Cryptography: Classical to Quantum

Cryptography is an old subject. Any time two parties wish to communicate in secret, cryptography is useful. For example, when Julius Caesar had to communicate information of military significance, cryptography, albeit a simple one, was used, leading to the algorithm by the name “Caesar’s cipher”. This algorithm simply shifts every letter in the original message by three (A becomes D, B becomes E, and so forth), and is obviously very easy to break. Modern cryptographic algorithms are much more complicated, but the essence of it has not changed much. Cryptography widely used in communication technologies today comes down to devising ways to encrypt a message so that only the intended recipient can decrypt it back to the plain text.

Suppose we wished to make Caesar’s cipher stronger. Instead of shifting every letter by three, we may devise a look-up table that switches every letter with another letter as given by the table. Such a table may look like the one below, in which you can look up any letter in the first row, and the corresponding letter in the second row is its encryption.

ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWZYZ
GQLKVBOXWTMUHYDPZRNFACEJSI

According to this table, to encrypt a message, I would switch all the A’s to G’s, B’s to Q’s, and so on. Decrypting is just as easy as long as you have access to this table. You look up the letter in the second row, and switch to the corresponding letter in the first row. The G’s become A’s, Q’s become B’s, and so on.

By this rule, “Meet me at the park” would become “HVVFHVGFFXVPGRM”. Here, I took out the spaces to hide some contextual information, because a three letter word in English is most likely to be the word “the” and I don’t want to give out such information.

Now, I simply need to share this table with the intended recipient of all my secrets, and as long as nobody else gains access to our secret table, I can communicate by sending encrypted messages, and the information will be safe, right?

Wrong. This is still a weak cipher. Let’s consider why. It is a major improvement on the Caesar cipher in which an adversary could simply shift the letters back by three to reveal the secret. However, the English language, like any human-spoken language on Earth, has distinct statistical characteristics that make a cryptographic algorithm like this one prone to attacks.

The most common letter used in the English language is the letter e. If I’m using the above table to communicate a message of significant length, it is not long before an attacker who observes the encrypted message will notice that the letter “V” likely is a substitute for “E”, because it seems to appear much more often than any letter. In English, T, A, O, then I are the next common letters after E, in that order, so the attacker may figure those out too by simple use of statistics. Eventually, all of the letters will be broken using a combination of statistics and inference from context.

So can we do better?

Before we discuss more cryptographic algorithms, let’s lay the necessary foundations.

Bits

At the heart of modern communication is the usage of bits to convey information. The word “bit” was coined by a statistician named John Tukey, who also coined the term “software”. A bit stands for “binary digit”, and each bit can hold a value of 0 or 1. Thinking of information as a collection of bits is particularly useful for designing computers, because computers store information in memory which consists of transistors. Each transistor can be in one of two states at any time. We denote one of the states as 0, and the other as 1.

All information can be represented by bits using some standardized process. For example, text can be converted into bits by lookup in each character of the text in the ASCII table, which assigns a number to each character. Those numbers can then be converted to 0s and 1s using binary math.

XOR Operation

The XOR Operation is commonly used as the building block of cryptographic algorithms. XOR stands for “exclusive or”. The operation takes two bits as inputs, and outputs 0 if the two input bits are the same. If not, the operation outputs 1.

So the possible input/output combinations of an XOR operation are as follows, where ⊕ denotes the XOR operation sandwiched by the two input bits:

0⊕0 = 0

0⊕1 = 1

1⊕0 = 1

1⊕1 = 0

The magic of the XOR operation, and why it is so useful for cryptography, is in its reversible nature. If you XOR a bit (call it the “original bit”) with a random bit (call it the “key” bit), you get a certain result (call it the “encrypted bit”).

Now, XORing the encrypted bit with the key bit turns the encrypted bit back into the original bit.

Here’s an example. Assume the following:

Original bit = 0

Key bit = 1

Encrypted bit is calculated as the original bit XORed with the key bit:

0⊕1 = 1 = encrypted bit.

Now, XORing the encrypted bit with the same key bit gets you back the original bit. This process works like a decryption, because you are decrypting the encrypted information to get back the original information.

1⊕1 = 0 = the original bit!

This works no matter the value of the original and key bits. I suggest that you try a few examples yourself to verify this fact.

One-Time Pad

Now that you understand how the XOR operation works, we are ready to introduce the “one-time pad”, a provably secure encryption algorithm which cannot be attacked on the basis of statistics.

To illustrate with a simple example, let’s assume that Alice and Bob already share a secret key. The topic of key-sharing will be covered later, so for now, let’s just assume that they’ve already gone through the key-sharing process and they both know that the key is “1001 1100”, while nobody else knows it.

Now, let’s say that Alice is trying to send a short message “1011 0101” to Bob in secret. To do this, Alice would XOR each bit of the plaintext with the bit from the key in the same position. This is called a “bitwise” XOR, and results in the following.

(1011 0101)⊕(1001 1100) = 0010 1001

Now, Alice can send this encrypted text (0010 1001) to Bob and it is completely safe from attack. An eavesdropper (let’s call her Eve) who gains access to this encrypted text in transit will have no way of knowing what the message is. It simply appears to be a random collection of 1’s and 0’s, and no statistical information is revealed that may help Eve break the encryption to turn it back to the original message.

Once Bob receives the encrypted text, he can recover the plain text by taking the encrypted text and applying the bitwise XOR operation with the secret key:

(0010 1001)⊕(1001 1100) = 1011 0101 = the original message!

The problem with the one-time pad is that the key can only be used once. Any key that is repeatedly used is proved to give out some information about the original text. Another concern is that the key must be the same length as the message itself, and if you had the ability to share a long key in secret, why not just share the message itself?

To overcome these problems, cryptographic algorithms have been devised to safely exchange a key (of limited length however), and to encrypt and decrypt a message using such a key. Although not provably secure theoretically, these algorithms still make it difficult for a third-party like Eve to figure out the original text, and only known attacks are brute force attacks that try every single permutation of possible keys. So far, these algorithms have stood the test of time to potential attacks, and are used in communication technologies everywhere today. This post will not delve into specific details of these algorithms, but an interested reader should read about Diffie-Hellman protocol for key exchange, and AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) as an example of encryption/decryption algorithm that works with a key of limited size (128, 192, or 256 bits), to get a taste for how some algorithms work under the hood.

These algorithms are in the realm of classic cryptography (as opposed to quantum cryptography). Classic cryptography algorithms depend on difficult math problems that even the fastest computers in existence cannot solve easily or quickly, such as the prime factoring problem. As long as computers don’t get too fast to solve these problems in a reasonable amount of time or to perform a brute force attack quickly, we can continue using these algorithms in cryptography.

