Book review of Trevor Noah’s “Born a crime”

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Being a fan of late night comedy talk shows, I am a fan of many fine speakers like Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers. My favorite though is Trevor Noah, a South African comedian, who hosts the “Daily Show” on Comedy Central. What has impressed me most about Trevor is how he goes beyond mere slapstick comedy and puts in some emotion and character into the news so that it is more relatable. Recently he published his first book “Born a crime – Stories from a South African childhood” and in many ways it is even more impressive than his talk show.

Trevor Noah was born in South Africa during the apartheid regime when state sponsored racism against black people was rampant. The title “Born a crime” comes from the fact he was born to a black mother but a white father in the times where inter-racial sex was punishable by law.

This ‘crime’ results in a childhood filled with cat and mouse encounters where Trevor’s mother tries to hide him from the society which could take him way at any moment. South Africa’s tyrannical white rule is lifted when Trevor is still a child. Suddenly exposed to the new free world, the mischievous and restless young spirit inside him sets forth to hustle and grab every opportunity that comes his away; all with the support and encouragement of his fearless and rebellious mother whose relationship with her son forms the foundation of this book.

Autobiographies or self memoirs is not my preferred genre, but this book has a very refreshing and serene feel to it right from the first chapter. The book is filled with candid and expressive stories, ranging from setting up a pirated CD shop, being thrown from a moving car during an attempted kidnapping, dealing with an abusive step-father, to pitfalls of high school dating and many more.

This could have turned out to be a grim and sad narrative. But every story sparkles with Trevor’s incisive wit and subtle sense of humor elevating them to a moving but still enjoyable read. What impressed me was how Trevor goes about narrating important incidences in his life instead of just going in a chronological fashion which could induce boredom.

The book paints a very heartfelt and sometimes deeply moving portrait of a witty young man faced with racism and abuse, but with the adventurous spirit to rise above it. If you are looking for some storytelling which is compelling and humorous, have a read guys !

The Clock Ticks On ….

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Let us rewind our clock to the very start of the twentieth century. It is a nice, cool day in Switzerland. A young clerk from the government patent department is sitting in his office. His table lies strewn with applications aplenty. But he is undeterred by the pile of work in front of him. He is lost in his own world. The world of time. His journey excites him. It causes him to dream. It is a journey unlike any other.

Remember the grand old clock on the bedroom wall? Remember that incessant ringing of the mobile phone alarm, that worry in your mind when you were late for an important exam? Small moments, but they all point to the existence of our life’s biggest overlord – Time.

Time is so deeply intertwined into our daily existence that we hardly pause to think about it. When was the last time you stepped back from your day and pondered what these moments of time really meant?

All of us have tried to control time. Let your mind wander to those wonderful last moments you spent with your loved ones. Maybe you haven’t met some of them for a long while. But still those memories are as fresh and refreshing as a cool early morning breeze. Don’t you pine for those moments to come back? You would probably want them to last a lifetime.

Let’s step back and think. What would a world without the flow of time be? A world where you could lock in that wonderful embrace for as long as you want. A world where you could stay a child forever… in the care of your loving parents. A world where you could live forever. A world where you could lie back on your favorite chair and read that book for whatever time you feel. Travel the whole world without worrying about moments ticking down to the end of your life. Seems like utopia, doesn’t it?

Now let the rest of the story unravel. Come out of that embrace and you will see that the rest of the world has moved along. You wanted to go to that nice place along the river. But it is no longer there. The friend you wanted to catch up with.. he has moved on to newer pastures.

If you leave your parents, you will see the world of opportunities you missed out while you were still a child. The world outside has evolved from the one you left.

An infinitely lasting world means nobody dies. Nobody leaves an imprint on our minds. They are always around. There are no lasting legacies and no fond memories. No history will be unique. No story enchanting. Everything that has happened will happen again. The hands of our watches will tick away for infinity. But will we have truly lived? It’s hard to tell.  Maybe it’s the flow of time which makes the world as we experience it.

We are back to Switzerland. Many years have passed since the clerk first let his mind roam into the farthest reaches of time and space. In just some days, his ideas are about to transform him into a superstar. His signature grizzly moustache and the fuzzy hair will cast a huge shadow on the world.

Albert Einstein may have revolutionized the way science perceives time. But even after all these years, I wonder if we really have unraveled all the mysteries of time… What do you think?

Statistics and Human Psychology

The human mind has made tremendous achievements in logically understanding the world around us in the past two centuries. Since the industrial revolution science has given us breakthrough technology, medicine as well as a “rational” way of looking at the world around us. Causality that had been explained using “gods of rain/wind” for example has slowly been discarded across cultures as more experimentally verified  explanations developed. Does that mean the human mind has achieved complete rationality and all human behavior can be explained using fundamental laws or the concept of equilibrium? The short answer is no.

