Archive for June, 2010

The Evening Before Exams

June 28, 2010 - 2:15 pm 1 Comment

My exams officially start tomorrow. Alas, my head swirls with option pricing equations and theories of M&A. I find the wait before the first exam the most tiresome – an uncomfortable anticipation of the unknown. After 19 years of education, I am very used to this routine, but experience does little to quell the mind’s subconscious anxieties. Grace and my mother are now in Japan, while I’m here, stuck at Oxford!

Since returning from New York, my life has settled into a mildly monotonous routine, with a few notable events to break up the day. Last Friday, I had the Going-Down Dinner for Rhodes Scholars – a black-tie event at Rhodes House meant to celebrate the culmination of our two years at Oxford. With a beautiful champagne reception in the gardens and interesting dinner-time conversation with the trustees, I enjoyed myself thoroughly, letting preparation for International Finance and Trade and Globalization to rest momentarily. I sat next to the Bursar of All Souls and learned a bit about the fascinating culture and traditions of Oxford’s most exclusive and well-respected college – the closest that you can get to a modern day intellectual monastery.The speech by Mr. McCaffery (Pennsylvania and Merton 1979) resonated with me – a gentle reminder to pursue the “World’s Fight” post-Oxford, but leaving the definition of the fight up to the individual. Unlike some Rhodes Scholars, I don’t believe that there is an “appropriate” or “inappropriate” vocation in it of itself – rather, the underlying motivation and the impact of the work ought to serve as a better criterion of determining value. We only have one life to live – one chance to learn, explore, and make our own mark.

The next evening, I went to Balliol’s MCR garden party with the theme “Arabian Nights”. I had a chance to catch up with some old friends in the garden and in the exotically festooned and transformed rooms of Holywell Manor. In general, Oxford teems with fancy dinners and black-tie celebrations (with the occasional white-tie, as in Magdalen’s Ball last year). I know that when I return to the States, I will miss gravity of such occasions!

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Life after the Garden Party has since been a blur of studying, sleeping, resting, and regrettably, wasting time out of (mental) exhaustion. The material for Trinity Term exams is not hard, per se, but I’ve missed more school than usual due to traveling and conferences, and the sheer amount of memorization required fails to enthrall me. Alas, at least I find the underlying content interesting – that will be my solace as I waddle through pages of notes, papers, models, and equations!

The Highlands: Day 3 of 3 in Edinburgh

June 22, 2010 - 4:47 pm 1 Comment

Too much has happened since my last post. In fact, I’m writing this entry while on the Acela Express to New York City, in preparation for return to Oxford tonight. Classes are now over – for the next week and a half, my sole focus will be to prepare for my four exams: Trade and Globalization, International Finance, Mergers and Acquisitions, and Derivatives. Frankly, I haven’t really started studying yet at all – I’ve taken this semester a bit too loosely, but in all honesty, I don’t regret it. As I start work in August, I won’t have this luxury to travel and explore on my own schedule and terms…hence, I’ll take advantage of the remaining time I have!

June 6, 2010 (Sunday)
Day 3 of 3 in Edinburgh

We awoke really early in preparation for the “Lochs, Castles, and Whiskey” tour that we booked with the Highlands Experience Agency. Grace and I figured that since the likelihood of us returning to Scotland was slim for the next few years, a guided excursion to the famed highlands well outweighed the forty pound cost per person, especially since we’ve already seen the highlights of Edinburgh. After checking out the hotel, we arrived at Parliament Square and greeted our tour guide, a burly man dressed in a purple kilt. With only five other people on the tour (excluding Grace and me), the tour was really relaxing and conversational.

We started off at Stirling Castle, one of the most important historical castles of Scotland. In particular, several Scottish Kings and Queens have been crowned at Stirling, including Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1543 and the majority of the Stewarts, the lineage that united the English and Scottish monarchy. The castle was not particularly ornate, especially in comparison to the luxurious English palaces I’ve visited, but nevertheless possesses a unique historical significance, especially its role in the Scottish Wars of Independence in the early fourteenth century. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time to wander the castle grounds fully – Grace and I definitely felt rushed, but we managed to see the majority of the exhibits, including the famed chapel, established by James the fifth for the christening of Prince Henry. As the castle has survived since the early 12th century, the original furnishings have long since disappeared, but the Scottish Trust has recently undertaken painstaking restoration work to return the castle to its once glorious splendor!

