Notes from Scandinavia

Two weeks back (1st to 4th August), we visited Scandinavia – primarily Copenhagen, but also a day trip to Malmö, to give ourselves the satisfaction of having visited Sweden. A few pertinent observations (check the wife’s pertinent observations from the trip here).

  • True to reputation, we concluded our visit to Sweden without having seen a single Swedish Krona. Admittedly, our only expenses there were in places that you would normally expect to take plastic money – a restaurant, a coffee shop and a memento shop at the railway station, but this fact deserves mention given Sweden’s reputation
  • The same cannot be said of Denmark, though. A friend who used to live there had told us that we don’t need cash there, but on the first afternoon itself we found out otherwise. We hadn’t bothered drawing cash on the way to our apartment, and when the wife started craving Thai food, I found two takeaways close to the apartment but neither accepted Mastercard – they only accepted “Dankort“. The widespread use of Dankort in Copenhagen means that there aren’t too many ATMs around either. And so that day the wife was forced to make do with Cup Noodles.
  • In that sense, payment in Denmark is like the proverbial washerman’s dog . Widespread use of Dankort means few ATMs. And foreigners’ cards don’t work in a lot of places. Oh – when we did find an ATM and withdraw money, the bank (Danske Bank) had the temerity to charge us an ATM withdrawal fee
  • Relative to London at least, Copenhagen is a dense city. Based on my limited data set (from a few random walks around our apartment in the Amager suburb), the dominant form of housing is the short (3-4 storeyed) apartment building. Some of them are pretty old – the one we stayed in was built in the 1930s, and there was no lift
  • The apartment buildings are also pretty close to each other, and given that this summer in Scandinavia has been especially hot, most people kept windows open, which meant that we could see into each other’s houses. People also didn’t seem to be that concerned about privacy – in the building opposite ours (which is a kind of college hostel, I think) we saw a naked couple making out. Also – I kinda don’t write this kind of stuff on my blog nowadays, but that also told us why people like to sunbathe topless. Contact me directly if you want to know more 😛
  • This liberal attitude doesn’t preclude creeps, though. On the other side of our apartment, we saw an old man sitting in the balcony (yes, a lot of houses in Copenhagen actually have balconies, unlike in London; also windows easily open out wide. Again unlike London) with a pair of binoculars, looking towards the hostel. Go figure!
  • Thanks to the heat, we didn’t walk that much. In a way, we did the trip “in reverse”, looking for comfort food on the day we landed and walking around the old town just before heading to the airport on the last day. All the while, we kept wondering how the city would be in winter
  • Berry absolutely hated the Copenhagen metro (she would start screaming as soon as we got into a train), and for good reason. Despite being built only in the last decade, the thing lacks air conditioning, and with  a part of the line overground, there is a massive greenhouse effect. And unlike the ancient London Metro, there are no windows on the trains either
  • The metro is strange otherwise as well. The structure of the stations means the lift takes far far lesser time than the escalators, which are rather complex. The size of the lifts, however, means that most people have to take the elevator. Also I never figured out where to tap in and out at the metro (didn’t affect us since we had taken a 72 hour tourist pass)
  • We went to the beach on the day we went there. And I did my usual “beach thing” – walked into the water until it was up to my knees. Surprisingly there was no one else doing that – they were all either sunbathing (the sun was pretty intense) or swimming. The city authorities had set up “ghats” on one section of the beach from where people could dive in and swim.

There were plenty more pertinent observations i made through the trip, but the delay in documentation means that I’ve forgotten the rest. Overall, it was an interesting place, though I think we would’ve enjoyed the trip better if not for the heat.

The utility of utility functions

That is the title of a webinar I delivered this morning on behalf of Kristal.AI, a company that I’ve been working with for a while now. I spoke about utility functions, and how they can be used in portfolio optimisation.

This is related to the work that I’ve been doing for Kristal, and lies at the boundaries between quantitative finance and behavioural finance, and in fact I spoke about utility functions (combined with Monte Carlo methods) as being a great method to unify quantitative and behavioural finance.

Interactive Brokers (who organised the webinar) recorded the thing, and you can find the recording here. 

I think the webinar went well, though I’m not very sure since there was no feedback. This was by design – the webinar was a speaker-only broadcast, and audience weren’t allowed to participate except in terms of questions that were directly sent to me.

In the first place, webinars are hard to do since it feels like talking to an empty room – there is no feedback, not even nods or smiles, and you don’t know if people are listening. In most “normal” webinars, the audience can interject by raising their hands, and you can try make it interactive. The format used here didn’t permit such interaction which made it seem like I was talking into thin air.

