Cambridge Days

Punch-drunk microeconomics, and the price inelasticity of fruitcake

The week before last was exams – a one-two punch of Corporate Finance and Organizational Behavior. I was swaying on my feet the moment I stumbled out of Cambridge’s Small Exam Hall, but then Az and I went and saw ‘Million Dollar Baby’, which pretty much knocked me out for the whole weekend. (Okay, boxing metaphor is corny, but damn if it isn’t apt.)

I’ve barely recovered. Lent term began promptly on Monday morning, which means I’m now fully back in business (school), and once again filling my cranium with executive-class knowledge.

Take, for example, this gem that cropped up during an Operations Management discussion: “The Price Inelasticity of Fruitcake” – i.e., as the price of fruitcake goes up, the demand for fruitcake doesn’t really drop. This atypical behavior occurs because fruitcakes aren’t bought for personal consumption – rather, they’re used solely as gift-items for unfortunate relatives.

Ergo, since the only way a buyer can measure the worth of a fruitcake is by looking at the price tag, bumping up the MSRP actually manages to increase the perceived value of said fruitcake. This, in turn, boosts demand for fruitcake-gift-object, and all in such a way as to offset any drop in demand due to some buyers being priced out of the fruitcake market, etc. etc.

I trust this explains why I haven’t blogged much, lately.

iMac at the Wren Library (not JBS)

Cambridge Days

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

About a month ago, I finished Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell”, though I didn’t really put the book to rest for three weeks after. It’s a massive tome; I wasn’t about to re-read it from the start, but the book demanded immediate re-visits, first a page here, then a passage there. And so it stayed atop my nightstand, getting better and better.

It’s a hard book to describe: the 19th-century atmosphere feels as cold as a lake in winter, and a gothic kind of melancholy hangs on every page. The tangled plot grows like a vine, not a flower; the story doesn’t blossom before the reader, so much as entwine itself around your ankles. And then, of course, there’s the magic (this is a book about magic) which feels veritably historic, resolutely English, and dangerously fey.

This book is not your run-of-the-mill fantasy.

There’s joy in it, but that’s mostly found in Clarke’s language, not the story itself. Her publisher has been aggressively hawking this book as ‘Harry Potter for Adults’, but where J.K. Rowling channels the sparky spirit of Roald Dahl, Clarke delivers a wit that feels more Dickensian. And while the book deals with the dire, fantastical and otherworldly, the needling humor is sourced closer to home – like the following, where Stephen Black is unwillingly whisked to a chilling setting by a malevolent fairy king:

The light was watery, dim and imcomparably sad. Vast, grey, gloomy hills rose up all around them and in between the hills there was a wide expanse of black bog. Stephen had never seen a landscape so calculated to reduce the onlooker to utter despair in an instant.

“This is one of your kingdoms, I suppose, sir?” he said.

“My kingdoms?” exclaimed the gentleman in surprise. “Oh, no! This is Scotland!”

And so forth. Anyhow, the book gets a big thumbs-up, from me and Az both. (And we’re not just saying that because the author lives around the corner in Cambridge, too.)

Cambridge Days

Cold in Cambridge.

The days are short of late, and the skies unduly enamored with cold, metallic colors. Brushed aluminum, powdered magnesium, gunmetal steel – ‘tis a chic palette, very Euro-styled and all, but I prefer a bit more yellow and blue, up above.

Alas, the only alternative on offer is White: Cambridge’s first winter snow started coming down in clumps three nights ago. Az and I live adjacent to the train tracks, near a railroad yard which houses a grove of halogen floodlights, and the sight of the snow floating past those towering lamps was remarkable. The flakes were larger than silver dollars, and all sopping wet when they hit the ground – I think that by some fluke it had part-ways melted, then weirdly re-amalgamated in the atmosphere.

(For all I know, maybe that’s just what snow looks like, here in England; the only true winters I’ve ever known were high up in California’s Eastern Sierra, where the snow gets delivered in an exceptionally dry, light and micro-sized format. It certainly doesn’t thud onto the ground like this local stuff.)

snowing on the train tracks

Anyhow, because of the season (and new latitude), I’m finding afternoon classes difficult; it’s heartbreaking to stare out the oversized-porthole windows of the Judge and see evening fall near 4pm. And since we’re now in the midst of our ECP project (the ECP is a part-time consulting gig with a local tech company, clients vary according to your study group; my own group is working in the industrial inkjet market) there’s often group work or travel after the last class. So like I said, the days are terribly short, but then, they can run awfully long and dark, too. Wicked chronological cocktail.

(Incidentally: Does complaining about the snow show that I’m a spoiled, stubborn Californian? Or, rather, does my introductory grumble about the weather imply that I’ve actually embraced a bad British habit? Tough call…)

And speaking of the cold, a more serious cold: I cycle past the Scott Polar Research Institute every day, since it’s around the corner from the Judge. The museum there is small but good; I visited with my parents, and the laughably crude equipment on display makes you realize just how outrageously tough and hardened explorers like Shackleton, Amundsen, and Scott must have been. It’s worth a quick visit if you’re in town.

