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If you’re from a “good” Indian family, especially one South of the Vindhyas, chances are that playing cards were taboo in your childhood. Cards were the gateway drug which would entice you away from your shiny engineer-doctor destiny to spiral down into the depths of gambling, drinking and gutter-dying. This means you never played poker. Emerging from the unreal cocoon of university into your first job, you wandered into the stock market with the naive innocence of a farm-bred bakra. And watched your money burn to a crisp.

Well, it’s about time you remedied this major gap in your education. A few hours of poker will teach you a lot about practical game theory, emergent “social” values and a cartload of cognitive biases. More importantly, it will give you extremely valuable insights into yourself, widely applicable to your life in general.

I’m slowly becoming a big believer in Taleb’s Golden Rule: “We favor the visible, the embedded, the personal, the narrated, and the tangible; we scorn the abstract.” One of my interpretations of this rule is – no amount of reading will make you understand as quickly and as deeply as raw experience.

Anyway. If you’ve promised your dead grandmother never to play cards, or, like me, can’t be bothered to learn card scoring combinations, there’s an easy, fun and free alternative: Word Ace, an online multi-player game available on iOS, Palm Pre and Facebook.

Word Ace

Word Ace

Word Ace uses word-tiles with variable scores, just like Scrabble, instead of cards. The setting is Texas Hold ’em style poker. At the beginning of a hand, each player gets two private letters. There is a common pool of 5 letters, one of which is revealed every round. As usual with poker, players can bet money (fake money – don’t worry!) at each round, or give up and leave whatever they’ve bet so far. You must put into the pot at least what others have bet, or more, to stay in the running. The final showdown involves everyone remaining making words out of the 5 common and 2 private letters, with the highest score collecting everything in the pot.

I could wax eloquent about how hard it is to avoid throwing good money after bad, how hard it is to convince your limbic system that it’s ‘just a game’ and it’s ‘just fake money’ (and consequent musings on the artificial value systems in human organizations), how a good reputation is necessary to sustain an occasional outrageous bluff, the frustration of spending so long coming up with an optimal word that you run out of time, only to discover that ‘CAT’ walked away with the pot, how the quality of your play veers from the optimum either by overconfidence after a string of victories or vindictive rage after a loss…

… but my whole point is that you need to find out for yourself. And once you’ve discovered some of your problems, you can work on them, practice folding when every instinct is urging you to bare your teeth and throw all your chips in…

I wonder if there are other simple-and-fun games, perhaps based on Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, which give insights into other aspects of the social ape – selfishness and altruism, co-operation and betrayal.

Word Ace is the best dollar I’ve spent in the App Store (there used to be a pro version, but it’s all free now). Thanks to Self Aware Games for a beautiful idea, nicely executed.


Karma Dilemma

In “Nice Guys Finish First”, the penultimate chapter of The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins digresses into game theory to explain the evolution of co-operation. The centerpiece is a simple game called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The one-shot version of PD is straightforward: the rational move for any player is to always defect. The Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma or IPD, where players face each other in multiple rounds, is much more interesting, because co-operation emerges as a viable strategy. “As a biologist”, Dawkins says, “I agree with Axelrod and Hamilton that many wild animals and plants are engaged in ceaseless games of Prisoner’s Dilemma, played out in evolutionary time.”

You can read the gory details in Wikipedia, but my eye was caught by this particular notion:

But none of this works unless the game is iterated. The players must know that the present game is not the last one between them. In Axelrod’s haunting phrase, the ‘shadow of the future’ must be long. But how long must it be? It can’t be infinitely long.

From a theoretical point of view, it doesn’t matter how long the game is; the important thing is that neither player should know that the game is coming to an end.

But it can be infinitely long! The Hindu-Buddhist doctrine of karma and reincarnation provides an almost mathematically ideal playing field for IPD.

  1. The universe keeps score.
  2. The game is infinite, and your karma score is rolled over to your next billing cycle on death and reincarnation. Some of your karma points may be redeemed towards determining your next birth-form. Players believe that the game is not limited to this lifetime, and this increases their tendency to play co-operate rather than defect.

