It’s a Saturday night, and I’m in my room at college listening to someone’s shared iTunes music (Queen), guzzling lots of water and watching the end of Groundhog Day for the fiftieth time. Let’s just say that my plans for tonight didn’t turn out quite as expected.

It’s a familiar tale to anyone who lives in college accommodation. Up until the end of the afternoon, you’re blissfully relaxing in the knowledge that you’ll be going out that night. Suddenly, all of your best laid plans are blasted apart in successive volleys as people announce that they don’t want to go out or they’re going on dates or they’re going to films you don’t want to see. At the end of this shock-and-awe conflict, you’re left shellshocked and are reduced to prowling around the corridors, bothering people in their kitchens and repeatedly revising your projections for the night downward and downward. Eventually, you get to the point where you have nothing left to do but post to your weblog and feel pathetically sorry for yourself. It’s a sad, sad state of affairs.

I make it sound worse than it really is, of course. It’s not as if I didn’t have anything to do – more than a couple of people offered decent alternatives – but what with the wind and the rain, my will was sapped away.

None of this is helped by my burning through my entire Lal-Pile of unread books. In the past three days I finished The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe and Time Out Of Joint by Philip K Dick, neither of which can be described as easily read books. Nor is it helped by my irrational insistence on not watching any of my good unwatched DVDs (a Lal-Pile of DVDs, if you will) unless I can do them proper justice, by which I mean watching them with a bunch of friends in a good environment. Anything less would be an insult to the creators of such films as Office Space, Princess Mononoke, Monsoon Wedding and a whole bunch of other stuff.

Let’s just face facts: I’m weird.

Let it Snow!

The snow has finally arrived in Oxford in force, accompanied by dramatic peals of thunder and lightning! From what I can see – which is very little, because the snowfall is very thick – the flakes are pretty large and sticky and I should imagine that if this keeps up for a few hours we’ll have several inches of snow in short order. It’s all very exciting, apart from the fact that I have to cycle home in this weather after my lecture which starts in about ten minutes.

Tutorials &c.

So many things have happened in the past week! A final success at badminton, boardgame tournaments, computational neuroscience, strange and wonderful things happening on the next planet out, lots of good new books, and tutorials. I will deal with them all in time, but first, tutorials.

One of the distinguishing features of Oxbridge is the tutorial system, in which each undergraduate student will attend a few one-hour tutorials every week. In most tutorials, the attention of the tutor (usually a fellow or postgrad) is only divided between three or at most four students, and so they can spend a very intensive hour discussing the topics covered in that particular course. It’s thought that tutorials (they’re called supervisions at Cambridge) are one of the principal ways in which Oxbridge provides a ‘superior’ education to those found in other universities.

Whether or not tutorials are as good as they’re made out to be is a difficult question that depends on a number of factors, such as the skill of the tutor, the commitment of the students and so on. The reason I’ve brought the subject up is not to talk about their value – it’s because I’ve been asked to give a set of tutorials by my department.

It turns out that there are only two people in the department who know anything about phototransduction (the process in which photons hitting the retina are converted into information), and I am one of them. The other person, who knows a vast amount more about the subject that I ever will, is not able to give tutorials on the subject so I’ve agreed to give it a go. Despite what many of my friends fear, I really do believe that I can do a job at helping and teaching people. I’ve spent a rather large part of my life doing things that involve helping people understand difficult concepts and retain new facts so I hope I have something useful to offer undergraduates. Oh, and I do know how phototransduction works – thankfully, it is a rather logical subject to explain, if not fully understood.

The thought of giving tutorials to undergraduates in the very near future is a chilling yet simultaneously intriguing prospect. Chilling, because it means that these students will be partly relying on me to help them do well at their exams, which is no small responsibility. Intriguing, because they are finalist students (scientists and medics) and as such, there is a very distinct possibility that at least some of them will be older than me. Of course, it’s not unheard of for tutors to be younger than their students, and it certainly isn’t unusual for new graduates to be giving tutorials – I know a couple of friends in Cambridge who are in my year group and are already giving tutorials, albeit not to finalists.

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.


