Friday, November 28, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving doesn't exist in the UK in the slightest. I mentioned it to some of the rugby guys and they had literally never heard of it until one of them recalled an episode of Friends featuring the holiday. So needless to say I got no time off work. Still, though, I actually attended two thanksgivings: on Thanksgiving itself, the Master of Churchill college attended all of the American college members to a feast with the master. It was like most formal halls, only they did a decent job making Thanksgiving faire.

Then on Friday, about 20 students put on a potluck Thanksgiving together in our building. After the turkey came out of the oven, a few awkward exchanged occured before people realized nobody knew how to carve a turkey except for me. So the lone vegetarian came to the rescue and carved up the 10 kg turkey. The lone vegetarian also was then tempted to, once again, have some turkey on Thanksgiving. 

After dinner we headed to the MCR bar and caught a bit of the Cowboys game on TV. It was nice for the tradition. Made me miss home a bit, but it's nice to have such a great group here to celebrate with.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The NHS experience

Been pretty sick for a while now. It was starting to seem like possibly strep throat, due to the excessive coughing, so I decided it may be a good time to try out nationalized healthcare. I registered when I first moved here with the Huntingdon Road surgery, above, an outfit with 5 GP's a few blocks away in an old cottage.

The experience was pretty different compared to the USA. I called in and had no trouble getting an appointment the same day. Going in, there were zero forms to fill out, nobody asked for any ID information or anything, and of course no payment details. It was pretty pain-free, I was in an out in about 5 minutes, and I don't have strep. My feeling is for smaller, routine stuff, the NHS system is going to be much easier than the US insurance system. It's telling that I doubt I would have put up with the trouble at home to go in. Anyway, it was pleasant, although it's not a fair assessment of the whole system.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Two firsts

Travelled to Loughsborough, about 90 minutes away, for the day to attend a conference about Electronic Crime. Unfortunately the talks weren't very technical or interesting, and I was quite sick so it was a moderate bust. 

I followed that up with my first opera. It was a student production of Suor Angelica, a lesser known Puccini opera in just one act, put on the King's Chapel. So, as far as opera goes it was a tiny production, with a small band, only a few performers and it was done in an hour. That was just about right for me.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Big Lecture about the Big Bang

Took the opportunity to go to see a distinguished lecture by Roger Penrose, a famous physicist from Oxford. He gave a talk about the Big Bang, what could have happened before it, and what his new theory is. Basically, most physics people are sure there is nothing before the Big Bang because they define time in such a way that it didn't exist before the Big Bang, so the very word "before" is meaningless. He's old enough I guess that he's now spending his time challenging this assumption and he gave a pretty interesting talk about it. I followed about 95% of it, there were some surprising corrollaries to information theory that resonated with me. 

Really enjoyed it, although it raised a lot of questions about how meaningful computer science research is in the big picture. On one hand, we're not addressing as many fundamentally bizarre and imaginative concepts. On the other hand, nobody is really going to be affected one way or the other by the Big Bang. Interesting debate, one of the hazards of being at Cambridge.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Formal Hall at Peterhouse

Getting to eat at formal halls as a guest is a nice tradition, it gets you out of your usual setting and lets you experience the really old dining halls around Cambridge. Tonight I ate with a friend at Peterhouse, which, being founded in 1284, is the oldest college in Cambridge. According to legend, the dining hall here is the oldest building in the world still being used for its original purpose. The grace was in Latin, and all of the lighting was candles as there is still no electricity. 

It was an experience. The food was pretty solid as well.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Everything looks better in slow motion

Maybe the truest words ever spoken by Dave Chappelle. I think this shot is awesome. I just got a pass from the tackled guy on the ground in the pink and brown and I'm about to juke the guy in front of me and cut back across the field. As I remember it I had a nice run the other way after this, although in my typical style I ran about 80 yards and gained maybe 20. I've become known for this sort of thing.As seen I here I can gain the tough yards as well. Occasionally. Actually I didn't do much in this game, it was pretty rainy and muddy so the ball stayed near the forwards mostly, which was too bad since my friends came to watch. We did, however, win 12-10 on a try for 5 points as time expired, in an incredible ending.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Exploring Cambridge

There's so much to see around Cambridge it's pretty easy to spend most of a Saturday with nice weather just checking out the various colleges. Today I visited Emmanuel college, one of the older and as it turned out, most beautiful ones. That's me on their modern art statue.

