Friday, 18 December 2009

Snow Day, aka “Stuck-on the-Bus-For-4-Hours Day” - 18th December 2009

Snow covered fields, originally uploaded by soulmate02.

As with most days where I have an early start, I woke up at 5.30am. It had been snowing heavily overnight and a quick peek outside certified this. Truth be told, I wasn’t too keen on travelling. I checked the university’s intranet to see if there were any updates regarding whether campus was open; there were none. I braced myself before stepping outside. The entire garden was covered in snow, almost reaching knee high. The car seemed to be caked in more snow than the entire garden – after removing the majority of it from the windscreen to ensure safe driving, we departed.

We live on a side-road, and due to its “unimportance”, it had not been gritted, and was extremely icy. We slowly skidded down road after road, until reaching my bus stop. I was surprised to find that it was easier to stand on the icy pavement rather than sit in the bus shelter. Apparently, when standing, all your body weight is evenly displaced upon your feet, so it’s easy to stand. On the other hand, sitting on a miniscule bench at an angle means that your legs are left dangling in an awkward manner, resulting in your feet slipping and sliding all over the place. I was wearing boots to avoid getting my feet wet, rather than my usual sneakers, but this did not help my footing.

As I sat and stood indeterminately, I saw my bus go past on the opposite side of the road, ready to start the bus route. I glanced at my watch - it was running 5 minutes late. Considering the conditions, I thought that this was quite impressive. Half an hour went by, and I was still standing at the bus shelter, shivering in anticipation. The bus was now half an hour late. Other local buses had come and gone in that time. I had been asked several times if the buses were running, and if I had seen theirs. The answer was always the same – “yeah, they are running. I’ve just seen that bus, so another one will be along in a minute”. I should’ve been paid for this service, as I was more or less reciting the bus timetable of various buses.

Eventually, my bus came puttering along. As it stopped, I realised that I was the only person getting on it. Usually there are at least five of us; even on the bus, there was only a small handful of people. Another notion struck me as soon as I set foot on the bus: it was an old one. Usually, this sort of thing doesn’t bother me. Sure, I’ve spent £350 for an annual bus-pass, but as long as a bus does come and gets me from A to B, I don’t mind what kind of state the bus is in. However, on this day it made a difference; older buses don’t have proper heating. By this, I mean there are means of heating, but it doesn’t work.

The journey to town was slow and arduous, with drivers battling against the ice and sludge of the roads. A friend was texting me to know of the bus’s journey status, as he too was getting this bus today. As we approached his bus stop, I was stunned. Typically this open air bus stop is crowded with potential passengers, which frequently fills the bus, meaning that passengers at subsequent stops have to stand for the rest of the journey (around an hour or so). However, today there were only two people at the bus stop. Altogether, there were now seven of us on the bus. I didn’t blame all the people for not wanting to go into work/university today – weather conditions were atrocious, and all anyone really wanted to do was curl up in the warmth with a cup of hot chocolate.

As we reached the main route of the bus journey, we realised that it was closed by the police due to an accident (no doubt weather related). As the bus driver circled the roundabout four times, he contacted the bus company to ask which route he should take in order to ensure that those expecting the bus were able to catch it. There was a muffled response on the loudspeaker, and we continued down an unfamiliar road. As we carried on, the bus driver was unsure of where he was going, and asked us for help. A few of the passengers advised him to go down a country lane.

As we progressed up a hill, there was a car up ahead which was stuck in the snow – it was blocking the road. A few of the passengers got out and successfully helped push the car out of its rut. As they returned, the bus driver re-started the bus, but we soon realised that we were in fact stuck now. One of the rear tires had sunk into a pit of ice – this meant that it would only skid on the ice and not move out. The driver tried in vain to rev the engine several times, to force the bus to move, but this resulted in excessive friction caused on the wheel, leading to a “burnt rubber” smell. The driver decided to stop this tactic as we didn’t want to run the risk of bursting the tire.

As I looked around, I could see that we were more or less in the middle of nowhere. We were surrounded my fields and trees blanketed by snow. My mind was cast back to my parents telling me about their home lands, where they would often see postcards and photos of snow-covered landscapes – this would often evoke feelings of curiosity and wonder. When they came to England, they were able to experience snow, but soon appreciated that aesthetics weren’t enough – they had never experienced such cold and somewhat crippling conditions.

The temperature in the bus was slowly reducing; if this had been a typical day, the bus would have been packed to the brim, thus resulting in a lot of heat. But today wasn’t such a day. The bus driver contacted the bus company who confirmed that they were sending an “engineer” to come and find and help us. Truth be told, we didn’t need one – there was absolutely nothing wrong with the bus. The only problem was its surrounding. All we really needed was a way to melt the ice, and get the wheel out of it. To make matters worse, a friend contacted one of our peers and we soon found out that the campus had been closed for the day, and all classes were cancelled; apparently, they had placed a message on the intranet just after we had caught the bus. Too little, too late.

