Getting candid at coffee day

I have a reputation for occasionally saying outrageous things, and things that I shouldn’t be saying. I frequently make people uncomfortable by saying what I say, including what I sometimes write on my blog. I’ve been long wondering, though, if it is more rational to say shocking stuff to people you know well, or to those you don’t.

I remember this party from ages back where I had just been introduced to this couple, and within ten minutes I’d started expounding the inner beauties of the Goalkeeper Theory (which states that it is okay to hit on someone already in a relationship). I remember the female half of that couple visibly shudder and cling on to her boyfriend within minutes of my exposition.

Some people might recommend higher discretion when you are introduced to someone new, since you don’t want to create a bad first impression. The other way of looking at it is that people you are meeting for the first time, at a cafe or a party or something, are also people you are unlikely to ever encounter once again in life. Consequently, the downside of saying something outrageous is limited. On the other hand, there is a chance that they might be genuinely impressed with your fundaes and you might end up in a stronger relationship (at whatever level) than if you never said the outrageous thing.

On the other hand, while you might be comfortable with people you know well, the danger with saying outrageous or uncomfortable things is that there is a lot at stake. You have already invested significantly in the relationship, which gives you the comfort to say what you want. But if the person genuinely gets offended, you’ve lost a friendship or relationship or more!

So from a risk point of view, if you are the types that likes to make “bold” conversation, and potentially outrage or upset the counterparty, do so when you are still building the relationship. After all, it makes sense to invest in high volatility instruments when the downside is limited!

PS: Don’t try this at a job interview.

Women are like edge triggered flipflops

Every once in a while, we talk about (in some wonder and amazement) how we came to meet each other, and eventually got married. Most of it is usually the same story, (chinese-whispers induced much-mauled) versions of which are known to quite a few people. But each time we talk about it, there’s something new that comes forth, which makes the discussion enlightening.

So the part about how we first got talking is well-established. Priyanka was excited to find Manu, a distant relative of hers, on Orkut. From his Orkut page, she landed at his website, where back then there was a list of “blogs I follow” (in the standard of mid-2000s websites).

And from there she ended up at my blog (the predecessor of this blog), where she chanced upon this one-line post:

noticed a funny thing at the loo in office today. a number of people tie their janavaaras (sacred thread) around their ears while peeing or crapping!!

She got interested and started reading, and presently landed at this post. Then she started her own blog, scrapped me on Orkut and then disappeared after I’d scrapped her back. And so it went.

A year and half later I saw her at Landmark Quiz, and she messaged me a few days later (when I didn’t know it was the same cute chick I’d seen at the quiz) asking if I remembered her and giving me a puzzle, and then we got added to each other on GTalk, and got talking.

Cut the story two years forward, and we met for the first time in Gandhi Bazaar in 2009. A day later, I wrote this blogpost on “Losing Heart“.

Yesterday I met a friend, an extremely awesome woman. Once I was back home, I sent a mail to my relationship advisor, detailing my meeting with this friend. And I described her (the awesome friend) as being “super CMP”. I wrote in the mail “I find her really awesome. In each and every component she clears the CMP cutoff by a long way”. That’s how I’ve become. I’ve lost it. I’ve lost my heart. And I need to find it back. And I don’t know if I should continue in the arranged scissors market.

And a couple of days later I apparently told her I liked her (I don’t remember this, and our GTalk conversations had gone “off the record” then, so there is no evidence).

And today’s conversation revealed that Priyanka completely misunderstood my “losing heart” post and assumed that I didn’t like her. In her hurry of reading my post (perhaps), she had assumed that I had “lost heart” after meeting her, and had taken it to mean that she was unattractive in whatever way.

Then, when I told her a couple of days later that I liked her, it was a massive boost to her confidence, which had been (rather unintentionally) “pushed down” by way of my blog post.

She had been skeptical of meeting me in the first place, afraid that I’d turn out like “another of those online creeps who hits on you the first time he meets you”, and said that if I’d directly told her I liked her after meeting her, she would’ve got similarly creeped out and never married me. But coming after the blog post that had pushed her confidence down, my telling her that I liked her was enough of a confidence boost to her that she stopped seeing me as “yet another online creep”. There’s more to the story, but we ended up getting married.

From my point of view, the moral of this story, or at least the part that I discovered during our conversation today, is that women are like edge-triggered rather than level-triggered flipflops (the wife is an electrical engineer so I can get away with making such comparisons in normal conversation).