Also, the Mac app of the webinar tool used didn’t seem particularly well optimised. I couldn’t share a particular screen from my laptop (like I couldn’t say “share only my PDF, nothing else” which is normal in most online chat tools), and there are times where I’ve inadvertently exposed my desktop to the full audience (you can see it on the recording).

Anyways, I think I’ve spoken about something remotely interesting, so give it a listen. My “main speech” only takes around 20-25 minutes. And if you want to know more about utility functions and behavioural economics, i recommend this piece by John Cochrane to you.

Beer Gardens

A lot of “local” pubs in London advertise that they have a “beer garden”, which is usually a grassy backyard that has a few outdoor tables. Having been to Munich, though, I would claim that these guys (in London) don’t know what they are doing, or at least that they can’t do it at scale.

On Friday evening we met a friend from IIT who has recently moved to Munich. Considering that there would be “a lot of kids” (three of his, along with Berry), he suggested that we meet at this particular “beer garden“, which was on the outskirts of town, a small distance away from the Isar river.

We got there following a ride in the metro followed by a tram ride and then a ten minute walk. And what a place it was. It was a massive ground in what appeared to be the middle of a forest, with one massive screen set up in one corner to show the Football World Cup. The entire ground was filled with long tables (eight of us (four adults and four kids) could easily fit in on one of the smaller tables), and on the edges there were play area for the kids.

The highlight of the place for us was that on a rare occasion of dining out, we didn’t need to worry that much about the kids. There were no high chairs for them to sit on, but we didn’t need to bother keeping them in one place, given the play areas and the gravel-lined ground that made it conducive for them to run around.

There was no table service for food and drink – there were a number of stalls at one end of the garden, where you could buy food and drink and get them to your table. After eating, it was your responsibility to clear your table and deposit used dishes at a central area (this was similar to other “self-service” restaurants in Munich). Food was mostly typical Bavarian fare, and it was pretty good. Once again, I overate.

In one sense, the upside of the lack of table service is that it eliminates the problem of how to split bills. Each person/ family can go get what they want, and eat and drink comfortably without the fear or under or over-ordering, and what others would think of them. And freed from both keeping kids in check and wondering about dynamics, and fueled by beer, you can focus on the conversation!

After dinner, we went down to the Isar river. It was already getting dark on our way down the wooded path to the river, but when we reached the river, it was suddenly bright again! Unfortunately it was getting dark, so we couldn’t spend too much time there, but it was a fantastic experience being there. It was already dark by the time we were walking back to the beer garden, and our path was lit up by fireflies!

We were wondering why this concept hasn’t travelled, not even till Britain. I mean, we have beer gardens here, but none at this scale. And most restaurants here rely on keeping kids tied in to their high chairs, colouring into the restaurant’s advertising material, rather than giving them a run about (which can potentially make them more hungry and make them eat more!).

One reason why beer gardens don’t travel is that they work well at scale, and that kind of real estate is hard to come by in most cities. Another is cultural – in India, for example, a lot of people don’t like drinking with their families, so places that combine drinking with kids’ play areas may be taboo. I can’t think of any more! Can you?

That said, when you visit Munich, don’t forget to go to one of the beer gardens (there are two massive ones in the middle of the city itself, in the middle of the English Gardens). It’s quite an experience!

Flaneuring once again

So I wrote my Day Two report too early. A few minutes after I filed it, the daughter woke up and refused to eat the lunch I had got packed earlier. The prospect of feeding her and keeping her entertained meant that we decided to go out again. And we decided to revisit the historic city of Munich (Marienplatz and surrounding areas once again).

And what a difference some sun makes! Streets that were largely empty yesterday morning were full of people (most likely tourists) today. Restaurants and cafes had set up lots of tables right in the middle of the road (a bit like Les Rambles or Rambla de Catalunya in Barcelona). The street musicians seemed better. And the whole place seemed more welcoming.

After some walking with Berry in her baby carrier, I decided to set her down and let her lead the way. The bigger squares in the area (Marienplatz and Odeonplatz) seemed to be gearing up for some festival that will happen this weekend. Stages and temporary stalls had come up for that purpose. We walked past them when Berry said something to the effect that she wanted to eat.

We walked into a bakery, and when I wasn’t sure of what to buy, we walked out. Soon, Berry said more vehemently that she wanted to eat. I found a nice looking restaurant, and we went in.

Now, the optimisation problem wasn’t so bad since I had already eaten and I only had to optimise for Berry. But this was a large place with lots of variety in food so I couldn’t decide. Thankfully Berry bailed  me out when she screamed “thothage! Thothage!!” (sausage). I duly ordered a Bratwurst with ketchup, which she then demolished. I felt truly happy that she had bailed me out of my decision fatigue.