As time went by, numerous 4x4 cars came and went, most of which were old Land Rovers. A brand new 4x4 Audi was seemingly struggling to get through the snow; considering that this was a new, high performance car, we deduced that its driver simply didn’t know how to drive it properly, and had only purchased it as it was a "trendy" car. A local farmer in his tractor with a plough attached came by several times; he was clearing the surrounding roads, and was helping to tow other cars. He offered to tow us, but as the bus driver contacted the company, he was told that we shouldn’t accept the help as the farmer could not be held responsible of any damage done to the vehicle.

Our only means of entertainment was watching a speeding minivan driving too fast up the hill, resulting in it skidding haphazardly and somewhat comically. Two hours had elapsed and we were still waiting for the engineer to come for us. Needless to say, we started to get annoyed. As the driver re-contacted the company, they were reluctant to talk to him on the loudspeaker, and asked to speak with him “more privately”; basically, this meant they wanted to talk to him on the mobile instead, so that the passengers didn't hear. After the conversation, the disgruntled driver told us that the engineer himself had gotten stuck en route to help us – we were abandoned. Our only hope was to wait for the farmer to pass by on his tractor again. Nevertheless, we decided that enough was enough and we chose to be proactive. One passenger reasoned that we weren’t exactly sure when the farmer would be passing again, so decided to walk to try and find help. Whilst he went, a few other passengers chose to gather branches and rocks. These were placed under the affected wheel to try and create a sort of traction ramp. Whilst the passengers and driver collected and assembled their resources, I stood by and took some photos of their efforts as well as the surrounding area.

The technique worked! We were on our way! We picked up the passenger who was still attempting to walk for help. We headed back home, but there was more trouble ahead. The road which had initially been closed by the police at the start of our journey was now open. As we drove across it, we hit heavy traffic. Another bus (form the same company) had broken down en route; on top of that, two lorries were stuck up ahead, blocking the road. I thought that the ordeal would never end, but luckily a friend was getting a lift from his spouse in the opposite direction, and I managed to get a lift too.

We had been on the bus for more than four hours, and I managed to get home around 12.30pm. Personally, I’ve always loved snow, despite how cold it gets, but this was the first time that I’d been “snowed out”. I’ll definitely think twice before considering travelling in snow. Whilst I was tweeting throughout the entire ordeal, I got a reply from a friend who lives in Germany - she stated: "..with a bit of snow England is lost". Sadly, this is an understatement, which I completely agree with. I still don't understand why we are completely lost when it comes to snow. Countries in Europe, as well as Canada, have to put up with copious amounts of year-round snowfall and they manage fine - why is it that we can't?  :(

Thursday, 17 December 2009

EndOfTerm = {((x, y), z) : ((N x N) x N) | ((x = fatigue) ^ (y = stress)) --> (z = short-lived relaxation)}

Stress Reduction Kit, originally uploaded by programwitch.

It’s nearing the end of the semester, with just a day go. It’s currently snowing very heavily; as I watch the carefree manner in which the flakes slowly float down, I can’t help but think that this is the perfect way to end the term.

Over the past few weeks, the pressure of it all was starting to take its toll. I had found myself in a constant state of fatigue, stress and anxiety, with a series of consecutive deadlines and assessments looming – so much so, that I’d noticed that it had affected my performance in various simple, everyday tasks. I tried to add simple comments to Java programs, and ended up with numerous errors. I tried to iron a t-shirt, and burned a hole in it (luckily it blends in with the design!). I tried to apply eyeliner, and I ended up poking myself in the eye. I tried to force myself to go to an early class, and I ended up going to the wrong one…in the wrong building…at the wrong time. You get the picture.

Even now, as I write this blog post, I keep pressing Ctrl+K (ie. the shortcut to compile a program) instead of Ctrl+S to save. Due to the excessive amount of programming I’m currently doing, I’m constantly in that frame of mind. It’s gotten to the stage where I’m looking at life completely differently as opposed to a few years ago. A lame example: instead of seeing a weekly shopping list, I’m seeing an array list.

Since completing work for my deadlines, I find myself more at ease, in a state of relaxation. Whilst I’m no longer exerting myself to the point where I’m self-imploding, I’m tending to notice more and more events taking place around me. A few of my peers were grappling with the exercises the morning of a deadline; needless to say, leaving three out of five tasks till the morning of a deadline is never a smart thing to do. I could tell that panic was setting in for them. Inane remarks were flying all over the place – my favourite being: “what’s a mutator? Is it the same as a method, or is it something completely different?!” For those reading this who don’t know, a mutator (and an accessor too) is a type of method in programming. This is, in fact, one of the first things you learn when introduced to Object Oriented programming – it is an extremely simple concept (this is coming from someone who isn’t particularly that strong at programming!) I knew for a fact that like me, these students had a test to take directly after the deadline. Attempting to finish exercises that you don’t even understand before a rapidly approaching deadline is not a good way to prepare for a test.

