“Principal Component Analysis” for shoes

OK, this is not a technical post. This is more in the realm of “life hacks“. It has everything to do with an observation I made a couple of months back, and how that has helped significantly combat decision fatigue.

I currently own eight pairs of shoes, which is perhaps a lifetime high. And lifetime high means that I was spending a lot of time each time I went out on which shoe to wear.

I have two pairs of open shoes, which I can’t wear for long periods of time, but are convenient in terms of time spent in wearing and taking off. I have two pairs of “semi-formal” ankle-high shoes – one an old pair that refuse to wear out, and another a rather light new one with sneaker bottoms. There are two pairs of “formal shoes”, one black and one brown. And then there are two sneakers – one pair of running shoes and one more general-purpose “fancy” one (this last one looks great with jeans, but atrocious with chinos, which I wear a lot of).

The running shoes have resided in my gym bag for the last nine months, and I use them exclusively indoors in the gym. So they’re “sorted”.

The problem I was facing was that among my seven other pairs of shoes I would frequently get confused on which one to wear. I would have to evaluate the fit with the occasion, how much I would have to stand (I need really soft-bottom shoes if I’ve to stand for a significant period of time), what trousers I was wearing and all such. It became nerve-wracking. Also, our shoe box, which was initially designed for two people and now serves three, placed its own constraints.

So as I somehow cut through the decision fatigue and managed to wear some shoes while stepping out of home, I noticed that a large proportion of the time (maybe 90%) I was wearing only three pairs of shoes. The other shoes were/are still good and I wouldn’t want to give them away, but I found that three shoes would serve the purpose on most occasions.

This is like in principal component analysis, where a small number of “components” (linear combination of variables) predict most of the variance in all the variables put together. In some analysis, you simply use these components rather than all the variables – that rather simplifies the analysis and makes it more tractable.

Since three pairs of shoes would serve me on 90% of the occasions, I decided it was time to take drastic action. I ordered a set of shoe bags from Amazon, and packed up four pairs of shoes and put them in my wardrobe inside. If I really need one of those four, it means I can put the effort at that point in time to go get that from inside. If not, it is rather easy to decide among the three outside on which one to wear (they’re rather dissimilar from each other).

I no longer face much of a decision when I’m stepping out on what shoes to wear. The shoe box has also become comfortable (thankfully the wife and daughter haven’t encroached on my space there even though I use far less space than before). Maybe sometime if I get really bored of these shoes outside, I might swap some of them with the shoes inside. But shoe life is much more peaceful now.

However, I remain crazy in some ways. I still continue to shop for shoes despite owning a lifetime high number of pairs of them. That stems from the belief that it’s best to shop for something when you don’t really need it. I’ll elaborate more on that another day.

Meanwhile I’m planning to extend this “PCA” method for other objects in the house. I’m thinking I’ll start with the daughter’s toys.

Wish me luck.

Should I tweet at all?

This is not a rhetorical question.

I was doing some random data analysis today. I downloaded an archive of all my tweets, and of all my blog posts, and was looking at some simple statistics. I won’t bore you with a lot of the mundane details.

One thing that I must mention is that the hypothesis that twitter activity has an adverse impact on my blogging is disproved. I was looking at the number of words I’ve put on twitter each week and the number of words I’ve blogged in the same week. The two are uncorrelated.

 

In any case, so far I’ve tweeted 60,716 tweets over the course of eleven and a half years. My tweets include at total of 992453 words. Ignoring other handles, links and punctuation, maybe we can round this down to 950000. In other words, in nine and a half years I’ve tweeted nine and a half hundred thousand words.

Or that on twitter alone I write a hundred thousand words a year. 

The content of my book was about 52,000 words (IIRC). In other words, I write enough content for two books EACH YEAR on twitter. In 2013, I tweeted nearly four books worth of content.

That, however, is not the only reason why I wonder if I should tweet at all. While I’ve discovered a lot of interesting people, and made interesting connections, and can “semi-keep-in-touch” with people through twitter, I’m not really sure about the “impact” of my tweets.

