Relative pricing revisited

Yesterday I bought a pair of jeans. Normally it wouldn’t be a spectacular event (though one of my first blogposts was about a pair of jeans), but regular squatting has meant that I’ve been tearing through jeans well-at-a-faster-rate, and also that it’s been hard to find jeans that fit me well.

Basically, I have a well-above-average thigh and a well-below-average arse for my waist size, and that makes it hard to find readymade pants that fit well. As a consequence I’ve hardly bought trousers in the last 2-3 years, though I’ve been losing many pairs to the tear in this period of time.

And so when I found a pair of jeans that fit me comfortably yesterday I wasn’t too concerned about paying a record price for it (about 1.8 times the maximum I’d ever paid for a pair in the past). In fact, I’d seen another pair that fit well a few minutes earlier (and it was a much fancier brand), but it was well above budget (3 times as expensive as my historically costliest ever pair), and so I moved on (more importantly, it came with a button fly, and I’d find that rather inconvenient).

Jeans having been bought, we went off to a restaurant at the mall for lunch, at the end of which the wife pointed out that the money we paid for the lunch was more than the difference in prices between the two pairs of jeans. And that if only we would avoid eating out when it’s avoidable, we could spend on getting ourselves much more fancier clothes without feeling guilty.

I’ve written about relative prices in the past, especially about the Big Mac Index, and how it doesn’t make sense because of differential liquidity. After moving to London, I’m yet to come to terms with the fact that relative prices of goods here is vastly different from that back home; and that I haven’t adjusted my lifestyle accordingly leading to inefficient spending and a possible strain on lifestyle.

Food, for example, is much more expensive here than in India (we’ll use official exchange rates for the purpose of this post). The average coffee costs £2.5 (INR 225), which is about 10 times the price of an average coffee in Bangalore (I’m talking about a good quick cup of coffee here, so ignoring the chains which are basically table rentals). The average weekday takeaway lunch costs £6 (INR 540), which is again 10X what it costs in Bangalore.

Semi-fancy meals (a leisurely meal at a sit down restaurant with a drink, perhaps) are relatively less costly here, costing about £25-30 per head compared to INR 1200-1500 in Bangalore, a ratio of about 2X. A beer at a pub costs about the same, though cocktails here are much more expensive.

The alternative to eating out is, of course, eating in, and most “regular” ingredients such as vegetables and rice cost more here, though cheeses (which are relatively less liquid in India) are actually cheaper here. Milk costs about the same.

Controlling for quality, clothes cost about the same (or might even be less costly here when you go for slightly more fancy stuff). Electronics again cost about the same (they come through the same global supply chain). Contact lenses are more expensive here (though the ones I buy in India are manufactured in the UK!).

In my book, I have a chapter called “if you want to live like a Roman, live in Rome”. It’s about how different cities have different relative liquidity of goods. Similarly, different cities and countries have different relative prices, and long-term residents of these places evolve their spending to optimise for their given set of relative prices.

And when you move cities or countries, if you don’t change your lifestyle accordingly you might end up spending suboptimally, and get less welfare from life.

Once again this points out problems with international price indices being constructed based on a particular commodity, or set of commodities. For not only are different commodities differentially liquid (as I pointed out in my Mint piece linked above) in different places, but also the “standard consumption basket” also varies from city to city!

And if a Delhi-ite consumes lots of apples, and a Bangalorean consumes lots of oranges, you can’t make an apples-to-apples comparison in cost of living in these cities!

A year of wiping arse near the Thames

So it’s been exactly one year and one day since we moved to London. Exactly one year ago (one day after we moved here), I wrote about why Brits talk so much about the weather.

The last one week has been among my most depressing in London. Between Tuesday and Friday, the only times I stepped out of home was to the store round the corner, for grocery shopping. The wife didn’t step out of home at all. The daughter accompanied me on one trip to the store. Between Tuesday evening and Saturday morning, there was a layer (or few) of snow on the ground, thanks to the Beast From The East.

This wasn’t the first time in life that I’d seen snow fall – that had occurred in early December when we were similarly snowed in one Sunday, and had run out of supplies.

This apart, another source of depression was the latitude – between early November and late January, it would get dark insanely early here – around 4pm or so. It would be especially cruel on weekends when we’d be home, to see it getting dark so early. I would take walks in the middle of work (I was working for a company then) to make sure I at least got to see some sun (or white clouds!).

