## Bayesian Recognition

We don’t meet often, but every time we talk, she reminds me that I had failed to recognize her the first time we had met after graduating together from school. Yes, I could claim in my defence that I was seeing her for the first time in over six years. While that might be a valid excuse for most people, it doesn’t apply to me, since I normally claim to have superior long-term memory. If I’ve seen you somewhere before, I ought to recognize you. The only times I don’t I’m pretending, since I don’t want to embarrass you (and myself) by recognizing you while you don’t recognize me (see this incident for an example of this).

The reason for my failure that cold Bangalore evening in December 2006 was that my Bayesian system had failed me. Let me explain, in the process giving you an insight into my Bayesian system which I use to recognize you when I meet you.

About a month or two back, I was at a friend’s wedding, which is where I hit upon this term “Bayesian recognition” to explain this phenomenon  (which I’ve been practicing for ages). Now, this friend whose wedding I was attending was one year my junior at two different schools. As you might expect at an event where you and the host share more than one social network, there were a lot of familiar faces. Some people I knew fairly well, and could easily recognize. But the others had to go through a “Bayesian search”.

So when I saw someone who was one of three people I know – let’s say X, Y and Z. In order to determine which of these this person is, I would ask myself two questions – firstly, what were the prior odds that the person I saw could be each of X, Y or Z. Secondly, what were the odds of each of X, Y and Z being there at that event. Note that the latter is important. For example, if someone at the event looks like you and I know (for example) that you are currently in another country, despite the strong resemblance I can discount the possibility that that person is you, and go ahead with my search.

Note that this differs from “frequentist recognition”, where I only look at the person’s face and try and understand who he/she most resembles, without any thought to the odds that that person is there. Frequentist recognition can lead to a large number of false positives, and after a few rounds of embarrassment, you start giving up on recognizing, and many a possible reunion thus gets missed. Bayesian recognition, on the other hand, restricts your field of search (to the people who you give good odds of being there), prevents you from being distracted and increases your chances of making a good recognition.

So why did Bayesian recognition fail me when I met this former classmate back in 2006? The problem was her company. She had come for this Deep Purple concert with another friend of mine, who was my classmate in another school (and who I had been in touch with, and so easily recognized). I had no clue that these two were friends (it turned out they didn’t know each other that well – they had come there with a common friend). So when this girl (the one I didn’t recognize) popped up with “Hey SK! Do you remember me?” I assumed that she was someone I knew from the same school as the other girl I was meeting, and that wrongly restricted my search space. And so my mind was trying to map her to my friends from school 1, while she happened to be a friend from school 2. And my search returned a blank, and my legendary long-term memory skills were embarrassed.

I must mention here, though, that this is possibly the only time that my Bayesian recognition model has acted up, and refused to recognize someone I know. There have been 2-3 false positives, but this has been the only negative. And when you consider the sample size to be all the people I have recognized in different places, this is small indeed.

Oh, and after failing to recognize her then, I’ve kept in touch with this friend.

## The day I learnt to stop worrying and learnt to protect myself

For at least six years, from early 2006 to early 2012 I “suffered” from what medical practitioners term as “anxiety”. It was “co-morbid” with my depression, and I think it was there from much before 2006. I would frequently think about random events, and and wonder what would happen if things happened in a certain way. I would think of “negative black swan” events, events with low probability but which would have a significant negative impact on my life.

While considering various possibilities and preparing for them is a good thing, the way I handled them were anything but good. Somewhere in my system was wired the thought that simply worrying about an event would prevent it from happening. I once got fired from one job. Every day during my next two jobs, I would worry if I would get fired. If I got an uncharitable email from my boss, I would worry if he would fire me. If my blackberry failed to sync one morning I would worry that it was because I had already been fired. Needless to say, I got fired from both these jobs also, for varying reasons.

I used to be a risk-taker. And it so happened that for a prolonged period in my life, a lot of risks paid off. And then for another rather prolonged period, none of them did (Mandelbrot beautifully calls this phenomenon the Joseph effect). The initial period of successful risk-taking probably led me to take more risk than was prudent. The latter period of failure led me to cut down on risks to an unsustainable level. I would be paranoid about any risks I had left myself exposed to. This however doesn’t mean that the risks didn’t materialize.

It was in January of last year that I started medication for my anxiety and depression. For a few days there was no effect. Then, suddenly I seemed to hit a point of inflexion and my anxious days were far behind. While I do credit Venlafaxine Hexachloride I think one event in this period did more than anything else to get me out of my anxiety.

