Ditch Digging Passion

I once read a book of letters and speeches written by Richard Feynman, compiled by his daughter, Michelle Feynman. In a letter he wrote to a college freshman, he shares some invaluable advice:

“Work hard to find something that fascinates you. When you find it, you will know your lifework, A man may be digging a ditch for someone else, or because he is forced to, or is stupid – such a man is ‘toolish’ -while another working even harder may not be recognized by the bystanders – but he may be digging for treasure. So dig for treasure and when you find it, you will know what to do. In the meantime, you don’t need to make the decision – steer your practical affairs so the alternatives remain open to you…. The man happy in his work is not the narrow specialist, nor the well-rounded man, but a man who is doing what he loves.”

– Richard P. Feynman

I came across this quote in my own blog, while trying to recycle some ideas for a university program application essay. I think it is natural for people to pursue the things they are interested or passionate about. Some may be naturally good at it, while others may not be as adept as others at it in the beginning; it is inevitable that sometimes our vision gets obstructed by the smoke and haze ahead.

Let Feynman’s words serve as a reminder for all of us.

The Personal Statement

Not another essay!

Your Singapore-Cambridge A Levels Results is just released, you scored pretty decent grades, enough to get you the course you want in University, so now what? The thing that stands between you and the offer to the course you want from the University is an application form (besides the tuition fees of course). And unfortunately the application form is not just about filling up your details and your results, it requires some information of your personality, aspirations and such. And they do this through a Personal Statement (or whatever they call it).

Usually a personal statement doesn’t offer any questions; at least UCAS works that way but they do give some sort of guidelines as to what to include in it. You should generally talk about your academic interest, the motivating factor behind your choice of course and some activities or achievements that is in line with that. Or if appropriate, you could talk about the kind of books you read. After which you can include some of your other interests and the reason for your choice of study setting. And depending on your preferences, you could end with an appeal for an offer.

Unfortunately, not all applications are that liberal with the stuff you can write. Some would restrict you with a question, which students might prefer at times. The most popular question that have been asked is ‘What are some values or beliefs do you hold on most strongly? Give evidence of how you demonstrated them.’ And to tackle this question, you basically have to choose some of these values and beliefs. They come across as pretty generic and the content would depend really on the story you have to tell about yourself. A good story is rare but would come strong; that doesn’t mean that ordinary tales about your life won’t stand out. You’ll never know. Here are some values that you might use and also guidelines as to what life story you can pick.

Discipline – How you managed to keep yourself away from temptations/distractions and pursue your goals (in studies and other endeavors of life)

Integrity – How you have been consistent in your thought, words and deeds (Maybe during leadership stints in CCAs, or what you’ve promised your teachers and friends)

Teamwork – How you might have dropped your own idea in support of a team activity and gone along with everyone (maybe in Project Work)

Compassion – How you’ve gone all out to reduce pain and sufferings of others (perhaps community work and such)

Hard Work – How you worked hard and it paid off (very cliche and overused value so I’m suggesting you don’t use it unless you’ve a unique experience to share)

Balance – How you’ve managed to juggle commitments and the lighter bits of life (once again, drawn from work and life)

Excellence – How you’ve insisted on the best from yourself and the people around you (probably in Project Work or your CCAs again)

There’s also questions that ask for an event or a person that has influenced your life; these usually end up being very cliche sort of writings but then if you know how to package it, even cliche writings can appear impressive. It is important that the influence is positive and powerful if not significant to your current attitudes towards life. This is especially true when your content has something original to offer within the cliche framework in the first place. I’ve seen the essay of a successful Havard Applicant about his mother’s influence in his life; he started out about how a cliche is one because it is often true and then about his mother who is a NASA engineer.

Other questions could simply ask for what you’ve done in your last summer vacation or what you will be doing before entering the university. These are easy for those with exciting experiences like touring around the world or working at an interesting job. For those involved in mundane jobs and boring work, try your best to extract lessons learnt from your workplaces and experience that could be applied to university life or the course of your interest. It could range from making calls and interacting with customers to researching on the Internet for some information your employer have asked you to put together.