Weather apart, one big insight about London after a year of living here is that it’s a massive sprawl. For example, I live in a 2-storey house, with a backyard at least 100 feet long. And this is typical of all the houses in my area. Roads curve around and have plenty of cul de sacs, giving most residential neighbourhood a suburban feel. Check out the satellite picture of my area here: 
Until I moved here last year, I had assumed that London is an “urban” and dense city, given what I’d seen in 2005 (when I’d stayed in South Kensington) and the fact that the city has great public transport and congestion charges. As it turns out, the neighbourhoods are really suburban and low density. Residential areas are really residential, and you need to go to your area’s “high street” if you need to shop.

In the suburbs, most people have cars, which they use fairly regularly – though not for commuting into the city. The area I live in, Ealing, for example, has brilliant public transport connections, but is fundamentally built for life with cars. We currently live in a 1880s house, but are soon moving to a more “urban” apartment in a building that used to be a pub.

London being a sprawl means that it takes a long time to get anywhere, unless you’re commuting directly in or out of town. Most tube connections are radial, which means that if you need to visit someone in another neighbourhood it can take a long time indeed. As a consequence, I’ve hardly met my friends here – with the one I’ve met most often it’s been at an average frequency of once in 2 months.

The other thing that’s intrigued me about London is the pubs – those in the middle of town are all mostly horribly crowded, while those in the suburbs are really nice and friendly. There’s this one place close to home where I go for my football matches, and where we once went for a Sunday roast (yes, pubs here offer baby high chairs!).

Other pubs in the area look inviting as well, and make me wonder why I don’t have “area friends” to go to them with!

Finally, coming to the title of this post, when we were house-hunting this time last year, one of the things I looked for was a house with a bidet or health faucet. We were told by the agents that such fixtures weren’t normal for rental housing in the UK. After we’d moved in, we asked our landlords if we could install a health faucet. Once again we got the same reply, and that we were free to install them as long as we took them away when we moved out.

So as it has happened, we haven’t really “washed arse in the Thames“!


NRI Diaries: Day 3

The longer I’m here, the less I feel like an NRI and the more I go back to my earlier resident self. You can expect this series to dry out in a few days.

So Saturday started with a reversion of jetlag – I woke up at noon, at my in-laws’ place. One awesome breakfast/lunch/brunch (call it what you want – I ate breakfast stuff at 12:30 pm), it was time to get back home since I had some work at some banks around here.

I decided to take the metro. The wife dropped me by scooter to the Rajajinagar Metro Station. The ticket to South End Circle cost Rs. 30. The lady behind the counter didn’t crib when I gave her Rs. 100, and gave change.

Having used the metro as my primary mode of transport in London for the last nine months, I’m entitled to some pertinent observations:

  • Trains seemed very infrequent. When I went up to the platform, the next train was 8 minutes away. And there was already a crowd building up on the platform
  • Like in London, the platform has a yellow line and passengers are asked to wait behind that. But unlike in London, the moment you go near the yellow line, a guard whistles and asks you to get back. I’m reminded of Ravikiran Rao’s tweetstorm on Jewish walls.
  • For a Saturday afternoon, the train was extremely crowded.
  • My skills from an earlier life of expertly standing and grabbing a seat in a BMTC bus were of no use here, since other passengers also seemed to have that skill
  • My skills from the last few months in knowing where to stand comfortably in a crowded train were put to good use, though. I managed to read comfortably through my journey
  • It took 20 mins to get to South End. Another 10 mins walk home. Not sure this is quicker than taking a cab for the same journey

Afternoon was spent running around banks updating mobile number and Aadhaar. It was all peaceful, except for Punjab National Bank asking for a physical copy of my Aadhaar (which quite defeats the purpose! HDFC told me to update Aadhaar online. ICICI did it through ATM!).

In the evening I let go of some more vestiges of my NRI-ness. I got the water filter at home cleaned and started drinking filtered tap water. And then I went and had chaat at a street gaaDi. I promptly got “spicy burps”. I guess it was the masala powder he added.

I quickly made amends by going to my favourite jilebi stall and belting jilebi.

Then I went to meet fellow-NRI Paddy-the-Pradeep for coffee at Maiya’s in Jayanagar. We ordered bottled water, discussed first world economics and made jokes about NRIs carrying around bottled water. And then we walked out carrying the leftover bottled water as a NRI badge.

