Numbed by Numbers



Lies, damned lies and statistics – Mark Twain

In the aftermath of 2008 financial crisis which brought the world to its knees, the blamed was placed on a wide spread range of professions. Bankers, rating agencies, stock brokers and analysts, mathematicians, central bankers, politicians… stop…mathematicians?

In 2001 Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld was presented with an investment plan put together by – not sales, marketing or fund managers- bunch of PhD’s in maths and physics. It was a mathematical model on investment in real estate and how Lehman will ‘always’ make a profit. Idea was implemented, Lehman grew very big and profit multiplied. By 2008 the model unravelled and Lehman filed for the largest bankruptcy in the world.

Goldman Sachs, the high priest of investment banks, had to close its Global Alpha fund due to losses. Global Alpha was a quant fund – a fund designed and managed by computers. The logic of the computers was put together by mathematicians who wrote the algorithms. Global Alpha was a disaster and was shut down.

Maths, the queen of sciences, is the king of our lives. In the era of Big Data and Internet of Things numbers define our life. From high finance to day-to-day life, maths is unconsciously embedded in our language. Your heart beat to blood count to weather outside is expressed in numbers. Percentages, graphs, pie diagrams make mundane statistics interesting. But the truth is most fear maths. It is a dreaded subject for all but few school children and most adults. We are truly numbed by numbers. There is always an unconscious fear that our conclusions are wrong even though our calculations are right! Yes, we can be wrong with maths if interpreted wrongly just as the maths whiz kids in Lehman and Goldman.

Null hypotheses, quadratic equations, algebraic formulae, Euclid’s geometry, set theory, probability… are not the stuff that excites us every day. Though they scared the wits out of us when we were in school, we did wonder, “what is the use of cosine and such similar abstruse formulae in our future life?” Is theoretical maths useful? How to use maths correctly in our day-to-day life?

“How Not To Be Wrong – The Hidden Maths of Everyday Life” by Jordan Ellenberg, University of Wisconsin-Madison math professor is an ambitious book to present a fresh perspective about mathematics and its usage. While being lucid, abstruse, logical and argumentative, Jordan takes us through the world of mathematical thinking and those of the thinkers. While knowing how the laws of maths work in poll forecasting, lottery ticket winning and even in proof of existence of God, Jordan’s tries to change your perspective about maths in life. You may not agree but you are willing to consider that those algebra equations that cost you many a sleepless nights are real and useful!

Mathematicians surprisingly do not have the same fame and stature as a physicist or an economist. Revealing the men and women behind those complex formulae we come to know about the world of mathematics in a more humane way than before. Pascal is deeply religious, Fisher is not an amiable man and Voltaire got rich thanks to apply maths to lottery rather than essays & lectures and similar such perspectives are shared while discussing technical maths arguments through day-to-day activities and events.

Books about mathematics and statistics are popular as we like the outcome of the maths not the process of arriving at the same. We wish to know who is leading in opinion poll before the election but are not interested in the number crunching and sampling strategies that are deployed to conduct the poll and interpret the results. Numbers Rule Your World by Kaiser Fung and Signal & Noise by Nate Silver are books that give you the seat edge feeling about numbers and leave you amused.

Occasionally Jordan the maths professor takes over the Jordan the writer in the book. Abstruse formulae are discussed at length which though put in simple language slow the pace of the book. However, it is a great effort by a maths professor, whose passion to bring maths close to our day-to-day life is commendable and hence is a must read. He concludes the book with a chapter aptly titled “How to be right” arguing us to look at maths the right way for the right causes and reasons.

From Indian perspective the book is disappointing as the contribution of Indians to mathematics, discovery of zero, decimal system, numerals etc. and acknowledged by the world as very high, is limited to half paragraph in which Srinivasan Ramanujam is mentioned.

The book has been rated on an average 4 stars on 5. Four on five stars is good in qualitative sense but in mathematical terms 80% (4/5) is not a great number! Such is life.

Read the book. Don’t worry there is no test or homework!



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I’m not happy, you are not happy



We look before and after, and pine for what is not; Our sincerest laughter with some pain is fraught; Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought – P.B. Shelly


World Happiness Report 2015 has recently been published. Based on respondent score on 3 measures – Long and healthy life (Life expectancy index), Knowledge (Education Index) and A decent standard of living (GNI Index). The map above is summaries it: darker the shade of pink, higher is your happiness. It goes up and down with critical parameters – peace deficit and human development.

