Cambridge Days

May Bumps, May Balls, and Magdalene MBAs

Last night I was happily back at Magdalene, even though the season of Formal Halls is over. This was a pizza-and-chips affair, instead, with the other Magdalenes who are in the Judge. It’s a small group – there’s four of us MBAs in college this year, a couple of MPhils, and our strategy prof, herself a Fellow at Magdalene.

Nice thing was, the college Master showed up, too. As you might expect from somebody who’s also the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, he’s a very cultured dude. (If genteel cocktail-party talk were an Olympic event, I be he could lead the field for Britain.) He’s also good-natured, and a super-approachable guy; that’s something I learned after he took a dozen of us MBAs into the Fitz, and gave us a quick lecture on how finance, marketing, and management issues affect the Arts today.

Anyhow. Cambridge is suddenly bursting with festivities, and it’s belatedly sinking in that The End, as I’ve always been warned, Is Nigh. I feel like I’ve been running this whole academic year, praying I can make it into the home stretch, and just now realized that it’s all already behind me.
It’s fitting, then, that our night sky has been rocked by professional fireworks days in a row – the May Balls are happening (in June, as always) and will be for the whole of next week. (I’m at Queen’s from Monday night to Tuesday morning, meself.)

rowers lining up for May Bumps

Simultaneously, there’s the May Bumps, a week-long rowing competition which is arguably the heart of Cambridge sport. That’ll be a blog entry unto itself; suffice to say that some students are walking around wreathed with willow branches, most the rest have Pimm’s in hand.

Oh, and the sun is out, gloriously. 84 degrees, no joke.

Cambridge Days

Of Pimm’s, Punts, and Pembroke.

There’s a correlation between sunny weather and Pimm’s consumption, in these parts. Or maybe it’s causality.

I’d never heard of Pimm’s before landing in Cambridge. And based on my fall and winter, here, I’d similarly presumed that the locals didn’t understand what good, sunny weather was.

Turns out the sun does sometimes shine in the British Isles (every second Saturday in June, 11am to 3pm, weather permitting) and so it was that last weekend, Azure, Alanna, and I found ourselves reaching for the sunscreen. And then the Pimm’s.  It’s a gin-based liquer, which is mixed with lemonade and mint and cucumber and various fruit slices. It’s quintessentially English, I’m told, supposedly a standard hydration method at cricket matches and polo fields, and I readily admit: it’s good.

More elegant than a mint julep, and less labor-intensive than a Mojito, Pimm’s No. 1 definitely ranks as one of the best summertime refreshments I’ve had the pleasure to quaff. (Especially when the alternative is warm beer.)

And while I joke about the sun, the weather has truly turned toward the beautiful, I think, and it’s been a blast. We’ve been cycling/punting/strolling to the outskirts of town, almost daily, then coming home in the evenings to watch the frogs in our neighbor’s garden, or spy on the hedgehog in our own.

Plus, there’s been a swirl of events – this week, the Queen visited the Fitzwilliam Museum, across the street from the Judge, which interrupted a class or two. The same night, Azure and I attended formal hall at Pembroke with two other MBAs; it was in the middle of exams, so it turned out that we four were the only diners, apart from High Table.

That particular dinner will stand as one of the most memorable events from my time at Cambridge: the three long tables of Pembroke’s hall all barren, except for one, with a single candlestick and four plates at the end. All the routine, of course, stayed unbroken; there was still a ringing gong and grace in Latin, the standing, and bowing… whether for four or four hundred, certain things never change, here.

Oh, and yeah, it was ‘Mexican Theme Night’, so then they served us fajitas. Hah!

And school? (School?) Ah, school is still in session, but barely – my classroom time all but finished, concluding with a case study on Ben & Jerrys’ strategic alliances in Japan. My attention has already turned to the individual project over summer; more on that, later. (There are projects, and then there are, well, other big things…)

We had a slew of great speakers in the last few weeks – Tom Glocer, CEO of Reuters, got my vote for being the best of ’em. He managed to mention RSS, the ‘blogosphere’, and Gawker in a single sentence, which scored big points in my book. Honorable mention goes to Lois Jacobs, president of Jack Morton, which has got to be the highest-profile company whose name I’d never heard – they quietly produce ‘experiental marketing events’. Sounds cute and fuzzy until you find out they’re the crew which produced and managed the opening ceremony at Athens 2004, the Hong Kong handover in ’97, and a buncha other ceremonial stuff you’d never think was ‘outsourced’. Suffice to say, Ms. Jacobs’ Powerpoint presentation was slick; by the end, I was bracing myself for a pyrotechnically-enhanced finale.

Maybe that’s a feature in the next version of MS Office?