Since the universe keeps score and deals out retribution, players find it less necessary to get caught up in rounds of mutual retaliation. Of course, this biases strategies perhaps a tad too much towards Sucker, with the usual failure mode of being invaded by Cheaters. As a neat side effect, the doctrine also “explains” unjustified success and suffering as the result of account balance brought forward from previous births.

In a tribal society, where everyone knows everyone else, the tribe itself can keep score. Since most transactions occur between members of the tribe, and all tribe members realize that they will be playing again and again, a karmic structure appears superfluous. Older members who are about to exit the stage are the ones in most danger of getting defected against. According to Steven Pinker, this probably stimulated the development of ancestor worship.

Ancestor worship must be an appealing idea to people who are about to become ancestors. As one’s days dwindle, life begins to shift from an iterative prisoner’s dilemma, in which defection can be punished and cooperation rewarded, to a one-shot prisoner’s dilemma, in which enforcement is impossible. If you can convince your children that your soul will live on and watch over their affairs, they are less emboldened to defect while you are alive.

In larger agglomerations, like urban areas, where most transactions are one-shot interactions between strangers, there is a tendency for defect to prevail. It’s interesting to speculate that the rise of the doctrine of karma and reincarnation was part of a self-reinforcing “virtuous circle” with the rise of post-agricultural civilization.

Non-intelligent Non-design

A living organism is so very, very complex, yet fits and works so smoothly, that the straight-line code-path is to impute this to a Designer of superhuman intelligence and superhuman skills. Creationists, furthermore, postulate a single overarching Divine Designer for all organisms. One of their favourite anti-evolution arguments is to pick something – the eye, the bombardier beetle and so forth – and claim that it could not have evolved, because it’s irreducibly complex. While each such example can and has been refuted, it gets tiresome (and they’re not convinced, anyway). Let me present here a counter-example, a breathtaking flaw in so basic a life process that is very hard to reconcile with the notion of intelligent and intentional design. I’m talking about something we hold synonymous with life itself – breath. The absolute and unyielding importance which the body attaches to its air supply is readily familiar to anyone who has tried to hold his breath for a while… but it’s not very consistent about it.

Years ago, my father told me of an industrial accident he had witnessed. Someone had climbed into a reaction chamber for routine inspection during a plant shutdown, when, unknown to him, a hidden hand opened a valve which flooded the chamber with nitrogen. He collapsed after a few minutes, unconscious. Another person climbed in to see what was wrong, tried to revive the unconscious engineer and himself collapsed. Both died for lack of oxygen soon after.

I remember being extremely surprised and somewhat skeptical – surely they would have felt the same rising panic we feel when holding our breath? There would be enough time and strength left over for a mad dash to the exit, even if it involved a climb… something didn’t add up.

Recently, I heard of a few more such accidents, and remembering the old story, dug around a bit. Turns out that the urge to breathe – air hunger – is triggered, not by low blood oxygen levels, but high carbon dioxide levels! Wikipedia continues: In mammals (with the notable exception of seals and some burrowing mammals), the breathing reflex is triggered by excess of carbon dioxide rather than lack of oxygen, so asphyxiation progresses in oxygen-deprived environments, such as storage vessels purged with nitrogen or helium balloons, without the victim experiencing air hunger. There are other interesting links about using nitrogen asphyxiation as a painless, humane method of killing animals including humans.

Wow. So as long as you continue to expel carbon dioxide from your blood (which will happen if your airways are unrestricted and there is some gas flowing in and out), you aren’t going to turn a hair if oxygen rapidly gets depleted and you die as a result. I can hardly find words to describe the gross incompetence such a “design” would suggest. How difficult would it have been to add a one-liner to the breath reflex trigger? Given the cardinal importance of oxygen, the violent reaction in the standard case of air hunger, and the vast array of biotechnology (as exhibited by other animals) available to the purported Designer, such a lapse is simply unbelievable.

When viewed through the lens of evolution by natural selection, it makes perfect sense, of course. Standard atmospheric nitrogen-oxygen mix was the only thing which the affected animals were ever exposed to. In such environments, a rise in carbon dioxide levels is always strongly correlated to oxygen deprivation, so a panic response to CO2 is good enough. Such “good enough” solutions not-designed by blind, not-intelligent evolution can be stable for millions of years, in the absence of selection pressure to the contrary.