On my way home, I went to a nearby bakery and got plain cake, nippaTT and Congress.

All is well.

NRI Diaries: Day 2

NRI Diaries: Day 1

NRI Diaries: Day 2

I know this is a day late, but the reasons for that will be apparent by the end of the post.

Day Two (15th December) started with waking up at 9 am – jetlag had clearly not worn off. I was going to be late for my 10:30 meeting and started getting ready in a hurry only to see a text from the person I was meeting that he was late as well.

Once again I took an auto rickshaw for breakfast. Meter showed Rs. 35. I handed a Rs. 100 note. Driver said “no change”, and didn’t seem to mind when I told him that I’ll get change from the restaurant I planned to eat at and that he should wait. I bought coupons for my food, and brought back Rs. 50 for the auto guy, and he promptly gave me the change.

The meeting in question was on the other side of Silk Board, and I was dreading the commute. Surprisingly, the commute was rather smooth, taking less than 20 minutes from Jayanagar 4th T Block to HSR Layout. Along the way I got to hear the driver’s life story as he was constantly on the phone with a friend of his.

Traffic was worse on the way back from the meeting (started from HSR around 1230 pm). Took nearly an hour to get home (Jayanagar 3rd Block). And along the way I saw this:

I honestly miss this kind of stuff back in the UK, where I find people taking “data science” too seriously (another post on that sometime in the future).

Lunch was swiggied. Main course came from Gramina Thindi, It’s a tiny restaurant and doesn’t have a computer, so it’s not integrated into Swiggy’s ordering system. So swiggy actually sent a guy to the restaurant to place my order, and he waited there while it was being prepared and then brought it home to me.

I totally didn’t mind the Rs. 35 “delivery fee” they charged on top of my Rs. 55 lunch.

Dessert was from Corner House. Cake Fudge was as excellent as usual. Made a mental note to introduce this delicacy to the daughter before this trip is up.

And then it was time to go launch my book. Sales of the book are not exclusive to Amazon any more – it’s also available at Higginbothams on M G Road, which is where the book launch happened.

The launch was at this nice outdoor backyard of the store. I spoke to Pavan Srinath about some of the concepts I’ve described in the book. After that I signed copies, trying hard to get a wisecrack for everyone I signed for. I mostly failed.

The highlight of the launch was this guy zipping across the venue right behind me on a scooter, and then loudly honking. He was followed by another guy on a bike.

After the launch function was over, the wife and I decided to head to Mahesh Lunch Home for dinner. We took an auto. The guy at MG Road demanded Rs. 80 (ordinarily an exorbitant amount) to take us to Richmond Circle. We instantly agreed and got in.

He may have had some sense of seller’s remorse after that – in that he probably priced himself too low. So he drove slowly and, as we got to Richmond Circle, he said it would cost us a further Rs. 20 to take us across the road to Mahesh. We paid up again.

Something’s seriously wrong with Uber in Bangalore it seems. Out of six times I’ve tried using the service, I’ve got a cab within 5 minutes on only one occasion. On a few occasions, it’s been upwards of 10 minutes. And when the app showed that the nearest Uber was 20 mins away, we simply decided to take an auto rickshaw.

Except that we’d not bargained for drivers refusing outright to take us to Rajajinagar. One guy agreed and after we got in, asked for Rs. 300. This time, with our stomachs full, we were less charitable and walked out. Some walking and more waiting later, we were on our way to Rajajinagar, where I spent the night.

Oh, and it appears that the daughter has been afflicted by NRI-itis as well. She bears a red mark on her cheek following a mosquito bite.

NRI Diaries: Day 1

So I arrived in Bangalore this morning, after nine months in London. This makes this my first visit to India as a “Non Resident Indian” (NRI), and since foreign papers quite like getting opinions of India from NRI observers, I thought it makes sense to document my pertinent observations. I should mention upfront, though, that nobody is paying me for these observations.

The day began after a very short night’s sleep (we went to bed at 11 pm British Time and woke up at 7:30 AM India Time, a total of three hours) with a visit to one of our favourite breakfast establishments in Bangalore – Mahalakshmi Tiffin Room.