Cambridge Days

Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy, film vs. Infocom

So Azure and I saw Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy last week.  Wasn’t perfect, but at least I can review it in a fitting fashion, like so:

“Mostly Harmless.“   *

…and glean some satisfaction in that. And, I suppose, there’s some reassurance in knowing that this film adaptation won’t be regarded as the definitive Hitchhiker’s. Because in my book, that honor is reserved for the Infocom game. What else?

Cambridge Days

April

Seems England can’t completely shake off winter, much as I can’t free myself from this here particularly nasty cold. Brutal, really. Cambridge was grey and drizzly all of last week; meanwhile, I shuffled across the cobbled streets doubled-over and coughing like a pauper with the consumption.

Well, not quite that bad.

And in fairness, there have been intermittent bursts of Spring, about.  The oft-truant sun briefly swung our way a few weeks ago – staying just long enough to push up daffodils and scatter cherry-blossoms all across Cambridge. Our friendly garden hedgehog returned right about then, and has since proceeded to enjoy his evening ruckus in our shrubs. And now there’s another woodland creature hanging about our place: an impressively plump Toad who crawls into our conservatory, since it’s warm there. After relocating him back to the garden, we’ll spot him from time to time; he sits under the fern, mostly.

pink flowers in cambridge

That’s mostly it. School’s out – April is the month of our ‘Major Consulting Project’. Half the MBA class flew the coop to places like Singapore, Norway, and Venezuela to work for various multinationals. My team of four hasn’t left town, not much, but our full-time gig is with Apple EMEA, digging into their Xserve strategy, which suits me fine.

Now, if somebody would kindly pass the mentholated cough drops…

Cambridge Days

James Bond, Napoleon, and Organizational Management

Unintended consequence of the Cambridge MBA: Bond movies won’t be the same, anymore.

Actually, 007 hasn’t mixed the martinis quite right for some time now. IMHO, the franchise slipped from ‘tired’ to ‘exhausted’ with The World Is Not Enough. But that’s beside the point.

No, what happened is this: I hung out with Britian’s previous ’M’ (James Bond’s boss, remember?) for the better part of an hour, chatting about his old job and present-day geopolitics. The requisite dash of intrigue was provided early on, when our MBA class was told to show up for a guest lecture – but wasn’t told who’d be speaking, for ‘security reasons’.

The former ’M’ has a name, of course: Sir Richard Dearlove. (And, in reality, apparently the title was ‘C’, not ’M’.) Sir Richard spoke about leadership and organizational management – from the perspective of somebody who’s managed and led a very unique organization. The core topics he discussed – training, development, managing culture – are standard fare in B-schools; I suppose the trick lies in adjusting those ideas to fit your own corporation, or Secret Intelligence Service, what have you.

Anyhow, the regular guest-speaker rigamarole followed the lecture: mingling, chatting, and a few glasses of hey-not-bad-given-that-it’s-free wine on the 2nd floor of the Judge. And that’s where I wound up having a real, actual conversation with Sir Richard and four or five others; much of it centered on the Middle East. To craft an SAT analogy out of the whole experience, I suppose it was like talking about meditation with the Dalai Lama – the key relationship being that the other guy is operating with some insight that’s very much unavailable to you. Or so you’d imagine.

Of course, if you read the Judge Institute’s press release, it’s also clear that this went down in early February. So, yes, I’m behind on the blogging…

Speaking of managing organizational behavior: ever wonder why those useless buttons are on the sleeves of men’s suits? You know, the ones sewn by the cuff, without a buttonhole, even?

This cropped up in Strategy, of all classes. Turns out the sartorial invention is credited to Napoleon, who’d observed his lieutenants nastily wipe their snotty noses with their jacket sleeves. Disliking this vulgar habit, Napoleon immediately mandated that sharp copper buttons be sewn along the sleeves of his uniforms – serving as a visible (and tactile) reminder not to rub your jacket across your face.

Design is not what it looks like, it’s how it works.

Cambridge Days

Punch-drunk microeconomics, and the price inelasticity of fruitcake

The week before last was exams – a one-two punch of Corporate Finance and Organizational Behavior. I was swaying on my feet the moment I stumbled out of Cambridge’s Small Exam Hall, but then Az and I went and saw ‘Million Dollar Baby’, which pretty much knocked me out for the whole weekend. (Okay, boxing metaphor is corny, but damn if it isn’t apt.)

I’ve barely recovered. Lent term began promptly on Monday morning, which means I’m now fully back in business (school), and once again filling my cranium with executive-class knowledge.

Take, for example, this gem that cropped up during an Operations Management discussion: “The Price Inelasticity of Fruitcake” – i.e., as the price of fruitcake goes up, the demand for fruitcake doesn’t really drop. This atypical behavior occurs because fruitcakes aren’t bought for personal consumption – rather, they’re used solely as gift-items for unfortunate relatives.

