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by SS at 8:59 pm on Friday 12th July

It's been a hectic last few weeks. Besides trying to sell all of my possessions that can't be taken with me to Berkeley (and hold insufficient sentimental value), I spent a considerable amount of time working on another social network analysis paper with my friends from Kings College London, a colleague from Last.fm and two professors from Iran and Korea. Once that was all done and dusted, Phil and I belatedly started planning in depth our proposed short (but actually not that short) cycle tour.

Phil is an accomplished audax rider. Friends of the Geek on a Bicycle will note that he was the person who first motivated me to get cycling and if not for him inspiring me to start cycling to my high school, I'd still be as obese as I was as a teenager. We first got to know each other at the back of the field during a mandatory school cross country run. As plump 11 year olds, we were terrified of the consequences of being lapped by a considerable number of ours peers. Phil's eldest sister was training to be a lawyer at the time and I have fond memories of him threatening to get her involved if we were punished for being too slow!

During sixth form we both commuted by bicycle each morning and evening. In our holidays we would cycle together around Hertfordshire, and into London occasionally. For one week in Easter 2005, we took our bikes to his parents' holiday home in France and spent our days reading books, trying to get a pirated copy of Motorcross Madness to work over between two laptops connected by a crossover cable and, of course, cycling. It was an immense achievement when, on the last day, we cycled a shade over 80 miles on our venerable mountain bikes - Phil riding a maroon red Grisley rigid mountain bike and myself on my (now stolen) Hardrock Pro with front suspension. At the beginning of the week I would struggle to make it up a hill near the cottage called 'Pain-de-Sucre'. This was a hill with a considerable gradient and I'd usually have to get off half way up and walk. By the end of the week I was able to make it all the way up.

As happens, we grew apart during university - him studying classics at Liverpool University, a considerable drive away from Cambridge. We met extremely infrequently since he visited home rather less than I did. During that time we both took our passion for cycling further. I joined the Cambridge University Cycling Club and started racing. Meanwhile, Phil signed up for a series of audaxes, completing the 1200 kilometre Paris-Brest-Paris ride in 2008. While I thought the Tour D'Afrique was hard, Paris-Brest-Paris was in a wholly different league. Phil cycled this distance over just five days, sleeping rough and carrying everything he needed with him. The weather that week was extraordinarily poor and he cycled through rain and wind, sleeping for a handful of hours every night.

After university we both found ourselves in London and working similar careers. While neither of us have done any epic rides since, we were both keen to do something similarly involved. I knew that before I started my Master's course, I wanted to experience as much of Europe as possible and to try and do something meaningful. Phil had similar holiday ambitions and proposed Calais to Brindisi - a historically significant audax route based on an old passenger train that used to take well off Britons out to their summer holidays in continental Europe.

Audax pace, is, I'm told 14 days to cover 2100 kilometres. (Bear in mind this route crosses the Alpes.) We're giving ourselves 20 days and have truncated the uninspiring first two days of the trip from Calais to Paris. Tomorrow morning we'll be on the second Eurostar train of the day to Paris (and at the time of writing, I'm rather hoping that our bikes have already made it there, courtesy of the EuroDespatch centre at St. Pancras).

With a rest day in Aix-les-Bains, again in San Marino and finally in Brindisi, I'm hoping that my body will be able to cope with what will be about 80 miles a day on a fully laden bike. I'm not a particularly strong cyclist in the physical sense of the word - one of the decisions that really helped me a lot in the Tour D'Afrique was taking an exceptionally light (but sturdy) bike. Loading this up with 8.5 kilos of touring load is going to test my limits but I'm hoping I'll emerge stronger at the end of the trip.

The other physical difference (aside from the transient limb injuries that I've undergone various surgeries for) is that since the Tour D'Afrique I've been diagnosed with Hashimoto's thyroiditis. This in itself didn't prove to be a problem during that trip (aside from many amusing photos of me napping on moderately expensive expeditions). Now, three years later, even with treatment, I do find myself unreasonably tired often. Perhaps not enough to negatively impact our progress on the trip but enough to perhaps temper my psyche.

So, perhaps more so than with the Tour D'Afrique, I am cautious of my ability to finish. Having read Eric's and Gerald's (excellent) books on the Tour D'Afrique, I am reminded of the exceptional challenges we faced and how the wrong encounter with a pedestrian or a tropical disease could lead to the tour ending prematurely.

Either way, I'll try my best to keep up with Phil whilst enjoying a large amount of bread and cheese, as vegetarians do in Europe :-).

