Part 12 – Fireworks, Durian and a T-Rex

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Greetings Earthlings from Singapore!

So I’ve managed to survive almost 2 weeks now without being caned or having melted into an orange puddle of Irn Bru in the ferocious heat. Though with such a plethora of tasty, cheap food available coronary disease will surely succeed as the new favourite for the mechanism of my demise. 

Singapore lives up to its reputation as a culinary paradise. Hawker centres (think an Asian food court) are amazing, affordable and such an incredible range of cultural cuisines. Everything from chicken’s feet to crab to frog to fish that look like a Chernobyl speciality. All delicious. I’d still quite like to try dog. Just to create that awkward moment.

“Awww your dog is so cute. Dog tastes great y’know?”.

In the same way I’d love a picture painted by Hitler so guests would ask:

“That’s a lovely painting, who’s it by”

“Oh it’s a genuine first edition Hitler piece, gorgeous no?”

One culinary object that is rarer in Singapore than a dancing, golden unicorn with four heads are knives. You can get spoons, you can get forks, but finding a knife in Singapore will probably be the focus of Indiana Jones’ next mission (after the plot of the last one, doesn’t seem so ridiculous…). I’ve also tried chopsticks and my prowess wielding these weapons for my assaults on Asian cuisine is improving. My original attempts were as graceful and co-ordinated as a one legged Tyrannosaurus Rex in a tutu trying to perform ballet.

N.B. In Singapore, in culinary terms, “not too hot” translates as “will still give you third degree burns”. “Hot/spicy” translates as ” a degree of burns that scientists have been unable to classify because they’re still too petrified by the horror of witnessing its effects”.

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Nanyang Technological University (NTU). Where I will be studying for the next 9 months.

One thing that I almost immediately bought as a necessity was a guitar. Everyone has certain things that keep them sane. Things they don’t feel complete without. Like a Glaswegian jakey without a bottle of Buckfast.

Mine is a guitar.

Whenever some frustration, happiness, sadness needs expressed there is no better way for myself. Completely amazing how much you can express yourself with only 12 notes. It’s why I think John Frusciante is my favourite guitarist. He improvises so much live. It’s not a matter of playing a song back that he’s written, but expressing what he feels then. It’s personal. It’s pure expression. Though, admittedly, his face expressions when he plays do look somewhere between trying to pass a kidney stone and an orgasm…

Case in point.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gG7YDCJ8Ad8

I was present at the Singapore National Day where I witnessed the best fireworks display I’ve ever seen. My description at the time was that it “was like a declaration of war on epileptics”. Was amazing to see all the Singaporeans outside watching messages about how great their country is, all dressed in red. (A friend here, Joey, made the mistake of wearing a red t-shirt this day, making it almost impossible to locate him at times!)

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L-R: Ann, Armanda, Kush, Me, Joey and Eva

In Singapore you can be fined for anything. I’m going to assume this is why the Asians have such a prowess for mathematics and that their textbooks go something like this

“If Qing Bo smokes twice on the train, £1000 fine, while eating a big mac, £500 fine, while smearing durian all over his face, £500 fine, how much does he owe the government?”

It is quite intimidating seeing these signs everywhere reminding you of the penalties. Singapore has so many fines for things that could be considered petty that you’re often never sure which side of the line of legality you inhabit. One I am totally in favour of, however, is that of durians on the subway. Durian is an extremely smelly fruit they have here. The effect they have on your breath is similar to that of a small rodent crawling into your mouth and dying there.

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Finally I think I’ve unearthed my first signs of homesickness.

Over the past few days I’ve been desperately craving a burger. Not a McDonalds “burger” where the main meat is most likely from some sort of arachnid but a proper one, basically a cow enshrined in a roll. Something like the one Graham and I made before I left Scotland…

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Go on. Take a bite. Y’know you want to.

[DAS ENDE]

Part 11 – Academia, Spaghetti & Liquid Nitrogen

http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=17

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.

 [DAS ENDE]

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

[DAS ENDE]

Part 9 – Gay Pride, Berlin & Homer Simpson

Since my last entry I’ve travelled to 5 more cities in Germany: Bonn, Köln (Cologne), Düsseldorf, Frankfurt and, most recently, Berlin.

