Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Fooled by randomness?

I've ever seen a student who is delusional. When he gets right, he'll claim that he's smart and clever. Especially if he didn't put in the effort compared to those 'muggers' who studied all day and night but scored worse than him. When he gets it wrong, he'll blame circumstances (oh he's sick, the paper is too hard, he's studying for another subject etc). What I think is that he didn't study at all, and it's just luck that got him good results, or luck that got him bad results. Basically, it's not consistent.

There are people like that when they participate in the stock market too. Except that they research deep into the company and bought it, and when the bullish market brings everything up, they mistook it for skill. These are the people whom you see screaming x% returns in y days. But when the market turns down, will they blame bad luck instead? People should read Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Fooled by Randomness. It's a good thesis on how we are fooled by seemingly random events, taking those good events as your own achievements, label it as 'skill' while discarding those failures and call it 'bad luck'.

I think it's useless to think whether your method of participating in the stock market is successful if you didn't test it in at least one cycle of bull/bear. Even then, I can't be sure if the method is successful. It's always work in progress and earning in progress. What the market provides, it can just as easily take it away. Don't ever think that because you reaped so much from the stock market, you're a smart market participant. The market might be starting the next round of fighting while you're still celebrating your victory from the previous round.

It's not easy behaving with the carefulness and humbleness of a newbie when you're no longer one. That's the lesson we all have to learn, if we want to be a long term survivor.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The conversation between a caterpillar and a butterfly

Somtimes, the strangest tale comes from the inspiration of fellow bloggers. In this case, SMOL's post on butterflies got me thinking. I'll be the first to admit. This short story below is adapted from another book that I read.

Emile the butterfly floated down to the Francis the caterpillar, who is her friend. But Francis didn't seem to recognise who the butterfly is. I mean, how could anyone blame Francis? Emile looks so beautiful and was floating with the wind! Nothing could be more different than a hairy caterpillar!

"Follow what I do, Francis! You'll be free from your earthly bounds! Oh goodness, why can't Francis understand what I'm saying?!" Emily nearly screamed in exasperation.

Just a few days ago, Emile said goodbye to Francis because she's going on a personal journey.

"Where to?" Francis asked sadly. "Can I tag along please?"

"No, Francis," Emile replied firmly. "This is a personal journey. And I have to go alone. Sorry."

But Francis didn't let Emile go alone. He followed her quietly, and saw Emile crawling up a branch solemnly and started pulling white threads all around herself, until she was fully covered with this white silky tent. Francis was still faithfully waiting for Emile to emerge out from her strange retreat, believing that she just needed some time off for herself. He was there waiting, every single day. But one day, seemingly overnight, Francis noticed that there is an opening at Emile's silky tent. Cautiously, Francis crawled near to it to check if Emile is finally out of her retreat.

There's nobody around.

Except now there's a strange colourful winged creature near Emile’s empty tent. It's floating near to Francis, seemingly trying to tell him something. It landed near to the ground at Francis, and then floated to Emile's empty tent, then again to an empty spot on a branch. This creature repeated the same pattern again and again.


This is how I 'saw' the conversation between the caterpillar and the butterfly. How would the story end? Would the butterfly give up and join the rest of the butterfly? Would the caterpillar give up and grieve for his lost friend? Or would the caterpillar have an epiphany that he also had to follow the unknown and uncharted path that his friend Emile had hinted him?

Some things just cannot be taught - it had to be experienced. If you had not experienced the transformation, you wouldn't be able to speak the same language as those who had been metamorphosized. You can show others, but you cannot make them change. And yet everyone has the potential to be transformed, if you'll only want it.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Saying 'I CAN'!

When I first started working as a full time tutor 10 years ago, I had many self limiting beliefs. Looking back now, it seems rather ridiculous that I had those beliefs, but I remembered that these beliefs were very real and very limiting to me at that point in time. Let me list down some of them:

1. No working during standard meal times

I thought that I'm normal and I should have a normal working hours. I assume that students will also have fixed meal times, so I didn't want to schedule my lessons around 12 to 130 pm and 6-8 pm. It was such a limiting idea, because it restricts the number of lessons, and hence working hours, that I can do. It took me about 2 years to fix this limiting belief. After that, I'm all set. I can have my dinner at 1030 pm, which is what happened yesterday night after my lessons. Or I can eat my lunch at 1030 am. Makes no difference to me, though I try not to eat my dinner late at night because it'll disrupt my sleep routine.

