Once again, I’ve neglected my weblog for far too long and unfortunately for the next month or so I won’t be able to post much else either. Predictably, I’ve been very busy, but at least I can say something about it now.

The big news is that I have decided to leave my PhD here at Oxford once I’ve completed my first year at the end of August. My particular PhD programme is not normal; you spend the first year in a mixture of taught courses and research (a little like a Masters, but not in practice) and the next three years are spent on a single ‘normal’ PhD research project. I’ve enjoyed my time in the programme and I’ve learnt an awful lot, and hopefully done some good research. However, it’s just not for me. While I love science and I will continue to pursue it in the future, I have never wanted to become an academic and continue research after my PhD.

It was a hard decision which took some time; after all, research is very good compared to most jobs and I would’ve been working in a great lab with a good salary. At the end of three further years, I’d most likely emerge with a few good papers and a doctorate to my name – and that’s about it. If I don’t want to pursue research in the future, a PhD really doesn’t help me at all, and in some ways it can harm me.

So instead, after spending two weeks on holiday in September (in North Carolina and at home) I will be joining the team behind Project Syzygy full time. This will involve me spending half my time in Oxford, and half in London. It’s going to be an enormous change from student life, but since I’ll be in Oxford for a fair amount of time it shouldn’t be too jarring. On Friday I’m moving into a shared house with three other friends which should be an improvement from my current college accommodation.

There’s very little I can say about my job in London apart from that it’ll be highly challenging, extremely fun and something which I feel I am well suited to. When I have more I can say about the job, you’ll be able to read about it here as soon as it happens.

How do I feel? It’s hard to say. I’m incredibly busy right now finishing off my current research project, packing up my things to move house and working on Project Syzygy and one or two other side projects, never mind all the time I’ve spent deciding about my future. Still, I’m confident I made the right decision and as soon as this month is over and I can catch my breath (in the metaphorical sense – probably not in the literal sense, since I’m apparently going hiking in North Carolina and there’s a 10K run I want to do at home shortly afterwards) I’ll finally be able to relax and settle in properly.

No matter how manic things get, I know I wouldn’t want it any other way.

The world sighs

Two conversations with intelligent American undergraduates I know:

Them: So how far away is Wales then?
Me: About two or three hours.
Them: Will we get a passport stamp when we go?


Me: Get a what?
Them: A passport stamp. It’s a different country, right?
Me: Well, yes, in a historical sense, but no in any other useful sense.
Them: But I got a stamp when I went to Ireland!
Me: That’s because it’s not in the United Kingdom.
Them: Yes it is.
Me: No it isn’t, that’s Northern Ireland.
Them: Ahhhhhh.
Me: Anyway, no, you won’t get a stamp in Wales, or in Scotland.
Them: They have their own languages though, right?
Me: Yeesssss. I suppose.

And today…

Me: Check out this photo, pretty cool, huh?
Him: So it’s Tony Blair looking in a mirror-
Me: A door.
Him: At his reflection. What’s the door?
Me: Number 10.
Him: Where’s that?


Me: Number 10, Downing Street. You know what that is, right?
Him: Yeah, of course I do. Okay, no, I don’t. But I think I’ve heard of it.
Me: It’s the seat of the government, like the White House! Where the Prime Minister works!
Him: Ooohhhh, that number 10.

It’s not quite so bad as the, ‘So, do they have donuts in England?’ I once heard (in Canada, in fairness) but it’s close. I really shouldn’t criticise though, ignorance can be found in all countries.

The Invasion

The light in the sky is different these days, stronger and more persistent. Wind sweeps through the streets and the weather can change faster than a footstep, transforming the air from a muggy heat to a crisp freshness. The almost-transient population of Oxford undergraduates migrated away to warmer climes weeks ago, and now they have been replaced by an altogether more sinister posse. The Invasion of the Americans has begun, just like it does every summer.

If you walk down any street in central Oxford for five minutes, you are guaranteed to cross paths with a gaggle of young Americans, and even if you couldn’t hear their voices (which you certainly would do) you’d still be able to spot them. There isn’t a single defining characteristic of these Americans, but rather a combination of characteristics. They travel in groups – just like other tourists – but they tend to be larger groups and more numerous. They wear American clothing – just like all the European tourists – but theirs is in some vague sense more ‘up to date’. During the early afternoon and evening, they invariably carry large quantities of fast food, which I have to confess isn’t a characteristic shared by others but then you can’t rely on this one all the time.

As most people should know now, I have no particular beef against Americans, and sure, I detest tourists in Oxford but frankly that’s just part of life here than I’ve come to a wearying acceptance with. But this invasion I describe isn’t about American tourists. It’s about American students.

It turns out that every summer, huge numbers of American high schoolers and college students – I estimate at least a thousand – fly the wrong away across the Atlantic and converge upon Oxford to, I suppose, take some classes, soak up the legendary Oxford atmosphere and have some fun (and not necessarily in that order). Free from the constraints of their parents and absurd drinking laws, they spill out onto the streets and into cafes, ice cream parlours, bars and restaurants. Strangely enough, they don’t tend to go into pubs, a fact I attribute to a little-known genetic aversion the North Americans have to authentic ale (much like the fair folks’ aversion to iron).