India is sadly in the middle with a score of 4.57 with scores of 2.27 in peace deficit and 0.59 in human development. The scores for our neighbours are: Pakistan (5.19), Sri Lanka (4.27), Bangladesh (4.69- before they beat Indian in ODI series!) and China (5.14). But for Sri Lanka, we are worse off than our neighbours. Scandinavian countries, US, Europe and Australia are in pink of happiness. Even Iraq is higher than India!

As it is a score based on respondents survey either we Indians are very negative in our outlook or we really are very unhappy or others are able to find more happiness than we can. With no governance and terrorism all around, how come Iraqis are happier than us! Being neither a sociologist nor a psychologist I wish to take the results with a pinch of salt.

Is there a secret formula for people to be happy? In fact, what makes us happy?

Money has long been discounted as a source of happiness, though lack of basic comforts and needs does cause unhappiness. Real happiness begins after the stomach is full! Some might argue that if you have money you can buy the means to happiness. Yes, but only up to a point. Once you get used to level of money in your life and a standard of living, you are back in your quest for happiness. Even if we are convinced that money is the source of all happiness, only few in this world can be happy.

Success at work is another parameter of happiness as defined by some. Success unfortunately is a never ending rat race- even if you win it, you are still a rat! Success makes you lonely and you are always looking over your shoulder lest someone bring you down. It is like driving a car looking into the rear view mirror.

Family as a source of happiness is another parameter. A happy family is a relative term. As Tolstoy said all happy families are alike and every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Blessed you are if you are in a happy family and a happy society but you, the individual are you happy?

In the map Japan, Korea, Finland score very high on the happiness index (about 6). Good income, gender equality, peaceful lives … it is a picture postcard of life. Another statistic shatters this picture- Suicide rate. In this world every year 1 million people commit suicide. Counted per 100,000 people Japan (30), Korea (40) and Finland (17) have high suicide rates as compared to India (10). Outside of famer suicides, we are able to get along with in life. Why such an aberration?

Sociologists refer to it as relative depravation. It is our habit to compare ourselves with others that makes us happy or unhappy. In the rich countries money and success are the standards, the lack of them forces you to declare yourself a failure and hence unhappy. Unable to face the world, you give up your life. Someone in Afghanistan sees those around him in a similar state and puts in the extra effort to live with what he has.

Comparison is then what makes us happy or most of the time unhappy. All comparisons are odious and benchmarking others for our happiness is a recipe for disaster. If money, success and high standard of life do not guarantee happiness, what then is the secret of happiness?

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist who survived the Hitler’s holocaust. He was picked up from home one day for the only reason that he was a Jew. He survived the Nazi camp for 3 years and returned home to his family. Here is an academician who put into practise what he taught. He discovered the formula for human happiness.

According to his theory of Logotherapy, it is not happiness that makes us happy. It is the meaning in our life that makes our life fulfilling and happy. Acceptance of what life offers – good, bad or suffering- as part and parcel of life gives us peace and joy. Acceptance of their physical deformity keeps the blind and the deformed to lead a happy life not by thinking about or trying to change it. You can change the future by accepting the present. Captured brilliantly in his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, the formula for happiness is simple and is age old wisdom. Share, give, care, accept and keep on with life. Your purpose in life is to find your purpose and give your whole heart and soul to it, advised Gautama Buddha.

Clayton Christensen in the book “How Will You Measure Your Life”, outlined a 3 step process for a happy life. Find a likeness (purpose or what you want to do), make commitments to that likeness (time, money, learning) and define metrics (measurement tools e.g. if kindness is your purpose, how many you have helped).

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs defined the layers of our happiness. In the last stage we reach ‘Self-Actualisation’- morality, creativity, lack of prejudice, spontaneity and acceptance of facts makes us the complete person. If we start with self-actualisation as the second stage (after food and safety) we can perhaps discover happiness in life.

Disregard the index of the world. Create your own index, create your own happiness. As William Ward said, happiness is an inside job.

Be happy!


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I, Me and Selfie


Selfie,noun, Informal.

a photograph that one takes of oneself with a digital camera or a front- facing smartphone, tablet, or webcam, especially for posting on asocial-networking or photo-sharing website.