A concern to classic cryptography is the observation that historically, computers have gotten faster over time. This means that classical cryptography may become useless in the future. Any algorithm that depends on computers being slow may become obsolete one day. Quantum cryptography, on the other hand, does not depend on math problems. Instead, they depend on the laws of nature. This is a paradigm shift from cryptography of the past, and has been of great interest in the recent decades as an alternative to overcome the limitations of classic cryptography. In the next sections, we will introduce the relevant laws of quantum physics that aid in cryptography, then quantum cryptography itself.

Qubits

We discussed bits in information theory previously, and it turns out that nature has its version of bits. We call them “quantum bits” or “qubits” for short, and we use this term generally to mean any quantum state that can be one of two values. Spin of an electron is one example, but for quantum cryptography, the orientation of the vibration of a photon will provide us with the qubits we need.

Quantum Nature of Photons

If you have a pair of polarized sunglasses, you have in your hands a device to measure the quantum nature of photons. Light consists of particles called photons, and each photon has an intrinsic orientation that can be filtered based on the orientation by the polarizer.

Sunglasses filter certain photons, but if we let photons through a calcite crystal, we will see that a random photon will pass through and emerge having one of two orientations with a 50/50 chance. If we orient the calcite crystal a certain way, we can force the photons to emerge with either a vertical or horizontal polarization.

Illustration: if a photon goes through a crystal in the following orientation,

then emerges with one of two orientations:

Once polarized, these same photons, if they were to pass through the crystal again, will retain the orientation as long as the orientation of the crystal is not changed.

A really interesting thing happens when I tilt the crystal by 45-degrees. Now, a photon is forced to be in one of two states, either 45-degrees up, or 45-degrees down as illustrated below. Surprisingly, regardless of the previous state (vertical or horizontal), the two new states are equally likely. There is no classical analogue to this nature of orientation and probability, so quantum mechanics is sometimes hard to wrap our heads around.

Illustration: A previously polarized (vertical or horizontal) photon goes through the diagonally-oriented crystal as below:

And emerges with one of these two states:

Another key feature of the photon’s orientation that makes it particularly useful for quantum cryptography is that polarizing the photon with this tilted crystal makes it “forget” the original orientation. Let’s call the original orientation the A basis, and the tilted orientation the B basis. If I measure the photon to be vertical in the A basis, it will stay vertical in the A basis as long as I don’t measure it in any other basis. But if I measure the spin in the B basis, then the original orientation in the A basis is forgotten, and measuring in the A basis again could result in a 50/50 chance of vertical or horizontal, since B now acts like the original basis, and A is now the new basis.

Quantum Key Distribution

With the above crash course in quantum physics out of the way, let’s see how we can take advantage of the quantum nature of photons to implement key distribution using photons. This process is called Quantum Key DIstribution, or QKD.

The goal is for Alice and Bob to share a string of bits that Eve doesn’t know. Alice can prepare a bunch of photons, and randomly select the A or B basis to send each photon. Suppose the below table represents the bases and the results that Alice observed. Here, we’ll denote the orientations with 0 and 1 instead of vertical and horizontal to be consistent with the notation of bits in cryptography.

Alice BasisABBABBAAAB
Orientation0000101100

These photons are sent to Bob using an optical fiber. Bob also randomly chooses the basis with which to measure (A or B). He measures the following orientations:

Bob BasisAABAABABBA
Orientation0100101111

Notice that every photon which Alice and Bob chose to measure in the same basis resulted in the same value. This makes sense, since that is consistent with how photons behave. However, every photon that was measured in different bases has a 50/50 chance of flipping.

Now, Alice publicly shares the bases with which she measured each photon. Alice and Bob can keep the bits that were measured in the same basis as their secret key.

Here’s the end result:

Alice BasisABBABBAAAB
Orientation0000101100
Bob BasisAABAABABBA
Orientation0100101111
Same basis? (Y/N)YNYYNYYNNN
Key00001

So their secret key is “00001” in this example.

The example above only used 10 bits, and they ended up with a 5-bit long key since the other 5 were measured in the wrong basis. In actual applications, they would use a much longer sequence of bits to arrive at a sufficiently long key that can be used as a one-time pad.

Detecting Eve

Now, Alice and Bob must ensure that there was no eavesdropper present. Suppose their secret key is 256 qubits long. They could randomly select a few bits to compare, but the act of comparing requires them to give some of their secret bits away through an insecure channel, and they would have to discard those bits. A better way is to choose some random combination of bits, and share the sum of those bits, modulo 2. For example, Alice might say, “the sum of my 22, 54, 195, 200, 210th bits, modulo 2, is equal to 1.” And Bob can confirm whether his sum is the same. If their remainders don’t match, that tells them that someone had tried to measure the photon along the way, and because of the nature of quantum physics, the act of measuring has a probability to change the value had they measured in the wrong basis.

If the sums do match, that is still no guarantee that there was no Eve, since Eve may have gotten lucky by choosing the correct basis, or choosing the wrong basis but Bob ended up re-correcting the orientation when he made his measurement by sheer chance. Or maybe a bunch of bits were different, but the remainder just happened to be the same as that will happen 50% of the time just by random chance. So to be confident, Alice can now choose another combination of random bits and compare the sum with Bob. They can repeatedly do this until they are statistically confident that there was no Eve in the middle.

Future of Quantum Cryptography

The physics is there. Quantum cryptography, by the inherent nature of quantum physics, has the advantage over classical cryptography which relies on mathematics and the slowness of current computers and their ability to perform brute-force attacks. What’s preventing quantum cryptography from widespread use is the engineering challenge that comes with engineering a quantum network of intercontinental optical-fiber of long lengths and multiple nodes. One multi-node quantum network was built with a DARPA grant in the Boston metro area and was operational for 3 years starting in 2003, but it hasn’t been adopted much in the private sector where classic cryptography still works just fine, and still is much less expensive to implement. More recently, there is an ongoing effort in China to implement satellite-to-ground quantum channels. Only time will tell, but it may just be a matter of time before all cryptography will shift to quantum cryptography in the near future.

A day at the DMV

I got a flat tire so I went to Pep Boys. They replaced it in 20 min. Impressive. I mention this as a datapoint to keep in mind for the rest of this post.

