Saturday, December 12, 2009

Wrapping up the term

I'm getting ready to return home for a few weeks for a break, it seemed a good time to reflect on my experience in Cambridge so far. Though I've been here for about 14 months it seems like "the first year" is over. While I never have as much free time as I'd like to, I have gotten to do a lot of fun trips and my experience as a PhD student has mostly been positive. I've worked in a number of different areas and become quite interested in social networking privacy issues and graph privacy. In the past week I posted my analysis of Facebook's new privacy changes, and they were used in the news and and by privacy advocates

I still have a long way to go in my field and my career but I'm enjoying the journey right now.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


Thanksgiving isn't quite the same in the UK, when you have to go to work all day, there's no football on TV and most of the locals have only heard of the holiday because they watched it on 'Friends.' In some ways it was nice though because since so many grad students are away from their families they come together in bigger groups. I actually went to two Thanksgivings this year. The first was on Sunday and had about 50 other Gates scholars.
The second was on Thanksgiving itself and was an all-vegetarian affair hosted by my good friends Stella and Talia at their place. That big mound in the middle is a tofurkey, though it was actually fashioned as a tofurtle:

In the end, Thanksgiving is about being close to people you care about, and though I miss my real family I was still realizing I had a lot to be thankful for.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

More Trivia!

Wrapping up my crazy week I hosted another trivia night tonight. It was frantic as always writing the questions and my quest for perfection made it take way longer than it should have, but it was a great event in the end, I had a good group of friends show up and (I hope) everybody enjoyed the questions, even if they didn't know all of the answers. A few people complained about the difficulty as always, but Cambridge grad students are smart, only 5/40 questions weren't answered by any of the 4 teams so I was happy with it.

Though I am happy to write trivia questions just for the run of it, I was able to make it a charity night pretty easily, raising £50 for the FreeBSD foundation, and probably getting a few people to have heard of their work who wouldn't have otherwise.

Robbie in Cambridge

Special treat today as one of my best friends from home, Robbie Reid, came up to Cambridge from London on short notice. It's been a crazy week having just gotten back from Belgium and Russia, but Robbie's a good enough friend that I could always make time. We spent the morning walking around town and checking out some of the sights around Cambridge as seen above.

Then in the afternoon Robbie suited up and played rugby with me for Churchill. It was a slight bending of the rules of college membership, but it was a great experience to get to play together. I think Robbie captured the spirit of Sir Winston nicely enough that he should qualify for honorary college membership. He managed to score a try on English soil which was a great experience, though we lost the game at the very end on a tough break.

Cambridge is really a great spot to visit, I hope more old friends will get a chance to pass through while I'm here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


It wasn't easy or cheap, but I made it to Russia for 5 days to visit Alissa, my sister who's studying in Moscow this term. As seen above I got to deal with the Russian visa process and it's "special" rules for Americans. I was a bit intimidated by all the rules and fine print and the prospect of transliterating my information into Cyrillic without knowing what any of it meant, but it turns out the whole thing is mostly a money-making boondoggle at this point (assuming it was ever about more than that). They even managed to compress my surname by 2 letters (BONNEAU→БОННИ), showing an impressive grasp of French phonetics that I've rarely seen amongst Americans.
Starting out in the subway was a nice concise preview of my experience in Russia. It was a mix of surprising beauty you'd never see in "the West" (check out the chandeliers), big crowds of people in hurries, loads of security/policeman/soldiers everywhere, and a few things that seem right out of a Russian Halloween costume, like the furry hats (ushanka).

Despite my fears though it wasn't all that difficult to get around. The level of English is low but Alissa speaks enough Russian to get by. The food was okay, even for vegetarians, though I had to take a few leaps of faith I got to try many of the famous things, including some meat-free borscht.
In many ways the modern Russia is as capitalist as you can get. They certainly will sell you as many nesting dolls (matryoshka) as you can buy. Right across from the Kremlin is the GUM, one of the biggest and nicest shopping malls I've ever seen. There's clearly a lot of money flowing around in some parts of the city.

