Cafe Ironies

Kevin prefers a quiet one...
Kevin prefers a quiet one...

In an entry with the same title on my blog, I detailed my experience at The Coffee Bean recently that didn’t quite start nicely but ended off pretty intellectually. I’m quoting the gist here:

I approached the counter with a maths worksheet in my hand (I was planning to work out some problems there while I sipped on the tea since I had some spare time on my hand and needed to exercise my mind) and made my order. The young man serving me immediately asked if I intended to sit around to study.

I commented that I’ll probably be around for half an hour and asked if it’ll be a problem. He replied that there’s an event downstairs and they anticipate a crowd so they discourage people from studying at the cafe. I kept quiet and took my receipt. I thought that the Large Chai Latte should at least buy me 30 minutes of time at the cafe.

This post is a discussion seeks to answer the question: “If a cafe wants to maximize their profits from a crowd and yet is limited by their available seats, how do they discourage people from studying there besides using attitude (which I assume is something I experienced)?” So before answering that question, we list out the factors that would encourage one to study at the cafe and see if there’s anything we can do to manipulate them:

Things that encourage one to study at a cafe

  • Good lighting; makes reading comfortable
  • Extremely hot or cold drink; takes you longer to drink and the taste of the drink don’t change that rapidly over time which means more excuse to stay at the cafe longer
  • Quality drinks; makes for nice beverage while you study and you probably won’t mind ordering one more and staying longer
  • Comfortable seats; allows you to study comfortably and sit at the cafe for longer time without feeling discomfort physically.

Technically speaking, removing any of these would help to reduce the time people stay around the cafe and also discourage studying. On the other hand, attitude (on part of the service staff) won’t help to reduce the determination of people studying at the cafe. In fact, it turns off people who genuinely just want to chill at the cafe for a while without discouraging the studying students. When one plans to stay at the cafe for a long time to study and sip on drinks, service at the counter makes up only a small part of the experience, whereas for customers who are interested to get a good drink and sit for a while, the service at the counter makes up half of the experience. In other words, giving people attitude is the worst possible solution compared to removing any of the above.

I strongly recommend the dimming of lighting, which doesn’t harm people out to relax but makes studying tedious and difficult. But this is not always possible since The Coffee Bean that I went to utilizes the in-building lighting that they probably have no control over. It’s not wise to compromise the quality of the drinks since it sends out the wrong messages and is disastrously difficult to control. That leaves us with modifying the seats.

I got this idea when I was at Saizeriya Restaurant at Liang Court; they feature a drinks bar where you pay about $6 bucks or so and get to drink lots of different drinks and it’s free flow – literally a drinks buffet. At first, I wondered why the seats there were so narrow and small; the cushion were thin and not exactly comfortable with prolonged sitting. Later I rationalized it as a means to get people out of the restaurant as soon as they’re done with the food. Of course it’s not going to put off people determined to try all the drinks, but at least they’ll finish with their affair and get out fast.

So here’s some prescription for cafes who hopes to attract people there for a drink and to sit around for a while (after all, if the cafe was empty you might think the drinks suck) but discourage students from spending their entire day studying there, the best move would be to adjust lighting according to your needs to adjust demand. Where this is not possible, modify the seats to make prolonged sitting uncomfortable.

Parcel Here!

Heavy but weighs zero grammes
Heavy but weighs zero grammes

This week’s read/watch/listen parcel starts with a little introduction of a new book The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins and a Q&A session that follows under Berkeley’s Arts & Letters programme on The site holds a wonderful collection of intellectual and academic videos from different events and places.

The book itself was recently published and praised by The Economist for its educational value. To be frank I’ve never read Richard Dawkins but from his readings of The Greatest Show on Earth in the video, I reckon I’d enjoy his style of demonstrating his arguments using long analogies that are probably closer to the heart of readers (rather reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches).

He compares Creationist to Holocaust Deniers, those who argues that Evolution is full of gaps to a stubborn lawyer who declares that more evidence is less. He questions the plausibility of Marsupials engaged is some sort of migration programme where they emigrate en masse from Mount Ararat to Australia – such was the witty humour that Dawkins use to entertain readers and frustrate those who believed in the literalism of Noah’s Ark. Dawkins is critical and knows clearly what exactly he is out defend in the book.

Next, some readings on the fertility decline around the world in The Economist, something I wrote about previously as well as an article on price wars on The New Yorker by James Surowiecki. There’s a video accompanying the article from The Economist about population.

Finally, find out more about Vincent van Gogh’s life from The Economist’s Editor Highlights Audio.

