Singapore

Connectivity at Populus, Singapore

Inside Populus

The cool interior of Populus

A friend recommended that we try a café in her neighbourhood near Outram, in Singapore. So, with some time to spare we walked up the hill and into the welcoming air conditioning of The Populus Cafe in Neil Road. The coffee is roasted by 2º North and there is an extensive menu of both coffee based drinks and a seasonal filter selection. There was also a range of iced drinks on the menu which in the Singapore heat were tempting, but I opted for the 6oz Long Black. Given more time, or a second visit, I would certainly try the filter, but this time an appointment across the island was calling. There seemed too to be a very good lunch selection on the menu, but again, the lunch appointment elsewhere meant that it was just the 6oz long black that day.

It should be possible to take some time back from a busy schedule full of appointments and concerns and sit back and ponder the connections in any café. Having run from one set of concerns and soon to have to go off to another, would this be possible in 30ºC+ heat? The comfortable space of Populus provided a perfect place to test this question. Sitting back while sipping my coffee, the first thing that struck me was the wood, arranged in different geometrical patterns on the walls. The floors too were decorated with hexagonal stone tiles while the door was glass. There was a different pattern on the door, but what was it? Staring at it for a while, I thought about the schematics you sometimes see for a connected world, each of us a point connected to the others (how true is it that we are all 6 hand shakes away from everyone else?). Maybe this fitted with the name of the café? My companion in these reviews instead thought of crystals and the way that crystal structures are represented with lines between the atoms. While loading the photograph of the door onto the website, I saw a pattern of flowers. It seems that the pattern on the door formed and reformed with each new view.

door, Populus

Looking through the door of Populus. What patterns do you see?

Then there was the cup. A black coffee in a black cup, with umbral and penumbral shadows (as pointed out by @Bob_MatPhys on Twitter). A few years ago there was great excitement about a new material that had been made to be blacker than any known material. The substance used a coating of carbon nanowires (of just 20nm diameter which is about 1/1000 the size of a grain of espresso grind) to absorb light across the visible, ultra-violet and infrared spectrum. And just as nano-structuring a material helps it to appear the ‘blackest’ object ever, so changing the structure of a material can make it invisible to other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum such as microwaves. Quite why various defence companies and governments would invest so much into this research I will leave for your imagination (it is not to avoid heating soup). A more peaceful and beautiful side of the effect of nanostructure on optical properties is the way that the feathers of a peacock have a striking green-blue hue. It is another example of light interacting with a structure and so producing different optical effects; all is not as it appears.

coffee cup Populus

A black coffee in a black coffee cup. But what does black mean? And is something that is transparent always so?

And the fact that all is not as it appears gives another connection to the Populus cup. For although it seemed quite black to my eyes, it was clearly shining in the infra-red. The hot coffee inside was radiating through the cup and onto my hands. Which could prompt us to consider what ‘black’ really means? And for that matter, what about transparent? Just as ‘black’ only absorbs light over a certain set of frequencies, so transparent only lets light through over certain frequencies. The door that we can see through with our eyes may be opaque to a different frequency range that we cannot see. Just over two hundred years ago Carl Wilhelm Scheele deduced the presence of the infrared by contemplating how his stove heated him in the winter. Although he could not see them, the ‘heat rays’ seemed to come straight towards him and yet did not cause a candle flame to flicker, clearly the heat was ‘radiating’ like light rather than travelling like a breeze on the air.

The knowledge that structure, as well as pigment, provides the colour to our world, or that what is transparent at some frequencies may be opaque to others, these things give us plenty to think about, scientifically and perhaps more philosophically, while enjoying our black coffee. Which shows that even ten minutes spent sitting with your coffee can result in a series of thought connections that you may not have enjoyed had you rushed from appointment to appointment while checking your smartphone. That we could all enjoy a good ten minutes (or more) in the Populus Cafe!

