Tuesday, November 29, 2005

I wrote about it briefly in my last post but am suddenly hit by how powerful having my music here is emotionally. I don't claim to know a great deal about music but I have an eclectic taste (as has almost everybody I've ever asked, it's become a bit of a non-question). As I sit here, headphones on, Veridis Quo by Daft Punk fades into This is not America by Bowie (direct from KW) I feel entirely contented. There are things that I'm slightly worried about in terms of work. Nothing to lose sleep over but some unanswered questions for the coming couple of years, but generally I'm very happy out here. Perhaps because I'm not in deepest rural China, sure, life here is different, there are things to get wound-up about and I'm sure that some of them will become more trying as time goes on, but generally this place is full of normal folk, going about their daily business. This is often in a substantially different way from back home and life's priorities are weighted very differently. Perhaps the sudden influx of freedom into society here has been so fast that people are becoming tied up in what they can get out of it. From what I've seen and chatted to people (Chinese included) about the situation, China is faced with problems of selfishness for several reasons. One of these which the government is seriously worried about is down to the fact that a generation is coming into power who have grown up as single children who have always had everything they've ever wanted. It's thought of as a somewhat uncontrollable generation. I guess this must be a combination of the upbringing and because the freedom to do what you want really is there now where it wasn't before. I'm not writing this to bad mouth the Chinese, I just say this as social commentary from what I see and hear here. The Chinese I've come into contact with in shops and taxis, in the office and on the campus have all been wonderful and even given the language barrier are generally willing to try with a bit of sign language. The selfishness however is also seen in another large aspect of life and in a different guise but again probably related to new found freedoms. Driving in taxis here or walking along the street, people push and shove and duck and weave through the traffic but at least fifty percent of the time this ends of with two people wanting to be in the same space. People are rarely willing to budge in this situation and consequently time is wasted for everyone. Someone needs to teach the Chinese some Game Theory. This is certainly not the case between people who know each other. In that case generosity is exuded at all possible opportunities. Doors are held open, seats are offered, assistance is given without asking and at the end of a meal there is always a competition for who will pay the bill. This usually lasts for a good few minutes of wallets being thrust towards a waiter or waitress until someone gives in and the bill is paid by the heaviest hand. It's a strange dichotomy which perhaps is related to the combination of the need to network and build firm relations and partly to do with showing how much of a modern capitalist member of society an individual has managed to become.

Now, three and a bit weeks in, I'm feeling reasonably settled and in a somewhat contemplative mood, possibly due to the music (currently from Bricolage by Amon Tobin), possibly because I'm over a fairly big hurdle having given my talk with reasonable success last week, possibly because I've just worn myself out at the gym and am too weary to do anything else, but probably because the day to day routine is now becoming just that and a reasonably enjoyable one. I'm now pretty used to the long hours though I may be corrupting my peers with trips to the local cafe, pad of paper in hand to chat about our crazy ideas. Apart from writing my next talk for this Saturday I have to think about how to teach a class of 15 students, most of whom are unconfident with their spoken English, to chat without intimidating them completely. There are some great online resources for TEFL and I've got a few ideas of games to
play but any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

Sunday was indeed as relaxed and lazy as I'd hoped and apart from writing e-mails and chatting to people online, I spent some time blogsurfing. I was reading the blog of a friend from TASI who spoke a while ago about our information dependency and I certainly feel that (The Galaxy song by Monty Python - Marvelous) I now have a craving for a fast buzz of information input that can be quickly incorporated in the ever increasing web of useless but fascinating connections that is my own view of the web and the wider world. Blogsurfing is the perfect way to get a quick fix of random information from somebody else's worldview, often banal, frequently tedious but sometimes fascinating, intriguing and wonderfully written. I love to read people enthuse about subjects. Even subjects that don't interest me greatly. I'm no football fan by any stretch of the imagination but to read a newspaper article about George Best from a true aficionado who understood the genius of a man who I've never appreciated and could articulate his god-like skills made me understand for a minute how important this man had been.

Another example came from a man whom I know some detest. I was reading Jeremy Clarkson's article about the Bugatti Veyron (the first road car to break 1000bhp). This was similarly uplifting to hear someone enthuse about something that they clearly love like they've never loved before. Also fascinating from an engineering point of view as at over 250mph keeping the thing on the ground is a Herculean task.

Anyway, in fact the thing that got me thinking about all this was found through a long and complicated path through blogspace (On the sunny side of the street by Louise Armstrong). I came across this site by a woman called Sara, from New Jersey who I guess is a writer but I loved her bizarre, loose style of writing which sounds like a strange mix of A Clockwork Orange and Ulysses mixed with a dash of Hunter S Thompson and BB King! Anyway, if you have some time to read something that you may enjoy from a purely literary aesthetic point of view or it may mean nothing to you, have a look at her blog. There are also many other authors, artists and miscellaneous characters linked from her blog, many of whom are also worth a read (I am a rock by Simon and Garfunckle).

Anyway, and so to bed as the bulldozers move in for another night of anything but dozing (Run Fay Fun by Isaac Hayes).

Sunday, November 27, 2005

This feels like the first day since I've been here that I can really sit back and relax. I've nothing planned, no ancient temple to see, no strange food to sample and no cycles to be run over by. This is lucky as I'm feeling pretty shattered after a superb but hectic week which has seen the social dimension of my life here improve
dramatically. This has both good and bad sides and I'm sitting here nursing a slightly sore head after an excellent evening yesterday, but more of that later. Currently the temperature still hasn't dropped as expected but I'm sure it soon will and I'll be interested to see how warm the flat stays when it does. The heating here is either on or off. I don't mean there's a switch in each apartment and no temperature control. Around the first week of November, the government decides it's now cold enough and switches on the radiators...in every building North of the Yellow
River. It's then turned off again when it's warm enough. This seems to work OK but for those just South of the yellow river including Shanghai it makes for a perishing winter. Ironically, those in the colder areas have a much easier time of it.

Having had three weeks of blue skies, the fog and smog seem to be creeping insidiously back in and it's becoming more as I'd been led to believe before leaving. This is matching my current mood pretty well, not a bad mood just a little foggy.

Some strange events this week in China with the reported benzene spill in Harbin some way North East of here leaving three million with no water. Undetermined how it will take to clear up but it's a pretty big catastrophe.

After busy evenings on Wednesday and Thursday, Friday was kept free to prepare for my talk on Saturday morning. This I did by going to the gym on campus which is about the most rickety gym I've ever been to (though not the worst I've seen, see below). I had a conversation with the lady at the desk in Chinese where I managed to say that I wanted to use the gym and hand over the money at which point she kept repeating something which was clearly very important. I've still no idea what it was and eventually she gave up trying. About half the machines are broken in some way so anything which requires any stability I shall not be using for fear of getting seriously injured. Perhaps this was what she was saying. Anyway, after burning off at least a dumpling and a halfs worth of calories I called it a day though shall be returning to try and counteract the truly excessive meals which I seem to consume twice a day, every day.

Saturday morning arrived and I gave my talk which was a little over an hour and a half which is the longest seminar I've given to date. This was a compromise between the two hours plus they regularly have and the one hour which I feel is already too long to concentrate for seriously but long enough to be able to explain a topic in rough outline. They seemed to understand the English if not the physics as I gave them a whistlestop tour of string theory, part two is next week.

In fact, somehow (more through accident than design) I'm about to become their English teacher as I volunteered to give them English classes every Wednesday evening. Their reading and writing is extremely good (probably a lot better than mine)but a lot of them are very unconfident when it comes to speaking so I'll try and boost that over the coming weeks. I told them that I've no teaching experience so hopefully it won't be a waste both my time and their's.

After the talk and free lunchboxes for all I took a walk to Tsinghua university which is a twenty minute stroll from our department. On the way I stopped at a department store to buy a mobile phone which was a bit of an ordeal but I'm now connected via one of the many phone companies which are really different guises of China Mobile. It's strange, in this big, official department store the dvd section was clearly full of fake copies. I knew that they were cheap and easily obtainable here but wasn't aware quite how big the market was.