Here I am checking out their duck pond. They're famous for this. I guess when you have 30+ colleges the available quirks to be famous for are thinning out. But there are some carp in that pond that are probably a meter long.
Turns out not every college is so beautiful. This is, seriously, a dormitory at Christ's college. It looks like either a space station or a cruise ship from the 70's. The interior is just as bizarre. Christ's had some nice pieces but the fact that this thing was constructed is beyond belief.Finally there are some pretty unique specialty museums around town. This weapon is a harpoon cannon which Robert F. Scott's ship took to Antarctica. They have a little museum about polar exploration at the Scott Polar Research Institute. Turns out whales weren't Scott's biggest problem...

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Remember, remember the 5th of November

Despite the saying, I totally forgot the 5th of November was a holiday, I was bleary-eyed most of the day thanks to the excitement around Barack, fortunately I had a light day in the office broken up with tons of foreigners coming up to shake my hand and congratulate me on the election. This was pretty amazing to see as well.

Anyway turns out November 5 is a holiday here to celebrate Guy Fawkes, a crazy 17th century Catholic radical who tried to blow up parliament and fail. To celebrate, people around England gather for fireworks shows, to remember the failed explosion attempt, and then a big bonfire, to remember how Fawkes and other Catholics were then burned at the stake. Kind of like a bizarro-world Fourth of July in November and with an anti-Catholic undertone.

It was a freezing night and half the town was up all night with the election, so it was a subdued crowd, but an awesome fireworks show.

History from Afar

It was easy to miss lots of the day-to-day nonsense of the election being in England, but the final night captivated the entire town, most students stayed up late to watch the returns and see Obama get elected. We watched from the Cambridge union, a packed house that was needless to say not exactly in McCain's target demographics, who were going crazy every time another state fell. I was very impressed with how well versed in US politics most of the British students are, better than the average American. There was lots of celebration on the streets as it was called.

It was surreal of course to see an American with such an incredible impact on Europeans (not just British, but foreigners here all are very impressed by him). Ironically it's McCain's line that sums it up best for me: Americans don't shy from history, the make it. Who knows how the presidency will go-I'm cautiously hopeful although I make a point not to really trust any politician. But sitting in my room thousands of miles away at 5 am, watching Obama speak and watching the crowds singing "Lift Every Voice," I was feeling pretty proud of America.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A "normal" weekend

This was the first weekend which, except for Halloween, was fairly "normal" in that I didn't have any big trip or social event taking up the whole time. I actually had some free time, so I started seeing some of Cambridge. I visited the Fitzwilliam Museum, the biggest art gallery in town, which is beautiful and quite amazing for a town of this size, and then visited the grounds of Downing, Pembroke, and Peterhouse colleges. All of the old colleges are beautiful and you can spend a lot of time just seeing them because each has it's own beautiful architecture, lawns, chapen, hall, etc. It's pretty easy to fill a nice afternoon here just soaking up the Cambridge-ness. I also caught the new Bond movie "Quantom of Solace on Saturday night with some new friends here.

Sunday was Rugby training in the afternoon, followed by another Sunday night dinner with friends. We're building this thing, each week it's getting bigger and more elaborate, and we had some amazing food this week. That's me making spicy apple-cilantro-jalapeno salsa there. It killed.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

All Hallow's Eve

Halloween came and went, British-Style. Which is to say, very similar to American style, a bit more subdued and a bit more dark and scary rather than just wear random costumes. Of course I didn't get the message so I just wore some stuff from Senegal and nobody really got it, but it was brightly colored enough that people appreciated it. Otherwise though this was a normal Superhall/Pav Friday night at Churchill, as I've discussed before. You can even see in this photo, some people wore costumes while other wore normal formalwear. Fortunately this didn't cause any major stress for anybody.