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After leaving the castle, we had a chance to stop and take pictures of the famed bridge used by William Wallace (think Braveheart) to defeat the English. Our guide emphasized that unlike the heroics emphasized in the movie, William Wallace won only because of strategic positioning of the bridge. The narrowness of the bridge forced the English to cross in threes while the bog at the end of the bridge weighed down the soldiers adorned in heavy plate metal, resulting in easy pickings for Wallace’s band of Scottish militia.

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Along the way, Grace and I picked up lots few interesting anecdotes of Scottish history from our guide. Hailing from Glasgow, our guide demonstrated a unique passion for Scottish military history, and criticized harshly Bonny Prince Charlie and his role in instigating the Jacobite Rebellion, culminating in austere punitive measures from the English Parliament to quell the uproar at the expense of the protection of basic liberties.  Notably, I didn’t realize that childhood rhyme, “Georgie Porgie ate pudding and pie, kissed the girls and made them cry…” referenced George the fourth when he visited Scotland for the first time, dressed in a poor-fitting kilt!

After the castle, we made a detour to a farm where we had a close-up encounter with a highland cow, along known as a hamish. Unlike me, Gracie was fearless in feeding the cow veggies – I swear, she nearly let the cow chew on her fingers, as you can see in the video below. I remembered that last year when I went to the Lake District with my classmates, Meera kept on regaling us with an exposition on the extreme unattractiveness of the highland cow, with profuse use of words such as “revolting”, “disgusting”, “hideous”, “vomit-inducing”. Alas, I quite disagree – I found the highland cow a very unassuming animal: imagine a yak with oversized bangs.

From there, we drove up into the mountains to admire the scenery from the car and to take pictures at a few particularly picturesque locations. Scotland is home to 5 million people, but the highlands – comprising the majority of the land mass – are populated only by a small minority given its isolation. (On a different note, I love this picture of the highland cow that Grace took – the quizzical look is just postcard perfect!)

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We stopped for a pub lunch at a quaint town – Gracie had grilled salmon, while I had smoked salmon. Afterwards, we went for some homemade ice cream! I didn’t want to eat too much as the winding roads made me stomach church; alas, what I would give to attain a stomach of steel, immune to all travel sickness!

When we got back on the bus, we went out further west to the shores of Loch Lomond, the largest lake in all of Scotland. Lying on the Highland Boundary Fault, the boundary between the lowlands of Central Scotland and the Highlands, Loch Lomond is more than 24 miles long and 5 miles wide! Although Loch Ness is much deeper (755 feet – taller than London’s BT tower) and famed for the supposed presence of Nessie, Loch Lomond is just as nice.

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Notably, Loch Lomond features prominently in the famous song: The Bonnie Banks o’Loch Lomond. An excerpt from the lyrics is as follows:

Oh, ye’ll tak’ the high road, and I’ll tak’ the low road,
And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye;
But me and my true love will never meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond.

According to our guide, to penalize the highlanders for their role in the Jacobite Revolution, the English Parliament enacted a decree in which each clan had to choose a family member to serve a death sentence.  The song is hence sung by an older brother to his younger brother, the former choosing death (low road referring to the passage to the underworld) to allow the latter to live. As I sat on the shores of Loch Lomond thinking about the lyrics, I realized that if I were put in a very similar situation, I would indeed favor saving my little sister!

After Loch Lomond, we went to visit the Glengoyne Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky Distillery. I distinctly remember that last year at Balliol’s Burns Night, I tasted Whisky for the very first time and abhorred the taste. Nevertheless, given that Whisky constitutes one of Scotland’s most famous exports, Grace and I went along for the factory tour with the group. We were given 10 year old whisky at the start and then 17 year old whisky at the end. Grace couldn’t stomach more than a small sip, while I forced myself to drink more given the cost of the tour. What an awful burning sensation – it truly feels like drinking fire!

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Despite our dislike of the drink, the process of distilling whisky fascinated me. I never realized the tedium of the process to produce the whisky – the exactitude of controlling temperature and fermentation. I wondered how mankind invented this spirit, or even more counter-intuitively, how some people can acquire such a strong affinity to whisky! (One would think that if a sensation is painful, it ought to be evaded!)