Most chilling of all are the final handwritten letters from Scott and his company, penned after they’d realized their doom on the ice. I spent some time staring at them, under the glass. There’s a stoicism there I find so impressive, moving, and at the same time, totally unfathomable and almost alien. After all, I’ve just spent a semester hearing the word ‘risk’ being applied in the context of Excel spreadsheets, and then to come across a quote like “…we have missed getting through by a narrow margin which was justifiably within the risk of a such a journey”; words written by a man who knows he will freeze to death… well, it provides perspective.

ceiling of the judge business school, cambridge

Cambridge Days

Remaindered: Kings of Convenience, etc.

I found a note scribbled in the margins of my spiral-bound notebook, “lifetime pizza customer value 10K”. Now, whether I was skeptical, impressed, or just a tad peckish when scratching those words, I no longer remember. But I did just bother to look up the pizza bit on the ‘Net.

Turns out the lifetime revenue stream generated by a loyal pizza customer is actually $8,000. Give or take a slice.

Anyhow, my point is that it’s these things neat, small, and clever which are most easily forgot, if not written down. Thusly follows a quick list of not-blogged events from the last month at B-school, which I’d always intended to jot down, somewhere:

Kings of Convenience + Call & Response, at the Cambridge Corn Exchange. Ooh, what a show – girl-fronted S.F. rock band opening for a Norwegian duo whose crooning gets compared, constantly and aptly, to Mssrs. Simon and Garfunkel; the entire shindig rocking a converted corn warehouse/market facility left over from some bygone era here in England. I did the college-student thing, and bought a concert T-shirt, even.

Hedgehog, in natural habitat. Right, so there’s a hedgehog living in our garden. Frustratingly, I’ve only glimpsed the creature once so far, when I was up late in the conservatory, studying Finance.

The Master’s Lodge. The lushest accommodations in Cambridge are the Masters’ Lodges of various colleges. And since the Master at Magdalene also happens to be director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, his pad hangs plenty of name-brand artwork, to boot. A few times each year, he kindly opens his home to all the grad students; on this particular occasion, we got treated to wine from the cellars along with some medieval motets from the Magdalene choir. ‘Twas all an eminently civilized affair, and, yah, I’m grinning as I say that.

Clare Formal Hall. One of the friendlier traditions at the Cambridge colleges are the formal hall exchanges – play your cards right and you can wine and dine in the great hall of every college. Azure and I hopped over to Clare for a bite on a Friday night (no gown required), and couldn’t help but be amused at being seated opposite a looming portrait of Gen. Cornwallis, a.k.a. the old arch-nemesis of George Washington & Co. Cornwallis looked just like he did in my elementary-school history books, red coat and all. What I wondered about, most of the meal, was what went through Cornwallis’ mind, sitting for that portrait: Did he fathom, then, how many future generations might dine beneath, and still recognize, his picture?

Evensong. Still on the college kick, I attended Evensong at Magdalene’s diminutive chapel the other Sunday. Not as glorious as King’s College, maybe, but what’s remarkable is how little space there is in the church – the choir numbers roughly 15 students, and I’d wager the additional seating hardly holds twice that. So it’s an intimate service, and personal, and really quite lovely.

And now it’s November, already.


Cambridge Days Technology

Geo metadata,, and Cambridge cats

A year and a half ago, I wrote a Webmonkey article asking where metadata might be headed next. What hidden information should we add to web pages to make them more searchable? For example, G.P.S. coordinates (longitude & latitude) would be an obvious boon for smartphone / mobile surfers – imagine standing on any street corner, and searching for all restaurants within walking distance.

The question remains unresolved, but it’s increasingly visible. Notable in the last few weeks were Jeff Bezos’ talk at the Web 2.0 conference, along with this ’Metadata for the Masses’ essay over at Adaptive Path. And, as anybody with a few thousand digi-cam snapshots knows, the metadata issue applies just as well to individual photos as it does to web pages.

I like the small ideas, though, always have. That’s why I was a fan of super-simple GeoURL; ‘twas a great trend, at least until the site went kaput. Finally, though, I’ve found a replacement: – another location-based search engine which parses a variety of geographical markup, including old GeoURL tags.

On an entirely different note, we just learned our new row house came with a one-way cat door. Kitty-cats can come in, but can’t leave. And that explains why, yesterday, upon arriving home after a long afternoon stroll through Trinity and St. John’s, a heretofore unknown black-and-white tabby was lounging on our sofa. Meow!

Cambridge Days

Magdalene formal hall

Friday marked my first formal hall at Magdalene. It’s a tricky event to describe without dipping into Harry Potter comparisons – I mean, where else do you find long rows of gown-bedecked students, dining by candlelight? Sure, the hefty silver candlesticks at Magdalene don’t exactly levitate in mid-air, but there are still enough of them to serve as the only light source in the stretching hall.

