Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My new team

I made it out to my first professional football (soccer) match, going down to London with my housemates to watch  West Ham United take on Wolverhampton Wanderers. On the right is Matt, my English housemate, who has been a lifelong West Ham fan. Last year I was repeatedly told I'd need to pick a team to support, so I staked my lot with the Wolves this year. It's their first year in the Premier League, so I figured they were in need of some fans.

The system is vastly different than American sports. The money gap between teams is enormous, there's no revenue sharing or salary cap, and teams get sent up and down between the different levels each year. Last year the Wolves finished at the top of the Championship (the league just below the Premier League) so they were promoted to the big time. Of course, if they finish in the bottom 3 out of 20 teams, they'll be sent right back. That made this game quite important, as both West Ham and Wolves were tied for 16th coming into it-one spot above relegation.

The result was fantastic for the Wolves, with a decisive 3-1 win that's made it very likely they can remain at the top. For West Ham, meanwhile, the loss at home was a disaster. I've never seen fans react so badly-there were frequent chants of "You're not fit to wear that shirt!" and "Give us our money back!" West Ham (the Hammers) are a gritty team from London's not-nicest neighborhood, with some pretty tough looking supporters. The possibility of them being sent down felt real, I could sense how crushing that would be to dedicated fans. I can't imagine what I would think if the Oakland A's were sent to Triple A after a bad season (though maybe if they move I'll get an approximation).

Beyond the fantastic fan support (the first half, which was scoreless for 40 minutes, they fans were very excited and loud and were singing and chanting in unison). The game itself was a also a revelation. Like watching ice hockey live for the first time, this is a sport that is just completely different in person on a big stage. Being elevated above the pitch, able to see the angles, brings a new appreciation that gets somehow lost on TV. Also the sheer speed and distance of ball movement was amazing. I found myself completely glued to the action at all times.
This was good because there's no getting up and walking around at a football match. There are only 90 minutes of play so everybody is seated the entire time. Alcohol isn't even allowed in the seats and there are no roaming vendors. Here Matt and Andrew are finishing a beer before the game. Most people seem to mill around outside the stadium eating and drinking in the hour before the match, then are seated during the whole contest. Frankly 90 minutes + 20 minutes of halftime is a much more reasonable length for sporting event than 3-4 hours of baseball.

Another interesting thing is the ticketing system. Each team organises its own supporter's club and you literally can't get tickets without joining. Technically I had to register as an official West Ham supporter to get these seats. There are a limited number of tickets for the visiting team, but these go right to the Wolves supporter's club. They physically separate fans of the opposing teams, and in fact it's against the rules to wear the other team's jersey in most of the stadium. Makes sense given the violent history of football hooligans.
Finally, the in-stadium gambling is quite a different experience. The table here is taking bets on the game. You can bet on pretty much anything.
You just fill out a little sheet like this with your picks and hand the guy your money. For example, I bet one pound each on the final score being 2-1 Wolverhampton, and on Nenad Miljas scoring the final goal. Both lost. It's a strange twist to the sporting experience in that the gambling is so normalised.

Overall, I loved the experience and am more enamored with my adopted team. They remind me of some of the things I liked about the A's. They'll always be underdogs because of the small size of their home town, but they fight hard and have very smart management. I probably won't get to this point, but Go Wolves.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

End of Term dinners

Research students don't really have "terms" in the undergraduate sense of the word where you get to stop working and relax for a while. There actually aren't many "stop working" occasions as a grad student if you're doing it right. But, since professors and undergrads still work on a term system, towards the end of term there's usually a raft of dinners and celebrations.