Through this afternoon’s “beat”, I was thinking about how having a limited vocabulary and communication skills, Berry is not yet very demanding. The only things she’s demanded in the last two days were yesterday’s bike ride and today’s sausage. And when she demanded specific things I was able to fulfil what she asked for rather than having to second guess.

i realise that soon enough she’ll become more demanding, and while for a while it will be good in that I can simply focus on execution, it will also mean that she might take more control of my life then! I don’t know if the last two days’ training will help in that case.

Oh, and this wasn’t the last time we went out today. Later in the evening all three of us went to the outskirts of the city to meet a friend of mine from undergrad (and his family) who has recently moved to Munich. That experience deserves a blogpost on its own. Hopefully I’ll write!

A day at the museum

I still haven’t learnt on the food front – in my effort to optimise for both the daughter and myself this morning, I got her excellent breakfast and myself a terrible one. Actually I blame decision fatigue – there were so many stalls at the Munich Hauptbahnhof (central railway station, which is across the road from our hotel) selling what we wanted that I got confused on where to buy.

I wanted to buy croissant for her, and pretzel with Bavarian cheese for myself. After going round a zillion stalls, I bought them from the same stall I had bought croissant at last night (which the wife had for breakfast today and said was good). The croissant turned out to be excellent and was duly polished off by the daughter. I threw 3/4th of my pretzel in a dustbin on our way to the museum.

So our agenda for today was to visit the Deutsches Museum, reputed to be the largest science museums in the world. Now, science museums are the best museums in my opinion, since you generally have “something to do”.

The first museum I ever went to was the Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum in Bangalore, where there are lots of fun activities, such as the chair on which you can rotate (and change speed by pulling in some discs). So the second museum I went to (the adjacent Government Museum in Bangalore) was a massive disappointment, as I tried pressing on the labels on the displays, imagining something might happen.

And despite not being the best maintained museum in Europe (it seemed rather “sarkari” to me), the Deutsches Museum didn’t disappoint. There were plenty of buttons to be pressed and pulleys to be pulled, especially in the physics section (I wished then that I had taken my daughter there when she was older, when I could have actually explained some of the science to her).

There were massive rooms full of boats and aeroplanes (the latter being Berry’s favourite room at the museum. She kept screaming “airplane” “airplane” there several times, and had great fun “navigating” a toy plane (see picture above). I tried hard to explain to her that some of the early aeroplanes (one of the Wright Brothers’s planes is on display at the museum, along with a few World War I planes) were actually aeroplanes. She recognised the Zeppelins as “airplane”, though!

We  saw stars and planets, and telescopes and yachts of different kinds. In the middle, we went to the museum cafe (which looked and felt like a sarkari canteen) and had excellent cheesecake. And I took her to the kinderreich (kids’ kingdom), a play area for kids.

As we were going through the last rooms of the museums, she started getting cranky. I took her once again to the aeroplane room, and she said goodbye to her airplanes. By the time we had walked to the metro station she had fallen asleep.

So there wasn’t so much of flaneuring on this second day, but I managed to see everything I wanted to see. For the most part, I had put her on her “leash” (to make sure she doesn’t run away too far), but then in the last part when she started tiring I put her in the baby carrier.

The first part of the “training” in travelling with me ends today. And I’m hopeful that I’ll have a proper flaneuring partner soon!

Flaneuring with a baby

Soon after we got married, the wife and I figured out that we like to travel differently. She likes to go and hang out in hotels, getting room service and maybe even watching TV, and not doing much. I’m much more of an active traveller, wanting to explore places, walk around, eat in random places, etc.

Our disagreements on how to travel have reached such a level that on a couple of trips, we actually split up, with her staying at the hotel and me roaming alone. However, roaming a city alone is not so much fun, so I’m trying to recruit a partner for that. And rather than “searching all over town while holding a baby in my arms” (a Kannada proverb), I want to train the (not so proverbial) baby!

Today was the first such day of “training”, and we are in Munich. The wife had some work here today and tomorrow, and this was a great opportunity for the daughter and I to flaneur by ourselves (ok she doesn’t have a say in this!).

So day one went off quite well, though I sometimes think I gave in a bit too much to her interests. The walk through the old town of Munich (around Marienplatz) lasted not more than an hour before we were in the gardens – first briefly at the Hofgarten and then later at the Englischer Garten (English Garden, which is larger than both Hyde Park and Central Park) where we went cycling.

To be honest, the walk around Marienplatz was a bit of a bore even for me. The place is full of fashion outlets, and there isn’t much to “do”. It also didn’t help matters that we were walking around on full stomachs – we had eaten massive dinners last night, and even though we woke up late and had a small breakfast, we weren’t hungry (I made the mistake of going to a chain coffee shop for breakfast. The coffee was atrocious and the food also unspectacular).