Tsinghua university is about 100 years old and one of the top universities in the country. It has apparently got around 4000 foreign students though the number of Westerners appeared to be a lot fewer. The campus grounds are really very pleasant and there's a studious but happy atmosphere which reminded me a bit of the Stanford campus which I had a chance to visit briefly a couple of years ago.

This gave me the opportunity to get the camera out and get some photos of campus life.

There were lots of people doing exercise on the campus including these skaters who distinguished themselves from English skaters and skateboarders, that practice in the street, by actually being able to do some tricks without falling over every time. (Note that while the generalisation that all Chinese are short is incorrect, there are some very tiny people who are regularly crushed by energetic teenagers).

It appears that Tsinghua has its own version of muscle beach, it's actually a huge outdoor gym but this is a typical example of some of the equipment which was genuinely in use.

This sculpture was sent by a group of Tsinghua alumni from another province. Not sure who or what it's supposed to be but I thought it looked kind of interesting.

The campus is criss-crossed with little canals which look nice from the picture and though they have elegant willow canopies, the water looks pretty unhealthy and close up they're not as nice as from a distance.

There are a couple of lakes on the campus. The larger one which we didn't manage to find in the hour or so walking around is supposed to have lots of Chinese classical bridges around it but this smaller one was great to see nonetheless. Small families playing, couples sitting about and a guy who looked well into his 90s doing stretching exercises.

Even within the university there are lots of old buildings painted with intricate designs, this one is in a small seating area near the small lake.

We walked into a theatre which seemed to be having some sort of rehearsal. Not sure if this is typical Chinese theatre but it seemed pretty surreal.

This is one of several reasons that the Chinese are generally a very healthy nation. They still cycle a great deal and carry huge loads on their bikes. This is changing quickly in the cities where the number of people owning cars is increasing at an alarming rate. Even though they appear to be everywhere, there are now far fewer bikes than there were just a few years ago. The second hand car market is also beginning to open up here meaning that more and more people can afford cars. With a possible 10 million drivers in Beijing alone it seems that just by removing industry from the city, the pollution is going to get a lot worse before the situation improves. This will be solved temporarily when the Olympics come along in 2008 because cars will be banned in the city!

After the walk and some dinner at our regular haunt, I went out to meet a guy from one of the expat sites. He's from the UK and working at Tsinghua setting up a computer system. It was good to chat for a couple of hours in another great bar. This one's inside a bookshop though the two don't seem to have much to do with each other. I did notice however that they sell second hand English books. The bar also has a very reasonably priced happy hour and the local beers are not bad. The bar is frequented almost entirely by foreigners and I got chatting to some about a Reggae
night held once a month about ten minutes from my flat which sounds interesting. Getting on for ten thirty we walked round the corner and met up with a Mexican friend of the English guy and a few of his friends, a really good crowd. We then headed en masse to Houhai which is another area of more modern bars and clubs and stayed there drinking Sangria and chatting till the early hours of the morning. All of us went back to the guys flat after this to sample some very fine tequila with no resemblance to the ones we are fobbed off with in the UK. I was slightly worried, returning to the campus at four when I saw the gates had been shut, but the security guy let me in, clearly happy to see another human being awake at such an ungodly hour.

So Sunday is planned to be a day of lazing around and recovering before another busy week begins. Before I left the UK, I spent a long long long time copying all my CDs onto my computer. Doing this was one of the best decisions I made before coming out here. It makes life a huge amount more pleasant when I can sit in the office working, with headphones on and listen to something really familiar with associations to the UK. Looking forward to another interesting week.

Friday, November 25, 2005

I turns out that Donkey lists as highly on my list of exciting foods as on my list of exciting animals. Tastes exactly as I'd imagined. Don't avoid but I wouldn't bother given a choice.

Posts have been absent for a few days now (some may be relieved), not due to lack of interesting events but through lack of time. It's now 10 in the morning and as I wait for my Mathematica code to run I'm given a few minutes respite. So, where to start?With enough questioning and prodding the visa situation seems to be getting sorted and, though my passport is currently being held at the local police office, I'm promised that I will be fully legal within the week.

Though the people around me are great, have been hugely supportive, offered assistance at every minor obstacle and are genuinely great fun, I've been craving
Western company a little. There are many many thousands of expats in Beijing and over the last couple of weeks I've been scouting the forums and getting in touch with a few people.

On Wednesday night I met up with a former colleague of my father who has been living here on and off for four years now. We met in an area called Sanlitun which is reknowned for being the centre of expat bars and nightclubs. Most of these are vomit worthy with horribly garish flashing neon and very loud music blasting out around the seating areas making any sort of talk impossible. However, we met up at a place called the bookworm and as soon as I walked in, it felt like home. It's wall to wall with largely English language books which one can borrow having payed a fee to join the library service. It's stylish, with great coffee, excellent wine, superb music, poetry reading and live gigs regularly, wireless internet access and a decent mix of Westerners and Chinese. They also serve reasonable Western fare which I'm still not craving but was a nice change. The only problem as far as I can see with this place is that it's also Western prices. Travel there and back and a coffee is around a days wage for me. This unfortunately is not going to be a regular occurrence but I shall certainly be going there for treats as often as I can.

Had a great evening chatting and learning useful hints and tips about life in China and how to deal with the Chinese. Do not ever shout. However irate you may be, shouting will not help you. This attracts attention to the fact that a Westerner is angry at a Chinese person which will cause them to lose face. This is the worse thing that can happen to a Chinese person. From what I've read, crying may work, but never shout. Another interesting tip he told me was that he'd be amazed if I lasted three months without wanting to pull my hair out and get away from it all. Not me specifically, just that this is about the time that most Westerners manage before it all gets to much. It doesn't take long to rejuvenate the enthusiasm for this amazing place but unsurprisingly, things do get you down. He suggested taking off to Thailand for a week when this happens. Without any free holiday time this may be pretty tough but I'll see what I can do.

29th of January is Spring festival, the major celebration in the Chinese calendar, and includes the transportation of 350 million Chinese over a single week. Apparently, somehow it works and China doesn't become the world's largest traffic jam. Not much work gets done in business for about three weeks but I don't think that's the case in academia. Beijing should be a lot of fun then though.

We went to another bar after this down one of the Hutongs which was more of a backpackers place though still Westernish prices. This guy has travelled very
extensively including a few months working in Palestine. Unfortunately he leaves Beijing today to spend some time working in Switzerland and then Bosnia before returning around February. He has a lot of links here and so will put me in contact with some friendly folk. Unfortunately there's a real divide between the normal expat community who are on Western wages and the rest of us who unfortunately can't keep up wallet-wise. It sounds like he has a few other friends in the latter category and there are many local bars which we can afford to go to.

A brief interlude from the evening events of the week for a couple of photos. It's not the worries of visa applications, bird flu, President Bush's visit or the fact that there's a nuclear bunker on the campus that keeps me awake at night. It's the fact that they're building two skyscrapers outside my window. It appears that somehow they figured that the best time for bringing in the Earth movers is between 11 pm and 4 am every night. Earplugs are little help against these monstrous machines but I'm either becoming used to it or I'm now so tired that nothing will keep me awake.

These are the views of the sites from my balcony which are changing impressively quickly but not fast enough for me.

So after an enjoyable night drinking and chatting, Thursday night was another sociable one. I went for dinner with three friends from the office to a Brazilian restaurant. This is one of the most amusing restaurants I've ever visited. I'm not sure in which ways Carnival/Carnval/Carnaval (along with a few other variations which label the menus, neon signs etc.) is supposed to be Brazilian. As you walk in you are greeting by beaming Chinese waiters wearing berets and what can only be described as what I'd imagine was worn in Austria in the mid 19th century, except a bit more colourful. The upstairs seating area is a strange mix of Bavarian style and Latino music along with fake Egyptian artifacts decorating the walls. You then go back downstairs to have the buffet starter which is Chinese food with sugar. All very tasty but with no resemblance to any Brazilian food I've ever had. After this they come round to your table with huge kebab skewers and slice one of thirteen roasts of meat at a time. They continue in rotation with the different meats until you either
collapse or say stop. Anyway, a genuinely tasty meal but in no way could it be described as Brazilian.

