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Elementary Watson! Trump is Moral Arbitrage for Media.

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Long time back my friend in finance explained me the concept of Arbitrage. Apparently there are computers dedicated to searching stock prices on many stock exchanges. And every now and then a computer finds that a particular stock XYZ is being sold on exchange 1 at 99$ and is being bought at exchange 2 at 100$. Then the computer buys in a chunk of that stock from exchange 1 and sells on exchange 2, making small but sure profit. The opportunity may not come that frequently and the sizes of profit can vary. But if such an opportunity is found, then it must be jumped on because profit is guaranteed.

Before I write anything further, I must declare that I do not like Trump as a person. I do not think he should have become president. I did not vote for Trump.

But his rise from a fringe candidate to main candidate to president continued to baffle me. Throughout the primaries and in election and even right now, I continued to get amazed about how much coverage he was getting and he is getting even right now. This is the post about my attempt to understand the obsession of the media, both professional media and social media, with Trump. My AHA moment was thinking about this as arbitrage.

I think Trump as no friends. He only has enemies of enemies. And the continued media coverage helped him make more enemies and thus in a very convoluted way, get more people on his side by ‘enemies of enemies’ rule.

Just the way financial institutions love ‘financial arbitrage’ the people and media loves ‘moral arbitrage’. Instead of tackling complex issues that do not have good and bad sides clearly marked, they prefer to focus on small, irrelevant issues that have good and bad very clearly defined. So they can take the “good” side and feel good about themselves. This way no one has to face the uncomfortable, inconvenient truths about themselves. No reflection is required. No change to be made within ourselves.

Let’s keep the common people and social media out here. Because portraying the current affairs accurately is not really their job. But what the professional media did is inexcusable. They went after cheap headlines with ‘moral arbitrage’ with far more vigor than after complex issues that really mattered. All they cared about was staying in the positive light. And Trump gave them the perfect opportunity.

If we have to make sure another Trump does not rise in future, someone has to break this frenzied search for moral arbitrage in media. We need media that takes moral risk, handles inconvenient truth and is less judgmental than informative.


Happy Birthday America!

What does American Independence day mean for someone like me?

For me, its not so much about Patriotism. I wasn’t born here. I like this country. I have lived here long time. I am still not a citizen. There is a long and rigorous process to get there. America wants to make sure I am worth granting the citizenship. That is perfectly alright. It’s just that if America wants to keep open an option of kicking me out, then even I will try not to get too attached here. But that’s hardly an issue for day to day life. I can do pretty much everything an American does.

My very first introduction to the word America was perhaps when I was few years old and my uncle got me a book of picture of trains. Nice looking trains passing through mountains. Someone told me that it is America. Since then me and my sister thought America was name of the train.

Then at some point Mickey mouse entered our life but we didn’t know he was American. Because he spoke Hindi on Indian TV. Also we didn’t care. At that age the ideas of nations and nationalities were not fully grasped. All we knew was he was funny and so were the other characters he hung out with.

Then later it was Pop music and Holleywood movies. Before we knew America had entered our life.

Fast forward few years. I was boarding a plance to USA.

I moved here mostly for practical concerns. Good standard of life, etc. My journey was not as dramatic as some others. But still it was very dramatic and anxiety provoking for me. But as of today, my respect and love for America is not even for this practical matter. Well it is in part, but not the majority part.

I wasn’t planning to live here. Part of me is still unsure.

But with what I saw and learned here, made me a better person. It was here that I

Alan Watts has said “You should learn about another culture not because anything is lacking in your culture, but because unless you learn about some other culture, you don’t understand the basic assumptions you are making about your own.”

Over the years I have come to know and question a lot of basic assumptions about my home country, my own religion and myself. Over the years I have developed more mature, more balanced perspective on this world. And America and American values have contributed to this inner journey immensely.

That’s why I am thankful to America. My gratitude is for things that are far less dramatic, far less tangible, but far more pervasive and far deep and enriching in my life.

This is pretty good country with lot of friendly people. When Americans mean racial equality or individual freedom, they mean it. Obviously they are not perfect. But they mean those things more than other people who say similar things.

To all my good American friends. Cheers !! Long live USA.

When Guns Are In Law, Gun Are The Law

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There is one famous phrase in America, “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws have guns”.