2. No work during public holidays and on weekends

Again, when I first started, I thought I should have a normal working hours with normal social life. This is one of the first self limiting belief that I discovered I had, and the first one to go. It just wouldn't do if I can't work on weekends and public holidays, as I know I wouldn't be able to clock enough hours to make a reasonable pay working as a full time tutor. These days, public holidays and weekends are my busiest, as it should be.

3. I can't teach what I didn't know

I used to reject assignments that I deemed are beyond me. I started teaching secondary school Emaths. Then someone asked me to teach them Amaths, so I was very reluctant to do so because I'm not confident. But confidence comes from preparation, and the fact that I can work harder and longer and do more than my tutee. It's a mind blowing principle. If you're not confident to teach, prepare harder than your students. They cannot know more than you do, otherwise you're not doing your job. So one thing leads to another, I'm soon teaching the entire spectrum of secondary school subjects, jumped to Primary school subjects, next to A'lvl, then IB, and after that it's poly engineering modules, followed by business statistics modules and then to university's statistics and financial modules.

If I had listened to my inner voice not to step outside my comfort zone, to only teach what I know, then I wouldn't have expanded the repertoire of what I can teach. I wouldn't be able to learn independently what I needed to do to teach someone.

4. I'm not worth the fees

I'm constantly upgrading my self worth. Funny isn't it? Sometimes I still think that people shouldn't pay me so much for tuition. I think my tuition fees is as high as my own self worth with regards to my career. I started off with $22/hr, and every other year I'll have to reason to myself whether I added value to others before I can increase it. There's a mental block inside me to ask for higher fees. And I realised not every tutor has this mental block. It's a confidence issue, I believe. Some undergraduate fresh from A'lvl charges even higher than what I charge as an experienced full time tutor. They can do it, but I can't. This is something that is still work in progress.

The very first step to remove self limiting beliefs is to identify them. It can be so pervasive and ingrained that you do not even think of it as a self limiting belief. It's the ability to hide among your consciousness that causes these beliefs to become your reality. Let's say you want to save money. Perhaps these are the self limiting beliefs that you have:

1. I don't earn enough money like the rest, so how do I save?

2. I'm not like the rest - I've a family and a lot more commitments, how can I compare with them?

3. I need my car (or coffee, or bags, or gadgets, or whatever other material things). Life's not worth living without it. What's the point of suffering so much to save?

4. YOLO (you only live once), might as well enjoy while we can.

Everyone of these is a self limiting beliefs. If you believe it enough, they will become a reality. If you don't question your basic assumptions about how you live your life, then how can you change it? Start by taking charge of your life. Be open to changes and just say YES first. There's enough naysayers around you who do a very good job of saying NO, so be the first to say YES to yourself. Give it a go...what's the worst that can happen?

At most just F.A.I.L. That's just a First Attempt In Learning.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

You see what you want to believe

This picture is too important not to share it. A friend posted on facebook a long time ago and I was immediately struck by it. Once I recovered, I've saved it and kept it until I saw it recently again. The message behind the picture is as true now as before.

I think I shouldn't spoil the reflection part for you. Different people will see touch different parts of the elephant.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

As strong as the obstacles we're facing

When I was in army, I got a silver for IPPT, so I thought I'm very strong. Until I tried to do a pull up 15 years later and realised I couldn't even do one. And so I trained hard for the past few months and now I managed to do 6 perfect form pull ups, then I know that I am strong.

Until I tried to do a dumb-bell lift for 10 kg, and realised that I couldn't do it properly and effortlessly. And so I trained every other day, lifting progressively heavier and heavier weights from 8 kg until I can do 10 kg effortlessly without feeling my muscles screaming. Then, I know that I am strong.