Ergo, since the only way a buyer can measure the worth of a fruitcake is by looking at the price tag, bumping up the MSRP actually manages to increase the perceived value of said fruitcake. This, in turn, boosts demand for fruitcake-gift-object, and all in such a way as to offset any drop in demand due to some buyers being priced out of the fruitcake market, etc. etc.

I trust this explains why I haven’t blogged much, lately.

at the Wren Library, IIRC (not JBS)

Cambridge Days

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

About a month ago, I finished Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell”, though I didn’t really put the book to rest for three weeks after. It’s a massive tome; I wasn’t about to re-read it from the start, but the book demanded immediate re-visits, first a page here, then a passage there. And so it stayed atop my nightstand, getting better and better.

It’s a hard book to describe: the 19th-century atmosphere feels as cold as a lake in winter, and a gothic kind of melancholy hangs on every page. The tangled plot grows like a vine, not a flower; the story doesn’t blossom before the reader, so much as entwine itself around your ankles. And then, of course, there’s the magic (this is a book about magic) which feels veritably historic, resolutely English, and dangerously fey.

This book is not your run-of-the-mill fantasy.

There’s joy in it, but that’s mostly found in Clarke’s language, not the story itself. Her publisher has been aggressively hawking this book as ‘Harry Potter for Adults’, but where J.K. Rowling channels the sparky spirit of Roald Dahl, Clarke delivers a wit that feels more Dickensian. And while the book deals with the dire, fantastical and otherworldly, the needling humor is sourced closer to home – like the following, where Stephen Black is unwillingly whisked to a chilling setting by a malevolent fairy king:

The light was watery, dim and imcomparably sad. Vast, grey, gloomy hills rose up all around them and in between the hills there was a wide expanse of black bog. Stephen had never seen a landscape so calculated to reduce the onlooker to utter despair in an instant.

“This is one of your kingdoms, I suppose, sir?” he said.

“My kingdoms?” exclaimed the gentleman in surprise. “Oh, no! This is Scotland!”

And so forth. Anyhow, the book gets a big thumbs-up, from me and Az both. (And we’re not just saying that because the author lives around the corner in Cambridge, too.)

Cambridge Days

Cold in Cambridge.

The days are short of late, and the skies unduly enamored with cold, metallic colors. Brushed aluminum, powdered magnesium, gunmetal steel – ‘tis a chic palette, very Euro-styled and all, but I prefer a bit more yellow and blue, up above.

Alas, the only alternative on offer is White: Cambridge’s first winter snow started coming down in clumps three nights ago. Az and I live adjacent to the train tracks, near a railroad yard which houses a grove of halogen floodlights, and the sight of the snow floating past those towering lamps was remarkable. The flakes were larger than silver dollars, and all sopping wet when they hit the ground – I think that by some fluke it had part-ways melted, then weirdly re-amalgamated in the atmosphere.

(For all I know, maybe that’s just what snow looks like, here in England; the only true winters I’ve ever known were high up in California’s Eastern Sierra, where the snow gets delivered in an exceptionally dry, light and micro-sized format. It certainly doesn’t thud onto the ground like this local stuff.)

snowing on the train tracks

Anyhow, because of the season (and new latitude), I’m finding afternoon classes difficult; it’s heartbreaking to stare out the oversized-porthole windows of the Judge and see evening fall near 4pm. And since we’re now in the midst of our ECP project (the ECP is a part-time consulting gig with a local tech company, clients vary according to your study group; my own group is working in the industrial inkjet market) there’s often group work or travel after the last class. So like I said, the days are terribly short, but then, they can run awfully long and dark, too. Wicked chronological cocktail.

(Incidentally: Does complaining about the snow show that I’m a spoiled, stubborn Californian? Or, rather, does my introductory grumble about the weather imply that I’ve actually embraced a bad British habit? Tough call…)

And speaking of the cold, a more serious cold: I cycle past the Scott Polar Research Institute every day, since it’s around the corner from the Judge. The museum there is small but good; I visited with my parents, and the laughably crude equipment on display makes you realize just how outrageously tough and hardened explorers like Shackleton, Amundsen, and Scott must have been. It’s worth a quick visit if you’re in town.

Most chilling of all are the final handwritten letters from Scott and his company, penned after they’d realized their doom on the ice. I spent some time staring at them, under the glass. There’s a stoicism there I find so impressive, moving, and at the same time, totally unfathomable and almost alien. After all, I’ve just spent a semester hearing the word ‘risk’ being applied in the context of Excel spreadsheets, and then to come across a quote like “…we have missed getting through by a narrow margin which was justifiably within the risk of a such a journey”; words written by a man who knows he will freeze to death… well, it provides perspective.

ceiling of the judge business school, cambridge