I thought I’ll look at the tweets that have been most retweeted.

full_text Date retweet_count favorite_count Link
Why does the government / ruling party put out tweets with basic arithmetic errors? ?14.98+?9.02 is ?24 not ?27.44 https://t.co/oFaBNDYgpc 2017-09-19 350 416 https://twitter.com/karthiks/status/910122027306164229
Remember that Richter scale is logarithmic. Base 10 if I’m not wrong. So 7.7 is 10 times as bad as 6.7 2015-04-25 171 40 https://twitter.com/karthiks/status/591858524147175425
Our @uber driver tonight was one Mr Akmal. He dropped us successfully. 2017-12-24 148 312 https://twitter.com/karthiks/status/944964502071623681
The greatest Hindi movie about Rajputs is Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na 2017-11-24 142 299 https://twitter.com/karthiks/status/934173502281801730
Based on interim data, in 17 states NOTA has got more votes than AAP. #MintElections #MeaninglessComparisons http://t.co/LxZvtNme1P 2014-05-16 134 19 https://twitter.com/karthiks/status/467242247965007872
A whopping 332 out of 542 constituencies in the just-concluded General Elections saw a two-way contest. Another 184 saw three-way contests.

In contrast, in the 2014 elections only 169 two-way contests, 278 three-cornered contests and 90 four-cornered contests

2019-05-24 95 174 https://twitter.com/karthiks/status/1131912762357981184
“these dark days” is a euphemism for “people I didn’t vote for have formed the government” 2019-12-19 69 242 https://twitter.com/karthiks/status/1207659817579335681
I have built this app that recommends single malt whiskies based on what you already like.

https://t.co/B4PqxjUQI2

Details here: https://t.co/kc3yG1mx2o

2018-11-02 56 202 https://twitter.com/karthiks/status/1058347106438705153
Amazing number of commies on this list RT @suar4sure: “@BookLuster: Which dictator killed the most People? http://t.co/WlJDLAiMAn” 2014-07-23 44 13 https://twitter.com/karthiks/status/491876757176188928
If BJP hadn’t split, numbers would have been: Cong: 91, BJP: 86, JDS: 35 @gkjohn 2013-05-08 39 3 https://twitter.com/karthiks/status/332065593660407810
Today @moneycontrolcom / @CNNnews18 have unleashed a monstrosity of a map. The map explains nothing, and nothing can explain the map!

https://t.co/VOooy26Ra2

2019-02-21 36 80 https://twitter.com/karthiks/status/1098577156198805504
Stud thread https://t.co/gvuZIjV71I 2018-07-22 34 105 https://twitter.com/karthiks/status/1021130139290226688
there’s one piece of @ShashiTharoor ‘s writing that I’ve read multiple times – his blurb for my book. When I first read it, I was amazed at how precisely it communicated the idea of my book – much better than I’d ever managed to do. https://t.co/Lz2I9ZwW0L 2017-12-14 33 138 https://twitter.com/karthiks/status/941357298840059904
Did you know the cube root law of assembly size?

It’s a heuristic that states that the optimal size of a national assembly is the cube root of the population

2019-12-13 27 80 https://twitter.com/karthiks/status/1205408450810798080
Great piece by Dheeraj Sanghi on the expulsion of students from IIT Roorkee: http://t.co/uxPduX680z 2015-07-12 27 11 https://twitter.com/karthiks/status/620138692762415104
did the Chinese workers use One Belt to beat up the police, and then escape on One Road? https://t.co/7lldCWrpxq 2018-04-05 26 98 https://twitter.com/karthiks/status/981886501456924672
I don’t know why people don’t get that a non-zero number that ends in zero is even.

This is absolutely bizarre https://t.co/fpZQB24l0a

2015-12-07 26 13 https://twitter.com/karthiks/status/673831614581899264
the one thing AAP has succeeded in doing is to tremendously increase my respect for LokSatta and @JP_LOKSATTA http://t.co/8hjA5l8IKN 2014-05-14 25 16 https://twitter.com/karthiks/status/466432370296762368
Coffee truck at avenue road. By coffee board voluntarily retired employees association. Brilliant coffee. Ten bucks. http://t.co/rBOgRh1F2l 2013-07-11 24 6 https://twitter.com/karthiks/status/355201588505223170
And I present you the way the parliamentary constituencies in Bangalore are demarcated

https://t.co/1tcGCimdG9 https://t.co/8QPIOzajN4

2019-03-26 24 59 https://twitter.com/karthiks/status/1110574864803323905

Till date, I’ve had FIVE tweets with more than a hundred retweets. I’ve had ELEVEN tweets with more than a hundred likes (including one where I’ve simply said “stud thread” and then linked to a thread written by someone else).

