So today is my first day back at work proper since my recent journey to Switzerland/Germany. And I return feeling like I’ve learnt a lot, not least about EPR, which was the primary reason for going. For example I now know that the Swiss and German rail network running like clockwork is somewhat of a myth. They did once upon a time function like that but about 7 years ago they privatised their network (despite having very closely watched the British attempt fail), so the network has had no investment in those 7 years. As a result the track is slowly coming apart, meaning that the trains have to run slower to avoid derailing. The Swiss/German response to this, is that where there is consistent late running, they simply put back the timetable. This has resulted in even the fast-speed trains running at little more than 20 mph.

 

Beach

So I have learnt a lot of culture. I have learnt of people. And, I have learnt of myself.

And most entertainingly I have learnt that the whole world is full of stupid little idiosyncrasies. Take for example the Swiss actually speak Swiss German, which is not German, but the Swiss dont have their own written language so for that they do use German. But, all public information has to also be given in English and French, and usually in a fourth language (which I was told was probably Italian and/or Spanish).

This whole journey began last Saturday with a trip to London City Airport (tip: dont ever change at Bank underground station, they claim it’s one station but the lines are a good half mile walk from each other). And I must say that I was most impressed with City Airport. Yes it feels a little like a running has been built in the middle of the Thames but it is so nice. I instantly walked up to check-in and with no problem had my luggage checked in within 30 seconds. And despite the huge numbers of armed police (seemingly about 1 officer per 3 passengers at check-in) I got through security in under a minute and was greeted by a huge departures lounge with free wifi, free shoe shine service, and large leather chairs with gentle air conditioning. All in all it was very pleasant, probably the best airport I have ever graced/suffered.

Imagine my surprise then that should also stumble upon the best airplane service that I have received since flying to Australia and back. For this service had leather seats, chairs that reclined, ample leg room, complimentary drinks and sandwiches and even a bar of Swiss chocolate for the descent. All in all compared to my recent activities in supposed “low cost” airlines this service from Swiss cost pennies more and I had a much better time for it. I mean an airline that assumes you’re going to have luggage and doesnt charge you extra, what a novelty.

High Street

The transfer from Zurich Airport to railway station was largely harmless, I had to wait for some time on the platform but what do you expect with trains that run every 30 minutes and you happen across a 25 min wait. It just gave me a chance to admire the underground railway station. For it truly was a sight to behold double decker trains move in and out of the station in a civilised manor with no drama, no rushing, no pushing and clear direction. It was almost British (in that it worked well). So an hour later I found myself in Konstanz after a seemingly very slow speed journey on a gloriously sunny Saturday afternoon.

I checked into my hotel for the night. An odd place, that only had one TV channel (CNN on a near 15 minute repeat) wifi would cost me 8 euro/hour and a shower that didnt work until I set to it with my Swiss Army Knife. But for all the faults of the hotel, the host’s English was better than my German and breakfast was very pleasant in a roof top sun garden. It did allow me to explore the city of Konstanz in the late afternoon sun and twilight.

Unfortunately, the hotel that was to be my home for the next week left a little more to be desired. When I entered the place, I was greeted by a host that spoke no real English, French or German. Her Turkish though I was later told was very good. The room was unmade, with no towels, windows wide open, but it did at least have wifi for all communication goodness.

A light lunch then allowed me to meet up with Matt from UEA and the Oxford guys before going to the university for the conference registration. An affair that was made far too complicated by them posting all of the tutorial timetables on one noticeboard in a corner in a tiny font which everybody wanted to read.

A terrible high school canteen meal came and went and afterward we sat down to our first lecture, given by a certain Jack Freed. Why on Earth they gave the opening lecture to that man I do not know. This conference was supposed to be a summer school, an education for those that were new to the field. However Prof Freed decided to ignore this and gave slide after slide of advanced quantum mechanical theoretical computations and modelling. I for one, felt like breaking down into tears. If the rest of the week was to be conducted in such a way then I may as well have got onto a plane and flown home right then.

That night I went back to the hotel by myself (the other Brits were in a hotel on the other side of the city). So rather than sitting by myself in my room I thought that I’d go to the pub below the hotel for a drink and see if I could meet anyone. After half a pint I found myself talking to a few other conference goers, who were very interested to know my opinion of the conference thus far. I quite openly thought it was a terrible start to the conference. To which the lady said that it was just Jack Freed and the lectures would be better the next day. In fact she said it doesnt matter what you invite him too, he always gives the same lecture and it was in fact the fifth time that she’d sat through that talk this year.

I found out the next day that the people that I had been talking to were Prof Goldfarb from Israel and one of the speakers and Dr Hofer (only the guy that designs and builds all commercially available equipment in the field). Just as well I didnt embarrass myself too much.

