Sunday, July 7, 2013

Summer of Oxford

Vacation is not in the stars this summer. Half of it I will be spending in Oxford, working at Wolfram for a Computer-based mathematics project, while the time free from that will mostly go to getting a small startup company off the ground.

I will be writing about the Startup some time in the future. This post, however, is about the Wolfram project. Firstly, a brief backstory: Estonia signed a contract with Wolfram (creators of Mathematica and Wolfram Alpha) to produce computer-based mathematics (CBM) study materials for Estonian schools. The materials were to prepared by a team of 6 people during the spring and summer of 2013 to then be piloted in the schools within the next academic year. I applied for a position as one of those 6 experts. Our contract specified three working visits to Oxford headquarters of Wolfram - one for two weeks, and two for three weeks - during which we were to build the materials along with the teacher materials and demo programs. 

The team currently consists of two practicing teachers, one didactics expert, one programmer, and me (probably selected as the mathematics expert). Our team is led by a teacher from the UK, who is in charge of the larger project of using CBM materials in schools, not just in Estonia but possibly in other countries as well. 

The first visit was in the beginning of May, and I am currently in Oxford for the second visit, with a week done and two more to go. The first time, all of us stayed in apartments in Oxford, and took a train  in to work each morning. This time, however, they only found one two-person apartment on rent, and the rest of us are living in a hotel - which does have the plus side of being just a few hundred meters from work. However, that one upside is severely countered by the lack of any food-making facilities or a refrigerator, forcing us to either eat out every day or to live on instant noodles or mash and canned beans on the side. Thankfully, breakfast is by the hotel, but that has also gotten pretty monotonous during the week. The hotel room is nice and cleaners come every other day, but nevertheless, it somehow feels like a prison cell.  

As there is not much to do, I asked our boss to take me to Witney with him on Wednesday - for the sole purpose of having a nice long walk back. He told me the day before he sometimes ran the distance, and that gave me the idea. The walk was quite nice, although most of the countryside was walled away from the road with hedges. The 10 km took roughly one and a half hours to walk, and also took my by the local store that allowed me to get some more supplies for my room.

This was the first time in 8 years I traveled abroad in something other than my army boots, and I swear to never repeat this mistake. And, of course, as luck would have it, the shoes I had put on started falling apart rather rapidly as soon as I arrived. They barely survived the walk on Wednesday, but by Thursday evening they were in a nearly unusable condition with half a sole missing from one.  Thankfully, it is just Thursdays that shops usually stay open longer, so I had enough time to look around and find a new pair of shoes that seemed more-or-less suitable. Somewhat surprisingly, both shoes and clothes are cheaper in the UK, so the new pair just cost me 4£ - maybe a fifth of what it would have back home.

The next stop was the bookstore, and despite having only half an hour to look around, I still couldnt force myself to walk out with any less than 6 books. As the cillage we are staying at is quite small, there really isn't much to do in the evenings other than to watch the TV and read. And the TV gets quite boring quite fast. As I have been reading a lot of economics recently, I sensed a severe liberal free-market bias growing inside me. As biases are generally a bad thing, I picked up a few books promising counterarguments, most notably "The price of inequality" by a nobel-winning economist J. E. Stigliz. The first few chapters seem quite promising - not attacking free markets but rather showing how regulatory fails distort them to increase inequality. The two books I just recently finished ("Surely you're joking mr Feynman" and "Undercover economist" by Tim Harford) set a pretty high bar, but so far, it is not far behind.

I had proposed to cook for everyone that evening, so after shoe shopping I went by the grocery store and then landed at the girls apartment to start cooking. I prepared a Chinese-style wok and an Indian aloo gobi, with a side dish of two kinds of rice. I generally like cooking, and considering I had not had a chance to cook for so many in such a long time, it was tremendously enjoyable. Despite lacking some spices, the food came out quite alright, and everyone seemed to enjoy it.

Our boss left early on Friday to get back to his family a bit earlier, and as we had a pretty productive week behind us, with plans to continue working on weekend, a few of us decided to relax a little and enjoy a game of ping pong. Again - something I hadn't had a chance to do in quite a while, but remembered quite liking.  We played for an hour, then got back to work, and then played some more later with another colleague.

All in all - it is quite nice here - and it is nice to be able to concentrate on doin

g just one thing for a while (instead of my normal "do ten things at once" routine). If the time pressure we were under was any less, I might even mistake it for a vacation. 

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