Adventures in ACTademia

Part Two
I was in Cambridge to attend the first physical category theory conference in over a year. It was time for the first day, which was sure to proceed without any shenanigans whatsoever.


I awoke from my slumber, ready to begin my week of applied category theory. But before I could head off for the great melding of minds, there was a more important task: acquiring a cooked breakfast, which came free with my stay at the college! The first step to this was to leave my room. Normally this would be a very easy thing to do, but I could hear noises from outside: it sounded like there was a cleaner going into the room next door. Would they be coming in here next? I seemed to recall that when making the booking I had been told that nobody would enter my room to reduce my chances of being infected, but maybe I was wrong. I decided to wait a bit until they had gone away just to make sure, as I didn’t want to bump into someone and have an awkward exchange about why I was staying in this room, despite the fact I had literally paid to do so and therefore had nothing to worry about. After five minutes of waiting behind my door listening intently, I surmised that the coast was clear, so I made a run for it. At this exact moment, the cleaner also exited from the room next to me, so I had an even more awkward interaction as I tried to get around their trolley of cleaning things without breaking anything. I scarpered immediately.

The free breakfast could be found in the hall in the middle of the college, so I made my way there promptly. I feared that someone might challenge me as to whether I was entitled to breakfast, as I clearly had no idea where I was going or what I was doing. But other than a brief temperature check upon entering the kitchen, I was allowed unbarred access to the wide array of breakfast items. I immediately observed that there was no scrambled egg, which was a big red flag, but I made up for it by adding multiple hash browns to my plate. My food piled high, I went to sit down as far away from everyone else in the dining room as possible. It was only when I sat down that I realised that I hadn’t got any tea. In fact, I hadn’t seen any drinks at all! Were the residents of Fitzwilliam college destined to begin their days parched, fuelled only by baked bean juice? I was baffled.

After demolishing the breakfast and marvelling over the inherent niceness of hash browns, I made to put my tray away in the place where all the trays went. Unfortunately, this was right next to the exit of the kitchen and therefore a large bottleneck as the amount of people having breakfast had increased significantly in the ten minutes it had taken for me to eat. I maintained some semblance of social distancing as I slipped my tray into the rack, attempting not to slide my plate off into the abyss. It was then that I realised that the tea and coffee and pitchers of orange juice were over here, completely invisible to anybody leaving the kitchen. But I had already put my tray away and I didn’t know if I was allowed to get another one, so I gingerly filled a cup of tea trying to avoid eye contact with a nearby member of staff and carried it back to the table trayless, hoping I wouldn’t spill any.

Refreshed by this cup of brown joy, it was time to head for the computer laboratory, which was only a short cycle away. Upon arriving, I was met once more by a bicycle dilemma. There was a large cycle park in front of the building, but it appeared to be closed off with locked gates! Once more bicycle storage had been cruelly snatched from me when I was metres away. Undeterred, I clumsily locked my bicycle to the fence and went inside to collect my name badge and complimentary N90 face mask.

I went to get another cup of tea, mentally preparing myself for the gymnastics of using conference hot drinks facilities. But I needn’t have worried, as someone was there to make the tea for me. I asked for a teaspoon of milk, and watched in horror as the tea lady poured in a good glug and I received a very pale drink. Giving the lady my thanks, I went away and thought about what had just happened.

After sipping my tea for some time, I was accosted by Alex and Calin, who clearly had nothing better to do. I asked how to get inside the cycle park, and was told that there was literally a huge open bit in the fence where you could go in and put your bicycle. I challenged this as I hadn’t seen this huge open bit, so we went outside to have a look. As it turned out, there actually was a huge open bit in the fence where you could go in and put your bicycle: I just hadn’t bothered to walk ten metres along the fence to find it. Although this was another humiliation to add to the pile, I was nonetheless pleased with this development as it meant I could actually lock my bicycle properly and not have it nicked by someone preying on naive category theorists.

A view of the Cambridge Computer Laboratory, partially obscured by trees. Through the trees is a canopied area.

A view of the Cambridge Computer Laboratory. The infamous cycle park is under the white canopy.

