Category Archives: UK

Friends from Home, take 3: Kelsey!

This week was a very special week as one of my longest and closest friends came to visit. Kelsey took her spring break to fly into London to spend a whole week with me! Yes, but why? Good question. I can barely stand to spend time with myself as it is, why would anyone fly 4,000 miles to voluntarily spend 9 days with me. She probably just had frequent flyer miles that were about to expire.

She few into London on Friday and went around and toured different museums while I finished off my work that afternoon. We had arranged to meet when my train got in around 6 at King’s Cross. To be honest, it really wasn’t real that I was getting to spend that time with her until I was able to spot her, dazed and exhausted, in between a few people at the station.  We welcomed each other with a warm embrace as if no time had passed since I last seen her. In fact, it had been exactly a year since I had seen her.

We got to do a lot in London over that weekend, even having a productive day on Sunday before heading to Cambridge. We ate dinner at an Asian fusion restaurant and then turned in early Friday night. Saturday was seeing Big Ben, Westminster, Green Park, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Millennium Bridge and London Tower all in one day! Kelsey got to see her friend from Clemson, Katie, and hang out for the afternoon. Before heading in for the night, we were able to walk around a giant mall at Sheppard’s bush. It’s YYUUUUGGGGE, the biggest. Jokes aside, it was so huge and filled with such fancy stores that it was just out of this world. It was a neat and mesmerizing walk.

Sunday we walked around Notting Hill, which was amazing. It reminded us of the prettier parts of Charleston and me of some of the quieter parts of places like Wilmington. The colors were lovely. I was able to capture what our trip looked like.

Typical image of us.

After Notting Hill, we went and rode the London Eye, which was much better than the Brazilian guy made it out to be. I enjoyed it during the day as much as I did during the evening* when I went with my family. After that, we headed back via Waterloo station where Kelsey proceeded to run into a bollard while taking a photo followed closely by me wearing half my sparkling water from Pret. We were on a roll there for that 20 minutes. After that we headed to a store that her friend point us to and stumbled across a place called Kingly Court. A neat little place that we immediately decided was going to be where we came back to eat next weekend.

Since I had Head of the River to prepare for, our mornings in Cambridge were much earlier than either of us really wanted them to be. I’d leave her in the morning, cox my crew to victory, then head to work before meeting her for lunch. Our favorite lunch was probably Peterhouse. It wasn’t so much the food as the fact that we showed up too early and spent 15 minutes walking around the gardens that I didn’t know existed.

Thursday night, Kelsey attended her first Formal Hall. Connor was able to book us, him, and his mom  as part of the Engineering Formal Dinner for Churchill and they sat us away from them.  We had a great time with good food and even better company.

Friday we went into London and I was kind enough to bring her stuff in for her so she didin’t have to carry it around all day… I figured this meant her suit case but I found a backpack when I came back for her stuff. -.- So I traveled to London on the train with her backpack, my backpack, and her suitcase – I was a sight to have been seen. We had our dinner at Kingly court and a restaurant called Brown and Whyte.

Saturday morning we had time before Kelsey had to head to the airport, so we went out for a late breakfast/brunch. I couldn’t convince her to order one herself, but I ordered the full English breakfast and got to show her what it was. She seemed convinced that she wouldn’t eat that much food for an entire day as I devoured the plate in front of me.

After our breakfast we had some time before she had to leave so we walked around a park near our AirBnB. It was interesting to sit and watch families in the park. The dogs that played and were well trained, the one that was not so well trained and ran off as the owners casually watched and followed later. It was interesting to see how independent the children were, riding around on their scooters – a stark difference between US and UK parents.

After the park, we walked to the tube station and headed our separate ways – her to the airport and me back towards King’s Cross. It was sad to watch her ride away on the Tube, but it’s nice knowing she’ll be back in May! Until next time!

 

*Evening = 4:30 when it got dark…

 

Friends from Home, Take 2: Mackenize

This weekend, I had the lovely opportunity to host a friend from USC, Mackenize, as he finished off his spring break Europe trip.

