## The toin coss method

My mother had an interesting way to deal with dilemmas for which she had no solution – she would just toss a coin. She had only one rule for the “game” – that once she had decided to toss the coin, she would accept the “coin’s decision” and not think further about it.

This enabled her to get over many instances of decision fatigue – you have a dilemma only when you have two comparable choices, and won’t do too much worse by picking either.

So there’s this dilemma that’s hit me since this morning and facing trouble in making the decision (one of the choices has unquantifiable benefits so an objective cost-benefit analysis is not possible), I thought I should go back to my mother’s old method. And conveniently I see a coin lying on the table a metre away from me.

Thinking about it, tossing it and accepting its decision is acceptable only if I’m equally inclined to the two possibilities (assuming it’s a fair coin). Let’s say that I want to pick choice A three out of four times (“mixed strategies” can be rational in game theory), then I should toss the coin twice and pick A if either of the tosses returns a head. And so forth.

Considering how much decision fatigue I face (there have been times when I’ve actually turned around a dozen times after having taken only one step in each direction, not able to make up my mind), I should perhaps adopt this method. This makes me think that decision fatigue is also hereditary – and it was because she faced so much decision fatigue that my mother had to invent the coin toss method.

The title of this post is a tribute to an old colleague who would unfailingly say “toin coss” every time he intended to say “coin toss”, and tossing coins was an analogy he would make fairly often.

## Wedding Notes

I just got back from a friend’s wedding. Lots of pertinent observations.

• Today’s groom and I share three social networks. We went to two schools together and he went to a third after I had graduated from there. So I had expected to meet a lot of old friends/acquaintances. To my surprise, fifteen minutes after I had got to the wedding hall, I hadn’t “met” anyone. Finally ended up meeting just two people that I’d known.
• The queue system in receptions is much abused. It is demoralizing to get to a wedding and see that you’ve to go through such a long process before you meet the couple. As the groom (or bride for that matter), it’s even worse. You’re tired after a full day of activity and a long line of people waiting to meet you isn’t too inspiring. However, sometimes the queue turns out to be a lifesaver. It was the first time in a very long time that I’d gone alone to attend a wedding. On earlier such occasions I’d just be looking around like a fool for familiar faces. Today, though, there was no such dilemma. I headed straight to the queue!
• People who didn’t immediately join the queue had a special treat. Waiters were going around the hall offering soft drinks and starters to those that were seated. I looked to see if they served those in line also. They didn’t. I managed to sample those starters, though, when I went to meet some friends after I’d wished the couple.
• This wedding was at a fairly new wedding hall (less than ten years old for sure), and these modern halls are built in quite a streamlined manner, I must say. From the reception stage, there’s always a path that quickly leads you to the dining hall. And then from the dining hall, there is a path that leads straight outside, where paan and coconuts will be waiting for you, which you can collect on your way out. This is a much better system than in some of the older wedding halls, like the one where I got married. There, the path from the dining hall led back to the main hall, and so at times there was a traffic jam, with large numbers of people moving both to and from the dining hall.
• There’s something classy about wedding halls where chairs have been draped with white sheets and fat ribbons tied across the backs of the chairs. There’s also something classy about round tables with chairs set up in the dining hall, where you can settle down with the food you’ve picked up at the buffet. There weren’t too many of those but the set up allowed for plenty of standing room, also.
• The buffet itself was well designed. It had been separated out into several clearly marked sections. You had to collect your plate from a central location (I almost typed “central server”!! ) and go to the counter whose food you wanted. This prevented long lines and bottlenecks. It was a pleasant food experience.
• There were some five different kinds of sweets. Given that it’s hard to estimate demand for each, I wonder how they would’ve tackled the wastage.
• When you meet old friends, after a while the conversation invariably degenerates to “so, who did you meet of late? what’s he/she doing?” and you end up going through your class roll call and try figure out who’s doing what.
• I’ve said this before but I’m not at all a fan of live music at weddings. Keep it too soft (never happens) and the artistes get pissed off. Keep it too loud (always the case) and you need to shout to be heard. Some weddings take it a step forward – they pipe the music from the main hall where it’s being played live into the dining hall, killing conversation there too. There are piracy issues there but I still like what we did at our wedding, when we played a carefully curated set of trance numbers. I don’t know how well it was received, though, and how loud it was (we couldn’t hear anything on stage).
• Some “features” that used to be luxuries at wedding receptions ten-fifteen years ago are necessities now. Chaat, soup, paan, ice cream, that table in the centre with huge carved vegetables and salads ..

