Wednesday, May 26, 2010
By STEPHANIE ROSENBLOOM
Published: May 25, 2010
Vending machines in neon-splashed Tokyo have electronic eyes that evaluate customers’ skin and wrinkles to determine whether they are old enough to buy tobacco. In bathrooms at upscale Canadian bars, vending machines with flat irons enable women to defrizz their locks. In Abu Dhabi, the lobby of a luxury hotel has a vending machine that dispenses gold bars and coins at more than $1,000 an ounce.
A new breed of vending machine is proliferating around the world — and while the United States is coming late to the party, Dr Pepper and Baby Ruth are already feeling sidelined.
Flashy and futuristic, souped-up machines are popping up everywhere, be it the Mondrian hotel in Miami or at Macy’s in Minneapolis. They have touch screens instead of buttons, facades that glow and pulse, and technology intended to blunt vending machine rage — sensors that ensure that a customer’s credit card is not charged unless the chosen item has dropped. These machines are not for quarters: purchases are measured in dollar amounts that typically start at two figures and go up.
Changing consumer preferences about shopping and the high cost of operating brick-and-mortar stores are inspiring premium brands to rethink how they sell their wares. As Gower Smith, whose company, ZoomSystems, has created about 1,000 automated kiosks called ZoomShops, put it, “A ZoomShop costs less than an employee.”
And with examples overseas showing there is money to be made, the so-called automated retail store (the term vending machine is so Industrial Revolution) is venturing into fashion, beauty products, electronics and more.
A couple of months ago, the Body Shop cosmetics franchise began offering skin care products with ingredients like hemp and vitamin E in deluxe machines at airports; soon will come shopping centers.
In the fall and winter, a company called U*tique will begin selling high-end beauty products in machines that light up when customers approach — a better reception than shoppers see from most retail employees.
In the last few years, Best Buy, Sephora, Apple and Proactiv have put their products in vending machines. Quiksilver offers board shorts and bikinis in machines at Standard hotels.
Such machines also offer nascent brands that have no store outlet another way to bring their products to market. Customers can make returns by calling a phone number on the receipt.
In an age of iPads, high-speed Internet service, A.T.M.’s and self-service check-in at airports, consumers expect instant gratification. Not only are they accustomed to researching and buying products on their own by touching screens and pressing buttons; they often prefer it.
A study published in 2008 by NCR Corporation found that 86 percent of North American consumers were more likely to do business with companies offering some sort of self-service. Many respondents also said they had a more positive perception of a brand if it offered self-service technology. This appears to be especially true of young shoppers.
“You will hear in studies, ‘My mom shops at the beauty counter, and I want to shop for products on my own,’ ” said Mara Segal, chief executive of U*tique, which plans to install up to 20 automated machines this year before going full throttle in 2011. “They are actively avoiding the counter.”
The new machines are meant to provide a feeling of discovery and charm often lacking in traditional retailing. Indeed, the machines are not “stocked” — they are, as Ms. Segal put it, “curated.” Merchandise in U*tique machines is arranged and lighted like works of modern art in a series of dainty portals, evoking a neon honeycomb.
“We put a lot of attention and focus on all the things that are sexy about retail,” she said.
The machines — which bridge the gap between old-fashioned stores and online shopping — are not only being installed in airports and malls. They are materializing in supermarkets, military bases, college campuses, even chain stores.
The economics make it easy to see why. Mall stores produce about $330 a square foot a year, while a 28-square-foot ZoomShop can generate $3,000 to $10,000 a square foot a year, Mr. Smith said.
Or consider airports, where stores make about $1,000 a square foot and ZoomShops generate $10,000 to $40,000 a square foot, he said. ZoomSystems, based in San Francisco, charges the brands in its machines a fee that includes the cost of rent at an airport or mall. Landlords typically take a percentage of the sales too.
As Mr. Smith noted, the attraction goes beyond payroll and rental expenses. If an airline closes a terminal, or if customer traffic is slow in a particular mall corridor, the machine can be unplugged and moved.
Machines have fewer inventory problems and less theft than a traditional store. Additionally, the main way a brick-and-mortar store discovers what its customers want is when they check out. Automated machines, in contrast, learn about consumers’ shopping habits from the moment they begin using the machine because every click is tracked.