I realize, of course, that Harry Potter is a cheap cliché for describing Cambridge. It’s like bringing up Blade Runner when talking about Tokyo – the simile feels spot-on, but all too easy, more atmosphere than reality. Nevertheless, I’ve found Harry Potter remains the finest template for describing how the whole University – College relationship functions. For graduates, at least.

For instance: I got strange looks when I first told friends I was studying at the University of Cambridge, and then explained I’d be at Magdalene College. (And the Judge Institute for Management, as well.) How could I attend three schools at once? Now I tell folks it’s like attending Hogwarts School for Magic, but having the Sorting Hat stick you in Gryffindor House on your first day. (Or Slytherin, as some have slandered.) Harry Potter’s school has just four Houses; Cambridge has 30-odd colleges. But you get the gist of how it works.

I didn’t actually request Magdalene. It’s old (576 years), small (a few hundred students), and home to the likes of C.S. Lewis and proto-blogger Pepys. But I knew its reputation from tour books – the college is still notorious for being the last to admit women, in the 80’s. (That would be the 1980s, not the 1880s.) Sounded suspiciously crusty, a Porterhouse Blue kind of place.

It’s not anymore, not for the grad-school crowd, at least. Magdalene these days is like anywhere else in Cambridge – which makes sense, considering that most graduate students are placed there by chance, like me. If anything, Magdalene’s old stubbornness in clinging to its other customs, like the anachronistic formal hall, is considered charming and special, now.

So what about dinner, you ask? Well, it’s supposed to take a while to get to it, you see. To begin with, there’s the dressing up – black tux or suit and tie, plus a gown on top of that. Post-arrival, sherry might be served (in another hall, mind, not the main one), and then, once you’ve finally meandered into the dining area, there’s a grumbling period of waiting until the High Table (Fellows, professors, etc.) finds their seats. The buildup continues with a large gong being rung (swear, I’m not making this up) to signal the start of the Grace being recited… all in Latin, of course.

formal hall 2004

And then (only then) you get dinner. First course, white wine, Main course, red wine, Dessert, Savoury trifle, right on to petit fours and port or coffee. Last of all, another Latin benediction. Just like home, non?

Yeah. Having both dined and worked in the U.C. Berkeley cafeteria system, I gots to say dinner here is a serious step up. (I’d say the same about the schoolwork, too, and would catalog all that in detail, but that’s not nearly as fun to write about…)

Cambridge Days

Grantchester punt, Roland’s Dark Tower

Punting is tougher than it looks. It’s certainly harder than the guides ferrying tourists up and down The Backs make it seem.

Arrive in Cambridge on a warm, sunny weekend (happens every few years, I hear) and you’ll see punting’s gnarlier side: the ‘self-hire’ crowd. Once these all-too-literal boatloads of amateurs take to the water, the whole British notion of a ‘jolly riverboat jaunt’ is replaced by a tourist blood-sport that’s more akin to log-rolling or demolition derby. It’s best to watch from the shores of The Backs, I think – you might wince occasionally, but between the crashing, splashing, and multi-lingual shouting, you’ll at least remain dry.

My own punting skills are no better, likely worse. But last weekend, I managed to elude the rent-a-boat crowd, at least, by punting away from Cambridge, towards Grantchester. (Actually, I rode down, then punted the way back.) It’s a 90-minute push either way – plenty long enough to leave me cold, soaked, and pretty well tired. I lost the pole twice (the river bottom is like clay, in parts), and then got rained upon, to boot. Happy I went, of course, but I’m done punting ’til summer returns.

on the Cam

I completed another journey this week, and one which took me far longer – sixteen years, if I count correctly: I finished Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, the very week the last installment was published.

Can’t complain about the time – after all, it’s taken King 30 years to write those books, and he’s said this final volume heralds the end of his massive writing career. I can believe that – almost every book he’s written ties, somehow, into the nexus of The Dark Tower, and now that it’s done… where can he go?

So how good was it, at the end? Tough to say – his yarn was obviously good enough for me to read one after the other, and year after year; I’d also agree with the author’s own conclusion that the tale was ‘not entirely successful’. The big concern, of course, was the ending, including the author’s sudden, interjectory warning not to read it. (I’ve read a lot of books, and never have I seen an author pop into the narrative and lecture me against turning the page.)

King was right, of course. I should’ve closed the book. The journey is the reward, etc. – and any ending would have to be more bitter than sweet. This ending, though – man, after thousands of pages, a decade and a half… it just left me crushed. King says endings are heartless, and so this was. Almost.

No spoilers, here. All I can say is that choice facing the reader and Roland were one and the same – dare you enter the Tower, to finally see and know what lies inside? Or would you sit on the doorstep, deep in that field of roses, knowing there that the quest is good and true, and already complete?