Part 15: Camels, Socialism and Allah

Since I’m going to be studying in Brazil from January onwards, I’ve starteding teach myself Portuguese. Portuguese sounds like a bit like Spanish after a car crash, the words sound familiar, but malformed and I must admit that this is part of the appeal of the language. In the same way that one day I want to learn Dutch, since it reads like a German dyslexic having a really bad day.

German <3

German ❤

I like the way that Portuguese sounds weirder than Spanish, primarily because I think I’m still scarred from learning French (and hence romance languages) in school. Getting bad grades when your aunt is a French teacher…and is French…is really not the best idea. Ever since then I’ve avoided romance languages. The problem in school is that there was such an absence of grammar that it was near impossible to learn anything. We learned scripts, like actors, rather than learning how the language itself is expressed and synthesised. For someone who has a more scientific and analytical mind, the lack of grammar frustrated me. Without knowing the rules, how can one be expected to play the game?

This love of rules is what ended up making German a perfect language for me. German is often seen as a difficult languages due to its copious amount of rules and order (much like the German society and people…), but where many people see this as a complexity, I found this to be a great help since it allowed me to process the language. Everything had a clear rule as to why, what, where, when.

Grammatik ist Wichtig

Grammatik ist wichtig

Of course though, like all learners, I’ve made some pretty horrendous mistakes along the way to becoming conversational in German. One of the best of these was declaring myself to be a socialist (rather than a social person) to my friend’s parents. Needless to say, they were rather confused at the apparently raging Bolshevik from Scotland that their daughter had brought over.

Better than this was when I did an Arabic course in Singapore. I arrived in Singapore wanting to learn some Chinese, since I was going to be living in Asia. However, after arriving I found Chinese far too ugly a language to want to pursue, so choose an Arabic course instead. During a practice session I said to someone “anta jamal” instead of “anta jamaal”. So instead of calling them handsome/beautiful I said “You are a camel”. Somehow I doubt most Arabians would treat as the intended compliment that it was. I’ve found Arabic to be a really fun language to have dipped my toe into. After making small talk with a guy on the street in Marrakech in Arabic, he kindly informed me that it was good that I’d started to learn Arabic, since I’d be able to talk to God (Allah) when I reached heaven. Later, another Moroccan in the street came up to me out of the blue and said simply “It’s OK, gingers do have souls!” Finding out that I’m going to heaven AND that I have a soul, Marrakech was a great trip!

However, it is comforting to know that I’m not the only makes such mistakes…

  • An American T-shirt maker in Miami printed shirts for the Spanish market which promoted the Pope’s visit. Instead of “I saw the Pope” (El Papa), the shirts read “I saw the potato.” (la papa).
  • Clairol introduced the “Mist Stick”, a curling iron, into Germany only to find out that “mist” is slang for manure. Not too many people had use for the “manure stick.”

In any case, I’m looking forward to making all the mistakes that come with learning a language when I go to Brazil. Already learning German has already helped me in so many wonderful ways; like being able to communicate with my girlfriend’s parents when I go to Germany, to my girlfriend and I being able to make disparaging comments about people in public and being able to read books about a communist kangaroo, who lives in Berlin ( I highly recommend Die Känguru Chroniken if you can read German). I can only hope that learning Portuguese have such a lasting effect on my life as German has.




Part 14 – Copacabana, Kidnapping and Arnold Schwarzenegger

I feel that a preface is necessary, since it is now almost two years since my last update. The primary inspiration for the renewal of my blog is that I will spending my next semester in Brazil.

Originally, I had an ERASMUS exchange set up in Austria for my last semester. Austria, a country where the most dangerous thing that could happen would be questioning the greatness of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Or returning to Scotland with an Austrian accent, that would make my German girlfriend want to punch me in the face every time I spoke with her in German (assuming that she doesn’t already want to punch me in the face, irrespective of accent or language). Instead, I swapped a piece of tranquil, picturesque, Alpine Europe for Brazil. A country with its dedicated own crime article on Wikipedia. This impression has hardly been helped by the frenzied coverage during the World Cup, with seemingly every cross section of Brazilian society seeming to decide that a few good riots were exactly the right ingredient to spice up the World Cup.

My new home in January?

My new home in January?

Of course, there is a simple reason I chose to forsake Austria for Brazil. Generally, for myself at least, the more awkward/dangerous/downright crazy an option is the more attractive and logical it seems at the time. Doubts and common sense seem to be a delayed function of time in comparison, useful and present only after a decision has been made. And for exactly these reasons can I not wait to go to Brazil. A land of binary states: the beauty of the Amazon and Copacabana beach, juxtaposed with crack cocaine caused crime and poverty. I will be living in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo or Belo Horizonte, the smallest city of which, Belo Horizonte, still has a population that exceeds that of my homeland, Scotland.

