Sunday, 24 September 2017

Why computer decision making makes us less human

Computers are wonderful tools for taking the boring work and doing it with complaining. However, we must realize that no computer can replace the human trigger of compassion, love or understanding of another human being.

Rachel (not her real name) has a small business selling various indigenous products ranging from ingredients of traditional beer to the homemade beer, cloth for traditional dresses to the complete customer ordered dress, etc. Her monthly income ranges from 15,000 to 20,000 a month. Last month she had an unexpected bonus when a musical group ordered dresses valued at over 200,000. Being a shrewd businesswoman she invested 50,000 in paying her rent for 8 eight months in advance as well as stocking up her food so she will only need to replenish at the end of February next year. After all she has learnt the hard way what happens during Januworry. Her company has continued making its usual income and she feels quite secure in her present position and is even thinking of expanding and adding another staff member. However, quite unexpectedly as Death tends to be, her brother passed away and the funeral arrangements with the obligatory trip to the north for the funeral have depleted all her savings that she needed to cope with till end of the month.

Upon her return from the funeral she decides to visit the bank to get a loan of N$ 1,500 to pay for every day expenses till she gets her payment of N$20,000 for an order that already been delivered. She visits her ban and has all her paperwork in order. She even has a certified copy of the death certificate to show why she needs a loan. The bank turns down her loan application when she approaches the front desk and does not even send her in to see a manager. She requests to see the bank manager but is explained that regardless of whether she sees the manager, the “system” has already turned down her application. It is explained that her account was now in debit of - N$ 123.00 and her clients have not done their payments via electronic funds transfer (EFT). The computer has indicated that she is not trustworthy for a loan and no staff member can overwrite that instruction.

It is important to remember at this point that the banks make their money by loaning their customers money which they must make repayments – with the additional interest charged being the profit they make.

At some point, the top managers of banks, of which very few these days have come through the ranks from being tellers working with customers, decided to use computers to make decisions on whether the historical data should give out loans. According to international norms, “information about your past payment history gives a more accurate prediction of your future actions”.

Let us take this analogy and use it to consider whether a person will smoke in the future. According to the financial industry model, if a person who has smoked in the past, they are most likely to smoke again. They would not consider has the person stopped smoking, but only that they have smoked. It is thus clear that according to the banking (perhaps insurance too) fraternity, you are what you have always been and will probably not change.

Giving the decision making power of whether you may qualify for a loan based on an algorithm that cannot have the compassion of the present situation of the customer must not be allowed to become normal practice.  The most worrying factor is when these algorithms make decisions based on our ethnicity, marital status, or any other arbitrary factors decided by computer programmers away from the reality of life, we will be less for it.

No computer will ever be able to make decisions based on the unexpected happenings life throws our way.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Flipping house owners in Namibia

The “sub-prime mortgage crisis” in America in the period 2007 – 2010 was felt all around the world. Common wisdom tells us this was caused by banks and other financial institutions giving loans to high risk borrowers who could not repay the money. This message has been shared around the world and all of us agree that people with poor credit records should not be given loans as they cause a danger to all of us when they cannot repay. The proverb seems to be “Poor people were reckless and stupid, and banks got greedy.”

This is also the case in Namibia where the poor (read previously disadvantaged), have found it harder to borrow and thus end up renting property rather than getting an approved loan to purchase their property.

But what if this “common wisdom” is wrong?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research (USA) the 2007 crash did not occur because people with low credit borrowed to buy houses they could not afford. Rather it occurred because the wealthy and middle-class were purchasing property and “flipping” them. (The term flipping refers to buying a house or property with the intent to sell it for a profit at later time, normally no more than two years. The most important part of house-flipping is that your rental income will be enough to cover your bond. So in effect the person renting is paying for the purchase price until you sell the profit when you make a profit because house prices are going up.)

If this has been happening in Namibia, especially Windhoek, I contend that with the reduction in inflation and interest rate fluctuations (possible upwards next time round), combined with a reduction in rental incomes, we will soon see defaulting in the home owners’ market.

So if you own a second home and use that rental income to repay some of your loans, BE AWARE the market is experiencing difficulties and it will impact on you when you no longer are getting the expected rental income and its (previously) usual increase of 10%

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Tikking in Windhoek

Windhoek has recently had an explosion of drug abuse of crystal methamphetamine which is known on the street as "tik" or "eat-some-more". The drug can be bought in almost any neighbourhood in Windhoek and it is found at any time of the day or night. It is normally sold in the form of a rock at a cost of N$ 100.00 each. This rock is broken into smaller pieces and then smoked from a "gun" which is made from a small metal pipe with a copper filter inside on which the tik is placed and has sellotape wrapped around the stem.

Over the past twelve years I have been living and working with people who use this drug on a regular basis. My first experience of the drug was while staying in Ausspannplatz in what is ironically now part of the National Police Headquarters. The drug was readily available and most of the prostitution happening was for the express purpose of buying tik and alcohol.