I confused my Chinese friends by going to meet up with a couple of other people at 9.30. China is to England as England is to the rest of Europe in terms of going out times. The canteen I sometimes eat in is at its busiest around 5.30 so leaving to meet people at 9.30 is beyond comprehension.

I met up with a couple of German girls who are living in an area around the Drum and Bell tower, which I hope to visit sometime and see the biggest bell in the world (Adam, behave). There are a few more Western style bars around here and after leaving one propelled by the shear force of karaoke blasted at us, we ended up at a lovely quiet bar with comfy sofas, pool tables and reasonable prices, to chat for a few hours. Hopefully will keep in good contact with them as it was a lovely evening and they seem to know a lot of people.

I'd been thinking rather smugly to myself that though the guide books had told me about the ruthless taxi drivers who overcharge the stupid Laowai (foreigners), I'd apparently got away with it...up till last night. Somehow I managed to have some sort of conversation in Chinese and we exchanged words in respective languages. He clearly had only the vaguest sense of where he was going and after I looked concerned enough that we really weren't in the right area, he had a 40 mph chat with a taxi driver in the next lane about which direction we should have taken. Anyway, after half an hour we did find it though it cost twice the price it should have done and according to the mileage on my receipt, we'd done a full circle of the second ring road of Beijing which was certainly not the case. Incidentally, there are now six concentric ring-roads in Beijing and the expansion shows no signs of stopping.

So as I sit here somewhat sleepily and mildly hungover, it looks like the next few weeks should be enjoyable getting to know a quickly growing network of people.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

I return after another round of pingpong attrition with some more success than the previous attempt. Impressed they are not but at least there's a little less derision than before.

I've now had to write my first official research proposal so the department can apply for more funding. The question: "will you have testable results by 2007?" was met by considerable amusement on my part and a necessary explanation to a department which clearly has little idea about quite what I do. For those not in the know, the answer is a pretty firm no. This is not because what we're doing is not useful(some, including myself would claim) but because we are some way off modelling the real world accurately using the theories that I work with. We are currently learning in which ways they can be pushed and altered in order to get results that may be similar physics to that which we see around us. Currently the only way to get testable results in this area is to use huge clusters of computers to essentially simulate a small region of the universe in all its quantum mechanical glory (the rub being discretised spacetime). This takes many months but the distant hope is that someday we may be able to do the same thing in a few seconds on a desktop computer using the sort of theories I work with.


So the full force of the bureaucratic steam engine hit me full in the face today. It turns out that apart from the new Taiwanese guy, I'm the first international postdoc they've ever had here. Consequently they aren't aware of the protocol for dealing with aliens, of which I am currently a semi-illegal specimen. I arrived presuming that they knew what to do, which forms to fill in and which corridors to send me down. They gave me no hint to suggest otherwise. It turns out that the first day I arrived I should have been shuttled immediately to the local police station to register as a resident. This has now been done today with a few winks and nods to make sure things went smoothly (note I am NOT hinting at bribery, to set the record straight).I'd told the secretary several times that my visa only allowed stays in the country of 30 days at a time. So when I told her today that I had ten days left and was the application for the two year extension going smoothly, her shocked expression and exclaimation of 'not my problem' with a shy grin
got me a little worried. With some of the gentlest cajoling a 6ft 4 English man can muster out here, the problem appears to be being sorted and I should have it tomorrow, but a slight worry for a few hours. It appears that the 400 quid I spent privately on medical tests in the UK, which I was informed were compulsory are not necessary. This is also annoying but I know that attempting to claim that back will be more trouble than it's worth and I want to stay on the good side of the staff who are essentially my lifeline against any serious problems.

Just started work on a fun project with one of the other postdocs and am playing with real, live QFT which I haven't done for a couple of years now. I promise, or perhaps threaten to explain it some time.

Monday, November 21, 2005

A quick apology to anyone who found the site behaving strangely over the last couple of days. This is what I get for hacking someone else's code. I've now removed the radioblogger link to the right which may have been playing Cantonese and not Mandarin music anyway.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

I'll do my best not to talk physics or maths on this one I promise.

It's now Sunday evening and I sit in my apartment satisfied after another excellent meal. The last few days have been a bit strange. It turned out that the combination of initial jet-lag, 10-12 hour days, much rushing around and confusion, a change in diet and weather along, perhaps with the standards of hygiene in most places I've been were enough to bring me crashing down to Earth with my first Beijing cold. I've been told that two weeks is a pretty impressive time for a Westerner to last before catching it so I'm not too bothered. I'm also feeling a lot better after a course of Chinese herbal medicine which is both effective and distasteful in equal measure.

Anyway, this meant that yesterday was a bit of a write-off but by midday today I was feeling like it was time for another mini-adventure.

I headed off to an area called Wangfujing with one of the guys from the office though this time I asked to be the one to talk to the cab driver. I wanted to make sure that had I been on my own I could have arrived successfully. After some initial suspicions from working out which direction we must be going using the sun as our compass (the guy from the office is an ex-Taiwanese marine) we did arrive at the correct destination without going round the Hutongs (small traditional Chinese back streets).

The area we were heading to is one of the areas that is somewhat similar to Oxford street at Christmas in both its crowds and garishness. It turns out that this is one of the areas where the rich, stylish Chinese, as well as the not so stylish Westerners, hang out. I really wanted to go because there's a foreign language bookstore but I found that unlike everywhere else I've seen, this one only sold genuine copies of books which were imported from England and the States. They were therefore extremely expensive by my current standards and all I bought was a locally produced map of Beijing with Pinyin (the latinised translation of Chinese pronounciation).

So we wandered around getting our bearings and I took a couple of photos though it's mostly pretty commercial. The only difference between here and back home is that tie-rack is replaced by chopstick-rack, I jest not.

This church is right in the middle of the fashionable area. I didn't have time to see how active it is but it certainly appears to be a popular meeting spot.

Other than the language and the newly built pagoda tops, this street could be any shopping street in just about any capital city.

So we wandered around the busy streets for a while and to my relief I found that I can get clothes my size, at least for my top half, and bought some supplies ready for the freezing months ahead. After this we went down one of the traditional looking sidestreets where we stumbled upon something I'd read about in my guidebooks. This is another culinary delight which I shall not discuss but have posted some photos in a link. Those who want to look at them can do so with pleasure while those who don't can skip them in the knowledge that they will never come across this back home.

I didn't try these as it turned out that when he tapped the pot, they were still moving.

I did try these which taste a little like cheese.

That's pretty much the end of my not very exciting weekend. Taking it easy yesterday did mean that I had the chance to read which, because I've been exhausted at the end of each day, I've not had the chance to do much recently.

I just read a book recommended by a friend from TASI (the summer school in Boulder COlorado which I attended this June), one of many who I should have kept in good contact with but have not done so due to time/life/apathy. My apologies to all of those with whom I had a superb if exhausting month and have not kept up the contact deserved.

Anyway, this book is by a South African author, playwrite and comedian called Pieter Dirk-Uys. He's a hugely influential comedian in South Africa who has always (and I say this only through what others have told me) been unafraid to push the boundaries in extremely tense times with highly political commentary (his main act he plays as a woman called Mrs Evita Bezuidenhout - "The most famous white woman in South Africa! "). It turns out that he is also a relation of mine through my grandfather who was born in Vienna. We've recently reestablished contact with that part of the family specifically through Pieter's sister Tessa who is a concert pianist. Last year we went en masse to Berlin where she was returning a Bluthner grand piano to the holocaust museum. Her mother (Helga Bassel) who was also a great pianist managed to get it and herself out of Berlin to Cape Town just in time, before the second world war may have spelt the end of the family. The reason it has now been returned is that only last year did Tessa come accross documents realising her suspicions that although she had been bought up in the Dutch reform Church, her mother, and therefore she, was Jewish. It was because of this realisation of the important history of the piano from Nazi Germany to Apartheid South Africa that the return of the Piano to the holocaust museum was carefully organised, culminating in a very powerful performance for its inauguration.

