At the start of (well, a week or so into) every new academic year at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University, all of the current mathematicians (such as me) band together, spend a reasonable proportion of the T. Batterby Society (mathematicians' society)'s annual budget on vodka and assorted other alcoholic drinks, and have an amicable get-together in somebody's room to welcome the newcomers. Such societal get-togethers are called squashes in Cambridge, so this was the mathmo squash. In 2002 I was among those newcomers. There were about fifteen of us altogether.

I had the good fortune to retire to my room relatively early that night, because some time later in the evening, I'm told, a second-year called Dom got out a fondue set. The details of what happened after that are a little confused, but basically, somebody else also got out a small lump of greenish cheese which he had bought at the dining hall some days previously and never mustered the courage to eat. Alcohol did its sinful work, and the idea arose to melt the cheese. Into half a bottle of vodka.

Apparently (and understandably), nobody was able to manage more than a few sips of this crime against humanity of a drink without dire ill effects. The vast majority of the cheese vodka went undrunk and the bottle sort of hung around for the rest of the term... and the next term... and the next, gradually being handed from person to person as each one tried to get rid of it without actually drinking any of it or sacreligiously throwing it away.

The mathmo squash took place in October 2002. Towards the end of June 2003, it was decided that enough was enough. The cheese vodka had had its day. It was buried in what I'm told was a rather tearful ceremony in Botolph Court, being a rather grubby area of grass in the middle of some of Corpus' student accommodation. Apparently they emptied some tea over the grave; tea being another major interest of a significant number of Corpus mathematicians.

Fast-forward to October 2003 and the next mathmo squash. I was now among the second-years welcoming the first-years, and obviously we told them our various anecdotes of years gone by. We got to the cheese vodka story. Alcohol once again did its sinful work, and the idea popped into the collective head to go back to Botolph Court and dig it up again.

Which we did.

It was crawling up the side of the bottle to get out.

It comes pretty close to the all-time Worst Idea In Alcoholic History. Not quite up there with "let's drink Lenin's embalming fluid", but pretty darned close. I think Faye, one of the first-years, was the only person who tried any of the one-year-old matured cheese vodka. She managed a record-breaking whole capful. She was alternately paralytic and unpleasantly violent for the rest of the evening. Eventually I was one of the ones who helped carry her back to her room, by which time she was already being seriously considered for that year's Most Drunken Mathmo award, usually given in summer.

The cheese vodka is now missing, presumed poured down a sink somewhere, but I suspect that in the fullness of time it will resurface like an old supervillain. If there is a point to this story, it is this: Never make cheese vodka.

A word about this journal.

Most stations have a terminal sitting inconspicuously off to one side of the main work space. Small, gray, and boxy, it silently presents an array of options in illuminated green text on a black screen:

CREATE NEW
SUMMON OLD
NORB
DE-NORB
CALCATE
SHIFT
DOCUMENT

Years ago these depths were invaded by the bright-eyed minions of the Upper Room, who bore these terminals down into the Shafts on a wave of boundless optimism. They assured us the terminals would increase our efficiency and perhaps even reduce our workload so that other, new kinds of heretofore-unimaginable work might be discovered to fill the time freed up by these devices. They swarmed over our stations. They bored holes in the walls and strung cables and hammered them in place with huge metal staples.

Their mission complete, they departed, leaving each of us with a thick, incomprehensible manual printed on paper (paper!) and a promise that any requests for help or reports of a problem with the new terminals would, if sent via tube to the Upper Room using the proper forms, be resolved in a quick and friendly manner.

The molochs thus afflicted tried to make sense of the manuals but found their prose impenetrable, their diagrams like something from an alien fever dream. Commands entered on the terminals often seemed to do nothing. Many times they merely opened up a new and even more mystifying set of menu options. Once or twice a command would do something truly alarming to the system, and terrified molochs would frantically flip through their manuals and shout suggestions at one who hammered on the keyboard, while another moloch fired cylinder after cylinder up the tube to the Upper Room begging for help. The cylinders would be returned with uncompleted fields on the forms highlighted in red. Days of work would be lost before the situation was brought under control.

Soon the paper manuals fell apart, destroyed by the heat and moisture. The terminals were abandoned by the molochs, who returned to the safe, sane methods to which they were used.

Sometimes when things are slow I explore the contents of my small terminal. I have found a few commands that, while they seem to be of little practical use, at least produce interesting effects. I can change the color of the text on the screen. I can cause certain lights at my station to brighten and dim in sequence. I can make the sound of the Machine change slightly in pitch; sometimes I can almost make it sing.

And finally, I can DOCUMENT.

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Hodie is talking about transferring. This is terrible, it brings the body count to something much too high to discuss.

Erin is five and a half hours away. This is also terrible.I sleep poorly.

There exists, with the college expirence, a certain impenetrable optimism. It says to each of us, "This is the first day of the rest of your life". It whispers, "The world is your oyster. Crack it, baby!" It screams and shouts and flails, spinning it's arms in paroxsyms of youthful vigor. When one of betrays this grand truth, the one good thing we have, it hurts. They may have all the reason in the world, still, it is betrayl and it looks foolish.

A few words on the city: It is glorious and youthful. It smells like diesel fuels and dirty sidewalks and a little bit like heaven. It has wonderful shops and a beaming optimism amongst the stark anomisty it works so hard to perpetuate. Yet, it is not everything. It will make you hard and cold and steal the life from your bones if you stay there too long. Be careful if you do this, don't waste good years.

