Couples on trains

When I first visited London in 2005, the way some couples travelled on the underground caught my fancy. The usual algorithm would be that the taller partner (usually the guy) would hold on to the bar on top, and the other partner (usually the girl) would stand holding him. I clearly remember seeing this enough times back then for it to be a pattern.

I returned to London in 2017 to live there, and interestingly, this way of couple travel had gone missing. I don’t know if there was a cultural shift in the way that people travelled. My best guess is that it’s due to carriage redesign – in 2005, most of my travel (and thus observation) was on the District Line, and the District Line had got a whole new (and modern) set of carriages by 2017.

Perhaps it was the design of the old carriage (which possibly had too few railings to hold on to) that encouraged this couple behaviour. And the better designed new carriage meant that this way of one partner holding on to the other wasn’t that necessary.

The other explanation I have for this is personal – in 2005 I was a much under-exposed 22 year old who would notice every single act of public display of affection. And so every time I saw a couple travel this way (or kiss on escalators at tube stations) I would notice. By 2017, I was much better exposed, and didn’t find PDA all that fascinating and so didn’t notice even though I did many many train journeys.

In any case, the reason this observation about London trains becomes pertinent now is because of the Bangalore Metro, which seems to be showing shades of London 2005 behaviour. At least on four or five occasions in the last one month I’ve seen couples travel this way on the Bangalore metro – one holds the handrail on the ceiling, and the other holds the partner.

I begin to wonder if this is a necessary step in the evolution of any city’s metro system.

Telling stories with data

I’m about 20% through with The Verdict by Prannoy Roy and Dorab Sopariwala. It’s a fascinating book, except for one annoyance – it is full of tables that serve no purpose but to break the flow of text.

I must mention that I’m reading the book on the Kindle, which means that the tables can pose a major annoyance. Text breaks off midway through one page, and the next couple of pages involve a table or two, with several lines of text explaining what’s in the table. And then the text continues. It makes for a rather disruptive reading experience. And some of the tables have just one data point – making one wonder why it has been inserted there at all.

This is not the first book that I’ve noticed that makes this mistake. Some of the sports analytics books I’ve read in recent times, such as The Numbers Game also make the same error (I read that in print, and still had the same disruption). Bhagwati and Panagariya’s Why Growth Matters is similarly unreadable. Tables abruptly inserted into the middle of text, leading to the reader losing flow in the reading.

Telling a data story in book length is a completely different challenge to telling one in article length. And telling a story with data is a complete art form. When you’re putting a table there, you need to be able to explain why that table is important to the story – rather than putting it there just because it seems more rigorous.

Also the exact placement of the table (something that can’t be controlled well in Kindle, but is easy to fix in either HTML or print) matters –  the table should be relevant to the piece of text immediately preceding and succeeding it, in a way that it doesn’t disrupt the reader’s flow. More importantly, the table should be able to add value at that particular point – perhaps building on something that has been described in the previous paragraph.

Book length makes it harder because people don’t normally expect tables and figures to disturb their reading flow when reading something of book length. Also, the book format means that it is not always possible to insert a table at a precise point (even in print, where pagination is an issue).

So how do you tell a book length story with data? Firstly, be very stingy about the data that you want to show – anything that doesn’t immediately add value should be banished to the appendix. Even the rigour, which academics might be particular about, can be pushed to the end notes (not footnotes, since those can be disruptive to flow as well, turning pages into half pages).

Then, once you know that showing a particular table or graph is inevitable to telling the story, put it either in the beginning or the end of a chapter. This way, it doesn’t break the reader’s flow. Then, refer to individual numbers in the middle of the text without having to put the entire table in there. Unless each and every data point in the table is important, banish it to the endnotes.

One other common mistake (I did it in my piece in Forbes published yesterday) is to put a big table and not talk about it. It only seeks to confuse the reader, who starts looking for explanations for everything in the table in later parts.

I guess authors and analysts tend to get possessive. If you have worked hard to produce insights from data, you seek to share as much of it as possible. And this can mean simply dumping data all the data in the piece without a regard for what the reader will do with it.

I’m making a note to myself to not repeat this mistake in future.

Baskets of deplorables

OK this is a political post. You might infer something about my political leanings from this, and you might classify me as a “deplorable”, but I run that risk.

I don’t like the way our politics is turning out nowadays. You are free to interpret “our” and “nowadays” in whatever way you want. What I don’t like is that people seem to wear their political beliefs on their sleeve, and think it is okay to shame and cut contact with people who don’t share their beliefs.

I don’t know when exactly this started – but it was surely sometime between 2013 and 2016. The culmination of this attitude was US Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton describing her opponent Donald Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables“. And that attitude seems to be being taken forward by people of various political dispensations three years on.

I long for the days when people treated their political opinions like their private parts – stuff that existed and was put to good use when required, but not put on display. Nowadays, though, trawl through any social media platform, and you find people making political statements all the time. If you aren’t in a filter bubble, you will surely be seeing flamewars. And a difference in political opinion is no longer just a difference in opinion – you consider someone with differing views as despicable.