First up, our research group had a dinner together at my supervisor Ross' house. That's him playing the bagpipe to entertain the crowd. Needless to say the computer security dinner wasn't the most rambunctious of the week, but it was fun seeing people outside of the office.
Next up was rugby dinner. No pictures of that, it was a strictly no-cameras-allowed evening and with pretty good cause. That was definitely the most rambunctious night of the week, with a bunch of young rugby players eating a formal meal in tuxedos, but most of them loaded on two kegs of ale and playing drinking games the whole time. Football dinner (above) was a little bit more relaxed. Dress code was black tie on top, football on bottom, though I changed it to black tie on top, rugby on bottom. The three on the right above are me and my two housemates Andrew and Matt. Formal sports team dinners are a very British concept, with the captain giving many long toasts recapping the season, but they provided a nice cap to a long year of sports. I am pretty worn out from trying to play rugby, football, and basketball this year. There were good results though. Churchill rugby had a very strong second half, including a huge upset over Trinity to make the semifinals, where we lost to Jesus. It was the best finish in the 30+ year history of Churchill rugby, which I'm glad to be a part of. Churchill MCR football was knocked out in the quarterfinals, but also had a very strong year. Even Churchill basketball put together a nice end to the season, winning the final two games to qualify for the playoffs and avoid getting relegated.

With sports wrapped up, I went down to London on Friday night to see Wicked with the Gates crowd. It was my first musical in London, and it was well worth it. There were a few plot holes in the play, but the production qualities were fantastic and it was a very enjoyable night, and I got to catch up with many friends I hadn't seen for most of the term.
Finally, Saturday night was MCR guest night, a large grad-students only party with a (slightly ahead of schedule) St. Patrick's Day theme. You can see our varying interpretations above, between green bow tie, Irish rugby player, and leprechaun.
I had a lot of guests come, which made it lots of fun, and it turned out to be a very lucky night. At the craps table with my friends Elsa and Noah, we managed to turn our 500 initial chips into 10,000 which earned us... well, theoretically a chance to win a free bottle of wine, but it turns out that probably never existed. Oh well. By the end of all this I was pretty tired from all the end-of-term festivities.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Women's Varsity Match in Oxford

Made it to Oxford for the first time to catch the Women's Varsity rugby match. Going to Oxford after a year and half in Cambridge is a bit strange, it seems like an alternate-universe version of Cambridge. For example, the towns use the exact same street signs in terms of size and font, but Cambridge's a are black on white and Oxford's are white on black. The universities are set up in a very similar fashion, with colleges running the show and having many old, exclusive buildings. The colleges have such similar names it seems like a joke. Six have the exact same names, and then there are Magdalen and Magdalene, St. Catherine's and St. Catharine's, St. Edmund Hall and St. Edmund's College, and Queens' College and The Queens' College. You get the idea, the places almost go out of their way to seem different despite being almost exactly the same. Unfortunately we couldn't actually see very many because, like in Cambridge, they limit entrance into most colleges to students only.
There are some differences though. First is the river, the Isis, as seen above. Unlike at Cambridge the river doesn't figure prominently into the layout of town, it misses the center and there isn't much built along it.The city overall is about 17% less charming than Cambridge. Besides the river, the main streets are pavement and not cobblestone, and they're wide and straight. Not nearly as memorable as the crooked little streets of Cambridge.
I did happen by chance upon the Stanford House, and chatted with a student there who's doing a year abroad from Stanford. Very strange to see Stanford being involved in such an old place.
The match went very well for Cambridge, with the team taking a 25-0 lead at half time and carrying that home as the final score.
Here we are supporting our (American) friend Talia, the captain of the Cambridge team. If that flag looks familiar, yes, it's the same one from the hockey game last week. That flag has been busy spreading freedom all over this country.
It's a long bus ride to Oxford but it was great to support Talia and get a chance to see a small bit of Oxford. I will have to return some time and spend a little more time seeing the place.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

USA-Canada Olympic Hockey

My work schedule during the winter months (and the time difference) prevented me from watching much of the Vancouver Olympics. But, despite being in the middle of finishing up a big paper, I did manage to watch the gold medal match between the USA and Canada in ice hockey, along with about 30 other Gates scholars. As can be seen, we had a number of Canadians and Americans present, and the flags were out. The US lost in overtime 3-2, but it was a fantastic match and a nice brief moment of nationalism to distract from the grind.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Stonehenge & Bath