Other parts, not as much. This guy is selling knives, and yes, a taser which he is giving a live demo of.
The Soviet era is still all over the place though. They have a whole park dedicated to old statues of Stalin, Lenin, and Marx which we visited, some are still in quite normal places though, and the hammer and sickle is built into so many buildings and monuments I think they've given up trying to remove every one of them. They don't seem particularly keen to wipe it all away though. I got the feeling that there's more of an indifference to the era than anything else. It's quite different from traveling in Germany where Nazi era history is very difficult to spot, and it makes it much more interesting to visit. Lenin in particular seems to be fondly remembered as they have his body on display still in Red Square. We waited about 30 minutes for 30 seconds of viewing, with soldiers telling us to keep moving throughout the whole thing.
Alissa and I saw a ton of historical sights-Lenin's Mausoleum, the Kremlin, St. Basil's Cathedral, Christ the Savior's Cathedral, Victory Park, the Statue Park, the Military History park, the Novodevichy Convent and Cemetery, and many others I'm surely forgetting to name. Of course, Russian's view of history is very different from what I learned in American schools, as this plaque above from the the Modern Russian History Museum (formerly Museum of the Revolution) demonstrates. 
As always though it's not about the big things as much as the little things. This is an underground passage between two subway lines which had one of the most amazing collections of art for sale I'd ever seen. 
And the cemetery was the most creative I've ever seen. Most cemeteries are solemn and dreary, but this one seemed more to be a celebration of some of Moscow's residents. People's tombstones were elaborately sculpted to represent them. I loved this mathematician, who had some of his equations carved into his tomb. 
I loved the whole trip despite the weather and the mild hardship (we badly botched our attempts to catch a show at either the Obraztsov Puppet Theatre or the Nikulin circus). Alissa was a great travel guide though and with her experience living there a few months made a big difference in how much I was able to discover. 
I could sense major changes going on all over the country. I have a sad feeling that if my children travel to Russia they won't see it a being so much different than the US. Poland certainly shocked me with how Western it seems to be becoming. But for now, Russia is still a unique and amazing place.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Networking in Leuven, Beligum

I spent 4 days this week in Leuven, Belgium at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. They have a huge computer security research lab and our probably our closest colleagues in Europe.  There are many similarities to Cambridge, with some beautiful old buildings and a downtown packed with students, though everything here is a bit bigger than in Cambridge. I didn't get to spend a whole lot of time exploring the town but enough to appreciate it.

I spent most of the time working, I gave a talk about some of my research on guessing personal knowledge questions and served as a panelist at a one-day workshop on social networking privacy. I could definitely see myself spending some time here as a postdoc if I get the opportunity. I owe many thanks to my host, Claudia Diaz, for giving me a great week away from Cambridge.

Saturday, October 31, 2009


Spent Halloween at Churchill College for a formal hall and a Halloween Pav with some good friends. Andrew wore the most creative costume: a mum his mother brought from Texas (one of the strangest Texas traditions I've ever heard of) along with a Cow costume to be a prize-winning steer. I just took out the old Senegalese Mouride outfit which I also wore last year. Low on creativity but it still turned heads.

My stroke of creativity came with my pumpkin: I carved the entire globe into it. It took me an hour or two, but I got all 7 continents, the oceans, the Panama Canal, and a bunch of Islands, all the way down to Tasmania, which got a complement from a friendly Aussie. I guess all those hours playing GeoSense are good for something.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Trivia Night!

Tonight I hosted a trivia night for the new students in Churchill college. I had some experience writing trivia questions but this was my first crack at researching, writing, and then hosting a trivia night as a one man show.

No pictures, but you can see the questions here. Overall it was a big success though, I got feedback that the questions were tough but interesting, and a few people really enjoyed it so I'm planning to host a few more throughout the year.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Am I Ready For Some Football?

I'm planning to play much more football (soccer) this year, partly because my two roommates are captain and ex-captain of the Churchill MCR (grad student) team, but also I've wanted to improve at the sport in my time here. I wouldn't mind playing more American football as well but this is what I can get. We played in a 5 vs. 5 tournament today, and it was a great opportunity for me to improve. I don't have any pictures of me since I had the only camera, but here are my two roommates for the year:

Matt Warner, English student doing a PhD in molecular biology (focusing on diabetes research), here playing keeper.

Andrew Marin, American student doing a PhD in materials science (focusing on photovoltaic solar cells), in white here going for the ball.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Gates Retreat

I spent the last four days at the annual Gates Scholars Retreat in Ambleside, in what's known as "the lake district." Made me realise it's been a year since I turned up in Cambridge as I had many good memories from last year's trip. This year brought more fun and (many) more new people to meet.
Here we are hiking. You can see the type of countryside in the Lake District, lots of green hills, clouds, and rain, though much less rain than last year.

Lake Windermere is one of the main tourist attractions, it's an enormous lake that's long and has many narrow inlets to explore by kayak, supposedly it inspired William Wordsworth and the Lake Poets. We had more fun playing kayak polo, trying to pass a tennis ball around and score goals.
The town is very nice as well, with a nice river and some old buildings and a cemetery with Wordsworth and some other famous residents.