Lately, I’ve been thinking about why I go to sleep in lectures so often. It isn’t because I’m tired, or because I’m bored; there are plenty of times when I am both tired and bored and fail to fall asleep with the kind of dependability that I do in lectures. Nor is it because I’m sitting still for an hour; I often sit, tired and bored, for several hours and again, I don’t fall asleep. The process of sleeping is admittedly accelerated by the lecture being in a dark and warm room, but then those conditions are neither necessary nor sufficient, and of course they accelerate any form of sleeping.

And contrary to popular belief, I don’t actively try to fall asleep in lectures. In fact, for most lectures I’m engaged in a mental struggle to stay awake. It’s not as I’m not making an effort here. So what is it that’s so unique about lectures that makes me fall asleep in them?

I think it’s divided attention. A lecture consists of auditory and visual stimuli, namely a lecturer talking and perhaps some slides, that reach my sense organs and are converted into information. During lectures, I try to attend to this outside stimuli, but for some reason, I usually can’t. Traditional psychologists would say that the reason behind this is because the stimuli isn’t salient enough to keep my attention from drifting off into introspection. Which basically means, I’m not paying attention because I find the lecture boring.

I don’t agree with that; I’ve been in many lectures whose topics I find highly interesting and important and I still manage to doze off, even if only for a few seconds. I think it has more to do with the presentation of the information; that is, the nature of the stimuli. I would venture that the distilled information bandwidth of most lectures is a constant low enough to be easily processed by most people, including me, consequently leaving a fair amount of spare processing power sloshing about doing nothing (I appreciate that it’s not particularly accurate to use a computer as a metaphor for the brain, especially in terms of the brain having a linear and generalised pool of processing power, but bear with me). This spare power might be used for any number of things, which could include further processing of the lecture information, processing of other non-lecture stimuli, or simple introspection.

For me, I believe that in a lecture I use a significant portion of my brain to attend to the lecture. The rest of my brain attends to something else, such as what I’m going to cook for dinner tonight, or how to design a new kind of streetlamp cover that would reduce light pollution. For most of the time, these two attentive streams can co-exist happily and independently without infringing on each others’ processing power. But when some event occurs that upsets this balance, my introspective stream can start gobbling up processing power from my lecture stream (without my conscious notice). At this point, I stop paying attention to the lecture, which means that I essentially can’t hear or see what’s in front of me, despite being awake*. From that point, it’s an easy hop, skip and jump to falling completely asleep, which I would compare to a sort of cascading, spiralling experience in which my neurones progressively succumb to whatever signals cause me to lose consciousness.

*Obviously I can still hear and see. But I’m not paying attention to those senses, which means that if you asked me what the lecturer had just said, I wouldn’t be able to tell you.

Then I wake up a few seconds or at most a minute later.

It’s essential to remember that the reason this process happens with lectures and not, say, during a conversation, is because the information bandwidth is a constant, which means that my brain can (with reasonable confidence) allocate processing resources to something else. A conversation, on the other hand, has high fluctuations in information bandwidth that my brain would have to keep an eye on.

Another equally important point that I haven’t mentioned yet is that in a lecture, the only stimuli that are changing are those directly related to the lecture itself, i.e. the lecturer and his slides. The rest of the room is basically unchanging. So, to push the computer analogy even further, imagine that my brain encodes auditory and visual information via a compression akin to MPEG; in other words, it only pays attention to things that change. If I stop paying attention to the lecturer and his slides, then I’m not paying attention to any external stimuli at all! This provides another compelling reason why I don’t just spontaneously fall asleep while walking around Oxford.

Finally, I think this happens to me rather than to everyone is to do with the balance between my two attentive streams. The possibilities are that lectures (for some reason) are unusually poor at holding my attention, or my imagination is overactive, or my attention-switching mechanism is kerjiggered.