## Hottie or cutie?

So if you’re in the “market” (which I got out of close to two years back), it is possible that you might not be able to decide whether to give more importance to a girl’s “hotness” or “cuteness”. If you think about it, though they both contribute to the girl’s general beauty and physical attractiveness, they are orthogonal concepts. So should you go for the hottie or the cutie?

Based on careful analysis, which has been approved by the very hot wife, I hereby declare that given this dilemma, you should go for the hottie. The reason is simple. Cuteness has everything to do with one’s genes, and little else. You look cute because your parents decided to pass on a set of “good features” to you. It says nothing at all about you, or the kind of person you are. It’s possible with respect to cuteness that one came up with the proverb “appearances are deceptive”.

Hotness, on the other hand, has very little with the “gifts” that you’ve been given by your parents, and everything about how you carry yourself. You appear hot to people not because of the way you look (or the way your “features” are, to use an aunty-ish term), but because of the way you put them to good use. If you’re able to fashion an attractive version of yourself simply by the way you speak and act, you must be very attractive indeed!

So. Dear Bachelors. Take my word. And go for the hottie. And Dear Cuties. This means the bar for you has been set higher. You must carry yourself so well that people can see beyond your inherent cuteness and recognize your hotness.

PS: you might argue that cute long-term-gene-propagating partner => cute kids. But hot long-term-gene-propagating-partner => excellent trainer for kids to make them hot. Extend the argument in this post, and you know what’s better for you and your genes

## Relationships and the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma

It was around this time last year that something snapped, and things have never been the same again. Until then, whenever she threw some tantrums, or we had some fight, I’d always give her the benefit of doubt, and unconditionally apologise, and make an effort to bring the relationship back on track. But since then, I don’t feel the same kind of sympathy for her. I don’t feel “paapa” for her like I used to , and have questioned myself several times as to why I even aoplogise, and not expect her to do that.

The optimal strategy for Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma has been shown to be a strategy called “Tit for tat”. To explain the problem, you play a series of games against an “opponent”, and in each iteration, each of you choose to either “cooperate” or “defect”. For each combination of choices, there is a certain payoff. The payoff looks similar to this, though the exact numbers might be different. In this table, the first value refers to the first player’s payoff and the second represents the second player’s.

 Player 1/ Player 2 Co-operate Defect Co-operate 1 / 1 2 / 0 Defect 0 / 2 0.5/ 0.5

So you play this game several times, and your earnings are totalled. There was a tournament for computer programs playing this game sometime in the 1960s, where the winner was “tit for tat”. According to this strategy, you start by co-operating in the first iteration, and in every successive iteration you copy what your opponent did in the previous iteration. Notice that if both players choose this strategy, both will co-operate in perpetuity, and have identical payoffs.

Relationships can be modelled as an iterated prisoner’s dilemma. You can either choose to be nice to your partner (co-operate) for which you get a steady return, or you can choose to be nasty (defect), in which case you get a superior payoff if your partner continues to be nice. If both of you are nasty simultaneously both of you end up getting inferior payoffs (as shown by the Defect-Defect box in the above matrix).

Early on in the relationship, I was very keen to make things work and did my best to prevent it from falling into any abyss. I played the “Gandhi strategy”, where irrespective of her play, I simply co-operated. The idea there was that whenever she defected, she would feel sympathy for my co-operative position and switch back to co-operate.