Finally made it out to perhaps Britain's most famous monument, Stonehenge. It's a three and a half hour drive from Cambridge so we were out at 7:30 in the morning with a big bus to take 60 Gates Scholars out to see the Stonehenge monument.
I'd summarize Stonehenge as an ancient version of Mt. Rushmore. You know what to look like since you've seen it so many times, it's a bit surreal to see such a famous site in person, and then there's not much more to say about it after you snap a few photos. What disappointed me is that there's little historical info at the site, just a few words that "nobody knows what the stones were put up for." I feel like they should be encouraging kids to let their imaginations run wild. My guess? They put up the stones to encourage other stone age tribes to visit this lonely part of the English countryside, and trick still works today.
We spent the rest of the day in the comparatively modern city of Bath. It's one of the most architecturally interesting places in England, being very close to a stone quarry everything in town is built from magnificent stone.
And of course, the namesake Roman bath. Not very well preserved, but still quite impressive and interesting to see the complicated system to pump hot spring water in for the old Roman aristocracy to enjoy a hot bath in their colonial outpost.

 The rest of Bath is just a very nice city with beautiful buildings and a few very nice parks. I really liked the hills as well, being used to the very flat terrain of East Anglia.

If you squint, I'm somewhere in this picture. A little camouflaged and a little off the ground, but there I am enjoying the sites in the middle of the Royal Crescent, a magnificent semi-circle of houses with a few magnificent trees in the middle. I think the look on my face says "I need to remember to see more of England while I'm here."

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Poland, F19 Cup Champions!

My roommate Andrew, a huge football fan, and I have been playing an entire simulated World Cup on FIFA 2010 on the Xbox 360. The games only take 10 minutes, but it's still a lot of games (63, to be exact) and we've been working on it since November. It's a pretty good opportunity to unwind at the end of the day. In a shocker, Poland was the eventual winner over France, winning 6-3 in the finals with the help of 3 goals in the last 10 minutes. Here I am celebrating the win. Time for a serious video game break, we may have to turn to board games next.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Spring Ball

Churchill Springball tonight. Here I am in my tux as usual with a few new friends from the MCR this year. Not quite as big of a group as we had for last year's spring ball, but the ball was probably better organized this year, and they had a cool theme of the 1960's, celebrating Churchill's 50th anniversary.
There was all the usual ball elements-tons of music, food, drinks, and entertainment. One of the highlights which was new this year though was Human Table Football. Just like the mini version you're tethered to a rope and can only move laterally in one line. Like everything else in spring ball it's a little silly doing all this in formal wear but most people have had too much to drink by this point in time to really notice.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Three Sports

No pictures, but I did play in three matches for my college today. Football (soccer) at 11:00, rugby at 13:00, basketball at 20:00. Churchill won all three as well, making it probably the most productive sports day of my life. Of course, not the most productive work day, and I'm pretty sore now. I still love sports, I may be getting to the point though where the utility of them as an "excuse to get out of the lab" is wearing off. I've got plenty of those these days.

Saturday, January 30, 2010


I just returned from a week in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain where I attended the 2010 Conference on Financial Cryptography and Data Security. Sounds pretty sophisticated, in reality it's a nice academic conference that gets very good funding from a few banks and is in a different tropical locale every winter. I gave a talk on presenting my paper on guessing statistics for personal knowledge questions.
Tenerife certainly fits the bill. This beach was about 200 m from the conference room. I was able to go swimming most days after the presentations ended, I also did some climbing on the rocks in the left of this picture and jumped off them into the water, which was cold but very refreshing.
It was a serious conference, but with a very upbeat and fun vibe. On Tuesday evening they had a session for impromptu talks on work in progress with the traditional unlimited rum from the conference's Caribbean origins. I mistakenly gave a serious talk about online protest, with a mixed reaction, though I did work a few off-color jokes in.

The island itself is surprisingly large and has very interesting geography due to its volcanic origins. This peak here is El Teide-at 3,715 m it's actually (by a good margin) the tallest peak in "Spain," though geographically quite far from the mainland.

Didn't get to go to the very top-although they have a cable car to take you there-but I had lots of fun climbing around the various smaller rock formations formed  decades ago from huge hunks of lava being thrown from the peak.
The island also has a fascinating history. The Spaniards have been there for quite some time and built some very nice villages in the hills, like this one, La Laguna.