 2 tourists climbed the 350 year statue of twin Hercules in Cremona, Italy for the ultimate selfie. Unable to bare the load of the two, the rare statues crown crashed to the floor. 2 American tourists scribbled their names on the wall to take their selfie. There is nothing to be surprised or shocked about it, right. Only problem was that the wall on which they etched their names was the Coliseum, in Rome which belongs to the Roman era. 21 year old Singaporean man died falling off a cliff in Bali, Indonesia while taking a selfie.

Its a temptation even heads of US, UK and Denmark couldn’t resist on the solemn occasion of Nelson Mandela’s funeral. It is a sight you can never miss in any public place. Individuals or group trying to position their mobile cameras – with the selfie stick to support- which capture them and the scenery around them. Selfie is now a part of our behaviour as much as waking and walking. A socialite called Kim Kardashain has published a book on selfies titled, what else, Selfish. Reportedly it is a guide to take perfect selfie; further Madame Tussauds museum is honouring her with a wax statue of her in the pose of taking a selfie!

Every year Oxford Dictionaries publishes “word of the year” list. Selfie won the honours in 2013. Etymology of the word is blank; it emerged from our consciousness and is now part of our urban lingo. How selfie has come to be such an obsession? What is the psychology behind selfie?

Everyone is obsessed with oneself. Mobile (selfie specialist) cameras have driven this obsession one notch up. Add in aaps which make you look more beautiful (different skin tones, fairness degrees, acne removal) or even funny, the self-obsession package is complete. Narcissism is now captured in bits &bytes and our life has been pixelated for ever. In fact it was a ‘selfie’ that destroyed Narcissus!

Narcissus was a Greek mythological character of great beauty who was obsessed with himself to the extent of disdaining even those who loved him. Nemesis the god of retribution noticed this and decided to punish him. She attracted him to a pool in Narcissus saw his reflection (selfie?), fell in love with it and drowned in the pool chasing his reflection.

Now that you have taken a selfie, what next as you did not click it for yourself? You look for appreciation, recognition and hopefully envy. Whatsapp, Facebook and other social media are the logical platforms for fast spread of the selfie and social proof your personality. Our Narcissistic behaviour in social media has been studied Narcissistic Personality Inventory questionnaire. Results that the studies threw up are obvious, shocking and eye-opening.

The study measured the two “socially disruptive” elements of narcissism – Grandiose Exhibitionism (GE) and Entitlement/Exploitativeness (EE).

Grandiose Exhibitionism (GE) includes ”self-absorption, vanity, superiority, and exhibitionistic tendencies” and people who score high on this aspect of narcissism need to be constantly at the centre of attention. Nasty or shocking or personal, it does not matter. Expose and exhibit yourself to be the centre of attention. Entitlement/exploitativeness (EE) is more disruptive with the individual seeking higher respect and a willingness to manipulate and take advantage of others.

Those who score higher on GE and EE are more likely to have high number of friends on Facebook, accept friend request from strangers, change profile pictures often, will quickly get upset if number of “likes” are not as many as they expected and continuously track other friends for updates.

Selfie trend has only aggravated the pace of these disorders. Click your selfie, upload into your social media page instantaneously. A picture tells a thousand words and your life is now not yours, it belongs to the world. The individual uses technology to self-promotion and not for social benefit displaying his Narcissistic tendencies. How anti-social?!

Kindly do not get me wrong. Social media is a great tool. We have reconnected with many lost friends, connected with family from far locations at low cost and great ease. Social media is great like all other things in life, but in moderation.

Destroying property, inconveniencing other and even harming your life is not worth it for a selfie. What others think about you should not be your priority. Just think about this. What is important, to be in the moment or go for the selfie? Be in the moment, selfie can wait.

Like Michelle Obama in the picture at Nelson Mandela’s funeral.



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Not Made in China



The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall- Che Guevera


June 5, 1989 Tiananmen Square, Beijing, a day after the violent crackdown on the students protest against Chinese Communist Party, Chinese army was pressed into service to ‘evict’ the remaining protestors demanding freedom, democracy and change. Military tanks rolled into the square. An unassuming common man walked up to the front of the column of tanks waving his hands. He climbs the tank and talks to the army man. He is later taken away from the scene and he is never heard or seen again. Tank Man became the symbol of the now failed Chinese revolution.