There have been number of experiments and studies in the second half of the 20th century that show just how poor human mind (including ours) is at coping with randomness. It turns out that not only are people not rational in their decision-making, but they are completely fooled by the properties of randomness.

Its human tendency to take shortcuts (Kahneman). Rather than carefully evaluating risks, humans usually just look at the past and assume it reflects the future. Even when we extrapolate past statistics often times we only count events we remember, events that were significant. So frequencies of events measured in the past often times is used as the probability of an event in the future. Just like a fair coin toss. The probability of getting heads is calculated by repeating the coin tossing experiment a large number of times and dividing the # of heads by the total # of outcomes. So the probability of heads on each coin flip is 0.5. In most real world situations (like financial markets) you cannot necessarily rely on historical frequency  based probability. Just because an event has never happened in the past does not mean it wont happen in the future. This is because unlike a coin toss, the initial conditions keep on changing everyday and most of the times are unobservable or get too complicated. So any probability assigned to such an event in the future is based on belief and is referred to as belief-based or subjective probability.

Do you understand the weather ?

Just consider the weather predictions. A weatherman brings out a 30% chance of rain and you keep your umbrella tucked at your home. You go out and see the clouds thundering and water drops battering the ground and you curse the weatherman. But the poor guy has done no wrong actually. A forecast of less than 50% chance doesn’t mean no rain. It simply means that if weather conditions like today played over 100 times, 30 of those times it will rain.

Value of Money

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This figure above shows two curves – blue and red. The blue curve has a constant slope (rise over run) whereas the red one rises less sharply in gains territory and falls more sharply in losses territory. The red curve indicates that losses hurt more than equal amount of gains. Kahneman and Tversky (see Prospect theory) found that generally people behave according to the red curve. Consider a situation where a person gains $100 and then loses all of them. The blue curve would suggest that the person got the same amount of happiness from winning that money as the sorrow she got from losing it and so she should be indifferent. But if that person has a value function similar to the red curve then the sorrow of losing will be greater than the happiness of winning.  Now this may seem strange because it seems like people do not care about the absolute wealth. This asymmetry can also be used to explain why investors still hold on to losing stocks despite it probably being a riskier proposition. It is because losses hurt them more psychologically. Loss aversion does not necessarily mean risk aversion. It is important to remember that this behavior is not absolute but depends upon the reference point and the change in wealth and varies for every individual.

Black Swan 

Most of us probably remember where we were, what we were doing when two planes flew  into the World Trade Center in New york City on the morning of September 11, 2001. The shocking images of the tall skyscrapers crumbling to the ground are probably vivid in most people’s mind. 9/11 is what we call a “black swan” in probability terms. It was unexpected and caused great destruction – low probability and high impact event. Any normal distribution would have failed to recognize the true impact of 9/11 not just in terms of loss in human lives but economic impact as well. yet we continue using normal probability distributions to quantify risk in many cases only because its simple.

Power law

In our daily lives, we often face situations where the errors are only minor. Consider a machine which we encounter at work. It looks like it breaks down only infrequently and with small defects. So you might come to the conclusion that you are never going to face a big headache due to the machine. Enter the power law!

This strange but simple looking distribution is probably one statistical tool we can use in this case. The mundane small failures are all on the left. You can see that these events have a high probability of happening. But have a look at the right tail – the dreaded uncommon events. it shows that the probability is low, but they can occur. This may not apply in all situations. But we have to be ready for the right tail. The nice looking yellow part is the one that’s going to matter. Be prepared for that!

Don’t discard common sense! 

In many situations however its better to follow a heuristic approach to decision making because its simply impractical to do a complex analysis. This approach is quite common with traders of financial assets. The problems at hand are very complex and so the mind takes short cuts without being fully aware of the process. But a smart trader is aware of this fact and learns from trial and error. We believe that trial and small error accompanied by a sound understanding of statistics is probably a better approach in such situations than relying on complex mathematical models because the real world situations really make the decision-making process too complicated due to incomplete information. Its very similar (but more difficult) to learning how to drive in traffic – switching lanes to reduce the time of travel gets better with trial and error.

Uncertainty is everywhere; Deal with it !

For most of us, death will be unexpected and for almost all of us (don’t wanna piss off those who claim to have risen from the dead) its a once in a lifetime event. But many of us do not go about worrying if the fateful day is going to be today. But it is our duty to ensure that after we are gone, the impact of our death is minimal on those who survive us. Failure to do so cannot be attributed to a sudden catastrophe; only to the flaw in our understanding of this great game of chance.