Why Brits talk so much about the weather

One stereotype about British people is that they are always talking about the weather. In the absence of any other topic to talk about, they get back down to talking about the weather.

Having lived here for a day after a half after moving here yesterday, I can offer one explanation about why Brits talk so much about the weather – the high information content. In the last day and half, the weather here has been so volatile that the information content in statements about the weather can be rather high.

Most places in the world have rather predictable weather. Delhi has hot summers and cold winters. It almost always rains in the tropical rain forests. It almost always rains in Mumbai during the monsoon. And so on. And when the weather is predictable, the information content in describing it is rather low.

For example, if there is a 90% chance that it will rain in Mumbai one monsoon day, a statement on the presence or absence of rain contains only 0.47 bits of information/entropy (-0.9 log 0.9 – 0.1 log 0.1). If the probability that a summer day in Delhi will be sunny is 99%, then the information content in talking about the weather is just 0.08 bits.

The thing with London weather, based on my day and half of observation, is that it is wildly volatile. This afternoon, for example, there was a hailstorm. And only a couple of minutes later there was bright sunshine. And then there was another hailstorm. I can see heavy rain from my window as I write this now.

Crow and fox getting married in London

A post shared by Karthik S (@skthewimp) on

So given how crazy and volatile the weather in London is, the information content in talking about the weather is rather high. As I write, there’s sunshine streaming through my window, and heavy rain outside. And I’m chatting with a friend who lives not very far from here, and whatever I tell her about the weather here is “information” to her, since it’s not the same there.

It’s this craziness and high volatility in weather in Britain that makes it worth talking about. The information content in a statement about the weather is always high. And this is not the case elsewhere in the world. And so people elsewhere get annoyed by Brits talking about the weather.

PS: What does it tell you that I’m blogging about the weather a day and half after landing in Britain?

The Cooling Effect of Bangalore Rains

So it is “well known” that whenever it rains heavily in Bangalore, the city cools down like crazy. However, all these days, thanks to dodgy data from the Met department, it’s just been an (multiple) anecdotal observation, and not really backed by data.

However, thanks to the efforts of Pavan and Saurabh and the Yuktix team, we have “citizen weather monitoring centres” in several places across Bangalore. These are simple devices that have been installed on terraces or gardens of people, and they contain a rain gauge, a hygrometer, a thermometer and a wind gauge (or whatever it is that measures wind). And they have an embedded SIM card and transmit data every few minutes to the central server (for all you VCs, this is both “cloud-based” and “Internet of things”, so fund them already!).

The web interface isn’t great yet, and the data download is a bit dodgy, but hey, it works for now and we have actual data to show the weather conditions in Bangalore. And there are several stations all over the city (all installed by volunteers who have paid to have one such device in their homes. If you are interested, you can get one, too. Contact Pavan for this), so we can actually test popular hypothesis like how it can rain in one part of Bangalore and not in the other, etc.

Anyway, given the dodgy interface I’m unable plug a weather widget here (how cool would that have been?) so I’ve to shamelessly take screenshots and paste it. This one shows the temperature as measured by the device in Pavan’s house in 4th T Block (the station closest to my home) in the last one week:

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 9.49.10 am

 

Notice the nice sawtooth pattern of Bangalroe summer temperature. Temperatures rise steadily till about 2:30 pm and then fall steadily (but at a lower rate) till about 5:30 am. It is rather steady and repetitive as the graph shows. And then look at what happened yesterday! A steep plunge between 4:30 and 6:30 pm yesterday, and remember that the hailstorm started around 6!

I’ve noticed this on other days also (again by looking at Pavan’s data), and the same pattern holds. The hypothesis that rains do have an instant effect on the city’s temperature definitely holds!

For more interactivity with the data, you can check out Pavan’s station. Or whichever station that is closest to where you are! if there is none close to where you are, maybe it’s time for you to set up one such station!

Gloomy weather

For most of today, the weather in Bangalore has been what most people would traditionally classify as “gloomy”. The sun has mostly been invisible, popping out only now after a fairly strong shower. There has been a rather thick cloud cover, with the said clouds being mostly dark. There has been the threat of rain all day, culminating in a rather powerful shower an hour back.

I haven’t minded the weather one bit, though, though it helps that I haven’t had to step out of home all day. I’ve been happy sitting by the window, sipping coffee and tea and green tea, and eating Communist peanuts, and working. In fact, I’ve grown up considering this kind of weather (cool, cloudy, with a hint of drizzle) as being the ideal romantic weather, and when the weather turns this way nowadays, I miss the wife a whole lot more! Till recently, I never understood why such weather was traditionally classified as “gloomy”. Until I went to Europe to visit the wife last month.