Anyway, the book by Pieter called 'Trekking to Teema'...it's also a poignant story, about the return of a white man, original from Apartheid South Africa, from LA to a South Africa, post-Apartheid but deep in turmoil to find his old nanny Teema who is his only surviving link with his deceased family. He is faced with a country full of paradoxes and suspicion with his own memories of a country that once was and prejudices from TV news of South Africa. Some things are still the same as ever and he is hit by this when he finds his old family home but some things have
changed greatly. I presume that it is a realistic account of South Africa, post Apartheid but pre president Mandela where I was shocked and surprised by the violence and suspicion endemic to almost every character in the book. Anyway, I think it's a fascinating account of South Africa from that time and I'd be interested to know how
realistic it is and how things have changed since then. I've never met anyone who has been to South Africa and not loved it and I'd love to go there one day.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

This is a bit of a strange, stream of consciousness post (same as most of them I suppose) so it may go a bit off-topic.

Though perishingly cold this morning I took my hands out of my gloves for long enough to take a couple of photos. One of them is an example of how man-power in China means that things really do get done quickly and effectively. When I was in India at Christmas it seemed that because of the vast population, people were given beurocratic jobs so that unemployment was kept low. I learnt this from chatting to several of the locals at the conference. This slowed things down vastly and made getting jobs done take twice as long as necessary. It's probably extremely naive to compare the two countries based only on their vast population because the history and culture of each has evolved on very different paths. It is my initial impression however that China is genuinly learning to use its man power to get things done very quickly. There is of course a lot of beurocratic nonsense but I understand that this is also improving fast.
Because of the pollution here the buildings are cleaned regularly so it takes these guys just a few hours to do a whole skyscraper.

The other photo is of the main conference building on the CAS site. I'm still not sure whether or not I like it but it is impressive on a clear day.

This next photo I took a few days ago and is an example of something I've seen a lot recently. I'd been told that Beijing and China in general were moving fast, the people were changing and the city was growing. Some things though are rather strange to Western eyes. Generally the style of clothing worn by young people is colourful but still quite uniform. Not long ago, most people were still wearing Mao jackets and you still see some people wearing them now. There's a reasonably big shop on the campus catering for the thousands of people here. I tried to buy a bedside lamp amongst other things but it's impossible to get something simple and stylish. I guess that's the point I'm trying to make. Partly because of the lack of wealth and partly because the idea is relatively new to the Chinese, style still has some way to go for the average Feng or Ling on the street. The following was genuinly the most adult, stylish lamp I could get. This was from a choice of ten or so.

This is just a small example of one of the minor differences between the two cultures at the moment. This isn't to say that there aren't some very well dressed Chinese and there are some very affluent areas where the rich kids hang out, I just haven't been there yet. I think I'm getting a reasonable impression of what life is like for the average Chinese academic who is paid a high enough salary to live on but not to get the luxuries in life.

Another lecture in Chinese today, this time about a duality relation between Planck scale physics in non-commutative spacetime and DeSitter vacua. I am I'm afraid none the wiser after the hour seminar but it did give me a little practice of projective geometry which I haven't thought about for a while. I guess I may as well talk about projective space briefly here while I'm on the topic.

Projective spaces are tricky to think about but before getting onto those it's worth mentioning a bit about topology

The subject of topology is explained using the language of set theory which I won't explain now. For the non-mathematician, topology can be thought of as the study of flexible sheets and shapes. Two sheets which can be stretched into one another are said to be topologically equivalent. For instance a rugby ball and a football are equivalent (given enough pushing and pulling). A football and a rubber ring however are not becuase one has a hole in which can't be stretched away without tearing it. Here's a nice example from the university of Winnipeg. Each line shows different shapes which are topologically equivalent while each column gives a topologically different shape.

Anyway, in four-dimensions there are an infinite number of topologically different 'manifolds' (read surfaces for now) with any number of holes in. It turns out that there are some topologies of two-dimensional surfaces which cannot live in three-dimensional space. You need another dimension in which to cut and sew your piece of paper/rubber sheet. These are generally non-orientable manifolds. An example of one which can be embedded in three-dimensional space is the Mobius strip. It's impossible to define a unique, continuous vector field pointing out of the Mobius strip. You always end up pointing in the opposite direction to the direction you started (again this isn't a mathemetically rigorous or indeed quite correct statement but it'll do for now).

Anyway, if you were to try and link up the edges of the Mobius strip in three dimensional space you'd have some problems doing it without it intersecting itself. This is the same problem as trying to tie knots in two-dimensional space. Without going into the third dimension to let the string cross, you're in trouble.

So the reason I started talking about this is because there are some interesting shapes that come out of studying non-orientable surfaces and one of these is the projective plane.

Take a football (a flexible one where you can stretch and bend the surface with ease) and take two opposite points on the surface and bring them together. Now try and do the same with all the other points on the surface. You won't be able to do this in three-dimensional space but you could if we lived in one dimension higher.

Here's an illustration of the projection of this image into 3d (onto 2d!).

The other simplest non-orientable manifold is the Klein bottle (of which there are some great glass models in the science museum in london). The point is that you can try and make these shapes in three-dimensions but they will always have to intersect through some line. If you were in four-dimensions they wouldn't have to intersect themselves.

Here's a Klein bottle

Again that all seemed to spill out without my control so apologies for filling it with maths talk but hopefully the pictures will make up for it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Just noticed this:

China reports first three human bird flu cases. I'm not saying this to alarm or because I'm terribly worried at the moment but because I think we've known about this for several days now. It's interesting to see the flow of news from here. I'm not worried about saying this because nobody would have minded had I mentioned it last week. It wasn't hushed here by any means.

Anyway, that's not why I'm writing this. I wanted to comment on the strange reaction to the sudden weather change here. In England as the temperatures plummet most of us are content to sit inside wrapped up warm with a nice cup of tea and some toasted crumpets, feet in front of the fire etc. At the very most we might think it good for the soul to go for a brisk stroll on a frosty day but this is because we know that back home there is the tea, crumpets, fire, tv...etc waiting for us and really it's so that we can appreciate the niceties even more that we do these things. It appears that here, things are different. As the temperature dropped below zero tonight and the fog descends, the Chinese have come out in force. On the road outside my window there is currently a tug-of-war underway. Not in a metaphorical sense. Fifty students and a long rope chanting rythmically and screaming at intervals. People are setting up rollerblade slallom courses and generally everyone seems happy to be outdoors warming themselves up.

I was feeling rather proud of myself, before I saw all these selfless activities, that I've just played pingpong for the first time in years. Frankly the Chinese idea of pingpong just isn't cricket. My tabletennis sabbatical has lasted ten years and they gave me not an inch. I've been smashed at, spun at and generally dizzied for the last hour and a half. It would be a lie to say I gave them a run for their money, perhaps a nice-sit-down-and-a-cup-of-tea for their money would be more apt. Anyway, they seemed relatively amused that the funny English chap knew which end of the bat to hold and I shall return next week at the same time for more punishment.

The last couple of days have been frustrating from a beaurocratic point of view. They didn't mention to me when I arrived that to claim for my travel expenses I would need to retain my boarding pass. This is so that I can claim that I really came here!I have exactly the same information on my baggage tag and my passport that they would need and I'm surprised that I am not sufficient proof that I am here. I think Descartes would have something to say about this. Anyway, after faxes from England were sent, seals of honour stamped and various hood-winks to higher authorities, they agreed that I was really here and paid me half the airfare. They can't pay the return part yet because I haven't used it! Anyway, all sorted eventually but I guess this is the sort of thing I will face regularly. Some people are telling me a bank account is being sorted for me, some people tell me otherwise. I've no idea and I'm too tired to find out right now.