The Populus Cafe is at 146 Neil Road, Singapore 088875

Reduce, Re-use, Recycle at Attendant

The outside of Attendant on Foley St

Attendant Coffee, Foley St

I was not initially going to do a cafe-physics review of Attendant. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the coffee, I did. I had a very well prepared V60 which went very well with a lovely chocolate brownie. Nor was it that there was nothing to see at Attendant. No, it was quite the opposite. Part of the point of the Attendant seems to be its location. You see, if you were not aware of it already, Attendant is to be found in a (no-longer-used), underground, gentlemen’s toilet. Although they have been thoroughly cleaned, various fixtures (19th century urinals and cisterns) remain in place. Modern (deliberate) graffiti adorns the walls as you walk in. Understandably, there are no windows to gaze out of in this café. It is, in many ways, a very interesting place to visit and the coffee is certainly worth a visit too. However, it is difficult to do a review which is, after all, about noticing something unusual, when the former use of this space is almost shouting at you. I thought about doing a review based on how the shape of the coffee cup can influence the flavour of  the coffee that you perceive. Yet somehow, writing a review on anything other than the fact that this is a re-use of an interesting space seemed, almost, perverse. So I left it. Until that is, UK Coffee Week came along.

UK Coffee Week raises awareness and money for Project Waterfall which in turn aims to help provide clean water and sanitation for coffee growing communities. Currently, Project Waterfall works in three countries, Tanzania, Rwanda and Ethiopia. In these countries a large number of the rural population lack basic access to drinking water while a greater number do not have access to sanitation facilities. Clearly this can lead to health problems. The World Health Organisation estimates that world wide, the drinking water of 1.8m people is contaminated with faeces, while 0.5 million people per year die from diarrhoeal diseases including cholera.

Interesting glassware at the Attendant

Interesting presentation. Coffee at the Attendant.

Perhaps, while sitting in cafés or having breakfast at home, we have a tendency to take water for granted. Certainly I will admit that I can. I’m sitting here writing this enjoying a great cup of coffee with a few biscuits both of which took water to produce. Beyond the obvious water in the kettle for the coffee and the water used for the dough for the biscuits, there is the ‘hidden’ water. The water used to irrigate the coffee crops and the wheat fields or to process the coffee cherry towards the green bean stage. The water used in generating the electricity used to bake the biscuits, or roast the coffee. The water used to clean the utensils between coffee roasts/biscuit batches so that we don’t get food poisoning. The list could go on. Indeed, the UN estimates that producing 1 cup of coffee requires 140 L of water. This figure though presumably cannot include the private water needs of the individuals who work on the coffee plantations. We all need water and we all need it to be clean.

So, in thinking about our water consumption (and the water consumption of those who help us to enjoy our coffee), we can do a few things during this coffee week 2016. Firstly, we could make a donation towards the work of Project Waterfall (here) or a similar charity that is working to provide clean water and adequate sanitation to those who don’t have it. Secondly, we could take the prompt from Attendant and start to think about where our water comes from. Why from Attendant? Well if you were living on the International Space Station or, to a lesser degree, in Singapore, this question may have an obvious answer. For the rest of us, we are often a little bit removed from direct water recycling, but it’s worth looking more closely at Singapore because they have developed a water strategy that may be of use for more of us in the future.

Reclaimed water NEWater, Singapore

30% of water supplied in Singapore is ‘reclaimed’. Where does your drinking water come from?

Singapore has a population of just over 5.5m (London: 8.6m) with a land area of 719.1 km². As an island, it is surrounded by water and so you may think that water is not a problem for the inhabitants of the city-state. But the water surrounding Singapore is the salt water of the sea and so not easily converted into drinking water. While looking for a solution towards a self-sufficient water supply, Singapore decided to try the recycling route. Through a scheme called NEWater, currently 30% of Singapore’s water supply is from  ‘reclaimed’ water (for reasons that may be obvious, they avoid the word ‘recycled’). The Singaporean authorities aim to make this 55% by 2060. Waste water produced in Singapore undergoes a process of micro-filtration (which takes out suspended particles), reverse osmosis and UV disinfection before being reintroduced to the water supply system. Although most of this reclaimed water is used for industrial processes, the reclaimed water can be added to Singapore’s reservoirs so that it will go into the drinking water supply.

A similar process is used on the International Space Station but there, as it is a closed environment, it is not just the waste water that goes down the drain that is ‘reclaimed’ but the water exhaled by the astronauts and the lab animals on the station. On Earth this would evaporate into the atmosphere, contribute to cloud formation and then rain back down closing the greater water cycle in that way. On the space station, the fact that it is a closed environment means that this moisture too can be ‘reclaimed’. By recycling the water in this way, the inhabitants of the space station avoid having to require too many costly water deliveries from the Earth.

Perhaps, while drinking our coffee (or tea, or even water) today, we can take five minutes to consider where our water comes from as well as considering whether those who contribute to our brew have adequate water supplies themselves. And as it is coffee week, here is that link again to Project Waterfall (Donation button at the bottom of the main Project Waterfall page). Enjoy your coffee.

