Friday, December 30, 2005

Well, bugger (which incidentally is the first word I ever uttered much to my mother's embarrassment and coincidentally will be my final word as I realise at the age of 103 that I've just flicked my cigar onto the petrol tank of my powerboat). I seem to have shot myself in the foot with my own petard, if you'll allow me to mix metaphors in order to give a sense of how much I feel I've dug my own grave. I've been attempting to get the group active, confident, enthusiastic, motivated and, believe it or not, it seems after much prodding and poking to be working (I have an almost full seminar time table until April). However, when asked "do I want to give a performance at the spring festival party?", my heart sank as I realised what I'd done. It would be ultimately hypocritical of me at this point to say "well, emmm, actually I don't really enjoy performing or being on stage much" (even though I've given four hours of seminars since I arrived), I fear I must follow my own gospel.

It's a fact, about as factually factive as facts get that I sure as hell ain't gonna sing (their first request) and I ain't gonna dance (their second - something I'm happy to do in a club but not on my own in front of 300, yes 300 physicists, students and families). I would juggle but I think that what with the Chinese being placed closely behind the Russians at being a bit nifty with the old clubs, I wouldn't impress anyone. So as far as I can think, with my clothes staying firmly on, the only thing left is to read something. My first thought which actually quite appeals is to read either Edward Lear or Lewis Carol. I think it's going to have to be The Walrus and the Carpenter or The Jabberwocky. Not sure how nonsense poetry will go down with people who have no idea what I'm saying most of the time anyway. This could go one of two this space.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

So, as we quickly begin the final descent into the New Year, I crawl my way simultaneously towards the two month mark and it feels like a good to time assess, or reassess, my life here at the moment, and indeed this blog. The pace of life is no slower than it was when I arrived and began writing about my experiences here but the frequency of new things to try and to write about is inevitably decreasing. That's not to say that they don't happen with some regularity or that I've stopped looking but my life here is now pretty full from wake to sleep with 'stuff' of all forms. I hope to continue exploring at the weekends and return with an abundance of photos but I think that the weeks will be less vociferously or frequently communicated than they have been till now. I do, however hope that people will continue to leave comments which are a huge pleasure to see when I arrive in the morning.

News for the moment: we sacked our Ayi. Why? Well because though she was jolly round and jolly jolly, her cooking tasted identical whatever we requested, her cleaning was worse than mine (this is quite a feat), she broke my toilet and tried to blame me and though we were paying her far more than we had been advised, she seemed to do everything with an edge of reluctance that made the evening meal less than enjoyable. So, three weeks in, we let her go. It's also no cheaper than eating out in the end and I may get someone to come and clean the flat once a week sometime in the future.

In another strange turn of events I drafted a letter this week to one of the best known scientists in the world from another of the best known scientists in the world. Don't ask, suffice it to say this has earned me a position on a committee which I may comment on more when I discover what horrors this entails.

As I've been so shattered recently in the evenings with various meetings, lessons and trips to the gym in an attempt to work off a few of the vast numbers of calories I consume, I've been watching a lot of movies. Some superb ones indeed. Unless specifically requested, I shan't give in depth reviews, but recently, the films I've seen and can recommend are:
1) The last life in the universe - Very sad, beautifully shot Thai film in Japanese, Thai and broken English.
2) The house of sand and fog - Surprisingly moving story about a woman and a family and a some fog...with some sand.
3) Happy together - Not the best Wong Kar Wai film I've seen but not bad. Gay Hong Kong couple in Argentina not being very happy together.
4) Old Boy - Korean film directed by Park Chan-Wook with hints of camera work and music of Jeunet but one or two more deaths. Another genuinely moving piece of Asia extreme.
5) Billabong Odyssey - Documentary about big wave surfing. Worth a watch not only for the first scene of a 70ft wave being surfed.

TH - I haven't managed to get hold of 2046 yet but will give a full review when I do (if I understand it myself).