A bit of technical physics now so look away those who may be offended or bored by the following.

I've finally got hold of a copy of Conformal Field Theory by Di Francesco et al. It's a superb book that looks in detail at two-dimensional CFTs with everything from the original formulation of minimal models through many examples from statistical mechanics up to WZW models. This is something I should know a lot more about as it is the building block of string theory. As a one-dimensional piece of string travels through space-time, its path maps out a two-dimensional surface called the world sheet. String theory is formulated in terms of a field theory (I'll explain this some other time) on the world sheet. As I mentioned before, symmetries are part of the tool-kit of the theoretical physicist. They allow complex problems to be simplified greatly and the properties of the system can often be understood from their symmetries alone. It turns out that the symmetries of the theory living on the string worldsheet are vast. In fact the symmetry 'algebra' is said to be infinite-dimensional (for those wanting to know, there are an infinite number of conserved charges) and is known as a two-dimensional conformal field theory. Anyway, when you're trying to understand the fundamentals of string theory, conformal field theory is the cornerstone and is something that I would like to understand in more detail. Because I use a certain limit of string theory in my work, I have never needed to know a lot about these two-dimensional models but it seems that now is a reasonable time to try and learn.

One of the important symmetries of a CFT is scaling invariance. Scaling invariance pops up in many physical systems. There are certain conditions of pressure and temperature under which water will be in a liquid state and gas state simultaneously. This is known as the critical point and at this point the system is said to be scale invariant. This means that you can zoom in and out of the liquid with a microscope and it will appear to look the same whatever scale you're looking at it on. When zoomed right out you will see a liquid full of bubbles of gas. If you were to look inside one of those bubbles of gas you would find many tiny drops of liquid. If you were to look inside one of the drops, you would find bubbles which looked very much like those you saw the first time round, each containing drops of liquid, containing bubbles of gas and on and on and...well not forever because there is a scale in the system given by the size of the water molecules. As you neared this length scale, the system would stop looking the same and indeed as you zoom out, you'll get to a scale where the size of the vessel is important. In between these scales however the system is scale invariant. You find this phenomenon in many systems of interacting objects under just the right conditions.

Sorry about that....it just seemed necessary to speak some physics for once.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

No pictures this time I'm afraid and I guess the weeks will generally not be great for sight seeing. I've been working pretty hard the last couple of days mainly preparing my talk for Saturday. Today we had a group meeting and this time the whole thing was in Chinese. I figured I should stay because I could read the slides. Unfortunately, though interesting for those involved in it, the first talk was all about how to write reusable computer code. After he finished his 21 slides in a little under an hour I was relieved that it had gone pretty quickly and I could understand what he was talking about. However, he then proceded to talk for an hour and a half while coding in real-time on the overhead projector. I've no idea what he was doing and I think this wasn't the language barrier. I suggest that seminar format is not the best medium for teaching C++ error handling in real-time. The next talk was a student seminar about the standard model which I felt no qualms about reading a paper (scientific) during as half the audience seemed to be doing the same thing.

It's a bit strange about my talk for Saturday. I'm talking to a group of people who have no background at all in what I'm going to be telling them. This isn't a problem as I intend to give them an overview of the path between their area of knowledge and mine. I've been asked specifically however to go through some technical calculations. I'm somewhat loathed to do this, not because I'm unable to but because I don't think that it will help anybody. I've always thought that unless you're actually teaching a lecture course, detailed technical calculations are more likely to confuse than elucidate an audience. Anyway, I've put in a single complex calculation to keep them happy but I'm going to try as much as I can to give them a pedagogical tour of what I do. If they want details I can talk them through it personally and show them my papers but I shan't be deriving everything for them on Saturday.

Well that sounded almost like a rant....perhaps. It's been a bit of a strange day with people sending me in all sorts of different directions with half instructions relating to my various admin tasks that I must complete before settling in. I guess this along with having Chinese chatter around me all day is likely to do strange things to one's mood.

Hopefully this weekend I'm going to be meeting up with some Europeans in another part of the city. I don't want to spend my whole time with the expat community but I think, without fluency in Chinese, I'll go stir crazy if I don't get any external conversation.

Another positive thing I've found today was that the Chinese have a deal with a particular publishing company in the UK which means that a lot of scientific books are extremely cheap. Polchinski, Weinberg and Peskin and Schroeder are all a tenth the price of those in the UK so I've got a couple of books on order. In fact you can buy the whole Landau and Lifshitz series for about 30 quid.

Anyway, I probably shouldn't write when I'm overtired and somewhat overworked. Good to hear from those of you who've been e-mailing. It makes a big difference hearing from friends back home.

Before I forget, yesterday's lunch was frankly a bit of a pig's ear. Actually I think it was several pig's ears. Not bad though I'm pretty sure they ain't kosher.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Another great day today. Before I talk about that I thought I'd put on a photo of a wonderful fruit I found yesterday at one of the markets. I picked it up just because it looked so strange but it turns out to be utterly delicious. I think it's called a dragon fruit though I'm not completely sure, so if anyone knows better, please tell me.

So today four of us went to a place called Xiangshan, which is a hill/small mountain which in the autumn has incredible displays of red leaved trees. Unfortunately we missed this by a couple of weeks but next September if anyone fancies coming to visit, that is when it is most spectacular.

The trip wasn't wasted though and though it took over two hours to get up, the views were awesome. You get a real feeling for how big Beijing is. The answer is utterly unimaginably vast. We climbed about 600m above Beijing and looking over it, the city reached the horizon and presumably some way beyond. From up there the smog is pretty easy to see as the city is in a haze even on a blue sky day. It's been very cold today but apart from when we came down on the chair lifts, it's been just right for a brisk hike. Anyway, here are some photos from the day:

This one was taken before going up. It's quite a way to the top:

Once at the top, this was the stunning panoramic view on one side of the mountain (Click on it to see it in more detail):

This is the four of us who went to the top. On the left is Feng, the Taiwanese guy who's been helping me out. To my right is Bo Hu who is a visiting professor from another province and to his right is Ling-Mei who is another postdoc in my group.

If you want to know where they fit 14 million Beijingers and me, the answer is up a mountain:

and finally this is us taking the easy way down:

After this we were all feeling pretty tired so went to a tea house and ordered three different types of tea. I find it tough choosing food and drink because given several options, I'm generally none the wiser as to what I may end up with. Anyway, the teas arrived in elegant glass tea pots and were refilled constantly for the next hour.

After this, we walked for another half an hour before finding a Cantonese restaurant were we had a hotpot. Each person chooses the base for their stew which comes with a little gas heater. You then choose a selection of meets and veg to cook in the soup/stew and dig in together. Again I had no idea what we ordered but when it arrived it was delicious. Stop reading here Joanna and anyone else who isn't into offal.

It turns out that the most delicate, tasty thing we ordered was pigs brain which is absolutely stunning. It's extremely soft and a very subtle flavour but supremely tasty. So here's a selection of some of the things we tried, the pigs brain being the pink one in the middle.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Rather randomly I was wondering if it's possible to lip-read in Chinese. I would have thought the intonations make it pretty tough. If anybody knows, please tell me.

The end of a busy working week and after a decent night's sleep I'm feeling relatively refreshed for the weekend. I've found out some more about the Szechuan pepper from this website which I may use again for similar purposes. I've realised that it's very difficult to avoid this spice, especially if you like spicy food which most of the people around me seem to (and I'm perfectly happy with), so I guess I'm just going to have to learn to like it. I think I'm beginning to get used to it now but the first time I had it, nobody warned me and I thought I was having an allergic reaction. Anyway, to warn anyone else coming out here, do eat it but be warned of the effects. It's pretty easy to spot so this is what it looks like:

The Szechuan pepper

Another warning for the gastronomically weak, skip the next paragraph if you're not feeling up to a strange food tale.