It is, I believe, a very seductive and compelling hypothesis that is more satisfactory than my previous ‘energy conserving brain’ hypothesis – perhaps even worthy of more investigation…

Perfect Circle

One of the more annoying aspects of my PhD course at Oxford is that I have to go to these ‘Personal Development Course’ events every so often, which are about as bad as they sound. In fact, all new biology graduates have to go to them, perhaps fifty in total. The first one, held some time ago now, was about a team building exercise run by some enthusiastic and evangelic (yet sarcastic) organiser, and he made us do a bunch of puzzles and exercise in groups with a whole load of personality tests. I’m pretty familiar with most of this stuff having done it at Cambridge and school, and in any case, I already know what personality type I am.

There was one interesting puzzle he made us do, though. You had to get into pairs and each take a metre-long piece of string with loops in either end. Each person put their hands through the loops while facing their partner such that their arms and string formed two circles that intersected each other. The challenge was to break apart the two circles without removing the string.

I imagined I knew the answer to this one, which I thought would involve the people putting their arms around each other or some equally woolly stuff. After a fruitless few minutes where no-one succeeded, he demonstrated that you were supposed to use some trickery where you fed the string of one through the hand-loop in the end of another. Everyone looked distinctly unimpressed and cheated.

By this point of the morning, we all knew that he was a very pseudo-psychology kinda guy and clearly didn’t like ‘science’, so when he went up to the front of the room to say something, we knew what to expect.

“How many of you gave up before the time had run out?” he asked, in glee.

Most people put their hands up sheepishly.

“Ahhh! That’s because you all thought you knew that two circles couldn’t be broken, right? But if you kept on trying and forgot about what you knew then you would have found out the answer! So why did you give up so easily?” he positively crowed.

Everyone in the audience had their heads bowed, defeated by this charlatan. I, however, was furious and decided to defend the home team of Science and put my hand up.

“It’s because there really is no way of breaking two perfect circles,” I challenged.

He looked quite pleased at this and decided to make an example of this independent thinker in front of him. “Oh yeah? Are you really sure about that?” he said, after lazily looking around the room.

I could tell that this was leading into a trap, but continued on nevertheless. “Pretty damn sure. In fact, I’d be willing to bet a large amount of money on it.”

“Okay,” he laughed, sensing victory. “What about those people who were sure that the Earth was flat, and would have bet money on it? What about those people who didn’t believe the Earth went around the sun? Do you still think you’d win that bet?”

“Yeah. Either way, I’m not going to be paying out before I die, that’s for sure,” I said triumphantly. Science 1 – Woolly Thinking 0!

Immediately, the massed ranks of scientists broke into cheers and I accepted high-fives from everyone as I took a victory lap around the room before being mobbed, raised onto their shoulders and lead out into the street in celebration. Meanwhile the organiser broke down into tears, renounced his faith and can now be found in Oxford Library reading Carl Sagan books.

It’s all true. Well, maybe not the last bit, but they did break out into cheers…

Vignettes of an active lifestyle

After I got back from Australia in August, I started doing an awful lot of exercise so that I might develop some good habits that would last in Oxford. I hadn’t been to the gym for about a year or so, and so when I went there and did my usual workout, I basically felt like I was going to die, or at the very least, have a heart attack. When I went two days later, I felt even worse afterwards.

Eventually it got a bit better, and then a lot better. I was pleased to see that there wasn’t anyone else in the local gym who could beat my split time on the rowing machine, although admittedly this was more due to rowing technique than actual fitness. In any case, one happy result of this increased exercise was that I could play football without collapsing into a heap after twenty minutes.

The only problem with all of this was that I was conspicuously not losing weight. I wasn’t gaining weight either, and while I knew that I was probably gaining muscle mass while losing fat, it didn’t make me feel much better.

Of course, the simple answer to this problem presented itself when I got to Oxford: eat less. It’s remarkable how much less you eat when you:

a) have to buy everything yourself and
b) have to cook everything yourself

I’ve kept up the exercise here at Oxford and I’ve also started running and playing badminton a few times a week.

Running always seemed like a sucker’s game to me. What was the point? You just end up doing your knees in and being bored. I used to run for a couple of miles every so often when I was at school, but that didn’t last for long – probably because the only place I could run was along a busy road, down a slope. Not exactly ideal conditions.