Finally, this trip presents another challenge - we're carrying our own load. This means no laptop. I'm also forgoing a dedicated camera and MP3 player - with the intention of using my Nexus 4 (plus a Bluetooth keyboard which I am currently using) to replace all three of these gadgets. Let's see how that works out. (Who wants to bet that it will become unusably broken within the first week?)

Our route:

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by SS at 8:44 pm on Sunday 3rd February

I'm a little bit terrified of the world at the moment but, at the same, quietly optimistic.
The last eighteen months have been tough, I've been in and out of hospital, personal relationships came to an unfortunate (but, I suppose, inevitable) end and my career plan was derailed (temporarily). The hopelessly ambitious robot who runs my mind decided to take a brief holiday but as my life slowly sorts itself out, has returned to coerce the rest of me into moving forward.

One thing I've really missed, and this seems to happen whenever I'm back in London for any extended period of time - is cycling. Real cycling. A loose definition of real cycling might involve what we did each weekend in Cambridge - pounding the mild inclines and declines of Thetford Forest weekend after weekend in the quest to gain a mild advantage at the next Sports series race. A tighter definition might be something like the Tour D'Afrique. There's nothing quite like cycling over buttery smooth roads in the Sudanese desert, or soaring (metaphorically of course) towards the Tanzanian border over 'rolling' hills.

When I'm sitting in front of two screens with dry eyes, struggling to stave off the boredom of fixing another damned bug created by someone else, I think of these days. Even more at times like this when Doctor's orders are to stay away from my bike and just three years ago I was ploughing on through a corrugated and sandy Sudanese national park.

The fact that I probably couldn't do what I did three years ago now is what scares me. I've just turned 25 - and walking on the ice with my arm in a sling a few weeks ago was a nervewracking experience (and damned painful when I did eventually slip).

Perhaps I'm just getting old and boring.

Still, my knee's better now (I can run without searing pain!) and my shoulder feels better than it has since 2004. I was often scared of mountain biking after past hiatuses - so this should be no different. After watching Premium Rush this evening, I can't wait to get back on my bike. Graduate school applications should hopefully do well - my usual habit of meticulously overanalysing the process is helping - and I'll be starting a new, albeit very different, adventure in six months time.

So bring on May, sunshine and that joyous feeling of rolling freedom.

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by SS at 2:42 pm on Monday 7th January

Over the last two years, I've developed a strong liking for matcha after first discovering it at the Canary Wharf branch of EAT. (In 2011 I set myself the goal of trying every variation of every warm drink in popular London coffee shops.)

Matcha, if you've not heard of it before, is a finely ground green powder made from green tea leaves. In Japan it is something of a delicacy and is normally served as part of an elaborate tea ceremony. In the west, it is commonly mixed with warm milk to produce a 'matcha latte'. It is relatively expensive because production of matcha is very slow, about 30 grams per hour according to Wikipedia.

Matcha varies in quality - the most expensive and highest grades have a much more intense flavour than cheaper variants. I've been experimenting with different sources of matcha, including from eBay (not good), from a variety of shops in San Francisco (very good) and from a variety of shops in London's Chinatown. The best I've found is from the Japan Centre in London.

It can be made into a variety of drinks, I normally either mix it into a protein shake or with milk (and a spoonful of Milo to sweeten slightly). It also makes a great baking ingredient and to date I've made a matcha trifle (rather like tiramisu), matcha, pistachio and white chocolate brownies and matcha rusks.

Fuck Yeah, Matcha! is a particularly favourite Tumblr of mine - they showcase beautiful photos of matcha based food and drink.

Matcha is also great for sufferers of thyroid disease like myself because it has a much lower fluoride content than tea and coffee. It also has a much longer half life - similar to green tea, so there are no unpleasant headaches in store. My favourite description of matcha's effects comes from Breakaway Matcha:

"The caffeine hit of an espresso can be a bit like having an express train screaming through the middle of your body: a deep, powerful, jittery roar. I find the effects of matcha to be just as stimulating but in a more delicate, refined way, as if a thousand butterflies have descended on my body, beating their wings until I'm lifted, gently but resolutely, a few inches off the ground. (Seriously.)"


My latest project has been to try and catalogue all the places that serve matcha in London. The map below is publicly editable - click here to add to it.

View Matcha! in a larger map

1 comment posted so far
Matcha Expert wrote at 7:52 am on Wed 13th Mar -
Thanks for the blog. Amazon also has some great offers on Matcha. One of the best is DOCTOR KING
Finest Ceremonial ORGANIC Japanese Matcha Green Tea (Premium, Top Grade (Grade A), FIRST Harvest
Matcha Superpowered Green Tea). It is only 17.99 for 30g! Currently postage is free! I love this
product. You might want to visit Amazon and check it out.

