The Boat Race 2015

Well the Boat Race has once again come and gone, and once again Cambridge lost.  It was an inevitability this year, as the Oxford team was very good.

It was still a very fun day.  RS, GC (who I’d not seen for ages), his flatmate, FJ, and LS showed up, and we had a lot of fun in the Eight Bells in Putney.  Luckily the weather was really good, and we got a fair few drinks in in the hours before the race itself begun (it’s wise to arrive several hours early as it gets very packed very quickly).  We sneaked off to watch the start, before sprinting back to the pub to watch the rest on TV.

After the race was over, LS went home, and the rest of us crammed onto the overflowing tube to go to the West End for supper.  We elected on a Taiwanese restaurant in Chinatown, which was really good, before grabbing one final drink in the Cambridge on Charing Cross Road.

All in all it was a great day, in spite of the loss! Ah well, there’s always next year!

Exploring London

While I’m very familiar with the centre of London and the City, there are quite a few areas that I’ve never been.  However, with the huge number of new places opening up, I’ve finally started widening my horizons.

The new place that’s the subject of this post is Shoreditch, or as it should be called – Hipster Central.  I’d heard a few months ago that London’s first board game café was opening up just north of Shoreditch, and yesterday seemed the perfect time to go and try it out.

Draughts (as the café’s called) is located under the railway arches, just by Haggerston London Overground station.  It was pretty full, but there was a table that its current occupants let us share, which was rather kind of them.  It costs £5 per person, after which you may play as many games as you like for as long as you like, and there’s table service, so you can order sandwiches and coffees and things.  All in all there are around 500 games, with “game gurus” on hand to recommend something new if you fancy trying out a game you’ve not played before.  If there’s a game you want that they don’t have, you can email them to request they get it in.  There’s also a small area where they sell board games too, which is a nice touch.

We ended up playing a new card game – Port Royal, which was good fun and an easy game I recommend, before a quick round of Monopoly.  There were a lot of other games that looked good fun, so I’m sure I’ll definitely be back.  There’s one I played at school in the school French Club called Milles Bornes, which I’ve not played since ~2007 that they have there, so that’s definitely towards the top of my list.  There’s also a great board game they have that I backed on Kickstarter back in 2013 called Cornish Smuggler.  It’s really good, and I definitely recommend playing it.  Other games that are good that they have include the classic Settlers of Catan, (along with several of its expansions), and one I’ve been playing online with some friends a lot lately called Talisman.

It’s Been a Bit Slow

Another month has passed, and we’re nearly out of the winter.  I for one can’t wait, especially for when the clocks go forward in a few weeks.

Anyway, this post is about one of my latest acquisitions – viz. a slow cooker.  Lots of my friends and colleagues have them, and by all accounts they’re excellent.  Just throw in your ingredients for whatever you want to make that day, switch it on, go to work, and by the time you get home, your supper’s all cooked and ready to eat.

Rather smart if I do say so myself!

Rather smart if I do say so myself!

My first attempt was a leek and potato soup, something which I’m rather partial to.  I also opted to add other things I liked to the mix (i.e. garlic and mushrooms).  Unfortunately this wasn’t such a great idea, and the result was a soup that looked like someone had instead just ladled some water from the Thames into my bowl – the sort of thing that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Victorian workhouse.

Anyway, waste not want not, and I ate it all, although it wasn’t particularly good.  Deciding to try my hand at actually following the recipe this time I opted for a simple creamy chicken and mushroom pasta thing I found online.  (At this point I should confess that as I was writing this, I realised I in fact hadn’t actually followed the recipe, and had to go downstairs to add the missing ingredients). Ignoring that little bout of amnesia, it’s now all cooking nicely, and should be done in about 7 hours.  Hopefully this time it’ll taste better!

January Shenanigans

Yes I know, I’ve neglected this blog for far too long, but I’ve been busy!

First of all, Christmas happened, which was lovely as per usual.  I went to see my family and ate an obscene amount of food as is the tradition.  New Year was spent seeing old friends, and no sooner had I settled back into the normal pace of working adult life than I contracted a rather unpleasant bout of tonsillitis that put me in bed for a week.