As a little appetiser for lunch yesterday, we had cold, marinated beef lung. It's actually very tasty but I tried my best not to think about it too much as, though it's thinly sliced, bits of it are a very alien texture and shape. Wouldn't be my first choice next time but I'd be willing to have it again some time.

Unfortunately, though my work is currently going well, next week I'm going to have to put it on hold to prepare my first talk on Saturday. I hope they won't be dissapointed when it's not three hours but, and I may be rocking the boat a little here, I know that the second two hours of a three hour talk are practically impossible to take in and are of little use to the speaker or audience. Because nobody in the group I'm in knows any string theory, before I get onto my work I'm going to have to explain: String theory, branes, large N gauge theories, chiral lagrangians and the AdS/CFT correspondence in detail which I guess will be good for me at any rate.


So, at last, time for some more photos. Today I've been to the summer palace. This is in the North West of Beijing and was the summer retreat of the empress Cixi. It's truly stunning with a vast lake as its centrepiece. I don't know a great deal about the history as most of the text outside the buildings was more about day-to-day life but as far as I can gather, Cixi was bad news. The palace however, built in the Qing dynasty was not and contains many temples, opera buildings, stunning bridges...and on and on. I'm sure I only saw a tiny bit of it and walked half way around the lake which itself took almost an hour. Anyway, here are some photos:

These are from around the lake where there are stunning rock formations and what I presume are weeping willows as well as some cherry trees, currently not in blossom but I'm sure it's an incredible sight when they are:

This is typical of the buildings around the lake. This one was used for Chinese classical opera and surrounding this building are several temples as well as the dressing chambers of the performers.

In the distance from one side of the lake you can see the mountains. I'm not sure which these are but in the haze they appear stereotypically far-Eastern:

I tried to take a panorama of the lake. Because of the position of the sun, each photo has a different light quality so, even though I've altered the light on each, they don't blend very well. Also, blogger only allows very small pictures so I've had to lower the quality considerably:

One form of classical Chinese bridge:

... and another, this one seriously steep but I think very elegant:

This one is not so elegant. Me with lions and dragons may turn into a bit of a photo theme:

and finally, a little off topic, this is the strange building in the middle of the campus that I've been trying to get a photo of. It's the centre for micro-gravity research and sticks out like a sore thumb. Not quite sure what goes on there but I am intrigued.

Friday, November 11, 2005

I''m utterly, completely shattered so apologies if this post is a little non-sensical. Having arrived in the office at 8 this morning, it's now 9.30 at night and I've just got home. This doesn't mean I've been working all day, far from it, I think I've done two hours solid work today but it's been tiring none the less.

At ten this morning was a slightly more technical talk by Glashow about the puzzles and problems of particle physics. He listed what he thought of as the eight most prescient questions that should be tackled over the coming years. Most of these were particle physics, but some were cosmological. Having talked to him some more, his greatest question relates to the topic of his nobel prize. He's most concerned about the nature of spontaneous symmetry breaking in the standard model. Hopefully in the next five years, this question can be answered. At the end of the talk he listed three reasons why high energy physics should be studied and specifically funded. This is a question that the media and the general population often pose. His reasons were the usual reasons of 1) Technological spinoffs 2) The training of people in a very rigorous discipline which teaches analytic, numerical and communication skills to a very high level, and 3) Obligation.
He gave examples and extended his argument for each of the three reasons but it was third one which as most elegantly put. He quoted Primo Levi on the obligation of scientists and this quote is something I would like to track down to put in here. If this rings a bell with anyone I'd be very grateful. I guess it's from 'The Periodic Table' but Im not sure. If I wasn't feeling so tired I'd try and remember what it said but right now I can hardly type.

So after the talk we went for another banquet lunch, again with superb food. I've come across a new spice which I've never seen before which has various names from Szechuan pepper to paralytic pepper, though it isn't really in the pepper family at all. I guess from it's properties that it may be in the clove family. Anyway, it's effect is to make your mouth go completely numb and tingly, a really bizarre feeling and one which I'm now trying to avoid whereever possible. Again if anyone knows what this is, I'd love to know it's proper name. I say it may be related to cloves as cloves certainly have a mild anaesthetic effect and chewing them is supposed to be good for tooth ache. The flavour in Chinese is called ma la and is supposed to be good for the health.

So after lunch and a little work, the postdocs had a meeting with Glashow to ask him questions. He was clearly very tired by this point and understandably so with the amount he must have been rushed around Beijing, photographers in tow and the constant barrage of questions he's getting.

Nobody was asking much at first so I asked if he had any regrets in his career upto now. He said that his two biggest regrets were that, while sharing an office with Goldstone, the two of them didn't try to bring their work together as they would almost certainly have come up with the Higgs model of spontaneous symmetry breaking of the SU(2)xU(1) group, way before Weinberg. His other regret was, and he conceded that this wasn't his fault, that proton decay still had not been seen.

As I mentioned in a previous post, group theory (the mathematics of symmetries) plays an essential role in particle physics. Symmetries tell you about structure in nature and the more symmetries you have, the more particles of nature can be related to one another. Each of the four forces of nature (electromagnetic, weak, strong and gravitational) is described by a set of symmetries (though the latter should be left out of this discussion). One of the aims of particle physics is to find a large set of symmetries which relate all of the forces and particles of nature into a single 'group'. This is partly an aesthetic longing but it is a major goal none the less. Anyway, most of these theories which manage to group all of the forces and particles together predict that the proton should be unstable though with an unimaginably long lifetime. Using giant detectors proton decay has been searched for but still not found. This may be because its lifetime is so long that we need even bigger detectors (a million tonnes) to spot a single proton decaying, or it may be that it is truly stable.

Anyway, if proton decay had been seen, this would have been a fascinating signal of 'new physics'. Incidentally, though these detectors didn't spot any proton decay, they did turn out to be vital in uncovering the fact the one of fundamental particles of nature, the neutrino, has a mass. This was not thought to be the case for almost 70 years and this discovery earned a nobel prize for physics in 2003 (I think).

Anyway, after my question, more flowed though all of them very technical and Glashow, having been bombarded with questions for such a long time, was clearly not in the mood. Even if he had come to it fresh, the questions were all from left-field and generally involved somebody writing down a Lagrangian (which I won't expain now as I can hardly see now let alone type) and asking him technical questions about its consequences.

This went on for three hours by which time the debate had heated considerably, caused mainly by such obscure and circuitous questions on subjects that Glashow either wasn't an expert on, or was opposed to on grounds which I'm becoming more and more convinced are vital. These grounds are that physics isn't physics without predictions which are directly linked to experiment and can be verifiably tested. Sure, he admits, the games of string theory, and GUT model building can be fun, but are they science if they don't make firm predictions that can be tested within our lifetimes?

After all this we went for another banquet dinner, this time in a Cantonese style restaurant. I guess we must have tried something like 60 dishes today. The other problem is that though the beer is weak, the waiters keep topping up your glass while you're not looking which means that a single drink can end up being quite a lot. Anyway, I must rest now. Apologies for the rambling nature of this post but this is a true reflections of how I'm currently feeling!

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Finally, I've managed to take some photos this morning on the way into work. Some of them didn't come out so well as I had to take them pretty quickly before getting caught up in the waves of people. So here they are:
There are always at least two groups of people doing what I presume is Tai Chi in the morning. They were both very happy for me to take their photos but I was a little far away to get good shots.

Next is a signpost that I walk past every day and it still makes me chuckle:

This is the path out of the campus I take with a million other people and the second one is the little stall that I get my breakfast from every morning. I've still no idea what I'm eating but it tastes pretty good:Anyway, I wrote the following after another long day yesterday. I'm hoping that Friday I'll have broadband in the flat and so won't need to play blogger pingpong any more!


