A classic case of disruption
It’s been an eventful year, to say the least. We’ve had forest fires, tested the brinksmanship of the Middle East and witnessed the most catastrophic pandemic in recent years. The economy has fallen into recession, people have been losing their jobs, schools and universities have shut down… in short, the entire world is in a state of paralysis right now. It seems unlikely that a vaccine will be available for several months or even years (especially with countries undermining each other’s research efforts and the USA working on a US-exclusive vaccine), but I’m also wary of Boris Johnson’s possible plan to re-open schools and work too early and too quickly. I understand the strain that the UK is under thanks to the virus, but I presume that there’s a way to freeze organisations’ assets to prevent them from going bankrupt, through legislation or otherwise.
In the meantime, university life has also frozen to a standstill. Well, sort of. We still have work (more on that later), but I’ve had much more opportunity to reflect on my student life with somewhat less pressure than I would normally have.
Cambridge has confirmed that the vast majority of us will have exams which no longer matter and that we’ll all pass onto the next year. (The poor lawyers still have graded exams, so I’ve heard…) Despite this, the workload has continued as normal and it has really taken its toll on all of us. All lecture videos and supervisions are provided online, and they are usually put up earlier than they usually would be, although this also makes it easier to fall behind on lectures because we no longer need to wake up to walk to lectures.
We have four courses this term: Mathematical Methods III (from the Natural Sciences Tripos), Introduction to Probability, Software and Security Engineering, and Interaction Design. Of these, SSE is by far the most interesting course: it covers security engineering (so stuff like security protocols and the basics of cryptography) and software engineering (including various methodologies and case studies of when software has gone disastrously wrong). I love security engineering: anything to do with building software with the intention of protecting information or functionality from threats is hugely fascinating due to having to consider an attacker’s motives, their resources, and the vulnerabilities they could find. In addition, Ross Anderson is a genuinely amazing lecturer, and our supervisor is amazing and has performed superbly and is super helpful. On the other hand, Interaction Design has been a nightmare for us. There are very few people in our year who actually like it (it’s a bit like basic HCI but it wasn’t a well-designed course in my opinion), so I decided to take one for the team and write a full set of lecture notes to summarise all the content for everyone else. NST Maths involves linear algebra, in the form of matrices and partial differential equations. So much of it feels like we’re being told solutions to the PDEs and forced to accept them, and I have no way of convincing myself that much of what works, works. That said, I’m absolutely ecstatic that I’ll never be formally examined on NST Maths.
What this term has come to.
One of the biggest problems of being in Cambridge is that it is incredibly easy to lose track of time. Everyone is so focused on their work that many social constructs lose their meaning. In particular, people don’t remember what day of the week it is or how long they’ve been in Cambridge, but just which week they’re in: there are only 8 weeks in a term so it’s an easy way to track progress through the term. This becomes impossible during lockdown: there are no milestones like lectures to track when a new week is starting. Every day is exactly like the previous, and there’s nothing to be expected on any given date.
I’ve started to become disillusioned with the rest of the Computer Science Tripos, at least after Part II. In Part II there’s a huge variety of courses which I want to take, most of them being relevant to either industry practice or security engineering (eg. quantum or cryptography). The Part III courses no longer seem as fun as they did before I came here, especially on the quantum side of things (the Departments of Physics, Engineering and Applied Mathematics are all much better-equipped to teach quantum mechanics). If I wanted to learn how to build a quantum computer, I wouldn’t be able to do it here in the Computer Laboratory. For that reason, I’m not entirely sure if I want to stay in Cambridge for a Master’s degree. I might, but I’m considering heading elsewhere. It’d give a nice change of scenery as well. Top choices include MIT, Princeton, Stanford, and ETH Zurich. I still have a few years to think about it, however, so I only need to worry about crossing that bridge at the end of Part II.
I haven’t left the house at all since the lockdown started, and the only company I’ve had has been my family’s presence. Much of my time is still spent doing work, although every now and again I’ve found the time to give myself some me time.
One of my favourite pastimes has been watching Spooks, which I’ve finally finished watching. I felt that it tried to be two different things at different times: it was half-thriller, and half actually a realistic portrayal of MI5. That said, it has some of the best character development I’ve ever seen, and some of the characters really attracted my empathy (while others felt wasted). I’ve also been trying to get my non-academic skills up: I’ve been getting acquainted with PyTorch while continuing to learn Japanese (何人が日本語を話す?) - I’m familiar with the elementary rules of grammar, I know a few kanji and I can begin to form simple sentences so I’m really happy with my progress!
I’ve been trying to keep up with as many of my friends as possible but, in all honesty, it’s been a bit hard. I’ve been under a huge amount of pressure lately, and not being there in person makes it more difficult for me to talk to people (and I’m always too scared to suggest video calling). I’ve promised hugs, cakes, and video games to people when we get back, because some people are really going it tough, and I genuinely care about them.
A place I'm proud to call home.
It was such a relief to hear that my internship is still going ahead as normal. We had a Q&A session recently explaining how the internship’s going to work. In short, it’s going to be work-from-home, and we’ll be able to use a web-based virtual machine (which really surprised me) to access our computers. We’ll also be able to connect to Arm’s VPN to access content on the company intranet. This means that we won’t have to install anything onto our computers, which I should’ve seen coming but is still astonishing.
That said, at least I’ve got an internship this summer. A huge number of my friends have had their internships cancelled completely, which is heartbreaking: some people in Cambridge and Imperial have won some amazing competitions and had some absolutely incredibly accomplishments: some of them had internships designed for people several years above them. While it shouldn’t put them at any disadvantage (because everyone’s been affected by this), it’s still hugely disappointing for everyone involved, and I don’t know if they’ll need to re-apply or otherwise.
Honestly, I can’t see things returning to normal by October next year. Social distancing measures will not grant herd immunity in a few weeks, and we’ll probably rely on buying time until a vaccine becomes available. Allowing people to come back together will simply cause a second peak soon after lectures begin. In any case, I’m not sure I would want to attend lectures at all if Cambridge starts as normal.
I’m feeling optimistic, however, and maybe one of these days all will be back to normal. Cambridge will restart for me just like everyone will be able to return to their normal lives, and I’ll be able to go back to complaining to my friends about how hard the Tripos is.