This was the first time I was able to show someone from home a true tidbit of my life here in Cambridge. When he got in, we picked up food and then went to a Tequila tasting event at Claire College’s MCR Bar where he got to meet a lot of my chemical engineering friends. On Sunday, we had a couple friends take us to brunch at King’s College – a first trip to their dining hall for both of us. This was just after the International Women’s day celebration Hall and all the portraits of the men were covered by cardboard. A neat but worthless and meaningless gesture IMO. We all toured their chapel and went for ice cream. That afternoon, I headed out for rowing (preparing for Head of the River!) while he continued to explore town and figured out how he was getting back home. Our evening was filled with some good food and watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail, something I had been meaning to do since arriving.

Monday morning was more rowing (he really got the full experience here) and hanging out with Mack before he had to head off. We meandered around the city and stopped for lunch before we had to say goodbye. As always, it was a pleasure to get to spend time with him. Can’t wait to see him next.

Emma Sprints and Gamecox!

Emma Sprints http://ebc.soc.srcf.net/sprints/ is a short race that is hosted by Emmanuel College. You complete a short sprint in “fancy dress” – so the whole team dresses up in corresponding costumes. My team all dressed up as Steve Zissou  from The Life Aquatic in our matching blue shirts and red hats. If they gave awards for the most obscure fancy dress reference, we would have won:

From the Life Aquatic
From the Life Aquatic

What this race really turns into is a bunch of novice boats and rowers rowing as fast and as hard as they can and every once in a while you get a crab:

Luckily, we didn’t have anything like that — but we won one race and lost one race. It really had to do with the timing. Here’s the race videos:

Race One: Victory

Race Two: Not so victory

I have a couple comments: first, we were miserably out of time in the second video. If you didn’t notice it, don’t go back and watch it. Second, I was dead out of breath after the first race so the second race was a tad more difficult. Time to work on that cardio!

But the fun doesn’t stop there! Or really the fun started earlier that morning when I had to cox NM2 during their race! Hence, I am officially a Gamecox.

We won our first race and lost our second in a well fought match by less than a foot. It was quite a way to go out, but for my third time coxing, I think I did a pretty good job trying to lead these boys to victory! As you can see from the pictures, I was repping the Team Zissou as the cox.

 

IAMX Concert

Danny and I got the opportunity to go see IAMX in concert in London the weekend before Halloween, and I don’t think we could have planned the trip any better than it turned out. The day was so perfectly timed that we were never in any rush or even stressed about timing for one moment. We had a laid back dinner right before grabbing our tickets at Will-Call and getting killer seats on the first balcony. And an unexpected bonus, there was no filler opener so we got out of the concert with plenty of time to make the train back to Cambridge.

Now to the important part — the concert itself. One word: Indescribable. IAMX is can be characterized as ‘electronic’ music and one would expect that the show was some fancy lights and a guy standing up pushing a few buttons to play track after track, which could not have been further from what actually happened.

 

First, there were four people on stage including Chris Corner, the man who is IAMX, making everything you heard was done live. The drummer laid down the strong beats while the two women provided backup vocals and keyboard. Corner, coming out in his eccentric feathered hat, tank top, and leggings, made use of two microphones as he sang live. IAMX’s music can be identified by Corner’s extremely dynamic vocal range and ability to leap octaves to hit notes I could never dream of touching, but to me, that wasn’t the most bewildering part of his show — it was his ability, mastery, awareness to use a second microphone and assorted live mixed distortions to create the second thread of his voice that a listener would assume to be a pre-recorded track in his music. I cannot begin to explain how fantastic and stunning this was to watch  and listen to. 

Second, the lights. To the stereotype that electronic concerts are worth going to because they’re elaborate light shows with prerecorded music, this shattered all expectations. Instead of having that awesome light show to decent music, you had the awesome music (see above) accompanied by fantastic visuals.

This was easily one of the best concerts I will ever go to — the lights, the live creation of music, the emotions in his songs. I can’t say enough about it. Danny, thanks for joining me for a wonderful night!