A map of where I could be living in Brazil

A map of where I could be living in Brazil

However, before I head to South America, I’ve been living somewhere even stranger for a Scotsman…England

More specifically, London. A city which, in truth, is not dissimilar to an independent country within the UK. On about every conceivable economic statistic London is a massive outlier. Today I read that the average rent in London is over £1400 a month. The rest of the UK is £650 a month. The average house price in London is approximately £400,000, compared to £180,000 for the rest of the United Kingdom.

There is, of course, a very good reason that I know these statistics. I’m currently working at the Financial Conduct Authority, which is the regulatory agency for the financial sector in the United Kingdom. I could talk more about my work, but then they’d probably have to kill me. What I can say is that I’m working within mortgage regulation, giving me a horrifying insight into the lives of grown up problems. Y’know, those people for whom doubts and common sense is not a delayed function of time, but a constant companion.

I must say that I’ve found London to be disappointing. Now, I’m not some country bumpkin from the north of Scotland who’s missing his croft and cuddling up to his beloved sheep during those harsh hours of northern darkness. I’ve lived in Singapore, Berlin and Glasgow and I can, without a doubt, say London is my least favourite of this exquisite selection. Singapore is as expensive, but at least is a wet dream for anyone who has OCD or craves organisation, while Berlin is infinitely cheaper, more welcoming and blessed with a unique sense of craziness that simply makes it my favourite city.

The one unique attribute from the selection that London possesses is its sense of power. Since I’m working at Canary Wharf, I’ve been working in the same place as all those nasty bankers you’ve been hearing about. Y’know, those guys that caused that little financial Armageddon that you may have appeared on the news once or twice… Compared to my normal life as a penniless student, this contrast is rather marked and bizarre. Going to work in a suit everyday feels about as unnatural an addition to my body as that of wings or a second head who insists on being addressed as Hugo. I think the one experience that I’ve had that sums this up, was when I was waiting in line for the cash machine outside work. The guy in front of me’s bank balance was more than the worth of my parents’ house.

Canary Wharf - Where I'm currently working

Canary Wharf – Where I’m currently working

Anyway, I’ll leave this here for a first effort at restarting my blog, and leave you with some Portuguese that I’ve been learning

Por favor, não me raptem!” – Please don’t kidnap me!

As you can see, I’m well prepared.


Part 13 – Religion, Chainsaws & Bangkok


L-R: Linn, Kayne, Kush, Me, Anne, Wesley, Joey, Dirk, Vivian, Liz, Julia, Heather

Chaotic and seedy, yet simultaneously cultured.

Bangkok in Thailand was a breath of fresh air, acting as a pure antithesis to the rigidity of the westernised womb of safety that is Singapore. Hundreds of street food dealers yelling. The foul smell of durian. Haphazard stalls with various juxtaposed wares… A cauldron of chaos.

In total a group of 11 of us made the turbulent journey across to Bangkok. 11 is a very difficult number to co-ordinate. Much like atomic elements, when groups hit a certain mass they are often unstable and usually decay into more stable components.  The more people you have the more compromises each individual has to make, hence for a lot of the weekend we existed constantly diffusing between various combinations. This made it all the more fun though.

Now, we all know Thailand is famous for one thing in particular.

Nope. Not temples…guess again?

That’s right!


We encountered this phenomenon of genitalia in a café, firstly. A woman came over to take our order. Upon arrival “she” proceeded to ask what we wanted in a voice so low that it probably measured a healthy 7 on the Richter Scale. What was better was my friend Dirk’s reaction. He simply froze, seemingly unable to comprehend the mismatch of information that was flooding his brain. Like his brain was trying to shove together two wrong pieces of a puzzle.





Cue steam and smoke ferociously exiting the overburdened system.

The next encounter involved another friend of mine, Kushal. A complimentary part of our trip was a Thai massage.   Kush enjoyed his so much that he decided to go back later for another. It would be fair to say that his next masseuse was a tad more “rugged”.

To be fair to Kush, he was as unflappable as ever, his response being “but she did a good job”. What job? I’ll leave that clouded in ambiguity for the benefit of everyone’s mental hygiene.

Moving to the more cultured aspect of the trip…

I really enjoyed the Buddhist temples that I had the pleasure of visiting. I’ve never been a religious person and I never will be, yet I have always appreciated and loved visiting places of worship. Religion, as harmful as it has the possibility to be, has been the catalyst for some of the most beautiful and inspiring achievements of humanity. When I was in Strasbourg during summer I visited the cathedral there.

