Darwin Nunez and missed chances

There is one “fact” I’m rather proud of – it is highly likely (there is absolutely no way to verify) that in CAT 2003-4 (scheduled for 2003; then paper got leaked and it was held in Feb 2004), among all those who actually joined IIMs that year, I had the most number of wrong answers.

By my calculations after the exam (yeah I remember these things) I had got 20 answers wrong (in a 150 question paper). Most of my friends had their wrong counts in the single digits. That I did rather well in the exam despite getting so many answers wrong was down to one thing – I got a very large number of answers right.

Most readers of this blog will know that I can be a bit narcissist. So when I see or read something, I immediately correlate it to my own life. Recently I was watching this video on striker Darwin Nunez, and his struggles to settle into the English Premier League.

“Nobody has missed more clear chances this season than Darwin Nunez”, begins JJ Bull in this otherwise nice analysis. Somewhere in the middle of this video, he slips in that Nunez has missed so many chances because he has created so many more of them in the first place – by being in the right place at the right time.

Long ago when I used to be a regular quizzer (nowadays I’m rather irregular), in finals I wouldn’t get stressed if our team missed a lot of questions (either with other teams answering before us, or getting something narrowly wrong). That we came so close to getting the points, I would reason, meant that we had our processes right in the first place, and sooner or later we would start getting those points.

In general I like Nunez. Maybe because he’s rather unpredictable (“Chaos” as JJ Bull calls him in the above video), I identify with him more than some of the more predictable characters in the team (it’s another matter that this whole season has been a disaster for Liverpool -I knew it on the opening day when Virgil Van Dijk gave away a clumsy penalty to Fulham). He is clumsy, misses seemingly easy chances, but creates some impossible stuff out of nothing (in that sense, he is very similar to Mo Salah, so I don’t know how they together work out as a portfolio for Liverpool. That said, I love watching them play together).

In the world of finance, losing money is seen as a positive bullet point. If you have lost more money, it is a bigger status symbol. In most cases, that you lost so much money means that your bank had trusted you with that much money in the first place, and so there must be something right about you.

You see this in the startup world. Someone’s startup folds. Some get acquihired. And then a few months later, you find that they are back in the market and investors are showering them with funds. One thing is that investors trust that other investors had trusted these founders with much more money in the past. The other, of course, is the hope that this time they would have learnt from the mistakes.

Fundamentally, though, the connecting thread running across all this is about how to evaluate risk, and luck. Conditional on your bank trusting you with a large trading account, one bad trading loss is more likely to be bad luck than your incompetence. And so other banks quickly hire you and trust you with their money.

That you have missed 15 big chances in half a season means that you have managed to create so many more chances (as part of a struggling team). And that actually makes you a good footballer (though vanilla pundits don’t see it that way).

So trust the process. And keep at it. As long as you are in the right place at the right time a lot of times, you will cash on average.

Hot hands in safaris

We entered Serengeti around 12:30 pm on Saturday, having stopped briefly at the entrance gate to have lunch packed for us by our hotel in Karatu. Around 1 pm, our guide asked us to put the roof up, so we could stand and get a 360 degree view. “This is the cheetah region”, he told us.

For the next hour or so we just kept going round and round. We went off the main path towards some rocks. Some other jeeps had done the same. None of us had any luck.

By 2 pm we had seen nothing. Absolutely nothing. For a place like Serengeti, that takes some talent, given the overall density of animals there. We hadn’t even seen a zebra, or a wildebeest. Maybe a few gazelles (I could never figure out how to tell between Thomson’s and Grant’s through the trip, despite seeing tonnes of both on the trip). “This is not even the level of what we saw in Tarangire yesterday”, we were thinking.

And then things started to happen. First there was a herd of zebras. On Friday we had missed an opportunity to take a video of a zebra crossing the road (literally a “zebra crossing”, get it?). And now we had a whole herd of zebras crossing the road in front of us. This time we didn’t miss the opportunity (though there was no Spice Telecom).

Zebra crossing in Serengeti

And then we saw a herd of buffaloes. And then a bunch of hippos in a pool. We asked our guide to take us closer to them, and he said “oh don’t worry about hippos. Tomorrow I’ll take you to a hippo pool with over a fifty hippos”. And sped off in the opposite direction. There was a pack of lions fallen asleep under a tree, with the carcass of a wildebeest they had just eaten next to them (I posted that photo the other day).

This was around 3 pm. By 4 pm, we had seen a large herd of wildebeest and zebra on their great annual migration. And then seen a cheetah sitting on a termite hill, also watching the migration. And yet another pool with some 50 hippos lazing in it. It was absolutely surreal.

It was as if we had had a “hot hand” for an hour, with tremendous sightings after a rather barren first half of the afternoon. We were to have another similar “hot hand” on Monday morning, on our way out from the park. Again in the course of half an hour (when we were driving rather fast, with the roof down, trying to exit the park ASAP) we saw a massive herd of elephants, a mother and baby cheetah, a pack of lions and a single massive male lion right next to the road.

If you are the sort who sees lots of patterns, it is possibly easy to conclude that “hot hands” are a thing in wildlife. That when you have one good sighting, it is likely to be followed by a few other good sightings. However, based on a total of four days of safaris on this trip, I strongly believe that here at least hot hands are a fallacy.

But first a digression. The issue of “hot hands” has been a long-standing one in basketball. First some statisticians found that the hot hand truly exists – that NBA (or was it NCAA?) players who have made a few baskets in succession are more likely to score off their next shot. Then, other statisticians found some holes in the argument and said that it was simply a statistical oddity. And yet again (if i remember correctly) yet another group of statisticians showed that with careful analysis, the hot hand actually exists. This was rationalised as “when someone has scored a few consecutive baskets, their confidence is higher, which improves the chances of scoring off the next attempt”.

So if a hot hand exists, it is more to do with the competence and confidence of the person who is executing the activity.

In wildlife, though, it doesn’t work that way. While it is up to us (and our guides) to spot the animals, that you have spotted something doesn’t make it more likely to spot something else (in fact, false positives in spotting can go up when you are feeling overconfident). Possibly the only correlation between consecutive spottings is that guides of various jeeps are in constant conversation on the radio, and news of spottings get shared. So if a bunch of jeeps have independently spotted stuff close to each other, all the jeeps will get to see all these stuffs (no pun intended), getting a “hot hand”.

That apart, there is no statistical reason in a safari to have a “hot hand”. 

Rather, what is more likely is selection bias. When we see a bunch of spottings close to one another, we think it is because we have a “hot hand”. However, when we are seeing animals only sporadically (like we did on Sunday, not counting the zillions of wildebeest and zebra migrating), we don’t really register that we are “not having a hot hand”.

It is as if you are playing a game of coin tosses, where you register all the heads but simply ignore the tails, and theorise about clumping of heads. When a low probability event happens (multiple sightings in an hour, for example), it registers better in our heads, and we can sometimes tend to overrepresent them in our memories. The higher probability (or “lower information content”) events we simply ignore! And so we assume that events are more impactful on average than they actually are.

Ok now i’m off on a ramble (this took a while to write – including making that gif among other things) – but Nassim Taleb talks about it this in one of his early Incerto books (FBR or Black Swan – that if you only go by newspaper reports, you are likely to think that lower average crime cities are more violent, since more crimes get reported there).

And going off on yet another ramble – hot hands can be a thing where the element of luck is relatively small. Wildlife spotting has a huge amount of luck involved, and so even with the best of skills there is only so much of a hot hand you can produce.

So yeah – there is no hot hand in wildlife safaris.