Wednesday, July 28, 2010

'विपरीत' has a very nice etymology: vi - away, pari - (cognate with Greek peri-) around, surrounding, and ita - gone. "Gone beyond the surrounds or perimeter", i.e "excessive". Similarly, 'vIta' is 'gone away' or 'lacking', as in 'vItarAga' (lacking in desires). Similarly atIta 'exceeded', adhIta 'attained'.

'e' is cognate with Latin 'eo', which also means 'to go'. No discussion on this topic is complete without Monty Python's take on it :-)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Sheena Iyengar on choice

I bumped into this brilliant TED talk on choice by Sheena Iyengar via Munnu on g-reader. It's a talk that directly resonated with one of my topics of constant rumination, and I strongly recommend it.

This comes at a time when I need to make (what I think is) a very critical and important choice in my life; as a result, this talk was amazingly timely on multiple levels. Some thoughts:

- If her description of Japan is right, I think I'll be blissfully happy there! I absolutely, viscerally, totally detest choice; actually, I detest the process of making a choice even more. I'm programmed with a strong instinct to make sure to make the 'right' choice, and when I am not absolutely sure I am doing so, I get very frustrated. The sting of "What if?" thinking, and the current worry that I may face that sting later, is particularly unbearable, and I have a strong feeling this is a pre-programmed personality feature.

Although she briefly touched upon the topic of why some people might think this way ("Fear"), I think she could have gone further:

-At a somewhat trivial level like choosing between Coke and Pepsi, I think it's mostly right. To the choice-averse brigade, it simply doesn't matter because the differences are so minute, silly and irrelevant. I've been thought of as an ignorant hick one too many times when I ask for advice on buying a car. I say "My budget is X, tell me a good car to buy", and tone instantly becomes very delicate.

"What brand are you looking for?"
"I don't know, I just want a good one with good service"
"But all of them have decent service these days. What kind pickup/mileage/x do you want?"
"I don't know, just a normal regular car to go around, that's all"
"Ok... what kind of resale potential are you looking for in the next 3-4 years?"
"I don't even have the car yet, how do I know what I should do it with in 3-4 years?"

I firmly refuse to believe that "doing your research" on buying a silly thing like a car or a suit is at all useful! I am reminded of this comic Anush had shared a long while ago:

As a side note, this is one point where Apple absolutely scores over every other company. Very, very limited choice, but each product functions decently and mostly to expectations. 

-Elaborating on the "Fear" factor, I think it's a version of Buyer's Remorse. Personally, I find it very much more easier to make my peace with events whose causes are beyond my control, than events which I caused. It's not a question of evading responsibility, because that is a dishonest twisting of facts; This has a lot to do with a discomfort of being self-centered and needing an external, immutable thing, as in Alain de Botton's talk and DFW's essay.

-At a higher, more important level like choosing a career or country to live in, the difficulty lies in the fact that you never have enough information. A very major portion of your post-choice life is going to be determined by unknown unknowns, and there's no way you can include them in your analysis. So, you cannot know with any certainty about how good a choice it was! I've had times when I took really important decisions, and found out more game-changing data in one day after making the choice than a year of pre-choice analysis!

-An even more debilitating fact is that you are merely choosing between mental models of outcomes of choice, and nothing concrete. All kinds of fictions rule these mental models! There is really no meaning in attributing anything to a particular choice someone made, because it may have been made under completely different assumptions. This brings me to one of my favorite gripes: there is very little that can be learnt from one's own or other's experiences. "No man ever steps in the same river twice", etc. This pervasive nonsense about "learning experiences" gets on my nerves. That old fake Chinese curse goes, “May you live in interesting times”. Just this one curse would make that most fundamental of all human interactions, teaching and learning, quite worthless beyond the confines of academia. As Paul Getty said, “In times of rapid change, experience can be your worst enemy.”

A simple solution to this, as espoused by the Sunscreen song, "Whatever you do, don't congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else's". I was about to go do just that, when I bumped into a hurdle also covered in the self-same song: "If you succeed in doing this, tell me how." :P

-As a corollary, I will punch in the neck the next person who quotes with a smug, all-knowing air, "Have no expectations". I can jolly well have no expectations when I have nothing to think of, but if I'm making a choice between mental models, the only way it can be done is if I have expectations for each choice in front of me!