From this and my own personal experience, I’ve noticed a pattern which has unfurled – we tend to behave at our worst when we’re flustered, and things tend to go wrong when rushed or in a state of somewhat panic. As well as the example above, a prime illustration of this was a fire alarm the other day. You know the drill – everyone stops what they’re doing, gathers a few personal things, and leaves the building. As we not-very-quickly-or-silently left the building, I noticed that a few people had paused halfway down the corridor and went back in the opposite direction in which they had come. There were murmurs of “I forgot my memory stick/mobile phone”. As a student, I can understand the importance of these two items. One is the life-line of personal contacts, and one is a backup representation of an archive of your academic career. Whilst watching the small crowd shuffle backwards, I noticed that they all seemed to carrying quite a few items, such as bags, books, folders, paper etc. 

I later learnt that they were Masters students, and they obviously had a lot on their minds. Here’s me complaining about a few assignments and tests, when these real heroes of academia are silently pushing forward in their struggle to further their knowledge, and perhaps even making a difference in their chosen field.

I’m currently savouring the few moments of tranquillity I have this week. Sure I’ve got exams in January, and three weeks of “vacation”, during which I’m supposed to prepare myself, are going to fly by in no time and I’ll probably be in a state of panic once again, but I’m going to relish this as much as I can.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

A is for Art

guernica, originally uploaded by leonardo.bonanni.

What is Art? Throughout the ages, Art has been differentiated into various categories – caricature, cubism, chiaroscuro…the list goes on. There are ongoing debates of what constitutes as art. A pickled shark - is this Art? An unmade bed - is this Art? Some may argue that these examples aren't, but I believe that Art is very much a concept that can only be appreciated on a personal level. As with many things in life, "one man's food is another man's poison".

A few years ago, I visited the Tate Modern for the first time. I had never been to a gallery of this size before, and was completely overwhelmed – I’ll go as far as to say that I did, in fact, shed a single tear (good thing my friend didn’t see this!). Over the years, I had gained the illusion that galleries were quiet places, where you could probably hear a pin drop. On this day, it was the contrary – at one point I was nearly mowed down by a group of Spanish exchange students who clearly had a very busy schedule for the day, which obviously included asking locals “do you know where the station is?” in their best simulated English accent. I enjoyed the experience but had one regret – we seemed to have sped past a few key paintings that I had wanted to see.

From a very young age, I became interested in Art. The moment of realisation came when I was in Year 4 in school (ie. around 8/9 years old). In my lower school, we would have a different theme each academic year. That year, that theme was Artists - this meant that every class in the entire school was named after an artist and had to learn about them. The accumulated knowledge on the chosen artist would be illustrated by creating various displays for the rest of the school to see. This year, my class was called Picasso. As a class, we had to recreate a large version of the painting Guernica (as seen above). A copy of the mostly monochrome painting was printed onto an A3-sized sheet of paper, and subsequently divided into numerous equal segments. Each pupil was given one of the segments, and was told to copy what we saw onto a sheet of A4-sized paper, whilst comparing with the pupils whose segments "joined" theirs, to make sure the picture didn't seem too fragmented.

The piece I had received was of a woman facing upwards, seemingly writhing in pain due to the loss of her child; it was distorted and quite complex (well, for a child at least). My teacher had told me to wait for a little while, so that she may give everyone their painting segments and then help me draw it. Ten, seemingly long, minutes had elapsed during which my teacher gave out all the segments, as well as paper, pencils, rubbers, rulers, chalk and charcoal, whilst simultaneously answering questions as rapidly as she could. When she finally reached me, I had already finished the drawing. I can still picture the surprise on her face as her eyes scanned both the little segment and my drawing. It was this moment when I, and my teacher, discovered that I was quite good at observational drawing.

I swiftly finished "colouring-in" the drawing, shading and blending the charcoal and chalk. There was still over an hour left until home-time. I was bored. My teacher could see this, and asked me to help some of my fellow pupils who were struggling. I helped with a foot, a sword, a hoof, and part of a bull's head. A few days went by, and each of our drawings were carefully placed together to make one big display in one of the corridors. Being children, none of us really thought of "the big picture", as we were all concerned with completing our own little parts.

It wasn't the prettiest pieces of artwork; some of my peers commented that it looked ugly. I, on the other hand, found it moving. After everyone had left to go to the playground, I was left standing, gazing at it - even at the age of nine, the painting spoke to me. I didn't really know anything about wars at this age, except for when "Poppy Day" came along, but this painting taught me things that a textbook couldn't. It taught me about the pain and suffering of war. It taught me that different people in different countries experience very different lives. It taught me that we take things for granted in everyday life. These were concepts that I had never previously encountered during my infancy.

Ever since that day, I would throw myself into any piece of artwork that I could get my hands on. Paint, graphite, oil pastels, chalk, charcoal…my hands would constantly be covered and stained with these substances. Unfortunately, this came to an abrupt stop in my very late teens, due to a very heavy load of schoolwork. I was unable to spend my free time with this hobby =(

It was only recently when I decided that enough was enough – I promised myself that I would dedicate at least an hour a week to do some drawing. Here is my first attempt, which took quite a few hours (I probably spent more time on the hair that anything else!). Hopefully, this will be a weekly occurrence, where I’ll be gradually building a collection.