Thursday, October 30, 2008

The sport of fine British gentlemen

After some consideration of playing a non-English sport I'd be more advantaged at (water polo, frisbee or American football) or trying something off the beaten path like mountaineering, caving, or orienteering, I decided to do the most British thing and try out for rugby. Perhaps football (soccer) would have been more English but I probably wouldn't have made the team.

Anyway, I've been playing Churchill rugby for a few weeks now. I'm something of a novelty to the other players, being the only grad student, the only non-drinker, the only non-Brit, and the only one who didn't grow up watching rugby all the time. Today was our second match, we lost 22-7 to the combined Peterhouse/Selwynn team which are among the stronger teams in the league. I started and played the entire game at wing and fullback, made a few try-saving tackles, and afterwards was named Man of the Match! The whole "man of the match" thing is a rough British version of "player of the game" although it seems to be a bigger part of sports here. The sports section will list for every football or rugby match the teams, score, and man of the match. Anyway it was a nice honor, especially since they've often stated that Americans are hopeless at the sport. Hopefully I'm more or less accepted into the club, which is good because I'm making some friends who are actually British and aren't grad students.

Of course the kicker is that the man of the match is in charge of washing "the kit" before the next match. Kit is another Britishism that's really hard to describe. I've heard people use it to mean clothes, equipment, or just "stuff," without many limitations.

And yes, we have probably the most hideous sports uniforms I have ever seen. We're not starting out with a hot hand thanks to the pink and brown college colors for Churchill, but it doesn't help that we inexplicably added burgundy to the jerseys, with a hot pink side panel. And the socks are a third shade of pink, plus brown, and inexplicable black. At least our coat of arms is nice.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

This is what democracy looks like

Well, this is what it looks like when you've realized it's 5 working days before the election and you're scrambling to vote absentee at 2 am from Europe. It was amazing how fast the election finally approached after seeming to be a long ways off for a while. Needless to say I've been busy, and soon after coming to Cambridge I really checked out of following the politics much.

So when I went to actually vote I was a bit overwhelmed at this year's ballot, with a presidential election, high-speed trains, gay marriage, abortion notification, redistricting-really something for everything. It was pretty tempting to just turn to the NRA's voting guide and be done with the whole thing in 5 minutes, but I actually attempted to read about all the propositions and come to an "informed" decision.

I was up until 2 but I got it done and our department's secretary was happy to airmail it for me the next morning for just 79p. "I just hope you voted for the right guy," she told me. I hope so too...

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

This blog is no longer Scot-free

First inter-European trip, went to Edinburgh, Scotland for the weekend. Interesting to travel within the UK, technically Scotland and England are separate countries but one nation, whatever that means. The whole system was set up to keep the Scots, who are very proud of their history, happy teaming up with England and Wales. Anyway, on a practical level this means they have their own money in Scotland, but they take English pounds as well, although Scottish pounds can be harder to use some places in England... kinds of sums up the whole situation.

Anyway, Edinburgh is a beautiful city and just a 5.5 hour train ride away from Cambridge. The hilly terrain and coast are great, and there are a ton of beautiful old buildings well preserved. Unfortunately, the weather is just abysmal, and we happened to pick a bad weather weekend. That didn't stop us from climbing up Arthur's seat, the largest hill overlooking the town, supposedly where King Arthur sat once upon a time. It was pouring rain/hailing, freezing cold, and the wind was gusting at over 100 kph on the top. Literally, the most wind I have ever seen and that includes a lifetime in the San Francisco Bay Area. Higher up in the mountain walking was very difficult, Jess was blown completely over by the wind several times. But we made it, you can tell from the photo it was quite a journey. Rest assured, this weather was atypical even for Edinburgh, but not unheard of.

After that we spent more time in town. Edinburgh castle (below) is beautiful and very well preserved, with some great historical exhibits and the crown jewels of Scotland on display. We also saw the National Gallery, a whole slew of monuments overlooking the town, the national cemetery, the cathedral, and factories demonstrating techniques for making Scotch whisky and wool, seemingly the two biggest products. Overall, it was a very nice town with lots to see, although sadly the downtown is extremely touristy.