“We’re starting to see, more and more, weirder items and weirder machines,” said Christopher D. Salyers, the author of a new book, “Vending Machines: Coined Consumerism” (Mark Batty Publisher), that chronicles the rise of the machines, from the boom in the 1800s Tutti-Frutti gum era to today.
At the same time, the classic vending machine business — sales of soda and snacks — is troubled. Research by IBISWorld said the industry is in decline because of trends toward more healthful eating, increased cigarette regulation, declining industrial work forces and more competition from fast-food restaurants and convenience stores open late or 24 hours.
Revenues for vending operators are expected to be $11.3 billion this year, according to IBISWorld, up from $11.1 billion in 2009. Yet the industry is expected to grow only 1 percent a year through 2015, down from a 2 percent growth rate over the five years ending 2010.
The newfangled machines, which cost $3,000 to tens of thousands of dollars, are now a small part of the industry, generating less than a $1 billion in revenue, said Chris Rezendes of VDC Research.
And expanding the vending frontier has not been without setbacks. One of the first automated convenience stores in the United States began operating in 2002 and was controversial.
Known as Shop 2000, it offered sundries — eggs, diapers, condoms — in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington. But as it turned out, one man’s convenience was another’s dehumanizing eyesore and the machine was shut down.
Other parts of the world are less hesitant. In Europe and Asia consumers buy underwear, umbrellas, toys, pizza and organic strawberries from machines.
Japan has one vending machine for about every 23 people, Mr. Salyers said. The country’s population density, low crime rate and fascination with technology have made it a vending paradise.
“They just line the streets,” Mr. Salyers said. “You can’t find a trash can there. But you can find a vending machine.”
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
By CARL ZIMMER
Published: May 24, 2010
In 1976, the biologist Robert E. Gill Jr. came to the southern coast of Alaska to survey the birds preparing for their migrations for the winter. One species in particular, wading birds called bar-tailed godwits, puzzled him deeply. They were too fat.
“They looked like flying softballs,” said Mr. Gill.
At the time, scientists knew that bar-tailed godwits spend their winters in places like New Zealand and Australia. To get there, most researchers assumed, the birds took a series of flights down through Asia, stopping along the way to rest and eat. After all, they were land birds, not sea birds that could dive for food in the ocean. But in Alaska, Mr. Gill observed, the bar-tailed godwits were feasting on clams and worms as if they were not going to be able to eat for a very long time.
“I wondered, why is that bird putting on that much fat?” he said.
Mr. Gill wondered if the bar-tailed godwit actually stayed in the air for a much longer time than scientists believed. It was a difficult idea to test, because he could not actually follow the birds in flight. For 30 years he managed as best he could, building a network of bird-watchers who looked for migrating godwits over the Pacific Ocean. Finally, in 2006, technology caught up with Mr. Gill’s ideas. He and his colleagues were able to implant satellite transmitters in bar-tailed godwits and track their flight.
The transmitters sent their location to Mr. Gill’s computer, and he sometimes stayed up until 2 in the morning to see the latest signal appear on the Google Earth program running on his laptop. Just as he had suspected, the bar-tailed godwits headed out over the open ocean and flew south through the Pacific. They did not stop at islands along the way. Instead, they traveled up to 7,100 miles in nine days — the longest nonstop flight ever recorded. “I was speechless,” Mr. Gill said.
Since then, scientists have tracked a number of other migrating birds, and they are beginning now to publish their results. Those results make clear that the bar-tailed godwit is not alone. Other species of birds can fly several thousand miles nonstop on their migrations, and scientists anticipate that as they gather more data in the years to come, more birds will join these elite ranks.
“I think it’s going to be a number of examples,” said Anders Hedenström of Lund University in Sweden.
As more birds prove to be ultramarathoners, biologists are turning their attention to how they manage such spectacular feats of endurance. Consider what might be the ultimate test of human endurance in sports, the Tour de France: Every day, bicyclists pedal up and down mountains for hours. In the process, they raise their metabolism to about five times their resting rate.
The bar-tailed godwit, by contrast, elevates its metabolic rate between 8 and 10 times. And instead of ending each day with a big dinner and a good night’s rest, the birds fly through the night, slowly starving themselves as they travel 40 miles an hour.
“I’m in awe of the fact that birds like godwits can fly like this,” said Theunis Piersma, a biologist at the University of Groningen.