Churchill once said that “Lie gets halfway around the world before truth manages to put its pants on.” He was absolutely right. Lie can indeed get around the world if it can ride a catchy phrase, like “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws have guns”. I have seen too many arguments hijacked by this catchy phrase and turned a very important subject, which makes life and death difference to some, into a reality show. Just to bring back the rationality of the argument in such cases, I am going to throw a new one in here.

When guns are in law, guns are the law.

Let me be clear at the beginning. I am not against guns. I do think guns have a place in society. In fact I think my home country, India has too tight laws that need to be relaxed and make guns access more easy. However, like all other things, guns are best used in moderation and it makes sense to have some common sense gun control laws. Importantly,we need to be able to carry on a rational debate about it using statistics and critical thinking and not just resort to catchy phrases.

About the phrase “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws have guns.” What you call guns is a wide range, from small hand guns and itty bitty pistols to fully automatic guns, armor piercing guns and anti aircraft guns. What you call the action of outlawing is a wide range again, from regulations and restricted access to complete ban. And what you call outlaw – the people – is wide range again. From small pickpockets or shop lifters to major drug cartels.

While the statement is true for a small range of guns, small range of actions of outlawing and small range of types of outlaws, the statement is false for majority of the range of guns and majority of the ways of outlawing them and majority of types of outlaws. And even when it’s true, (case in point – fully automatic weapons are banned but you can sure find drug cartels toting them), it’s rarely used for the purpose we are all afraid of – a random person committing mass shooting in a public place. For the most part, the drug cartels use those weapons to fight among themselves or to take on major law enforcement agencies, which are equally or better equipped than the cartels.

In colclusion, when-guns-are-outlawed phrase is wrong more times than right and even when it’s right, it’s irrelevant to the main argument. There is a legitimate argument on both sides of gun control. But it’s not the when-guns-are-outlawed… phrase.

It’s truly fascinating to watch an argument on gun control or any other hot political topic. There are rarely “independents” here. The people have already formed their stance. The debate revolves around very familiar points. Constitution, gun accidents, mass murders, mental illness, self-defense.

However when it gets into catchy phrases, the debate degenerates from thereon.

So if someone says to you “When guns are outlawed, only when outlaws have guns”, feel free to say “When guns are in law, guns are the law.”

Nuclear Warfare I – Strategy Of Assured Destruction

On 11 February 2010, the newspapers worldwide reported a newsflash. An airplane based LASER had brought down a missile fired far away. It raised some eyebrows and provided an item for cheesy geek discussions around water coolers. But for the most part the world missed the vision behind this weapon and the potential of this weapon to begin a new era in strategic warfare worldwide.

To understand the importance of that event, we have to travel back in time for about 65 years.  On July 16, 1945, the words of Bhagwad Gita reverberated through Robert Openheimer’s mind  “Shining light of thousand suns, I span the space between the sky and the earth. Then I become death, destroyer of this universe.” He was watching the first nuclear test, Trinity test, in the deserts of New Mexico and he and his fellow scientists were in disbelief as they witnessed the lethal power of the weapon they had just created. A new age started on earth. Atomic age.

Atomic weapons are strategic weapons. They have far reaching impact on war. The warfare using atomic weapons is very much a game of chess, where brain is as important as might. The missiles, bombers and submarines are new knights, rooks and queens of this game.

To understand the nuclear strategy, let us analyze that as a very simple two player, two choice game between two countries, America and Russia. Each country has a strategic objective, to defend themselves from the nuclear attack from the other country. Each country does that by guaranteeing the other country a complete reciprocal nuclear wipeout, termed Mutually Assured Destruction, in case the nuclear war is started by another country.

Each country has two choices, whether to attack another country, or to remain quiet.

Let us say NA means no attack, A means America, R means Russia. Then the game is described in a table as follows.

A-NA, R-A A-A, R-A

America will try to deny the third choice (America-No Attack, Russia-Attack) to Russia by ensuring that if Russia attacks using nuclear weapons, America will retain enough nuclear weapons to launch a second strike and destroy Russia. Russia will do the same to America. So as long as each country guarantees the other forcing to fourth choice, the world always remains in first choice. So a very simplistic Nash equilibrium of this game exists at A-NA, R-NA.

What is meant by destroying a country? Let us say to make sure that country suffers maximum damage, we drop nuclear bombs all over. Let us try to put it in equation.

Total area of  USA is 10 million sq km. Say one nuclear bomb destroys 50 km x 50 km, that is 2500 sq km. That means to destroy 10 mil sq km, Russia will need 10,000,000 / 2500 = 4000 bombs.