March in Europe is traditionally classified as “Spring” (summer doesn’t come until June there, which is hard for someone from Bangalore, where summer ends in May, to understand), but in most places I went to (I visited five different cities during my trip), the weather was basically shit. I had carried along my “winter jacket” (bought at a discount in Woodland at the end of last winter), and didn’t step out even once without it. It was occasionally accompanied by my woollen scarf and earmuffs, with hands thrust into pockets.

For days together the sun refused to come out. In fact, our entire trip to Vienna was a washout because of the weather. Thick dark clouds and no sun might be romantic in tropical Bangalore, but in Vienna, where it is accompanied by chilling winds and occasionally maddening rain (and once snow), it can be devastating. It can cause insane NED – you might argue that if weather was so bad in Vienna we could have used it as an excuse to stay inside museums and see things, but the gloom the weather causes is real, as we frittered and wasted hours in an offhand way, hanging around in coffee shops doing nothing, and just touring the city in trams, again doing nothing (we had got a three-day pass).

The one time the sun peeped out (after a heavy shower like this afternoon’s in Bangalore), we went ecstatic, but our joy was shortlived as it was quickly followed by another downpour which killed our enthu for the rest of the day.

The bad weather followed us all though our 10-day trip across Prague, Vienna and Budapest. The first and last being former Soviet cities didn’t help, as the (really beautiful from inside) apartment we stayed in Prague was in a rather dreary area, with the weather making the locality even more depressing. As a consequence, we hardly hung around in the locality, taking away dinner on each of the three days we were there. Our Budapest apartment was in a more vibrant part of town (most of our meals were within 500m of our apartment) but the general dreariness and chill meant that we didn’t explore as much as we would have otherwise done, perhaps.

We were back in Barcelona (which too had been rather dreary in March) last Saturday night, and when there was bright sunshine on Easter Sunday morning as we went to the nearby bakery for breakfast, we were absolutely ecstatic. We spent time just sitting on the parkbench, soaking in the sunshine. I made a mental note that if I’m going those parts next spring, I should go there AFTER Easter and not before (like this year). I also made a mental note to never again question why weather that is traditionally called “gloomy” is called so.

Wine buying

Today, for the first time ever, I went out to buy wine, and in hindsight (I’m writing it having finished half of half the bottle) I think I did a pretty good job.

I had gone to this “Not just wine and cheese” store in Jayanagar hoping to pick up some real good wine to go with our cooking experiments for the evening (we’re making pizza and pasta). Having had really bad experiences with Indian wines (Nine Hills, Grover’s, Sula), I gave them a wide berth and moved over to the international section. The selection wasn’t particularly vast, and interestingly as soon as I moved over to the international section, one of the shopkeepers came over to assist me.

He first showed me a 2009 wine from France, when i asked him to show something older. For a slightly higher price, he pulled out a 2006 wine from France. The pricing seemed suspicious to me. A six year old wine from France, one of the more sought after wine-producing countries, for just Rs. 1600 (inclusive of 110% tax, so the duty free dollar price comes to around $15)? May not be very good wine, I reasoned, and now I decided to let go of all details on production date, etc. and simply asked the shopkeeper to recommend to me a good bottle.

Maybe it was the fact that I had quickly moved over to the international section, or that I was talking about year of bottling, but the shopkeeper assumed I was a rather serious buyer, and enthusiastically recommended to me a few bottles. Now, picking wines is tougher than picking whiskeys (where it’s easy to have favourite brands. Mine, if you would ask, is Talisker). Each country has several estates, the year of bottling, weather in the country in various years and several other factors go into determining how good a bottle is. Also, there’s inverse pricing, where you perceive more expensive wines to be better. So one has to look upon raw economics skills in order to judge wine bottles and pick something that is likely to be good.

What particularly interested me was a bottle of 2010 wine from Chile. Now, at Rs. 1300, it seemed rather highly priced for its vintage (given that France 2006 went for 1600). And then, I realized that Chile is a rather unfashionable wine producer, since most people tend to prefer European wines, and that being in the temperate weather zone, it is capable of producing good wines.

The shopkeeper mentioned that the particular bottle had been procured after a customer had specifically asked for it, and that it was made of superior quality grapes. Now, given that it was a wine of recent vintage and from an unfashionable producer, that it cost almost as much as a much older wine from a much older vintage told me something. That it was likely to be good.