Not long ago, ornithologists had far lower expectations for birds. Ruby-throated hummingbirds, for example, were known to spend winters in Central America and head to the United States for the summer. But ornithologists believed that the hummingbirds burned so much fuel flapping their wings that they simply could not survive a nonstop trip across the Gulf of Mexico. They were thought to have flown over Mexico, making stops to refuel.
In fact, ruby-throated hummingbirds returning north in the spring will set out from the Yucatán Peninsula in the evening and arrive in the southern United States the next afternoon.
In the 1960s, zoologists began to track bears and other mammals with radio collars, and then later moved on to satellite transmitters. All the while, ornithologists could only look on in envy. The weight and drag of the trackers made them impossible to put on migrating birds.
Over the past decade, however, transmitters have finally shrunk to a size birds can handle. In Mr. Gill’s first successful experiment with bar-tailed godwits, he and his colleagues slipped a battery-powered model weighing just under an ounce into the abdominal cavity of the birds, which weigh about 12 ounces ounces and have a wingspan of 30 inches.
The epic odyssey that those transmitters recorded spurred Mr. Gill and other researchers to gather more data, both on bar-tailed godwits and other species. And even as they planned their experiments, tracking technology got better. This summer, for example, Mr. Gill will implant bar-tailed godwits with transmitters that weigh only six-tenths of an ounce.
Still, most migrating birds are so small that even a transmitter of that weight — about the same as three nickels — would be an intolerable burden. Fortunately, researchers have been able to scale down a different kind of tracking device. Known as a geolocator, it can get as light as two grains of rice, less than two-hundreths of an ounce. “Now we can track really small birds,” Dr. Hedenström said.
Geolocators can get so small because they do not communicate with satellites. Instead, they just record changing light levels. If scientists can recapture birds carrying geolocators, they can retrieve the data from the devices and use sophisticated computer programs to figure out the location of the birds based on the rising and setting of the sun.
In 2007, Carsten Egevang of Aarhus University in Denmark and his colleagues attached geolocators to Arctic terns nesting in Greenland. Based on years of bird spotting, the scientists knew that the terns migrated to the Southern Ocean around Antarctica and then returned to the Arctic the following spring. But they did not know much more than that. “It was all based on snapshots,” Dr. Egevang said.
In 2008, the scientists managed to capture 10 Arctic terns that had come back to Greenland. It then took them months to make sense of the data. “You have to use three kinds of special software,” Dr. Egevang said. “It takes quite a long time.”
The researchers reported this February that the Arctic terns flew from Greenland to a region of the Atlantic off the coast of North Africa, where they spent about three weeks. Unlike bar-tailed godwits, which wade on beaches for food, Arctic terns are ocean birds that can dive for fish in the open sea.
The Arctic terns then resumed their journey south. They spent five months in the Southern Ocean. “They probably just stayed on an iceberg and fished,” Dr. Egevang said.
In the spring, the terns then returned to the Arctic, often hugging the coasts of South America or Africa along the way. All told, the birds logged as much as 49,700 miles on their geolocators, the longest migration ever recorded. Over the 30-year lifetime of a tern, it may migrate about 1.5 million miles — the distance a spaceship would cover if it went to the moon and back three times.
Other scientists are now placing geolocators on small wading birds as well. In a paper to be published in the Wader Study Group Bulletin, a team of ornithologists describe attaching geolocators to four ruddy turnstones. The birds left northern Australia in May 2009 and flew nonstop to Taiwan, a distance of 4,700 miles.
After a few days in Taiwan, the ruddy turnstones took flight again, making a series of trips northward until they reached Alaska. At the end of the summer, three of the four birds took the same route back south. The fourth struck out on a different path. It flew 3,800 miles nonstop to the Gilbert Islands in the Pacific. From there, it flew 3,100 miles back to Australia.
Mr. Gill and his colleagues have recorded similar odysseys from other wading birds, using satellite transmitters. They found that bristle-thighed curlews fly as far as 6,000 miles without a stop, traveling from Alaska to the Marshall Islands. They have also recorded whimbrels flying 5,000 miles nonstop from Alaska to Central America.
This spring, scientists are attaching geolocators to more birds, and they expect to find new champions. One population of red knots, for example, is now arriving in Delaware Bay from its wintering grounds 5,500 miles away in Argentina. “My bet is that a lot of them make it in one go,” Dr. Piersma said.