I had to go to the DMV to transfer my car to the new state where I live. First I had to make an appointment, which was only available a month out. Once I got there, even though my appointment was a specific time, they had me wait outside for a while in the cold. Then I had to visit the desks of three different people for some reason, and one of them yelled at me for not being prepared to take out the papers out of my folder fast enough. There were more waiting in between, and I finally got one paper filed with them after 4 hours. At that point they told me that I must come back another day for the second part of the process because they were closing for the day.

Considering how difficult of a time our government has just to file a few pieces of paper, we should be very careful before we grant them the powers to let it devise and implement solutions to some of the more difficult problems our society faces today.

It is a big mistake to allow the government more control of society in the name of solving whatever popular problem-de-jour that virtue-signaling activists with absolutely no knowledge of the most basic facts claim “needs more government intervention”, whether that’s poverty, sexism, racism, the environment, or the pandemic. Our history shows that when politicians and bureaucrats try to devise a scheme to solve these societal problems, their schemes do far more harm than good in most cases.

Minimum wage laws have led to increased unemployment of low-skilled workers. Affirmative action schemes have increased drop-out rates of the very students it claims to help. Rent control laws have led to a housing shortage and increasing rent. FDA regulations have killed more lives than they have saved. The Affordable Care Act, despite its wonderful name, has made health care less affordable. The post-analysis of “Americans with Disabilities Act” showed that it led to businesses hiring less, not more, people with disabilities. Federal subsidies of student loans led to skyrocketing college tuition. Well-meaning creation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to increase home ownership led to sub-prime mortgages and the global financial crisis of 2008. Welfare programs have led to a fantastic rise of single motherhood, but they haven’t at all reduced rates of poverty. Occupational licensing laws cause a shortage of workers when and where they are needed most (think nurses in a state experiencing the worst time of a pandemic).

If there is one lesson we should all learn from our history, it is that our natural inclination should always be to resist when a government seeks to grow in power and size as it is doing now.

“It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.” -Thomas Sowell

So that takes us back to Pep Boys. Why are they so good, while the DMV is so bad? Simple. Pep Boys would pay a heavy price for being bad, namely, going out of business, while the DMV pays no price whatsoever despite how bad they are at filing papers, or how poorly they treat the everyday Americans who have no choice but to keep going there.

2020

What a year. I remember it starting out like any other year, but boy how quickly can things change.

Personally, it has been a year of many changes.

I got married and moved to the east coast. As the pandemic hit and the music gigs mostly gone, I shifted focus to teaching and engineering. At last count I taught over 180 students this year, and I have been developing code for a music technology start-up for the last few months.

Having a wedding in the midst of a pandemic was quite the experience. It was never our plan to have a big wedding, but with the borders of many countries closed, even some of our closest family members did not make it to the wedding. Notably, our parents were missing in action with the exception of my mother who got around the restrictions and managed to travel back and forth from her home in Kumamoto, Japan.

Speaking of weddings, did you know that the typical wedding in the US costs somewhere on the order of $20 to 30k nowadays? Well that is just completely nuts. If it’s common belief that a newlywed couple just about to start a family together should spend such a gigantic sum of money on a frivolous party as the first step in their marriage, our culture needs a serious reevaluation of what matters in life.

With the prevalence of social media, it can seem like every one of your friends is throwing fancy parties and going on vacations all the time. But before you join them on the miserable treadmill of keeping up with the Joneses, take a minute to consider what you’ll be giving up to live that life. For starters, try asking one of these friends, “so, are you really excited to go back into the office after your vacation?”. The sad truth is that a lot of people aren’t, yet they have no choice. Such misery could have been easily avoided only if people realized that the reason they have to work a job they don’t enjoy is because of their financial irresponsibility. If you had enough saved up to be able to simply say “fuck you” to anything that goes against your principles, many more doors that you didn’t even know existed will open up in your life. When you’re not having to do everything for the money, your work is more fun, and your life is more authentic.

Thankfully, nobody in our close circles has such misplaced values, so we were able to have a ceremony that was tiny, intimate, and very special. It sort of became a fun family project to put together, and every participant ended up helping out in some way.

Peera walked Pi down the aisle.
Satoko played the piano.
Yuki and Mike made the flower bouquets.
Kan broadcast the ceremony for families back home, and Rito helped tear down the equipment by carrying the tripod for a few feet. A major contribution considering his age.
Minae baked the most beautiful cake after 3 practice attempts at home and happy neighbors who got free cake.

After the ceremony, we had some delicious Thai take-out from a local restaurant.

We are so grateful for our families, and our marriage is off to a great start. I’m surprised at myself for saying this considering that I had no desire to get married just a few years ago, but if you are unsure whether marriage is right for you, I highly recommend that you think about it seriously. There is something very special about committing to share the rest of your life together with a partner who knows you all too well (even your flaws), through both good times and bad. Nothing in my life up to this point has given me the level of fulfillment I get from striving to be a better husband.

As far as the east coast life goes, I’m actually enjoying the crunchy leaves and the piles of snow in New Jersey. We are just an hour away from New York City, so if you are ever in the area, please hit us up.

May your 2021 be a year of purpose.

Ronald James Read

I just read a Wikipedia entry about this guy named Ronald Read. It’s rare that a Wikipedia entry inspires me, in fact, I think it’s a first in my life. Just read this opening sentence:

Ronald James Read (October 23, 1921 – June 2, 2014) was an American philanthropist, investor, janitor, and gas station attendant.

That alone carries so much weight. What a powerful statement about what is possible in life.

Here’s the rest, read on: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ronald_Read_(philanthropist)

This guy walked or hitch-hiked over 4 miles to attend high school. He served his country. He didn’t go to college, but never stopped learning. He chose his investments by reading the Wall Street Journal every day. He didn’t make excuses about his modest earnings. He made something of his life, a rather big something. He surprised everyone when he donated millions of dollars to his local hospital and library.

Why the story of Ronald Read touched me today likely has something to do with what’s happening around the world nowadays. In particular, I’m having a real hard time relating to the activists in the US. At least the activists in Hong Kong and Thailand are fighting some real big issues.

But “systemic” racism, in America of all places? Coming from Japan where I witnessed significantly more racist attitudes than I ever have in the US, it baffles me to hear Americans who have never lived in a different country complain about racism as if that is what’s preventing people from living a fulfilling life. If you are living in the United States of America in 2020 and somehow think that you are “oppressed”, that is delusion of the highest order. In fact, you are living in the best time and in the best place to have ever existed in the history of our species. You have basically won the cosmic lottery. Any sane person who has done the research on some basic facts would whole-heartedly disagree with your claim that the system here is broken. No other system in history has ever allowed so many people of ordinary upbringing and of all races to make such great lives for themselves.