Why did the Chinese revolution fail in 1989 and why it has never come to life again? Was the way the revolution managed was flawed or was there no need for it or the Chinese powers were more effective in stopping and containing it?

Revolutions are far and few in between. What makes a revolution successful? Is there a formula or a method to succeed? John Kenneth Galbraith listed 3 important conditions for the success of a revolution- A strong leader, a great number of disciplined followers and a weak opposition (after all successful revolution is kicking in the rotten door).

Let’s look at 2 revolutions which we successful before we review the Chinese revolution.

French Revolution It lasted from 1789-1799 which led to the end of the reign of Louis XVI. Jacobin Club members, Maximilien Robespierre and Jacques Necker led it from the front inspired by Diderot, Paine and Voltaire’s writings. France was in disarray as 7 year war had destroyed the LouisXVI’s empires finances and discontent was at its peak. Queen Marie- Antoinette’s excesses in spending public money for her clothes and jewels embittered the public. Eventually Bastille was stormed and Guillotine was brought down on the French empire of Louis XVI liberating France which saw the emergence of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Russian Revolution Also known as the October revolution it happened in the year 1917. Russia was in economic crisis post World War 1 and the rule of Nicholas II was despised by the public. Lenin and Kerensky led the revolution. There were 2 revolutions. In February 1917 Kerensky came to power after overpowering Nicholas II the last of the Tsarist autocracy.  But the Bolshevik party led by Lenin overpowered the Kerensky led Trudoviks in October (actually November due to difference in calendar). Inspired by Marxist ideology, Lenin established the totalitarian Soviet empire until its collapse in 1989 which incidentally set the stage for the failed Chinese revolution seven decades later

Chinese revolution Mikhail Gorbachev took over as the General Secretary of Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985. Gorbachev quickly rolled out unheard of reforms in the communist countries anywhere. Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”) reverberated across Eastern Europe and brought down the Iron Curtain which eventually led to the fall of the Berlin wall in November 1989. The largest Communist state, China watched with baited breath the unfolding historic events in communist heartland. Who stoked the fuel of revolution in China? Hu it was!

Sorry for the intentionally unintentional pun. Hu Yaobang was the General Secretary of Chinese Communist party from 1981 to 1987. During his time in the office Hu tried to bring in freedom of expression and other liberties to the people. Communist Party over threw him and replaced with Zhao Ziyang, a hardline communist. He was disgraced and purged but remained popular among people.

After his death in April 1989, 100,000 students marched in Beijing as a tribute and started a sit-in in Tiananmen Square which lasted up to June 5. People’s anger against inflation, corruption and excesses of the sons of the top leader Deng Xiaoping and Zhao Ziyang  stoked the fires of the revolution. Gorbachev’s visit in May to China created another rallying point for the protestors and people. But the revolution failed. Why?

Applying the conditions of Galbraith to the Chinese revolution answers the question. There was no effective leader, no large uprising beyond Beijing and the opposition (Chinese government) was not weak. Yes, corrupt or inefficient but not weak. The Tank Man image epitomised both the hope and capability of the common man and the powers against which they were pitted.

Chinese government suppressed the violent protests with the strongest force. Many were executed and jailed. According to the government “confirmed death toll was 241, including 218 civilians (of which 36 were students), 10 PLA soldiers and 13 People’s Armed Police, along with 7,000 wounded”. Many independently estimated the true number to be double the count shared by government.

In its briefness, the Chinese revolution parallels with Prague Spring revolution in erstwhile Czechoslovakia. In the January 1968 the reformist government of Alexander Dubcek started a period of political liberalisation. Communist countries under Warsaw Pact invaded the country in August 1968 to put a stop to the reforms.

Arab Spring (Jasmine Revolution) in Arab states has resulted in chaos and little change. Galbraith’s conditions continue to evade these countries to facilitate a revolution.

Post revolution China has emerged unscathed from the 1989 incidents and has emerged as a global manufacturing and economic power. Sensing the mood of people the new leader Xi Jiping has started a purge against corruption and power broking. However, freedom of expression, civil liberties and free press remain a distant dream.

Democracy is sadly is not ‘Made in China’.



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