It was the daughter’s first ever auto rickshaw ride (back when we lived here we had a car and she was really tiny, so didn’t need to take her in an auto). She seemed rather nonchalant about it, occasionally turning her head to look outside. The auto ride cost us Rs 30. We gave Rs 100 and the driver asked us if we didn’t have change. Living outside makes you unlearn the art of change management.

We got our usual table at MLTR and were greeted by a rather usual waiter plonking three glasses of water on our table. We politely declined and requested for Bisleri.

After breakfast, it was time to get connected. I went to a medical shop near my home which I knew offers mobile phone top up services. Topping up the wife’s phone was rather straightforward, though it took some time given the crowd. During my fifteen minutes at the medical shop, at least six people came requesting for mobile phone top ups. Only two came asking for medicines. India seems to be getting healthier and wealthier.

Airtel decided to reassign my number to someone else so I needed a new SIM. I asked the medical shop guy for a Reliance Jio SIM. He spent ten minutes trying to log in to his Jio vendor app, and I gave up and took my business elsewhere. This elsewhere was a really tiny hole in the wall shop, which had a fingerprint reader that enabled the issue of a Jio SIM against Aadhaar authentication. The process was a breeze, except that I consider it weird that my mobile number starts with a 6 (the number I lost was a 9845- series Airtel).

Waiting at the hole-in-the-wall also made me realise that standing at shopfronts is not common practice in London. Thanks to high labour costs, most shops there are “self-service”. It’s also seldom that several people land up at one shopfront in London at the same time!

Losing my old number also meant I had to update the number with banks. I started with State Bank of India. The process was rather simple – took no more than 2 minutes. While at it, I asked about Aadhaar linking of my bank account there. There seems to be some confusion about it.

For example, I heard that if you have multiple accounts with the bank, you should only link one of them with Aadhaar – which defeats the purpose of the exercise, if one exists! Then, joint accounts need only one Aadhaar number to be linked. The linking process also differs based on who you ask. In any case, I encountered one rather helpful officer who completed my Aadhaar linking in a jiffy.

Then, my book is launching tomorrow which means I needed to buy new clothes. I landed up at FabIndia, and as is the practice in forin, I kept saying “hi” and “thank you” to the salespeople, who kept muttering “you’re welcome, sir”. While at it, the missus discovered that FabIndia now has rather explicit sales targets per store, which possibly explains why the salespeople there were more hands on compared to earlier.

Later in the evening, I got a haircut and a head massage. The last time I visited this salon, it was called “noble” (a rather common name for haircutting shops in Bangalore. Like Ganesh Fruit Juice Centres). Now it’s called “nice cuts”. The head massage was fantastic – I miss this kind of service back in the UK. I also borrowed the inlaws’ car and drove it around and even managed to parallel park it – nine months of no driving has done no harm to my driving skills.

Hopefully I’ll have more observations tomorrow.

London’s 7D

In classes 11 and 12 i had to travel every day from Jayanagar to indiranagar to get to school. There was a direct bus that took me from just behind my house to Just behind my school. This was 7D. But despite my mother’s insistence that I take that, I seldom did. For it took such a circuitous route that it would take ages.

I’m sure that someone has done a survey of bangalores most convoluted bus routes, and if so, 7D would fall close to the top there (the only bus that I imagine could beat 7D is 201).

So rather than take 7D I’d take one of the many buses bound to Shivajinagar and get off at Richmond circle, from where I’d get 138 to take me right behind school (or the double decker 131 to take me 10 mins walk away in the other direction). The changeover at Richmond circle was rather simple (no walking involved) and this process would help me save at least 15 minutes each way every day.

Now I’ve figured that the London Underground has its own 7D, except for the fact that the route is not circuitous – it’s simply slow. I live in Ealing and my office is near Victoria so the most direct way for me to travel is to take the district line. It takes 35 minutes and runs once every 10 minutes (the line splits in two places to frequency to Ealing is low).

On most days I don’t travel directly from home to work since I drop Berry to her Nursery on the way. So taking the district line straight from Home to work is never an option.

Yesterday I was ill and so my wife took Berry to her Nursery. So I travelled directly to work. And for the first time ever since I joined this office I took the district line on the way to Office.

I reached Ealing broadway at 8:02 and Just about caught the 8:03 train. The train rolled into Victoria at 8:40 and I was in Office at 8:45.

Today once again I was traveling directly from home to work, and reached Ealing broadway station a few seconds later than yesterday, just missing the train I’d caught yesterday. I had the option to wait 10 minutes for the next district line train or using what seemed like a convoluted route. I chose the latter.