Finally we stopped at Tatton Gardens on the way back, a traditional and well-kept garden complete with a hedge maze. I'm here at the center, of course I couldn't pass up the opportunity to climb up the statue in the middle. Should be a fun new year, meeting all the new people has me feeling invigorated, though I'm reminded how much social distraction comes about in the fall.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Chariots of Fire

Today was the annual Chariots of Fire relay race in Cambridge. It's named for the movie, but is actually a 6 x 1.7 mile relay which I think is unlike anything run in the movie. There were almost 400 teams running so the handover point was pretty hectic.

To be honest I didn't want anything to do with this race but I agreed to run a leg because Churchill's MCR team was short on runners. I normally don't enjoy distance running too much and particularly not races, but I actually surprisingly enjoyed this. I liked the relay aspect of it, the course was beautiful and weaved through many famous Cambridge sites (and downtown Cambridge is pretty spectacular).

I also didn't have nearly as many problems as I was expecting. I felt pretty strong and passed lots of people, I finished my leg in just over 11 minutes which is much faster than I would have expected, and our whole team had a strong showing. I don't think I'll take up running seriously anytime soon but it was a nice day out.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Killer Glass Attack

I've been taking my bike out frequently, and loving it, but I had a freak accident today and managed to simultaneously puncture both of my tires out on the road going down to Linton.

The damage was pretty bad. Neither tire is salvageable.

I took the culprit bottle home as a souvenir. It was fractured exactly in the worst way, with a razor-sharp edge angled directly into the oncoming tire and a very solid base on the ground so it didn't give way at all. Hopefully I'll ride bikes the rest of my life and never see that again.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

New Apartment

Over the past year, I slowly posted interesting items I collected on my bulletin board. It worked out nicely as the board was full just as it's time to move into a new place.

I only moved about 100 meters so I carried everything in one trip in a big wagon. It was a simple move but unpacking all this took a while, it's amazing how fast you can accumulate clutter from the original two suitcases of things I took here.

My new place is a three-bedroom flat, originally designed as housing for a college professor and his family, but opened to grad students this year so I jumped on it with my friends Andrew and Matt. We have a lot more space now and it's very nice to have a place all our own like this.

The balcony is probably the best part, it's big enough to play soccer on and has a great view of college. Not quite like my roof in San Francisco, but it's a nice upgrade for the year.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


I didn't really know what to expect from the last 4 days in Poland. Poland has always been the far-off land of ancestors in my mind, and the reality of hopping on a plane from London and being there in a few hours was a bit strange.

Fortunately, I was pretty impressed with Warsaw as I walked around. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon and there was a festival in town so the main street had crowds milling about for miles. The city was surprisingly beautiful, with parks and monuments all around downtown, and it also seemed to be buzzing with new buildings going up everywhere. The festival was celebrating Warsaw's international community and there was an interesting diversity of foreigners about, I even found some Senegalese selling jus de bissap who were happy to chat in French. Not what I was expecting I guess, but Warsaw is a very modern city, partially as a result of being almost entirely destroyed in the war. We learned all about it at the Warsaw Uprising museum, which was fascinating. The perspective on the war is obviously quite different in Poland, it seemed from the way the story was told there remains a bitterness about Poland's fate and the lack of aid the "west" provided despite being allied with Poland. Visiting on the seventieth anniversary of the German anniversary, it seemed to be a constant backdrop for the trip, not just in the museums but in the graffiti on street corners which still mentions the uprising of '44. The Polish today seemed remarkably friendly, especially our couchsurfing host Agata, who gave us a great place to stay in Warsaw just outside downtown despite having exams this week (thanks Agata!).

The food was a mixed bag. There wasn't too much for vegetarians but I did get to try a few new things, like the dumplings here, a fried-cheese dish sold on the street, and of course a Pierogi.
The necklace of mini-bagels was a pretty bizarre item. I'm thinking it's a tourist thing, or at least only tourists were putting it around their neck.

Krakow had a quite different feel, with more of its historic buildings preserved. There was quite a lot to see at the main castle, including a few museums on Polish history, a few royal collections, and a bell bigger than I could have imagined. The Zygmunt bell here weighs 11 tons and takes 12 people to ring.

There's also a statue below the castle of a dragon which actually breathes fire. These are the reasons you travel. I just never would have thought of building such a statue, but it fit in quite well with the area.

