UPS delivers courier by bicycle

UPS is going green with using bicycles. But are they really a motivating factor for the employees?

The NYTimes blog has an entry about UPS using bicycle riders to deliver courier. First things first – I am not sure why this is such a big thing that the NYTimes’ greeinc blog decided to pick it up. And second (and possibly more important) is the view that I would share with achampag in trying to understand if the savings that UPS makes are passed onto the customer. Actually, I am more interested in knowing if the savings are passed to the rider. If the rider, as explained is a noob, then what is the motivation for the rider to peddle to work, while (s)he sees her/his colleagues driving the vans ? And what is the benefit I get to cycle ? If the bicycle riders are paid the same wages as the ones driving the vans – then, isn’t that filling up the coffers of the big shots of the company ? Yes, it is ecologically better, but if the benefits are not passed to the employee (and may be the customer), then it isn’t good enough – or is it ? Would like to know your views on this.

Continuing on the above, consider this – bicycle rider delivers courier –> saves company money –> company invests the saved money in ?

  1. More vans ?
  2. More bicycles ?

If the company were to invest the money in more vans, then the overall effect isn’t any ecological protection, or is it ? (assuming they invest in the hydraulic hybrid vehicles – more on those later). If the company were to invest more in bicycles, then there is an affect on their delivery times. I am sure that the folks in UPS are smart enough to figure this out and I would like to see how they would go about handling this situation. I wonder how one can model this problem as any of the various kinds of problems in OR. How many variables will exist for this ? Any examples for modelling these kinds of problems will be very helpful – please mention them in the comments.

Queen of Sheba – Ethiopian food in ATL, GA

Having tried a few cuisines other than Indian, I was ready to try Ethiopian cuisine. Now, to be honest, I didn’t know that Ethiopia would have a specific cuisine. I thought that most of the African continent shared their cuisine. This restaurant was to break that myth.

Queen of Sheba apart from being a restaurant in ATL, I found out, was apparently the origin of the Ethiopians. Now, that is a fitting name for an authentic restaurant isn’t it. Ok, now to the food. Unlike most places, one can find a decent, if not a great spread for vegetarians. Their menu has 7 dishes for people like me – not bad I must say. So, what did I try. I decided to play safe, and took on the suggestion of my friends and tried the vegetarian combo. So, how does the palate look like ? The food is served in a large plate (that can cover the table) with the dishes in the middle and rolls to eat them with, and the dishes are placed on a large mother ship roll. I forgot to ask the waitress what are the rolls called in Ethiopian, but these rolls are like the neer dosa (if you have had them in Bangalore). They felt like they were made of some dough, a little soft and fluffy. You eat the rest of the dishes along with the rolls. As for the dishes in the vegetarian combo – the timeserwot and four other dishes (whose names I don’t know). Think of them as 5 curries along with the rotis. Of all of them, the timeserwot is what I liked, along with another one made with some leafy vegetable (again didn’t find out the name).

How does the food taste – well, it is a little bland, but that is not a bad thing. The dishes are filling. One vegetarian combo (worth $10.05) can be filling if you are hungry. The ambience is authentic, though I thought a little dimly lit. The waitresses are friendly. Overall a nice place to go to if you want to try something different to eat. I would give the place a 6 out of 10, the loss due to very little explanation about the cuisine (for someone uninitiated like, that is really required) and the dim lighting. The positives – the food is tasty (which is the one which matters I guess) and filling. I will suggest this place to someone who is looking for something different to eat in vegetarian in ATL, GA. I don’t know much about the non-vegetarian dishes, but a friend of mine who tried the Tapia fish, liked it a lot (and the fish looked nicely done when the waitress served it to him).

The Golden Ratio – a good time killer

The first thing you need to know about is the Golden Ratio before you want to know about the book by Mario Livio. The ratio simply put is: a+b : a = a : b i.e. the ratio of the sum of the parts of a line segment to the longer segment is the same as the ratio of the longer segment to the shorter one. Now, one would wonder why is this particular ratio (whose value approximately is 1.6180339887) be such an important thing. It is this exact thing that Mario Livio tries to unravel in this book.

This book is not much about the theory behind the number, though in the appendix he does provide proofs for various theorems (I didn’t get a chance to look into the proofs). The central idea of this book is to enlist all the disciplines where the golden ratio could be found, and to debunk the myths of the presence of the ratio in various places. For example, the idea that the pyramids were designed with the golden ratio in mind, is something, he shows with data as not a valid thing. He goes on to explain about various other instances where the data was fudged a little to get the golden ratio into the picture. The nice thing about the book is that it is a good mixture of history and mathematics. Livio goes to great lengths in getting all the historical information regarding the ratio. Information about various artists, mathematicians and how there was a mutual influence which probably lead to the propagation of the ratio.

One of my favourites in the complete book is the explanation of how the Fibonacci sequence is related to the golden ratio. When Livio explains this, there is an aha ! moment wherein one can see how two of the most important concepts of mathematics are so beautifully intertwined. Another interesting application of the golden ratio, is the Aperiodic Tiling which later was found within quasi crystals. Livio explains how the tiling which Roger Penrose was trying to find out more about as a hobby, later on were discovered within quasicrystals. Livio also explains about the Elliot wave principle, though the description is rather limited (we now know of black swans and quants with bad simulation potential).