I’m friends with a lot of people who hold strong political opinions, and whose opinions might differ from mine. I don’t care about it – since there is plenty to them otherwise that makes them valuable to me, and so I continue to hang out with them.

Some people, on the other hand, don’t think like this. According to them, some political positions are so horrible that anyone who endorses that position is necessarily a horrible person, and not worth engaging with. For them, their political axis is fundamentally uni-dimensional – the world doesn’t exist outside of the dimension that they consider to be a dealbreaker.

As a consequence, any stand endorsed by a politician who endorses their dealbreaker position also becomes a dealbreaker. Political commentary and evaluation is based on who takes the stand, rather than the stand itself. Everything is seen through a political lens, and anyone who disagrees with them is worthy of ridicule.

It is sad that politics has taken over our lives so much, and people consider other people’s political opinions as such an important part of their lives. And the way social media and feedback loops work, I see no way out of this.

Tourist experiences

The big trend nowadays is to do tourism without doing “touristy stuff”. What counts for social currency is to do “authentic stuff” and to avoid things that are “made for tourists”. So tourists try to not visit places with too many other tourists, and go out of their way to find “authentic experiences”.

However, our recent holiday in Lisbon showed us that not all “touristy things” are the same. There were  tourist experiences we liked, and those that we abhorred. Marginal differences made a huge difference in how we experienced places, and not all “tourist experiences” were bad.

For example, on each of the three days we had breakfast in restaurants that seemed to almost wholly cater to tourists. It was possibly a function of living in a part of town (Alfama) that is now host to a lot of tourists. Each day we would check on google for places to have breakfast at, pick one and go.

All of these places had brunch menus, which were pretty good. All of them seemed overpriced given what I’d heard of Lisbon’s price levels. Waiters all spoke very good English. And people at other tables seemed to be tourists. But the food was generally of a good quality, though coffee was bad.

On the other hand, there were these restaurants where we ended up for lunch at clearly touristy places, where you knew very quickly that the food wasn’t up to the mark. One Asian restaurant we went to (we’d been walking for a while and went in desperation) served Indian Chinese food – not something you’d expect in Europe. The pork belly was cooked excellently, but then slathered with sriracha! The previous day, a restaurant close to the Cathedral had charged a fortune for a bottle of water after denying tap water. The food there was rather ordinary as well.

The contrast in tourist experiences wasn’t just about food. As I mentioned earlier, we were in a touristy part of town called Alfama, but it was a nice touristy part of town. Lines (at the castle, for example) were never too long. No place was that crowded (admittedly we went in the off season, and on weekdays). You never got intimidated. And there was the occasional smile or nod to people you came across.

On the middle day of our trip, though, we headed to Belem (another touristy part of town), to Jeronimo’s Monastery. The tourist experience there was something else. The crowds were massive everywhere. Lines to buy tickets were long. The feeling one got was that if we weren’t careful we might be robbed. There were lots of beggars around. The entire atmosphere was intimidating. It was as if we were longing for “our touristy places”. And in very quick time we had made our way back towards Alfama.

So through the trip I decided that avoiding “touristy places” isn’t a good strategy during holidays – touristy places are touristy for a reason, and the effort to avoid them can be significant. Instead, what we should avoid are tourist traps. We need to do some research and go to places that are well rated. There is nothing wrong in doing touristy stuff. All we need to do is to do the “good touristy stuff”.

Why coffee in Portugal is so bad

The title of this blog post is the text I entered into my google search bar at Lisbon airport, on my way back to London last weekend. What Google showed me on top was a blog post titled “why coffee in Portugal is so good“. The contents of the post, though, had given me the answer.

In terms of coffee cultures, Spain and Portugal are rather similar. Coffee shops usually double up as bars, unlike in England for example. This means that the baristas aren’t particularly skilled, and so you don’t get fancy latte art. The coffees you get are thus espresso, espresso with some milk and espresso with lots of milk. The milk being foamed gives the coffee a good taste, in Spain that is.

The reason coffee in Portugal tastes bad is the same reason that coffee in France tastes bad – it is a result of colonialism.

During the years of the Salazar dictatorship, Portugal was economically isolated. This meant that it could only turn to its colonies for coffee. And the Portuguese colonies (not sure if Brazil is included in this since it became independent way back in the 1800s) exclusively produced Robusta coffee. And Robusta coffee, being inferior to Arabica, is roasted slowly, and produces a bitter brew. Which is what we uniformly got in our trip to Lisbon.

France had a similar story. Though there was no economic isolation, imports from its colonies were subsidised, and this was again largely Robusta coffee. And so, as the roads and kingdoms post linked above explains, coffee in France is bad.