It was time for the conference to begin. But we were immediately in trouble. The clicker that had been bought especially for the conference apparently had just decided to stop working. Once again, I had an opportunity to save the day, for I had a clicker in my bag! Alas, it wasn’t the bag that I had brought to Cambridge and it was currently sitting on my sofa at home. The solution to the problem was apparently for the speaker to say ‘click’ for every transition they wanted to do. I suddenly had visions of the 150 transitions in my slides and broke out into a cold sweat. With my talk coming up later that day, the problem would have to be solved quickly!

In preparation for the upcoming shambles, I went to get some more tea. I smiled at the tea lady and asked for ‘just a very tiny bit’ of milk, hoping that this less formal request would be easier to accomplish. The smile did not waver as another huge glug of milk went into my tea, although inside the smile had long left me. Giving the lady my thanks, I went away and thought about what had just happened.

Having finished the tea and engaged in several breaktime chats, it was time to filter back into the room and give my talk. Fortunately, while I had been struggling to keep my composure as I consumed my milk drink, the organisers had been hard at work to solve the clicker problem once and for all. The solution was ingenious: I would hold a wired mouse and click that when it was time to change slides. This meant I was tethered to the computer, but I had to remain inside the dashed yellow box on the floor at all costs under threat of immediate expulsion from the conference, so I was perched in a somewhat awkward position while trying to make eye contact both with the webcam in front of me and everyone else in the room. We clearly did live in the future.

A very blurry screencap from zoom of me doing my talk. At the bottom is the name of the zoom account broadcasting the footage: 'ACT2021 Cambridge'.

I give my talk, having apparently put Lego hair on.

Having survived my talk and the subsequent questions, I made my way back to my seat. I suddenly realised halfway up the stairs that I had fled the stage without handing back my microphone, so my every move was being broadcast to the zoom room. I sheepishly returned to the front and tried to give back the mic, but it had been quite carefully wrapped around me and strapped in, so it wasn’t as easy to escape as I had anticipated. Luckily, roving reporter Nick was on hand to unravel me and I was eventually free to go back up the stairs.

While this had been happening, the next talk had begun. But of course, chaos had struck, as the man was sharing his screen but we couldn’t see it. Despite Alex’s insistence that we couldn’t see the slides, the host couldn’t understand, as they could clearly see the slides in the virtual realm. The tables had turned: now the physical participants had become the second-class citizens! Eventually, we disconnected completely from the meeting and rejoined, and the slides magically appeared for us too. Clearly the zoom gods were smiling on us today.

After this it was lunch, so I went to get some more tea. This time as I asked for a little bit of milk I held up my thumb and my index finger in the universal sign for ‘small’, hoping that this would reinforce my point. Of course, the tea I received had a huge glug of milk in it, possibly more than I had received before. Giving the lady my thanks, I went away and thought about what had just happened.

The day proceeded and there were several more talks, but soon it was the evening and time to wrap up. I waited outside for Alex and Calin to finish their organiser duties, and when they came out they were accompanied by Ioannis and Jamie. Eager to schmooze with the organisers, I agreed to go out to dinner with all of them, and we made our way to one of the many Greene King pubs in Cambridge. Despite having had to do it for the past twelve months, we still had problems downloading and using the appropriate app, so it was some time before we could actually get our orders in. Inevitably, even though they had been marked as available on the app, some of the drinks were in fact unavailable, and there was mass confusion as the lady tried to give us our money back because the drinks we chose to replace them were cheaper, but we either didn’t understand or didn’t care so she kept the money.

A vintage bike mounted on a wooden wall

We must be in Cambridge, they’ve got bikes mounted on the wall!

Later in the night, we elected to get a bottle of wine. Calin said ‘sauvignon blank’ and I immediately ripped into him for not saying ‘sauvignon blanc’. But everyone thought that I was saying ‘sauvignon blonk’ which was also incorrect, but fortunately I had been saying ‘sauvignon blanc’ so I was actually correct. Obviously nobody believed me and Calin tried to gaslight me into thinking he had never said ‘sauvignon blank’ in the first place, but I made it very clear that I did know what I was talking about and was pretty sure that he had said ‘sauvignon blank’ and not ‘sauvignon blanc’, and moreover I had not said ‘sauvignon blonk’ but I had said ‘sauvignon blanc’ instead. There was much pointless debate about this topic, and no conclusion was ever reached.