So since writing the above, a minor triumph has occurred. I managed to go to a hair dressers on my own and leave with something resembling the haircut I was after - this was done with the use of Chinese, hand-waving and minimal flashes of panic in my eyes. I can't say I've cracked it but this was a goal I'd set myself. In fact, with the two hours a week I have (which is really all I can manage) I'm not going to become anywhere near fluent with Chinese. Most people take six months, two hours a day to get to a level where they can hold a reasonable conversation in this most frustrating of languages. However, I'm not giving up hope, will continue with the characters, the intonations, the lack of tense and existence of many words which have no direct translation and hope that in a couple of years time I will at least have taken steps in the right direction.

Tonight is the group bonding exercise where I attempt to prove that I can pretend to be a normal human being. Badminton and tabletennis is planned followed by a meal at a restaurant. I want to be able to go and have a normal chat with the students though I have to admit topics are limited and this is a real quandary for me. I may talk about this some other time.

Anyway, for now I'm attempting to read papers before I attempt a calculation myself which may or may not be possible and I may or may not waste a couple of months of my life on. This is the precarious route to discovery in theoretical physics. I've spent many months on a single calculation before only to keep hitting the same (computational in this case) brick walls and in the end have to give up. In the process I learnt a reasonable amount but could have done many other things in those six months. This sort of thing is completely inevitable in this field however so I don't worry too much about idling my way down these theoretical blind alleys if, every now and then, I see the beam of an answer shining around a corner. To work per chance to dream.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas one and all!!! (and indeed happy Chanukah)

So, first a photo from last weekend when I visited a book fair at the worker's stadium. A lot of rubbish though some interesting overpriced design books almost tempted me.

Christmas day itself this year is a bit of a write-off for me but fear not, the last few days have been great and it's only because of my attempted unpushiness that today nothing is planned. I may find a cafe later and read a good book. This is fine.

So the last few days have included some extremes of parties from the very worst to the very surprising.

Friday night, another guy and myself had organised a get together in Wudaokou (very near where I live) with a couple of the forums. Altogether there where only eight or so of us but an enjoyable night nonetheless. However, on the way to meeting this group I felt it churlish of me to turn down a party I'd been invited to which was along the way. This was a 'carnival' organised by my gym for its members and friends and as I've met a few friendly people from there I thought I'd show my face. It was in one of the largest clubs in the area but I should have been somewhat worried that this party was from 7.00 till 10.30. At 8 it was in full swing, but what a bizarre swing it was. As I entered the main room, lights dimmed, a good few hundred people around a dancefloor and some nondescript music tweating from the speakers, I headed to the bar, ordered a beer and turned to face the crowd. Of the 500 or so people there I was faced with a sea of somewhat surprised people, all holding 'protocol sweat' health drink. I was the only unremorseful alcoholic in the room so it appeared. So we went to look at what was going on on the dancefloor and the answer was ten people wearing Santa hats looking distinctly awkward dancing with each other while the other 490 people looked on delighted. I simply couldn't fathom what was going on but my bemusement was briefly laid to rest as the lone guitar player stopped accompanying the Chinese semi-dance music and the dance floor cleared. After this there was some truly atrocious singing on stage following by a belly dancer with no belly in sight and a man jumping around, semi-clad, fighting off invisible enemies with kung-fu and considerable gusto. After finishing my beer and making sure all the invisible enemies had definitely been pummelled off the stage, I took my cue and left not really understanding what bizzare event I'd just witnessed.

Anyway, the evening improved distinctly with some decent musicians at an open-mike night followed by some fun dancing at 'Propaganda', a new, student oriented (read cheap drinks) club in my area.