So something snapped sometime around this time last year, which led me to change my strategy. I wasn’t going to be Gandhi anymore. I wasn’t going to unconditionally defect, either. I switched to playing tit-for-tat. You can see from the above table that when both players are playing tit-for-tat, you can get into a long (and extremely suboptimal) sequence of defect-defects. And that is what happened to us. We started getting into long sequences of suboptimality, when we would fight way more than what is required to sustain a relationship. Thankfully it never got so bad as to ruin the relationship.

Periodically, both of us would try to break the rut, and try to give the relationship a stimulus. We would play  the co-operate card, and given both of us were playing tit-for-tat we’d be back to normal (Co-operate – Co-operate). Soon we learnt that long defect-defect sequences are bad for both of us, so we would quickly break the strategy and co-operate and get things back on track. We weren’t playing pure tit-for-tat any more. There was a small randomness in our behaviour when we’d suddenly go crazy and defect. In the course of the year, we got formally engaged, and then we got married, and we’ve continued to play this randomized tit-for-tat strategy. And the payoffs have been a roller coaster.

Today I lost it. She randomly pulled out the defect card twice in the course of the day, and that made me go mad. While in earlier circumstances I’d wait a few iterations before I started to defect myself, something snapped today. I pulled out the defect card too. Maybe for the first time ever, I hung up on her. Do I regret it? Perhaps I do. I don’t want to get into a prolonged defect-defect sequence now.

And I hope one of us manages to give the relationship enough of a stimulus in the coming days to put us on a sustained co-operate co-operate path.

## Relationships and the Prisoner’s Dilemma Part Deux

Those of you who either follow me on twitter or are my friends on GTalk will know that my earlier post on relationships and the prisoner’s dilemma got linked to from Cheap Talk, the only good Game Theory blog that I’m aware of. After I wrote that post, I had written to Jeffrey Ely and Sandeep Baliga of Cheap Talk, and Jeff decided to respond to my post.

It was an extremely proud moment for me and I spent about half a day just basking in the glory of having been linked from a blog that I follow and like. What made me prouder was the last line in Jeff’s post where he mentioned that my blog post had been part of his dinner conversation. I’m humbled.

So coming to the point of this post. Jeff, in his post, writes:

Some dimensions are easier to contract on.  It’s easy to commit to go out only on Tuesday nights.  However, text messages are impossible to count and the distortions due to overcompensation on these slippery-slope dimensions may turn out even worse than the original state of affairs.

I argue that it is precisely this kind of agreements that leads to too much engagement. The key, I argue, is to keep things loosely coupled and uncertain; and this, I say, doesn’t apply to only romantic relationships. I argue in favour of principles, as opposed to rules. Wherever the human mind is concerned, it is always better to leave room for uncertainty. Short term volatility decreases the chances of long-term shocks.

So if you contract to date only on Tuesday nights, and on a certain Thursday both of you get a sudden craving for each other. In a rule-based system, you’d have to wait till Tuesday to meet, and that would mean that you’d typically spend the next five days in high engagement, since you wouldn’t want to let go given the craving. There is also the chance that when you finally meet, there has been so much build-up that it leaves you unsettled.

The way to go about this is to not make rules and just make do with some simple principles regarding the engagement, and more importantly to keep things flexible. If you have a “I won’t call you when you’re at work” rule, and there is something you really need to say, this leads to wasted mind space since you’ll be holding this thought in the head till the other person is out of office, and thus give less for other things you need to do in that time.

You might ask me what principles one can use. I don’t know, and there are no rules governing principles. It is entirely to do with the parties involved and what they can agree upon. A simple principle might be “if I don’t reply to your text message it doesn’t mean I don’t love you”. You get the drift, I suppose. And the volatility, too. (ok I’m sorry about that one)

The mechanism design problem for scaling down that Jeff talks about is indeed interesting. His solution makes sense but it assumes the presence of a Trusted Third Party. Even if one were to find one such, and that person understands Binary Search techniques, it might take too much effort to find the level of interaction. I wonder if the solution to scaling down also is the Bilateral Nudge (will talk about this in another post).