My Stay in Cambridge / UK

This is a diary of my stay in Cambridge/UK for an internship with Microsoft Research.

This text is a purely personal collection of anecdotes and impressions, published here with the sole purpose of entertainment. This text is not indended to be taken seriously. By reading this text, you agree that I will not accept any responsibility for correctness or completeness or politeness. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial License.


The trip from Saarbruecken to Cambridge is quite fast -- actually faster than getting from Saarbruecken to some cities in Germany. It is 2 hours by bus to get from Saarbruecken to Frankfurt Chicken, 1.5 hours to fly to London Stansted and 1 hour to go to Cambridge by bus.

The first thing you notice here is that people do not drive on the right side of the road, but on the wrong side. This can be extremely surprising. If you want the real kick, try a round-about. They operate clockwise here. It will take years to get the British drive on the right side of the road as we do on the continent. I try to lead by example, but it's difficult.

The next funny thing is that the British have these odd units: 1 mile is 1760 yards, 1 yard is 3 feet and I extrapolate that 1 foot must be 13.2 toe nails. It is boring in comparison that 1 pound is 100 pence (I would have opted for 1 pound = 42.12223 pence). 1 pound is approximately 1.5 euros. Kilometers/miles are traded at the same exchange rate as euros/pounds (1/1.5).

Cambridge itself is extremely beautiful. It has one dozen colleges, most of which are marvellous old church-like buildings. The inner city is very neat. It is surrounded by a green belt, which gives almost a medieval impression: Grass, trees, a river with wooden bridges and grazing cows. There is a touch of Venice in the picture, because you can rent a gondola and "punt" on the river. I even saw somebody swimming in the river -- although it did probably not make much of a difference concerning the wetness, because it was raining heavily. This is a little disadvantage here: Rain is evenly distributed over the day (I'd say iid). That's why I did not yet take any pictures. Rainy pictures would just not convey the right impression of this beautiful city.

It is very honorable that the rain does not prevent people from using bicycles. Basically everybody cycles! I rented a bike for 30 EUR/month (This is MY city!). In front of every major building, there is a forest of bicycles and it is very hard to find a parking space for your bike. All distances are within 10min of cycling.

I am staying at Wolfson College here. This is a students' home in a huge complex of buildings. The rent is twice my rent in Saarbruecken, but it is OK: I have a newly renovated room of approximately 107.639104 square feet (10 square meters) with a sink. I share a bathroom with 2 other people (bath"room" is exaggerated, it's 2 square meters, but it's renovated) and a kitchen with 9 people. The kitchen and my room are cleaned every day. I also have Internet access here. Best of all, the college has marvellous gardens! It's huge areas of lawn, trees and neatly cultivated flowers. (It's probably easier to have nice gardens in Britain, because nobody steps on them because it's just too rainy.) In the bathroom, they have adopted the well proven French system of two water taps: One to burn your hands (hot) and the other one to shock-freeze them (cold). I'm looking forward to this system being introduced also for showers. [Update: My friend Britta told me that progress is being made on the issue of two-spout showers. There do exist showers with two taps, one with hot water and one with cold water. They are then combined by a plastic tube.]

My room faces the south, so I could see the sun (if there was any). To prevent our building from being too calm and quiet, they installed a gym right next to it. Thereby, we enjoy a free and generous supply of intensive pop music.

Today way my first day at Microsoft. They have a nice building -- although I have to say it stands back to the Max-Planck-Institute. All offices have Windows, but some do not have windows, for example. But it's huge and generous. There is chocolate for free (and a gym to work it off afterwards). The administration worked perfectly for me, by the way! Our Human Ressources responsible answers her mails even at 21:00 in the evening. I brought her chocolate from Saarbruecken (not knowing that chocolate is free at Microsoft, which devalues my present admittedly, but she was happy anyway).

I also got to know my supervisor and my co-supervisor. They are very friendly. My project will be to conduct a user study for their tagging system. Let's see how that will work out.


Now my first week is over here and I got acquainted a little with my appartment, the city and my work. I learned that Cambridge University has a College system that is unique to Cambridge and Oxford. (Before elaborating on this system, I have to thank Jennifer for explaining me that the word "unique" is stressed on the second syllable. If you stress it on the first, it means "Eunuch". Consider this when talking about "the unique solution" :-) .) The first College of Cambridge was founded in the 13th century (i.e. at the time when it was approximately midnight in the rest of Europe with what concerns education and progress). Over the centuries, other Colleges were added, each functioning pretty much like a university.
Then, the Colleges began to outsource their teaching to a new entity: The University of Cambridge. The Colleges "rent" lecture halls, professors and lectures from the University for their students. It is the University that employs the professors, that gives the exams and that hands out the diplomas. It is the Colleges that are responsible for student admission, accomodation, and tutoring. Since all Colleges offer the same range of subjects, they compete with each other for students. The Colleges have different ways of tutoring, different quality of buildings and, most importantly, different fees. For example, the Trinity College targets at rich students. It can afford to "rent" high-quality professors for its tutorials. Often, internationally renowned professors would give a tutorial to student groups that are as small as 1-5 students. Other Colleges target at the less well-off, but brighter students. It seems to be a huge social experiment, in which the rich-and-dumb compete with the poor-and-bright. The outcome is admirable -- Cambridge is thought to be among the best universities in the world. As a side effect, this attracts a huge amount of money. Most Colleges look like castles.