It’s about two hours since I got home, and the bottle is half empty. The wine has been absolutely fabulous, and I hope this is the beginning of a great wine-buying career.

The problem with private provisioning of public goods

… is that private players who are providing those goods have an incentive in blocking attempts by the public sector to provide those goods. For the purpose of analysis, let us take the example of Gurgaon, both because I’m reasonably familiar with it and because it has been in the news in the international media thanks to a recent profile of the city by the New York Times.

Now, Gurgaon has a major problem with power supply. It is said that (I don’t have first hand info for reasons you’ll soon understand) the “city” faces about four to six hours of regular power cuts every day. I don’t know the exact reasons for it (surprisingly, Haryana sells power to other states so it appears there is no power deficit per se in the state), but it could be a pricing issue, with free power for farmers and all that. Anyway, the reason for the power cuts doesn’t matter so much.

In reaction to this, apartment societies have taken it upon themselves to provide “power backup” to the residents (for a fee of course). Even in that, there are three grades. I used to live in a DLF complex that had “one hundred per cent power backup”, which meant that I was assured of 24/7 power supply. Every time there was a power cut, the generators would start in a matter of a few seconds, and with “one hundred percent backup”, I could run just about any device on the “backup” power supply. In return, I would pay the apartment association six rupees per unit (as opposed to 3 rupees I pay here for sarkari power in Bangalore).

Then, there as “eighty percent backup”, in which you could use the generator-power supply to run all appliances except air-conditioners and geysers (both extremely important in Gurgaon given the weather). Then, there was another level with fifty percent backup, though I didn’t particularly understand it. The individual houses in the city, though, had no backup, and people living there had to make do with inverters.

Now, suppose that magically Haryana were to become a power surplus state, would the state government be able to provide uninterrupted three phase power supply to Gurgaon? I would think not, for there are several “private players” in that city whose source of profits and wealth is derived from the fact that they provide backup power supply. Think of all those people who invested in DLF flats because they had “one hundred percent power backup”. Now, with power backup not being a distinguishing factor, these flats will lose in value since they cannot command the same kind of premium as they used to (rather, the supply of “apartments with assured power supply” goes up, thus reducing demand for the only ones that offered this luxury earlier). Then, there are scores of generator and inverter dealers in Gurgaon, who again depend on the power shortage for their livelihood. And so forth.

It doesn’t appear as if Haryana has power shortage any more (recently, Karnataka bought power from that state to tide over its power crisis). However, there are enough powerful lobbies in Gurgaon who depend on power cuts (!! ) for their income and wealth, and it appears they have managed to lobby the government there (officially or unofficially) to block the provision of assured power supply. The moral of this story is that once “public goods” start being provided by private players, it is hard to displace them, and this results in a lifetime of inefficiency.

Jet Lag And Other Stories

A couple of months back, Bryan Caplan had written:

1. Jet lag. What’s the best way to cope with jet lag?  Most people sleep on the plane, then gradually adjust to the local time once they reach their destination.  The problem: It often takes a week for people to get a decent night’s sleep.  By the time they’re feeling themselves again, they’re almost ready to go home.

My alternative: Do not sleep on the plane.  At all.  When you arrive, do not sleep – at all – until a locally normal bedtime.  Pay the fixed cost without cheating.  When you wake up eight to ten hours later, you will be refreshed and in sync with your new time zone.  In exchange for less than a day of sleep deprivation, you will feel fine for the rest of your trip.

So I  decided to practically test out his advice. When I was flying in to New York over the weekend, I took a conscious decision to not sleep on the flight beyond 7 am New York time. It was hard, and I had to watch drivel such as Sankat City in order to keep myself awake, but after a day of work in New York, I think it is working well. It’s hardly 10pm and I’m feeling insanely sleepy now but I suppose this can be classified as “normal” sleeping time itself.

I also saw Kaminey on the flight. Extremely well-made movie, and the lack of length helps. And I finished reading Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid also during the flight.

New York city is insanely cold, and windy! It is ar eally scary experience wehn the wind hits your face, and there is the chance that your nose might just break and fall off ! When i had gone for dinner last night, I ended up running backwards! Only to save my face from being hit by the wind. Thankfully today the weather was better and I managed to roam for a bit after work.

I hope to update this blog more frequently while I’m here in New York. And doo read all of Bryan Caplan’s article.