After the distillery tour, we drove back towards Edinburgh. Our guide dropped Grace and I off near the airport and we walked the remaining distance. We checked in to the airport without any trouble, but then unhappily discovered that our flight was delayed more than three hours due to a medical emergency, resulting in a departure around midnight. As you can imagine, we arrived back at Oxford at an obscenely late hour, exhausted to the bone. I strongly dislike skipping class when I can attend, but for the first time in many years, I voluntarily chose to remain in bed.

What an amazing trip to Edinburgh with my dearest little sister!

Now, a quick catch up to bring me back to today’s date.

•   Week 8 ended quietly – nothing notable occurred. On Thursday, after packing my bags for New York, I attended my last class: Derivatives with Professor Rochon. As we trundled through exotic options, my thoughts kept on drifting to one irrevocable question: is this the last class for me ever? (Then, I realized that with how much I enjoy learning, I’ll likely be taking various classes for my own personal edification, following in the footsteps of my dear father)

•    I took a weekend trip to New York City to attend a conference, setting aside my exam preparation for a more practical education. I might have been crazy to leave at this critical juncture, but the experience was well worth it.

•    At the end of Week 7, I completed a paper on the impact of expanding Chinese trade with Africa. If you are interested in reading this paper, please let me know, and I can send you a copy! Actually, I really miss the tutorials and supervision essays I wrote last year for my Economics for Development course. I definitely wouldn’t mind trading more problem sets for open-ended essays!

A Foray into Scottish History: Day 2 of 3 in Edinburgh

June 16, 2010 - 1:04 am 1 Comment

June 5, 2010 (Saturday)
Day 2 of 3

We woke up bright and early to enjoy a traditional Scottish breakfast at our hotel, with eggs, sausage, bacon, oatmeal, mushrooms, and beans to fuel today’s adventure. Walking along old Grassmarket street, we passed by a statue of Greyfriar’s Bobby, one of the most beloved symbols of Edinburgh – a loyal dog who waited patiently for his master every day, even years after his death. In addition, we briefly sat in the open courtyard of Edinburgh University with our journals and books, enjoying a peaceful morning.

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At 10 AM, we started off at the newly constructed Scottish History Museum, one of the most meaningful and interesting highlights of our trip. Inside, we explored everything from ancient history with the occupation of the Romans and the Vikings to modern day issues of Scottish Parliamentary independence and 20th century immigration patterns. We enjoyed so many wondrous exhibits and learned a great deal about the construction of the Scottish identity, such as the unification of the English and Scottish crowns, the influence of the Jacobite Revolution, and the formation of the textile industry. Describing all the treasures that we saw is a Herculean feat – imagine five floors of chronological Scottish history, completely unknown to me beforehand! Although only 5 million people reside in Scotland, 25 million worldwide claim a Scottish heritage. Jokes about the English aside, I never realized the understood the depth of the fierce streak of independence and national identity.

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Notably, we saw the full collection of the Lewis Chessman, the inspiration for the Harry Potter movie chess set. The museum borrowed a additional pieces from the British Museum to augment their existing collection – to see all 78 original pieces together really astounded me. As a background, the Lewis Chessmen were discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Dating back to the 12th century, the pieces are carved from walrus ivory, each with distinct facial expressions completely divergent from the prevailing style at that time. We watched a video discussing the myth behind the Lewis Chessmen – to this day, no one knows for sure where they originated and how they ended up on the Isle of Lewis!

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We left the museum around 2 PM, famished from our brain overload. We crossed North Bridge for a luxurious lunch at Hadrian, the highly commended restaurant associated with the famous Balmoral Hotel, the most lavish in all of Edinburgh. Grace enjoyed a starter of a deconstructed haggis, followed by sea bream. In contrast, I relished a salmon salad and then one of the best roast chicken I’ve ever eaten! Bellies full and legs rested, we took a leisurely stroll down Princes Street to the National Gallery, one of the best collections in the United Kingdom despite its small size. The familiar work of El Greco, Velasquez, Caravaggio, Botticelli, Titian, Canova, Rubens, Monet, van Gogh, and Renoir, among others, greeted us. Yet, we were more fascinated by the collection of Scottish art – particularly, the special exhibition featuring Arthur Melville and the Glasgow boys, a loose-knit group of avant-garde artists at the turn of the 19th century, collectively inspired by scenes of rural life.