I’ve noticed recently a large improvement in my German and this was exhibited in Berlin. While in Berlin it was the annual gay pride march and I found it fun to translate all the slogans. Ended up covered in stickers of these too, when Jeff (an American from Rhode Island that I was with) and I had to cross the street through the parade.

Fick? – Want a fuck?

Nimm mich! – Take me!

Du willst es doch auch – You want it really

Rauchst du nach dem Sex? – Do you smoke after sex?

So if you need advice on how to chat up men in German, it seems I have acquired sufficient expertise.

What I found interesting was that it passed by the old Nazi headquarters. 70 years after Hitler’s regime murdered homosexuals there’s a parade in his capital, his “World Capital Germania”, filled with gay men and the slogan “DildoKing.de” on the side of the bus. What a fantastic image, Hitler turning in his grave* at the mere thought of that. Shows just how much Germany has changed since then.

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*I’ve since been corrected, through the medium of a meme (welcome to the 21st century), that Hitler doesn’t have a grave, by my friend Alex.

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Above is a picture of the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin.

The problem with designing something for such a grisly event in history would be that a grand, gaudily artistic monument would be just be wrong. Conversely it still needs to  be powerful, to do justice the suffering of the subject. And this monument is perfect. A sober, but effective, design with very little abject symbolism, leaving it up to the visitor to decide. I loved how all the blocks are all different shapes and sizes but have no discernible markings. Leaving them to just be an anonymous number. I took this to be showing how people of all ages, sizes and paths of life suffered and how the people lost their humanity by just being a number. When numbers become big they lose their impact, because our understanding wanes as numbers rise above our everyday experience and comprehension.

6 million dead people. It’s unimaginable. Literally.

It’s the same reason economies will always fail and these financial machinations will never be understand properly. When numbers enter cohorts of billions we cannot comprehend what we’re dealing with. And for the same reason we’ll never be able to understand the scale of the universe. When 100 countries in the world seem like a large number, when our holiday flights of a few thousand miles seem gargantuan, monolithic, how can we really understand the scale of a universe in light-years? We are limited by what it is to be human, a cage of proportion.

In the accompanying museum the following display truly touched me. It is a letter from a child, in the concentration camps, to his father explaining that he will soon be dead. The candid nature of the letter is what I found powerful. When I was a child the closest I came to death is when my PokeMon fainted on my GameBoy. Yet here, a child, someone so young, has already their fate. A departure from life through the mechanism of brutality.

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 “Dear Dad! Before I die I want to say farewell to you. We would really like to live, nevertheless they won’t let us, we will be killed. I’m so worried about this death, the small children are thrown into the pit while they’re still alive. Goodbye forever. I kiss you tenderly.”

Now here’s just a miscellaneous mix of photos

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The Reichstag

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Brandenburger Tor

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Checkpoint Charlie, note how German is the last language shown.

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I enjoyed this poster. It refers to the Germany Greece game in ongoing European Football Championship, which Germany won 4-2

Back to Karlsruhe. I’ve almost managed to fuck up a couple of experiments so far at work. A cultural German note of seemingly insignificant interest: Germans use commas for decimal points in numbers, not full stops. Yes, this is incredibly inconsequential for 99,9% of applications in life… Until you try to programme flowrates for a reactor…using full stops…hence 5.00 l/min turns, not so inconsequentially, into 500l/min…woops. Yep, this is the guy who wants to, potentially, work with nuclear energy later in my calamitous life. My parents reaction when I told them that?

This was it

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Apologies to all those who won’t sleep soundly tonight…

[DAS ENDE]

Part 6 – The Terminator, Jaundice & Not Living in a Cardboard Box

I’ve just spent the last week with my family until Xmas. My family is changing a lot at the moment after my parent’s separation, as you would expect.

A brief illustration of the characters of my family

Dad: One case of jaundice away from being Homer Simpson’s real life incarnation

Mum: Just 50 but has a 2nd degree black belt in TaeKwonDo

Chris: Owns hair far more violently ginger than mine. I’m surprised he hasn’t been stolen and sold for scrap with soring copper prices.

Dad has bought himself a wee house now that he’s moved out. It is such an entropic masterpiece of chaos that I adore it, mainly because it signifies a reversal of positions in life. For years my parents nagged me about my untidiness and now it is my turn to nag them!