The long journeys these transmitters are revealing pose a biological puzzle. Dr. Piersma and other scientists are trying to figure out how the birds manage to push their bodies so far beyond most animals, and why.
As Mr. Gill observed when he first observed bar-tailed godwits, a long journey requires a lot of food. It turns out that long-distance migrators will enlarge their liver and intestines as they feed, so that they can convert their food as fast as possible. They build up large breast muscles and convert the rest of their food to fat.
By the time the birds are ready to leave, their bodies are 55 percent fat. In humans, anything more than 30 percent is considered obese. But as soon as the birds are done eating, their livers and intestines become dead weight. They then essentially “eat” their organs, which shrink 25 percent. The birds use the proteins to build up their muscles even more.
Once they take flight, the birds take whatever help they can get. Bar-tailed godwits time their departure with the onset of stormy weather, so that they can take advantage of tailwinds. “That gives them an extra push,” Dr. Hedenström said.
The birds then fly for thousands of miles. How they get to their final destinations remains a mystery. One thing is clear: they somehow know where they are, even when they are flying over vast expanses of featureless ocean. “It’s as if they have a GPS on board,” Dr. Piersma said.
A bird like a bar-tailed godwit cannot rely on the tricks used by birds that take short migrations. They cannot follow landmarks, for example. Some birds use the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate. But they do so by sensing the tilt of the field lines. At the equator, the lines run parallel to the surface, making them useless for birds that have to travel between hemispheres. Dr. Piersma suspects that when birds travel several thousand miles, they have to combine several different navigation tricks together.
As spectacular as these migrations may be, it may not take long for birds to evolve them. Long-distance migrators are closely related to short-distance birds. It is possible that many birds have the potential to push themselves to make these vast journeys, but they do not because the costs outweigh the benefits.
When animals raise their metabolism above four or five times their resting rate (the Tour de France level), they can become so exhausted that they become very vulnerable to predators. They can even become more prone to getting sick. Birds that go on long migrations may have escaped this tradeoff.
Birds like the bar-tailed godwit have found places like the coast of Alaska where the supply of food is high and predators are scarce. By flying over the open ocean, they continue to avoid predators. They may also reduce their odds of picking up a parasite from another bird.
Their destinations are also safe enough for them to recover. Bar-tailed godwits that arrive in New Zealand face no predators, and so they can simply rest. “They just look exhausted. They’ll land and just go to sleep for several hours before they do anything else,” Mr. Gill said.
Unfortunately, some of the habitats on which these endurance champions depend are under serious threat. In the Delaware Bay, for example, fisherman are scooping up horseshoe crab eggs, which birds like the red knot travel thousands of miles to eat. When bar-tailed godwits return to Alaska in the spring, they make one stop along the coast of China and Korea, a favorite spot for many other migrating birds. The coastal wetlands there are disappearing fast, and many migrant birds are in decline.
“I hope we have these birds to study 100 years from now,” Dr. Piersma said. “But sometimes I wonder.”
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Per se, that is. I'll explain in a bit.
WARNING: Loooong post ahead.
Just yesterday, I was out to lunch with my boss, who has an only child in Primary 2 (that's second grade for my American readers). I had known that he has always been concerned with the stressful school environment in Singapore, hence I immediately understood where he was coming from when he broached the topic of how kids in school are being taught to be exam smart instead of actually being educated.
That got me thinking about the "problem" of how Singaporean students are schooled to be exam smart. According to conventional wisdom in Singapore, kids becoming exam smart is deemed a big problem, by parents, educators, employers and the (G)overnment. It is perceived as being inimical to creativity, genuine learning and performance. I put the word problem in "quotes" as after some pondering, I realized that being exam smart by itself is in fact, not something to be greatly concerned over. I see it is a symptom, not the cause, of a deeper, more subtle malaise.
To put things in perspective, let's look at it this way. It has been about 15 years since I left secondary school (7th through 10th grades), and even back then, the ubiquitous ten year series (TYS) was already in widespread use in schools. That implies that ten year series assessment books have been in use for well nigh on two decades, or even longer. And if there's any indicator of exam smartness being the educational zeitgeist, the pervasive use of TYS has got to be the premier indicator.
If being exam smart really was such a huge problem, well, we have had that huge problem for twenty or so years now, and society hasn't yet fallen apart. After all, the people that formerly used TYS in schools (like myself) now constitute the bulk of the workforce.
