Really Long Story

Something seems to be wrong with my mirroring scripts again. They’re unreliable. Gaah.

So, yesterday was the Red Ribbon Ball, an HIV/AIDS charity ball put on by “dhiverse.” Cadenza met at 4 to rehearse, then at 6 went to The Guildhall (where the ball was to be held) for a sound check. This turned out to be a problem, as I didn’t know where nor what The Guildhall was. I was also on my bicycle, which was seemingly at the point of disintegration. The seat bolt had come loose, so it tilted back if I tried to sit on it, and the gear mechanism would constantly jump gears if I applied more than the slightest pressure. This put me in the difficult position of riding standing up at low power in low gear, when one normally stands up only to apply more pressure while in high gear. I also have a fairly intricate locking system, which makes it unlikely that anyone without a welding torch could steal any component of my bike (except, I suppose, the handlebars and maybe the pedals). Thus, the group was well ahead by the time I started after them at low speed. At some point while dodging pedestrians and trucks I must have forgotten that we were going to The Guildhall, wherever that was, and thus I followed my nose to King’s College, where I got as far as re-locking my bike and wondering where everyone was before I realized I was in the wrong place. Assuming that I had passed them, I retraced my steps but found no Cadenzans. I found The Guildhall after about half an hour of cycling in circles and two nearly incomprehensible sets of directions from two different porters’ lodges.

When I arrived I raced up the stairs and vaulted volunteers to find Cadenza in mid-song, after which they expressed relief that I had not evaporated. After soundcheck I cycled back to Fitz, where I changed into my (brand new!) tux and switched into contacts. I searched high and low for my new cufflinks to no avail; I hope that I have simply left them home. I walked back into town fully dressed and met Cadenza at quarter to nine. We would not be singing until midnight.

As soon as Cadenza had collected (again) we went upstairs (again) and walked into the main room, where we joined the food line. As I’d had crew practice (Englishmen never say ‘crew’, only ‘rowing’) that morning and hadn’t had dinner, I was very hungy. Food turned out to be bread and cheese (but they’d run out of cheese), olives, and, bizarrely, tacos. By the end of the night I’d eaten a dozen olives and two taco shells filled with excellent chili, all without getting a drop on me. That’s never happened to me before.

The ball was set up with two rooms. One had either a live band or a DJ (in the radio sense, not the ‘scratching’ sense) at all times. The other was Cambridge student acts, mostly stand-up, singing, or somewhere in-between. I spent most of the night watching them, with a small bit of dancing and a dash to be first in line for dessert (I was).

We were the last act, starting at midnight and running for about 40 minutes. The audience was relatively small, with perhaps 40 people actually listening, but they were very responsive, excepting a few couples who may not have noticed that we were performing at all. When the music from the other room crescendoed until it threatened our performance, I saw two listeners run to the other room to try to make them turn it down. With inspiration from Ross of the Chorallaries, I had devised a gimmick in which I put on a pair of sunglasses (at 12:30 AM) at the beginning of one of our songs, and the audience actually laughed at my visual joke. It was nice.

By the time I walked back to Fitz it was after 1, and I set my alarm to 6:25 for rowing before going to sleep. This morning I biked down to practice on my even-closer-to-disintegrating bicycle, and afterwards I turned it upside-down to see if I could figure out what was wrong. Seemingly every person who passed asked me if I was all right, and one of the girls who seemed to be knowledgeable about bikes suggested that I get some oil (which I’d tried to do Sunday but the shops weren’t open). Instead of going home, I went to the nearest bike shop, where I bought oil and new brake blocks, borrowed some tools, and returned my bike to ridability. It was very satisfying.

Low productivity

I accomplished next to no work this weekend. I just felt unmotivated (and slightly ill, on account of some really bad chili). I also had some stuff going on, like two Cadenza rehearsals. Happily, inspiration struck late last night, and I was able to pour out a 400-word essay in spanish prose, in a style that mixed Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels, Marco Polo, and Dave Barry, describing the discovery by a demented explorer of a crazy island, where there are so many clouds that they don’t believe that the sky is blue, and where their favorite sport involves getting in very long narrow boats and running into things at high speed.

Tonight is Cadenza’s big performance. We’re singing at the Red Ribbon Ball, a charity fundraiser for HIV programs. We are the last act, starting at midnight and ending around 12:45. I have no idea what to expect, but I think we’re sounding pretty good and our audience will be far too drunk to critique.