Bad Designer, no cookie.

The Times Archive

The Times (the British one) has opened its archive from 1785 to 1985! Although it’s free for a limited period only, this is something I’d be willing to pay money for. The Onion’s Our Dumb Century, a collection of faux newspaper front pages from 1900 to 2000 occupies a favourite and much-reread spot on my bookshelf. This is its real-life analogue… if only they’d release it on a DVD or something easier to browse.

One of the earliest articles in The Times reports on the execution of Marie Antoinette, the copy a perfect imitation of the style of the day, complete with broken type and s’s which look like f (Hmm… sorry, it was the style of the day. The Onion and Pierre Menard have really addled my brains :)) Continues on through the the French revolution, the Napoleonic wars, the heydays of the British empire – my favourite historical fiction period – Flashman, Jack Aubrey and Dr. Maturin… now I can see it as it happened, through the eyes of ye olde Times. Of course it won’t be a neutral point-of-view, but you know it – this is actually an improvement over the supposed NPOV of objective historical accounts. So refreshingly different, so current, so free of the sanctimonious hindsight bias and inevitability which plague so many post-facto accounts. Napoleon has just escaped from Elba. What will happen next? A disturbing dispatch has just come in from Rorke’s Drift about the massacre at Isandlana. Can it be true, Zulu savages getting the better of modern British troops? In other news, an exciting report of Boat Race night. No doubt someone got pinched for failing, as is so often the case, to apply the forward shove before the upward lift, and was sentenced to 15 days without the option at Bosher street police court.

Some day I’d like to teach the kids history by pointing to the newspapers of the day. Google Earth for geography. Education 2.0, here we come.

It’s not limited to news articles, but the whole deal – complete with ads, letters to the editor and other such tidbits which let your taste buds swirl over the whole zeitgeist. I particularly love the little nuggets which one stumbles upon, while chasing down some “historic” event. Here are a couple of letters to the editor from October 1942, at the height of the second world war.

[transcribed for your convenience]


Sir, – To the thousands of Government servants shivering in unheated rooms in the stone buildings of Whitehall your headline “Waste in Government Departments” is a grim pleasantry. Yours faithfully,


Sir, – I have a bumper crop of pears in my London garden. Having heard Lady Cripps’s broadcast appeal, I thought I would sell the pears and give the proceeds to the Aid to China Fund.
To make sure this was allowed I rang up the local Food Office, and was told that I should be acting illegally, as I have no retailer’s licence. I was advised to give the pears away on the principle that “charity begins at home.” Still with Lady Cripps in mind, I applied for help to the Ministry of Food. They at once passed me on to the Divisional Office. The Divisional Office immediately suggested that I try the Ministry of Food. I said I had been there, too. The Divisional Office thereupon volunteered to tackle the local Food Office themselves. As a result the local Food Office informed me that if I would put in my application in writing and deliver it by a stated time the next day it would immediately be put before the committee, who would consider granting me a temporary retailer’s licence. I asked if it would save trouble to dispose of the pears through my fruiterer. I was told that if I did so I should be acting as a wholesaler, and the matter would have to go before the Ministry of Food, who alone granted wholesaler’s licences. So I gave up that idea and applied for a retailer’s licence, and delivered my application before the stipulated hour. That was a week ago, and nothing has happened, except to the pears, which are slowly rotting.
I do not question the necessity of these restrictions. But why in such a trivial matter cannot the responsible officer give an immediate decision? Why must the buck always be passed?
Yours, &c.,
Hampstead, Oct. 19.

Now I know where Monty Python and Yes Minister got their stuff 🙂

Letter to the Editor

You’ve gone on a vacation with a bunch of friends. Each of you has taken a gazillion pics, posted the best few on Flickr and shared it with the group. While browsing through the collection, you realize… that’s a good one, but hey, I was there in that same place, I took a photo at the same time… how come I didn’t see that?