I took a great western railway train to Paddington, where I walked for about 5-7 minutes to the bakerloo line and got it. I got off the bakerloo five stops later at oxford circus where I changed to the Victoria line, and got off two stops later at Victoria. The time was 8:35!

In other words I’d left later than I had yesterday, changed trains twice (one involving a long walk) and still reached five minutes earlier. And all the time traveling in trains far less crowded than an early morning district line train headed to the city!

I hereby christen the district line as London’s 7D. Except that the route isn’t anywhere circuitous!

Hill Climbing in real life

Fifteen years back, I enrolled for a course on Artificial Intelligence as part of my B.Tech. programme at IIT Madras. It was well before stuff like “machine learning” and “data science” became big, and the course was mostly devoted to heuristics. Incidentally, that term, we had to pick between this course and one on Artificial Neural Networks (I guess nowadays that one is more popular given the hype about Deep Learning?), which meant that I didn’t learn about neural networks until last year or so.

A little googling tells me that Deepak Khemani, who taught us AI in 2002, has put up his lectures online, as part of the NPTEL programme. The first one is here:

In fact, the whole course is available here.

Anyways, one of the classes of problems we dealt with in the course was “search”. Basically, how does a computer “search” for the solution to a problem within a large “search space”?

One of the simplest heuristic is what has come to be known as “hill climbing” (too lazy to look through all of Khemani’s lectures and find where he’s spoken about this). I love computer science because a lot of computer scientists like to describe ideas in terms of intuitive metaphors. Hill climbing is definitely one such!

Let me explain it from the point of view of my weekend vacation in Edinburgh. One of my friends who had lived there a long time back recommended that I hike up this volcanic hill in the city called “Arthur’s Peak“.

On Saturday evening, I left my wife and daughter and wife’s parents (who I had travelled with) in our AirBnB and walked across town (some 3-4 km) to reach Holyrood Palace, from where Arthur’s Seat became visible. This is what I saw: 

Basically, what you see is the side of a hill, and if you see closely, there are people walking up the sides. So what you guess is that you need to make your way to the bottom of the hill and then just climb.

But then you make your way to the base of the hill and see several paths leading up. Which one do you take? You take the path that seems steepest, believing that’s the one that will take you to the top quickest. And so you take a step along that path. And then see which direction to go to climb up steepest. Take another step. Rinse. Repeat. Until you reach a point where you can no longer find a way up. Hopefully that’s the peak.

Most of the time, you are likely to end up on the top of a smaller rock. In any case, this is the hill climbing algorithm.

So back to my story. I reached the base of the hill and set off on the steepest marked path.

I puffed and panted, but I kept going. It was rather windy that day, and it was threatening to rain. I held my folded umbrella and camera tight, and went on. I got beautiful views of Edinburgh city, and captured some of them on camera. And after a while, I got tired, and decided to call my wife using Facetime.

In any case, it appeared that I had a long way to go, given the rocks that went upwards just to my left (I was using a modified version of hill climbing in that I used only marked paths. As I was to rediscover the following day, I have a fear of heights). And I told that to my wife. And then suddenly the climb got easier. And before I knew it I was descending. And soon enough I was at the bottom all over again!

And then I saw the peak. Basically what I had been climbing all along was not the main hill at all! It was a “side hill”, which I later learnt is called the “Salisbury Crags”. I got down to the middle of the two hills, and stared at the valley there. I realised that was a “saddle point”, and hungry and tired and not wanting to get soaked in rain, I made my way out, hailed a cab and went home.

I wasn’t done yet. Determined to climb the “real peak”, I returned the next morning. Again I walked all the way to the base of the hill, and started my climb at the saddle point. It was a tough climb – while there were rough steps in some places, in others there was none. I kept climbing a few steps at a time, taking short breaks.

One such break happened to be too long, though, and gave me enough time to look down and feel scared. For a long time now I’ve had a massive fear of heights. Panic hit. I was afraid of going too close to the edge and falling off the hill. I decided to play it safe and turn back.

I came down and walked across the valley you see in the last picture above. Energised, I had another go. From what was possibly a relatively easier direction. But I was too tired. And I had to get back to the apartment and check out that morning. So I gave up once again.

I still have unfinished business in Edinburgh!