Not much else to report…nope, that’s it.


I just realized I forgot to mention Thanksgiving dinner. It was organized by CME, and had current exchange students, last year’s students, affiliated administrators, and a few students’ families. There was a short speech here and there, but it was mostly unpretentious, or at least as unpretentious as it could reasonably be, given that it was held in the Hall of King’s College, a room vaulted and ornate beyond all measure. I learned a few interesting things about how M.D.s work in the UK, and got to find out what Cambridge students thought of MIT. At my table, one girl thought that MIT was way easier than Cambridge, and the other was amazed, after one year of it, that anyone could survive four in a row. So it varies.

One interesting thing was pointed out by Rob Wallach, exchange coordinator for Cambridge and Professor of Materials Science, who arranged the whole thing. He had placecards with something called the “Cambridge Flag” on them put at seats designated for the staff and academics. The image was of a flag that flown over Prospect Hill in Cambridge, MA by Washington’s troops during the revolutionary war. It has 13 red+white stripes and a Union Jack, which is a somewhat dissonant image.

The Cambridge Flag

Odds and Ends

I had a supervision today for Relativity, Electrodynamics, and Light. My supervisor did not, in fact, have a heart attack, but the doctors, it seems, were not initially sure, and he might be having surgery over the break.

I just had quite possibly the rudest discussion ever over dinner tonight. I’ve participated in similar discussions before, but never over dinner, nor before 8 PM. I was shocked.

I was looking for some other sort of cheese to buy, and I came across what looked to be nice individually wrapped wedges, which were of exceptional quality when I’d had them in the US. Except here, it turns out, the fine print identifies them as “cheese product”, i.e. pasteurized process cheese food product, or American cheese. Which is exactly what they taste like, but thicker.

Traveler’s Cheques

I spent an hour at the bank today trying to find out what had happened to my traveler’s cheques. I checked my balance, and they still had not been deposited after 5 weeks (they cover themselves by claiming it takes 4-6, but it is normally faster). I asked the clerk at the foreign currency counter to find out what their status was, and he called over the manager, who took out her cell phone and sat down next to an extension and a thick, messy two-hole punch (no three-hole punches in England) binder filled with phone numbers. She searched through the binder, then gave up and used the extension to call a number in her cell phone’s address book. She talked for about half an hour before the clerk came back and told me that it appeared the cheques had been lost in the mail.

That’s right. They lost 20 traveler’s cheques in the mail at once. And their photocopier wasn’t working that day, so they don’t have copies that they could use to claim them instead. I was told to place a stop payment on the cheques and get new ones issued, then deposit those. They promised to repay me for any fees I might incur in the process, which is very nice of them but fails to solve the major problems, most notably that even if I could call them internationally (I don’t have a telephone) and get them to stop payment and send me new cheques, I might not still be here by the time they arrived.

After some wrangling, I convinced the foreign currency clerk to have Barclays claim the same set of cheques, since he had all of their serial numbers from the receipt and this is all that is needed to recover them. However, as I’m still depositing them to the student account, this process will again take 4-6 weeks. If I’m lucky, by the start of next term I’ll have enough money in my account to pay off my buttery bill.

Moral: Never do business with Barclays.


When I flew over to England, I carried with me a substantial amount of US$ in travelers’ cheques. I figured it would probably be about the most liquid, spendable thing I could have short of cash, but with the whole great non-stealable thing. As it turns out, they’re just about the most illiquid form of funds imaginable. I deposited them in my bank account as soon as it was opened, on the 20th of October, and they still have not cleared. I was truly scared that I would have to figure out how to live off of my few remaining pounds until I realized that I can instantly withdraw as much cash as I need from my US ATM card. Aahhh.

Not much happening here, apart from work and a scheduling quirk resulting in two consecutive days of rowing.



Last night I went out with Cadenza to formal hall at St. John’s (where we’re headquartered). The environment was incredible, and the food was reasonable. I got to know my fellow Cadenzans a good bit better. A bunch of them went out to a “Queen’s ent” (ent=entertainment, in this case a costume party at Queen’s College) but I didn’t have a costume or motivation. Today I woke up and thought about the 2×20 minute erg workout I would probably have to do for crew. This has been causing me problems, since it has tended to happen at about 12:30. Since the buttery is only open 12-1:30 and I can’t eat directly before a workout, this meant, essentially, no lunch. I’d had enough of trying to scrounge my own food on Saturdays, so instead I preemptively did an hour steady-state at 11 or so and immediately afterward went to lunch, which is served all of 20 feet from the weight room.