Frankly, I found TYS to be useful when I was a student. It is by asking and answering questions that one learns to apply and understand concepts in less abstract contexts, leading to a fuller, deeper understanding of the material. So what if those questions happen to be old exam questions? And if studying TYS leads one to NOT venture "beyond the syllabus", why, what's wrong with that? I'll venture beyond the syllabus if and when I need to, as time and other committments permit. In the working world, it is uncommon for people to invest time and effort in learning things that are either not immediately relevant to their jobs, or not relevant for the foreseeable future. Certainly, companies want to use their training budgets as cost-effectively as possible.
And for those who criticize our students as being too exam smart and hence the cause of the dearth of entrepreneurs, inventors, thinkers and artists here in Singapore, that's a tall claim to prove. The lack of the above in Singapore today could be attributed to any number of antecedents, such as the tiny market, insular culture, lack of a risk-taking climate, and inhospitable arts scene, to name but a few.
So if I have labeled exam smartness as merely a symptom of a deeper malaise, what is that deeper malaise?
I believe that the malaise has to do with the entire attitude of the average Singaporean student (and in particular, their parents' attitude as well) towards education.
The attitude towards education in Singapore is that it is a hurdle to be crossed, an achievement to be marked by certificates, accolades and other trophies. Education is a means to an end - a high flying career (in particular to the exalted legal, medical and governmental professions), good remuneration and just all round success in life.
So Singaporean students and parents do what is required when a hurdle, nay, a challenge, is thrown down before them. A challenge that must be surmounted in order to attain the Singapore dream and reach the good life.
What do Singaporeans do? They enlist platoons of private tutors, assemble their materiel of TYS and study notes, and put mission critical status on academics and grades. And in fact, that's not enough. The same thinking that informs the heavy emphasis on academics is in truth, responsible for the voluminous student resumes we see today (at least at the "elite" level). We're talking about leadership positions in the CCAs (co-curricular activities, formerly known as extra-curricular activities), volunteering in charitable organizations, participating in school sports, and landing that position on the school debate team, or the science team, or Model UN, or whatever it is that students do today.
[I'll leave aside the thorny issue of students participating in activities that don't really draw their interest but look good on an academic transcript for some other day, if ever. Personally, I don't think it would be accurate to say that students do these things out of resume padding instead of interest. It is probably better just to take things at face value and give students the benefit of the doubt. In any case, it is an issue that concerns "elites" more so than regular Singaporeans.]
It is my considered opinion that this acquisitive, means-to-an-end attitude and approach towards education in Singapore schools that is damaging and dysfunctional.
If the goal is to ace the exams to earn stellar grades, then naturally Singaporeans mug and cram for their exams, seek out private tuition and studiously stick to learning only what is in the syllabus, sometimes verbatim. Exam smartness is the resulting symptom, but what is the resulting condition?
I think the most deficient quality of the Singapore student is the inability to learn independently, and this is the condition that we are actively breeding into our school-going population.
Being able to learn independently requires a number of skills, the most fundamental of which must be the ability to discriminate between what one should learn and what one can put aside, at least for the moment. Of course, independent learning also involves being able to source for information on one’s own, cultivating internal motivation and discipline, and knowing how to ask important and intelligent questions.
And what are we doing in our educational system? The intense drive to achieve stellar grades practically requires private tuition for students, and what is tuition but spoonfeeding and a crutch in the bubble-like school environment that has no equivalent in the real world? If students are not allowed the opportunity to take more responsibility for their own learning, simply because of the frenzy surrounding attaining good grades, how will they learn to learn independently? Exams test for understanding of material in the syllabus, but they do not generally test for why the material is important and how it relates to other things in this complex world of ours. But in the madcap rush to ace exams, there is simply no time and no space for students to consider these things in the classroom setting, suitably facilitated by teachers. How then will students learn to discriminate amongst the things that they should learn in the future, and thereby cultivate a healthy lifelong attitude towards learning?
And make no mistake, learning independently will become increasingly more important in the future.