In other words, while I might have four thousand odd followers, the amplification of my tweets is rather minimal.

So maybe I should not tweet at all? And instead devote the time and effort spent in tweeting to other means? Maybe write another book instead?

What do you think?

Holidays as focal points

I don’t like Christmas holidays. I mean I have nothing against Christmas and New Year – they are wonderful festivals. I don’t like Christmas holidays because it’s one week in the year when pretty much the entire world has holidays.

And this makes it difficult to plan a holiday. Unless you’ve planned British-style and booked your hotel three months in advance, it is not easy to get room in quality hotels anywhere at this time of the year.

It is similar with the holidays around Dasara in October. It may not be a worldwide phenomenon like Christmas is, but it is a phenomenon that affects a large portion of India. And that makes it hard, once again, to plan holidays and go to places that are not going to be inundated with tourists.

In contrast, I love summer holidays because they are so long (between two and three months depending upon your school) that not everyone goes for vacation at the same time. Consequently, unless you go around long weekends (such as Easter or May Day), places are easier to get and not as crowded as well.

Until we had a kid, we tried as much as possible in being contrarian with our holidays – go when nobody else is going. Now that we have a kid (though not too big, but she goes to school), we tend to look at the school holidays as anchors as to when to go for a vacation. The last two holidays (the Dasara holidays in October and the Christmas holidays starting later today) have been a bit of a washout on that count because on both counts we didn’t plan early enough (and even if we did, we can expect pretty much every place to be choc-a-bloc with tourists in these times).

On the other hand, in August, the daughter’s school gave a week off at a time when pretty much no other school in the country had given vacations. That was brilliant, and we did a beautiful holiday then, booking less than a month in advance but getting a great but non-crowded place. Then again, I guess my daughter’s classmates who have siblings in other schools would have faced problems at that point in time.

In any case, going forward, we’ve decided to do what parents of other young children tend to do – not bother about child’s classes or “attendance” and go for holidays whenever.

We should simply stop planning holidays when everyone else is planning holidays!

Changing game

Yesterday we reconnected Netflix after having gone off the platform for a month – we had thought we were wasting too much time on the platform, and so pulled the plug, until the paucity of quality non-sport content on our other streaming platforms forced us to return.

The first thing I did upon reconnecting Netflix was watching Gamechangers, a documentary about the benefits of vegan food, which had been recommended to me by a couple of business associates a few weeks back.

The documentary basically picks a bunch of research that talks about the benefits of plant-based food and staying away from animal-based food. The key idea is that animals are “just middlemen of protein”, and by eating plants we might be going straight to source.

And it is filled with examples of elite athletes and strong-persons who have turned vegan, and how going vegan is helping them build more stamina and have better health indicators, including the length and hardness of erections.

The documentary did end up making me feel uncomfortable – I grew up vegetarian, but for the last 7-8 years I’ve been eating pretty much everything. And I’ve come to a point of life where I’m not sure if I’ll get my required nutrient mix from plant-based foods only.

And there comes this documentary presenting evidence upon evidence that plant based foods are good, and you should avoid animal based food if you want your arteries to not be clogged, to keep your stamina high, and so on. There were points during the documentary where I seriously considered turning vegetarian once again.

Having given it a day, I think the basic point of the documentary as I see it is that, ceteris paribus, a plant based diet is likely to keep you healthier and fitter than an animal-based diet. But then, ceteris is not paribus.

The nutrient mix that you get from the sort of vegetarian diet that I grew up on is very different from the nutrient mix you get from a meat-based diet. Some of the examples of vegan diets shown in the documentary, for example, rely heavily on mock meats (made with soybean), which have a similar nutritional profile to meats they are meant to mock. And that is very different from the carb-fests that south indian vegetarian food have turned into.

So for me to get influenced by the documentary and turn back vegetarian (or even vegan, which I’d imagine will be very hard for me to do), I need to supplement my diet with seemingly unnatural foods such as “mock meat” if I need to get the same nutritional balance that I’ve gotten used to of late. Simply eliminating all meat or animal based products from my diet is not going to make me any more healthier, notwithstanding what the documentary states, or what Virat Kohli does.