The reason Priyanka liked me is that something I told her caused an instant and massive boost in her self-esteem. The level to which it was raised to wasn’t as important as the extent by which it was raised. And she said that it’s a standard case with all women – it’s the delta to their self-esteem that turns them on rather than the level.

She went on to say that this is a rather standard trick in “the game” – to push down the potential partner’s self-esteem or confidence so that you can raise it by a large extent in the next move and win them over. I admit to having no clue of this back in 2009 (or even now). But like in a typical comedy movie, I had unwittingly stumbled into a great strategy!

Information gain from relationship attempts

Every failed relationship (or attempt at a relationship) has plenty to teach you – in terms of things you got right, or wrong. Things that would make you cringe later on, and others that would make you wonder why the relationship failed. Each failed relationship (or attempt) helps you recalibrate yourself as a person – in terms of what kind of people to go after, and what kind of strategies to adopt during the process. Thus, a relationship is important not only from the direct joy it provides you, but also in terms of learnings for future relationships.

The standard model about “finding your level” in terms of determining your expectations from a potential partners involves trial and error. You “sample” by hitting on someone who you think might be a good fit. If it goes well, story ends. Else, you “learn” from this experience and hit on someone else.

How good a learner you are determines how many attempts you’ll take to find someone “your level” who is a “good fit” and end up in a great relationship. Yet, the kind of attempts you make puts a natural cap on the amount of information you extract from the attempt.

For example, there might be a potential counterparty with whom you have an extremely low (close to nothing) chance of getting into a relationship. Conventional wisdom says that you shouldn’t attempt hitting on her (to avoid pronoun confusion, let’s assuming that everyone you can hit on is feminine. Adjust accordingly if your preferences vary), for the odds are stacked against.

While this is good enough reason not to attempt that relationship (though sometimes the downside might be low enough for you to take a punt), the other problem is that you don’t learn anything from it. The extremely low prior probability of succeeding would mean that there is no information from this that can help tune your system. So you’re wasting your time in more than one way.

It works the other way also. Let’s say there’s someone who really looks up to you and wants to be in a relationship with you. You know that all it takes for you to get into a relationship with her is to express interest. If you know the relationship will add value to you, go ahead. However, it is absolutely useless in terms of your “find your level” – the extremely high prior probability means it won’t add sufficient value to the process.

So while they say that someone who’s been through failed relationships (or attempts at relationships) is experienced and has a more refined set of expectations, the sheer number matters less than the quality. It is the amount of information you’ve been able to extract from each such relationship (or attempt). A one-sided (where one of you is clearly “out of the league” of the other, doesn’t matter who is who) relationship doesn’t add much value.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Bayes and serial correlation in disagreements

People who have been in a long-term relationship are likely to recognise that fights between a couple are not Markovian – in that the likelihood of fighting today is not independent of the likelihood of having fought yesterday.

In fact, if you had fought in a particular time period, it increases the likelihood that you’ll fight in the next time period. As a consequence, what you are likely to find is that there are times when you go days, or weeks, or even months, together in a perennial state of disagreement, while you’ll also have long periods of peace and bliss.

While this serial correlation can be disconcerting at times, and make you wonder whether you are in a relationship with the right person, it is not hard to understand why this happens. Once again, our old friend Reverend Thomas Bayes comes to the rescue here.

This is an extremely simplified model, but will serve the purpose of this post. Each half of a couple beliefs that the other (better?) half can exist in one of two states – “nice” and “jerk”. In fact, it’s unlikely anyone will completely exist in one of these states – they’re likely to exist in a superposition of these states.

So let’s say that the probability of your partner being a jerk is P(J), which makes the probability of him/her being “nice” at P(N) = 1- P(J). Now when he/she does or says something (let’s call this event E), you implicitly do a Bayesian updation of these probabilities.

For every word/action of your partner, you can estimate the probabilities in the two cases of your partner being jerk, and nice. After every action E by the partner, you update your priors about them with the new information.

So the new probability of him being a jerk (given event E) will be given by
P(J|E) = \frac{P(J).P(E|J)}{P(J).P(E|J) + P(N).P(E|N)} (the standard Bayesian  formula).

Now notice that the new probability of the partner being a jerk is dependent upon the prior probability. So when P(J) is already high, it is highly likely that whatever action the partner does will not move the needle significantly. And the longer P(J) stays high, the higher the probability that you’ll lapse into a fight again. Hence the prolonged periods of fighting, and serial correlation.