The golden ratio seems to exist in a lot of places – from botany to the stock market. This brings up the question about the universality of the number. Is it indeed, the divine number as people in the past thought of it as ? Did God create the number and let us mortals try to find out where all this number manifests itself ? This is the question which Livio tries to answer in the last chapter – is God a mathematician? This chapter is an interesting read in trying to understand the philosophy behind mathematics in general. And looks like the next book from Livio is also titled the same !

So, should you buy this book? I’d say if you are interested in mathematics and history of mathematics, go ahead and buy it. But, be ready to be bored once in a while when he tries to explain the golden ratio applications in paintings or when he tries to get into a very descriptive mode about ancient architecture. I’d rate the book a 6 out of 10, and will suggest it to anyone who is interested in mathematics in general.

BonSouth – another South Indian place to eat in Bangalore

I didn’t know of this place till a friend of mine told me that we will meet for lunch at this place. bonSouth (as its name is displayed) is on the 80 feet road, Koramangla. If you are travelling from MG Road, you need to cross the inner ring road intersection and go further, till you cross the Sarjapur intersection and maybe a 100 meters from there. The restaurant will be on the right hand side. A landmark will be the SonyWorld and the HP petrol station.

Ok, now to the actual part of the restaurant – the food ! Oh, wait, before the food – the decor (ahem, ahem !). This place is also like SouthIndies, but a lot more expensive. The place is chic (which I assume is a must have if you are having a place to eat in Koramangla !). The food is expensive; well to be honest, I don’t know how much the total cost came to as another friend of mine handled the tab. From the conversations though, I think this is not a very economic place. And given that they do serve alcohol(and my friends did indulge in it, yeah, yeah, lunch time, dinner time, that doesn’t matter), I am not sure if the food is as expensive as I thought.

The variety of food – now we are talking. Like any South Indian restaurant, even these folks had a good selection of dishes from all the 4 states. For the buffet, (amongst other dishes) they had a dal-keerai, bhendi sabjee (done in a Chettinad style), vankaaya koora (brinjal curry done the Andhra style). The palate is extensive, and dishes from each state had a good representation. The brinjal curry with coriander paste (given my ability to find out true Telugu food :D) was done rather well, and it was not as spicy as it should have been (which I guess is to ensure that the non-Andhra crowd don’t have their tongues scalded !). The keerai was awesome (the highlight I guess) and the bhendi sabjee was ok too. All in all – a decent place to go out and indulge in South Indian dishes.

Now to the difference between SouthIndies and this place – well, did I like the food more in SouthIndies ? Hmm, may be not. With respect to the ambience and the quality of service, both of them are on par, though I’d rate bonSouth better in quality of service. SouthIndies did have the problem of having lesser number of dishes compared to bonSouth. But then again, the appams in SouthIndies were delicious, and the filter coffee was out of the ordinary. The filter coffee in bonSouth doesn’t have the feel of the true filter coffee ! And when it comes to the food selection, I’d lean more towards bonSouth – the food was a tad better than SouthIndies.

I think it is a difficult choice to make, given that when you find out that both the places are run by the same person. Nevertheless, if you are concerned for the price of the food, and are a sucker for good coffee, then I think SouthIndies is a better choice.

Why didn’t the quants see the meltdown?

First things first – I am not trying to answer that question. Like everyone else, I am trying to find the answer myself, and each day I figure out a small piece of the puzzle. Of course, each day I also find out the various financial instruments created by the super brains of the financial world, and wonder why aren’t those instruments called gambling. But that is not the point of this post. If you were a layman like me and had a simple question – if all these quants in the hedge funds are so smart, then how come they could not figure out the meltdown ? And you will not be alone when asking a question like that.

This podcast over at More Or Less on BBC Radio tries to explain this. Paul Wilmott of the Wilmott journal fame, tries to demystify this problem. And he does it rather well. The gist of it is this (to oversimplify and paraphrase it) – the quants in hedge funds were trying to find out how much their billions of dollar assets (mostly future paper) will be worth given a particular scenario, say like interest cuts. But they didn’t top that particular simulation with another (positive correlation) event which can have an effect on the output. And that is possibly the reason why the mathematicians could not figure out the meltdown. You can read the transcript of the conversation with Paul Wilmott here.

Continuing on the above, one would have thought, well, could that have been so difficult for the mathematicians to tack on another set of conditions to test. Wearing a computer programmer hat, it is merely another and condition to the check isn’t it ? Something like -  if (check_for_increase_in_interest_rates && increase_in_defaults && drop_in_house_prices) { donot_invest(); }. And that is the point that even Paul points out – it is not (of course the complexity of doing those simulations is not as simple as stringing multiple conditions in an if statement). That is something that the mathematicians seem to have missed. Now that is something I am a little sceptical of. Even though pretty much everyone out there has mentioned that the origin of the problem (free registration required) are the quants, it still seems absurd that all these smart people gambled away money without even thinking that there are alternate scenarios that might creep up ?

On a related note, which I hope will make way for the next post, how does one figure out which scenarios are the ones that can have an effect on a particular situation? We now know that the interest rates and the defaults in the housing market was a heady mix, but how does one find out ? Is it always a post-mortem ? Is there a freakonomish way to uncover that ? Can an undercover economist help there ?