## Asking people out and saving for retirement

As early readers on this blog might be aware of, I had several unsuccessful attempts at getting into a relationship before I eventually met the person who is now my wife. Each of those early episodes had this unfailing pattern – I’d somehow decide one day that I loved someone, get obsessed with her within a short period of time, and see dreams for living together happily ever after.

All this would happen without my having made the least effort on figuring out how to communicate my feelings for the person in question, and that was something I was lousy at. On a couple of occasions I took a high risk strategy, simply approaching the person in question (either in person or online), and expressing my desire to possibly get into a long-term gene-propagating relationship with her.

Most times, though, I’d go full conservative. Try to make conversation. Talk about banal things. Talk about things so banal that the person would soon find me uninteresting and not want to talk to me any more; and which would mean that I had no chance of getting into a relationship – never mind “long-term” and “gene-propagating”.

So recently Pinky the ladywife (who, you might remember, is a Marriage Broker Auntie) and I were talking about strategies to chat up people you were interested in (I must mention here we used to talk about such random stuff in our early conversations as well – Pinky’s ability to indulge in “arbit conversations” were key in my wanting to get into a long-term gene-propagating relationship with her).

As it happens with such conversations, I was telling stories of how I’d approach this back in the day. And we were talking about the experiences of some other people we know who are on the lookout for long-term gene-propagating relationships.

Pinky, in one of her gyaan-spouting moods, was explaining why it’s important that you DON’T have banal conversations in your early days of hitting on someone. She said it is important that you try to make the conversation interesting, and that meant talking about potentially contentious stuff. Sometimes, this would throw off the counterparty and result in failure. But if the counterparty liked the potentially contentious stuff, there was a real chance things might go forward.

I might be paraphrasing here, but what Pinky essentially said is that in the early days, you should take a high-risk strategy, but as you progress in your relationship, you should eschew risk, and become more conservative. This way, she said, you maximise the chances of getting into and staying in a relationship.

While I broadly agree with this strategy (when she first told me this I made a mental note of why I’d never been able to properly hit on anyone in the first place), what I was struck by is how similar it is to save for your retirement.

There are many common formulae that financial advisors and planners use when they help clients save for retirement. While the mechanics might vary, there is a simple principle – invest in riskier securities when you are young, and progressively decrease the risk profile of your portfolio as you grow older. This way, you get to maximise the expected portfolio value at the time of retirement. Some of these investment strategies are popularly known as “glide path” strategies.

Apart from gene propagation, one of the purposes of getting into a long-term relationship is that there will be “someone who’ll need you, someone who’ll feed you when you’re sixty four”. Sixty four is also the time when you’re possibly planning to retire, and want to have built up a significant retirement kitty. Isn’t it incredible that the strategies for achieving both are rather similar?

## Parents, IITJEE and arranged marriage

For a few years after I did well in IITJEE and joined IIT madras there was a steady stream of acquaintances and acquaintances of acquantances who came home to get “gyaan” about the exam. Initially I was fun to spout gyaan but later I got bored.

By then, though, my father and I had come up with a formula to assess the chances of the person who came home in cracking the exam. Usually they’d come in pairs, a candidate along with a parent. If the candidate spoke more than the parent, my father and I would think there was some chance that the candidate would be successful. In case the parent spoke more, though, it was a clear case of the candidate having next to no chance and going through the motions because of parental pressures.

As I watch the wife broker marriages as part of her marriage broker auntie venture, I see something similar there as well. Some candidates represent themselves and talk to her directly. Others are mostly inaccessible and use their parents as brokers in the market.

What the marriage broker auntie has found is that the candidates who represent themselves show far more promise in being matched in the market than those that are represented by their parents. And having being stung by candidates’ inflexibility in cases where parents represent them, the marriage broker auntie has stopped working with parents.

Sometimes, this happens.

“We’re looking for a boy for my sister. Anyone you know?”

“Oh but why? what will you gain by talking to her?”

A few minutes later the candidates mother calls. “Oh we’re looking for a boy for my daughter ”

“Ask her to call me. I don’t work with parents”

“Oh but why?”

And that one gets marked as a case with little chances.

do you remember this blog post I’d written a long long time back, soon after I’d met the person who is now my wife, about how being in a relationship is like going to IIT

So the wife and I both decided to sign up on the dating app TrulyMadly, she to conduct research for her matchmaking service, and me as part of my research for the book that I’m currently revising. Based on our collective usage of our respective apps for about an hour, here are some pertinent observations.