Slightly hung-over, pretty tired and in the knowledge that it was Christmas eve, I didn't make it to the Saturday morning seminar in Mandarin on a subject I've seen many times before (the standard model of cosmology). I did make it in a little later to catch up with some e-mails and then head to the gym. At this point I was feeling somewhat disappointed that it looked like Christmas was going to be a complete write-off on all accounts this year. However things soon changed when I chatted to a German friend after the gym and arranged to come with them for Christmas eve dinner. I had no idea what was involved but this option sounded infinitely better than doing nothing. It turned out to be in a well known Belgian restaurant, and our table was a pretty decent mix of nationalities. Of the 16 of us, there were German, Dutch, Polish, Chinese, Singaporean, Maccau and a Brit. My dinner was a very pleasant (though expensive) surprise and I went for one of my favourite Benelux dishes of endives wrapped in ham in a cheese sauce washed down with a decent glug of some Chinese red wine. The people around me where the Singaporeans and Chinese who are all architects working for English architecture companies in Beijing. A really interesting bunch of people and it was very refreshing to chat about things I rarely get to talk about. They're all hugely enthusiastic about design and architecture and gave me a wealth of information about some of the really exciting things going on in the world at large and especially in Beijing. One of them is working on a project which, among the many thousands of building projects in Beijing, is almost certainly the most exciting. He told me about the new CCTV (Central Chinese Television) tower which is starting its ascent into the Beijing skyline. China is one of the few places that something as daring as this project would actually get done because, the company being run by the government has ultimate say-so and there's no possibility of backers throwing the towel in or arguments between rival interests. At 700 million usd it's a vast, exciting, daring design which will be finished by the Olympics and I can't wait to see it.

As an example of the man-power available in China, the 400 thousand cubic metres of concrete for the base of one of the two towers were delivered and deposited by a continues stream of trucks, three a minute, for three solid days... that's it, given enough people, stuff just happens at the click of the fingers, awe inspiring!

There were no set plans for after the dinner but the architects were all heading to a party in the 798 art district and I was welcome to come, so I did. 798 is a large area to the East of the city which used to be a vast assembly of munitions factories which worked as a commune, housing, and feeding an army of factory workers to arm China in the time of Mao. These are no longer used but have been converted into a really exciting group of studios for local artists. This is the sort of thing I really hadn't expected to exist in a place like China but there's a flourishing bohemian community of modern artists, experimental theatre groups and bizarre music production which is, at least to some extent, tolerated. So just before midnight, we arrived at one of these studios and sat down in the cafe, darkened, with atmospheric music, Czech cinema projected on one of the outside walls, drinking some excellent wine produced by the owner of one of the buildings and chatting about the fascinating projects going on at the moment. We also looked around the studio which was of a furniture design company, or so I thought. However, all the furniture appeared to be in a completely different styles and there seemed to be no coherence to the design. China, land of reverse engineering has many companies like this. It's not a design company in reality but they take design classics and make replicas for a quarter the price of the real thing. There were a few very famous pieces of design that I did recognise but I was assured by my architect friends that they were all very very well known pieces in the design world. It's a strange mix of a very bohemian feel with what is essentially an engineering company with the facade of design. Anyway, we stayed till almost two, toasting the newly arrived Christmas and chatting, including talking about a ski-trip which I'm going to go on in just over a weeks time. There are many ski-resorts with an hour or two of Beijing and I'm thoroughly looking forward to giving snow-boarding a go.

So because last night was such an interesting evening with great people, I'm not too bothered that nothing is arranged for today. Shortly I will go into the office to chat with family on the webcam as currently I can't connect at home and after that I will see what's going on in my favourite cafe. Certainly a different Christmas day but I had fully expected this when I came out here and am not disappointed with spending a chilled-out afternoon not watching the queen's speech. Plus, I've just opened my presents from my family and now have a fine selection of Christmas food and a fleece scarf which have bought a big smile to my face.

Merry Christmas to all.



So of course, as plans always change, I ended up going to the temple of heaven this afternoon. A great Christmas day stroll through some very impressive buildings and beautiful tree-lined avenues. A few photos including me along with brand new scarf.

Chinese traditional singers doing their thing.