Until I tried to do 3 sets of 10 push ups yesterday, and realised that I couldn't lift myself off my bed this morning. My whole arm is like lead. And so I know what I will be doing in the next couple of months to get stronger.

You'll be surprised how similar other aspects of your life is with regards to what I've described earlier. In life, it's important to be progressively defeated by bigger and bigger challenges. Being good in one thing doesn't mean that you'll be good in another. There's domain specific knowledge that's not really transferable to another domain, so it's important to stay humble and keep improving.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The inattentive one

She walked into the classroom and the class quietened down. She immediately went to the whiteboard, and scribbled down the homework for the day and tasked the children to do them right away.

Except that he didn't. He was just looking everywhere except at the textbook. She can see his eyes roaming around the classroom. Sometimes they will settle on his classmates, sometimes the interior of the classroom but often they are looking out of the window. His eyes also seemed to follow where she went, like she's the jailor of the prison he's incarcerated in. Once a while, he'll flip the pages of his textbook. But the boring texts always manages to push him away into the welcoming arms of the distracting world.

With fists clenched, she called his name out. She scolded him in front of everyone. She insisted he stay back after her lesson so that he can properly impound onto him the seriousness of his transgressions.

Bell rang and school ended. Everyone packed up their school bags to leave this high noon showdown. The ceiling fan whirled in grave anticipation. Even the chirping of the birds came to a halt outside the window.

He walked up to her and stood there, deathly still. She scolded him and threatened to call his parents. But still, he stood there, not defending himself for his actions.

"How dare he challenge me with this passive aggressive attitude! Still no remorse! ", she thought. She can feel her heart pounding heavily.

"Sorry teacher...", that's all he managed to say.

This is all quite strange for this troublesome kid. Going to the discipline master's office for counselling is a common occurrence for him. Why is he so placid today?

Still not satisfied with him, he punished him by asking him to stay back for another 3 hours for detention, so that he can reflect on his mistakes. With that, she dismissed him and he began to walk out of the classroom without a word.

Is he so hardened that he didn't even bother to reply? Why is he not doing his work? Partly to start a new round of scoldings and partly out of curiosity, she demanded his replies just before he is about to disappear behind the classroom doors.

"I don't wish to upset you, ma'am, " he answered softly.

"I saw people passing the answers of the homework on pieces of paper around the class and was deciding if I want to tell you or join them."

"I saw one of the fluorescent lights in the classroom is of a different shade of colour than the rest. It's a bit more whitish compared to the rest. They must have used a different wattage. The lights cast strange overlapping shadows on the floor, sometimes growing in length and sometimes shortening and I was fascinated by it"

"I followed the smell of rain on grass through the windows and I was so excited because there's a rainbow arcing across the fields! The birds are chirping as if to beckon everyone to look at it but everyone seems too busy to notice it,"

".. and ma'am, I don't want to upset you because since the beginning of this week, you're not wearing the ring that you've been wearing since you've been teaching us here. "

She cried.

Her tears are not for herself alone - the teacher who only pays attention to the wrong done by the boy and nothing else. It's also for the inattentive boy in class who pays attention to everything else.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

To create a masterpiece

Michelangelo is a great sculptor. His great masterpiece is David, a sculpture of a person which is so lifelike that it amazes anyone who had glanced upon it.

One day, he was asked about his great masterpiece and how he had managed to carve a lifeless rock into something that is so lifelike.

He said this, "It's easy. All you have to do is to chip away everything that didn't look like David."

And so that is the way to create life's masterpieces. How to find the meaning of life? Simply remove the parts that is not meaningful to you. How to create a great blog post? Remove the parts that are not great.

Sounds like a stupid obvious statement, isn't it? But I think if you sit on it and mull over it, there's much wisdom in those few simple words.

Friday, March 27, 2015

To him whom you love to hate and hate to love

It hadn’t always been a smooth relationship.

When I was young, I respected him as I would to any adult, especially one who so crucially shaped Singapore the way it is today. Back then, he was still the Prime Minister of Singapore and I remembered fondly the crowds that stood up and cheered loudly for him whenever he arrived on national day parade every year. I must be one of the last batches of people who had him as the Prime Minister of Singapore before he handed it to the next.