• Sexism: The wife can see salaries of men she is getting matched with, while I don’t get to see salaries of women being recommended to me. Moreover, women are allowed to “lurk” (and not have a public profile) on the platform, but no such thing for men. I’m surprised no one has called out TrulyMadly on their sexism
• Job board: To list on the app you need to indicate your profession and job, and how much you are making. So if you are a woman on this site, apart from getting to check out men, you get to check out what jobs pay how much, and it’s not inconceivable that you use the app to find yourself a job.
• Judgments: This should possibly go down under sexism again. Anyway, the wife has mentioned her qualifications as “MBA”, and she is only being shown men who are graduates of top B-schools in India. No such thing for me – women shown to me had all kinds of qualifications. It’s like TrulyMadly has decided that women should only date men who are at least as well qualified as them. Moreover, the app also decides that men can only date women who are shorter than them, though there’s a setting somewhere to change this.
• Age bar: Based on my age (which I entered as 34), the app decided that I should only be allowed to check out women between the ages of 26 and 34. These can be moved around, in case I have fetishes outside this age range, but I’m shocked that they are not aware of the N/2+7 rule – based on which the lower limit should’ve been set at 24 (34/2+7) and not 26.
• Gender imbalance: The app gave up on me after I rejected some half a dozen women, after which I deactivated my account and deleted the app. The wife’s app, however, continues to go strong, as she might have rejected some two or three dozen men by now (apart from having done research on what jobs pay how much). Just goes to show the gender imbalance on the app. I can imagine this leading to a lot of frustrated people, of both genders.

Ok that’s it for now. Any more insights you can read in my book (I hope to get it out in the next month or two)!

Moral of the story: Product management pays better than category leader.

## 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.

## When Kara met Pinky

Readers of this blog might have noticed that I have an above-average long-term memory, and frequently indulge in “this day that year” exercises. While I have blogged about it a couple of times in the past, I do this practically every day – wonder what happened on that day in a previous year.

There are some anniversaries that are special, though. And there is no particular number – the special anniversaries are those where both date and day of week coincide. This usually happens at a frequency of five or six years (depending on the leap cycle), though it can be longer at times. For example, I vividly remember all years when my birthday was on a Sunday (1987, 1992, 1998 and 2009), and they were all spectacular (so I’m hoping for a spectacular birthday this year, too).

Anyway, today is the 28th of September, and it is a Monday. The last time 28th September was a Monday was back in 2009, and in hindsight it turned out to be a rather special day. The previous evening my “chat friend” had called me, trying to explain why she didn’t want to meet me. I convinced her to meet me the following day. And we agreed to meet in Basavanagudi (basically I was playing on “home ground”).

We spent some three hours together that day, and for virtual strangers who had only bantered on Orkut and LiveJournal and GTalk earlier, the breadth and depth and ease of conversation was rather spectacular. I remember this rather “special” feeling as I walked back home that day.

I promptly freaked out, and wrote this blog post:

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.

She seemed more positive than that. This is what she wrote:

First step is to keep your eyes open to delicious and nutritious tharkaris(potential marriage material girls/boys). Then, somehow thru some network, make someone set you two up. Third, interact. with tact. Fourth, put meet. or beat. Fifth, this can go in two ways now. Or more. First, is a no. Definite no. Second, yes. Full yes. Okay, there’s a third possibility too. Third, Yes, but not yet. This is a lucrative possibility which gives super scope to put more meets, learn about each others funny faces, food tastes, sense of humour, patience, sense of dressing, chappliying, smells, etc. Finally, it’ll end up in louuvu..maybe not the gut churning romantic feeling for the other party like a unit function, out of nowhere. This is more sustainable like a step function built on affection, tolerance, enjoying each others company, comfort, care, etc and if it were to ever fall apart then it would be one step at a time and less painful.

Things moved reasonably fast after that. Exactly fourteen months after we first met, we got married. We had fun. We occasionally fought. We bought a house. And we went long distance. Yet, in the last six years, I’ve never done anything for any of our anniversaries (date or marriage). There have been some customary dinners but nothing spectacular.

So I thought I should make a video this time. I decided to retrace the path of our first date, recalling some memorable bits of the conversation, All photos and videos were shot with a hand-held Nikon D90. I got creepy looks from people around. Lots of people asked me what I was doing. But the photowalk experience helped.

Normally, it’s the wife who stitches up the NED Talks videos, and this was my first experience with iMovies. Both my inexperience and my general lack of attention to detail clearly shows. Commentary was recorded in “synch sound” (along with the video). And I hope youtube doesn’t take down this video citing copyright issues.