What a masterpiece it is. And what inspired it?


It is definitely my second favourite cathedral after the Sagrada Familia* in Barcelona. It’s inspiring to think that many of these constructions predated such technologies as concrete and scientific aids like calculus. Faith is a powerful forcing function; everyone needs a vein of inspiration to achieve a life of value. For some people religion is the obvious fit.

* [That Gaudi was a crazy bastard. I’d love to reanimate his from the dead so he could design my house]

The Buddhist temples were beautiful and I enjoyed the contrast to the more solemn and sincere monuments of Europe. Their Buddhist equivalents were a riot of colour that exuded such energy and life. Bangkok is also the home of the world’s biggest Buddha statue. There was one fact that I particularly loved about it; that it took decades to build because they could only construct when they had enough donations from worshippers at the temples to continue construction. I thought that was incredible and must bestow upon the locals such a sense of ownership since they’ve paid for it as a collective. As a community.

Wesley in front of the world’s biggest Buddha statue

I could wax lyrical for hours about Bangkok, but so I don’t tire you all here’s some pictures.

Joey and Heather on an elephant. They’re strangely hairy.

Amazing buffet on the 81st floor of Bangkok’s tallest building.
Left, front to back: Heather, Wesley, Me, Kush
Right, front to back: Anne, Dirk, Joey, Linn

Me overlooking Bangkok from it’s tallest building. Balcony of where we had our meal.

L-R: Kush, Joey, Me
Eating grasshoppers on Khao San Road. Very crunchy.

Back at NTU (my university here) I’ve picked up Arabic language as an elective. The best part about this so far has been doing my homework on the plane Bangkok to worry the passengers around me. Arabic, from my extensive knowledge of 5 lessons, is a great language to listen to. It’s so guttural that it can sound like a conversation between a blender with gravel in it and a chainsaw (1), which is one of the reasons I like it. I much prefer German to the French I learned in school because it feels like a much more powerful language when it’s spoken. And damn scary. I think the Simpsons (2) summed it up best when discussing Russian. I couldn’t find the video, but it basically consists of Lisa asking some Russian men for directions. The gesticulation and sound appear very angry while the subtitles contrast to show helpful they’re actually being! My Arabic lecturer from Morocco does this too, wildly gesticulating so much that I’m sure that if I connected his arms to a turbine I could solve the world energy crisis. Now, another bit of linguistic satire with regards to German for y’all, before I retire from procrastination for the good of my future


(1) – Speaking of chainsaws, I remember when I used to work in Argos when we sold two chainsaws in one day. On Halloween. Creepy as fuck.

(2) – Rule 1 of Life: Any act that occurs within the universe can be referred back to The Simpsons


Part 11 – Academia, Spaghetti & Liquid Nitrogen

My experience in research has been pretty brief. A mere 69 days (chortle chortle).

Nevertheless it has definitely been an enjoyable and insightful, if infuriating, time.

One of the best things is having a project that is yours. Ownership of anything work related makes it so much more bearable. It depreciates the sentiment that you’re doing it for someone else and that you could care so much less. The fact that it’s yours means you take pride in it, because ultimately it is YOUR work and people will judge YOU on it, no one else.

However, academia itself can be, predictably, infuriating.

Researchers have a euphemism for “infuriating”.

It’s “interesting”.

“Those results are…interesting”

It’s almost like a defence mechanism against the constant barrage of unclear, confusing and, occasionally, just damn wrong results. According to my results at times I’ve violated such laws as the Conservation of Mass and Gravity. I’ll just assume that the Noble Prize is in the post for these advances…

Eventually though, those good results do come around then it’s fantastic. But it’s made all the more fantastic because of all those terrible results. Those supposed straight lines of data points that instead look a bowl of spaghetti.

That’s something true about life, that we cannot have Good without Bad. We all wish to nullify all the unpleasant experiences in life but without them, what’s left? If everything in our life was good then the thing that was “least Good” would become, by definition, Bad. Good and Bad are not absolutes, but are relatives. It’s the same reason that finding a pound coin on the street would inspire nothing but a passing smile. However, if someone in the depths of poverty found one, then it would be almost a miracle.

Hence as we gather experiences we begin to reassess what is “Good” and “Bad”.

Just one of the reasons that we’re in a constant state of flux. People don’t suddenly “change”; they accumulate change, which we don’t notice until something triggers our acknowledgement. Why so often outgrow people for seemingly no reason. We are merely an accumulation of experiences.

Finally, there is one more advantage to working in academia.

When it’s 30oC outside, you can make ice cream using liquid nitrogen.

