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Roulette, Mispriced Bets and Investing

Joseph Jagger, born in September 1830 in a village near Bradford, Britain, was an engineer in a cotton factory in Yorkshire.

With years of practical experience in the cotton manufacturing industry, Jagger developed an intuitive feel about what machines could do. He figured that even the most sophisticated instruments are far from mechanical perfection. Every machine has flaws. And every flaw brings with it an opportunity to exploit it.

The Englishman often wondered if it was possible to convert his expertise into more cash, not by scamming his employer at the cotton factory but by discovering the possible flaws in the gambling machines at Monte Carlo? Especially the roulette wheels.

In 1873, Joseph Jagger became the first man to break the bank at Monte Carlo.

The Beaux-Arts Casino at Monte Carlo, Monaco was inaugurated in 1863. In Beaux-Arts casino, at the start of the day, every table was funded with a cash reserve of 100,000 francs – known as ‘the bank’. François Blanc, the original owner of the casino, devised a rule for the Casino. If any gambler won more than the cash allocated for the table, the play was temporarily suspended and a black cloth was laid over the table in question. This ceremony was called breaking the bank. After an interval, while extra funds were brought out from the casino’s vaults, the table re-opened and play continued.

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How Not to Bet

Jeanne was in her late 80s. Her husband had already passed away twenty years back. Her only daughter, Yvonne, had died much earlier at a relatively young age. Yvonne’s son, Frédéric, was raised by Jeanne herself. Unfortunately, like his mother, Frédéric too had a premature demise when he was killed in an automobile accident at a young age of 36.

All her life Jeanne had lived in Arles, France and had no wish to leave the place in her final years. However, living alone with no source of income, it was hard to support herself.

That’s when a forty-seven-year-old lawyer named André-François Raffray offered a deal to the old lady.

At age ninety and with no heirs, Jeanne agreed to sell her apartment to Raffray for the price of a low monthly subsistence payment of 2,500 francs. The contract said that the payments would stop upon her death, at which point she would be carried out and Raffray could move in.

Jeanne would thus have an ongoing source of cash to live on in her last years, and the lawyer would get an apartment cheaply, with no money down, in return for accepting the uncertainty as to when he would take possession.

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Process, Practice, Perseverance

Have you ever wondered why a doctor’s clients are called ‘patients’? Even a more interesting question, why do doctors call their work as ‘practice’?

Well, one of the reasons is that you can’t become a good doctor without practicing what you learn in textbooks. For that matter, any work done under any profession is nothing but practice. And that doesn’t exclude investing in the stock market.

I recently read a nice post from John Huber on his investment process. Here’s something John wrote that caught my attention –

…stop trying to read everything under the sun and get out there and actually start investing—start valuing companies, make investments, learn, repeat, etc…Whether you’re playing the piano, hitting a sand wedge, shooting a jump shot, riding a bike, or even driving a car—the way you learned was through repetition. The same can be said for valuation. Reading books is fine, doing case studies is better, but actually valuing companies and making investments—practicing—is the best way to learn.

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Lesson from a Dozen Angry Men

In June 2016, I got the opportunity to attend Prof. Sanjay Bakshi’s workshop in Flame University. Prof. Bakshi’s style of teaching is remarkably unconventional. He uses a lot of images, videos and stories to explore ideas. Such method serves three purposes.

First, unlike traditional classroom lectures, Prof. Bakshi’s classes, from start to finish, are very interesting.

Second, a human mind is better at remembering information when it comes via multiple sensory inputs. Understanding of the concepts is much deeper when different sections of the neural machinery are engaged through visual information.

Third, stories make the information stick better. A message packaged in the form of a story has a longer shelf life.

One such video that Prof. Bakshi shared during his workshop was an old Hollywood movie called ‘12 Angry Men.’ It came out in 1957. The story is based on a drama written by Reginald Rose.

The jury system is designed to be a wonderful system for decision making. So, the movie has important lessons on decision making, thinking, and human psychological biases. Interestingly, there’s also a Bollywood version of the same movie titled Ek Ruka Hua Faisla. However, I suggest you watch the original 1957 version first. I guarantee that the 90 minutes you’d spend on the movie will be worth every second of it.
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Latticework of Mental Models: Benford’s Law

On 25 November 2003, Kevin Lawrence was sentenced to 20 years in prison for pulling off possibly the biggest financial fraud in Washington State’s history. Here’s the backstory.