I had expected to show up in the cafeteria with the classic soaked sweat pattern, and had planned simply not to sit near anyone. After all, Saturday lunch is usually very sparsely attended. I was not expecting to stand in my drenched t-shirt between a huge number of suited businesspeople here for a conference of some sort. It was all rather embarassing.

I wrote up a report for Spanish, which was supposed to be a fictional diary of a Cambridge freshman. This turned out to be really easy; I just translated a few of my first blog entries. After dinner I went with a friend to see a play, called A Small Family Business, in which a third friend was acting. Along the way, we were accosted (i.e. hit on) by men who, from their decidedly feminine shawls and definitely female companions, I take to be either gay transvestites with female friends or two straight couples out together (but still some of them transvestites, possibly by accident). Either way, all four were exceedingly drunk, possibly sufficiently drunk that such distinctions might not have been significant.

The play had the distinction of being a comedy in name only. While black comedies contain some macabre elements, this play was actually a tragedy with jokes. Thinking about it afterward, drawing on my dim memories of high school freshman English, I believe it is a true Tragedy, as it includes a Tragic Hero with a Fatal Flaw and all that.

Breaking News

This Just In!
I, along with three other people (all of whom I will probably know), will be representing the AAPT, APS, and AIP at the LCIYP 2005 in Paris in January!
AAPT: American Association of Physics Teachers
APS: American Physical Society
AIP: American Institute of Physics
LCIYP: Launch Conference for the International Year of Physics

In other words, a free weekend in France with physics nerds from all over the world, including a few of my friends. Sweet.

I guess it’s the International Year of Physics next year because it’s the 100th anniversary of Einstein discovering lots of stuff.
Well whaddya know, there’s a website.


It’s snowing!
Big wet ugly flakes, but it’s snow. Snow through which I will probably have to bike tomorrow morning to get to crew practice. Argh.

The British get very excited about everyone’s 21st birthday. They see it as a moment of finally being an adult. When asked why, they are not quite sure. In fact, when they stop to think about it, it’s a little bit odd.

The drinking age in England is 18. In electrical engineer’s terms, it’s cultural crosstalk. We’re polluting their culture!
(It might also have something to do with the voting age having been 21 until about the same time it was changed in the US, but that’s nearly as funny an explanation)


I’m terrible with post titles.

My supervision Friday was cancelled (“postponed”) because my supervisor is not well. Choice quote:

I had a rather nasty turn last week and have just got out of hospital. I dont recommend cardiac wards.

Something scary about that. This will mean that I will have had attended one supervision for the course in the first 7 weeks of an 8-week term.

We had a rehearsal tonight for Cadenza, which was utter chaos. There are some very talented people in that group, but without anyone actually in charge of rehearsals and without an attendance policy, I’m amazed anything gets done. People actually made cell phone calls during rehearsal, and every time a song stopped the group devolved into conversations. Craziness. Also, since the rehearsals inevitably fall on dinner (much like weekend crew practice inevitably falls on lunch) I am constantly scrounging. Tonight I went with a few other Cadenzans or whatever we are to a bar or a pub or something that looked mostly like just a bar with a TV but also served food. We placed our orders moments before the kitchen closed, and were served surprisingly good food, all things considered. In the course of the ensuing conversation I discovered that Catholic schools in the UK can simultaneously be public schools (“state schools” in UK terminology) which seemed rather much at odds with my usual notions about the government not funding religious enterprises. It also appears that Catholic schools here are not, in fact, meaningfully Catholic, which is awfully confusing, since in the US they really are, or at least some of them are.

As part of the same conversation I discovered that although few Britons continue their education after high school, there is no big ceremony, i.e. no graduation/commencement! They just leave! It seems that American society is always informal, except for a small few terrifically formal “life-cycle” events, British society simply has a vast number of mildly formal events scattered throughout one’s schedule.

All very confusing. I think I’m doing pretty well in my translation class, which is nice. Not exceptionally, but considering the teacher’s initially disdainful attitude, I feel somewhat vindicated.