Anyway, that’s all over now.  Last weekend I ventured back to Cambridge for the first time since graduation, and I had a marvellous time, so this post is going to be about that really.

It’s surprising really, but when I arrived, it was like I hadn’t really left.  Nothing really ever seems to change there, and upon going into the geology department (which was my first stop), I came across a lot of my friends, as many of them have stayed on for Ph.Ds or to work there, and it was brilliant to see them again and to compare notes about the various things we’d been up to in the meantime.  Of course, no visit to the department would ever be complete without popping in to see Fabio, and it was great to catch up.

After my little trip to the department was done, I met up with JS (with whom I was staying that night) in The Mill (an excellent pub of many in Cambridge), and we had a quick drink.  HL turned up too, and it was good to see him again too.  He was visiting the medics, so was only around a short time.  JS and I headed back to College to wait for AW, and once he arrived, we headed off to Formal (which was great, as I’d not been, well, since graduation).

The next day, I bid farewell to JS, and AW and I popped out for a morning fry up in College, after which we went to the UL to re-register as alumni members (so that we can borrow books again if we so wish).  Then I headed over to my sister’s college to dump my stuff (as I was staying with her that night) followed by making for my favourite café – the Indigo Coffee House – to have one of their excellent hot chocolates.


Their walls are covered with all sorts of foreign currencies, so I donated a note I’d saved from Suriname to their collection.  I don’t think they had any from Suriname, so it’s another country for them to tick off.  Apparently they’ve got around 80-90 countries’ worth of bank notes in total at the moment.

They're literally  not joking!

They’re literally not joking!

Once we’d finished our drinks, AW informed me that there was an ale festival going on in the University Social Club, so we went to see what was on offer.  FL and EB turned up a couple of hours later, but I only saw them for a few minutes before heading back to my sister’s as I had to get ready for a Formal at her college that night (that my parents were also coming to).

It was a Burns’ Night themed Formal, so there was of course haggis and a poetry recital, and afterwards there was a ceilidh which was enormous fun.

The next morning, it was time to leave Cambridge.  It’d been a great weekend visiting, and I’m sure I’ll be back again soon!

On Friendship, Superstition, and Madness

So I’ve been back in the UK from Suriname for around two weeks now, and had been struggling to think of something to write about. Fortunately, that’s now changed.

I was talking to a friend of a friend recently, who I’d only just met, and they were very interested in the fact that I studied geology.  We spoke for a while about rocks, in particular crystals, until they said something that I wasn’t expecting, viz. “gemstones bring out different energies in humans”, and that “white crystal” is “good for thinking and the brain”.  Needless to say, that brought the geological conversation to a rather abrupt halt, and the subject was promptly changed.  As with everything in this life, there’s a relevant scene from Peep Show.

Fast forward a few days, and we find I’ve mentioned this particular discourse, and how it’s clearly a ridiculous concept, to my good friend TKC.  She said that from her neck of the woods, a lot of people believe the same thing, and that lots of her course mates wear crystal bracelets in an attempt to “improve love and relationships”. The ensuing discussion was interesting and thought provoking.

She compared it to other harmless superstitions, such as making a wish when one cuts a birthday cake, which was a fair point. However, it still bothered me.  The bring out “energies” in humans point, it seemed almost identical to homeopathy.  This nebulous and indistinct mechanism that’s not tangible in any fashion which affects one’s health (or magic for want of a better word).  It goes without saying that having studied minerals to a masters degree level, I’m less than convinced by the ability of crystals to have such health effects on humans.  Indeed, the only heath effects from “white crystal” I can think of off the top of my head would be the rather unpleasant ones that will eventually kill you from having a lots of chrysotile/tremolite knocking about.  In all likelihood, this “white crystal” is probably quartz, mainly because it’s cheap and very abundant (i.e. it’s sand).