First Day as a Graduate Student

Back in high school, a little over five years ago, I remember sitting in my first research lab, performing ATR-FTIR measurements on dyed fabrics for two hours at a time after school, loving every minute of it. It was then, a little over five years ago, that I decided I would go to Graduate School to do a PhD…

Fast forward two years, it’s Sophomore (2nd) year at University of South Carolina. The workload feels like it could crush me from all the piles of textbooks and hand written homework assignments, and all I wanted to do was be in the lab problem solving, collecting data, and expanding the edge of science. All I wanted to do was be done with college and on to grad school…

Two more years pass. The workload is quite literally killing me. The 110 hour work week was maintained by 2-4 hours of sleep during the week, many meals were missed, friendships seemed to fall apart right and left. The applications felt endless, and I did even fewer than I wanted. Life decisions felt like giant stones to be carried up the mountain. I really doubted if I wanted to go to grad school, whether this was all worth it.

Today. Today was my first day as a “Graduate Student”. Okay, you’re right, technically term started last week and I went to safety training, I know. But today, was my first day sitting at my desk and beginning a new adventure of learning and growing as an academic, an intellectual, and a person.

It feels weird knowing I’ve made it. Nothing feels all that different from five years ago, but nothing feels the same. Everything about this experience is new, but yet, so familiar.

I really haven’t done much yet. I attended more safety lectures, seen enough gruesome pictures of lab accidents that I should be afraid to use scissors to cut paper without causing a spark to ignite a gas leak from the floor below me, set up my desk, begun setting up my computer, read a few pages out of a paper, and got my mug (and promptly told them that my work here was done and I could go home a happy man).

Using my new mug at the Department's morning tea time.
Using my new mug at the Department’s morning tea time.

I don’t really know how to describe this feeling — accomplishment, triumph, a halfway viewpoint along a long academic journey, excitement, anticipation, a medley of these and many more. But today, I can finally say “I am a grad student”.

Gates Cambridge Weekend

The Gates Cambridge weekend was truly one of a kind. The group of individuals are all dedicated deeply to their work and won’t be satisfied until they make a difference at the end of the day.

If I were to recreate a team building exercise, it would be heavily based off of the formula that the scholars set in motion: Lots of activities, lots of time together, but not tiresome. But, in all fairness, it would be really hard to recreate such an environment for two reasons: (1) we didn’t know each other before Friday and (2) over half of us are from very diverse backgrounds.

We were all strangers on Friday morning. The 90 new scholars plus the 15 returning scholars who made the weekend possible resulted in about 5,350 handshakes, assuming the returning scholars all knew each other and no one shook hands twice (which totally happened — I introduced myself to several people two or three times, even in the same day). Each handshake went a long with an introduction that went something like “Hi, I’m Eric. What’s your name? … Nice to meet you; what are you studying, and are you MPhil or PhD? .. Fantastic, where are you from? … Neat, I’ve never been there before. What college are you in?”  It honestly got a little repetitive to hear yourself speak those words and answer in return, but you were meeting such an interesting and diverse group of people, it was enjoyable. The hardest part was keeping all the names and faces straight…

The diversity of the group of strangers made the ice breakers quite enjoyable. Here’s a list of some of the questions that were used, each question with a different, group of people:

  • How many unique countries has your group lived in?
  • How many unique languages can you speak?
  • How many siblings do you have as a group?

Honestly, these questions would be duds with friends back home. The answer would be one, two, and something irrelevant because I already counted before anyone in the group needed to speak. That honestly is no fun, but with this group, the answers were so unique with people who know ancient Greek and Latin, who know 7 languages, who had families with twelve siblings, all of which you’d never have known just by walking into that room.

The weekend trip to Ambleside was just one giant continuation of our introductions — it was a chance to talk about our projects, our coursework, our backgrounds, etc. in greater detail while doing things like rock climbing, gorge scrambling (trekking through a flowing river), kayaking, and hiking. There were more games, dancing, food, and of course, alcohol. The surprise that was planned for us on Monday night was sure a pleasurable one, and was only made more fun by the fact that it wasn’t revealed, so in turn, it won’t be revealed here.

All in all, the weekend was quite indescribable. A group of strangers were thrown together in small rooms, buses, kayaks, and hostel rooms and came out the other side great friends, close friends. The only bad part about the weekend is that it ended — the holiday of fun and games with 100 friends had to come to an end — and there will be very few times where you’re gonna be with even a quarter of them again.