Talking about money, one has to consider that things of everyday life cost approximately twice as much in England as they do in Germany. (It remains a mystery of economic science why, if everything costs twice as much as in Euroland, they don't simply divide the exchange rate by 2, so that everything is equally expensive everywhere.) Today, I've been to Sainsbury's. Sainsbury's is the students' shopping paradise -- it is as if you had Aldi, Plus and Lidl all in one place and, as a goodie, extended the shopping hours to 22:00. It has a marvellous range of products. Consider for example food at my level of cooking expertise (i.e. microwave instant meals). While, in Germany, you can't live from instant meals for more than one week without having to eat the same stuff over again, Sainsbury's offers somewhere between 50 and 100 different types of instant meals. If you subtract some inedible creations, that would still allow me to switch my whole nutrition to instant meals without ever eating the same dish again during my internship. That's worth a consideration.

I have been to a drugstore as well today. As you might guess, my needs were rather simple: I wanted to buy shampoo. The drugstore is a shop the size of Aldi, stuffed with colorful plastic bottles that all look the same.

They carry such helpful lables as "Soft and Sweet" (where it is unclear whether this describes the consistency of the product or the result of its application), "Shower Power" (leaving it open to which part of the body the product has to be applied) or "Be energetic" (leaving me in the dark as to whether the product has to be rubbed in, swallowed or inhaled to achieve the desired effect). Everything that had the friendly letters "shampoo" on it turned out to have some side effects that I did not understand or not intend to undergo (coloring the hair, hydrating, dehydrating, stabilizing, volumizing or eliminating it). I was searching in vain for a product labeled "shampoo for normal hair" until I found the "Men's corner". I began to understand that 80% of the shop is devoted to women (which either reflects their higher hygienic standards or their greater joy of choice). The Men's corner was quite small a corner, but it had shampoo.

I will now elaborate a little on my work at Microsoft. To be precise, I work with computers here. (Readers who are happy with this answer may wish to skip this section). I work on "tagging systems", i.e. programs that allow users to attach words to information objects (e.g. to pictures, to songs, to video clips or to Web sites). For example, users could attach the tags "boss" and "rich" to a a photo of Bill Gates. This tagging happens typically on the Internet, so that different users can attach different tags to the same object. The goal is to allow other users to search for the objects. For example, anybody searching for "rich bosses" will find the photo of Bill Gates. These tagging systems are quite popular (e.g. "flickr" and "delicious"). Often, the tagging system proposes the tags to the user. E.g. if 100 users have tagged the photo of Bill with "boss", and the 101st user wishes to tag the photo as well, then the system might propose him to use the tag "boss", too. The problem is that by proposing tags one actually guides the tagging process. If the system proposes tags, the outcome might be completely different. There are complex mathematical models that describe under which conditions the proposals disturb the tagging and under which conditions they support it. My task is to conduct a user study and to confirm these models empirically.

I work with Vista here. (Readers who think I work with a nice look-out over the city may wish to skip this section as well). Windows Vista is as you might expect it: It is more colorful and fancier than the previous Windows versions, but the old bugs remain the same (e.g. saving a file in Notepad moves the cursor 3 characters to the left). You can flip windows in 3D and they now have a glass effect, but I don't see how this would improve daily work with the system. They added tons of new little things (a sidebar with gadgets, a new start button etc.), but no buy-or-die advantage that would be obvious at first glance. The most visible new thing is the User Access Control, which makes you confirm every action deemed dangerous to the system. So if you create a subfolder in the program folder, e.g., the screen becomes black, a little window opens and it says "Windows needs your permission to continue". If you click on "Details", it says "File operation" (leaving it open what file undergoes what operation; pretty much every process on a computer is a file operation). Then you click "OK" (4 times all in all) and everything is good again. You get so used to clicking "OK" that I wonder how many malicious programs I have already installed on my computer this way. One new thing that is indeed useful is a ubiquitous search facility that lets you search programs, files or mails directly from the start menu. Windows Vista comes with the Internet Explorer 7.0. They basically re-engineered its design, shuffling the buttons a little bit. So now the backward button is at the left corner and the refresh button is at the right corner, giving at least your mouse the opportunity to do a little bit of sports during your working day. The marvellous new features of the Internet Explorer were advertised with great enthusiasm, ignoring that almost all other browsers have been supporting tabbed browsing long before the new Internet Explorer did so. The browser still lacks standard facilities such as mouse gestures, tab duplication or search-as-you-type. I program with C# here. It is pronounced "see sharp". This is arguably an advantage over the programming language CLOS, which is pronounced "see loss". C# is basically Java. Great care has been taken obscure this by renaming all Java concepts to C# concepts (e.g. the length of a list is not "size" but "count"). Some new and interesting features have been added and some problems of Java have been corrected (arrays, e.g., are proper subclasses of lists). Learning C# is like learning a new language, where you already know the grammar and have to memorize a new vocabulary. I like languages.