Like a teenager, I went through a period of rebelliousness. That is the phase where I learnt and read a lot more things about the kind of ‘fixing’ he did to his political opponents and how he bulldozed his way and imposed his strong obstinate views on things that matters to him, and to us. Hate might be too strong a word to use, but if all the adjectives in the world can be split up into ‘nice’ and ‘not-so-nice’, I would certainly put my relationship with him then under the same category as the latter.

That phase lasted quite a while, until I started working in the society for a few years. You look at the things you rebelled against in the past, and you shrugged. You go to another country and then you look at your own country. You noticed things that are bad in your own, but there are things that did go right too. In the end, are there more rights than wrongs? At the time when it matters, would anybody who is made of lesser stuff be able to achieve what we had for the past 50 years? Nobody can answer that, but I believe he did what he could at that point in time to ensure that we survive. Philosophy can wait till the war is over. Until then, a strong leadership using more sticks than carrots will have to do.

I started to forgive him. He did his best and nobody could have asked for more. When rumors of his many ‘deaths’ circulated around in social media in recent years, I thought to myself that they should just leave him alone. When his wife left, I didn’t see a politician out to dictate his views on everyone. What I saw was a father, a grandfather and a lonely husband, something everyone can certainly relate to.

In life, he is feared. Oh, how greatly he is feared! It's his intense stare, or maybe it's his no nonsense way of cutting to the heart of any problems that sends the shivers up anybody who dares to face him. He cares not for any public opinion and will gladly be the lone voice of truth, even if it’s his own version of truth.

And in death, he is loved. Oh, how deeply he is loved! It’s his soft touch on anything pertaining to Singapore, even if it’s a trash that floats down the river. It’s his Red Box that is filled with all the necessary documents and observations he had made, marking the start and the end of each day with his country in his thoughts.

Why couldn’t all these human side of him be shown earlier? That would soften his harsh image tremendously. But perhaps this is not what he wants after all. With his boxing gloves ever ready, he would gladly step onto the ring to take on whoever dares to fight Singapore. Maybe, that is how he wants to be remembered as – a fighter who fights for his beliefs.

Like I’ve said, it’s not always a smooth relationship. Like a kid, you love your parents, and then rebel against them and hate them, before growing up to forgive them because you know that they tried their best in their own circumstances that you might never understand. And finally, you came to love your parents and you remember them for all the good things that they had done for you.

All the juicy bits of a roasted chicken that they insisted you eat because they prefer to eat the bonier parts. All the last piece of each year’s log cake that they insisted you take because they were too full. All the understanding and forgiving they had shown you, even when you broke their favorite vase and forgot their birthdays.

All the things we took for granted.

Sleep well, Ah Gong, and thank you for taking care of us when we’re too young to understand what’s at stake.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Algorithm to find the Chinese horoscope sign of any year

After learning about modulo function, I finally have an elegant algorithm to find out the Chinese horoscope sign based on the year of input. It came from an innocent enough question from facebook - what's the value of m+n, such that 2012^m and 2012^n has the same last 3 digits, if m and n are integers are m is greater than m?

I did a bit of exploring and found out the answer by doing it through excel. Then I discovered the modulo function, and then I also discovered the theorem that if a = b (mod m), then a^c = b^c (mod m). It's vastly different from learning about mathematical theorem through books or teachers, and learning about it through discovery. The joy of solving the puzzle is immensely satisfying.

But first of all, what's the modulo function?

Modulo function has two inputs i.e. MOD (a, b). Basically the function just returns you the number that is the remainder if a is divided by b. For example, MOD (12, 3) = 0 because 12 divided by 3 gives no remainder. MOD (12, 5) = 2 because 12 divided by 5 gives a remainder of 2.

My algorithm to find out the Chinese astrological sign is to take the input year, subtract 4 to it, modulo it to 12, then add 1 to the result. You can use it on excel.

i.e. Let x be the input year

y = MOD(x-4, 12) + 1

The output y will give you a number ranging from 1 to 12, so

1 is rat,
2 is ox,
3 is tiger,
4 is rabbit,
5 is dragon,
6 is snake,
7 is horse,
8 is goat,
9 is monkey,
10 is rooster,
11 is dog and
12 is pig.