This was where revelation the first came in.  Are different superstitions more “legitimate” depending on your cultural origin? The answer of course has to be yes.  While in the UK crystal energy fields aren’t widely subscribed to as a concept, things like walking under ladders being unlucky, black cats being lucky, and Friday the 13th being bad are quite commonly believed.  I can think of examples in my own family where superstitions are closely held beliefs (or at least appear to be).  One relative is convinced that water divining is real, while another strongly disapproved when I brought a peacock feather into the house (I was unaware that they were unlucky) – said feather was promptly destroyed in case you were wondering!  Indeed, quite a few warn me not to “tempt fate”, and a part of me agrees with them, even though there’s clearly no reason to, giving rise to an interesting internal argument between the rational and irrational.

Considering the crystal energy superstition more carefully, there does appear to be a purpose to it.  While the crystal itself is clearly inert (good luck getting quartz to react with most things), one could argue that the psychological effect of having the belief could be positive, a sort of placebo if you will.  If the belief that the crystal can help improve one’s life is able to effect a subconscious improvement in for example, someone’s confidence, then that would be a positive outcome.

Obviously this whole analysis is rocky territory (geological pun very much intended), as organised religion is a small step away from superstitious beliefs.  My argument would be that crystals are just crystals, and peacock feathers are just peacock feathers.  Given that they are tangible and examinable, one can prove there’s no “energy” etc. (four years studying pretty much every aspect of crystals imaginable is enough to last a lifetime – kudos to my geologist friends reading this who are doing Ph.Ds, you guys are properly hardcore!), whereas the beliefs behind organised religion aren’t tangible, and therefore cannot be examined in the same fashion.  I admit this leaves me wide open to accusations of hypocrisy, but so be it (for those of you who don’t know me personally, this is where I point out that I am a Christian)!

However, the point remained, and that is why did I care?  It’s a good question, just why do I care?  After all, I’m a great believer in not poking one’s nose into other people’s business when it comes to beliefs, so long as they aren’t detrimental to others.  The answer to that is of course rather simple, and that is because I’m a scientist. On a brief aside, one of my earliest memories of being interested in science was when I was around four years old.  My mother had purchased an encyclopædia (this one) for a family friend’s daughter a couple of years younger than me.  I had a quick flick through, and found the pages on electricity particularly interesting.  I promptly begged for a copy of my own, which I eventually got when Christmas came around – I still have it somewhere in fact.  Anyway, I digress.

More accurately, I’m a geologist, and since embarking on my geological studies just over four years ago, geology has become rather a central tenet of my life.  As a result, I care about it quite a lot, and want people to learn about it and understand it too, meaning that when things like this crystal energy stuff pop up, ideally I’d be able to dispel that, stick to SCIENCE and show them how things really are (presumably this is how my militant atheist friends feel a lot of the time). At this point, revelation the second rears its ugly head.  If I was so disparaging about “crystal energy” because I know it to be total nonsense and care about geology, then that flags up an unfortunate parallel. There’s someone else who’s disparaging about beliefs, because they care about biology.  Yep, that’d be Richard Dawkins. Personally I’m not a fan of his.  Yes he’s a good scientist, but also comes across as intolerant, insensitive, and patronising. Certainly not someone I’d desire to emulate, even remotely.

The question of how to sensibly discuss mineralogy and crystallography with subscribers to the crystal energy idea remains unanswered.  In fact, there isn’t an answer.  Similar problems of course arise when discussing evolution with creationists, the authenticity of the moon landings with conspiracy theorists, and the concept of horoscopes with adherents to astrology.  While it may be difficult to reconcile the fact that some people think different crystals can influence wealth/love/relationships/health/etc. with scientific mineralogical observations proving there’s no such influence, the implication is that there is not a lot that can be done.

So what have we learned here?  Several things in fact. Firstly that superstitions vary from culture to culture, what seems totally normal for one can appear totally ridiculous in another.  Secondly that science isn’t always the answer (or sensu stricto in this case, it’s the psychological element that needs consideration rather than the mineralogical one if an attempt rationalise this superstition is to be made).  Finally we learn that superstitions, while irrational, are actually quite interesting to consider in their cultural and historical contexts from an anthropological perspective.