Walking around there are dozens of open-courtyard homes like this one with beautiful gardens built by the old nobility. It's enough to have earned UNESCO world heritage status for the town, which they are happy to remind you of as they try to sell some of the local fare-a fortified wine called Presos Canarias and rum-laden honey.

Much of the island feels pretty touristy, which it is, as a major destination for Germans and Brits. I didn't feel like I got a very good impression of the local scene, but I did get the biggest pizza I've ever seen served to me, which I was unable to finish.

Still, was a nice break from the Cambridge winter and for the £40 plane fares you can get I'd consider going back.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

New York

On my way back to England I spend a long weekend in New York with my old friend Alex. I've been to NY quite a few times now but Times Square is always pretty impressive/overwhelming. This year they build a new glowing red staircase in the middle of the whole square. I've visited Alex a few times in NY and seems like we always catch a movie around Times Square, this time it was "Youth in Revolt."

The great thing about New York is that there is basically an inexhaustible list of things to see so even when you've been before there are new things. I'd wanted to see the Bronx Zoo for a while, and despite the frigid weather that kept a few animals inside we made it up there. I've been to many zoos, and this one compared well, with very nice old buildings and a good collection of animals.
The nerd highlight of the trip (which of course is the overall highlight as well) was the NY Hall of Science, a hands on science museum for kids. We didn't get to see nearly all of it but this was one of the best museums of this type I've been to. Two exhibits in particular were perfect for me. They had one on sports science, where we got to see how fast we could throw, test our balance on a fake surf board, and test our reaction time in a fake drag racing car. Then they had an exhibit on network theory, which blew me away because this is a pretty new research area and one where I've published, and they came up with some really fun exhibits. Above is a large display of Conway's Game of Life, one of computer science's best public facing demos. Quite a fun visit.

The least nerdy part of the trip was our tour of (new) Yankee Stadium, which was Alex's gift to her roommate Lydia. Here they are in the dugout. I got yelled at for trying to pick up the dugout phone and call for a reliever. It was a neat tour, we got to see the locker rooms and dugouts and a few other places you always see on TV but never get to go. They also had heaps of historical Yankees stuff, and believe it or not, some Yankees merchandise for sale.

I also made it to Princeton on Sunday afternoon to visit Jess, and we watched the unbelievable Packers-Cardinals playoff game. All in all a great trip that broke up my San Francisco-London journey and avoided an overnight flight. Thanks to my great hosts in NY.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Christmas Break

I was lucky to spend over three weeks at home over Christmas. Here I am in London getting ready to fly home with my favorite sister. It was really nice, it worked out that I could catch the same LHR-SFO flight she was taking on her way home from Russia.

Being a busy grad student I had to work quite a bit at home. I spent the first week or so finishing up a research paper, and was lucky enough to visit the EFF, an organization I've looked up to for a long time, and give a talk and help work with them on the recent Facebook privacy mess.
Of course, Christmas is mostly a time to relax with friends and family, which I did find some time to do. That's us above winning pub quiz night at the Rogue Ale House, with my former roommates in San Francisco and two siblings.
Here's my family in Union Square celebrating my mom's birthday a few days before Christmas. We went to a steakhouse, not the best food for a vegetarian but it was great to have the whole family together.

 Dad's birthday was a few days later (on Christmas itself), this is the family looking very festive celebrating Christmas, birthday, and a very late Thanksgiving all at once (note the pumpkin pie doubling as a birthday cake).
My favorite cat, Fletcher, was missing from that family photo but he was around sleeping on the couch for most of the break.

One of the stranger moments was when our dad brought home swine flu vaccinations for the whole family. Depending on you who ask, this picture is either the result of my dad being the worse shot-giver in the world, or my brother being the biggest wimp about taking shots in the world. Needless to say I got mine from my mom.

Football was of course a big part of the break, watching bowl games on TV and playing a pickup game on Christmas day. Here's a big group of us watching the Emerald Bowl in San Francisco a few days after Christmas.

Finally, New Years in San Francisco with my old roommates. Definitely miss them and the apartment. Here Tyler and I are celebrating 2010 on a nice night in San Francisco with about 60 other people crammed onto our roof with no guardrails. Luckily nobody fell off, I'll consider that a good omen for the year.