In other words, it seems to me that getting the right balance of nutrients is a tradeoff between eating animal-based food, and eating highly processed unnatural food (mock meat). And I’m not willing to switch on that yet.

Anuroop

Anuroop and I first met when we were three and a half years old. It was way too early in life to know what our first meeting was like, but I do remember that we used to play together in school. Back then, “playing” mostly consisted of running around the residential building that our school used for one section of kindergarten.

However, I think his leadership skills were on display rather early, as I clearly remember another classmate asking when we were five or six whether I was “part of Bunty gang or Anuroop gang”. I don’t remember which gang I was part of then, but over the years, Bunty and Anuroop ended up in the same gang, as other poles emerged in class to take the other side.

Some sort of leadership skill was also evident in fifth or sixth standard, when Bunty and Anuroop decided to run away from school, literally. I can’t comment too much about this incident since I myself had bunked school that day, but I heard that they stepped out during lunch break on the pretext of fetching a stray ball, and ended up walking all the way to Bannerghatta. And then, the story goes (I don’t have first hand information on this) that they started feeling hungry and decided to walk back to their respective homes.

I will leave out talking about what formed a rather large part of Anuroop’s life in our latter years together in school, and his college years. I’m skipping talking about this because I think it’s impolite to talk about that on a day when he is getting married – so I will let you infer what kind of episodes I’m leaving out of this essay. However, you can get in touch with me off the record, and I think these episodes are worth a “three beer conversation”. Among other things, it involves the usage of dictionaries and phone caller IDs (which was a big thing in the days of landlines).

Ninth or tenth standard was around the time when Anuroop and KK and I formed a “club” called NBA (Nammoora Basketball Aatagaararu). We would all get to school early in the morning (two hours before it opened), and spend our time playing half-court basketball. Ninth standard was also the time when I remember having some fight with Anuroop that started trivially, but ended with me getting really physically aggressive. I take this opportunity t0 (highly belatedly) apologise to him for that.

Anuroop had always been good at drawing. And he took it to another level in ninth standard when he started drawing cartoons. I clearly remember his first ever political cartoon – it showed the then Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda sitting on a donkey, and (the then Congress President) Sitaram Kesri lighting the donkey’s tail on fire. I really don’t know if he has preserved that drawing. It’s a classic, let me assure you.

His cartooning went to another level when he was in college, as he won inter-college competitions left, right and centre. I remember this fest at PESIT (in 2001, I think), where he was pissed off because he had won the cartooning contest and got “only” ?150. I had come second in the (much better funded) programming contest and won ?2500 or something.

After college, Anuroop gave up on cartooning and took up wildlife photography. This was possibly a consequence of his passion for wildlife that had started from an early age (in ninth standard, he had gotten into a major fight with another classmate after the latter killed a leech). Trust me, his pictures are absolutely brilliant.

Somewhere in between, I remember asking him if he will stick to photographing wild animals, or if he would take on more lucrative professions such as wedding photography. “I’d rather take pictures of monkeys than humans”, he had declared, before getting into people photography anyway. And he has done a spectacular job of that as well (OK this instagram account is private, because it has pictures of children, I guess).

I’ve known him for over 33 years now, so however much I write, there will always be something or the other I would have left out. I will end with a couple of anecdotes. Ok the first is not really an anecdote – in his school days, Anuroop was an incredibly early sleeper. If you called his house any time after 9, you could at best expect one of his parents to pick and inform you that “puTTu” had gone to bed. Soon we had all learned better to finish our business with him earlier in the evening.

The other story comes from our 10th standard pre-board preparatory exam, when we had copied from each other liberally (thus defeating the purpose of these pre-boards). I remember there was this one question on “habit forming substances” and their ill effects. Anuroop thought it was a bright idea to copy from KK, and asked him what the answer to this question was. KK put a thumb to his lips, indicating drink, specifically alcohol.

However, alcohol is something very foreign to Anuroop (I don’t think he has ever consumed it), so he decided to interpret it as water. And he wrote a 1000 word essay on “habitat forming substances” and on water conservation and all such. He’s always been goofy like that.