We had a question and answer session with Glashow today for the postgrads and postdocs which showed some interesting differences, though perhaps very generalised, between Chinese students and British students. I guess the first thing I noticed is related to the fact that hierarchy is so important in Chinese society. Respect for one's elders and betters is a large part of everyday life. This is certainly something I can easily accept but I hadn't realised to what extent this would paralyse some of the students in front of Glashow. The questions could be about anything from the future and past of physics to the relationship between teaching and research and into the other sciences as well. I asked one question about the LHC (see previous post for explanation) but really wanted to ask another and thought it better not to on political grounds. I wanted to know his opinion on space exploration and whether or not it was a worthy cause for spending such large quantities of money. I didn't though because if his opinion was that it was a waste of time and cash, this would have looked pretty bad for the Chinese who are currently trying to repeat the trips that were made by the US and Russia 35 years ago.

The question that really surprised me was in relation to one of the students asking how much time Glashow spent studying as a grad student. His answer was that he spent very little time with his head in books or writing on bits of paper but he spent his whole time thinking about physics, whatever he was doing. He said that some of his best ideas were formulated with Iliopolous on a beach in Mexico or Scuba diving far away from the office. The student simply couldn't understand this and asked how it was possible to think without reading a paper or doing a calculation. This shocked both me and Glashow as it appeared that to all the students and lecturers present, the idea of letting your mind wander and think freely was completely alien. If you weren't working on a homework problem or diligently reading a paper, you couldn't possibly be thinking. This explains why the days are currently 8am to 7pm (with breaks for lunch and dinner).

I signed my contract today and was a little shocked (though it didn't come completely unexptectedly) that the only holidays we are allowed are the national holidays which make up a total of 18 days a year (I may be in a Saturday morning meeting on Christmas day!). I've been told that if I want to travel around the country this may be possible to take a few more days but I will have to apply in writing to the head of department to take this time off. C'est la vie. On the up side my calculation is giving me some pretty interesting answers at the moment so working such long hours is currently quite enjoyable.

A brief beard report:

Due to adverse weather conditions, the beard is back.

Here ends the beard report.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

New experiences everyday and I think this will continue for some time.

This morning we had a lecture from Sheldon Glashow to the Chinese academy of sciences (of which I guess there must be about 5000-10000 people from grad students to professors. This place is huge!). The lecture was on luck versus design in scientific descovery and was a superb speech. I'd recommend anyone to see him if you get the chance. It was pretty much a history lesson of the most important discoveries in science of the last 400 years and how intuition and serendipity have played their parts in its progress.

Lunch was the other new experience today. I went with a couple of guys from the office to a local Hunan restaurant. Hunan province is near Sezchuan province. I was aware that the latter had a spicy cuisine but didn't know that this paled in comparison to Hunan food. Very tasty but packed full of very spicy chillies. Just right for today's weather. Anyway, this restaurant dismissed for me the things I'd read that said that Chinese eating dog was a myth for dog was indeed on the menu. A pooch stew for a mere two pounds. I'm not sure if that's good value or not! (Joanna, stop reading here) As I know that several of my friends would never speak to me again if I consumed dog, we went for a beef dish and a chicken's feet dish. I can assure you that eating chicken's feet with chopsticks is far from simple. You have to get over the Western dislike for fat and cartilage to see that they're actually not too bad.

I'm planning this weekend's excursions into the city at the moment so anyone who has been to Beijing and can recommend their highlights, I would be interested to know.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The guy in the flat next to mine is currently either playing Chinese classical flute music very well or Western classical flute music very badly. I'm not too sure but either way it's a bit of a racket. At some point I'd like to go to a classical Chinese opera though I've been told that it's a one time experience only.

Sheldon Glashow (who according to the itp website is a nobelist, something to which I greatly aspire!) arrived today and has been followed by eager Chinese photographers almost constantly. We were all introduced to him and then eight of us went of to Lunch in the VIP suite again (getting a bit tedious now). Another fantastic lunch, this time with beer being forced on us. Sheldon seems very friendly though the talk at the table felt a bit awkward. I don't know if the other postdocs were just shy but they didn't say much. I wasn't sure if this was ettiquete and we were supposed to let the head of department do all the talking. I asked a few questions and nobody seemed put off by this. Anyway, apart from that it's been an 11 hour day in the office and I'm now feeling pretty shattered. I have however found a source of decent coffee so my hope that being forced into a place where I couldn't obtain any would mean I'd lose my dependency seems to have failed at the first hurdle.

This evening we went for dinner at the student canteen and had two huge bowls of dumplings for about 25p. Not bad though I'm going to have to find something other than dumplings to eat for dinner soon as it appears that they don't provide sufficient ruffage for a Western stomach!

I've just come back from a quick walk around the campus and to the local shops. It's pretty cold outside but I'm struck by the number of families outside enjoying themselves. Playing games, cycling, even jogging, but all genuinly having a good time. Each morning when I walk into the department, there are large groups of people practicing Tai Chi. Stereotyped though it may be it really does seem to keep them fit and healthy. As I walked in this morning dressed in jumper, scarf, gloves, etc. I passed a group of 60+ year old women practicing Chinese Kung fu with swords. Not like the wooden kendo sticks that people seem to use in the UK, but genuine, metal, sharp-looking swords. I guess the business with families is partly to do with the history of the country that the family unit was the strongest bond and especially that even now, large gatherings are frowned upon and exercise with three family members is the best way to spend the cold evenings. The one child rule may seem very cruel to Western eyes but from what I've been reading, it has been part of the saviour of modern China. As the population hit 1.2 billion, future estimates clearly showed that the country just wouldn't manage with the trend and something had to be done. This has meant some very harsh times, especially for daughters but it has stabilised the country to a huge extent.

Even with this stabilisation, it's amazing to see what a city with 14 million people can do. I passed a barrier in the middle of the road the other day which was being painted at the time. Had this been done in England, one, perhaps two people would have done the job. Here there were thirty people and it meant that a huge stretch of fence was completed in a morning. Mao's tomb was built with a million volunteers and I'm sure such a project would have taken many years to complete in the UK but here it took just a few months. Perhaps the city really will be transformed by 2008.

Monday, November 07, 2005

This post is going up at the same time as the previous one because at the moment I'm writing these in my flat and posting in the office.

A full day today and I’m pleased to say that my Sunday was not spent in the department. Last night there was a huge wind that made walking anywhere almost impossible because of the brick dust blowing around. This did however have a massive effect on the weather which went from practically no visibility yesterday to a fantastically bright day today. These are photos from my window taken yesterday and today:

After a rather jet-lag effected nights sleep I went into the centre of Beijing with a Taiwanese postdoc from the department who lives in the same block as me. Not only is he a nice guy but he also speaks Mandarin fluently so though I did a bit of Chinese practice today, it was made a lot easier by his help. We took a cab to the Forbidden City where we looked around for a couple of hours. It’s strange that as I’ve been speaking to people and reading about China for the last few months it is, so far at least, exactly as expected. The Forbidden City is indeed spectacular and vast and absolutely rammed with tourists, mainly Chinese. Here are a few photos from the couple of hours we spent in the grounds:

It is said to take around three days to explore fully and with 800 individual buildings, that’s no surprise. Many of them are however the same and though I will certainly go back to explore in more detail, I felt I got a pretty good idea of the place.

We then went to Tiananmen Square which is absolutely vast with Mao’s mausoleum near the centre. His tomb is built slap-bang on the intersection of the Chinese energy lines marking the centre of their universe. Unsurprisingly this doesn’t half bugger up the Feng Shui of, well, the whole universe! The tomb was closed by the time we arrived but I definitely want to go and see it at some point. Mao was embalmed by the best embalmers in the world, from Vietnam and is ‘on ice’, only being raised in his glass sarcophagus for a few hours during the day. You file past him quickly and solemnly. Smiling is strictly prohibited and I’m afraid photos are not allowed.