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A Grainy Tower Bridge
A Grainy Tower Bridge
Olympics!
1:10 am on Monday 6th August by SS
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Holding For Heathrow
Holding For Heathrow
A sneaky photo of the city I call home.
8:22 pm on Sunday 22nd July by SS
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by SS at 9:39 am on Wednesday 9th November

So after a (very) long hiatus, I decided to cycle into work again on Monday, cycling from Watford to Old Street. This is not an inconsiderable distance but compared to my summer internship commute to Canary Wharf from Watford (26 miles each way), it's easier at just 21 miles. Sunday evening was, as always, a series of minor and major procrastinations where, although I was meant to be getting my bike ready for the journey in, I decided to go visit friends, listen to music, watch television and tidy my room.

Waking up bleary eyed on Monday morning, I somehow convinced myself that today was going to be the day I cycle in (the first time is always the hardest - both from a logistical and a psychological point of view). In my pyjamas, I started rummaging around my 'box of bits' in our garden shed looking for my sturdy pannier rack which went with me from Cairo to Capetown (on my bike for the first four weeks and in my suitcase for the last four months when it became obviously useless). I came out, defeated, with another, much less sturdy pannier rack that attaches to a seat post. This loyal pannier rack was what had taken the load of my school books and uniform when I first started commuting in the fat days.

Grudgingly attaching the pannier rack to my carbon seat post (and ever conscious of the increasing probability of my seat post shearing in two horizontally), I managed to fill my panniers with all sorts of 'necessities' - almost everything I needed except for a hoody which I decided would take up too much space. Walking out onto the road in my cycling Android jersey, a delightful gift from my friend at Google, I realised that short sleeve was perhaps a bit short sighted.

Rolling twenty metres down the road, strange noises already started coming from my bike and when I braked to a halt, there was an unnerving juddering. Investigating further, the pannier rack had already come askew and the edge of one of my pannier bags was rattling against the spokes. This is something I was very used to when commuting to school but it took a small leap of faith that my panniers would make it to work in one piece. As for the juddering, it merely seemed to be alignment of my brakes and in true Kenyan style, I figured it would be fine to get me to work.

Sure enough it was, and really the only difficult I had was that the pannier partially unclipped itself at a couple of points during the journey. The handling of the bike with a seat post mounted rack was quite sketchy - my road bike is much lighter than my mountain bike was and the pannier rack must have moved the centre of gravity much higher. Every time I stood up to cycle, the bike was start oscillating quite wildly.

As I got to work, it became harder and harder to unclip. I realised somewhere near Euston that my left SPD clip was missing a single screw. This meant that when I twisted my foot to unclip, the cleat would stay where it was and just rotate around the single retaining screw. When I finally got to Old Street it took a good five minutes of hopping around on my bike to unclip.

The commute overall was pretty damn slow. I left home at 08:30 (admittedly late) and reached work at 10:10. Normally I leave home at 08:25 and reach work at 09:15 when travelling by train. While the distance was slower, the traffic was pretty horrendous and there was no real clear stretch of road. Part of the reason for the traffic is that I was on Euston road - which skirts the congestion charging zone (and presumably carries a higher volume of traffic after 07:00). The frequent traffic lights also kill average speed - at least the route to Canary Wharf has relatively few interruptions!

In a nutshell, I'm not convinced that commuting to Old Street is worth it for me - I might do it a few times a week because of the fitness element but it certainly doesn't compare to public transport when it comes to convenience. At least not in the same way that commuting to Canary Wharf did.

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Docklights
Docklights
Twilight incoming.
5:22 am on Monday 25th July by SS
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A Stunning Summer Evening
A Stunning Summer Evening
One day we'll swim across the dock.
5:18 am on Monday 25th July by SS
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by SS at 7:39 am on Sunday 2nd January

We're in Mombasa at the moment, my last taste of Africa for 2010 (and my first, briefly, of 2011). Nothing has really changed here - it's the same hotel we've been to twice before and the same beach we've visited four times in the last five years. I'm pretty certain that of all the holiday destinations in the world, returning here, to the same place, ranks fairly low on my list.

This lacklustre holiday which, family time aside, feels like a little bit of a waste of time seems typical of my life in general at the moment. I've started as a graduate at a large investment bank (where I interned twice) and absolutely detest the work I am doing at the moment. It's a short first rotation (just two months left) but I wonder if the next will be any better.

The problem I have with this work is not that there's too much of (that's absolutely fine, I have no problem working an 80 hour week if the work merits it) but that it is so incredibly dull and not necessarily that useful in the business sense either. Without going into too much detail, essentially I'm adding missing pieces of functionality to an application to abate pressure caused by internal politics. The functionality (and generally the application itself) isn't complicated, rather just tedious. The tedium of actual development is compounded by the extensive QA process that surrounds any change to the application and while the majority of my changes are new, affect a minority amongst the 3,000 users we have and might only even be used by support - I still spend 60% of my time doing QA tasks.