He is getting married today, to Chetna. I wish I could have been there in Jalandhar for their wedding, but a combination of circumstances means I wasn’t able to travel. I wish them all the best, and a happy married life. In any case, I’m not missing their wedding completely. They have another “leg” in Bangalore next weekend, and I’ll surely be there for that.

And maybe Chetna will buy me those three beers sometime, even if it’s a habit forming substance.

I miss Google Talk

From the time it launched in 2005 until 2012 or so when it was folded into Hangouts, I pretty much lived my life on Google Talk. The standard operating procedure when I came home from work (back then, I used to have jobs) was to open up my computer, open Google Talk and then ping 5-6 people who were online then.

The beauty of Google Talk was that you know who exactly was online at what point in time. So when you sprayed around your “hey how are you”s, you could target them at people who you knew were (or at least appeared to be) available to chat. This meant this had a high hit rate, and you could have productive conversations.

The problem with other chat mechanisms such as WhatsApp is that there is no “online” and “offline” mode. For example, if i’m working and I’m getting stuck and could use a quick conversation, turning my status to “available” on a chat room can then be a magnet for people to ping me. Or I can see which of my friends is online using their statuses, and then ping them.

With WhatsApp, I need to guess who might be available for conversation at this point in time. And that means lots of messages sent out which get responded to at the most inopportune of times (when I’ve got back my flow of work thought, for example).

In yesterday’s business standard I read about this app (whose name I now forget about ) which is trying to restart this kind of chats, signalling “availability” and chat rooms. Hopefully something like that will take off!

Housing

The Bank of England’s Bank Underground blog has two excellent posts on house prices (first this one, then this one). The basic idea is that houses are assets, not goods, since the “goods” consumed is “living”, which is basically a point in time thing.

As the first of these posts points out:

You can’t buy flowers when they are cheap and store them for months until Valentine’s day. Similarly, you can’t store housing services by, say, renting two flats this year and saving one’s rental services for next year. So the price of rents is determined “on the spot” by the current balance of demand and supply of places to live. Add a load of extra people and/or make them richer and the higher demand pushes up rents. Boost supply and rents fall.

Combined with this comes the news that a friend’s parents have moved to Mysore (from Bangalore) for their retirement.

Taking these blogposts, and this piece of news, together, I’m beginning to reconsider my views on housing.

About 7-8 years back, I got “personal finance advice” that one needs to start “saving for retirement” at age 30, and one of the best ways of doing that is to buy a house. I was about to turn 30 around then, and I took this advice seriously enough to invest in an apartment in 2014. Looking at it five years on, I’m not sure buying a house for retirement in your thirties is the best idea.

For starters, India is (still) a fast-growing and fast-changing nation, so I have no clue what are going to be good places to live 10 years down the line (forget 30 or 40, at which point I’ll retire).

Secondly, my needs from a house now are very different from what they will be 30 or 40 years down the line. For example, right now, my daughter’s school is a “fixed point” (assuming I don’t want to change that), and I need a house that isn’t too far from there. As she grows up and grows out of school, this will cease to be a factor.

Similarly, the work that I do demands a certain pattern of travel in the city, and that again guides my choice of place to live. This is likely to change as the years go by as well.

Then, what I need from my house and my surroundings are likely to change as well. For example, I might want peace and quiet right now, and might be willing to take my car everywhere. At some other point in time, I might place a higher premium on shops in a walkable distance. Similarly, my preferences on entertainment activities might change as well.

Taking all this into account, making a housing decision now on where I want to live 15-20 years down the line is futile. There are simply too many variables and any decision I take now will only lock me in to something that is possibly not optimal.

From that point of view I need to look at my needs over the next 10-15 years (when things will change, but maybe not by that much) to make my current investing decisions. This includes rent/buy/sell decisions, taking into account whatever I’m optimising for now, and will in the next few years. And if I’m setting aside money to “buy a house for retirement” now, I should simply just focus on saving and growing that money so that I can make an informed decision at a time when it matters, and matters are more clear.

Context switches and mental energy

Back in college, whenever I felt that my life needed to be “resurrected”, I used to start by cleaning up my room. Nowadays, like most other things in the world, this has moved to the virtual world as well. Since I can rely on the wife (:P) to keep my room “Pinky clean” all the time, resurrection of life nowadays begins with going off social media.