-170oC of pure joy.


Part 10 – Geography, Exploding Falafels & Al Qaeda

Since my last entry I’ve been to 3 more places:

  • The Bavarian Alps, where, at 31 Celsius, my only probable souvenir in the post is aggressive skin cancer
  • Bretten for a mediaeval festival, where I felt right at home with archaic technology, coming from Elgin in north-east Scotland (putting that in there before Graham does…)
  • Finally, and most recently, in Heidelberg for a massive meeting of all the students in Germany.

One thing I’ve learned is that nothing promotes friendship like a mutual need. Being in a country where your knowledge of the local linguistics is poor means that any other native speakers of your language are welcomed with open arms.

They have a bad odour? Doesn’t matter.

They have links to Al Qaeda? Will you shut up? I’m trying to speak English again, at last!

They love Justin Bieber? OK, maybe I’ll reconsider…

Of course, I could speak English with the Germans that I’m not so familiar with, but that promotes guilt far too easily and establishes an obvious linguistic hierarchy.

In fact, the only comparable ecstasy to finding another native English speaker is getting a straight line in Excel for your experimental results. This is a clear indication that you, despite whatever divine force it is that likes to bully academics, have carried out the experiments successfully.

The United Kingdom has always had that advantage within Europe of being an island, that geographical veto it can use when it’s convenient. If we want to interfere in the EU, we’re European, it’s our continent too! However if we want to avoid it, oh no, we’re an island, we’re not really European.

Anyway here are some pretty pictures of Fellhorn, the peak in the Alps where I was.

It is glorious axioms of life that standing at the top of a mountain makes anyone feel more awesome. So here I am feeling awesome.

My favourite photo because I took it and managed to get the cow and the beautiful panoramic landscape…only to discover, to my hilarity, that said beautiful cow had taken a massive, wet shit in the bottom of the photo.

Also I’ve had a valuable lesson reinforced in the last week: never become a vegetarian. I was cooking for a vegetarian, so I decided to cook falafels. This was borne out of the Scottish philosophy of “everything tastes better deep fried” , so at least it was unhealthily vegetarian.

So I threw the first falafel in the pot of oil.

It exploded with the synthesis of a large volume of black, possibly carcinogenic smoke.

Graham assures me this is due to the black magic that is involved in the production of vegetarian cuisine.

Never again.

I may get a few extra exotically named vitamins by following a vegetarian diet but I’d probably blow off my arms while making a salad.

The following weekend I was in Heidelberg for the RISE Conference. It was a fantastic weekend. I have also acquired a new name: Seamus McMotherfucker. Cheers Derek for that one. Now, some pictures.

Myself, M for “Milne”. Or “Moron” as my brother kindly suggested. Wee bastard that he is.

L-R: Derek, Kevin, Myself, Ruben, Sara and Vishal. Audrey had deserted us by this point.

View from the castle of “Der Philosopher Weg” – “Philosopher’s Way”, where some of the most important philosophers of the day used to come to think.

Derek with the funniest sign I’ve ever seen.

Heidelberg is the oldest university in Germany (1386 gegründet). The Americans I was with found this pretty amazing, a university that predates the discovery of America by Columbus, let alone the colonisation of their country!

For anyone that has done a chemistry class ever also has Heidelberg University to thank. We all know that most of the more interesting lessons always involved a Bunsen Burner and hence the ability to BURN SHIT JUST BECAUSE WE CAN.

And there, pyromania, I believe, is an excellent place to finish.

Next Time: Amsterdam & Switzerland


Part 3 – Transformers, Biological Warfare & The Art of Spin

Sometime during my first year in Glasgow the three of us, pictured above, decided to live together. Left to right is: myself; Justice and Graham. Yes his name, well surname, actually is “Justice”. We think he should’ve studied law instead of engineering so in court he’d be “Lord Justice Justice” in a “Major Major” Catch-22 farce of titles. He also wants to do a PhD after undergrad meaning that he’d be Doctor Justice. With a name like that it’s almost a moral obligation to become a Bond Villain or Superhero.

Anyway, we did move in together but with my moving abroad to Germany and Singapore this is coming to an end. It’s quite easy to forget what you’re leaving behind when moving abroad, getting caught up in all the excitement and preparation. So here goes, a  few of the escapades of Maule Drive.

 Moving In

This is from the first day we’d moved in. After having a few friends round for drinks we decided to play a prank on a friend, Greg, by filling his shoes with water and freezing them. This taught me two things.

  1. This prank works surprisingly well. Greg’s shock when he tried to put his feet in his shoes was hilarious.
  2. Don’t fuck with plumbers. Remember what your friends do for a profession. Greg is a plumber and hence knows more about the intricacies and intimacies of my home than I ever will, meaning his revenge will always be infinitely better.