After not going to the tomb, we went to find some food and went to one of the many Peking duck restaurants in the area near the square. Though there were a few Westerners in the Forbidden City, I was the only one around once getting out of the grounds and we were treated with a certain amount of distain in the restaurant. After half a duck each and some vegetables, the likes of which I’d never seen, we had enough energy to explore a bit further in the area south of the square. In my guide book it talked about a famous pickle shop which we never found and we seemed to miss the natural history museum, complete with pickled people. We did however walk for a few hours just taking in the cacophony and olfactory barrage in the shopping streets.

My Taiwanese friend, Feng, was in need of a coffee which is practically impossible to find in China. We’d missed the Starbucks in the forbidden city (I kid you not) which is said to be the only place it’s possible to get a decent roast, but eventually we did find a very posh hotel which did serve coffee. When I say coffee, when Feng asked, they looked a bit sheepish and bought out a small plastic bag from under the counter with a couple of the type of coffee sachets you find in hotel rooms. This being the only option, we ended up having instant coffee in some very fine china tea cups in the middle of a swanky hotel tea lounge. It’s always nice to blend in with a foreign culture.

After a caffeine hit, we walked back North towards the opera house which is currently being built. From the projected photos it looks spectacular but at the moment it’s hard to get excited about a large dome. I suppose the brits have been let down by a large dome before, perhaps that’s why it doesn’t stir anything in me yet. I would have some photos but the batteries I bought yesterday for a great price only lasted a dozen shots.

Anyway, enough for now, I’m currently typing this wearing two fleeces in my apartment still feeling pretty chilly. Apparently they will turn on the heating in a couple of weeks so I shall have to warm my hands over the gas stove until then.

Sitting here in my room at the end of full day one. Having had a reasonable nights sleep last night I woke at about six and came straight into the office as I presumed it would be warmer there than in my apartment which for the moment is true. Dressed in a few layers now I’m quite cozy and have just bought a pot and some tea which is warming me up nicely. I wrote my last post this morning before the Saturday morning seminar. I presumed this would be a reasonably relaxing affair and after I stood up to introduce myself the seminar proper started. Three hours later the introduction to supersymmetry, cp violation and rare B decays was over and we had our Chinese take-out sitting around chatting. I thought it was all over but was then told that one of the students was about to have an oral exam and everyone else was going to stay so I could if I wanted. It seemed like poor form to skulk off on my first day even if it was a Saturday so I stayed. Up came the slide titles “introduction to the standard model of cosmology”. A talk I’ve seen many times before…never however have I seen a two hour version in Mandarin! I think it was only supposed to be an hour but people got into a big argument half way through (about what I’ve no idea!) and so it continued. Anyway, at the end of this five hours of talks eating into my first Saturday which was set aside for resting and seeing the area I was asked if I wanted to give a talk in two weeks time which it looks like I’m doing. There are no strings theorists who come to this meeting so my talk will be a complete introduction to the AdS/CFT correspondence which sounds like fun to me. Apparently I can take several hours if I want. Hooray.

Anyway, the rest of the day was spent doing a bit of shopping, walking around the area and catching up on a bit of sleep. I’ve had another delicious meal this evening of dumplings, the contents of which are a guess. Pork I think. tomorrow I’m planning on heading to the Forbidden city and surrounding area with a Taiwanese guy from the office who does speak Mandarin and hopefully will insure that we get there without taking a horribly circuitous route.

Just to give an impression of the area around here, here are some photos of the campus. The first is of the enormous apartment blocks which must house getting on for 1000 students each. My block is the small one in the background (only 17 floors). The second photo is of the department with the sun peaking through the fog and smog.

I think that today it’s also a little foggy which is exaggerating the extent of the smog but it’s pretty dire whatever. I’ll be truly astounded if all of this can be cleaned up by 2008 which is the promise.

Anyway, as full day one draws to a close I’d say that things are pretty good. As I said before, the work is going to be tough but hopefully everyone else’s enthusiasm will be a good motivation for me. At the moment I’m not sure when I’m going to be able to fit in Mandarin lessons but I’ll see what I can sort out on Monday.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

So as I sit here writing my first blog post since leaving Oxford for the big Chinese adventure, I eagerly await the next two years. My plane has just landed in Beijing and outside my room the rain is falling and the smog of pollution is enough to make your skin oily and grubby in just a few moments. A secretary from the department came to pick me up from the airport and take me to where I will be living...so tell us I hear you say, what is Beijing like on your first day there...well there's a minor problem. I'm currently sitting in the Jury's Inn five minutes drive from Heathrow. My plane has indeed landed, unfortunately I was not on it. Having booked my ticket in September, come October they decided to change the Wednesday flight times to 13.10 from 16.50. My travel agent who should have informed me of this minor alteration failed to do so and so is paying for my accomodation and inconvenience. As I arrived at Heathrow at 13.10 and the BA staff stumbled around trying to work out why my ticket said 16.50, it was all I could do to laugh at the hiccup that is the beginning of jonstraveladventures. I'm booked on the same flight tomorrow and have e-mailed the Secretary in Beijing to inform her of the changes. Unfortunately because of the time changes she will not get this e-mail until she turns up panicked in the department wondering how the tall man with the big nose could have blended into the crowd and been missed so easily. A farce indeed and it gives me just a little longer to get myself into a state of nervous worry about what oddities await. I shall keep you posted.


I guess I wrote that about 36 hours ago. It's now 7.50 and I'm in the office...in Beijing. Finally I arrive and somehow what I've seen so far is just as I expected though no let down by any means.

Arriving at the airport, the second I stepped out of the plane, the pollution hit me. At the moment the visibility is down to about 200 yards but this should pick up a bit through the day. I was met by the secretary from the department and driven first to my apartment which is on the fourth floor of a 15-20 story block in the middle of the accommodation campus which is a crazy place in itself. We then went to the department where I was duly shown to everybody and then headed for lunch with the head and a few others. We went to the VIP lounge in the dining hall and, though I had eaten breakfast not long ago, had a feast. This included some seriously fresh fish which I heard sploshing about in a bucket as they bought it to our table to ask if it was OK before cooking it. Had a decent chat with the head and it looks like the next two years are going to be both very hard work, but if all works out, extremely rewarding. For those who've heard of these things, they're trying to model the next few years of the department on the KITP institute in the states which runs long courses on very high level maths and physics.

Not only is the world string theory conference in this department next year but they are getting some pretty eminent people out just about every week. Arriving tomorrow is Sheld0n Glashow, winner of the 1979 Nobel prize for physics along with Abdus Salam and Steve Weinberg. The piece of work for which they were awarded the prize is one of the most important pieces of the theoretical physics discovered this century. The theory they came up with was the unification of the weak and electromagnetic forces into a single force. Anyway, it should be very interesting to meet him and though I don't believe he's currently active in his research, it will be interesting to see what he's up to now.

So, my apartment is larger than I expected but there are a few downsides to it. It's currently pretty cold and I can't get the water above body temperature which is a pain. I've been told I'll be able to get broadband up and running soon so hopefully skype is on the cards. There are a fair number of facilities on the vast campus and I'll hopefully check them out soon. I managed to go shopping yesterday in some of the campus shops, in Chinese no less and came back with pretty much what I wanted. So far I've only found one cockroach but this doesn't bother me too much. I've got a small kitchen though I doubt I'll be using it that much as food is so cheap to buy from the street. Not sure what I ate this morning but it was very tasty.

The other thing of particular note was that I finally had a chance to see what surprises Tim and Adam had got me for my leaving present. They had given me a 1GB USB stick with 'stuff' on it which I was only allowed to look at once I arrived. I had a look last night and unsurprisingly it's superb, with a video message, photos, games, mp3s and some more scurrilous material which I could only expect from the likes of Inman and Cherry. I'll hopefully put some of the photos on the blog as, several thousand miles from home yesterday, they bought a big grin to my face. Many thanks guys.

Anyway, we've got a meeting this morning at 9 (meetings every Saturday morning!) so I shall have to head off soon but will hopefully put some photos of the apartment and surrounding area on ASAP.