My latest resurrection started on Monday afternoon, when I logged off twitter and facebook and linkedin from all devices, and deleted the instagram app off my phone. My mind continues to wander, but one policy decision I’ve made is to both consume and contribute content only in the medium or long form.

Regular readers of this blog might notice that there’s consequently been a massive uptick of activity here – not spitting out little thoughts from time to time on twitter means that I consolidate them into more meaningful chunks and putting them here. What is interesting is that consumption of larger chunks of thought has also resulted in greater mindspace.

It’s simple – when you consume content in small chunks – tweets or instagram photos, for example, you need to switch contexts very often. One thought begins and ends with one tweet, and the next tweet is something completely different, necessitating a complete mental context switch. And, in hindsight, I think that is “expensive”.

While the constant stream of diverse thoughts is especially stimulating (and that is useful for someone like me who’s been diagnosed with ADHD), it comes with a huge mental cost of context switch. And that means less energy to do other things. It’s that simple, and I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of it so long!

I still continue to have my distractions (my ADHD mind won’t allow me to live without some). But they all happen to be longish content. There are a few blog posts (written by others) open in my browser window. My RSS feed reader is open on my browser for the first time since possibly my last twitter break. When in need of distraction, I read chunks of one of the articles that’s open (I read one article fully until I’ve finished it before moving on to the next). And then go back to my work.

While this provides me the necessary distraction, it also provides the distraction in one big chunk which doesn’t take away as much mental energy as reading twitter for the same amount of time would.

I’m thinking (though it may not be easy to implement) that once I finish this social media break, I’ll install apps on the iPad rather than having them on my phone or computer. Let’s see.

Television and interior design

One of the most under-rated developments in the world of architecture and interior design has been the rise of the flat-screen television. Its earlier avatar, the Cathode Ray Tube version, was big and bulky, and needed special arrangements to keep. One solution was to keep it in corners. Another was to have purpose-built deep “TV cabinets” into which these big screens would go.

In the house that I grew up in, there was a purpose-built corner to keep our televisions. Later on in life, we got a television cabinet to put in that place, that housed the television, music system, VCR and a host of other things.

For the last decade, which has largely coincided with the time when flat-screen LCD/LED TVs have replaced their CRT variations, I’ve seen various tenants struggle to find a good spot for the TVs. For the corner is too inelegant for the flat screen television – it needs to be placed flat against the middle of a large wall.

When the flat screen TV replaced the CRT TV, out went the bulky “TV cabinets” and in came the “console” – a short table on which you kept the TV, and below which you kept the accompanying accessories such as the “set top box” and DVD player. We had even got a purpose-built TV console with a drawer to store DVDs in.

Four years later, we’d dispensed with our DVD player (at a time when my wife’s job involved selling DVDs and CDs, we had no device at home that could play any of these storage devices!). And now we have “cut the cord”. After we returned to India earlier this year, we decided to not get cable TV, relying on streaming through our Fire stick instead.

And this heralds the next phase in which television drives interior design.

In the early days of flat screen TVs, it became common for people to “wall mount” them. This was usually a space-saving device, though people still needed a sort of console to store input devices such as set top boxes and DVD players.

Now, with the cable having been cut and DVD player not that common, wall mounting doesn’t make sense at all. For with WiFi-based streaming devices, the TV is now truly mobile.

In the last couple of months, the TV has nominally resided in our living room, but we’ve frequently taken it to whichever room we wanted to watch it in. All that we need to move the TV is a table to keep it on, and a pair of plug points to plug in the TV and the fire stick.

In our latest home reorganisation we’ve even dispensed with a permanent home for the TV in the living room, thus radically altering its design and creating more space (the default location of the TV now is in the study). The TV console doesn’t make any sense, and has been temporarily converted into a shoe rack. And the TV moves from room to room (it’s not that heavy, either), depending on where we want to watch it.

When the CRT TV gave way to the flat screen, architects responded by creating spaces where TVs could be put in the middle of a long wall, either mounted on the wall or kept on a console. That the TV’s position in the house changed meant that the overall architecture of houses changed as well.

Now it will be interesting to see what large-scale architectural changes get driven by cord-cutting and the realisation that the TV is essentially a mobile device.

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.