Between Heaven and Earth

About every month I visit Cambridge for the weekend to see friends and usually play lots of Counterstrike. It’s always a whirlwind visit because I try to meet up with as many people as possible during the two and a half days I’m there; on Saturday I think I overloaded on tea and hot chocolate (but not coffee, of course) because I have three different ‘coffee’ meetings. Even then, I hardly get to see even half of the people I want to but it’s still enormous fun.

The frequent visits and the fact that I lived there for three years means that I’m constantly mixing up Cambridge and Oxford in my speech. It only takes a few hours in Cambridge before I starting thinking it’s home again. That’s not to say that I’m not enjoying Oxford; to be honest, I’m very happy that I still like both cities so much.

Since visiting a bunch of my friends around the country, I’ve come to the somewhat depressing conclusion that I am the only person left who is still living in college halls (or dorms). Everyone else is living in shared houses. While halls have some advantages, such as being moderately affordable, central and putting you close to lots of friends, they are also intensely irritating. Imagine, if you will, having someone bang on your door at 9am, and then barge inside (despite it being locked) to shout at you for the kitchen being in a non-perfect state. Our cleaners have been known to do this on occasion, and there are plenty of other little annoyances that follow from living in accommodation where you are merely tolerated, like some particularly ugly endangered species of insect. The fact that we pay rent and are graduates seems to be entirely forgotten.

It’s not that bad, of course. If it was, then I would’ve moved out already. As it is, the annoyances merely serve to provide a low level of background irritation, rather like the noise I get from the coaches that drive past my window every seven minutes.

So I’m looking for a place to live next year in Oxford where I’ll be able to have a lounge, clean the kitchen when I want and not have my Internet usage monitored. Such a place seems like heaven to me right now, which is partly why I enjoy getting out of Oxford and visiting friends.

(Oh, and another thing – one unfortunate side-effect of keeping this weblog is that people have begun to accost me and demand why I don’t visit them when I travel to some city where they live. To which I respond: why don’t you get off your lazy asses and visit me in Oxford, eh? Then we’ll talk… nah, I love you all really).


After you’ve lived in Cambridge and Oxford for three years, you begin to appreciate two things. One, they’re really, really small. Two, nothing ever changes in those cities, and doubly so for anything related to the university. There’s a ‘joke’ that goes:

Q: How many college fellows does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: “Change? Are you crazy?!”

As the North American contingent of Cambridge and Oxford are so fond of pointing out, both universities are far older than their country, and have experienced far less change. The mere suggestion of adding a new building, or (for example) allowing people to play music in their rooms outside of certain proscribed hours, generates such head-shaking bewilderment and a wilful miscomprehension in the minds of university staff that is simply unparalleled in this region of the Milky Way galaxy.

Of course, it wouldn’t do to actually admit this, which would be more honest than saying something like, “No, you can’t have a TV room in your halls of residence because you’d create a fire hazard,” when the primary use for said room is for cleaners to smoke in. One day I believe that university staff will start suddenly going insane as the mental convolutions involved in creating such fantastical justifications for withholding change pass a certain point beyond which the human consciousness cannot handle. I look forward to that day.

In the meantime, students starved of change in their environment become highly excited when anything changes. It would be easy to assume that the atmosphere of changelessness only exists within colleges and university buildings and not outside them, but considering that the colleges invariably own all the land in Cambridge and Oxford between them, and hence prevent any ‘new’ or ‘disruptive’ companies from setting up shop in the middle of town (e.g. video-rental, fast food, anything useful), it should be apparent that I have in fact lived in a time bubble for the last three years.

On the way into Cambridge last weekend, I spotted a new restaurant on Regent Street and got as far as saying, “Did you know there’s a new res-” when my sentence was completed for me. When I returned to Oxford and saw another former Cambridge student, I immediately recounted this tale of magic. The fact that the most exciting thing to happen to Cambridge in months was the opening of a new restaurant and the threatened closure of a fast-food shop may consequently give you an insight into the stunted, twisted psyche of Oxbridge graduates.

The sad thing is that all of this is self perpetuating. I have no doubt that if I spent a few more years in Cambridge, I would have become so accustomed to my surroundings that any possibility of change would have sent me into cardiac shock, or at the very least, generated an aneurysm. In the last months of my time there, my friends and I spent a not insignificant amount of time bitterly lamenting the fact that the Woolworths in the centre of town was being replaced by a Next, of all shops!

Yet while moving from city to city might prevent this calcifaction of the mind from taking place, there’s something to be said for staying in the same city for decades. After a while, you begin to ignore the city’s faults (in the case of Cambridge, the primary fault being that it isn’t actually a city) and accept them, perhaps even becoming fond of them. If you take the traveller’s path though, you’ll constantly be railing against the stupidity of your new city; exactly how Oxford council can spend two years repaving the same road three times is, I feel, not something normal humans can understand.

There must be a happy medium though. I’ll post again in a few decades to let you know if I’ve found it.

Lack of imagination

Once again we are at that special time of year when the GCSE and A-Level results are announced for secondary school students here in the UK. There’s almost no point reading the newspapers since they always run the same stories. If the results for an exam improve, that’s because it’s getting easier. If they get worse, it’s because of lowered standards. There’ll be a few people complaining that they didn’t get into Oxbridge with ten A’s at A-Level, and of course there are the stories about the child wonders.

This year it seems that an eight year old boy gained an A* at Maths GCSE. Funny that, how it’s always a Maths or Computer Science exam that people seem to get first. (My take is that GCSE Maths and similar subjects are trivially easy for kids who have the right sorts of minds; there’s nothing inherently difficult about simultaneous equations or calculus, it’s just that they’re boring and most people can’t be bothered putting the effort in.)