Strange stars on the end of each twig...a possible Christmas tree for the non green fingered?

Friday, December 23, 2005

Feeling more upbeat since last time, almost certainly due to some impressive alarm clock denial.

While taking 'being quite busy' to extremes, my literary intake has been hit hard. I tend to sustain myself back home by munching my through a novel a week but as I spend so much of my day attempting to digest copious quantities of abstract information, regurgitating equations, sampling the choice papers of the day and on occasion trying to cook up my own tasty theories, I must satisfy my longings in the evenings simply with a little amuse bouche to quell my appetite for pages. As one of my favourite pastimes is to sink into an engulfing sofa in a cafe with a good book and an endless supply of coffee I'm delighted to feel that I now have a 'local' where I can do just that to a good mix of jazz and electronica...I'm a happy chap (sixtyten - Boards of Canada). I'm crawling my way enjoyably through The Ground Beneath her Feet, getting exponentially closer to the point where Rushdie finishes and my Swedish fails me as my modern palimpsest turns turtle and I lose the plot completely (reference ). I'm getting urges for another Steinbeck soon but I'm not sure that finding one of the less well-known titles will be easy here.

-Me? Obsessed with food and books? Certainly not!

In the mean time, I satisfy my cultural meanderings with ripped off DVDs, something that I genuinely struggle with morally but not enough to deprive myself of good movies. Another Takeshi Kitano film (Brother) a couple of days ago was a welcome addition to the library. Having survived a serious motorcycle accident several years ago, Beat Takeshi (Takeshi Kitano's stage name) has a twitch and series of facial expressions unlike any actor I've ever seen. Again, he plays the silent, disturbed type in a Yakuza film set partly in the States. Violent as always but with enough subplot and emotion to make it another great film. His film Dolls, is still one of my favourite movies of all time and any Samurai film with an all singing all dancing musical number at the end gets my vote every time (Zatoichi).
I was aware that he had a wide range of talents but his info in Wikipedia is pretty astonishing.

I'm also managing to track down some more Wong Kar Wai films and have still to see 2046 which I'm really looking forward to.

Plans for this weekend are now afoot and I, together with another couple of people, am attempting to organise a big night out in the area that I live. Will see if people catch the bait and show up for another great Friday. Christmas plans are less than ethereal and I've no idea what's going to happen on Christmas day. Me thinks a big fat nothing but I'll see if anything magically appears over the weekend. (I want to tell you - The Beatles).

In the mean time I've now written the group's website, people seem happy to have someone taking charge but I think they may leave the 'volunteering themselves to talk' to others! I've also nearly written my first paper since getting here. Hopefully will release at the beginning of January, fingers crossed. I don't think that this will blow anyone away but I think that there are some really fun results, plus lots of good diagrams which I'm always in favour of.

So I promised some pictures from last weekend and here's a great one, courtesy of Yi He, of Carl Cox in the thick of things, surrounded by a thousand muses. There is a picture of me dancing but I shall spare you the horror and me the shame of such a shot.


A minor techie tip: I was finding that Windows Media player when set on shuffle kept playing the same tunes again and again. This is because the randomisation algorithm is very basic. If instead of playing on shuffle you queue up all your music, then go to 'now playing' and click on the 'now playing list' button in the top right and shuffle it from there. It will randomise all your songs in one go and you won't hear the same one twice. This means 15 days solid listening for me now until I hear the same track again. I use media player simply because it's simple to install the audioscrobbler plugin which lets you keep a record on the web of all the tunes you listen to and see what sort of things other people who have similar tastes like: Like this.

Mine is currently pretty skewed as I've only just realised the simple randomisation trick.

Monday, December 19, 2005

I write this purely for my own catharsis. I warn you not to take it seriously.