Some other general pointers about this writing is to stay humble (humility, incidentally, could be used as one of the values) and to keep description of your experiences simple and free from unrealistic adjectives. Use plain English with more sophisticated sentence structures rather than bombastic words to impress readers. That way, you exhibit maturity of thought rather than a childish urge to flaunt your vocabulary. Finally, paragraph your writing properly and it would be best to get a tutor or teacher to go through it for you. They are experienced and have seen the statements by many other students so would be in a good position to offer advice for improvement.

A Request

The Joke

Hello everyone, my name is Peng Sing and I will be writing under the screen name, Scherzo (pronounced ‘S’care-Zoh’) which stands for “Joke” in Italian. You’ll find out more about me in the times to come… if I am able to sustain my interest in contributing regularly.

This post is actually a request; something that has been bothering me lately. It is a timely request, because more and more young people are becoming interested in politics/political commentary. But too many fall prey to euphemism, dishonesty and witch-hunting (personal attacks).

I came across a speech by Loh Kah Seng, given during the launch of “Men in White” at a library, which got me thinking a bit. The main excerpt which caught my attention was how he aptly describes a social phenomenon among our youth in the recent years:

“There is a tendency for young Singaporeans to read our past for inspiration and vilification. This is not surprising and is part of the enduring appeal of history. Inspiration because the past provides positive precedents, or heroes, of an earlier generation of Singaporeans (also young and idealistic then) struggling to make Singapore a better, fairer and more open society. Vilification because history also provides what appears to be proof of what some present day young Singaporeans want to believe – that the government is repressive, manipulative and narrowly neo-liberal. In short, we read Singapore history for Lim Chin Siong and Operation Coldstore.”

There’s a whole load of anti-establishment/anti-PAP angst that show up frequently on the Temasek Review and many other Internet portals that discuss Local Affairs. It is there where you can find these Singapore’s Neo-political-liberalists. My impression of them is that they love to go about scrutinizing every single piece of pro-government literature that comes out in mainstream media with “critical thinking skills” they picked up from god-knows-where. Very often these are senseless personal attacks at various political figures, or simply emotionally charged posts that appeal to the reader. They always seem to make sense at first, but upon full of logical fallacies that are either misleading or isolated cases that are exaggerated.

Be wary of:

Appeals to popularity – just because something is popular/unpopular, does not mean it is correct. Eg. “Majority of Singaporeans are disappointed with budget 2010. Singapore is going down.” Because everyone is upset about something, does not mean that it is harmful. Note that the use of ‘Majority’ as well: Majority of Singaporeans? Anti-government activists are also Singaporeans! And where did he get his numbers from?

False-dichotomies – Something that is not good, does not mean that it is bad. Be alert for people that present you with only 2 options, do not let them fool you into thinking there is no room for alternatives or to remain neutral.

Red Herrings – Used as a distraction. Eg. The PAP is not putting enough emphasis on keeping a tighter leash on PRs, what’s worse, incentives for childbirth have been stagnant for the past few years Clearly, immigration and childbirth incentives have little in common, but is roped into the argument to make the PAP look bad when in actual fact the argument at hand is about immigration policies!

I Forgot What This Fallacy is Called – But it is still a fallacy. When considering reading peoples’ interpretations of social/political trends, always take note of how his ideas are presented. Was the trend drawn from data/reliable observations? Or was it the other way round? There is likelihood that many poor/dishonest political commentators base their conclusions from their opinions/emotions first, then find ways to support their conclusion, often leaving out on purpose vital pieces of information that actually prove them wrong.

Finally, remember to address all the other political parties that isn’t PAP as ‘non-ruling parties’ and not ‘opposition parties’. It brings about a very negative connotation and is subconsciously perpetuated to those growing up; ‘opposition’ appears to be rather disruptive as compared to non-ruling.

It is unfair, if not difficult, to instantly label various political parties that don’t begin with ‘P’ and end with ‘AP’ to harbour malicious intents. They may ‘oppose’ the PAP sometimes, but where Singaporeans are concerned, they are addressing the concerns of a group of Singapore Citizens. As much as they like to find fault in our government/PAP and have peculiar ways of doing things, we must bear in mind that most of their intentions are good.

These are habits of the mind, to be critical of others’ thoughts as well as your own.