What we have, by virtue of youth, is all the promise in the world. The potential to break our legs and sit in a ditch for the next 4-6 decades in enormous. This does not stop us from charging the finish line. We are enormous. We are indestructible. We are fragile and likely to be broken.

I love you

They sat us down and began to explain the ins and outs, the rules of grad school. I had been here before. I was an undergrad here, so it was all familiar yet new and different. Another student turned to me and asked, “So is there anything I should know?” I just looked at him, then I said, “You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake.” The professors droned on.

THE FIRST RULE OF GRAD SCHOOL IS YOU DO NOT HAVE A LIFE OUTSIDE OF GRAD SCHOOL

THE SECOND RULE OF GRAD SCHOOL IS YOU DO NOT HAVE A LIFE OUTSIDE OF GRAD SCHOOL

THE THIRD RULE OF GRAD SCHOOL IS IF SOMONE FAILS THE QUAL, SLACKS OFF, FAILS THEIR CLASSES THEIR CAREER IS OVER

THE FOURTH RULE OF GRAD SCHOOL IS IT'S UP TO YOU AND YOUR ADVISOR

THE FIFTH RULE IS ONLY ONE DEGREE AT A TIME

THE SIXTH IS NO OUTSIDE FRIENDS, NO RELATIONSHIPS

THE SEVENTH RULE IS YOUR DISSERTATION RESEARCH WILL GO ON AS LONG AS IT HAS TO

AND THE EIGHTH RULE OF GRAD SCHOOL IS IF THIS IS YOUR FIRST YEAR IN GRAD SCHOOL YOU HAVE TO SUFFER

The first year was hell: classes, teaching, grading, research. We'd be there until all hours of the night. We'd pull all-nighters. The professors blathered seemingly nonsensical things that even they didn't sometimes seem to understand. Even if you could catch them to talk to them outside of class, you wouldn't be talking to the same person; things that make sense in the classroom don't make sense in the world.

4 am you wake up in your office doing homework. 11 pm you come to on your sofa working on grading. 2 pm you nearly fall over dosing leaned against a door frame in the building. 1 am you wake up in the middle of a conversation you don't remember starting. 7 pm you wake up face down in your Chinese food. If every time you wake up in a different place at a different time studying a different thing, could you wake up as a different person?

It was the end of the first semester. My advisor calls a meeting, me and his two other grad students. He starts going on about the value of research, the importance of dedication. “This isn't a vocational school, and this isn't job training. You are not your politics, or your family, or your friends. You are your research. Where you are now you have no idea what your dissertation will be like. Right now you are foolish, naïve, unwashed masses of the world. It's only once you don't understand everything that you can start to learn anything.”

Suddenly he turns to us. “If you died today, what would you wish you had done?” “Win a Nobel,” “write a textbook,” the others bark out without even thinking. I wonder where he hides the bell. “This is bullshit,” I say. “What do you mean I'm ignorant, I'm supposed to be confused? We started this research together, remember?” Unperturbed, my advisor looks back at me. He motions to the others, “Look at them. They're ready. They've given themselves over. They are not the warm little centers of their universe. They're a couple of space monkeys ready to be shot into space. You think this process is about you and me? You think you know me? This is not about you and me, and you had better forget what you know, what you think you know, about you and me.” I stormed out.

At the beginning of next semester my advisor tells me to come with him to a job fair that's being held on campus. It's teeming with students about to receive fresh bachelor's degrees, ready to join the working world, ready to start “real life”. After passing through the crowd and listening to what's being said, he comes up and taps one on the shoulder.

“You from this university?” he asks.
“Um, yes,” comes the reply.
“What was your GPA? Let me see your resume.”
The guy hands it over and replies, “It was good.”
“How good?”
“Well...it was a 3.9.”
“And now you just want to cash in, right?”
“Okay, yeah. How'd you know?”

“Because someone like you could go a lot further. You're not going to find anything interesting in the working world. You're just doing it for the money. It's time to go for your dreams. I've got your resume here. I see you took a class in my department. You got an A. Well, guess what? One call and I can get that A turned to an F. There goes your GPA and your degree. You'd be fired. It's time for you to apply to a PhD program. Now that I have your resume I'll check up on you. If you're not accepted by next fall I'll ruin your career.”

The would-be applicant meekly skittered off. I turned to my advisor and said, “That was crazy. You could get fired, and you could screw up that guy's life. What do you think you're doing?” He replied confidently, “Tomorrow will be the best day of that boy's life. His breakfast will taste better than any breakfast you or I have ever had. He will now have a reason to fulfill his potential.” It almost made sense, in an academic sort of way.

By mid semester, my advisor has a new project he wants us all in on. It's very abstract. Who knows when or if it will ever be completed, and what's more it seems like total nonsense. He says there's also no funding. We'll all have to support ourselves with other positions. He says it's the opportunity of a lifetime. “This is too much, I don't want this,” I tell him. He responds, “No. You have to do it. You will do it. Just like before, I'll drag you kicking and screaming, and in the end you'll thank me for it.” I just stare at him. “Don't you have anything to say?” he asks.

I still can't think of anything. I can't think at all. I can't think and yet I know. I know that this is insanity. I know I'm tired. I need to sleep. I need to feel. I need to spend time with friends and family. I need to get back in touch with my life. I want it now. I want life. I've tried grad school but now I'm ready to have a near life experience.

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