The premise of the story is the demand shock for supplies in Sophie’s home – a tiger comes home for tea and eats up everything that’s at home, drinks up all that’s there to be drunk (including “all the water in the tap”) and leaves, leaving nothing for Sophie and her family.

Assuming that the tiger will return the next day, Sophie’s family stocks up heavily, including “lots of tiger food”. And the tiger never arrives.

My guess is that the rest of the supply chain is left as an exercise to the reader – how the retailer who sold Sophie the tiger food will react to the suddenly higher demand for food (and for tiger food), how this retailer’s supplier will react, whether the tiger visits some other household for tea the next day (making this demand “regular” at the retailer’s level), and so forth.

Perhaps this is what makes this such as great book, and an all-time classic!

High command and higher command

Last week a friend messaged me early in the evening and asked if we could meet for drinks later in the evening. I almost replied to him saying that I’ll get back to him once I’d “checked with High Command”, but then realised that I now have not one but two high commands.

Just the previous day, I had watched Liverpool FC play at Manchester City. This was the first time I was watching live football this season, primarily because we don’t have cable at home. Since I didn’t want to “jinx Liverpool“, I waited for a game where they were not the favourites to make my watching debut, and Manchester City away seemed like the best bet for that.

When I told the senior high command that I wanted to go watch this game, and if she could take care of the junior high command during the duration of it, she had no objections. Just as I was about to leave for the game, though, the junior high command (or maybe I should call her the higher command) decided to throw a tantrum. Some distractions and the promise to watch endless episodes of Bing and Pablo were required to allow me to step out.

The next day, I was pretty sure that the high command would be cool with me going out for evening drinks. We had discussed our lives at the turn of the year, and had agreed that we should meet more people, and I had specifically made it a point that I’d go out more on evenings and weekends. Still being early in the year, I knew the high command would be okay with me going out. I wasn’t sure if the higher command would be okay though.

The story played out the same way as the previous day. I picked up higher command from the nursery. High command then returned from office, and it was time for me to step out. And higher command wasn’t pleased at all. Once again it took distractions to allow me to step out. And it turned out that the price of the bribe was rather high that evening. When I returned, the higher command was watching Bing, and didn’t even turn around to look at me (normally she’s all over me when I come home from anywhere).

Another friend just asked me if we can meet on Wednesday evening. Again I was about to type “let me check with the high command”, and then decided it is prudent to make that plural. Once again I know the high command will be okay with this but the higher command may not be.

Training to be a quizzer

Eleven days before our daughter was born in September 2016, the wife and I attended the annual Family Quiz organised by the Karnataka Quiz Association. We ended up doing fairly well in the quiz, and placed third.

Unfortunately, despite the quiz having been described as “for teams of three and under from the same family”, we only got two book coupons as a prize. If they had given us three prizes instead, I could’ve claimed that our daughter won her first quiz even before she was born.

Two years and four months on, I’ve greatly disappointed my wife in terms of how much I’ve taught our daughter. According to some sort of an agreement we had come to ages back (maybe even before we were married), I was supposed to have taught our daughter calculus by now. As it happens, she can barely count to twenty, and still hasn’t fully got the concept of counting objects.

However, there are other areas of development where, despite me not putting any sort of effort whatsoever, she has done rather well in terms of her learning. I had written last month that she had proved adept at showing off her Quantum Physics for Babies in front of visitors. And before that she had shown promise by reading bus number boards.

Now, an anecdote from last night suggests she is already gearing up to be a quizzer.

Back in May, a friend and business associate gifted her this illustrated book of nursery rhymes (I don’t have the copy with me as I write this, but it was possibly this one). Since each page contains a full rhyme and maybe one or two illustrations, we don’t use the book too much – the daughter prefers books that have a higher picture-to-word ratio.

In fact, the fact that I’m not even sure what the book precisely looks like should tell you that we don’t use the book too often. Once in a while, my wife reads out poems from that just before bedtime, but I normally don’t read from it.

Anyways, last night as I was putting the daughter to bed, she picked out this book and asked me to read it to her before she fell asleep. And then she showed off her prowess as a quizzer.

Being two and a third years old, she can’t yet read (she knows the numbers and a few letters of the English and Kannada alphabets, but not much more). However, the way she was recognising the poems from the illustrations suggested that she was actually reading!

Guessing “Humpty Dumpty” by looking at an egghead sitting on a wall was rather easy. Some of the other poems she guessed correctly were, however, stuff I surely wouldn’t have  gotten from the illustrations. In fact, this included poems whose existence even I wasn’t aware of before I saw them in the book. I was so impressed that I didn’t really mind that she didn’t go to bed until it was eleven o’clock last night!