Unlike Oxford. I live about a minute’s walk away from Christchurch Meadows, which in itself has a wonderful running route over a mile long that meanders along a stream, over bridges and beside pastures. Even better, it joins onto a path alongside the River Isis that goes on much further than I’ve ever run (only a few miles, admittedly).

Back in October and early November, when I ran in the evenings, the views and sunsets were absolutely spectacular. I managed to increase my length of running from 30 minutes to 60 within a few weeks and these days the problem isn’t getting tired, it’s not being able to see where I’m running.

Once, when I was out running in my usual T-shirt and shorts, I got stopped by a couple of teenagers on my way back to my room at college.

“Hey, stop! Yeah, stop!”

I stopped and wondered whether they intended to try and rob me of my Domokun keyring or something.

“Yeah?” I said guardedly.

“Aren’t you cold?” asked one, concerned.

“Uh, no.”

“But you’re only wearing a T-shirt and shorts, and it’s freezing,” he said, gesticulating wildly. It was indeed quite cold that evening.

“Yeah, but I’m running. It warms you up. You should try it,” I replied.

He shook his head skeptically, and with that, I set off running back home in a decent pace with a grin on my face for the rest of the day.

Anyway, despite all of this exercise, when I went to Cambridge and met up with a friend, she exclaimed, “Hey Adrian, have you lost-?” and then glanced downward and continued, “Nah, you haven’t.” Then again, she is known to be a particularly ungenerous individual when it comes to anything to do with me…

A Badminton Vignette

I know this game will be challenging; I’ve played against my partner, and I know that he’s pretty good. Not amazing, but he’s got a lot of power and finesse. We’re well matched against our two opponents, a male and female. Individually, I would say that we’re better than either one of them, but I’ve seen them play together and they’re perfectly complementary, each knowing exactly which shots to take and which to leave. A game of tactics, then.

We advance our points practically in lockstep and there are some furious rallies. One moment stands out in my mind as the shuttlecock arches over my head and I have to twist backwards to tap it back over the net. Almost immediately, it’s smashed back over my left shoulder and I have to desperately spin to my right, hoping that my racket will collide with it. It does, and the point isn’t lost.

Some time later, after a quick exchange of drop shots and miniscule taps over the net, the score is 13-14 to our opponents. My partner and I know we can still win this game, and we almost do after I manage to scoop a smash up from the floor and skim it to the far corner of the court. Almost, because the smash was deflected by my partner. But our opponents still look dismayed, and I explain, “I think that was a double touch.” My partner says, “You don’t have to be so honest,” and then smiles.

Afterwards, I ask the winners how long they’ve been playing together for. They look pleased as they answer.

“Oh, only two or three games. We just met today.”


I spent the weekend visiting friends in Cambridge and fully expected to come home to Oxford to pick up my new laptop, which I ordered a while ago. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t at my college. When I checked the TNT website to track the package, it said that it didn’t have a correct delivery address for it. At this point I got a little cross and rung TNT up.

TNT claimed that ‘The Queen’s College’ in Oxford is a ‘huge area’ and how were they to know where to deliver it? A huge area? You’ve got to be kidding me, when it’s only has one entrance – on the High Street. You’d be forgiven for thinking that I’d asked them to deliver it to ‘Oxford’ or maybe ‘Earth’. Anyway, I pointed out that it in fact wasn’t such a big area and if they cared to look it up on the map, they would have no problems dropping it off – and if the beleaguered Royal Mail can deliver mail to my college, TNT shouldn’t have any difficulty either.

With all the delays in delivery for the laptop – let’s just say that everything that could possibly slow it down has happened – I am seriously doubting whether I will ever receive it.

Cursed by Dust

So Philip Pullman will be at two events in Oxford in the next few days to promote Lyra’s Oxford. The first one is a signing at Waterstones on Saturday, conveniently at the same time I’m going to be in Cambridge. But no fear – the second one will be a presentation organised by Borders at the Natural History Museum (in Oxford) on Tuesday evening – which, unsurprisingly, is the same time as my Provost’s Dinner at college.

Typical. I guess I’ll just have to wait until The Book of Dust comes out.