It feels like I'm wasting my time - this is the time when I can really give it everything but lack motivation to do so. I've barely learnt anything new though in the last three months besides how to use various systems and how to produce QA documentation to satisfy the regulators. This causes a sinking feeling in my stomach every time I talk to (some of) the other graduates and they tell me how much they're learning. I recall my internship where I learnt a huge amount - both of software development and the business need that necessitated our work.

So instead of stagnation, it's almost like recessing. My hire-ability is sinking each week that I learn nothing and forget a little bit more all that I learnt during my Computer Science degree. As my hire-ability sinks, it becomes harder to jump ship, to break out of the circle and to get back onto the true road of career fulfillment. I will not go down without a fight though - my eyes are open and actively scanning for opportunities.

And finally, I'm not the only one - this is a common theme amongst quite a few of my graduate colleagues. My faith in the HR department has been shaken by their failure to place the brightest graduates (who they apparently go to great lengths to hire) in positions which they will enjoy and where they will have their capabilities pushed. Sure, it's not a problem on their side - they often mention how many applicants they get - it is easy to fill our positions as graduates (we should be lucky to be where we are, of course!) but they need to treat us better. It seems that we're regarded and treated as merely numbers - without recognition of the fact that we have different desires, skill levels and ambitions.

This is going to cause two problems: 1) the brightest students will no longer flock to work here in the way they have done (the economic crisis of 2007/8 has already gone a long way to reducing the number of students who are chasing a career in finance) - graduates talk (and I have been talking too) to their peers in the years below and 2) the brightest graduates will leave - several of my colleagues are pursuing potential opportunities elsewhere.

3 comments posted so far
anon wrote at 10:36 am on Fri 7th Jan -
My feelings mirror yours exactly. Though we have to hold on to the slightest hope that is the second rotation...
sns wrote at 12:56 am on Thu 10th Feb -
the fact is, that as a graduate fresh out of university, you will be hard pressed to find any job with a starting salary such as you find in investment banks. and part of what makes you a good employee, and will help raise you through the ranks in a bank is your ability to take these difficult situations, and develop new ideas for projects that would help the bank. IT is a cost centre in a bank; not a revenue generating department. anything you can do outside the confines of your given task will help to not only keep you busy, but to get you that promotion faster.

make no mistake, i'm not disagreeing with what you say. in my experience thus far, i have seen many people go through the same thing as you.

best of luck!
Abraham wrote at 2:13 pm on Mon 19th Sep -
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by SS at 3:57 pm on Sunday 26th September

Every day on my way home I witness the spectacular skyline of Canary Wharf as a backdrop to the (fairly) considerable expanse of water that is Greenland Dock. More often than not, it is dark as I walk and the buildings look more stunning still. The lights glisten from a fluorescent yellow to blue, demarked by flashing red strobes that alert the planes taking off from City Airport of their presence.. My father, a veteran of the investment banking world, calls it 'Tinsel Town'.

These pillars of finance and monuments of capitalism seem quite strange to me, despite having worked there for near enough six months. The scale of each building relative to the others seems fairly arbitrary (the largest buildings aren't necessarily the institutions with the most prestige). It's quite weird too that this is really all there is when it comes to sky scrapers in England. The other populated business district of London, the 'City', is disappointingly short on average in comparison - no doubt a result of the way the city has grown up.

I moved out of my family home in North London to cut down on the considerable daily commute that I just about survived last year. During my internship I'd be working 11 hour days on average, but coupled with the 1.5 hour journey each way, this became a 14 hour day. After eating and showering, this left me with something short of thirty minutes each day of 'leisure time', which made socialising quite difficult. So with this in mind, I decided to bite the bullet and move out - for the sake of my social life, my physical well being (sleep!) and a change of scene.

It's expensive to live in London - no doubt about that. I'm paying nearly half my salary post tax, student loan repayment and share purchase scheme to the increased cost of living out (this includes my rent, food (which would be cheaper at home) and other expenses like utility bills).

This leaves me in a constant dilemma. It's a vast amount of money to spend for the sake of increased leisure time, and so I constantly feel the pressure to maximise my free time. It's made worse still by the fact that my first rotation as a graduate isn't actually in Canary Wharf - it's in the City (and so a fair amount closer to home in North London) and the working hours won't be quite as long. Conversely, I'm paying rent for a nice apartment that is close to the life of London - the incentive is to stay in and enjoy the apartment but the attractions of being in London are all outside. Confusion.

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