We wrapped up the trip by going to the Auschwitz concentration camp outside Krakow. It seemed appropriate as the war and the Holocaust seemed to be a sad subtext to the trip. The experience of visiting a former extermination camp is quite different from reading about things or going to a museum. It was more raw but also more banal. The grounds of the camp are huge and minimally maintained, big sections are essentially ruins, and the tour seemed to focus on small details of the period in place of presenting any overall narrative of morals. To me this was much more powerful, as the site stands quietly in the woods as an eerie testimony to the past.

It was a great trip and wrapped up quite a nice year of traveling around Europe for me. I probably won't get much travel in until the spring due to work, the Christmas vacation, and the weather. But it was the best kind of trip in that it pushed me to a range of new experiences in just a few days.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Sister in Town

This week I had the pleasure of hosting my favorite sister while she was on her way to study in Moscow for the quarter, stopping in England for a few days.
This photo summarizes the beginning of her visit. I can sympathize though, as she had only a brief time after finishing her internship and then had to get ready for a semester in Russia and make an 8 hour time change. I actually got some useful reading done while she slept off the jet lag.
Soon though we were up and about and enjoyed the sights of Cambridge. Here we are on a punt. Alissa actually took over punting for a while and did a very admirable job. We did a tour of the main sights around town, like King's, Trinity, and St. John's, as well as the river and the parks.We also did some fun new things I hadn't done before. Here we are on top of the tower at Great St. Mary's Church, the highest point in town, where we had a view over the whole town. It was something like 20 or 30 flights on a tiny, narrow staircase, but it was worth it. We also visited two museums. The Whipple museum of the history of science, which has a neat collection of scientific instruments like telescopes and slide rules from hundreds of years ago, and the Museum of Zoology.
We also had some nice time just hanging out with some of my friends here, cooking dinners and such. I wanted to make sure Alissa got the full UK experience, so here we are watching a big soccer game at a pub. Finally we got to spend some time in London. I still have only spent a handful of days in London, so there was plenty to see. We went to the British Museum (here we are next to a famous dog statue), Buckingham Palace, Green Park, and Harrod's department store. Buckingham Palace is only open for tours for one month a year so we lucked out on the timing.
We lucked out on the timing in general as I got a chance to spend some time with Alissa, and she got a chance to see England and get some rest before her adventures in Russia. It was only a brief moment but it made a very nice end to the summer for me and reminded me what a neat place I get to live in.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

My New Ride

Here's a look at my newest means of transportation. I had wanted a road bike for some time but it was hard to procure one in the UK which hasn't caught up on the craigslist concept quite yet. I ended up buying this lightly used Cannondale off of eBay UK, and the seller was kind enough to drive down and deliver it because his wife wanted to visit Cambridge anyways (it really is a nice downtown). It's my third road bike and it's beautiful, in shiny silver, and being a Cannondale it has "Made in USA" prominently, along with the stars and stripes. I'm tentatively going with the nickname "Silvia," the bike is pretty enough that it deserves a female name.

I think I got a good deal, although bikes have so many hidden costs associated with them it's not a cheap hobby. In particular I had to order pedals, shoes, a bag, a pump, and some other nonsense.
The first feeling of being on a well tuned-bike on the open road was worth it though. England is a fantastic place for a bike, mostly flat, with endless miles of winding country roads and many small towns to visit. Here I am on a nice bend by an old stone church. Except for the bugs and the weather this country is a biking paradise. I remember living in Seattle owning a bike made a huge difference in the amount of the surrounding area I saw. Hopefully I'll get to do a fair bit of biking here as well, because there's a huge amount of England outside of Cambridge that seems worth exploring

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Farewell to the MPhils

This time of the year in August, many of my friends from Churchill and the Gates Scholarship program who were studying for one-year MPhil degrees in Cambridge are heading back to the US and elsewhere, so it's been a long steady stream of goodbyes. Two good friends from Gates, Brian and Garth, left in the past two days.
To say goodbye to Garth we went out for full English breakfast (as opposed to the dreaded continental breakfast), which consists of a huge plate of eggs, toast, beans, and sausage.
We followed up with the less traditional game of tennis-golf. Less traditional as in, we just made it up in the last few weeks but it's already become a classic. Kind of like frisbee golf, you pick objects as the "hole" then have to hit them with your tennis ball in as few strokes as possible. There are a lot of places around Churchill to have interesting holes with bouncing the ball off of obstacles, the game is amazingly entertaining for how simple it is. That's the kind of innovation you get when Gates scholars from different fields mix.