To illustrate this, let's try out the year 3194:

So in the year 3194, y = MOD(3194-4, 12) +1 = 11, so it’s the year of the dog.

My Two Rolex

I never wanted to have a Rolex. But today I realised that I have not just one, but two! Two Rolex right in front of me and I didn't know!

A Rolex watch is a status symbol, a hallmark of those who had arrived. But I think I'll never ever buy one. I prefer my time pieces to be digital, so that time telling is precise. I also need my time pieces to have a stop watch, water resistant, have night light and able to tell the date accurately. I'm slightly allergic to leather and dislike those thick metal straps because the weight will cause the watch to slide down my bony wrist. All these restrictions and preferences make it highly unlikely that I'll ever buy a Rolex.

So where did I get my two Rolex from?

My two Rolex are priceless. Even with money, you can't buy it. It's also limited edition and it's out of production worldwide. It's not made of cold steel and definitely won't cause irritation to my wrist. It tells the time gently by a little nudge, perhaps a little pinch. Quite water resistant, but if you soak it in water for too long, the surface might get a little crinkled, but nothing is damaged permanently. It grows old with time but always soft to the touch. Both the Rolex fits my hands perfectly - sometimes the strap holds it strongly and sometimes loosely. It seems to have a mind of its own. When I made it angry, it will refuse to wrap around my hands. The pinches are a little more painful and time seems to slow to a crawl. When I made it happy, it will refuse to leave my hands. Its warm touch quickens my heartbeat and makes me smile.

Limited edition Rolex. Value: Priceless

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Book review - The Singapore Permanent Portfolio by Alvin Chow

Alvin from BigFatPurse is very kind to pass me a copy of his newest book, The Singapore Permanent Portfolio. I've always wanted to know more about the Permanent portfolio, so this comes as a godsend. Why is it named the permanent portfolio? I think I'll answer that question at the end of this post.

The permanent portfolio is an investment idea that comes from US in the 70s, but the idea is that you hold 4 different types of assets in equal proportion (25% each) that will allow you to profit no matter what the economic situation is. There's an asset that will thrive in the growth, inflationary, recessionary and deflationary phase of the economy. Think of it as planting 4 different types of crops that will thrive well in the 4 seasons of the year - spring, summer, autumn and winter. When spring comes, crop A will grow exceedingly well, so you harvest it and use the proceeds to grow more of the other crops. When summer comes, it's crop B's turn to grow very well, so you harvest it and use the proceeds to grow more of the other crops.

It's a fascinating idea - one that allows the investor to dissociate human tendency towards greed and fear when it comes to investing. Think of it as a sort of standard portfolio re-balancing process but with a twist.

The idea is easy enough to follow, and the book succinctly illustrates the ideology behind the permanent portfolio. If that's all that the book offers, then you can easily google it from the internet. What this book offers is something that you won't find in any others - applying the investment idea to the Singapore context. So while the idea of a permanent portfolio comes from US, Alvin's book illustrates clearly how to actually apply it in our local context. What are the 4 assets to own in the permanent portfolio? Where to get them? How to do the re-balancing? All these and more are answered in the book.

For a portfolio that can weather all economic situation, producing reasonable returns with low volatility, as well as minimal work, what's not to like about it?

So why is it called the permanent portfolio? What is the thing that is permanent about the portfolio? Knowing that you have to re-balance the portfolio mix perhaps once or twice a year or whenever necessary, the portfolio allocation of the 4 assets is definitely not permanent. It will vary accordingly to the rise and fall of the 4 asset class. Or perhaps the term is coined because you never have to sell any assets completely? I think I have an answer. It's called the permanent portfolio because this portfolio will stay with you regardless of the bigger economic situation. And you have to keep balancing the asset classes to keep it permanently balanced. It's like dynamic equilibrium - everything is moving so that there's a balance.

Maybe you should read about it and think for yourself why the name of this peculiar idea is called the Permanent Portfolio?