Days 2 and 3 of the conference were much the same as day 1. I spent most of the days filled with rage. But worst of all was that I wasnt sure whom I should be angry at. The conference was advertised as starting at a basic level, which was clearly far beyond my comprehension. But I was not sure if that was in itself a failure of the conference or whether it was a failure of my supervision at UEA and that the conference assumed a basic understanding to be much higher than my standing.

With every new speaker that took the floor I understood anywhere between 1 and 5 slides of their introduction before being completely lost. One particular Oxford lecturer took to the stage started with “hello” and then lost me as he proceeded to go into complex quantum physics. My only solace in that lecture was that he completely divided the audience. Those that understood him thought he was brilliantly clear and concise. Those that didnt understand him stood no chance at all.

My anger was only enlarged at the first tutorial. All through the sessions thus far we’d been repeatedly told that if we didnt understand anything then we should ask in the lecture or save it for the tutorials. Given that the questions in the lectures thus far had been very specific and complex I was waiting for the tutorial.

So when Prof Groenen asked what we wanted to talk about, if we “have any questions, no matter how basic”, I thought, great here’s my chance. So I asked quite simply “what’s an eigen value”, check wiki and you’ll see what a ridiculous subject it is. After a look of sheer disgust he launched into an answer about quantum theory, functions, wave-functions, operators and vectors. Not happy with such an answer I asked what exactly the difference between a vector and an operator was. I received an answer just as complex as before which involved functions, operators, super-operators, vectors and matrices. Again not satisfied with the answer I asked the difference between an operator and a super-operator. To which I was informed that “a super-operator is an operator that acts upon an operator which in itself is already acting upon a function but which isnt a function itself”. Oh good. Glad we cleared that up. I gave up at that point.

In fact, at that point I gave up on most of the conference. I ceased being angry at the conference because it was clear that I was not going to understand and being angry was going to do nothing to make the situation any better than it was currently. Defeated, I reserved myself to attending lectures and perhaps passively being able to learn, much like sitting in a restaurant in Japan and assuming you’ll pick up Japanese if you sit there for long enough.

My own academic joy from the whole week came from 2 of the practical sessions. 1 was a hands on practical of showing how to use the spectrometers. Unfortunately what should have been a 2 week course itself was condensed down to a 2 hour session, making it horrifically quick and more of a “hands wavy” tour than I would have liked.

The second session was upon a computer program that I use. Now I’d spent the previous 4 weeks trying to teach myself this command line program and after those 4 weeks and nearly destroying my machine with a fist through the monitor nearly everyday I had got to the stage where I could just about run the program but in a way in which it gave me no meaningful answers. After sitting down with the tutor for 30 mins I’d never been so clear or awestruck of the power of the program.

The frustration that a month of my life could have been solved in under 30 mins (more like 3 mins with a direct question rather than an intro talk) with some simple input was immense.

Needless to say after a month of trying hard to be reduced to little more than 4 short lines of code (go here, do this, like that, output there) in just as many minutes is somewhat soul destroying, but gave some form of hope that the thing was possible.

What I will take away from the conference however is the knowledge that conferences can be fun. When you get a lot of relatively young people together in a location and then force them to sit in a university for 12 hours listening through over 8 hours of lectures a day results in the need for quite a stiff drink at the end of it. And despite nationality, alcohol is universally uniting, and without that I probably would have given up on the conference all together.

So despite everything that happened at the conference I feel I’m coming away with one or two ideas. Enough to keep me ticking over for at least a few months given my progress prior to the conference.

It was only upon my return to the UK (after the slow but efficient Swiss railways and airports) was I reminded at how terrible the country really can be. First of all, why would I possibly very want to use the underground on a weekend; let alone a Sunday evening. Then given fighting my way through London despite all the required changes (thank god for an underground mobile app) having got to Liverpool Street found that trains wouldnt be running to Norwich really that night. So I then had to fight by way back around London to Kings Cross to get on the Capital Connect (which was absolutely rammed as its the only thing that goes through Cambridge on a Sunday). Change train. Get to Ely. Change train and go cross country to Norwich. All terribly easy with a monster backpack, laptop bag and a poster tube. All in all a terrible day’s travel. The only thing that made it tolerable was the lunch in Germany, which was essentially a 12 ounce steak vaguely sliced on top of a pizza with a drink for 7 euro.

So now I sit back in Norwich with a few new ideas and maybe an ace or two up my sleeve. Do I return with more enthusiasm for my subject? No. Do I return with more bitter cynicism? Quite probably.

But it’s alright. Keep your head down. Stay calm. And carry on.

[Full res photos available on my flickr]

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About Morgan Bye

Scientist, programmer and all around techie

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