This got me thinking about how my relationship with parents has changed over the years.

When I was young I was convinced that they were robots sent back from the future to make sure any sort of potential for joy was neutralised. Like The Terminator, but more mundane and with less muscles. Their arsenal of methods included: enforced vegetable consumption, early bedtimes and shoe shopping under duress. The brutality.

However, as I got older I realised that my parents were…dare I say it?…Human.  That once they were young and had dreams, ambitions…and dodgy haircuts (a particular one of my Dad’s moustache springs to mind… No doubt, if I have children, they’ll be cringing at pictures of my old ponytail in years to come).

That’s the thing about parents; you’re always out of sync with them, they’re always a stage ahead of you so you can never properly empathise with them. Like you’re a sine curve and they’re a cosine, always out of phase, rarely ever the same value. That’s one thing I would have loved to have seen, my parents at my age, before they accumulated that wisdom and assurance in life that separates you from them.

Discussing life matters with your parents; 90% of the time it’s like going to the cinema with someone who’s already seen the film. They know the ending and how it will probably pan out. And knowing the ending makes everything in life boring. I’m sure you’ll all have heard the immortally infamous line “I Told You So” at some point from your beloved folks. I do think as I get older I can appreciate them more though, as I accumulate  more life experience and have more shared experiences and you come to understand how they were moulded through the phases of life. Just as the same is happening to you.

Moving to the future, it is now only 4 days until I leave for Germany. 4 days. 96 hours.  And only today did I receive confirmation that I’ll have somewhere to live. Meaning I won’t be forced to live in a cardboard box, selling my teeth for use in the production of tiny piano keys or have to subject myself to some sort of medical testing, like having the head of another human conjoined to me, in order to survive day to day.

4 days.

Fuck.

[DAS ENDE] 

Part 4 – Death, His Steed & That Funny Greek Alphabet

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Image courtesy of: http://aboutcoolness.com/

Exam time, as strange as this may sound, is often one of the best times as a student. This is simply because you can justify, legitimately or not, deprioritising every single responsibility you have in favour of studying.

  • Am I eating too much junk food? Who cares, need to study.
  • Should we do the washing up since the dishes have now reached a state that resembles a putrid game of Jenga? Nope, don’t have time, must study.
  • Should I care that a horde of Genghis Khan’s Mongol warriors has arrived through some portal in time and space in my kitchen? Not important, the Second Law of Thermodynamics on the other hand…

This is because, as a student, there are only two real responsibilities.

  1.   Don’t get into so much debt that you, or a kind parent, has to sell a kidney to regain financial liquidity
  2.   Don’t fail

This is one of the reasons that being a student is so good. If you were to graphically plot responsibility and independence against time one would decrease, the other increase. And that perfect intersection when life is easiest would be the time when you’re a student. Apologies for the mathematical analogy, a further example of how studying has turned my brain into a thick mathematical soup of graphs and that funny Greek alphabet…

Fortunately, or unfortunately, I have extra pressure on my exams this year. Mainly that my exchange place at a Singaporean university depends on my passing everything. In tandem with circa £2000 worth of plane tickets to and from Singapore twice, already purchased. Failure is not an option, meaning that I have even more reason to become a study monster than usual and relegate all other non-essential responsibilities.

Saying this, one household task has emerged recently, that even we, as a flat, cannot ignore.

Cleaning the oven, a task for no mortal man.

Staring into it is to stare into a frightening, black, chemical abyss. We fear the grease may have gained sentience. Thankfully we have a champion equal to this Herculean task, the world’s most frightening oven cleaner. A succinct summary of the advice on the back: “Extremely flammable, causes severe burns, may damage the respiratory system, extremely corrosive, wear protective clothing while administering”

I’m fully expecting Death himself to come charging out of the can on his Steed of Darkness whenever we use it, it sounds that evil.  So if this is my last post, rest assured that Death himself has probably taken my soul as an evil trophy for his mantelpiece or a gift for mother’s day. Or, more likely, we forgot to turn the oven off before using “extremely flammable” oven cleaner…

[DAS ENDE]

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……

BANG!

[DAS ENDE]