I woke up this morning after a superb weekend feeling somewhat anticlimactic. This is a combination of several things. Tiredness is top of the list caused by having a big session at the gym yesterday evening and not a great nights sleep. Secondly perhaps is that having had six weeks of glorious sunshine, the pollution has rolled in over the last couple of days and the sky is looking a little dimmer and little grayer than usual. Third is almost certainly that I'm now filling my schedule to overflowing which feels somewhat constricting. I've managed to get the group activities into some sort of shape, have written a website, am organising reading groups and seminars, various meals for a miscellany of people (It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry - Bob Dylan) and somehow I'm now involved with an expat forum and will shortly be organising weekend fun for fellow Beijingers and visitors. This is on top of trying to finish a paper off this week, learn Chinese and teach English. It's also Christmas or so I'm told but it doesn't really feel like it now. I have a seminar on Saturday morning that I should almost certainly attend as I'm trying to give a good impression and get the group active.

So all of this means that, just as expected, some things are getting to me a bit at the moment. I'm still loving being out here and would change almost nothing given a choice. However for my own release these are some things that are currently niggling my overtired brain:
1) I get pretty wound up by getting e-mails with subjects like: "important notice for postdocs" with the bulk of the e-mail in Chinese. I know this is a problem of my own making but it's pretty damn frustrating and happens about three or four times a day.
2) We went for a great meal last Thursday at a superb restaurant, excellent food, great wine, all good, but it can feel pretty isolating sitting there for two hours while all you hear is Chinese. I was let in on two group conversations, one of which was to do with the traffic accident rate and the other, unconnected was to do with the disgraceful state of the safety of mines here. Don't know if I should be getting some sort of hint. Anyway, I have to make a concerted effort not to retract into my own thoughts in events like this (which happen daily) as I'm aware that I could easily become somewhat withdrawn. I generally feel with things like this that an awareness of the problem and a thorough analysis of the sentiment is usually enough to avert the worst outcome. Hence I'm not worried, just aware.
3) I'm learning the universal truth that busy people are destined to become busier and once you've accepted one responsibility, it's hard to turn down others. NE - I'm sure you know this only too well!
4) If I hear another Chinese rap version of ANY Christmas carol I'm going to start fuming - not quite true as it is inevitable. I can simply compare this experience with being trapped in New Delhi international airport for 16 hours with the same three sitar songs played on piano over and over and over. It almost drove me mad. I had to leave an Indian restaurant in Boulder this summer when one of these tunes started up and almost caused the return of my poppadom and lime pickle (Confusion - Silver Apples).
5) When I'm feeling ratty, the constant coughing, spitting and smoking in the offices is a little trying on my nerves.

Anyway, a few other bits and bobs on top of these but I'm now feeling somewhat relieved to have vented briefly. Things have improved significantly since receiving a parcel in the post this afternoon from an unknown source. All I know is that there are hints of Christmas packaging. Will see in six days.

Thanks for putting up with this minor tirade, my spleen is fully vented.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

I drag my weary head and blistered feet to my computer this morning and attempt to work out if the world really is little quieter save for a buzzing coming from some unknown direction. Last night was truly superb. As we walked into the Banana club, a barrage of opulence overwhelms the senses. When we got in at 11.00 the place was already heaving and the bass made your skin tingle as we took a tour of another of Beijing's top clubs. With seating only for those who were there with the big bucks, we took in the sights and sounds of the glitterati and pseudopunk - crimped mullets, leggings and stilettos, and wondered from room to room filled with smoke, extortionate bottles of whiskey and very attractive well dressed Beijingers. People come to impress here and do a pretty damn good job of it. After circling all the minor rooms we found ourselves overlooking the dancefloor. A pulsating mass of bodies jumping in time to waves of techno, the smoke machines and lasers adding to the deafening noise to completely blow any chance you had of thinking rational thoughts like "should I really be enjoying this?". We got onto the dancefloor which is sprung with six inch springs making it impossible to stand around and look bored as I've seen in so many other clubs meaning the whole space becomes a single miasmic entity. Somehow we made our way onto the large podium with 20 other clubbers and there we stayed for the next four hours...and what a four hours it was. I spoke before about the problem of fearing authority but I think that this has a flip-side which is hero-worship. When Carl Cox got onto the decks, the place erupted with adrenalin like this man was a god, and worship they did. As the eyes of the pill-poppers around me became more and more dilated through the night and their gurning faces took on Da Vincian proportions, we jumped more and more as the atmosphere continued to charge. As if the lasers and bass to kick your stomach from your torso weren't enough, the many videos around the room took in the crimes and misdemeanors of 1000 clubbers covered in foam and as the cages descended with leopard skin clad dancers and men wielding angles grinders to rain sparks around the bar I stood open mouthed witnessing this burlesque spectacle. My God, the Beijingers KNOW how to party. What a truly awesome night of jumping and arm-waving, twisting and gyrating and, just occasionally, leaning back against the wall to watch as these people had the time of their lives.