In that respect, (i.e. the act of believing in the crystal itself provides a subconscious change in one’s confidence/attitude) it is infinitely more legitimate than many common superstitions in this country (black cats/magpies/peacock feathers/horseshoes anyone?).  However, a fair few of these have to be taken in their historical context.  One such example would be the “smashing a mirror gives seven years’ bad luck” idea, which stems from the time when wages were low, and mirrors were obnoxiously expensive (and could cost seven years’ wages).  Perhaps the finding of a four leaf clover may be considered good luck as finding one itself is rare, implying that one is lucky?

As with many things, the matter is substantially more complex than it first appears, and thinking it through as above, I feel a bit more open minded and enlightened.  Having said that, there’s clearly no merit to these crystal superstitions from any scientific point of view (aside from the potential placebo related psychological side effects).  I still (obviously) disagree with it, but it makes more sense to me now.

I know that’s quite a heavy post for a Friday, particularly the one before Christmas, so here’s a video of Gandalf teaching the Cookie Monster self control to take the edge off.  You’re welcome.

A Perambulation around Paramaribo: Part 4

So, continuing with my second expedition around Paramaribo, after walking down palm tree lined streets (which provided welcome relief from the relentless equatorial sunshine – on a brief aside, I got rather sunburned last week when I was out, so this week I took more precautions – the old long sleeved shirt and linen trousers routine, along with my “Indiana Jones-esque” hat.  Luckily it seems to have worked this time!).

I’d just reached the part of town where the mosque and synagogue are. They’re very close to one another, as in, right next door.  Middle East take note – you can be friends!

Mosque (left), synagogue (right).

Mosque (left), synagogue (right)

Unfortunately they were both closed, but they were rather picturesque nevertheless.  The synagogue, like the cathedral, is also built out of wood and dates from the seventeenth century.

The wooden synagogue

The wooden synagogue

The mosque was stunning.  I’ve always rather liked Islamic architecture.  I find that it is very elegant with all the domes, arches and geometric patterns, and this mosque was no different. Unfortunately there was no muezzin singing to complete the experience while I was standing outside, you can’t have it all I guess!


Finally, having crossed off two more sights in the city, I decided to amble back towards the hotel/office.  I took a different route, in order to maximise the areas of town that I’d see.  Passing the block where Readytex was (where I bought my flag – see this post), I eventually emerged at the waterfront by the Central Market.  I’d definitely like to visit the market again before I leave, but decided not to today (it was starting to get rather quite hot at this point)!  Instead I continued along the bank of the Suriname river down the charming Waterkant (a key part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Historic Inner City of Paramaribo), past the Central Bank of Suriname.

The Central Bank of Suriname

The Central Bank of Suriname

As it’s a Saturday today, the bank is of course closed.  I’m aiming to go back one weekday though, as there’s a Numismatic Museum there that shows the history of money in Suriname.  It’s open 08:00-14:00, so I could always go in the morning before work, we shall see. Continuing along this road brought me back to Independence Square. I passed the National Assembly before returning to the office.

The National Assembly

The National Assembly

A Perambulation around Paramaribo: Part 3

Yeah!  It’s back once more (and I’m too lazy to think up a new title, so that’s also part of it).  Today is another quiet day (as work that was going to be done today ended up being given to us yesterday, which means it’s already been done – if that makes sense)?  Anyway, enough of that.  I’ve once more been out around the city, this time ticking off a couple more of the Lonely Planet sights.

The aim for the day was to go and have a look at the city’s mosque and synagogue.  However, the first building of note that I passed was the Foreign Ministry.

The Foreign Ministry

The Foreign Ministry (on the right)

Continuing along the road, I passed the cathedral (see my previous post for pictures) before heading down a road on the left.  I’d noticed on the map that there was a small square that looked like a park, as it was on the way to the mosque and synagogue, I thought I’d have a look.  The building in the centre of the grassy area was the Reformed Church.

The Reformed Chuch

The Reformed Church

Continuing down the palm lined streets in the hot Saturday morning sunshine, I enjoyed the Dutch colonial architecture that pervades the city.


A little farther along, I came across some rather picturesque overgrown houses.  It reminded me of the old houses in Britain that have creepers growing all over them, a bit like Lincoln College at The Other Place, but with a more tropical atmosphere.


Emerging on yet another street, I’d reached the area where the mosque and synagogue are, but, like the previous expedition, that’ll be in a separate part!