Honest Abe

The Political Genius
The Political Genius

Team of Rivals is one of the rare books I left at camp to be read consistently and then finished within plan. I brought it into camp two weeks ago and planned to have it finish exactly today; I knew that if I was reading it consistently I would finish about 2 chapters per day, which means it’ll take me 13 days for the 26 chapters that Doris Kearns Goodwin penned. I initially thought I might bring home to read over the weekends but resolved to leave it in camp as a material to be read in camp.

The book turned out to be incredibly entertaining and while I could put it down for a drink, a chat or some other minor distractions, I’d be happy to resume reading wherever I left. The prose flows smoothly and easily for me and I love Goodwin’s narration. She makes history seem alive and playing in front of you with the thoughtfully embedded quotes in the narration that is carefully credited at the end notes. The pictures, diagrams and maps included made the experience even more wonderful.

The most important part about Team of Rivals that I enjoyed was the little bits scattered all over the book where Abraham Lincoln related his little anecdotes and jokes to others. From our frame of reference, these all are anecdotes themselves demonstrating the character and personality of Lincoln. One that I liked in particular involves Lincoln telling someone about his dream:

In his dream, Lincoln was at a party where he overheard a guest commenting on him, “He is a very common-looking man.” Lincoln joined the conversation immediately, suggesting “The Lord must prefer common-looking men, that is the reason He made so many of them”. Lincoln was positively amused by the response he gave in his dream.

And having read the book and gotten to know more about Abraham Lincoln, I came to realised that the response in his dream was very real; it was something so characteristically Father Abe. I was naturally drawn to the many other jokes and stories he shared – some I understood, others were perhaps closer to the hearts and minds of those who were audience of his time.

Months ago I bought a little selection of speeches by Abraham Lincoln and I haven’t gone beyond reading his Gettysburg Address and wondering what so great about it. Now that I’m more familiar with the course of his political life and the circumstances in which he made those speeches, I shall revisit the book and appreciate the wonders and influence of his oratory prowess as well as his ability to weave issues into stories for the layman. And perhaps, I’d learn something out of all that.

Tim Tidbits

I was randomly visiting those blogs of authors, journalists, economists ERPZ link to. It is a good way to find inspiration for things to write about or to hunt for stuff to read. I stumbled upon Harford’s column article on Financial Times a week back. He discusses briefly on the importance of feedbacks and how they mess things up sometimes.

Save on that...
Save on that...

From Harford’s blog, I also learnt about this new book, Scroogenomics by Joel Waldfogel. It looks like a pretty interesting short read but I probably would be spending on it and I’m not too confident that it’ll be available in Singapore. Harford presented a short take on the concept that Professor Waldfogel conceived in 2005.

Professor Waldfogel believes that:

We make less-informed choices [when we buy gifts], max out on credit to buy gifts worth less than the money spent, and leave recipients less than satisfied, creating [… a] “deadweight loss” [much like when there is an externality present in the market].

In some way, when we perceive the giver and receiver as a single entity (the consumer) and the seller of the gift as the producer and explore this consumer-producer relationship, the deadweight loss is quite evident. It is like having a weird syndrome where you confuse your preferences and lose the ability to put a value on the goods you purchase. That would mean you might be willing to pay $30 for a Large Fries at MacDonalds and try to haggle for a bed at IKEA for $6 – both of which results in losses if the transactions succeed (you lose in the first case and IKEA loses in the second).

Tyler Cowen’s Discover Your Inner Economist, however, argues that gifts are signaling tools for the giver to create certain impression in the receiver of himself/herself. That suggests that the losses are probably compensated in the market through the creation of this impression, through any changes in the chemistry of the relationship between the receiver and the giver of the gift. Perhaps given that the consumer from this perspective is just the giver, as long as the receiver gives him/her enough face by feigning joy (when there isn’t any) upon receiving the gift, there’ll be no deadweight loss. Actually there is, borne by the receiver for the effort.

Nobel Agents

Dynamite Old Man
Dynamite Old Man

In the field of the sciences, research and achievements at the cutting edge is often poorly understood by High School (or Junior College) students. Take for example this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics; it was given to physicist Charles Kao, “for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication” and two other physicist “for the invention of an imaging semiconductor circuit – the CCD sensor”.

Not many of us actually concern ourselves with the workings of the CCD sensor (it’s something found in digital cameras) nor optical communications and I’m sure pre-college education focuses on none of that. Students who are really interested in Physics might not be able to directly draw links between the inventions and discoveries made by the Nobel Laureates and the stuff he reads or study about. The maturity of a subject like Physics almost definitely ensures that stuff studied at the forefront is highly specialized and in some sense, narrow.