Photos from the evening are on their way.


So today, having recovered a little from last night by sitting in a cafe and imbibing as much caffeine in as short a time as I could manage while diving into a good book, I headed off on the metro in an unknown direction to photograph whatever flashed past the window. The train took me on a huge circle around the outskirts of the city and towards the CBD. In all it was almost an hour on the train and most of what we past was the strange mix of old and new I wrote about before. Luckily it was around sunset and though I took many more photos than this, only a few of them are worth a look. The quantity of construction is absolutely staggering with towerblock after towerblock in continuous phases of development.

So, here are some of the photos from today's random journey:

People wandering about on the frozen rivers:

A suspension bridge floating in the middle of the city. I haven't seen it close up and don't really know where it is but it's a striking sight:

We must have past many thousands of cranes. Construction managers are often somewhat reluctant to get in more cranes apparently because for the price of crane hire, you can easily get another couple of thousand workers on site - manpower is cheap.

It's rather strange going past these shells of sky scrapers which look like ghost buildings at the moment:

Again, we got a decent view of mountains with buildings in the foreground:

And a couple of sunset photos. The first going past a wooded area with leafless trees - I don't know whether this is the time of year of the pollution which means that they are leafless. I suspect the former:

The silhouettes of pylons and smoke stacks look impressive against the sunset:

Anyway, again, enough for now. I hope to go on another random journey at some point to explore some more.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Thursday, and this week feels about 20 days long so far. Really looking forward to the weekend which holds some interesting things in store, but I'll chat about them if they work out.

Another real eye-opener today (You can't go home again - DJ Shadow) when I arranged a meeting with all the students to talk about the future of group meetings. This is all with the approval of the head of the group who is worried that the students all seem so shy. The meeting was an attempt to gauge what the students wanted out of the sessions, what they would like to learn, how the sessions could be made more comfortable, an open discussion. I suggested that they come with their own ideas of how it could be made enjoyable and productive. I also didn't want to run the whole meeting but just get the ball rolling and some discussion flowing. So I started with a few suggestions, some of them sensible, some of them clearly ridiculous and chatted with them for a few minutes about my minimal experience of being a PhD student, what I'd got out of meetings and what I would have liked (Dazzling Stranger - Bert Jansch).

The trouble it seems is that not only are children taught to respect authority but they fear it. They're told to do stuff and they do it without questioning. So when I asked them for their opinion there was complete silence for a start. I realised that they might be nervous about speaking out so I gave them options and asked for a show of hands. A few hands went up but then they looked around the room and saw that they were in the minority so quickly retracted their opinions. Uncle Pee - any suggestions? I did manage to get a few of them speaking and so have arranged a few things over the next couple of weeks including an activity in the city (of their choosing) so that I can prove (or possibly fool them into believing) that I'm not that scary and they can chat to me without fear. I'm sure the fact that I speak English doesn't help matters. Unfortunately, if they want to make it in the international community and get their name known, they have to be able to present in English and the least scary place for them to do this is with a load of people they all know, perhaps.