Kevin Lawrence graduated from high school in 1984. After a brief stint with a brokerage firm Lawrence bought a bowling alley and converted it into a fitness gym. He equipped the gym with modern exercise equipment, computers and hired chiropractors, masseuses and a nutritionist for the facility. But that was just the beginning of his entrepreneurship dreams. Soon he started working on an ambitious business plan to create a chain of high tech health clubs. He pitched the idea to a lot of investors.

Lawrence claimed that his startup would be an industry innovator that integrated fitness and health care into one business model, i.e., consumers could do fitness workouts and obtain health care within the same facility. His proposition also included offerings for design, manufacturing, and marketing of fitness equipments. Plus, he planned to build software to analyze the club member’s physical performance.

Lawrence must have been a good storyteller for he was able to convince more than two thousand investors and raise close to $100 million.

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Latticework of Mental Models: Thinking From First Principles

First principles thinking is one of the most effective mental tools for solving problems, especially the hard ones. And no one embodies this philosophy of first principles thinking better than Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla Motors and SolarCity.

Musk, in one of his interviews, said –

It’s most important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. We’re doing this because it’s like something else which was done or it’s like other people are doing. It’s mentally easy to reason by analogy rather than by first principles. First principles is the Physics-way of looking at the world. What that really means is that you boil things down to the most fundamental truths and then reason up from there. That takes a lot more mental energy.

For example, somebody could say that battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they’ll always be because that’s the way they’ve always been in the past. No! That’s pretty dumb. If you apply that reasoning (analogy) to anything new then you won’t be able to get to that new thing.

For batteries people say, historically it has cost $600 per kilowatt hour and it’s not going to be much better than that in the future. First principles thinking would say, what is the market price of the basic constituents of the battery? It’s got Carbon, Nickel, Aluminium, and some polymers for separation. So breakdown on the material basis and ask, “If we bought that in London metal exchange, what each of those things cost?” Oh! It’s like $80 per kilowatt hour. Clearly, you need clever ways to take those material and combine them into the shape of a battery cell and you can have batteries much much cheaper than anyone realized.

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Latticework of Mental Models: Hot Hand Fallacy

One of the most embarrassing moments of my childhood was the day when my class teacher asked me something about Sachin Tendulkar. I replied, “Who is Sachin Tendulkar?”

I was in 6th standard. The entire class, including the teacher, burst into laughter. That was the day when I started taking an active interest in cricket. Of course, the motivation was to avoid looking like a fool in a cricket crazy nation.

“Dravid is not in form these days.” Claimed one of my friends.

“I hope he comes back in form soon else they will drop him from the national team.” Argued other friend.

I nodded in agreement. I was faking because one thing that still baffled me was the idea of a player being “in-form” or “out-of-form.”

“What’s this in-form and out-of-form business?” I asked my best friend. Typically, looking-like-a-fool fear goes away when you’re with your best buddies, right? He was the only one who I didn’t feel the need to impress with my cricket knowledge.

Well, if a player plays consistently well for many innings, we say he is in good form. Otherwise, he is considered out of form, he explained, “An in-form player is always in demand because he’s expected to continue playing well.”

Why does an in-form player play well? If it’s the past performance that determines the present form then how does it ensure the future performance? Isn’t this form business based on circular logic?

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Latticework of Mental Models: Naive Realism

Let me start by inviting you to have an intellectual and emotional experience. Take a few seconds and stare at the picture below.

Image-1 (Source: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey)

Observe closely. What do you see?

You’d probably see a woman who is looking away from you. You may notice that she is wearing a necklace. She seems to have high cheekbones, long eyelashes, and a pointy nose.

Now I ask you to take your eyes off her and focus on the second picture below –

Image-2 (Source: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey)

What do you see now? Another woman? What does she look like? How old do you think she is? What is she wearing? In what kind of roles do you see her?

You probably would describe this second woman as beautiful as the first one. You might guess that she is about 25 years old and fashionable. In fact, the second image looks like a lower resolution version of the first image.

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