On the other hand, economics is more accessible than it appears to be. The Nobel Prize for Economics this year was awarded to economists (Oliver E. Williamson) “for his analysis of economic governance, especially the boundaries of the firm”; and (Elinor Ostrom) “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons”. It is interesting to note that both of these economists are studying workings of important economic agencies (or agents) outside the workings of the traditional market mechanisms.

The prize rightly demonstrates a heightened appreciation of economics as a subject to study cost-benefits and incentives rather than one that scrutinizes money. Posner neatly summarizes Williamson’s work and its implications in his entry while Becker discuss the inherent difficulties in real world organizations on Becker-Posner Blog. It should be easy for a JC student with background in economics to realize the link between Williamson’s work and the stuff he/she is studying after reading Posner’s entry. It is the ability to draw this link that reflects how much of a science the study of economics actually is – the basic principles of incentives, cost-benefits analysis all applies even when there might not be the perfect information or perfect rationality in the real world.

An angsty letter

This letter was written in early 2008 as an expression of late teenage angst at my high school. Most details have been forgotten and the context is no longer very clear to me. It reflects some of my earlier writings that were expository but driven largely by my intellectual passion in education.

It has been quite a while since something bothered me to the degree this issue of how lousy your department is did. The last time was perhaps when I was in high school, when the rather incompetent humanities department head pioneered some rather disturbing means of assessment (Major Research Papers, as they were known) – that has since been resolved after it was replaced by some more experimentally disastrous modes of assessments, for which I was not subjected to (and therefore I see no issue with that). I shall, in this little letter, outline the faults with your department and offer my suggestions to ‘correct’ these problems.

I begin with the course materials for they are at the forefront of ‘educating’ your students. If anything else, it is the only thing that comes directly in contact with the learners of your subject. The design of your lecture notes have been kindly standardized, which presents organizational ease students would gladly appreciate, but no additional readings are provided (though I would think some students also appreciates this) and it is declared that whatever students need are within the notes issued. Further readings or exploration is discouraged implicitly this way. All notes are arranged in rather logical order that introduces concepts and definitions but it appears that more emphasis is placed on memorizing the definitions than understanding the concepts (this will be elaborated in the pedagogy segment later). Diagrams are poorly annotated and large chunks of text that follows diagram are in prose but ‘bulleted’, making it confusing for student as to whether to take the entire chunk of text as a ‘point’ in the theory or mere elaborations. Blanks are often placed in wrong positions because teachers edit their lecture presentations after sending notes for printing. I therefore suggest that all blanks be scrapped so that lectures can proceed quickly and that more spaces are provided between chunks of text for notes to be written. All conceptual points should be summarized and written in good English (read: good English, not just easily misunderstood English). All diagrams should be well annotated and unnecessary repetition of diagrams removed.

Lecture time are often wasted on administrative matters that demonstrates deep distrust in the student’s desire to learn. To attend a lessons in a premier institution is to expect no time wasted on unnecessary disciplinary remarks made by teachers and that both students and lecturers are on time. There is really no need to mark attendance for lectures or waste time waiting for students who are late. To miss out a part of the lecture should be the punishment in itself – there’s no need to humiliate these students by starting the lecture late on purpose and then claim these late comers responsible for the fast pace of the lecture or worst, the incomplete-ness of the lecture. Incessant nagging about student performance during lectures are not at all appreciated and seen solely as an avenue at which the lecturer lets out his/her steam on the students, achieving practically no effect on the grades or effectiveness of lectures (often even undermining that, as well as respect for the lecturers). There is thus no need for attendance marking during lectures, or the wait for late-comers, or any ‘disciplining sessions’ – lecture time should be left purely for lecture on the subject

Technicalities with course materials and the ways lectures are carried out aside, the pedagogy of teachers reveal a profound misunderstanding in the cognitive abilities of the students as well as the processes by which one acquires academic knowledge of a subject. A social science, or any rather scientific subject, should be taught with the hope that students understand theories and concepts, as well as the implications of them. Next step would be the application of these concepts on the real world, the ability to draw evidence, real world examples to support theoretical concepts and possibly critique the inadequacies of theory. Ideally, we should be producing students capable of explaining the theories and giving examples in his/her own words.