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At 5 PM, the museum closed. Satisfied, we walked outside onto the open square, where a pro-Palestine demonstration took place. When signs of rain first started, we took shelter in a nearby coffee shop overlooking the museums – Grace finishing her journal, while I attempted to review some of my much neglected schoolwork! When the rain ceased in its fervor, Grace and I hurried back to Old Town to eat a sumptuous dinner at a well-reviewed local favorite, known to be trendy and popular with the younger crowd.  Grace had monkfish skewers with beetroot coleslaw, while I had lamb’s belly with all trimmings!

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As we booked a Ghost Tour for 8:00 PM, we finished our dinner rather briskly before heading off to the Mercat Cross, the former market square right outside the Church of St. Giles and more sinisterly, the site of the many bloody public executions that took place. I’ve always dismissed Ghost Tours as being touristy and a rip-off, but two of my guidebooks insisted that as Edinburgh has been heralded by the BBC as “the most haunted city in the United Kingdom” with its Jekyll and Hyde character, taking a Ghost Tour ought to be an essential experience for all visitors. (Below is the picture of the town square – St. Giles Church, the Mercat Cross, and a statue of Adam Smith all in one photo.)

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We chose Mercat Tours because of the special opportunity to visit the Vaults beneath the city, tucked underneath South Bridge – the site where the uncouth characters of the city would gather to escape the public sphere above.  First, walking along the streets, the guide told us some chilling tales about true events that occurred in Edinburgh, from torture and public execution to gruesome, sordid histories of body-snatchers and botched hangings. The executions took place at the Mercat Cross, often times on the steps leading to the Church – I found it hard to reconcile such violent acts with Christian compassion and charity, and could not stomach the fact that families treated torture as a source of entertainment!

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We then went down into the vaults, where the guide informed us of the lingering spiritual presences detected by visitors and specialists, their ghostly apparitions the cause of unexplained temperature changes and orbs captured on film. Grace and I don’t believe this, and think it’s the hypersensitivity caused by scary stories told in a dank, underground vault. Actually, in the first room, the guide informed us that a hostile spirit called the “Watcher” was often detected from the oak door above – funnily enough, I did indeed see a stocky man’s face in the oak door (Grace didn’t), but as it didn’t move at all, I imagine it’s merely a product of my Destination Imagination-trained imagination and the grain of the wood. Mercat tours doesn’t resort to gimmicks (no hired staff jumping out and grabbing you, thank goodness…I would have crumbled into pieces), but rather, tries to scare visitors by setting a mood with stories and information about past sightings.

Overall, Grace and I enjoyed the Ghost Tour greatly, especially since we peeked into the underbelly of the city. The Royal Mile – a splendid street connecting the Castle to Holyrood Palace – has so many steep closes branching off where the poor people lived in absolute squalor, packed into tenement housing and residing in their own filth. When the black plague struck the city, officials walled off certain closes of the city, trapping living beings inside. In addition, Edinburgh is the city of Burke and Hare, serial murderers who killed innocent men and women to sell their cadavers to the anatomy department of Edinburgh University. Alas, too many contrasts and stories unearthed!

Around 10:30 PM, Grace and I returned home for a rest. With Edinburgh examined in depth, I booked a Highland Tour for tomorrow to give us a different view of Scotland. What a joy to travel with my dearest little sister! (Grace hates this picture below, but I think it’s so cute!)

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Arriving in Edinburgh: Day 1 of 3

June 11, 2010 - 3:30 am 1 Comment

My dearest little sister left Oxford on Wednesday – my room feels empty and my life dull again. I miss her already! To console myself, I’ll post my reflections on our trip to Edinburgh last weekend. Alas, all these precious memories will sustain me through the final few weeks of term, with so many impending exams and projects due.

Arriving in Edinburgh

June 4, 2010 (Friday)
Day 1 of 3

Having wanted to go to Edinburgh since last year, I jumped on the chance to travel with my dear little sister! Despite a rather stressful week due to coordinating group-work and a lot of pending assignments next week (corporate valuation case, M&A group assignment, and my final trade and globalization paper), I packed up a suitcase and headed off for a long weekend.

Grace and I woke up at 3:30 AM to make a 4 AM bus to London Gatwick. We had a rather uneventful flight, landing in Edinburgh at 8:30 AM, bright and early. After dropping our bags off at the hotel, we went to the famous Edinburgh castle, whose grounds inspired the movie filming of Hogwarts! Edinburgh castle is perched high above the city on a massive gray cliff, majestic and imposing in all regards. Battling through the crowds, Grace and I bought tickets and an audio-guide, eager to penetrate the history behind the walls.