One of the keys to effective flaneuring (to borrow a word from Nassim Taleb) is the willingness to try out interesting food and drink you come across on the way. This means travelling on a light enough stomach, so that you can eat whatever you want without constraint. The full stomach thanks to the bad breakfast this morning meant that we couldn’t partake in any of the interesting looking foods on offer, thus significantly diminishing our experience.

Another necessary condition for good flaneuring is the availability of good public transport – sometimes you can just get bored of the place you are in and want a change of scenery. At other times, you’ll want to be at a specific place that is too far away to walk to. In both situations, availability of dense public transport network (and low marginal cost of travel – such as a day travel card) can really help.

Through the morning, though, whenever Berry saw a bicycle, she would scream “bike-u bike-u” (she’s got this very Kannada habit of ending every noun in “u”. So car-u, pant-u, dog-u etc) and demand to sit on it. So when we got near the English Gardens (where I’d heard it’s good to bike), I had the problem of trying to find a bike rental store.

We walked around till we encountered a public WiFi hotspot (Munich has lots of those!), where I found the addresses of a few cycle rental shops. And one was right at the edge of the English Gardens, and I had to take the U-bahn (underground metro) to get there. It was an extremely peaceful ride (I pride myself on adjusting myself easily to public transport in new cities), though we had to change trains.

We borrowed an electric bike with a child seat from MUC Bike. It’s like a normal cycle except there’s a Lithium ion battery backup, to give you that extra power in case you’re tired. And we went round the park, watching ducks in several places, and playing on the swing (Berry only). The cycle returned, and a quick beer and pretzel later, we were on our way back to the hotel!

Overall I think it went well. There is one noticeable area of improvement- food. I need to optimise for both of us, and we sometimes have different food preferences, and I end up making poor choices. Like I asked for rice with today’s lunch even though there were already potatoes in the dish (since Berry likes rice). As it happened, she wasn’t so hungry and we ended throwing the rice!

The plan for tomorrow is to go see the Deutsches Museum. Let’s see how that goes!

Conversation with an Afghan-Dutch taxi driver

We got back to London yesterday, and were welcomed with atypical London weather – thunderstorms. While it is common to stereotype London’s weather as being typically shitty and grey, it doesn’t normally rain all that heavily here – most of the rain that London gets is what is called “spitting rain” – slow drizzly rain best dealt with with a nice cap.

Also welcoming us was an Afghan-Dutch guy who drove us home in his Merc (we hired him through Uber). We got talking and there were a few interesting things from what he said that I though were Pertinent.

  • When we told him we were from Bangalore he said something that sounded like “cooley”. First we interpreted it as him saying that the city is cool, and then realised that wasn’t what he was saying. Then I thought he was talking about Coolie which was filmed in Bangalore, but it wasn’t that as well. Finally we realised he was talking about Virat Kohli, who plays for Royal Challengers Bangalore. It’s funny how Kohli is identified with Bangalore abroad though he’s only nominally based there only during the IPL season
  • We spoke a bit about the IPL and he said he was disappointed that “our team” lost. A minute later he said the team was Sunrisers Hyderabad. For a while it wasn’t clear as to why the Sunrisers were his team. Then I realised they have two prominent Afghan players – Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi.
  • He was studying to be a dentist, and decided to spend time in England learning English because a lot of the dental course was in English. Apart from putting himself through formal English classes, driving an Uber was a way for him to become better at English (it’s interesting how at times in our conversation he switched to using Hindi words – some of which I’m guessing are common to Pashto as well), apart from making money
  • My wife later told me that it was common for continental Europeans to spend a gap year in England learning English. And that apart from taking classes they take up jobs where they can practice the language – like driving a taxi or waiting tables.
  • The conversation also got me thinking about gap years and saving up for education – something that doesn’t at all happen in India. In India, the standard practice is to go to college immediately after school, when one is still being funded by parents. In one way, this reduces social mobility since people whose parents can’t afford college end up not studying. Also, the returns to education in India are high enough that the compensation for blue collar jobs (that one can find without a college degree) isn’t enough to fund a later degree.
  • Despite having Afghan parents, this guy has never been there. “It’s way too dangerous. I can go see relatives but will end up spending most time indoors, so not much fun”, he said.

Every time I have a conversation with a taxi driver I’m reminded of what I was told by a friend on the day I moved to Delhi in 2008. “It might be common in Bangalore to chat up auto and taxi drivers”, he had told me, “but in Delhi it is not the done thing”. I still wonder why.