Davie (L) Me (R)

After a few drinks Davie and I also decided that we wanted to be transformers. Hence “Carling-tron” and “Mecha-coors” were born.

Christmas Dinner

This was the setting for our Xmas meal. Being poor students we didn’t have a dining table…or a dining room for that matter… Instead we just put down blankets in the hallway and called it a “Xmas Picnic”. An act of spin that I think even Malcolm Tucker or Alistair Campbell would be proud of! Graham and I managed to somehow cook a 3 course meal for 12 people in probably the world’s smallest kitchen. And no one suffered from food poisoning. Andrew and Graham: 1 , Salmonella: 0. We were also supposed to have a Xmas tree  but obtaining one turned out to be harder than a microscopic game of Where’s Wally. Hence the baubles we’d already bought were used as projectiles as we all descended into bauble warfare. Like normal battles, but more “christmassy”.

Who’s That Hot Bird?

A group photo from Xmas dinner. This is also, probably, the tidiest Graham’s room has ever been. While I am no saint when it comes to the mysterious art of cleanliness, Graham is next level. You get the feeling when you see it sometimes that it’s contravening a NATO treaty on biochemical warfare somewhere. Also some of the stuff Justice and I have found in there is probably more furry and hairy than Graham himself. To put this into perspective; Graham’s nickname is Chewbacca, from Star Wars.

Miscellaneous Others

Generally the three of us have what you might call a dysfunctional relationship, where giving each other abuse is everyday. I remember meeting a Canadian in Edinburgh last summer who was amazed at how mean us Scots were to each other. To us it’s just second nature. Graham and Justice’s two favourite points of attack for myself are that I’m an old bastard and that I’m from northern, more rural [read: sheep shagging], Scotland.”Are you so old that you shit Werther’s Originals?” I think is Graham’s quote of the week about my age. Abusing Justice is often a lot less subtle even than that. Above is a picture just after I got back after Xmas, where Graham and I ambushed Justice and wrapped him completely in a few rolls of clingfilm.

While out with Greg one night we met some absolute psychos from the army. During the evening one of them told me that I looked like Willy Wonka out of Charlie & The Chocolate Factory. Graham then decided to mock up this picture and post it on Facebook. I’ll leave it  to you, the reader, to decide on the quality of the resemblance.

A group photo from my 20th birthday. Many thanks to Francesca and Catherine for the fantastic cake you can see.

Graham broke the bin lid, this was the solution. As he put it afterward; “Strathclyde University engineering education at its finest!”


Part 2 – Sexual Deviancy & Explosions

I’ll start with some, pretty funny, tips in German.

“Ich bin warm” – literally: I am warm. However this actually means “I am gay” – No doubt Joseph and/or Graham will say I’ll need this one a lot…

Ok you say, I’ll just say “I’m hot” instead to be safe… Y’know, the beauty of synonyms.

Idiomatic Trap No. 2: The literal translation for that is “Ich bin heiß”. This means “I’m horny”. Turns out you can’t say much in German without sounding like a sexual deviant.

So what will I be doing in Germany, apart from trying to avoid ending up on a register? If you’re a nerd keep reading. If you’re not; skip to the TL:DR version!

  • The full title of the project I’m helping is: Dehyrogenation of Cycloalkanes in Microreactors. My incomprehension is probably almost as great as yours. Basically, from the little I know, it’s finding a way to make hydrogen a viable energy source. One of the teeny weeny, inconvenient problems, of course, is that it has a tendency to go BANG! Meaning it has to be stored at cryogenic temperatures and high pressure. Not sure about you, but if I had to drive behind a lorry of what is basically explosives I’d be shitting bricks. One of the ways to circumvent hydrogen’s inconsiderate explosive tendencies is to react to form a more stable compound and then unreact it later. Unfortunately this tends to be thermodynamically unfavourable as this requires energy itself. So the energy from hydrogen released must be greater than the energy to extract it. This is why microreactors are used as they, having such high surface area:volume ratios that heat transfer is rapid. Personally I’m just terrified I’m going to muck up someone’s life’s work by trying over a cable or something.

TL:DR Version

Consider the following exchange from the last time Ashleigh and I baked a cake

  •  AM: Can you smell smoke? [wearing oven gloves]
  • AJ: Andrew! Your oven gloves are on fire!
  • AM: Oh shit!

Just a little singed

Now transpose this situation onto Germany and the explosive tendencies of hydrogen…

  • AM: Can you smell smoke?
  • PhD: Andrew! You……