Note added August 2017: It is with some regret that I have to say that Attendant is not a good place to go if you suffer from allergies. They have started serving almond milk and (according to a Twitter Direct Message received from the Attendant Team) do not adequately clean their steam wand between drinks so as to prevent cross contamination. Their advice to me was that I “should not have any hot drinks or food at our premises as we do not operate a nut free environment at our stores”. There are many good cafes to visit if you suffer from nut allergies, but please avoid this one (or just have a black coffee and enjoy the atmosphere).

 

 

Old and new at Sarnies, Singapore

Sarnies, Telok Ayer St, CBD, Singapore

Sarnies, Singapore

It is just possible that the name ‘Sarnies‘ may suggest a speciality at this cafe in Telok Ayer St. Singapore. And the sandwiches are definitely very good (I happened to visit one lunchtime), but don’t let this deceive you, the coffee is very good too and indeed Sarnies has been listed as one of the top 10 cafes to visit when in Singapore. Sarnies operates from an old style ‘heritage’ building near the central business district in Singapore. This style of “shop-house” used to be ubiquitous in Singapore but as Singapore has developed so the tall buildings of the “CBD” now tower over these remnants of Singapore’s past. The authorities though are keen to preserve their heritage and so many of the buildings have been carefully restored so that the exteriors are fairly faithful to the original. The interior has plenty of table space for you to enjoy your coffee (and sandwich of course) and watch the goings-on around you. Complementary water is available at the bar while you wait for your coffee and sandwich to be brought over to your table.

air vent, natural air circulation, air conditioning

The old air vent system and the new air con unit inside Sarnies in Singapore

Inside, you can see how the demands of modern living have changed the architecture of the shop-house. Above the door, and along the window were a series of vertical timber railings.  These date from the construction of the house and were presumably to assist with air ventilation in a time before air-conditioning. They work because hot air rises and so by putting an opening – a vent – near the ceiling, the  hot air in the building will rise and leave the interior to be replaced by the cooler (it is never cool in Singapore) air from outside. Unfortunately, the temperature in Singapore during the day time is in the 28-33C region and so this method of cooling is not as efficient as air conditioning which is why the vents are now covered in glass. The air-conditioned interior also means that the door of Sarnies is kept closed at all times, ensuring that the air conditioning is as efficient and cool as possible (though seats are available outside should you want to sit in the heat).

coffee at Sarnies Singapore

At the end of the day, it’s all about the coffee

Air conditioning of course needs a lot of energy in order to work. The basics of air conditioning work on the same principles as those that cool your coffee: When a liquid evaporates into a gas it takes energy from its environment and thereby cools it (think about alcohol – or sweat – evaporating from your hand). The issue with air conditioners is that this is a continuous process. The liquid that is evaporated within the air-con unit cooling the room is compressed and re-condensed in the air-con unit outside the shop, in a process that consumes electricity and generates heat which is transferred to the environment outside the shop. The process uses a lot of energy (and therefore generates a lot of carbon dioxide emissions), indeed one organisation in Singapore calculated that more than 60% of their energy consumption on one campus was due to air conditioning.

As cities use a lot of energy, clever design and engineering of the buildings in cities can be used to decrease the carbon dioxide emissions of cities and so help to mitigate the problems of climate change. The C40 is a group of more than 75 of the world’s largest cities that work together to find ways to use urban design to combat environmental problems. Perhaps it is in developing more energy efficient lighting systems or, in the case of the UWCSEA in Singapore, designing their new buildings so that they use air conditioning more efficiently and therefore less wastefully, both in terms of CO2 emissions and in economic terms.

As I was sitting enjoying my Sandwich and coffee in Sarnies, a customer coming into the cafe left the door open. As the hot and humid air started to blow in from outside, the woman sitting near the door closed it to keep the cold in. This small gesture, almost completely opposite to that which I experienced in winter in London last year, helped to ensure that the air conditioning unit did not have to work harder to keep the cafe cool. A small action but one that helps save energy and so the planet, even if just a little bit. If only more of us did this.

Sarnies is at 136 Telok Ayer St. Singapore.