But if these bombs were being launched from missiles, with the probability of the missile hitting the target being 0.5, you would need twice as much bombs to achieve the strategic objective of nuclear destruction. So Russia needs 8000 bombs.

But if America strikes first, not all bombs will survive the destruction. So to be able to launch attack after first attack by your enemy, you need more weapons. Say the probability of survival of your nuclear weapon was 0.5, then now you need 16000 nuclear weapons to assure guaranteed reciprocal nuclear destruction of America.

In reality one nuclear power will not plan to carpet bomb the other power across the entire nation. Things will more complex and will be planned differently. But we are just creating a simple mathematical model here.

Lets try to put it in equation. Say each country prepares for two attacks. First attack is your plan to destroy them before they hit you, either because you think you are invincible or because you know for sure they are launching nuclear attack soon. Second attack is when you have been caught off guard and suffered heavy destruction and now you are all out to teach a lesson to your enemy.

Let’s assume the following,

TAa = total area of USA

N1a, N2a  = no. of first strike and second strike weapons with USA.

PS1a, PS2a = probability of survival of  first strike and second strike American nuclear arsenal in case of enemy attack.

BAa = area destroyed by one American bomb.

PH1a, PH2a = probability of successful target strike of first and second strike weapons of USA.

So now we have an equation for the strategic objective.

Strategic objective for USA = SOa = have enough capability to destroy Russia in first strike as well as second strike.

Super simplified SO:  area destroyed by one bomb x number of bombs > total area of enemy. Ensure this much and your enemy will be scared of you.

Considering probabilities, SO:  (probability of survival of a bomb) x (probability of a bomb hitting the targt)  x (area destroyed by one bomb) x (number of bombs) > (total area of enemy).

This is strategic objective of any one strike.

SO for USA , SOa:  SOa1 (first strike strategic objective) & SOa2 (same for second). Note the use of “AND” boolean operation and not “OR”

SOa = SOa1 & SOa2

SOa1 = (N1a x PS1a x PH1a x BAa > TAr )

SOa2= ( N2a x PS2a x PH2a x BAa > TAr)

We could obtain strategic objective of Russia, SOr by interchanging prefix “a” with prefix “r”.

One country will not attack another if it knows for sure that the second country is meeting its strategic objective. So putting it back in game table again.

SOa = true & SOr = true, so R-NA & A-NA SOa = true & SOr = false, so A-A, R-NA
SOa = false& SOr = true, so R-A & A-NA SOa = false& SOr = false, so R-A & A-A

What the above table shows us is that the probability of small scale nuclear war between USA and Russia was higher if each country had only a limited nuclear weapons. But the world remained peaceful because both powers had enough nuclear weapons to wipe out the other one.

Let’s examine the strategic objectives equations again.

SOa1 : N1a x PS1a x PH1a x BAa > TAr

SOa2: N2a x PS2a x PH2a x BAa > TAr

SOa = SOa1 & SOa2

SOa = (N1a x PS1a x PH1a x BAa > TAr)  & (N2a x PS2a x PH2a x BAa > TAr)

We make two interesting observations here.

  1. As we see, if you do not have enough control over PS, probability of survival of your weapons, the only strategy for you to ensure SO = true is to increase N, the total number of weapons you have. Thus number of nuclear weapons worldwide increased drastically throughout sixties and seventies.
  2. The increased number N gives you strategic advantage, but only to certain extent. After you have comfortably passed the condition, with safety margin, there is not much strategic advantage by building more nuclear weapons. So the making of nuclear weapons peaked in eighties and nineties. Not because suddenly the powers wanted peace, just because there was not much strategic gain.
  3. If you are not yet attacked, you have all your weapons, so probability of survival is 1. Thus you need less weapons for first attack objective. But probability of survival of your weapons is lot less if you are attacked, which is the case for second attack. What it means then is, every country allocated far more weapons for second attack capability than first attack.
  4. Also doubling the probability of survival means you need half the weapons. It is a factor with high sensitivity to strategic objective.

It is interesting that even a simple mathematical model can show us so many things. It highlights the factors of high sensitivity. It can spot and explain trends, like we saw this model explained the trend in number of nuclear weapons. It can drastically improve the quality of your guesses.

This post completes the analysis of first phase of nuclear weapons race. In second post we will some interesting technological developments that happened in parallel with nuclear race.