And of course, a trip to Scotland wouldn't have been complete without having some haggis, which we did manage to order. I ordered the vegetarian haggis, made with lentils and beans instead of internal organs and stomach lining. Honestly I'm not sure how authentic either the veggie haggis or the meat haggis really was, but it was delicious nonetheless.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Matriculation Sensation

Matriculation dinner is the biggest Churchill event for the start of the year, after which we're officially part of the college and the year is under way. In practice, this is a slightly more formal dinner than the usual formals, meaning more wine, more courses, and a longer welcome in Latin. Also assigned seating, which was okay since I sat next to an 80-year old retired CS professor.

It was a good time to stop and reflect on the year so far, I've been in England for a month now, overall can't complain about much. Some things are better than expected and some things worse, but overall, I've made some great friends (I'm with Jess, Brian, and Andrew in the picture above) which is the most important thing.

And yes, Andrew is sporting a bolo tie, he's singlehandedly convincing dozens of Brits that this is the standard for formals in Texas.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The drill for informals

One thing I've been pushing for and had some success so far is to get together with friends in a non-formal setting. So we've been trying to organize pot-luck style dinners at our building for the group of Gates scholars who live nearby, which fortunately is a nice little group. First effort, 12/10, above, we had 7 people eat, and we managed to have Korean tofu, lentils, mashed sweet potatoes, salad, and apple pie.

Second round, 19/10, we had 7 people again, this time with some pasta, garlic bread, roast vegetables, stew, couscous, and chocolate-marshmallow cookies. As I said, I'm hoping we can keep this up, maybe every week or every other week, because it's a lot of fun and not much work, and it's a nice break from the formals. We'll see how we do as the year goes on.

I like the formals okay, but for me, having a nice dinner with a small group of friends is about as good as it gets though.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Boat Cruise in London

The annual Gates Boat Cruise, down the Thames river in London. Ended up being an all day event, since I had to go shopping for clothes for it, and we left campus by bus at 4 PM. Turns out owning a tux isn't enough, you actually need a nice wool coat to wear over it. Actually this was a good thing because it was freezing cold.

Note my other new purchase, my college scarf. Again, with the pink and brown for Churchill College. I actually think it went quite nicely with the pink bowtie.

This picture is a bit deceiving, as by the time we finished dinner we had only 45 minutes of dancing time before heading back, just to get back by 2 AM. Of course this was followed up by some hot cocoa with some Gates people on campus, making it a total of over 12 hours of tuxedo time. If nothing else, the tuxedo fared fantastically in its first extended action. Also it was a pretty awesome event, I was at a table with 5 gates scholars I didn't know very well and as usual they all turned out to be very interesting.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The formal routine

As mentioned previously, we do a lot of formals here. Just part of the rhythm here, every Friday evening is a formal "superhall" that you throw on a suit for and have a fancy dinner with some ritual toasting and a welcome in Latin (Seems to be just "Benedictus Benedicte, Amen" usually). They're starting to blend together a bit but here are some photos:

First superhall, 10/10.

Exchange formal: 17/10/2008 (yeah I'm getting used to writing dates with the day first now). You have enough formals that, to keep it fresh, you exchange with other colleges. We hosted this exchange so members of Emmanuel College and Hughes Hall came and ate with us. Similarly I did an exchange at Emmanuel earlier in the week.

Really though this photo sums up the experience. This is some of the gang at the MCR after the formal. To recap, the MCR is our own pub for grad students at Churchill, pretty much packed with people after every formal event. So the usual drill for my Friday evenings is research group meeting 4-5, CS happy hour 5-6, formal dinner 7-9, hanging out in MCR 9-11, then dancing at the "Pav" downstairs from 11 on.

Anyway, I'm appreciating the structure more and more, because you actually get a chance to interact with people from around campus this way. I think I've had learned some interesting stuff from the random intelectual conversations that get launched at these things. Of course a lot of people are just in it for the wine, so who knows.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Charging boldly into the world of tuxedo ownership

Monday was another formal dinner, this time via an exchange with Emmanuel college making it even "formaler." With three black tie events in three weeks I decided it would make sense to just buy a tuxedo and be covered for three years. Besides, I think the tux will hold value better than my Vanguard portfolio has been doing.