When it comes to racism, America in 2020 is the least racist country to ever exist on the face of our planet. Sure there are racist people here as there are anywhere else, but how does one seriously claim that this is a systematically racist country? Compared to what other country?

As a teacher, it worries me that the prevailing philosophy of the day is that our system is broken. If this is what we are teaching our children, they are screwed. A victim mentality will never catapult them to live an honorable life of responsibility.

I have a few words of advice to anyone drawn toward the flavor of activism prevalent in the US today. Before you try to discard the system and reorganize the world, learn a lesson or two from Ronald Read. Stop trying to appear virtuous on your social media feeds, and try actually living a virtuous life. Work hard. Gain new skills. Contribute to the world with your labor and talents. Get to know people of all walks of life and learn what real issues they are facing. Make something of your life. Be an example to the youth. Then you’ll discover the wonderful society we are all so lucky to inhabit. You might even find the meaning of life.

cultural appropriation

Apparently, there is a popular concept among college students nowadays, and it’s called “cultural appropriation”.

Here’s an example that’s been repeatedly given to me multiple times. If several white people (yes, level of skin pigmentation is apparently of utmost importance) were to get together for a Mexican themed party and enjoy some Tex-Mex tacos, that is “cultural appropriation” and therefore is extremely offensive. Even worse if they’re wearing sombreros.

For some reason, these same college students seem to have no problem with themselves when they go about their days eating California rolls for lunch, getting matcha latte with their group of friends, and butchering the pronunciation of “namaste” in their yoga classes.

I’m profoundly confused as to what cultural appropriation exactly means. If anyone can sensibly explain this challenging concept to me, please hit me up.

job vs calling

What is a “job”?
Your job is the task with which you earn, at the bare minimum, the financial resources to pay for life’s basic necessities. You need to have a job, either now or in the near future, unless you are financially set for the rest of your life.

You don’t necessarily have to love your job. In other words, your “job” does not have to be your “calling” (see below).

What is a “calling”?
Your calling is the task that makes you feel alive. It is your source of pride, purpose, and meaning. A calling makes your life beautiful.

Your calling does not have to earn you money. In other words, your “calling” does not have to be your “job” (see above).

Putting the two together
I have been lucky to have many jobs in my life that I’ve also considered my calling. I have only accepted job offers to work on projects that excited me, and whenever I had the urge to shift to a new calling, I would simply leave my job to commit more of my time on a new calling. Often, my new calling ended up turning into a job after some time anyway, as people start paying for my work.

what to do in a changing world

Back when I was a software engineer at Google, Vint Cerf came by our office to give a talk about the future of the internet. Before you ask me “who that?”, let me tell you. It is a safe bet that, unbeknownst to you, your life was significantly affected by this man. His invention of the TCP, a reliable protocol that defines how data is sent from one node to another on the internet, has undoubtedly changed the way you live. That is so because a reliable internet has changed the fabric of society and continues to do so.

Today, most people take for granted the existence of the internet and how well it works. But let us remind ourselves that the technology is very new. Just the fact that Cerf, or “The Father of the Internet”, is still alive is a reminder of the massive change that our world has gone through in a single generation. The internet is so new that I didn’t even know of its existence for the first ten years of my life, and I didn’t even consider to study about it when I was choosing my college major. At the time, I hadn’t yet realized that it was an important topic to be knowledgeable about. Heck the internet is so new that I haven’t installed internet in my home yet! But I’m told that I’m one of the last people to do so in this country. Despite its newness, the societal forces of my post-college years pushed me toward learning about it and working with it, and little did I know, I ended up making a career out of it.

I was thinking about this quickly-changing society the other day when my fiancée, a computer science researcher, was explaining to me the Lamport timestamp algorithm by Leslie Lamport. It is a fascinating algorithm to say the least, but what hit me more is the fact that he is still alive. It turns out that Lamport, like Cerf, is another person who has affected all of our lives even if we don’t know it.

The systems that lie at the heart of the internet services we use today are “distributed”, meaning that they are made up of many components that exist in different places (and often in different continents) that behave as one system, and such a system must somehow order the events happening at different places at different times within the system.

A distributed system is required because you simply cannot have one server taking all requests and one server storing all the data. A modern system handles an incredible amount of data (think about photos on Instagram or videos on YouTube you interact with daily, but multiplied by the number of global users) moving from one place to another, and it is simply impossible to store all that in a single database or to take in requests for the data from millions of users simultaneously with a single server. Even if there were a server big enough to do that, a single server represents a single point of failure and a failure is unacceptable considering that these systems hold most of our financial assets among other things.

Delving into the technical details of the inner-workings of specific services we use today is not the purpose of my post today, but just to touch the surface of the challenges of implementing a distributed system, consider that the laws of nature, or more specifically, the limitation in the speed of light, forbids the components of a distributed system from synchronizing their clocks. Still, for the system to work, it must somehow order the events occurring in various components. Lamport’s algorithm is the building block with which a system accomplishes this ordering.

The fact that Lamport is still alive reminded me of the pace of change in the world that we are seeing today. Such fast changes have never been experienced by past human societies. This is the fastest we have ever moved as a species, so let’s take a moment to appreciate that. The world in 2020 is significantly different from what it was in 2010, the year I finished college. The fact that I have worked for eight different employers since is a testament to that, and I’m not even including all the freelance jobs I do now in music and teaching. This pace is a miracle if seen from a historical perspective considering that the vast majority of human history went like this: “Be born, die a few decades later, and the way the world works has not changed at all from the day of your birth to the day of your death.” Only recently does such a story not hold true anymore. And nobody even knows what 2030 will be like.

When I told a student of mine, who had just entered high school, that there is a high chance that he will be working a job that doesn’t exist yet, he asked me, “what should I be studying?” My honest answer to him was, “it doesn’t matter”.

In all honesty, your field of study does not matter all that much. Whatever specific domain knowledge you gain for a career that exists today will be outdated in 10 years, other than the fundamentals like reading and mathematics (so yes, be strong in those at the very least).

More importantly, whatever you are doing now, do it extremely well. This applies to everybody. I don’t care if you are a student, a parent, a barista, a surgeon, or a chief economist of a central bank of a country. Do your job well. If you don’t want to and you absolutely cannot get yourself to put in the work, don’t be afraid to switch fields. Pick something that you are at least driven to be good, and actually become good. I mean this advice seriously, and I mean it to be applied even for hobbies and recreational activities. Whether you are gardening, making YouTube videos, or playing the guitar, do them well. Because to do anything well requires that you build up your foundation, and that foundation will undoubtedly spring forward you in your future endeavors, whatever those foundations and endeavors happen to be in. You may not see the connections now, but you sure will in the future, looking back. Also, by doing things well, you will develop the inherent confidence that you can accomplish things, because you will have gone through the process of self-improvement already.