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Below are a few photos and videos of our experiences.  Notably, we saw the room in which Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to King James VI, the Crown Jewels of Scotland (along with the Stone of Destiny!), the Great Hall (meeting place of the Scottish Parliament), the one-o’clock cannon, the Scottish War Memorial, the dungeons housing prisoners of war for over three centuries, and so much more! I admit the audioguide went into so much detail that my head spun in circles by the end, trying to piece together tidbits of Scottish history, but the four hours that we spent within the castle really gave me the first glimpse of the proud character of the Scottish people. Even though Scotland and England shared a monarchy since the Stuarts in the early 1600s and legislative union in the early 1700s, a distinct separatist sense remains, both culturally and politically.

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Notably, the castle had many exhibits dedicated to the involvement of Scotland in the military, culminating with the dramatic and highly impressive National War Museum. We saw separate museums showcasing the history of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and the Royal Scots Regiments. Soldiers paraded everywhere within the castle complex, participating in elaborate rituals (including the firing of the one o’clock gun). From weapons and military dress to history of the highland vs. lowland soldiers, we learned so many interesting facts about the importance of Scottish participation in the British army.

We left the castle at 2:40 PM, famished but content. Searching for food took longer than expected due to a few miscalculations on my part, so we ended up walking nearly the entirety of the picturesque Royal mile and then wandering into Leith! Along the way, we saw the beautiful Georgian architecture of the New District, created during the Victorian times for the wealthy. We finally found lunch at Vittoria, a community Italian restaurant, where we devoured pasta and grilled meats. Afterwards, to digest, we climbed up to the observatory on Calton Hill, where we had a magnificent view of the entirety of Edinburgh, a city of great history and complexity. We then climbed down the hill and walked along Regent Road before intersecting with Holyrood Palace, the residence of the monarchy of Scotland, and then the newly constructed Parliament building (Only recently did Scotland re-establish its own Parliament with power of taxation, under the Blair government). We walked the entirety of the Royal Mile, browsing small shops before crossing North Bridge onto Princes Street, giving us a spectacular view of the Old City. Below are a few pictures capturing the beauty of the cityscape, particularly the view of Edinburgh Castle in the soft evening sunlight!

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Exhausted, we headed back to the hotel and checked in. I attempted to do a bit of my trade and globalization reading (alas, my final paper is due next Friday and I haven’t even written a single word), and then promptly fell asleep.

To conclude, Edinburgh is such a beautiful city, whose distinct character is enhanced by the consistency of the colors and style of the buildings. Furthermore, the ancient stone buildings are buttressed with natural beauty – parks and rolling hills, with Holyrood Park – a vast wilderness within Edinburgh – just to the southeast. Further, Edinburgh is the city of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr Hide – a dark history (supposedly the most haunted city in Great Britain according to the BBC!) hidden beneath a regal façade. We’ll certainly unearth that sordid history when we embark on the Ghost Tour that I booked for us tomorrow night. Traveling with Grace, as always, is a lot of fun – my dearest sister the best travel companion imaginable. Before I leave Oxford and start work, I will try and indulge a bit when I can!

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On a different note, I ought to provide an update on the various notable events of last week. Since Grace is visiting, I have tried my best to arrange at least a few fun activities around my rather heavy class schedule. Below are a few highlights, in no particular order, with a few accompanying pictures:
•    Watching the Royal Shakespeare Company perform Romeo and Juliet at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford upon Avon – What an amazing performance! We had some of the best seats in the house; I literally could see the spit flying out of Mercutio’s mouth. Given that all TJ freshmen were required to study this play in depth, I was really excited to see the RSC’s unique interpretation. Needless to say, the production thoroughly enthralled me, though I left the theatre emotionally weary from the heightened tension sustained through the three hours.

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•   Rhodes House BBQ and Recital – good food, good company, and excellent international performances…what a perfect way to spend a Thursday evening!

•    Visit to Sulgrave Manor, the home of George Washington’s ancestors – American Rhodes Scholars were invited to visit the manor and enjoy a delectable lunch with key staff and board members of the Manor in the spirit of promoting US-English relations. What an amazing visit! As I take a deep interest in the Revolutionary War, I was so delighted to learn more about the Washington family (formerly known as “Heartburn”) before their migration to the United States. Our tour guide explained the origin of lots of expressions from early times, such as “dole out”, “chairman of the board”, “threshold”, which I found fascinating!

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Life is good, as you can see.