I was riding my Royal Enfield Classic 500 across the country roads of Rajasthan, as part of the Royal Enfield Tour of Rajasthan. The first five days of the tour had gone rather well. Riding across the rather well-made Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) roads set across beautiful landscapes had already helped clear out my mind a fair bit. It gave me the time and space to think without getting distracted. I would make up stories as I rode, and at the end of each day I would write a 500 word essay in my diary. All the riding gear meant that the wind never really got into my hair or my face, but the experience was stunning nevertheless. For a long time in life, I wanted to “be accelerated”. Ride at well-at-a-faster-rate, pulling no stops. And so I rode. On the way to Jaisalmer on a rather empty highway, I even hit 120 kmph, which I had never imagined I would hit on my bike. And I rode fearlessly, the acceleration meaning that my mind didn’t have much space for negative thoughts. Things were already so much better. Until I hit a cow.

Sometimes I rationalize saying I hadn’t consumed my daily quota of Venlafaxine Hexachloride that morning. Sometimes I rationalize that I was doing three things at the same time – one more than the number of activities I can normally successfully carry out simultaneously. There are times when I replay the scene in my head and wonder how things would have been had I done things differently. And I sometimes wonder why the first time I ever suffered a fracture had to happen in the middle of nowhere far off from home.

It had been a wonderful morning. We had left the camp at Sam early, stopping for fuel at Jaisalmer, and then at this wonderful dhaba at Devikot, where we had the most awesome samosa-bajjis (massive chilis were first coated with a layer of potato curry – the one they put in samosa – and then in batter and deep fried). For the first time that day I had the camera out of its bag, hanging around my neck. I would frequently stop to take photos, of black camels and fields and flowers and patterns in the cloud. The last photo I took was of Manjunath (from my tour group) riding past a herd of black camels.

I function best when I do two things at a time. That morning I got over confident and did three. I was riding on a road 10 feet wide at 80 kilometres per hour. I was singing – though I’ve forgotten what I was singing. And I was thinking about something. My processor went nuts. While things were steady state on the road there was no problem. There was a problem, however, when I saw a bit too late that there was a massive herd of massive cows blocking my path further down the road.

There was no time to brake. I instead decided to overtake the herd by moving to the right extreme of the road (the cows were all walking on the road in the same direction as me). To my misfortune, one of the cows decided to move right at the same time, and I hit her flush in the backside. The next thing I remember is of me lying sprawled on the side of the road about five metres from where my bike was fallen. There was no sign of the cow. The bike was oozing petrol but I wasn’t able to get up to lift it up – presently others in my tour group who were a few hundred metres behind reached the scene and picked up my bike. And I don’t know what state of mind I was in but my first thought after I picked myself up was to check on my camera!

The camera wasn’t alright – it required significant repairs after I got back home, but I was! I had broken my fifth metacarpal, which I later realized was a consequence of the impact of the bike hitting the cow. There were some gashes on my bicep where the protective padding of my riding jacket had pressed against my skin. I still have a problem with a ligament in my left thumb, again a consequence of the impact. And that was it.

I had had an accident while traveling at 80 kmph. I had fallen a few metres away from the point of impact (I don’t know if I did a somersault while I fell, though). I fell flush on my shoulder with my head hitting the ground shortly. It was a rather hard fall on the side of the road where the ground was uneven. And there was absolutely no injury because of the fall (all the injury was due to impact)!

It was the protection. No amount of worry would have prevented that accident. Perhaps I was a bit more careless than I should have been but that is no reason for there not being an accident. When you are riding on a two wheeler at a reasonable pace on country roads, irrespective of how careful you are there is always a chance that you may fall. The probability of a fall can never go to zero.

What I had done instead was to protect myself from the consequences of the fall. Each and every piece of protective equipment I wore that day took some impact – helmet, riding jacket, riding gloves, knee guard, shoes.. Without any one of these pieces, there is a chance I might have ended up with serious injury. There was a cost I paid – both monetary and by means of discomfort caused by wearing such heavy gear – but it had paid off.

Black swans exist. However, worrying about them will not ease them. Those events cannot be prevented. What you need to do, however, is to hedge against the consequences of those events. There was always a finite possibility that I would fall. All I did was to protect myself against the consequences of that!

