Adventure in ACTademia

Part One
One of the first in-person category theory conferences in over a year draws in people from all over the country. Of course, as an avid category theorist, I had to be there.
07 October 2021
One of the courtyards inside Fitzwilliam college

One of the inevitable side-effects of spending eighteen months working from your dining room table while a mild pandemic occurs around you is that everything goes online, and all the conferences stop being in far-flung parts of the world. More importantly, this means that the free food also stops, so the whole point of conferences is gone. So when I discovered that ACT 2021 was going to be held in person in Cambridge, I realised that this could be an excellent week. Cambridge, of course, is where Alex and Calin defected to after realising that the Birmingham theory bois didn't know what a 7-category was. In fact, it was because we were too scared to ask.

Unfortunately, as there was a slight issue of an incredibly transmissible virus, places were limited in Cambridge! But there was a way I could get ahead in the queue: I would have to produce work good enough to show that I was a category theorist worthy of presenting at the conference. Or good enough to convince people that I was worthy anyway. In a classic manoeuvre, I had only decided that I wanted to attend two days before the deadline, so now had two days to rustle up an extended abstract. Fortunately I had a paper lying around, so I just copy-pasted it into a new document, removed all the bits that looked sketchy, omitted all the proofs so people couldn't say they were wrong, and added some more nice pictures so it looked authentic. This conference lark is a breeze!

Kermit the frog types very fast

I bash out my extended abstract

I later discovered that my ruse had worked and the paper had got in. Success!

The ACT website recommended I got a room in Fitzwilliam college, so I dutifully followed this advice and got myself a room from Sunday to the next Saturday. I then immediately discovered that this had been a mistake, as it turned out they were doing work on the line between Peterborough and Cambridge on that Saturday, so I would have to get a rail replacement bus. Obviously I wasn't actually going to do this, as getting the train to and from a conference is almost as important as the free food. I opted to go back on the Friday instead, which meant that I had to rebook my college rooms When it came to claiming back the money for the room, I considered submitting the old invoice, but as a responsible member of society, I sent in the up to date one.

Only one problem remained: the computer science building, and Fitzwilliam college, were on completely the other side of Cambridge to the railway station. Now I could have just got a bus like a casual, but wait! The ACT website, which turned out to be an absolute goldmine of local knowledge, said that the buses were rubbish. This was plausible as Cambridge is outside of London, and therefore all transport funding is thrown in the bin for some reason unknown to me. I could have just taken the bus anyway like a madlad, but was there another way? Cambridge was a city of bicycles, and I owned a bicycle. There was a connection here: I just had to identify it.

Getting a bicycle to Cambridge is not an exact science. Officially, you're meant to get in touch with CrossCountry and reserve yourself a bicycle space on the train. As this is an official transaction, you do it through Facebook Messenger. After getting the train time wrong twice, I managed to lodge my intentions to travel with the bicycle for both the way there and the way back. This procedure is completely useless because there's no indication on the train that you've booked the space and people just sit there half the time instead. Luckily when I boarded the train nobody was there. This was useful in another way because it meant there were no witnesses as I attempted to lock my bicycle to a rail that I assumed I was meant to lock my bicycle to, but it could have just been a handrail. There were no other methods to lock away one's bicycle, and surely CrossCountry weren't expecting me to just leave my bicycle sitting there like a lemon? Either way, it was an incredibly difficult operation and I had to lift my bicycle up so I could get the D-lock through the wheel, frame and (hand?)rail. As always when attempting to manipulate my bicycle in the y-direction, this was mildly humiliating and caused me no small amount of exertion.

Eventually my bicycle was safely racked away and I settled myself in for the journey. After approximately two hours forty-six minutes, we trundled into Cambridge. It was now time to zoom across Cambridge. At one point I felt so empowered by being surrounded by bicycles that I decided to run a red light. This turned out to be a mistake, as the road that I had presumed to be one way was in fact two way but the traffic had been around the corner. To make matters worse, the pavement had been coned off for roadworks, so I just had to squish into the side and try not to be squashed. Although I feared for my life, I did in fact survive and made it to Fitzwilliam with no further incident.

I had emailed the Fitzwilliam lady prior to arriving to confirm that there was somewhere to leave a bicycle, and had been informed that of course there was, this was Cambridge. So I was a bit confused when I cruised up and saw a locked gate guarding the entrance to where all the bicycles lived. Perhaps you had to get the code when you went into the office to tell them you were here. I decided this must be the case and went around the corner, leaving the bicycle outside as I did so. Before I could say anything I was immediately told that I would have to move the bicycle. I considered quipping that yes, I had planned on leaving my bicyle outside in the open without a lock on it in Cambridge, a city with a remarkably high amount of bicycle thefts, but I decided against it as they might not give me my key and I didn't really relish the idea of sleeping on a punt. Instead I asked where the hell I was meant to leave it. It turned out that there actually was a visitors' bicycle park but it had been hidden by a hedge that I hadn't bothered to look around. Although it might seem as though this was my fault for not looking properly, it was actually the fault of poor signage, as I could not have been expected to look around corners after an exhausting mentally taxing two mile cycle across.

The location of the Fitzwilliam cycle park, in a bad screenshot from Google Maps street view

The practically invisible entry to the Fitzwilliam cycle park

After getting lost in the foyer, which had at least seven possible ways to leave it, I managed to locate my room. But there was no time to waste, as I had a destination to be: the home of Alex Rice. This was because it was the day of the Euros final, and England were playing! I got back onto my bicycle and headed back out. After rendezvousing with Alex, we realised that the Coop that we had assumed would be open until 10 was actually closing in ten minutes, as they had let everyone go home to watch the game. While this was a very noble move, it also meant we had to go and buy our drinks sharpish.

As the game started, I decided to order pizza. Doing it now was quite foolish, as everybody was watching the game, especially Italians for some reason, and the waiting times were really long. I had also consumed a rather bougie pizza recently and I was feeling like another one, so a Papa Johns simply wouldn't cut it tonight! My attempts to use the Just Eat app went poorly, as it turned out that the app simply didn't work, and when I tried to check out nothing happened Unpeturbed, I switched to the Deliveroo app and found the same place and made the same order and eventually it got sent off to the place. The expected delivery time came and went, and nobody arrived. The issue wasn't helped by the fact that this was the one Deliveroo place that didn't bother letting you track the driver, which I felt was a missed opportunity. We wondered if it was ever going to arrive, but then my phone rang and I bolted outside in my socks to meet the man, since the access method to Alex's house is through a back gate and cannot be viewed by ordinary mortals. Sprinting over the gravel and enduring the immense pain to my soles, I collected the pizza and went back inside to chomp it while enjoying England's excellent play.

A few minutes after Saka had scored England's sixth goal of the match, I realised that I hadn't submitted slides, and I asked Alex and Calin when this was going to happen. I was told in no uncertain terms that I should have already submitted them, and if I hadn't then I would be presenting blind tomorrow. I rebutted that I had received no email requesting the slides, and spent the next ten minutes searching through my emails in case I had and could be proved wrong. Predictably, I was correct and the email had not been sent. A hurried few messages were then sent in the official ACT organisers chat, which I wasn't allowed to see, despite being the person who had just saved the conference from being a series of stand up comedy acts. It transpired that Ioannis was supposed to have sent out an email asking for the slides, but this hadn't happened for one reason or another. An email promptly went out and I replied at ten minutes past eleven, the time at which the best emails are sent. Happy in the knowledge that I had saved ACT, I went to bed.