A somewhat random occurrence was the fact that I got to meet Craig Mathieson, the current “Explorer-in-Residence’ by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and hear all about his life story and the work that he does with the Polar Academy. He seeks out a group of the “forgotten children” — the one’s who are average kids who feel like they can’t accomplish anything great in their lifetime —  as he put it and trains them to run their own polar exploration. It seemed to be a very neat and life changing experience for those who were strong enough to be selected.

All pictures together:

Brexit

One week from today, the United Kingdom (UK) will vote to leave the European Union (EU). This creates a lot of uncertainty around the UK’s future and consequently… mine – or does it? For peace of mind, let’s look at some of the surrounding motivations, consequences, and implications surrounding the “Brexit” vote on June 23rd.

Unlike the US election, my Facebook newsfeed is not filled to the brim with clickbait articles claiming absurd facts with the only source being the same article posted on another ad-selling website, nor is it filled with arguments based on misinformation on satirical or absurd, unfounded websites. The more I read, the intricate and deep rooted the problems only become more convolute.

European Union

Started in the wake of World War II to foster economic interdependent economies through trade [1] to provide incentives for peace – or less incentives for war. Today, this “unique economic and political union” is shared between 28 European Countries.

The EU operates on voluntarily and democratically agreed treaties among member countries. Of the 26 treaties ratified, three have been ceased, all originally signed in the 1950’s. One treaty expired after 50 years and the other two were replaced by the Amsterdam Treaty.

The EU likes to think of themselves as “one market without borders”, but still admit that some barriers remain including broken national tax systems, slow and inconsistent e-commerce, and a lack of recognition of vocational qualifications across national borders. [2] In efforts to unify markets, “hundreds of technical, legal and bureaucratic barriers to free trade … have been abolished” [2]. They also describe themselves as a “huge business opportunity” with “unrestricted access to nearly 500 million consumers” [2].

One blatant benefit of the EU is the unified monetary system – the euro. Nine of the twenty-eight countries do not use the euro of which the UK is one of them. For the consumer and business owners, there is no need to worry about exchange rates and fees while accessing their “500 million” consumers. Personally, the unified euro was a dream while traveling in Europe – I didn’t end up with $30 in assorted currencies that was too little to exchange back.

Some of the major policy areas the EU focuses on are climate, human rights (including justice and migration), environment, health, and energy. To maintain access to the EU’s “one market”, you must adopt all of the policies ratified by the EU, including free migration of people and contribution to the budget. Switzerland talked about restricting their boarders and the EU said it would revoke the access to the market; Norway has to adopt the laws of the EU and contribute to the budget (at a slightly lower rate as the UK) and has no say in it! [3]
What are the Consequences of Leaving?

Renegotiating Trade Deals

Britain would have to renegotiate trade deals with 50+ countries that have access to the “single market”. In addition to taking a large amount of time (possibly decades) to hammer out these deals, the EU is not going to be generous or allow the UK to cash in on favors owed – it is going to make the UK an example about leaving.

Losing Market share of Economic Services

Those who think the UK can get a better trade deal than the one they currently have are very quixotic.  Even beyond that, they feel a World Trade Organization deal such as Canada’s would be good enough. Unfortunately for London’s financial center, that deal would not include financial services, thus allowing places like Frankfurt to gasp some more market share while new trade deals are negotiated.

“ ‘I don’t think we would be shut out of continental markets,’ said Tarun Jotwani of the TKG private investment group. ‘London is far too important.’” [5]

While the doomsday scenarios are extreme and likely scare tactics, I find this amount of confidence far too arrogant and narcissistic. Jotwani seems to think that there is no reality where London can be replaced and that no one will leave London to maintain access to the “single market”. I would hope the executives in London are preparing large scenario analysis to find ways to maintain access to their customer base else it will make the economic turmoil of a Brexit that much more devastating.

TRUST

Nobody thanks the government surveillance programs for preventing terrorist attacks because their effectiveness depends on their secrecy. A true success of their program means that no one ever knows a threat was viable. People just have to trust that the liberties they sacrifice are not in vain.