Seeing the trees for the wood at OJO Coffee, Bangsar, KL

coffees on display at OJO

OJO Coffee, Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur

It is very easy to sit for a long time watching the people and the surroundings at OJO Coffee in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur. Initially I had thought that this medium-sized café with an impressive number of power points dotted around it was an independent. However similarities with CoffeaCoffee around the corner and a couple of other clues (CoffeaCoffee t-shirts) suggest that it is actually part of the CoffeaCoffee chain, something that was confirmed when I asked the barista. However, the standard of coffee in this chain should prompt some of the smaller independents to up their game a bit (and certainly all of the UK based chains). Not content with just serving the typical coffees of ‘latte’, ‘cappuccino’ etc. (which are made using their own blend), OJO’s additionally serves about 15 types of single origin coffee made with your choice of method (Hario V60, Aeropress or French press). For a while this summer I became a bit of a regular at OJO and so I would particularly recommend the Indonesian Sumatran prepared by V60, but with so many coffees to choose from (from the relatively local Indonesians to South American coffees from much further afield) there is plenty to try at this café.

wooden mosaic

The wall made of wood at OJO

The interior of OJOs is decorated with many types of wood. Different cuts of wood are made into a sort of wood mosaic on the wall while the tables are made using several types of wood so as to give a symbolism about the Sun that is a type of motif of the café. Much of the floor is wood too and so this got me thinking about the rainforests in this country. Malaysia has a rich variety of wildlife and forest, it is home to the Orangutan as well as many other species. Teak trees that can be used for more expensive furniture grow along the roadside. Much of this timber can be obtained sustainably and in a way that respects the rainforest and I am certainly not suggesting that the wood in OJOs was anything but sustainable. However, perhaps inevitably, there are many pressures on these invaluable forests. Some of these pressures have, in the recent past, resulted in significant deforestation. One such pressure is that of palm oil.

Palm oil is a massively useful commodity. It is now used in food products from margarine to biscuits to raisins (surprising but true, check the ingredients list of a packet of raisins) and non-food products such as soaps. It is literally everywhere. Both Malaysia and its neighbour, Indonesia, have profited enormously from growing and exporting palm oil. Unfortunately, at times the rainforest is cleared to make way for the palm oil plantations. As it is easier to burn felled trees to clear the land rather than to painstakingly pull the roots up by hand, the cleared forest is burned. But the ground is not any ordinary soil, the ground is often peat based which means that the fires on the surface penetrate deep below the ground and produce phenomenal amounts of smoke.

If at this point you were wondering where the ‘physics’ bit of this café-physics review is, I assure you it is coming. It is indeed linked to this environmental story and to OJOs, please keep with me.

Each year, parts of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia are enveloped by a haze produced by this burning peat land (It made the BBC in 2013 when it was particularly bad, but some haze is present for a few weeks every year). Haze has the appearance of thick fog but smells of smoke. At times, visibility can be reduced such that the tops of nearby tall buildings are obscured. Each time land needs clearing for new palm oil plantations, this smoke is produced. The haze can be reduced by local weather patterns but on many days, the haze is cleared by the torrential rains that can occur in this part of the world.

the haze is coming in

L-R: The haze comes in over part of KL in 2013 (series of 3 pictures)

It is commonly said that ‘rain clears the air’ but this is not completely true. It is not the raindrops themselves that somehow wash the air free of the dust of the haze, it is the vortices that form behind them*. Just as a spoon dragged through coffee produces vortices behind it, so a raindrop falling through the air forms vortices in its wake. The size of these vortices will depend on the size of the drop and the speed at which it falls through the air; a tea spoon and a dessert spoon pulled at different speeds through the coffee similarly produce different forms of vortex. So the amount of dust that is ‘sucked in’ and falls to the ground will depend on the type of rain that falls. Perhaps if you are in Malaysia, Singapore or Indonesia when this haze is present, you could make a study of which sort of rain clears the air most effectively. I have an idea but not the evidence to see if the idea is correct, it would be interesting to know what you think.

As I left OJO one afternoon, the rain had started to come down. The rain, or at least the vortices behind the raindrops, cleared some of the haze that had been around earlier. It is a temporary solution to a longstanding problem. A more long lasting solution may be to start (or continue) asking manufacturers of those biscuits you are eating: just how sustainable is the palm oil they are using?