This importance of having that kind of confidence cannot be emphasized enough. When life throws a curveball at you and you must adjust course, the first step is acknowledging that you can indeed do so. Many self-help books like to claim that you can develop confidence in a matter of hours, and claiming as such must be helping with their book sales, but that is a flawed and deceptive message. True confidence takes time. It only comes when you actually are good. So become good.

As society gets more complex, the number of ways in which a person can live a productive life has increased as well. It is a natural byproduct of a trade-based economy in which we trade our skills for everything else we need in life, those other things being produced by other people with skills that you don’t have. Today, there are as many ways to live a fulfilling life as there are people on the planet.

For me, when I look back at my life so far, the foundational knowledge I have built up in mathematics and physics has been helpful. Because knowledge is most efficiently built up like a pyramid from the bottom up, shifting gears to a diverse array of possibilities is easier with a stronger foundation. For example, some of my recent pursuits in fields such as economics and artificial neural networks have been significantly accelerated because I had studied calculus extensively in the past. I would have never imagined this when I was doing calculus. Even though I applied calculus for years to the field of Newtonian mechanics, I had no idea that it could be applied to so many other things. I doubt that Newton, the inventor of calculus, knew either.

Another skill that does not get talked about often is the “confidence to learn difficult things.” Maybe that doesn’t really count as a skill, but it sure matters. So many people, when faced with a challenge, give up because they feel that they do not have what it takes to learn, and settle for what is, even when they know that they are not satisfied in their current situations. That’s really too bad, because we actually all have the power to change ourselves and our situations if it weren’t for our self-limiting beliefs. Sure it may take you more work than another person because of factors like your lack of experiences or innate abilities, but the words “hard” and “impossible” are not to be confused. They do not overlap.

It is certain that the world will continue to change, and you may need to adjust by learning new things. It it hasn’t hit you yet, expect that it will soon. A natural question is then, how do you develop the confidence that you can learn? Again, there is no one right answer here. For me, much of my confidence comes from music, the one constant in my life. Music’s purpose is in its beauty, but there are also positive side effects of having devoted my life to music that I didn’t even imagine while putting in the hours of practice day in and day out. I simply wanted to make good music, but music has taught me much more than how to make music. The side effects are too many to mention here, but they basically boil down to the fact that music is extremely difficult to do well. As such, any other challenge that come up in my life all just seem so easy to me in comparison. I don’t even think twice about whether or not I will be able to overcome it.

If you find yourself asking “Can I do this?”, that’s a silly question. It’s not even worth discussing. Of course you can.

On efforts to control prices

Today, I was reading news stories about hand-sanitizers and masks being sold online for ten times their normal prices amidst the worldwide coronavirus outbreak. Given the circumstances, apparently Google and Amazon are prohibiting sales on their platforms at exorbitant prices. They are private companies so I have no qualms about what they decide to do, but their responses reminds me of historic efforts imposed by the government to control prices of various goods and services.

These price control efforts I’m thinking of are mandates like “anti-price gouging laws” that prohibit sellers from raising prices of products beyond a government-set percentage in case of a natural disaster, “rent control laws” that make it illegal for landlords to charge rent over a certain allowed annual percentage increase, and “minimum wage laws” that set the floor for how low of a wage an employer is allowed to pay to its employees.

On the surface, these issues seem pretty simple. Charging a high price for necessities that people need in times of a natural disaster, increasing the rent on someone struggling to pay rent, or hiring unskilled workers for the benefit of business-owners while taking advantage of cheap labor, all seem wrong. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to do any of that. But the world is not perfect, and a lot of discussions I have been having around this topic tend to miss an important aspect: what would we be giving up by implementing such laws? Are there unintended consequences? Are the decisions being made as a result of weighing the pros and cons to make sure that we are not causing unintentional harm? To help me understand the topic, I have been researching counterarguments against price-control measures, because the opposing views are not often talked about in the liberal state of California where I live, even though these are things well worth considering. My goal is that we can all think critically about such laws in order to be an informed voter, because these issues often come up in local elections.

Rent Control
Let’s start with rent control by considering the case of San Francisco, a city notoriously known for its lack of housing and exorbitant prices despite its rent control laws.

According to the citywide ordinance in San Francisco, an owner of a rental unit may not increase the rent by more than 5% annually against a current tenant. Given the current severe housing shortage in San Francisco, there is a drastic difference between how much a landlord can charge a tenant who already lives in a unit and wants to stay, compared with how much a potential new tenant moving in is willing to offer for the same unit. Rent control laws are popular among the public because the name suggests that it should control the rent, making it affordable for more people to live in that area. Because of that, many politicians in the past have implemented them to gain the support of the voters. However, a careful study of the topic reveals that rent control laws are ineffective at best in what it claims to do (to control the rent), and actually result in the opposite effect. Rent control is the main driver in rising rents, homelessness, and gentrification in an area, harming people, especially the poor.

To understand the topic better, it helps to first to put ourselves in the shoes of the landlords, such as an owner of an apartment complex. Remember that rent control law results in a large price difference between what future tenants are willing to pay, and what a landlord is allowed to charge the current tenant. As a result, the owner has all the incentives to kick out the current tenant for a new tenant. But that is often difficult to do, so the next best thing is to convert the rental unit into other forms of investment, such as commercial buildings or luxury condos for sale, which will command very high prices and offer a better investment opportunity than being a landlord. Such an incentive placed city-wide by an ordinance leads to an even greater shortage of rental units in the city, as more and more rental units get converted to serve other purposes, while very little new rental-units are being built in the city. Even as the city is expanding and businesses are moving in which should also have a corresponding demand increase for housing, investing in rental units is not as attractive as other forms of investment. The resulting shortage almost always means higher prices in the long run for the remaining rental units due to low supply and high demand. As prospective tenants bid up the prices for their chance to move into the city, rent becomes exorbitant. The people hurt most by rent control laws are the poor. Many rich future tenants pay bribes to the landlords to secure rental units. Some tenants even secretly sublet their unit at market price significantly above what they are paying to the landlord. In fact, my friend was recently paying $1600/month to his roommate to share a unit in San Francisco in which she has lived before him, signaling that the fair market value for the unit should be around $3200. Despite that, his roommate was paying significantly less than that to the landlord, because the landlord was forbidden by law to collect the profit from the arrangement between my friend and his roommate. No wonder that less and less investors want to supply rental units in such a city. As an investor, if I cannot collect the fair profits from my investments, I will forego the opportunity to invest in something else with my capital.