-Coming back to the talk, one very real problem that arises from those assumptions is a social wisdom that is quite perverse. "Leadership" is often associated with the ability to quickly choose; people who prefer a programmed, defined, 'secure' life are unfairly relegated as incapable.

-Boundless choice on a level of personal ethics also brings with it a very serious issue that there are no constraints. When faced with an unfamiliar situation, constructs like ethics, morals, conscience,  'character', etc. give guidelines that, above all, allow a man to rest assured that he took the right decision. I hold this to be the primary function, because it is impossible to talk of the consequences of an action and talk about these constructs on those terms (for example, it's silly to talk of a conscience as something that guides a man to do 'good'. What might seem very good today would probably turn out to be a horrific wrong tomorrow. The only thing a conscience does is to allow a man the satisfaction that he's done the right thing).

-In an old post of mine, Kaushal's comment had reminded me of an interesting and related idea. Issues with choice arise primarily from a conflict between 'I will make my life' and 'Let my life make me' attitudes. Of the hundreds of schools talking about Moksha and how to attain it, two stand in sharp relief in this context. One is called the 'Markata kishori nyaaya' and the other 'Marjaara kishori nyaaya'. 'Markata kishori nyaya' literally means 'Monkey-child procedure'. A baby monkey holds on very hard to its mother as it jumps around, and the hold is thought to be so strong that it is even immortalized in metaphor - 'kapi mushti' or 'monkey fist' means a very strong grip. The baby monkey is actively involved in shaping and controlling its life.

'Maarjaara kishori nyaaya' literally means 'Cat child procedure'. A kitten wouldn't even have its eyes open when its mother catches it by the scruff and jumps about. It simply doesn't (cannot?) care, and lets its mother take it wherever it pleases. The question these raise is, is Moksha something that should be actively pursued, or do you let the quest take over you?

I guess this little conundrum exists even in the quest for Supreme, and not just in our silly little life-choices :-)


I found her final message somewhat tame and not particularly insightful, but whole talk was still great.

Maybe another way to look at choice-averse people is to think of them as people desiring choice at a 'higher' level : they want the choice of having choices only when they want them!


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Now I've seen everything...

You know you live in dangerously interesting times when #define private public is a major plot driver in a primetime Kannada soap, complete with grayscale triple takes and grand orchestra background music.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Paul and Randomness

I have been a great devotee of Paul the Octopus, and cannot wait to invest in the company that buys him out and starts a predict-your-future gig. He's had 8 consecutively correct predictions, and I was sold by the time the 3rd one rolled in. I truly feel that he's got something going.

This reminds me of an anecdote Taleb relates in Fooled by Randomness. (paraphrasing) A smart scamster takes 10,000 envelopes on Dec 15th, and fills 5000 of them with this message: "Greetings! We have a fantastic new stock market predicting technique, and we think you'd be interested. But you needn't believe us. We'll send you one prediction a month, and you can call us when you get interested. We claim that by Jan 31, the stock market would have gone UP from its Jan 1 level". The other 5000 have the exact same message, except that it says the market would go DOWN by Jan 31. The envelopes are then sent out all across the country, with some simple measures to minimize chances of some of the 10000 people knowing each other.

By Jan 31, 5000 people would have received a correct 'prediction'. Our chap then writes a more confident message, and tells 2500 of them that the market would be "EVEN higher by Feb 28!". To the other 2500, he writes "BUT THIS TIME, the market's going to go down!". Come Mar 1, 2500 people would have received two consecutive correct predictions with an increasingly confident pitch.

It wouldn't take people more than 5-6 months to start believing something is seriously on. The crucial part in this, as well as with Paul, is that these planned events are intertwined with everyday life, and not perceived as clearly laid-out thought experiments. One prediction would have made someone want to "try it out", and when it worked, it would have resulted in a whole chain of events in his life. A little more confidence the next time, and even higher rewards. 

As Jean Cocteau once said, "We must believe in luck. For how else can we explain the success of those we don't like?"