Anyway, £180 later, thanks to my man Nick, the salesman at Marks Brothers, I'm now the proud owner of this little number which I was able to wear to Emmanuel's formal hall:

Thanks go also to Emma, pictured below, who came along and helped me pick the tux out:

Yes, I'm wearing a pink and brown bowtie, but you probably didn't guess there were reasons beyond simple fashion for those colors. They're the college colors of Churchill's, patterned after Sir Winston's horse racing colors. You can't tell but I am also rocking some Churchill cufflinks.

It's impossible to really explain the college system here until you see it but it is a big, big deal. The colleges compete on everything, from sports to architecture to endowment sizes, which are frequently mentioned. See, the whole notion of "equality" as a goal doesn't exist here like it does in America, and as a result you have Trinity College sitting on £700 million, more than the University of Cambridge, and Homerton, which actually has the most students, with no endowment at all. The nice colleges downtown are just amazing, with beautiful old buildings and palatial accomodations, while others are way out of town and look like dorms would at Stanford.

Colleges can take whomever they want, so people in the nice ones are comfortable getting much better treatment, they're comfortable thinking of themselves as better or higher class than the suckers out in the "bad" colleges, and that's just part of life here. This would never fly at a US institution but that's a cultural difference I guess.

Fortunately Churchill, although relatively new, has been a success financially and academically, it's around 10th of 31 in endowment, and has the best sports facilities and largest grounds. For me it works great since Churchill is right near my laboratory, and is looser on formality than most while still being nice. Definitely will be wearing the pink bowtie proudly.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Britisher and Britisher

Fresher's week has come and gone, it was a whirlwind with an activity planned out literally every night. I still haven't had a single "night in" since the very first night I was here. I noticed a distinct trend through the week of increasing Britishness, and me being less and less surprised by cultural changes:

Monday, curry night: Curry is the UK's most popular food according to somebody. Interestingly it is an entire cuisine here, they'll plan to "go out for curry" like we would for pizza.

Tuesday, pub trivia night: Trivia is also quite popular, they love history especially. The new grad students also got a private tour of the Churchill archives, which include not only all of Churcill's papers (like a presidential library), but also Margaret Thatcher and 400 other famous people, including 10 Nobel laureates. Conveniently located at Churchill college 100 metres from my building.

Wednesday, pub crawl: Needless to say pubs are popular. A bit different atmosphere, as last call is usually 11pm. People seem to go out almost every night but don't drink quite as much or stay out as late, less of a binge thing and more of a routine.

Thursday, debate at Cambridge Union: The world's oldest debate society, debating if a "new sexual revolution" is needed. It's a beautiful building with some interesting traditions, and some lively moments of audience participation, but lasted three hours and was amazingly dull given the topic. Still, doesn't get much more British.

Friday, Super hall at Churchill: They have three formal dinners a week, two "formal halls" and "super hall." Dressing up in a suit and eating a fancy three-course meal is pretty much the most popular thing to do here. Churchill is considered an informal college because academic gowns aren't required in the formal halls. They still make a pretty big deal of things, as seen above in the photo.

So I'm getting into the swing of British culture a bit. I'm using metres and kilogrammes without thinking to much about it. 24 hour time is a snap. Celsius is still a struggle.

Biking on the left side of the road is still pretty hair-raising. It's a beautiful campus for biking but it already has everything going wrong for it in terms of bike safety: tons of old bikes with shoddy brakes, narrow one-way streets, impatient drivers, tons of pedestrians, cobblestones, speed bumps (sleeping policemen)... Throwing in traffic on the left side of the road is just crazy.

Anyway hoping for life to slow down a bit after this week... Saturday was a bit more relaxed and Sunday cooked dinner in as a group with 6 new friends in Churchill, and it was a blast.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Fresher's week

This week is Fresher's week, most people don't have classes so it's just a huge mass of activities for new grad and undergrad students. I'm using Google Calendar to try to keep it all straight, it's a huge mess between events at Churchill College and Gates events. The Gates group got together Friday and Saturday nights for a pub night and then a dance party, both were a lot of fun but I'm getting behind on sleep.