-anyway, for now, I have a spokesperson from the group who will go around and collect opinions of outside-physics things they want to do and what they'd like to study in a reading group and a workshop, the aim of which would be to write a collective paper.

There's an interesting article by Matthew Pinsent about the sports academies out here which illustrates to some extent the relationship between pupil and teacher which I didn't find terribly surprising from what people have been telling me here. Shocking: yes, surprising: not very.

A brief picture interlude: One of the reasons that Beijing, like Mexico city has so much pollution is because of the mountains surrounding it. This has its advantages because, as I walk back from the gym and pass over a twenty lane intersection, I have this view in the distance which is pretty stunning, especially at sunset as the sun dips behind the panorama.


Physics now in italics

Just had another interesting lecture from one of the guys who is a visiting Professor here. I won't go into detail about the topic (rare B decays from minimal SUGRA models - for anyone who's interested). It made me think, as I'm constantly reminded that the state of theoretical physics is in a really strange position at the moment.

The problem is that we know that the current model of particle physics is a far from perfect theory. Unless we are to do away with certain underlying rules that we use to study the universe (unitary, causality etc.), we know that what we have is only an effective model - a model that explains the world up to a certain high energy scale but then breaks down, to be replaced by some more accurate model. The aim at the moment is partly to try and work out what this more detailed, high energy completion (or even higher energy effective theory) might be. There are many thousands of possibilities, each with their own predictions of what we should see at the next generation of particle accelerators (see post below about the LHC). The aim is to find a single theory with as few free parameters (numbers that we can change/tune by hand) to fit all of the data. The trouble is that at the moment it feels to me like the theory community is putting so much effort into building all these models (theories) and we're just standing around, waiting for the first results to come in. When they do come in, it will take some time to analyse before we can work out how many of the models that people have devoted the last ten years of their lives to, can be put on the scrap heap. It may then be that we have a large number of other models, each of which is different but may still give the same predictions to within the experimental error. Anyway, it's currently a time of limbo for many theorists while we heinously neglect our links with the experimental community. Some time in the next four years, the emphasis will change hugely and experiment will again become the driving force it really should be.

Anyway, some musings for you.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Having taken the metro for the first time today, I plan on spending a good few hours on it at some point photographing the city. It's a great way to see the bizarre intermingling of old and new, between the hutongs with their shanty feel to the skyscrapers in a continuous stream of development. There are people working everywhere, carrying, moving, sweeping, knocking down, putting up. I'm not sure how the city would be without the impending games and I wonder how much of the current gargantuan push is fuelled by the need to impress in 2008. Having been here for a month and a half now, I think that impress they will, whether or not it costs blood, sweat and tears for those on the sharp end of the orders.

The reason I got to use the metro (30p anywhere in the city and very efficient) was in order to have the shortest interview of my life:'re from England right?. Yes, that's correct. Right, when can you start? I'm in the lucky position of being a genewiiyne Brit, of which there are a shortage for teaching English. Even though I explained very carefully that I had no teaching experience at all, I will get paid more per hour for this than I get at work in a day. Two hours a week should fund most weekend activities. I'm also doing this because it will be a new experience and I'm interested to find out what language teaching is like. I'll pick up some TEFL books this weekend and hopefully start in the next couple of weeks.

Anyway, with blood pressure back to normal levels, I'm off to the gym after another 11 hour day.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

As the pace of life here settles and I stop having so many new experiences during the weekdays, the number of posts is likely to drop off a little too. I'm hoping to keep exploring at the weekends as much as possible though this weekend was pretty relaxed. Sunday was spent sitting in a cafe, reading a book and drinking extortionately priced
coffee. Just a year or so ago it was virtually impossible to get good coffee out here. Now it's pretty easy but there's still a great niche market with a huge potential. The Chinese taste is slowly being weaned onto the caffeine punch and with 13 million people still to get the buzz, there's a lot of room in the market place.