I’m not sure if Spain got/gets most of its colonies from its erstwhile colonies. If it does, it goes a long way in explaining the quality of coffee in Spanish cafes, despite them doubling up as bars and not necessarily having skilled Baristas. For the likes of Colombia and Ecuador and Honduras produce absolutely brilliant Arabica coffee.

 

Mixing groups at parties

I normally don’t like mixing groups at parties I host – that sometimes leaves me as a “cut vertex” meaning that I have to personally take it upon myself to entertain one or more guests and can’t leave them to be “self-sufficient”. You might recall that a bit over two years ago, I had tried to use social network analysis to decide who to call for my birthday party.

However, for unavoidable reasons, we had to call a mixed set of friends to a party yesterday. We’re “putting BRexit” later this week (moving back to Bangalore), and considering that there were so many people we wanted to meet and say goodbye to, we decided that the best way of doing so was to call them all together to one place.

And so we ended up with a bit of a mixed crowd. The social network at yesterday’s party looked like this. For the sake of convenience, I’ve collapsed all the “guest families” into one point each. The idea is that while a guest family can “hang out among themselves”, they needn’t have come to the party to do that, and so it fell upon us hosts to talk to them. 

So the question is – with three hosts, one of whom was rather little, how should we have dealt with this assortment of guests?

Note that pretty much everyone who RSVPd in the affirmative came to the party, so the graph is unlikely to have been more connected than this – remove my family and you would have a few islands, including a couple of singletons.

Should we have spent more time with the families that would’ve been singletons than with those who knew other guests to interact with? Or was it only fair that we spent an equal amount of time with all guests? And considering that we could deal with guests on the right side of the graph “in twos”, did that mean we should have proportionately spent more time with those guys?

In any case, we took the easy way out. Little Berry had an easy time since there were two entities she knew, and she spent all her time (apart from when she wanted parental attention) with them. The wife and I were taking turns to buy drinks for freshly arrived guests whenever they arrived, and on each occasion we helped ourselves to a drink each. So we didn’t have to worry about things like social network dynamics when we had more important things to do such as saying goodbye.

I just hope that our guests yesterday had a good time.

Oh, and way too many conversations in the last two weeks have ended with “I don’t know when I’ll see you next”. It wasn’t like this when we were moving the other way.

 

Monetising the side bets

If you were to read Matt Levine’s excellent newsletter regularly, you might hypothesize that the market for Credit Default Swaps (CDS) is dying. Every other day, we see news of either engineered defaults (companies being asked to default by CDS holders in exchange for cheap loans in the next round), transfer of liability from one legal entity to another (parent to subsidiary or vice versa), “orphaning” of CDSs (where on group company pays off debt belonging to another) and so on.

So what was once a mostly straightforward instrument (I pay you a regular stream of money, and you pay me a lumpsum if the specified company defaults) has now become an overly legal product. From what seemed like a clever way to hedge out the default risk of a loan (or a basket of loans), CDSs have become an over-lawyered product of careful clauses and letters and spirits, where traders try to manipulate the market they are betting on (if stuff like orphaning or engineered default were to happen in sports, punters would get arrested for match-fixing).

One way to think of it is that it was a product that got too clever, and now people are figuring out a way to set that right and the market will soon disappear. If you were to follow this view, you would thin that ordinary credit traders (well, most credit traders work for large banks or hedge funds, so not sure this category exists) will stop trading CDSs and the market will die.

Another way to think about it is that these over-legalistic implications of CDSs are a way by the issuer of the debt to make money off all the side bets that happen on that debt. You can think about this in terms of horse racing.

Horse breeding is largely funded by revenues from bets. Every time there is a race, there is heavy betting (this is legal in most countries), and a part of the “rent” that the house collects from these bets is shared with the owners of the horses (in the form of prizes and participation fees). And this revenue stream (from side bets on which horse is better, essentially) completely funds horse rearing.

CDSs were a product invented to help holders of debt to transfer credit risk to other players who could hedge the risk better (by diversifying the risk, owning opposite exposures, etc.). However, over time they got so popular that on several debt instruments, the amount of CDSs outstanding is a large multiple of the total value of the debt itself.

This is a problem as we saw during the 2008 financial crisis, as this rapidly amplified the impacts of mortgage defaults. Moreover, the market in CDSs has no impact whatsoever on the companies that issued the debt  – they can see what the market thinks of their creditworthiness but have no way to profit from these side bets.

And that is where engineered defaults come in – they present a way for debt issuers to actually profit from all the side bets. By striking a deal with CDS owners, they are able to transfer some of the benefits of their own defaults to cheaper rates in the next round of funding. Even orphaning of debt and transferring between group companies are done in consultation with CDS holders – people the company ordinarily should have nothing to do with.

The market for CDS is very different from ordinary sports betting markets – there are no “unsophisticated players”, so it is unclear if anyone can be punished for match fixing. The best way to look at all the turmoil in the CDS market can thus be looked at in the same way as horse rearing – an activity being funded by “side bets”.