What is most striking is that before the first hit the user acts reasonably normal. However, after their first hit they become erratic after about 15 minutes and then the addiction can be seen as they want to have the next hit as soon as possible. It is this craving that is leading to an increase in the number of users being willing to do anything for the next high. These activities include stealing from their own homes, robbing people for cash and phones and offering sexual favours to any person willing to assist in the next high.

Earlier this year I spent a weekend with a tik user and was able to see a little bit more of the underbelly of this activity. (It is perhaps important to add at this point that I have tried tik while out with users but am fortunately one of those people who do not get cravings to eat-some-more and more importantly the cost at N$ 100 a hit is just not value for money for me. My personal drug of choice still remains alcohol and I still hope for the day when we will legalise marijuana for personal usage. LOL)

Over an extended period I have met with users, sellers and recovering addicts. The most common user group in Windhoek are young men and women between the ages of 16 to 30 who are un- or under-employed. The money from the drug is procured through visiting gambling and drinking holes and offering anything the other person might want. The most “successful” user is mostly pretty young women who would in normal circumstances not be found prostituting themselves but once under the spell of tik would literally do anything to get their next hit.

These are the Tik Symptoms (according to the Bethesda Recovery Treatment Centre):
  • Loss of appetite, weight loss
  • Loss of personal hygiene standards
  • Increase in irritability and a short-temper
  • Unnecessary aggressive attitudes and behaviours
  • Dilated pupils
  • Rapid speech
  • High anxiety
  • Psychotic symptoms (hallucinations, delusions, aggressive itching of specific areas of the body)
  • Constant headaches
  • An overly friendly manner with a false confidence
  • Insomnia
  • Changes in dress, friends and slang
  • Drug paraphernalia: light bulbs, glass straws, metal tubes
  • Regular visits to the doctors due to contraction of sexually transmittable diseases
If you know of any family member, friend or colleague that may be using tik, speak to a professional to seek their assistance in addressing the reasons behind the usage. More often than not, a tik user is easily able to identify the usage as a problem due the high frequency of psychotic episodes.
The biggest loss to us all from the use of these (and other drugs) is the potential that has been taken away that they can never get back.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Staying off social media - a liberating experience

The past few months I have been very quiet on the social media front. Besides my regular twitter shares or an occasional photo of Captain Adorable, I have restricted myself from posting (and checking the "likes") as it was becoming part of my real life and I wanted some space.

The first few days were the hardest - but then I started using the Internet the way I always have - for getting reading material, searching key words or concepts and sending emails.

This process has led me to create a "pocket" (an offline article reader) as well as participate in free online courses.

It has been LIBERATING.

Of course I still peek at what my friends are doing - but it is not an addiction anymore.

Now I need to get back to blogging and writing my next book!

Friday, 16 September 2016

Media abuse and the citizen

The past few weeks (and years) there has been a debate in Namibia about the freedom of the press and more specifically the government's stated intention to regulate the media. The Communications Regulatory Authority of Namibia (CRAN) has also circulated a broadcasting policy which indicates certain regulations which will be imposed by government.

I wish to dissect this matter for those of us who are not in the media business who would like to have our media free from suppression, BUT, would also like to ensure that the media are held accountable for what they publish. In addition, most citizens are aware that we need to evolve new methods of management of social media posts.

What is Freedom of the Press?

Freedom of the press refers to the right circulating opinion in the media without censorship from the government. What is critical is that freedom of the press allows opinions (normally about leaders) to be circulated for comment among the general public. The Namibian Constitution in Article 21 on Fundamental Freedoms states "All persons shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, which shall include freedom of the press and other media".
THUS, freedom of the press and the right to express an opinion (freedom of speech) is guaranteed in our supreme law.

What happens if Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press is abused?

Abuse of freedom of speech refers to a a false statement that harms the reputation of an individual person, business, product, group, government, religion, or nation. This abuse is referred to as "libel" which is a malicious, false statement in written media, a broadcast, or otherwise published words.

Note: Under common law the word "defamation" is used to indicate a false statement that harms the reputation of an individual person, business, product, group, government, religion, or nation. If defamation takes place in published works it is called libel; and when it is spoken it is called slander.

If you wish to take the process to court when libel occurs you must prove a civil wrong that has caused you to suffer loss or harm for which the person who printed the statement should be held liable.

How do I prove libel?

In general (please consult a lawyer) you must prove that the statement was false, that it has caused harm, and was made without adequate research into the truthfulness of the statement. In the first part of the statement I already had to state that a lawyer had to be consulted. AND that is the crux of the matter why citizens need some regulatory authority with teeth or a small claims court where they can makes such claims without the expense of a legal professional.


If we wish to establish mechanisms that will allow citizens an easy way to make the media pay for libel there are three options open to us:
1. The present self-regulating Media Ombudsman be empowered to give binding decisions when libel is found. (Also expand the system to allow for inputs by consumer groups)
2. Include measure in the Consumer Protection Act that will allow compensation if libel is found. This can be addressed through a Small Claims Court.
3. “Regulated Self-regulation” – where government regulators create the conditions in which media can demonstrate they are acting responsibly.

The need to hold the media and journalists for what they write or broadcast is clear. However, the government should not be allowed to use this sentiment to take away any of our hard won rights in our constitution.