This equation also explains why attempts to resolve a fight quickly can backfire. When you are fighting, the normal reaction to resolve it is by committing actions that indicate that you are actually nice. The problem is that the equation above has both P(E|N) and P(E|J) in it.

So, in order to resolve a fight, you should not only commit actions that you would do when you are perceived nice, but also actions that you would NOT do if you are a jerk. In other words, the easiest way to pull P(J) down in the above equation is to commit E with high P(E|N) and low P(E|J).

What complicates things is that if you use one such weapon too many times, the partner will will begin to see through you, and up her P(E|J) for this event. So you need to keep coming up with new tricks to defuse fights.

In short, that serial correlation exists in relationship fights is a given, and there is little you can do to prevent it. So if you go through a long period of continuous disagreement with your partner, keep in mind that such things are par for the course, and don’t do something drastic like breaking up.

Hooke’s Curve, hooking up and dressing sense

So Priyanka and I were talking about a mutual acquaintance, and the odds of her (the acquaintance) being in a relationship, or trying to get into one. I offered “evidence” that this acquaintance (who I meet much more often than Priyanka does) has been dressing progressively better over the last year, and from that evidence, it’s likely that she’s getting into a relationship.

“It can be the other way, too”, Priyanka countered. “Haven’t you seen countless examples of people who have started dressing really badly once they’re in a relationship?”. Given that I had several data points in this direction, too, there was no way I could refute it. Yet, I continued to argue that given what I know of this acquaintance, it’s more likely that she’s still getting into a relationship now.

“I can explain this using Hooke’s Law”, said Priyanka. Robert Hooke, as you know was a polymath British scientist of the seventeenth century. He has made seminal contributions to various branches of science, though to the best of my knowledge he didn’t say anything on relationships (he was himself a lifelong bachelor). In Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle, for example, Hooke conducts a kidney stone removal operation on one of the protagonists, and given the range of his expertise, that’s not too far-fetched.

“So do you mean Hooke’s Law as in stress is proportional to strain?”, I asked. Priyanka asked if I remembered the Hooke’s Curve. I said I didn’t. “What happens when you keep increasing stress?”, she asked. “Strain grows proportional until it snaps”, I said. “And how does the curve go then”, she asked. I made a royal mess of drawing this curve (didn’t help that in my mind I had plotted stress on X-axis and strain on Y, while the convention is the other way round).

After making a few snide remarks about my IIT-JEE performance, Priyanka asked me to look up the curve and proceeded to explain how the Hooke’s curve (produced here) explains relationships and dressing sense.

“As you get into a relationship, you want to impress the counterparty, and so you start dressing better”, she went on. “These two feed on each other and grow together, until the point when you start getting comfortable in the relationship. Once that happens, the need to impress the other person decreases, and you start wearing more comfortable, and less fashionable, clothes. And then you find your new equilibrium.

“Different people find their equilibria at different points, but for most it’s close to their peak. Some people, though, regress all the way to where they started.

“So yes, when people are getting into a relationship they start dressing better, but you need to watch out for when their dressing sense starts regressing. That’s the point when you know they’ve hooked up”, she said.

By this point in time I was asking to touch her feet (which was not possible since she’s currently at the other end of the world). Connecting two absolutely unrelated concepts – Hooke’s Law and hooking up, and building a theory on that. This was further (strong) confirmation that I’d married right!

Ladder Theory and Local Optima

According to the Ladder Theory, women have two “ladders”. One is the “good ladder” where they rank and place men they want to fuck. The rest of the men get placed on the “friends ladder”. Men on the other hand have only one ladder (though I beg to disagree).

The question is what your strategy should be if you end up on top of the “wrong” (friends) ladder. On the one hand, you get your “dove“‘s attention and mostly get treated well there. On the other hand, that’s not where you intended to end up.

Far too many people at the top of the friends ladder remain there because they are not bold enough to take a leap. They think it is possible to remain there (so that they “preserve the friendship”) and at the same time make their way into the dove’s good ladder.

Aside 1: The reason they want to hold on to their friendship (though that’s not the reason they got close to the dove) can be explained by “loss aversion” – having got the friendship, they are loathe to let go of it. This leads them to pursuing a risk-free strategy, which is unlikely to give them a big upside.

Aside 2: A popular heuristic in artificial intelligence is Hill Climbing , in which you constantly take the path of maximum gradient. It can occasionally take you to the global maximum, but more often than not leaves you at a “local maximum”. Improvements on hill climbing (such as Simulated Annealing) all involve occasionally taking a step down in search of higher optimum.