Why is that? Because even as the trend is towards greater degrees of specialization in a myriad number of fields, the trend is also moving towards broader knowledge of a diverse range of formerly unrelated fields. Various different fields are now blending together to create new industries and businesses at the intersections. Careers, professions, jobs … none of these are monolithic and they all will evolve over time, sometimes unrecognizably so. It is impossible and a contradiction in terms to provide education to everyone that is both broad and deep. The challenge of education in the coming years ahead, globally and not just in Singapore, is to equip students with the skills to learn independently, because there are just far too many things to learn in this complex world of ours to ever teach them all in a formal classroom setting. It is the skills associated with learning independently that will continue to stand students, workers and professionals in good stead throughout their careers.
First example: Fifteen years ago and earlier, it may have been okay to be a competent software engineer who writes code for a living. But today, one of the world's foremost technology companies, worth north of USD160 billion in market cap, has as its flagship product a free web service that is almost completely ad-driven. I am of course talking about Google. Even Microsoft's products come in a box (sooo last century). Not Google, or Facebook. Today, it isn't enough just to be a competent programmer. The best software engineers also have an understanding of how humans use technology, which naturally requires diverse knowledge and skill sets, and they combine that knowledge to create new products and services that could literally destroy the business models of existing companies. If you're an engineer whose skill set is limited to programming, well, you had better be a really good programmer (like world class), because just writing code isn't going to cut it in the future. Or you could follow your job when it makes its way to India, if you find that appealing.
Second example: The newspaper business today is slowly going out of business. Nobody in print today has a good idea of how to reinvent newspapers to deal with the challenge posed by the Internet. People pretty much prefer to get their news off the web these days, particularly if the newspapers are not credible (hint hint, Singapore). And ad revenue as a result is falling...and falling. If you are a journalist today, in particular a print journalist, you should ideally have a firm grasp of today's ubiquitous computing technologies and all the affordances it provides. This is almost certainly something today's journalists were not taught in journalism school. Why is it important for journalists to understand technology? Because Larry Kramer said so!, that's why. The nature of media itself is evolving, faster than even the news wire services and broadcasting corporations, much less the slow-mo dinosaur that is the newspaper business. Journalists today need to change with the times, and engaging with their readers through technology is absolutely essential. That is, if they intend to stay relevant. If you are a journalist today at a press conference or an media attendee at an important event, you had better be blogging live on-site and sending regular Twitter updates into the cloud, because if you have to wait until you're back at the newsroom to file your story, no one's going to read it because that's just so five minutes ago.
The book or the classroom course to help the journalist to deal with these technological and societal changes hasn't been written yet (the software engineer's situation is a little less dire). Frankly, even if it were, I'm not confident it would stay (or even be) relevant because the pace of change today is frantic. There is no other option but to learn continuously and independently from everything around oneself.
I'm skeptical that students today are being equipped to deal with these rapid changes. In my opinion, students in Singapore have not been socialized into taking more responsibility for their own learning, nor have they been taught the skills to do so.
To recap my entire long spiel, exam smartness is NOT the problem, it is but a symptom. The real problem lies in students being taught in an environment that fails to impart the skills of learning independently.
Sunday, May 2, 2010
Rebecca Lynn Tan had an article today in the Sunday Times on Dinner for One. That will be the topic for today's post. Tan's wasn't a bad article, but I think I can provide more ... specific advice on dining alone.
In my youth (ok, I'm not that old), I used to travel fairly extensively as a student. Because it was somewhat difficult to find people with the same travel interests as myself, I frequently travelled alone. Still do, actually. So I learnt a few tricks on dining alone.
Dining alone in a restaurant is, for most people, an intimidating experience. "Table for one", "Yi wei" ... no matter how you say it, it's difficult. As a traveller, I started out ta-paoing from convenience stores, or eating grab-and-go street food, or stepping into a McDonald's like most less experienced travellers. Fastfood is frequently the easiest option when you are in a foreign city and you don't speak the language.
But it got old fast. So I wised up. And I picked up the courage to say "Table for one, please".
The unexpected thing is, the tricks I learnt while travelling still stand me in good stead here in Singapore. It doesn't happen often, but I occasionally dine alone in a restaurant in Singapore. As an incidental benefit, dining alone usually means looking for quieter places to eat; that's a good thing seeing as how I'm allergic to crowds.
Here then, are my tips for dining alone:
- First of all, in reference to Tan's article, if you have to raise your voice and repeat "Table for one" to the maitre'd, thereby announcing your solo status to everyone in the restaurant, you're not doing it right. Do what the Japanese do when dining out; indicate with your fingers how big your party is. In this case, just raise your index finger (not the middle one, no matter how tempting that is).
