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.
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 (人は日本語を話す?) – 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.
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.
We're through another term at Cambridge. Most of it was business as usual, despite an obviously increasing response to the COVID-19 outbreak, further strike action, and a massively increased amount of practical work. I'm seriously hoping my Arm internship won't be cancelled, but so far it's not looking good for either our exams or getting to see friends during Easter term. On a different note, it could result in the resurrection of video calls, and, if our exams really are cancelled, we may universally be deemed to have received honours, and that'd be an interesting thing to have on our transcripts.
Assassins was the way I met new people and bonded with them this term. Essentially, it's a term-long game where you have to kill people (who you receive as targets) while not being killed yourself. Weapons you can use include mock knives, swords, Nerf guns, water guns, and boulders. If you break any of the rules or kill someone who you weren't supposed to, you'll get put on the wanted list; and if you become inactive for too long (usually a week), you'll fall on the incompetent list. Both of these list people who are valid targets for all players in the game (in fact, making attempts on incompetent players is a great way to maintain competence).
Of course, the greatest thrill of the game is the sheer paranoia when you play. People will do anything to stay alive: I've seen people wear wigs, enter and leave lecture halls extremely early or late, camp it out in other colleges' libraries, and so on. You can never truly underestimate your assassins: everyone has an uncanny ability to recognise each other and find out their lecture/lab timetables, which paths they take, and more. Or so my paranoia tells me... for the most part, nothing happened to me. Someone did knock on my door on the first day and then about three weeks in, the latter of which occurred when I was not at home. (There's a reason I point my gun at any door I'm opening...) More pragmatically, however, most of my time was spent helping my friends assassinate people: I would give them enough information about their whereabouts to help them locate their targets, then provide real-time information to help them stab their targets. In all, I think I directly witnessed two or three kills this way, all of them in the Computer Lab within the span of a week. A friend and I also raided Homerton at one point, acquiring two kills. (Sadly I wasn't very good at staying alive this game...)
My death came after I was attempting on one of my targets. I was in Chapel Court, and saw someone very suspicious standing around. I made it known pretty quickly that I was suspicious, taking a very convoluted path and dashing past him... until I head back out and can't spot him, then get stopped and sprayed with a water gun. Oops! It was fun playing, though! He made it to the duel but didn't win.
To be fair, my death occurred before all the real, urm... stuff... hit the fan. You see, early on in the game my alliance set up a ridiculous plot to kill a perceived threat. But he got very annoyed at us, and leaked information that resulted in numerous people getting killed by their own targets. We hated it, the umpires hated it, and it completely and utterly broke the game. To be fair, we did have an amazing moment later when two of my friends anticipated they would be ambushed after a lecture this way, and went to the lecture 15 minutes before it was due to end. Sure enough, some attackers came along, and they called me to serve as a distraction. (That was an amusing battle report...) Most of the rest of the game was fairly quiet, although I did harbour several assassins in my room after I died. The duel was roughly as expected, with the obvious caveat of someone shooting someone else after the duel was over, and everyone pulling out weapons and shooting each other.
On the social side of the guild, there are quite a few socials where people get to know each other. I quickly found out who took the game very seriously, and made quite a few friends this way. It's quite something to hear about everyone's feats in Assassins, and, I'm sure I've mentioned this before, but making friends with the person who killed you is quite something.