So a law designed to make housing affordable for people has the exact opposite effect as it causes a shortage and drives up the cost of housing. The story is much the same in other places that have implemented rent control: New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and Oakland which are all facing increasing rent and homelessness.

Compare them to Tokyo, a large city with no rent-control laws. Tokyo has enough housing for people of all income levels because supply of housing has steadily increased in proportion to its population-growth historically. In Tokyo, a low-wage worker earning an equivalent of about $10 per hour can afford to live in one of the cheaper rental units in the city whose market rate is around $400, or about 25% of his monthly earnings, as long as he is okay with not living in the most convenient areas of the city. He would also likely have to live in a very small studio unit, and take a few more subways to get to work than the rich who tend to live in more central areas. It may not be the most ideal living situation, but it is comfortable enough, and it sure beats being homeless or having to live hours away from your place of employment, as workers in San Francisco often must do.

Speaking of homelessness, Tokyo has a homelessness population of about 1 per 10,000 residents. Compare that to New York city and Los Angeles, with a dismal 67 and 40 homeless persons for every 10,000 residents, respectively.

Anti-Price Gouging Laws
Let’s turn our attention to price-gouging laws. In California, its anti price-gouging statute prevents a merchant from raising the price of any item by over 10% in response to a declared emergency, such as a natural disaster. In theory, such a law sounds good, as it should keep items affordable for the poor, who tend to be the most vulnerable when disaster strikes.

However, forbidding prices to go up ignores the fact that in case of a natural disaster, the demand for certain products can rise significantly in a very short amount of time, driving up the market rate for various products. The very definition of what used to be “normal” does not apply anymore, as there is a new normal price determined by the sudden spike in demand. If merchants are not allowed to raise the price of these products, these products will immediately sell out, and their prices will rise any way through the secondary and black markets, as people who make it to the stores first will hoard these items, often to stock up for emergency or to sell them at a much higher price that people are now willing to pay given the new circumstances, leaving little for the poor for a chance to get the products. An anti-price gouging law cannot fight the market forces to control the prices as it intends to do.

What is the effect, then, of such a law? It turns out that it is very similar to rent-control laws mentioned above. When a law prevents price of a product to rise in response to the current market conditions, producers of that product don’t have a strong enough incentive to produce more of that product, and the merchants of that product who operate in multiple regions to divert its normal supply chains to provide more of that product to the area where price is rising, signaling the highest need. Because of the lack of incentives on these key players in the market, laws preventing price hikes lead to a severe, ongoing shortage of the product in question. A price hike may be unfortunate, but as long as incentives are allowed to fluctuate freely with changing market conditions, high-prices prevent people to hoard an item unnecessarily in the short term, and prices come down quickly as more suppliers start providing the product to the affected area. This is a much more desirable effect than an ongoing shortage.

For example, an ongoing shortage of masks in an area devastated by a wild fire could mean life and death for many of its residents, and it is tragic that anti-price gouging laws can indirectly kill people by failing to incentivize the market forces to bring more masks to the area. It is one thing to be skeptical of free market forces when it comes to topics like health insurance and the environment which have externalities that the market fails to address, but a whole another to ignore its efficiency of providing a high-demand product in a high-demand area. Free market forces act significantly faster to solve a simple shortage than a government bureaucracy trying to supply the product in such a scenario. The government does not have the right connections to the producers and the merchants to devise an effective policy overnight to save the lives of these people, while a web of producers, delivery services, and retail stores responding to the market forces are very effective to quickly divert products to areas in need.

Economists are often criticized for simplifying the world with sketches of supply and demand curves on a napkin to explain such phenomena, but there is an important wisdom to be gained by trying to understand how supply and demand works at the most basic level. I liken it to future mechanical engineers who study about frictionless inclined-planes in their introductory physics course, even though no such object exists in the real world. The education obtained here is nonetheless crucial to the career of this future engineer or the future voter in understanding more complex topics.

Anyone who studies the history of price controls cannot deny that government-imposed price control measures have consistently led to severe shortages any time the market price for any product goes above the price allowed by law. The gasoline shortage during the 1970’s oil embargo, the shortage of apartments in rent-controlled cities, food and basic necessities in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez’s policies placing a cap in their prices, the shortage of doctors in countries where the government imposes how much a doctor can charge for various services, are all examples of this. It is just difficult to see the causal negative effect of these policies because under normal circumstances, market prices for most services and products do not go above the level imposed by the government. When it does suddenly many years later, the politician who implemented such an erroneous and mistaken economic policy (often with praise from the citizens at the time of implementation) is usually long gone from the office, as society is left to deal with the devastating consequences, wondering why the shortage does not get solved even as people suffer.

Minimum Wage Laws
Finally, let’s turn our attention to minimum wage laws. Perhaps this is the most controversial of the three price control laws I mentioned today, because it affects the most number of people on a daily basis. It is also the most complex of the three, with its long-term effects not completely understood given the complexities of the labor economy. The key difference between a minimum wage law and the other two laws I mentioned above is that a minimum wage is a “floor” placed on the price of labor setting a certain minimum, as opposed to price-control measures such as rent control and anti-price-gouging laws, which are “ceiling”s setting some maximum level.

The typical Econ 101 textbook states that a price floor results in surplus, while a price ceiling results in a shortage. So the minimum wage law, which effectively sets a floor on wage, should cause a surplus in the available labor, meaning higher unemployment rates. The simple explanation may miss some key insights because of the long-term effect on the well being of the economy when people, especially the young, forego working for other high value activities such as education. Also, it is possible that businesseses may be underestimating the value of a worker and underpaying them. Paying too much for a worker hurts the bottom line for obvious reasons, but paying workers too little could also be damaging too if the wages are so low that a job loss does not hurt, in which case those workers have little incentive to be actually productive at work.

The key argument for minimum wage law is that by setting the minimum to a “livable wage” to meet the basic living conditions, poverty should be eradicated. It sounds beautiful in theory.

But at the same time, it doesn’t take the most intelligent economist to see that you can’t just raise the minimum wage to any price you wish. For example, raising the minimum annual salary to $100,000 for everybody sounds great at first if we can all earn a six-figure income starting tomorrow and live in abundance. But if such law were to be implemented, any employee who does not produce that kind of profit for the employer with his or her skills will be laid off soon, as there is no reason whatsoever for the business to keep such a person on staff. Engineers, doctors, and lawyers already earning a six-figure salary will likely keep their jobs, while many people will lose their jobs, at least temporarily, as the economy slowly adjusts to inflate the price of everything to negate the effect of a higher income, at which point people can be employed again.