Happily ensconced in their familiar-but-different social haunts, they proceed to take full advantage of being in a different country by meeting as many of their fellow countrymen as possible and regaling them with stories about their colleges back home and swapping precious tidbits of Oxford lore, e.g., “Oh my gawd! Did you see those guys over the road wearing those clothes? I found out that they always get dressed up for exams! That’s so cool! We’d never do that at home!”

As you can imagine, all of this loud enthusiasm grates heavily on the already deeply cynical graduate population whose emotions have long been burned away into a twisted husk of thesis-writing flatness. Not only are we daily confronted with groups of A&F and Gap-wearing teenagers insouciantly lounging around our ice cream parlour, but we have to deal with the knowledge that in the coming weeks, it will only get worse, not better. I can only hope that in between providing McDonalds with a temporary spike in profits and liberating our cafes, they are actually gaining something important and useful out of their expensive time in Oxford other than the right to say, “Yeah, I studied in Oxford over the summer.”


I made the impulse decision this morning to join a couple of friends to see Oleanna down in London. This particular production has been running for a while at the Garrick Theatre now and stars Julia Stiles (Ten Things I Hate About You, Mona Lisa Smile) and Aaron Eckhart (Possession, Paycheck), the former of whom I was quite keen to see.

We rolled up an hour early and managed to buy the best seats for only £17.50 when they normally cost £52. I’m told that you can do this at practically every single production in both London and the US and it’s the sole reason why most students can afford to see so many plays. I’d always known at the back of my mind that such things like this existed, but they’d always seemed rather remote and time-consuming possibilities instead of the remarkably trouble-free experience I had.

There was very little I knew about the play before it began; I knew it was about sexual harassment in a university, and that you were guaranteed to be intensely frustrated by the end of it. Considering that the total time of the play was a little over an hour, and there were only two actors, it turned out that beyond those two things, there really was very little else to the plot – not that this is meant as a denigration, but simply as a description. It was a highly intense and focused hour, with the two characters constantly interrupting each other (the script supposedly has more ellipses than words in it) in difficult performance.

Neither Stiles nor Eckhart struck me as giving outstanding performances, but then again it seemed to me that the play didn’t really give them the opportunity to show their range beyond anger/frustration and confusion – however, that’s just the way the play was written. Indeed, Eckhart’s self-serving condescension in the first act, and Stiles’ descent into righteous (and confused) fury in the third act left me extremely frustrated, as I’m sure was intended by David Mamet, the playwright.

So, a good experience which I will certainly repeat with all the other plays I can find.

After the play we waited outside the Stage Door to get autographs. Eckhart emerged first, looking particularly drawn but still signing autographs (including one on my ticket). He did disappear quite rapidly though, citing tiredness. Stiles, on the other hand, sneaked out through some other entrance to magic herself into a waiting car no less than five metres behind the crowd awaiting her. For some reason she still seemed quite happy to see all the fans, perhaps because they were behind glass.

This turn of events led me to attribute Aaron Eckhart’s tiredness to the fact that it was his turn to greet the fans, and Julia was in a good mood because she got to sneak out while we were distracted. In any case after Julia disappeared I could be heard exclaiming loudly, “What the hell is this? I didn’t even want Aaron’s autograph, and now Julia’s gone?”

Still, a quick trip to Harrods later saw us happily munching on Krispy Kreme donuts. They are as good as I have been led to believe, and for the benefit of readers I will now explain How To Get Free Donuts from Harrods.

When you stand in line at Krispy Kreme, they give you one free donut anyway. This display of generosity stuns most customers who happily munch away and order large amounts of additional donuts. However, the more savvy among us will realise that the only way the staff know that you have already received a free donut (which they are obligated to give all customers) is if you already have one in your hand.

Clearly, the solution is obvious: on receiving your first donut, immediately make it disappear. Whether it goes into your pocket or a bag or someone else’s bag is immaterial – what matters is that it is rendered invisible as soon as possible. At this point, since the staff are worked quite hard, the person who gave you your first donut will wander off somewhere else and another staff member will offer you additional donuts on seeing that you apparently haven’t been given one yet.

This strategy works best with three people. This allows the first two people to immediately backhand their donuts to the designated Donut Concealer (usually someone with a bag) and also allows for people to rotate around without arousing excessive suspicion, as might occur with larger groups. In a single queue, you can repeat this as many times as you dare; we only managed to get two free donuts each in total but I’m of the opinion we could have managed to get another one if we hid our second donuts as rapidly as our first.

A final word of caution – with great power comes great responsibility. If you get two free donuts each, and then go on to buy another donut, then you have approximately 600-900 kcals of donuts each. This is a rather enormous number of calories which significantly exceeds the amount that a normal person can burn off in a serious one-hour exercise session. Therefore, treat this strategy as more of a one-off trick rather than something to be repeated regularly.