Now, this might be a false alarm. In the past she seems to have answered arithmetic questions correctly which later turned out to be a fluke. The sheer proportion of poems she got correct last night suggested this is not the case. The other doubt is that she might have seen the book elsewhere, and thus mugged up the picture-poem associations.

The way she was guessing, however, suggested to me that she was simply recognising the objects in the pictures and the actions they were exhibiting, and then working out the name of the poem from these figures and actions (obviously she knew it’s a book of rhymes, so the sample space was finite). And that is exactly how your mental process goes when you’re attempting a (good) quiz.

Now I don’t mind so much that she still has a long way to go before she can learn calculus.

Kader Khan and Slippery Fish

Until I read his obituaries, I didn’t know that the just-deceased actor Kader Khan was also a dialogue writer, having written the dialogues for several iconic Amitabh Bachchan movies such as Laawaris, Muqaddar Ka Sikander and Agneepath (I highly recommend his obituaries by GreatBong and by The Economist. Both are brilliantly written and highly informative).

When I found that Kader Khan wrote the dialogues for Agneepath, I was reminded of this old piece written by Nitin Pai, Director of the Takshashila Institution, that referenced a particular dialogue from Agneepath. In that, he talks about international relations and the “law of the jungle” that operates there. In fact, I recommend you see that dialogue from Agneepath. It’s on youtube:

Major level up in terms of my respect for Kader Khan after having re-watched this. I only knew him as a masterful comedian and actor as I mentioned. Now I want to go back and watch more of the movies for which he wrote dialogues.

In any case, if you watched the above video from Agneepath, you see that Amitabh Bachchan talks about the law of the jungle in the form of a food chain. I don’t know the Hindi names of animals precisely, but he talks about a frog being eaten by a snake, and a wolf being killed by lions, etc.

The talk of the food chain reminded me of another song which is my daughter’s favourite nowadays.  This talks about the marine food chain. Watch the song here:

I had no idea about this song until the daughter started singing it. In fact, since she liked the third stanza of the song best (“tuna fish, tuna fish”), it had also caused us a bit of a problem one weekend when she kept requesting for it but we couldn’t find it on any streaming service (you should ask for “slippery fish”).

I’m pleasantly surprised that they teach about the food chain to children as young as two years old, since it introduces to them the concept of death, and the fact that animals eat other animals to survive. Somehow I had thought that kids are told that all animals co-exist like they do in Peppa Pig (as an aside, I wonder what will happen to Peppa Pig and friends when it’s time for them to grow up and start dating), and that the concept of death is also taboo in some circles.

Anyway I’m glad my daughter likes the song. Maybe it’s time to let her graduate to the Amitabh Bachchan dialogue? But that would involve her learning Hindi, which is my wife and my “secret language” (when we’ve to say something we don’t want the daughter to understand) !

The Old Shoe Theory of Relationships

When our daughter was young, some friends saw uncanny resemblances between her and me, and remarked that “Karthik could have married an old shoe and still produced a child that looks like this”, essentially remarking that at least as far as looks were concerned, the wife hadn’t contributed much (Bambi eyes apart).

Over time, the daughter has shown certain other traits that make her seem rather similar to me. For example, she has the practice of sticking her tongue out when performing tasks that require some degree of concentration. She laughs like me. Screeches like me. And makes a “burl-burl” noise with her fingers and lips like I do (admittedly the last one is taught). I’ve already written a fuller list of ways in which the daughter is similar to me.

If you are single and looking to get into a long-term gene propagating relationship, you inevitably ask yourself the question of whether someone is “the one” for you. We have discussed this topic multiple times on this blog.

For example, we have discussed that as far as men are concerned, one thing they look for in potential partners is “consistent fuckability“. We have also discussed that whether someone is “the one” is not a symmetric question, and when you ask yourself the question, you either get “no” or “maybe” as an answer, implying that you need to use Monte Carlo algorithms. Being married to the Marriage Broker Auntie, I’m pretty sure I’ve discussed this topic on this blog several other times.

This is a tubelight post – at least two years too late (the “old shoe” comment came that long ago), but this is yet another framework you can use to determine if you want someone as your long-term gene-propagating partner. Basically you replace yourself by an old shoe.

In other words, assume that the genes that you will propagate along with this person will result in kids who look like them, talk like them, act like them, and rather than a “next best thing”, might just be a superior version of them. Ask yourself if you are okay with having a child who is like this, and who you will be proud of.

This is another Monte Carlo type question, but if the answer in this case is no (you may not be particularly proud of a progeny who is exactly like the person under consideration – for whatever reason), you don’t want to risk propagating genes with this person. In case the answer is yes – that you are willing to parent a child who is exactly like this counterparty, then you can seriously consider this long term relationship.

Again, this applies if and only if you’re looking for a gene propagating relationship. If that isn’t an issue (no pun intended), then you don’t need to worry about old shoes of any kind.