Unfortunately, your department focused all energies on teaching ‘answers’ of potential examination questions to students since day one. There is no appreciation for the knowledge to be acquired, no consideration given to the way concepts are used in the real world (whether it is the predictive or the explanatory value) and absolutely no respect was paid to the history of the subject. Authorities of the subject are rarely introduced – I strongly believe that understanding the settings at which certain theories surrounding particular phenomena are discovered would aid one’s critique of the theory as one would then understand the timing and circumstances for which the concept served a valid explanation for some phenomena. Such ‘assessment-oriented’ approach would be seen as an indication of laziness in part of your department (if not ignorance), perhaps only interested in the results of the students rather than how interested students are in your subject. What could illustrate your distorted ideology towards teaching more than one of the lecturer’s exclamation during one of the paper review sessions: “Please, I urge you to memorize all definitions, the exact wording of each and every definition as given in your lecture notes. Do not use any definitions you picked from elsewhere or constructed yourselves because their wording are often wrong or difficult to interpret and this frustrates the markers. That means they have to waste more time on your paper and you’ll probably be given lower marks for that.”

It is perhaps why I come to realize how some of my peers who were initially curious about the subject were practically put off by it, possibly till this very day. I have no idea if this was your department’s intention but I was lucky my initial passion for the subject (built from the numerous outside readings and a steady supply of magazines on the subject) was never watered down by your horrible approach to teaching. That I went on to pursue tertiary education on this subject could only be attributed to the fact that you and your fellow colleagues have failed to practice the flawed pedagogy to its extreme for you all are still human. Of course, you might try to refute my claims by highlighting the numerous students pursuing further studies on this subject who are from our institution. That I do not deny, for it is the innate allure of the subject and perhaps the demand for knowledge in this field that have drawn this intellects towards the subject. In raising this point as a rebuttal, your department should thank God your screwed approach was not consistently applied (plausibly due to a few rebel lecturers who truly believed in the subject and loved that exploration).

I have, in the course of my education in the institution, approached tutors of the subject (ie. your colleagues) regarding some of the matters I have pointed out above but they all appeared to shrug at them. Replies offered ranged from ‘instructions by the department’ and ‘every tutor in our institution is doing it this way’ to ‘that has been the case all along and we have no problem with it’ and ‘you are a special case, I don’t think other students would think this way’. My friends have suggested I return to teach at my alma mater and clean up the mess I observed in my school days. I hope that this letter will just do that without having me to compromise my future.


This is an article draft penned some time in 2008 reflecting the style and content of my earlier writings driven by my intellectual passion for education and pursuit of knowledge.

Social Scientists are plagued with this particular divide that is non-existent in the word of Arts and Science. Well, there are cases of particularly weird arts-science mix of beings like Euler, who, as one of the greatest Mathematician, devoted substantial time trying to introduce mathematical notations for music and in essence, mix everything music and mathematics up. It’s as if vector geometry and complex number’s correspondence, but this time, things just get a little more complicated as more of our senses becomes involved in the concoction. But Euler is really rare, and he cleaned almost the entire realm of mathematics of quirky symbols that everyone everywhere would not agree upon and introduced the whole idea of ‘functions’ and it’s notations, without which, we may not be even able to learn programming language because of the sheer complexity of the machine codes kind of ideas.

Pardon me for the introduction that seem to have absolutely no link with the title itself, but in all, I was attempting to demonstrate that there are poetic social scientist who sees humans as being somewhat divine and miraculous and studies the non-mechanical, the purpose-fixed aspects of humans, stuff like aggregate ontology (if there’s even such thing) or philosophies that involves questioning of functions, fundamental reason. For me, I prefer to look into the observable patterns, and the parallels between science and humans themselves, and how laws that govern nature often has its twin doing similar things for the humans. These laws, when stripped to its barest level, is as good as a gravitation acceleration constant – absolutely meaningless. I therefore, must propose this idea of segmenting the human world into 2 layers – 1) Before Reason – the layer void of reason, like molecular interactions, the existence, and many questions that philosophers can debate for another millennium and fail to obtain answers for, all the laws that govern things before human participation, and 2) After Reason – the layer of purpose, where we can explain things after making some assumptions and ignoring the previous layer. For example, when we ask why he went to the post office, we are satisfied with the answer that ‘He went there to get some stamps for his friend’. In that sense, we ignore all the layers beneath, like why his friend need stamps, why is he the one getting it, and if his friend can’t get it, why, and if his friend is attending some functions, why is he doing so and this goes on up to a point like, ‘why is he in this world’, and even further, why his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents exist’. This asymptotic line of reason is the transition to the previous layer, where there’s absolutely no point of explaining things, and not possible anyway.

That was a preamble to thinking about things, and I have chosen to express the above concepts in a more mathematical, and scientific way so that it aids understanding. In any case, I have selected certain laws that are throwing their weight around the scientific realm to explain social sciences, and here, I shall be elucidating the effect of intervention of nature’s equilibria.