- Eat early or eat late, but do not eat when everyone else is eating. Restaurants are at their most crowded from 7pm - 9pm, with exceptions in certain countries (e.g. Spanish diners eat notoriously late). Walking into the restaurant at 6pm or at 9pm will more likely get you the seat you want as well as a more private dining experience.
- Fine dining, despite what Tan's article would suggest, is generally not a fine option. Fine dining establishments typically turn tables once, or not at all, per night. Turning tables is restaurant parlance for seating new diners at a table vacated by a prior group. Most diners at fine dining establishments will come in at about 7 or 8pm, and leave after 10pm. So such a restaurant will on average serve a number of customers 1.5 to 2 times their maximum seating per night. If you're a solo diner taking up a table meant for 3 or 4, and you finish sometime after 8pm (especially if you didn't abide by rule number 2), since solo diners seldom linger, it's unlikely that the restaurant will be able to accommodate a new group for your table for the rest of the night. In other words, it's lost revenue for the restaurant. And being a solo diner, it's unlikely that you ordered wine, at least by the bottle. Which is another lost revenue opportunity. They can say what they want about welcoming and making solo diners comfortable, but really, fine dining restaurants generally do NOT want solo diners. Plus, do you really want to sit down through a multicourse dinner alone? And drinking wine alone is ... well, you could either be construed as being very sad or a lush, neither one of which is very appealing.
- Cuisine matters. Certain kinds of cuisine are just more suitable for solo diners. Tan was right to be apprehensive about Chinese dining; it is communal and has larger portions or platters meant to be shared. While I do not doubt that Crystal Jade as mentioned in the article has single portions on its menu, still, Chinese is seldom a serious option I consider when I eat out alone. Even if there are single portions available, it's invariably a little more expensive and generally not very good value. The food was meant to be shared after all. The same goes for Thai food. In contrast, Japanese (with its bentos), Korean (think soon-dubu jigae and the like), Vietnamese (Pho, with a sider order of spring rolls or another appetizer), are generally better options for solo dining. Go for cuisines that emphasize individual plates or small portions (Spanish tapas comes to mind, although frankly, there are no good Spanish restaurants in Singapore).
- Now, where to eat? That goes right to the heart of the matter, doesn't it? As a diner, I look for good food at reasonable prices. As a solo diner, I ask for quietness and privacy. That may or may not be what you are looking for. If it is, then read on. If not, well, Singapore's a crowded city, so you should have no problems finding what you need. Generally, convenience implies crowds. So if you want to dine someplace quiet, you should be prepared to go a little out of the way. Choose restaurants in out of the way malls (I stay in the west, so West Coast Plaza is one of my preferred haunts. It helps that they have a Sakuraya Fish Market.). Walk out of the hubs like town centers and major MRT stations into surrounding neighborhoods where there are sometimes friendly, family-type restaurants that serve the residents in the area. Hotel restaurants are a safe, if boring and pricey alternative, and the wait staff are used to dealing with solo travellers. And don't overlook tourist destinations. Museums these days are paying greater attention to their food offerings; it would hardly do to leave visitors with a bad taste in their mouths, literally. If you're lucky, you might find a elegant quiet experience in a museum restaurant or cafe. And theatre restaurants can be a godsend for a solo diner. If you step in just after a major show has begun, you're almost certainly guaranteed a quiet private dinner.
- Bring a distractor if you must, or enjoy the experience of dining alone. By distractors, I mean a magazine, a newspaper, a Kindle, or an Iphone ... but probably not a paperback or hardback book. That would look ... odd. And if you're secure enough or inquisitive enough to put aside the distractors, enjoy the experience of dining alone. Too often when we eat out, we are too busy having a conversation with friends or family that we don't appreciate the decor, the restaurant, or just the opportunity to people-watch in the restaurant. Get a seat with a good view of the restaurant, or next to a window that overlooks the street. You'll be surprised by how much you can see, or eavesdrop on.
- Lastly, be friendly and be an easy customer. Don't make things overly difficult for your servers. You don't have to engage the wait staff in a conversation if you don't want to, but be pleasant and gracious. And if they are wearing nametags, make a point of addressing them and thanking them by name when you are about to leave. In my experience, people always react well to that.