I still have difficulties with the British road system. Round-abouts, in particular, can do magic: No matter how firm your intentions are when you enter the thing, you find yourself consistently on the right-hand-side of the road when you exit it. I decided to buy a cycle helmet.

My nutrition at home bases entirely on Sainsbury's products. I have to admit that the choice of products at Sainsbury's seduces me sometimes to buy more than I actually need (which is remarkable, given that my product range is usually quite restricted, as my flatmates can probably tell). All Sainsbury's products have a standardized calory table on the back. This is usually not something that would be in my particular focus of interest. But since, on weekends, everything I consume during one day is from Sainsbury's, it is tempting to count how many calories I consume during one day. I calculated that I eat only 80% of the calories a man should eat. It seems that I'm particularly energy-efficient (pay 80%, get 100%) -- although one has to consider that I sleep 9 hours a night, which probably explains the difference. I wonder what happens if I sleep more. Simple arithmetics says I should consume even less calories then. I should actually produce calories when I sleep more than 18.556 hours a day. Interesting.


In the meantime, I found out that Cambridge has some dancing clubs. I went to a Salsa evening last Saturday and found a quite lively community of Salsa dancers. There is also a Tango Argentino community, although I deviated quite a bit from the mean concerning the age. The coolest thing is the ballroom community: They have free ballroom dancing evenings every Friday in a huge University hall. They circumvented the problem of talkative DJs by simply having no DJ at all (they just play a CD that has all the dances on it). Usually, there are two types of dancers: The dance-for-fun people know a lot of steps and dance what the leader of the couple wants (whoever that is in the couple). The dance-for-style people optimize for posture and the sterotypical smile. They can only dance exactly one sequence of steps and they can only dance with their own partner -- but it looks just great when they dance. So it is usually a trade-off between quantity and quality. Here in Cambridge, however, I have the impression that they magically combined the best from the two worlds: Everybody has a marvellous posture and a fantastic way of moving, but still the ladies dance what the guys lead. Amazing!

Today, we went for punting. Cambridgeans will kill me, but punting is something like gondola riding in Venice. (It is one of the secrets of pragmatics that an outsider understands a concept best if he identifies it with a known opposite. Everybody in the Netherlands, for example, will tell you that the Netherlands do not have anything in common with Belgium. However, strangely enough, if you want to explain to a Chinese guy who knows the Netherlands what Belgium is, then he is best served by the answer "a country similar to the Netherlands". From the distance, the similarities outweight the differences.) So a punt is a small boat that is operated with a large pole (a stick 3m long). One passenger stands at the rear of the boat and propels the boat forward by pushing the pole into the ground of the river. This is at least how it is supposed to be. In reality, the person propels the boat in essence from the trees on the left-hand side of the river into the trees of the right-hand side of the river and back, because the pole is used only on one side of the boat and hence the boat turns all the time. There are several techniques to avoid this, elegant ones (steering with the pole like a rudder, changing the vertical angle of the pole push) and less elegant ones (paddling with the hands in the water, pushing the pole into the shore, pulling on the branches of the riverside trees or clinging to other boats with hitherto unknown people in them). There is also a paddle, the most useful function of which seems to be splashing water at the punt occupants. It took us 3 hours to zigzag from Cambridge to the village of Granchester. That is about the time one would need to do the trip by swimming. It is 5 times slower than walking. I still cannot understand how the British conquered the seven seas.

While punting on the River Cam, one passes right through the "Backs" -- the green areas behind the colleges. This gives you the opportunity to admire the colleges and their scrupulously trimmed gardens on one side of the Cam -- and wild grass areas on the other side, together with their inhabitants (cows). The wild grass areas actually serve as leisure areas not just for cows, but also for people. In order to check that only people leave these areas and not the cows, efficient filtering systems have been put in place: For people, there is a small outlet in the fence -- approximately 40cm wide. This should let pass people, but not cows (fat people are also filtered, by the way). For the cycles, there is a wider outlet in the fence, but it has a grid underneath so that cycles can pass easily but any cow attempting to exit would clamp its feet (women with high heels, by the way, cannot pass the grid either). In essence, this system acts like a membrane that confines cows to the inside and fat high-heeled women to the outside, while the other people can float freely.