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.

[DAS ENDE]

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 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]