Churchill has an event in the MCR every night this week. The MCR (Middle Common Room) is a kind of pub/rec room/lounge in the middle of the college that only grad students can hang out in, there is a student run bar with really cheap drinks and people seem to hang out there every night before or after whatever else they're up to. Sunday was a "hostel crawl" around the college for new MCR members with different drinking games at each different house where people live on the college, for example, we're also having pizza night, trivia night, curry night, pub crawl, karaoke night, and then a formal dinner and disco party on Friday. Incredibly, for being 70% engineers it is a really social place and the MCR is packed every night for each event. I'm really enjoying Churchill, I had no idea how to pick a college or how important it was but it's a really fun place.

Add to that two brutal days of health and safety training for new students this week. This country seems to love trainings. I'm also trying to get up and going in my department, which is tough with all this other stuff going on. More on that later I guess.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

A slight phone upgrade

I took the plunge and got an iPhone, figured it would be worth it since I'll be traveling/lost a lot, plus have a busy schedule, and I didn't have a music player. Needless to say it's a bit fancier than the phone I had for 5 years before now. They give away the phones free here but you have to sign up for a £45/month plan for 9 months, then £35/month for 9 more months. Overall actually about the same deal as in the US, which makes the phone relatively cheap here but still extremely overpriced.

Apparently you don't get free nights and weekends here, but incoming texts and calls are all free. Also probably works out about the same.

Anyway my new phone number is (044) 07590677117. The 044 is country code, the next huge block is the phone number including area code. The British don't subdivide it at all like in the US, they seem to just read it out as one huge block.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Le Velo

Bought a bike, which was a huge pain, bikes are about twice the price here, and there are a million people looking for them at the beginning of the year. Fortunately I found an old guy 2 miles outside of town, had to jog out there, who was selling old but well maintained bikes at good prices.

Ended up getting a blue Peugeot cruiser from the 80's. It cost £85, which was considered a steal here for anything that rides, and this thing rides like a rock. According to Chris, the old guy selling bikes, you can't go wrong with French engineering. He was old enough that he probably remembers the Hundred Year's war, so I think he was making a joke.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Room switched

After talking to some other Gates scholars I realized my "historic" accommodation (above) was pretty run down by campus standards. They had to leave it standing and turn it into a student house by agreement when they built Churchill College in the 1960's. Anyway it's a really old building and I got one of the smallest rooms. Final straw was after getting back from the Gates retreat, extremely cold and tired, and having no hot water after 10 minutes of waiting.

Turned out to be incredibly easy to switch within the college, they charge weekly rent so you can switch as much as you like, and I happened to get the last spot in one the "Pepperpods." They are built like cubes and there are a few of them that look identical. Fortunately though they are fantastic on the inside, I now have a pretty spacious room with my own bathroom:

Also have five Gates scholars in the 10-room building, so it's a really lively place, couldn't be happier with the switch.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Retreat to Ambleside

I have mostly pictures to post because I'm extremely busy right now. The craziness officially began last Monday morning, when about 110 new and returning gates scholars piled onto the buses heading for the Lake District, considered the most scenic part of the UK.

Going into it, I had no idea what to expect of the whole Gates Scholarship group. Normally I'm not big on random academic groups like this with no real shared interest, but throughout the 6 hour ride and the rest of the week I was really impressed with the group. Not just that a lot of them have interesting life stories and accomplishments, mostly just that they're a really fun group to hang out with and I enjoyed almost every conversation I had. I guess by virtue of the brutal interview process everybody who got the scholarship is fairly outgoing.

We spent 4 days in a hostel near the town of Ambleside, did orienteering, hiking, kayaking, a scavenger hunt, also visited a gingerbread factory and went for a run and a swim in the (freezing) Lake Windermere. It was a beautiful place, albeit with awful weather, rainy and cold most of the time there. Enjoyed getting to see more of England though, it's a beautiful country thanks to all the rain.Still, the retreat was great, felt a lot better returning to campus having a group of contacts around campus. The college system can be sort of isolating here, as you mostly meet people in your own college, so meeting people around the university is a big plus of the Gates program. Still have a ton of organizing to do in the weekend ahead.