So by common sense, we can’t set the minimum wage to $100,000/year without causing massive unemployment in the short run and inflation in the long run. So what is the result of a more realistic minimum wage, such as $15/hour, that many proponents argue for?

In the short term, it will not change much of anything for most people in their mid-careers, because they are already earning wages well above $15/hour anyway. The only people initially affected by the law are people currently working for under $15/hour. By the same logic as the example of the $100,000/year minimum wage above, with a $15/hour minimum wage, companies will have an incentive to layoff anyone whose work and skill does not produce a profit to the business equivalent to $15/hour. These are mostly people in entry-level jobs with little experience nor knowledge on how to do the jobs effectively yet, such as students or people straight out of prison working at their first job.

Even though the proponents of minimum wage often cite how impossible it is to raise a family on minimum wage, it is important to recognize that a majority of people working minimum wage jobs are actually not raising families. They tend to be young, inexperienced workers working their first job to gain a footing in the world of work. For such people, an opportunity to work and build experience, regardless of any wage, may be more important than a higher wage, and a minimum wage law inevitably means that some of them will be unemployed because their market wage is worth less than what the law allows. Many proponents of minimum wage I’ve talked to seem ignorant about all the negative consequences of it, such as higher unemployment rates of low-skilled workers, hours of work cut from those who need or want it, loss of flexibility in many positions, capital replacing human labor faster than it naturally would under a free market, higher cost to all businesses but especially to small businesses, and higher prices on various consumer goods and services.

Of course, young people finding a difficult time finding employment can forego work now and focus on their education which also lead to future opportunities, and perhaps that is not necessary bad. Also, the negative consequences of the minimum wage law is not as obviously visible to the ordinary voter who has other things to worry about in life. That is because minimum wage workers represent only about 0.1% of the labor force. Regardless, to those few workers, a minimum wage increase could mean a disruption to their career, because the law will suddenly prevent an employer to keep employing that worker at a price that they both had agreed on, and the employer often has no choice but to let them go, cut their hours, or raise their prices. If the law unintentionally prohibits a contract between a business and a potential hire even though both parties are willing, it has done harm to both of those parties. People can disagree whether it is role of a third party such as the government to prohibit two willing parties to buy and sell labor at a price that they both agree on, but there is no doubt that the minimum wage causes much more harm than good, and the people hurt the most by it are low-skilled labors, the very people the proponents of the law claims to be “helping”.

Another irony of the minimum wage law is that its proponents are often “economic liberals” in the American sense, who generally favor government intervention to control business sizes. They claim that corporations are getting too large and that is bad for competition. But they fail to recognize that minimum wage laws favor large corporations, as they are the ones who can afford to pay a higher wage, while small businesses are more likely to go out of business because they tend to have much smaller profit margins and thus are hurt the most by having to pay a higher wage.

Proponents of minimum wage laws should critically think about these trade-offs before coming to any conclusion.

Summary
My goal in analyzing price control laws today was to frame the conversation as a trade-off between pros and cons after having understood both sides viewpoints, rather than an emotional argument about right and wrong which will never lead to good policies. These are nuanced topics with no one right answer, so being aware of the implications is crucial. Policies and their effects are not simple to understand. It is not about implementing what satisfies our emotions. Every policy has trade-offs that must be considered. Have we thought about what those might be? If not, let’s think them through. After we’ve done so, are the trade-offs worth it? These questions must be driving our conversations.

Looking back

Music has been a major part of my life, starting early on. My mother’s diary speaks of the day when the 26-week-old me discovered that a piano responds to my touch to make a sound. By age two, I was able to sing over fifty Japanese songs with precise intonation.

I must have decided early on, although not consciously, that it was okay to not be the best at everything, if it meant that I could play more music. Of course I wasn’t thinking that deeply about my life, but now I realize this about my past self, because whenever I got a time-consuming assignment or a project from school, I tended to not do them, opting to practice with my time instead. Of course I tried to make sure that my grades did not dip so low to a point to fail the class, but I was not always successful.

One evening after I came home with a failing report card, I was trying to sleep when I overheard my parents discussing in the dining area. The topic was whether I should stop playing music so that I can focus on my studies more. Thankfully, they decided against that idea. My father’s precise words were, “But if we take away music from Shin, he would have nothing left.” I think he underestimated me a bit though, as I have achieved some things outside of music too. I was just a late bloomer on most of my pursuits in life.

When I got in trouble with my mother, unlike most mothers who would take away their video games or a day out with friends, she took away my ride to music lessons. That did not deter me, and I simply walked. My cello teacher’s house was a 1.5-hour walk each way, and so I walked from and to the lesson, with a cello on my back.

When I was in high school, my father left his job to pursue more education. My parents said that they were financially okay to continue paying for our living expenses, but the music lessons had to go. That’s when I decided to take the only job I knew how to get at that time, a minimum wage job washing dishes in a restaurant in the evenings and weekends, and used almost all of my earnings from the job to continue with the lessons. Surprisingly, this was a change for the better (take note, parents). Did you know that people value things much more when they have to pay for it? I never knew until then, but from that day forward, I have never hesitated spending money for my education. I even asked my piano teacher to charge me more so I would take my studies more seriously.

When it came time to decide on a college major, I considered studying music for a bit, but the practical side of me won out and I chose physics instead, and I eventually changed to an even more practical major in engineering. Little did I know that the lessons I learned through music would propel me in all these pursuits.

Looking back, I still don’t know why music has always been such a large part of my life, but in hindsight, I do realize what a positive force it has been in all aspects. I attribute so much of the beauty of life: my happiness, a meaningful and challenging career that I’ve been lucky to have, relationships with other growth-oriented people, and the insights to make good decisions. Here are some key takeaways:

I couldn’t bullshit my way through music.
In an academic environment, I can have the illusion of having mastered something. For example, if I do everything that a teacher tells me to do, I can expect to receive an “A” in a course and I would think that I have mastered it. But in reality, getting an A is hardly “mastering” that subject, as plenty of students get A’s, unlike in the real world where only a few are called “masters” of any field. Compare that to music. Music is very honest, and less confusing. The music that comes out when I sit down at the piano and improvise is a very real reflection of the work that I put in, and my limitations because of the work that I did not put in yet. I doubt that I will ever get to call myself a “master” of music. As such, just sitting down in front of a piano daily aligns my goals to my long-term growth. It’s the small things that matter. The daily decisions to act in ways that improve the unseen future, that’s what most of life boils down to.