Have fun poking fun at lousy political blogs/articles/comments on Temasek Review! 😀

Puzzles & Patience

Frustrating Rose...

I finally borrowed a copy of William Poundstone’s How Would You Move Mount Fuji from the library the other day and I was doing my little research on logical thinking puzzles and such when I stumbled upon the game of Petals Around the Rose. It is interesting how this puzzle is related to Bill Gates in his young, start-up days and that Bill have eventually gone on to make use of puzzles to decide whether to hire a person as described in Poundstone’s book.

The three little ‘rules’ is that the name of the game is ‘Petals Around the Rose’ (and this is significant), that the answer is always even, and that anyone who gets the logic of the game can only announce and answer and not try to verify his logic. Getting the answer 6 times in a row is a sign that one has become a Potentate of the Rose (the one who knows the solution).

The basics of the game as well as a computer programme to let you try figure out the answer to this little puzzle can be found here.

I initially wanted to work it out myself but then curiosity as to whether anyone would put up an answer online overwhelmed me and after I did a search, it appears that Wikipedia is indeed an amazing all purpose reference source. I shall not provide the link here lest you are like me. Try your best to figure out the answer!

Eggs and Bacon

Breakfast Only...

I got this from a friend, who is passionate about Economics very much like me.

A hen and a pig are negotiating to solve the food shortage. The hen makes a suggestion: “I will supply the eggs if you will supply the bacon.” The pig ponders this for a moment and replies: “But yours is a contribution, mine is a total commitment.”

– Kofi Annan

A Quick Thinking Kiwi

Good Fruit

A Kiwi working for Tesco London

A man in London walked into the produce section of his local Tesco’s supermarket and asked to buy half a head of lettuce. The boy working in that department told him that they only sold whole heads of lettuce. The man was insistent that the boy ask the manager about the matter.

Walking into the back room, the boy said to the manager, “some old bastard wants to buy a half a head of lettuce.” As he finished his sentence, he turned around to find that the man was standing right behind him, so he quickly added, “and this gentleman kindly offered to buy the other half.”

The manager approved the deal and the man went on his way.

Later, the manager said to the boy,” I was impressed with the way you got yourself out of that situation earlier, we like people who can think on their feet here, where are you from son?”

“New Zealand, sir,” the boy replied.

“Why did you leave New Zealand ?” the manager asked.

The boy said “Sir, there’s nothing but whores and rugby players there.”

“Is that right?” replied the manager, “My wife is from New Zealand!”

“Really?” replied the boy, “Who’d she play for?”

Thinking Strategically

Thinking Strategically
Think, think, think...

As I was mentioning a couple of weeks back, I have been reading Thinking Strategically by Avinash Dixitt and Barry Nalebuff. This is a pretty old book, being first published in 1991 and the version I was reading is the 1993 paperback re-issue – there was no more revisits to this book by the authors since then but it’s been in print until now. I believe it’s largely used as readings for undergraduate economics students as well as students of business or management schools.

The 2 authors are great teachers of Game Theory in Princeton and Yale and have often adapted the principles this somewhat mathematical subject to the less mathematical real world. Thinking Strategically is a great attempt at discussing strategic thinking that follows from game theoretical analysis for the layman.

The good thing about ideas on strategic thinking is that their principles hold even when the examples they are attached to often become obsolete or arcane – that is not to say that Thinking Strategically features arcane examples. Most of the examples used to bring ideas across in the book are simple, often bordering trivia but they illustrate the essence of the concepts and can be used to explain the principles for similar but more complex issues. One of the case studies brought up that I particularly love is the one about a three-way duel where we have 3 shooters of varying abilities.

Each shooter fires at someone (or something) each round; there’s is fixed order as to who gets to shoot first. The one who’s allowed to shoot first is a poor shooter with an accuracy of only 30%, the second has an accuracy of 80% and the last is a sharp shooter who shoots with an accuracy of 100%. The question is that if you’re the first shooter and allowed to go first, who would you choose to shoot?

An analysis of this “game” gives us a surprising but convincing result. If you choose to shoot the average shooter, and succeed, you will definitely lose because the next in line would be the sharp shooter and he would shoot you. If you choose to shoot the sharp shooter and hit, the average shooter will shoot you, leaving you with a 20% chance of survival. And even if you survive, you only have 30% chance of hitting him later. You might say, this mediocre shooter is so lousy, he’ll probably have to lose anyways. But you can actually raise your chances of winning by choosing a more intelligent strategy: To fire into the air.