There was also another story last week about a 13 year old boy who was expected to get a bunch of A-Levels and had been refused entry to university because he was too young. I find this crazy. There is absolutely no way that a 13 year old can get the best out of university; quite apart from not being able to drink, it’s just not legal for a 13 year old to live on their own. So say you go with your parents; well, that kind of kills off any possibility of living a normal independent university life.

But that’s not the main problem I have with kids doing exams so early and wanting to go to university. My problem is that there are far more interesting and useful things to do than take exams at such an early age. This doesn’t mean that they should spend all their time playing football and mucking about; rather, it means that if they are interested in, say, computers or science, they could try their hand at programming a game or devising experiments. Just not exams!

When I was at San Diego, there was a 16 year old schoolboy in the lab who had been there for a year designing and running his own psychological experiments. He was very sharp and a very nice guy, and I was happy to see that instead of taking a load of pointless exams (who needs ten A-Levels?) he was doing something interesting and productive. Plus, I’m willing to bet that university admissions officers will be more impressed with the three papers he’ll have published than a couple of high exams marks.

I agree that there is a point to doing exams, but I feel that it’s an unconscionable waste of time pushing kids to do a bunch of exams five years ahead of normal. There are so many better things to do.


Today (one day early) my Cambridge email address was deactivated because I graduated last month. This means that you can no longer contact me via Instead, my new active email address is adrian@(nospam), and my new permanent forwarding address is hon@(nospam) What this means is that if you ever want to contact me in the indefinite future, an email to the hon@(nospam) address will always forward it to me. However, the address that I will send emails from is


I received my final results at 4pm today – I got a 2:1 in my course, Anatomy A: Research in Neuroscience. I’m fairly pleased with it. Sure, it’s not a first, but it’s enough to secure my DPhil at Oxford that starts in October.

Out of 21 people, four received firsts, one received a 2:2 and the rest received 2:1s. Not a bad ratio, although I was surprised that some of my friends didn’t receive firsts; I certainly think that they deserved them, although the examiners must have their reasons and to be honest, gaining a first at Cambridge doesn’t only require a lot of work, but it also requires a fair amount of luck as well.

So, that’s my three years at Cambridge completed. Bit of an anti-climax really. I’ll be uploading my extended essays and dissertation to this website in the near future; maybe some of you will find them interesting reading. I’m also hoping to upload some photos before I leave for Philadelphia on Tuesday, as well as a report of my trip to the Thorpe Park amusement park earlier this week (lots of water-related shenanigans).


Finished exams at 4:30pm today; fate willing, I won’t have any more exams in my life. Didn’t manage to beat my personal record in making it to the pub by 4:33pm since we decided to go one closer to the Backs. Computer died a couple of days ago, which was a bit of hassle – but all is fine now that I’ve replaced the PSU. Think I might sleep for the next few days.

Exam Update 1

One down, two to go. My brain is fried, as are my eyes and my writing hand. Should be better by tomorrow though. It turns out that I know more than I thought I did, and that it takes a surprisingly long time to write an essay.

Near Future

My final exams are beginning in a little over twelve hours from now. There are three 3-hour exams over three consecutive days, from Tuesday to Thursday, each counting for 12.5% of my total mark. The remaining 62.5% is made up from my dissertation (50%) and two extended essays (12.5%), all of which I plan to post here after I finish the course.

Normally I would say that it’s a bit strange, having your university grade depend on a few hours worth of exams, but in this case that isn’t true, since my disseration and essays count for much more. Despite this, I’m still feeling the familiar sensation of adrenaline and excitement.

So I have a busy time up ahead; my exams finish on the 29th, after which I’ll be embarking on a bender of epic proportions with my coursemates (I still hope to beat my record of having a pint in hand within three minutes of the exam ending from the first year). No doubt the next few days will also be occupied with celebrations as other people finish their exams. On the 6th I have an exam viva, but it’s more of a formality than anything else – the viva can only make our marks go up, not down; it’s more of a modifier for borderline cases.

A scant few days later, I’ll be flying off to Philadelphia for the TEDMED3 conference on the 10th. Returning on the 16th, I’ll be back just in time for the Emmanuel College May Ball, and with it, the rest of May Week in Cambridge. Graduation Day is on the 26th, and then I’ll be zipping off to Oxford for the Wadham College May Ball on the 27th.

I should be returning home from Cambridge – for the last time ever – shortly after that. During July I will hopefully be travelling around Australia and maybe America (incidentally, are there any readers I can visit in the US around that time?) and will return to the UK at the end of the month, not that I have actually planned it, booked flights, etc. That gives me August and September free before I go to Oxford, and readers of this weblog will probably not be surprised to hear that I have a few schemes and plans to keep me occupied during that time.

Phew. Like I said, a busy time.


In lieu of any weblog updates, and since I had a craving for some serious procrastination, I’ve uploaded two new collections of photos to my photo gallery. The first and larger collection is from May Week last year, and the second collection is from the Chinese New Year Ball in Cambridge at the start of this year. It’s not just photos – there’s also lots of extremely irrelevant commentary as well!

I have this theory about photo galleries on the web, and in fact photo albums in general. Basically: who wants to look at a bunch of someone else’s photos? It’s not as if you know anyone in them. Given that most people aren’t experts at taking good photos – and also that most people don’t care about such things – the most interesting thing about photos is the context they’re in and the stories you can tell with them. Hence my habit of writing long and convoluted captions to each photo that I hope people will find interesting, and maybe even funny.