OJO is at No 23, Jalan Telawi 3, KL

* JR Saylor and BK Jones, Physics of Fluids, 17, 031706 (2005)

 

Seeing things at a kopitiam (coffee shop)

Rocky, Bangsar, KL, Malaysia, koptiam

A kopitiam in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

One of the great things about travelling is exploring the different cafe and coffee cultures in different countries. Is it the coffee that is important? Or food, alcohol or maybe just the opportunity for socialising? In Singapore and Malaysia, the “kopitiam” (or coffee shop) is a familiar part of each neighbourhood. Each kopitiam serves local coffee (kopi) and a variety of foods which are usually prepared while you wait, from stalls around the edge of the kopitiam. The kopitiam provides a space for socialisation and meeting people over a bowl of steaming noodles. Inside electric fans are blowing continuously in an effort to lessen the heat. Frankly, the local coffee is not to my taste but there are plenty of other things to eat and drink in each kopitiam. A breakfast of “kueh” and black tea for example is a welcome change from toast at home! In many areas of Singapore, and to a lesser extent Malaysia, local kopitiams are closing to make way for the new style cafés which serve a range of freshly roasted, pour over or espresso based coffee. Not being Malaysian or Singaporean I do not want to comment too much on that, I guess it is similar to the decline of the “caffs” in the UK. Mourned by many in the community but welcomed by others for the improved quality of the coffee.

straw, water, glass

An everyday example of refraction. The water refracts the light to make the straw appear ‘broken’.

However, with so much going on in a kopitiam, the temptation to look at a kopitiam-physics review was too great, especially when I started to “see things” at the edge of the shop. Am I going mad? No, it was not that my imagination was playing with my mind; I saw the ingredients for a mirage. You see, at the edge of the kopitiam the hawkers will cook noodles, or rice dishes etc. and this creates heat. Above some stalls there will be clouds of steam rising as the noodles boil in a pan. The clouds appear white because of the scattering of light by reasonably sized water droplets (more info here and here). Above other stalls, there is no steam but the heat created by the cooking makes the air immediately above the stove warmer (and therefore less dense). This less dense air refracts light less than air at room temperature. It is refraction that causes that straw in your iced coffee to look as if it is broken as you look at it (see picture). In the kopitiam, it means that as you look through this region of warm air you see a wobbly or wavy type pattern as the light from outside is refracted by different amounts depending on the temperature of the air that it goes through. It is this that is the primary ingredient for seeing a mirage.

The fact that air at different temperatures refracts light by different amounts is the reason for mirages in the desert. Frequently, warm air is trapped at ground level by a layer of cold air above it. The light is bent as it travels through these layers (see diagram here) and so it may appear as if they sky is on the ground (which the brain will interpret as a pool of water on the ground). Conversely, if there is a layer of cold air trapped beneath a layer of warm air, the light is bent downwards and so objects that are usually below the horizon due to the curvature of the earth can be seen (illustrated by the diagram here).

Edmond Halley, Canary Wharf, Isle of Dogs, view from Greenwich

The view towards the Isle of Dogs (and Canary Wharf) from Greenwich. Things have changed a little since Halley’s time.

Back in 1694 Edmond Halley (who drank coffee with Isaac Newton at the Grecian) was investigating the evaporation of water as a function of temperature. He wanted to see if evaporation alone could explain the rainfall and the quantity of water in the river system. As he did so he noticed that, in still air, there was a layer of water vapour that formed above the bowl of evaporating water. He noticed this because it refracted the light in an unusual manner. At the time, there was reported to be an unusual phenomenon that occurred at high tide near Greenwich. It seems that cows used to graze on the Isle of Dogs in London. Ordinarily the cows could not be seen from Greenwich because they were too far away, but occasionally, at high tide, the cows would be visible. Putting together what he knew about the evaporating water Halley wrote “This fleece of vapour in still weather… may give a tolerable Account of what I have heard of seeing the Cattle at High-water-time in the Isle of Dogs from Greenwich, when none are to be seen at low-water (which some have endeavoured to explain by supposing the Isle of Dogs to have been lifted by the Tide coming under it.) But the evaporous effluvia of water, having a greater degree of refraction than the Common Air, may suffice to bring these Beams down to the Eye, which when the Water is retired, and the vapours subsided with it, pass above, and consequently the Objects seen at the one time, may be conceived to disappear at the other”*. I think that although he had the mechanism correct (in terms of refraction), the cause of this odd refraction was temperature inversion and a layer of cold air immediately above the Thames rather than water vapour but what do you think? Let me know in the comments section below.

 

* Punctuation and capitalisation kept as in original. Taken from Edmond Halley, “An Account of the Evaporation of Water, as It Was Experimented in Gresham Colledge [sic] in the Year 1693. With Some Observations Thereon” Phil. Trans. 18, 183-190, 1694″