This way, the average shooter will get his turn and attempt to shoot the sharp shooter since shooting you and succeeding mean he’ll have to die when the sharp shooter’s turn comes. If he succeeds, the mediocre shooter gets to try his hands at killing the average shooter. If he fails, the sharp shooter will immediately kill him and that once again, leaves the mediocre shooter with a chance of 30% to kill the sharp shooter. The somewhat counter-intuitive strategy of shooting at no one raise the chances of the mediocre shooter winning substantially.

The principle alluded by this example is that if you’re a weak player; it is wise to allow the stronger players to make their moves and get rid of all each other before making a move and fire your best shot at the one left standing. Now that we surface the principle, the logic of such a choice becomes more intuitive.

Thinking Strategically is a great read for students who likes to think and don’t mind re-reading some of the statements in the book a couple of times to understand the explanation behind some strategic moves. It teaches an important skill of looking forward and reasoning backwards and shows you the power of its application in all sorts of “games”. The book might make you feel like you’ll become smarter but trust me, it’s not that easy to apply strategic thinking that quickly in real life and often, we need a degree of foresight that we would almost definitely lack.

Leadership Review

Leading the pack...

ERPZ explores quite a lot of stuff; from matters about studying smart to the huge issues surrounding economics and the environment. This are the efforts to cover what students need to learn about and know (true to our objective of ‘Educating students about being students’), but we seem to have missed out something really important in today’s world and that’s “Leadership”.

I started out reading a recent issue of Fortune Magazine, which featured an article on How to build great leaders, uncovering the different MNCs methods of identifying and grooming leaders for their organzation. A second article on leadership discusses the leadership during a crisis or recession. Talent on Tap, an article from The Economist talks about the increasing trend of getting temporary big bosses to sit in the autonomous firms and thus helping to tide the firm over a crisis or avert one.

Finally, an article from Knowledge @ SMU discusses the implication for leadership in individuals with different degree of self-monitoring. They suggested how high self-monitor individuals stand out as informal leaders although the low self-monitors are the ones who ends up in position of authority. I like to think that high self-monitors are suitable for ad-hoc leadership roles or to lead during special circumstances, perhaps why firms need temp bosses. In long run, during ordinary day to day management and leadership, the consistency of low self-monitors probably stand out and will become more important. If you’re interested to find out whether you score high on the self-monitoring scale, you can check out this test.

Weekend Reads

More medallions!
More medallions!

We begin this week’s reads with an interview with Paul Samuelson by John Cassidy from The New Yorker. John Cassidy recently published a new book, How Markets Fail, which I’ll read some time soon. It won’t be that soon though – I’m still reading Thinking Strategically and moving on to Art of Strategy after that.

Eric Morris shared something about the cab industry in New York, which eventually concluded with urging for less regulation (ie. raising the supply of cab licenses or “medallions” as they’re called). One of the comments revealed a really humourous story of how the cabbie’s industry in Ireland got deregulated overnight; I shall reproduce it here:

A similar sitution existed in Ireland up to a few years ago. Change was brought about when the government went to issue more wheel chair accessable taxi licenses. The Taxi driver / owners group foolishly sued the government. They claimed that the government didn’t have the right to issue new licenses. They won but the court ruled that the government didn’t have the power to issue any licenses. The taxi ma[r]ket was deregulated overnight.

The current complaint from taxi drivers is that there are too many taxis etc etc. There were clear winners, the consumer and those new taxi drivers who are now free to ply their trade in a vastly increased taxi market.

The fact that GPS navigation on-board cars/cabs are widely available means that the tacit barrier to entry for the cab business have been significantly lowered. Anyone who can drive and have a car with on-board GPS navigation (and perhaps a meter) can technically offer good taxi services. Knowledge of the city and the different landmarks have become less of an advantage or requirement.

As for talks that you might want to listen to, Magnus Larsson speaks about structuring sand in deserts to prevent further desertification. His proposal won the Holcim Awards.

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.