But honestly, politicians have been lying to the people they govern. In the US, there is widespread frustration with the “establishment”. This frustration coupled with the xenophobic and racist attitudes has led to the rise of an abominable entertainer and abhorrent businessman.

The lack of trust and frustration with broken promises, the “Brexiteers” are obviously frustrated with the current establishment as seen by the following poll.

Even more reputably, according to the European Commission’s poll “Do you tend to trust the European Union?” less than 30% of Britain’s participants responded ‘yes’ as reported by The Economist. [3]

One of my major frustrations are reading transcripts of financial claims by politicians on narrow claims refuting industry leaders; I can understand their frustration. Because of the complexity of the economic issues at hand, Europe’s statistical office, the British government and the IMF all have different figures on many different metrics. [3] This lead’s people to not want to trust the experts.

One example that is important to me is the fact that scientific researchers would lose access to the EU funding. The Institute of Physics (IOP) and Royal Society says funding will dry up. “Gove says we hand over £20bn [to the EU], and get £10bn back.” [4] To cast some shadows of doubt around Grove, the Guardian reports that the “Research and Innovation” budget for the EU is €10.3bn [6], confirming that the UK does not receive the figure claimed by Grove when queried about research funding.  This simple example of contradictory information is infuriating because (1) it’s so hard to dispute – his source isn’t revealed (2) it is about something I care about and (3) it makes any decision I would make as a voter even ten times harder.

Parallels to the US Elections

Taking the plunge and leaving the EU is filled with lots of obscure questions and even more convoluted answers, but staying in the EU isn’t exactly the safe bet either. Ultimately, no one can say with 100% confidence what will happen or what will be best. I definitely do not know or do not even begin to think I understand how this came about or how important this is…

I do look at this as some broad parallels to the US elections: Establishment vs Anti-establishment.

I do not think electing such a strong anti-establishment candidate is what’s best for the US, but I’m sure glad they are sending a message to the current establishment that they need to stop the charade they have played else they will be beat. The nomination process is polarizing – the most radical candidates (Trump, Sanders) have the strongest chance during the nominating process where moderates and independents (the SWING VOTES) are excluded. Super delegates are extremely anti-democratic, one person has the equivalent voting power of 10,000 people, although someone who is an “expert” should be able to make a better, more informed decision with stronger prescience.

I do not think it is time to abolish and dismember the current state of politics, but to dismantle those who uphold policies that are self-interested and suppressing of people and accountability. Like Trump, I think leaving the EU would be too radical of an anti-establishment move fueled by the frustration and emotions of those who have lost trust in the system and thus given up.

The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment. — Robert Maynard Hutchins, Great Books of the Western World (1952)

Radical and anti-establishment candidates have succeeded in the past, which lead to World War II, the exact type of event the EU stands to prevent. In no ways do I think the UK referendum would lead to such a catastrophic event, let me make that clear, but extreme distrust and contempt  leading to extreme radicalization of governments and people will have catastrophic consequences.

Like within the US, I am not ready for the UK to give up on the establishment. This is just my personal opinion from my minimal experience with the topic. I think the motivations for the Brexiteers is emotionally charged and fueled by distrust and frustration rather than rationale. I would also rather see another (smaller) country be the first to leave and be the example of what happens to trade deals consequently.


Enjoy!

Sources:

[1] http://europa.eu/about-eu/basic-information/about/index_en.htm accessed on 15 June 2016

[2] http://europa.eu/pol/singl/index_en.htm accessed on 15 June 2016

[3] http://www.economist.com/sites/default/files/EconomistBrexitBriefs16.pdf accessed on 15 June 2016

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/politics/live/2016/jun/15/eu-referendum-live-osborne-punishment-budget-farage-flotilla-thames?page=with:block-576197a7e4b04ceead988c1c#block-576197a7e4b04ceead988c1c accessed on 16 June 2016

[5] http://www.marketplace.org/2016/06/03/world/could-brexit-sink-europes-financial-capital accessed on 16 June 2016

[6] http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/09/what-is-the-european-union accessed on 16 June 2016