Despite contrary advice from the doctor, I decided to ride on and finish the tour, struggling to wear my riding glove over my swollen right hand – stopping midway would have had a significant adverse impact on my mental state which had just begun to improve. I’ve stopped worrying after that. Yes, there are times when I see a chance of some negative black swan event happening. I don’t worry about that any more, though. I only think of how I can hedge against its consequences.

## I don’t know what to name this bias

So yet again I’m at that point in my life when I’m pondering about my career, pulling up my socks and asking myself uncomfortable questions. I’m asking myself what it is I really want to do, what it is that I really enjoy, what is the best way I can monetize my skills and the like. I’ve been pondering between radically different alternatives – from staying on in Wall Street to becoming a hippie; from becoming a professor to starting a company. I’ve been thoroughly confused and have been talking to a number of people about this.

The one common strand I extract from my conversations with all these people is that most people give you advice that is aligned with what they are doing. When I talk to the prof, he talks to me about becoming a prof, and about why I’m suited for it. When I talk to the corporate whore, he tries to convince me that there’s no way out from corporate whoredom and that I must simply embrace and accept it. When I ask the hippie, he thinks it’s no big deal if I keep switching jobs, and that I’m being dishonest with myself continuing to do something I don’t enjoy. And the entrepreneur tries his best to push me into becoming an entrepreneur.

Given my thoroughly confused state of mind, all this has been mostly adding to the confusion, but now that I’ve managed to extract this common strand, I been able to add the appropriate amount of spices to all the advice I’ve received, and making more sense of it. While I continue to figure out what’s the best course of action for me, I wonder what it is that makes people want other people to be like them.

I must mention that this is not a recent phenomenon. Back when I was in college, I remember talking to a senior who went into consulting, and he convinced me that I should do that, too. The banker talked about how banking is perfect for my skills. Till I was in 10th standard, I had no clue about the existence of IIT until a rocket scientist uncle told me about it, and about how going there would be the best thing I could do.

Of all the people who have given me career advice, perhaps the only person who didn’t clearly show this kind of bias was my father. He was an accountant, and he used to work as a regulator. And right from the beginning he made it clear to me that I should neither become an accountant nor should I work for the government.

And I’m trying to think of what kind of advice I dish out. Perhaps because I don’t have one clear “career axis”, I don’t really show this kind of a bias. Or maybe it’s hereditary.

## Defining Teenage Relationships

I got into my first ever romantic relationship at the ripe old age of twenty six. By then I had already got into the “settling down mode” (you might remember i was already in the arranged scissors market before that) and so essentially I was looking for a long-term settlement. I was essentially looking for “someone who’ll need me, someone who’ll feed me when i’m sixty four” and fortunately things have worked out well and I’m due to get married sometime later this year.

Looking at people around me – friends, cousins, friends’ cousins and cousins’ friends, I realize that people get into this “relationship industry” fairly young. You have people who are barely out of middle school who have “boyfriends” and “girlfriends”. Actually there’s nothing new in this phenomenon. I remember wanting to have a girlfriend when I was twelve years old. That it took fourteen years to find one is another matter. However, the point is I’ve forgotten. I’ve forgotten what I’d’ve imagined regarding my possible romantic life back then. I’ve grown so old now that I don’t remember at all why I wanted a girlfriend when I was younger.

Possible reasons I can think of:

• It’s cool to be in a relationship. Its cool to have someone proclaim you as their significant other. It elevates your social status, makes you a more confident person and generally improves your outlook towards life.
• It is good to have one person with whom you spend a lot of time. It is good to have one person with whom you share everything and who knows more about you than anyone else. It is good to have that one person who you know will always be there with you, beside you, through times happy and sad, and it helps that if you get addicted to each other you have the option of living together for life. Hence you want to get into a relationship.
• You have a default partner for every activity that you want to do. There is one person with apprximately similar tastes whom you can bug to acccompany you in whatever you want to do. This way you never end up not doing something just because you couldn’t find someone to do it with
• Economically it helps since in places such as clubs, discos, concerts, etc. couples get favoured treatment in terms of entry etc. I suppose this won’t be the major reason for getting into a relationship for anyone
• It shows you as a responsible person who is able to think for himself/herself at a young age; who is able to make potentially life-changing decisions early

Anything else you can think of? On a related note, what do teenage couples do? How do they spend time with each other? If you get into a relationship in your twenties you can start planning for a shared future, etc. But what do you do when you’re still young?