Is it because your friend had a few megapixels extra, or a faster lens? Let’s extrapolate the galloping advances in optics, CCDs and storage to the point where you have a camera which can take continuous 24fps ultra-high resolution pics of everything you see, so that at the end of your vacation, you have a complete digital recording of everything you ever saw. Would that be a good thing?

Of course not. Sitting through somebody else’s vacation home video is the second deadliest form of torture (the first, of course, being an Indian Wedding Video, with accompanying voice-overs about unke mause ke chachere bhai), because so few bother to edit the video.

Which brings me finally to my point: Editing is one of the prime functions of the brain. Like shellfish unfurling their fan-like appendages to strain bits of food from the flow of water, the brain has evolved to pick out interesting bits from the raw wash of sense data. To pick that one instant, that particular subject, that particular angle, that particular framing, is one of the highest expressions of this skill. Photography is all about editing. All that bull about megapixels and lenses and F numbers is just nonsense – you can take interesting pictures with a point-and-shoot and Patel shots with a Nikon D300.

At least, that’s what I tell myself when I see the $@#% price tags on those $@!% lenses. I bet they taste sour, too.


I was waxing eloquent on the new gzip compression program when Guru Hemal turned to me, a twinkle behind his soda glasses.
“I can tell you how to compress any file of any size, down to”, he waved his hands with airy nonchalance, “8 bytes. Or 16, at the most.”
“OK, I’ll bite”, I said warily, wondering if a bar of unit length and an infinitely sharp pin were about to make an appearance.
“Imagine an infinite disk”, he said, “give me any file – I’ll copy it there and give you a unique index number for that file on the disk. Whenever you want it back, just present the index number and I’ll retrieve the file. See?”
I saw. “With 16 bytes, you could store 2^128 unique files and we could never produce that many… of course, there’s still the small matter of the infinite disk…”
“Moore’s law!”, he handwaved again, “just you wait!”

This was in the early ’90s, when 100 MB disks were considered big, the web was still a glint in Tim B-L’s eye, and Usenet was the Great Time-Eater. Today, the infinite disk is a palpable reality. With Wowbaggerian resolve, Google decided to suck up the world’s information and – this was the part they really decided to grit their teeth over – make it universally available. Many a conversation has, in this age, been compressed to a pithy, dehydrated phrase. Just Add Google for it to spring to full and lush meaning.

Not only does the infinite disk exist, it is addressable in human language. It is a measure of how deadened we are to the pace of technology that we do not wake up every morning in utter amazement and awe. I vividly remember trembling with excitement when first summoned the ftp daemon behind, half a world away and – in real time – it asked me for a username and password. Today, I routinely use the Google genie – still half a world away – for trivial math, just because it would require a few extra keystrokes to fire up the local calculator program.

This is not an unmixed blessing – any pretensions to original thought, which a poor education might have enabled you to sustain indefinitely, are swiftly and mercilessly killed. Someone, somewhere already had your “original” idea, and expressed it much better than your crude attempts to rub two metaphors together and produce a spark of… see what I mean?

Music for Managers

Aimlessly sauntering down the aisle at Landmark, my eye was arrested by a peculiar audio CD title – “MUSIC THERAPY for Irritable Bowel Syndrome & Peptic Ulcers”. I was impressed. Therapeutic properties have, of course, been imputed to music for centuries. But I always thought it was a more generic, mood-uplifting effect which would contribute to a better and more optimistic frame of mind, leading to quicker healing. What I did not expect was a specific prescription, like, Take two aspirin and the Blue Danube after breakfast…

I thumbed through the stack, wondering what other dread diseases had fallen victim to the power of music. Let me see – “Music Therapy for Thyroid Disorders”, “Music Therapy for High Blood Pressure and Atherosclerosis”, “Music Therapy for Managers”, “Music Therapy for Arthritis”…

I grinned. Being a member of the Manager species myself, I was rather pleased at being categorized with top quality chronic diseases, rather than your minor annoyances like The Sniffles. On an impulse, I compared the track list for Irritable Bowel Syndrome and the one for Managers. They were identical.

Well. No surprises here. You always knew your manager was full of it.