Saturday, 6 June 2015

Growing cocoa in Frankfurt

18:43 Posted by The Thalesians (@thalesians) No comments

Frankfurt is perhaps best known for certain things, notably, being the home of a number of financial institutions, such as the ECB and the Bundesbank. It is also the home of the Frankfurter. However, in amongst the moneyed streets of this city, somewhat unexpectedly, lies the Palmengarten, one of Germany's largest botanical gardens, acres of greenery and greenhouses, slightly at odds with the urban environment which surrounds it.

In an act of wanton procrastination, I decided to visit the Palmengarten. Sitting in a Starbucks working on some slides for a presentation I was due to deliver the next day in Frankfurt, could wait for a few hours, I guessed. At the centre of the Palmengarten sat a large Victorian era greenhouse (above), filled with tropical plants and a small exhibition about the wonders of chocolate and cocoa. It opened with a line from Goethe about chocolate (I have to say, my German isn't that great, so would be great to know the precise translation, if your German is better than mine!):

Wer eine Tasse Schokolade getrunken hat, der hält einen ganzen Tag auf Reise aus. Ich tue es immer, seit Herr von Humboldt es mir geraten hat.

I rarely need any persuasion when it comes to understanding quite how wonderful chocolate is, although a sign of approval from Goethe is of course welcome. Amongst the many souvenirs available in the gift shop were bars of chocolate, made from cocoa grown in the glasshouse at the Palmengarten. It was quite remarkable to think that such a humble plant, such as the cocoa plant is the basis of the whole chocolate industry. It also got me thinking about the presentation I was due to deliver the next day at Frankfurt's first Open Source in Quant Finance conference, organised by the ever enthusiastic Python expert and author, Yves Hilpisch.

Just as the cocoa plant had created a whole new industry around chocolate, so open source software has created a large ecosystem of individuals and companies, who write it and use it. Indeed, many of the presentations at the conference, demonstrated the breadth of products or projects which were either open source or were built around open source software. They ranged from funky charting products (Plotly) to interfaces for getting Excel spreadsheets to work with Python (Zoomer Analytics).

Of course, there is always a question, why should you open source software, essentially giving it away? (Unfortunately, there is no parallel here with the chocolate industry - they don't give away their products for free!) There were many reasons given in Thomas Wiecki's (Quantopian) presentation. He suggested that it was very much a two way process. You might well give away an open source project, which you have spent hours working on, but others will contribute towards it and improve it in return. It also gives your skills as a developer in a visible fashion, in a way that a CV might fail to do. I've found this before, showing people your code or research, which shows what you've done, rather than a CV which says what you've done, can be immeasurably more powerful.

Furthermore, Thomas noted that you can always separate out the "secret" elements of your software project with the open elements. This is indeed something that I've observed in many companies including more secretive institutions like hedge funds. Here there is a definitely parallel with the chocolate industry. They all use the same raw ingredients, like cocoa and milk, and there is no secret how to obtain them. However, the precise process of creating the chocolate differs between manufacturers and this is more of a secret. Not everything needs you do needs to be a secret for the output to be truly unique.

All I know is that the next time I'll be visiting Frankfurt, I'll be thinking about chocolate first and perhaps, finance second. And the next time I have a chocolate bar, I wonder whether I'll be thinking of open source software.

Like my writing? Have a look at my book Trading Thalesians - What the ancient world can teach us about trading today is on Palgrave Macmillan. You can order the book on Amazon. Drop me a message if you're interesting in me writing something for you or creating a systematic trading strategy for you! Please also come to our regular finance talks in London, New York and Budapest - join our group for more details here (Thalesians calendar below)

17 Jun - London - Man-AHL & Saeed Amen - Using Python to build trading strategies
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