Music taught me about “abstraction”.
Some people are puzzled why pianists can memorize a long piece of music, such as a 3-movement sonata. If you think just in terms of the number of notes, it should be impossible that any human can just memorize so much information. But music is not about memorizing notes. It is about how the notes are combined with other notes, and how that combination of notes moves to the next combination of notes. All of those follow a few common patterns that appear in lots of different places within all genres of music. These common patterns are the “abstractions” of music, and by having the knowledge about more and more of these abstractions, what I am able to create musically has increased exponentially over time.

I later learned that my other pursuits in life, such as physics and engineering, are also largely built on this concept of abstraction. So a difficult problem is actually not a complex problem. It is a combination of many simple problems that add up to give it its seemingly complex nature.

Something I’ve noticed about my philosophy in life is that unlike many people who tend to focus on the end-goals and results, I don’t have long-term goals, nor am I interested in what the final result of my actions will be. Kind of like a good poker player, who can detach the aspect of decision making from the result of their actions which are driven by luck. I have never had typical aspirations in life such as getting married, buying a nice house, or being successful. If they happen, great. If not, also great. My focus has simply been on building up my skills from the foundation up, like a pyramid, and I just let life unfold. As a result, I get off to slower start compared to others, but I eventually get to a point where my foundation is strong so that I can learn things faster. That explains my struggles in math classes early on, and my eventual success in physics and engineering. It also explains I was never the kid to enter piano competitions. What I could play was extremely basic compared to other kids taking piano lessons. Instead of learning to play impressive-sounding pieces by these genius composers, I was slowly building up my ear for music by listening to songs and learning them by ear, note by note and chord by chord.

The result is that now I can hear a piece of music and learn and understand both the melody and its chord progressions in a matter of minutes. I can join a band and come up with a piano part on the spot to make the band better. I can compose a piece of music at will. I can accompany a singer singing in any key without sheet music. I can improvise my way out when I get lost during a performance. It turns out that all these skills are important to a musician.

Abraham Lincoln apparently believed in this “foundations-up” approach too, as he said “give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Music is more science than art
Although music is so powerful in appealing to the listener’s emotions, the process of becoming better at music is very scientific in nature, and has so much to do with planning effective practice sessions and executing on them. To detach the emotional part and focusing on the science almost seem wrong, and I even remember being told by a non-musician friend that I should “feel” the music more while I was drilling on a left-hand passage methodically with a metronome, but such practice can be a very effective way to develop the techniques so that later on when you are feeling that emotion in music, you have the capability to express that emotion by moving your hand in a very specific way that matches what the emotions require.

But music is still art
After all I said in the previous paragraph, the purpose of music is still to capture the beauty in the moment in time and space with your music. Music’s power is in its fleeting nature, as no same sound will ever be produced again. As such, music parallels life, because after all, there is so much joy in being alive and experiencing each current moment. It’s a tragedy that we forget this, and life goes on without us basking in the beauty of it.

Yesterday does not exist anymore, and tomorrow is not guaranteed. Today is different though. Today, we can choose what to make of it.

cup of coffee anyone?

There once was a peculiar coffee shop called “Akaneya”, located by the train station in Karuizawa where their baseline coffee started at double the price of a typical coffee at other cafes. Not only that, Akaneya’s secret menu is rumored to have included a cup of coffee that costs upward of $100.

Karuizawa is a rural little town that my family used to visit during the summer to get away from the Tokyo heat. You may also know it as the home of a recent season of the reality show “Terrace House” on Netflix, which is a very interesting cultural phenomenon worth checking out for anyone interested in how some Japanese young adults go about their lives.

Back to coffee. What’s really interesting about Akaneya’s coffee is in its philosophy and history. The first Akaneya opened its doors in Kobe, a large city in west Japan. Its owner, Mr. Funakoshi, had suffered from medical issues throughout his life and reasoned that he could not work a normal day job like everyone else. About all he could handle was to own a small coffee shop, and not only that, his goal was to work as half as much as a typical coffee shop owner. What interesting aspirations! Can you imagine going into any job and right off the bat claim “my goal is to work as half as much as others”? Well that was precisely his goal.

He got to thinking how he can achieve this. He set a goal to serve about fifty or so customers in a day. He figured that the coffee must be priced high to not attract too many customers, but he had some pride. He wouldn’t allow himself to serve anything whose quality didn’t justify its high price. A coffee that tastes bad but is expensive just for expensive’s sake was of no interest to him. And so began his journey to figure out what exactly makes one fine cup of coffee.

His first stops on the journey were the various operators that import and process coffee beans. He carefully observed how they work, and asked them questions until he was confident in his understanding of how this industry operated and the important concepts that end up affecting the taste of the final product, the brewed coffee.

This was 1966 and as such times were different. Of all the coffee bean processors in Japan, there was only one that roasted the beans using charcoal. He decided to buy the beans from them. But instead of letting this operator blend the beans as they saw fit like any other coffee shop would, he brought back a variety of beans in order to decide on a blend himself after much trial and error. He made each cup of coffee to order using the pour over technique, which was eventually made popular in other coffee shops in Japan (and later in other countries as well), but putting in so much work into each cup was certainly not the norm at the time, as no other coffee shop was known for doing the same.

His meticulous research did not stop at the coffee itself. For the best drinking experience, he also needed to find the right cup. He looked into cups made domestically and internationally, made from a variety of materials, and eventually found cups to his liking in Okura Touen, a Japanese producer of fine artistic china, after visiting various factories and observing the pride that each put into their work, as well as the conditions, cleanliness, and management of the factories.

With all this research and preparation, he opened his first coffee shop in Kobe, Japan, and it did better than he expected, which meant he was working more than he would have liked. Remember, his goal was to open a coffee shop that did not attract many customers. Eventually he left the operations of this busy shop to others, and opened up another location in the rural Karuizawa where the population is small and people would typically only visit during the summer months. This store was more to his liking, and he was working less, just like he wanted to. He spent his newfound free time learning about various things, and unexpectedly, the second floor of the shop eventually became a secret meeting place where various important officials and higher-ups of society would come and talk to Mr. Funakoshi for inspiration, to learn from his profound insights about business and the world.

So goes the interesting story of the Akaneya coffee shop and its founder, Mr. Funakoshi. What’s the point you say? Well, whatever lesson you learn from this is up to you. At the very least, it’s a fascinating story of the irony of life, about a guy who ended up successful because he didn’t want to work. Perhaps herein lies an important aspect of work: be creating something that you can be proud of.