Behavioural economics and computer science aside, the best way to analyse the situation when you’re on top of the friends ladder is using finance. Financial theory tells you that it is impossible to get a large risk-free upside (for if you could, enough people would buy that security that the upside won’t be significant any more).

People on top of the friends ladder who want to preserve their friendships while “going for it” are delusional – they want the risk-free returns of the friendship at the same time as the possibility of the grand upside of getting to the right ladder. They should understand that such trades are impossible.

They should also understand that they might be putting too high a price on the friendship thanks to “loss aversion”, and that the only way to escape the current “local optimum” is by risking a downward move. They should remember that the reason they got close to their dove was NOT that they end up on the friends ladder, and should make the leap (stretching the metaphor). They might end up between two stools (or ladders in this case), but that might be a risk well worth taking!

PS: this post is not a result of my efforts alone. My Wife, who is a Marriage Broker Auntie, contributed more than her share of fundaes to this, but since she’s too lazy to write, I’m doing the honours.

 

Dispassionate blogging and Wife Bonus

So I’ve figured out that the key to being a good and interesting blogger is to be able to look at things dispassionately and not let your value judgments crowd out your reasoning abilities. Of course, while saying this I’m assuming that I’m a reasonably good blogger (based on feedback, implicit and explicit, that I’ve received over the last decade, and given that I’m coming close to 2000 posts here).

So earlier this morning I was talking to a friend about long distance relationships and careers and marriages and responsibility sharing, and he sent me a link to this rather fascinating concept called the “wife bonus“. The money paragraph:

A wife bonus, I was told, might be hammered out in a pre-nup or post-nup, and distributed on the basis of not only how well her husband’s fund had done but her own performance — how well she managed the home budget, whether the kids got into a “good” school — the same way their husbands were rewarded at investment banks. In turn these bonuses were a ticket to a modicum of financial independence and participation in a social sphere where you don’t just go to lunch, you buy a $10,000 table at the benefit luncheon a friend is hosting.

So I responded that this looks like a rather interesting concept, and started my own analysis of why this works and these bonuses have been structured in the fashion that they have. Unfortunately the discussion went nowhere.

Because my friend who sent me the link found the concept disgusting and abhorrent and demeaning to women, and he was fascinated that I had managed to actually analyse it without feeling the same kind of emotions. As I write this, the conversation continues (as the old Coffy Bite ad went). Ok I googled and found that it’s actually “the argument continues”. Here is the ad:

So based on this one data point, and a few other data points from my and my wife’s blogging past, I figured out that such dispassionate analysis (I’ll present my dispassionate analysis on wife bonuses later in the post) is key if you are to be a good blogger. Because such dispassion allows you to not get swayed by the emotion or repugnancy of a concept, and instead analyse it to its full merit.

In this case you start wondering why these highly qualified women don’t work, but are “interested in art”. You start wondering about how a family’s finances would work if the qualified wife doesn’t work. You start wondering who controls the budgets, and considering that one half is not contributing financially, how stable such marriages are.

So my hypothesis, which I’ve never bothered to test, is that people who have access to funds but don’t have an independent source of income are less careful about spending it optimally than those who have access to funds on account of their own sources of income. To be less politically correct, the hypothesis is that housewives (and househusbands, to be more politically correct) are less careful about their money than people who work.

So now if you have a spouse with no independent income source, but want to make sure she has access to sufficient funds while making sure she doesn’t fritter away the wealth, the best way of achieving this is to ringfence the money under her control. Which means that giving her control of your bank account is not optimal, but creating a separate purse which is under her control is superior! And thus you create what can be classified as a “wife bonus”. As simple as that.

Now I realise many of my readers will find this blog post repugnant, for it is not politically correct, and they will allow their emotions to take over and brand me as a misogynist or a chauvinist or whatever else. All because I looked at an existing phenomenon logically without attaching a value judgment to it. And by doing so, they deny themselves the opportunity of reading my analysis. But there are others who are happy that there is someone doing this dispassionate analysis, and they will like such analysis. And my blog popularity grows on that front.

My wife has been blogging heavily through her life in business school (coincidentally I started blogging a decade ago when I was in business school; and we met each other through LiveJournal), and has already got to the stage where her professors read her blog. And while a lot of her classmates read her blog, there are some who have problems with it, that she writes dispassionately about everything without value judgments.

Anyway, I sent her the NYTimes piece on the wife bonus. She replied that she also wants one now!