It turns out that there's a little more method in the madness to these Chinese characters than I first realised. It means that, while it's pretty difficult to remember them, there is a structure which makes it marginally easier than the random mess I first imagined. Most Chinese characters contain several parts which themselves have a meaning. Often there are just two parts. The first one gives an idea about what the word means and the second gives an idea of the pronunciation. For instance, the word for 'they' (feminine) is given by (symbol for woman)(symbol for also)(symbol for
person)(the sound-men).

The word is tamen, so even if you'd never seen the word before, you'd have a chance of guessing what it means and could at least get the second half of the sound. Saying that, the word has ten different pen strokes but at least it can be broken down. I think I've got the 15 words given to me last week now but I shall find out tomorrow.

Another photo from Friday evening. Most people had left by this point but it was a nice crowd. The beard is now in full bloom!

Pan, one of the guys who was out with us over the weekend has a great way of describing the intonations which I still find difficult to master (Ranger's command - Woody Guthrie). He's very into his music and so explains the intonation by conducting as he says a phrase. I may look a little strange waving my arms about as I speak but I'd rather do that than leave my hairdressers with a tonsure!

Because I don't have enough on my plate at the moment, I've just arranged an interview with an English language tutoring company. I hope to give a couple of hours a week tutoring which should fund my weekends. I really hadn't realised that going to bars was such an odd concept to a lot of Chinese people. Several of the Beijingers who came out with us on Friday night had never been to a bar and if they had, not more than a couple of times. I think some of them thought it a bit odd that the Westerners were all drinking beer while they sipped on their Chinese tea. A very friendly group but with a completely different idea of socialising. That said, we had a reasonable amount to talk about and will be seeing some of them again this coming weekend. It appears that not only am I shaking up the department but I'm corrupting the hardworking native Beijing population. Phill, you've taught me well!

Sunday was spent mostly trying to find places which were warmer than my apartment. Builders came around early on Sunday morning to fix the holes in my door. They managed this but with the side effect that my door is now more window than door. I'm not too bothered as I'm not planning to laze around on my balcony any time soon.


China clearly likes its unity and coherence. This is good in some ways but has detrimental affects in others. One of the strange things that I learnt when I arrived is that China is a single time-zone. If you look on a map, it should really span five time-zones but for the sake of unity, it is the same time everywhere in China. This must make things pretty odd in the far West which is furthest off the time that it really should be. When they get up, presumably it stays dark for an extra three or four hours in the morning. Apparently they tried to split it up into timezones but people were confused and the system soon failed. Anyway, another useless piece of China trivia for you there. (Mashin' on the motorway - DJ Shadow)

Incidentally, I've spoken before about the Chinese piracy problem. Within the universities there is an industry of copying textbooks. It's a difficult one though. The students simply can't afford the genuine books but I feel bad condoning the action. I guess the publishers need to set up deals with countries in which the students can't hope to own the original article otherwise. This has been done with at least one of the major academic publishers.

At the moment a single small street here renowned for selling fake clothes is being sued for around half a billion dollars by the likes of Gucci, Prada, Ralph Lauren etc. I'm guessing they will fall into the blackhole of the Chinese legal system.


Yesterday's lunch was an offally big surprise! A hotpot of untold depths of variety in both taste and texture. I am finding some things difficult to eat but I'm determined to get over what is clearly an artificial dislike of certain sensations. If a country of 1.3 billion can enjoy a bit of tripe as if it were a fine fillet of steak, I want a piece of the action.

Today's lunch was a fine plate of this. It's pretty tough to get any poultry anywhere here at the moment and this is a pretty good alternative.

Anyway, must get back to the Chinese studies.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

More photos you ask for, more you shall receive.

Last night was another enjoyable get together, this time in Houhai. This is an area surrounding a lake which I presume, ten years ago, was a pleasant idyll of golden leaves and people ice skating in the winter. Today it is a collection of 50 or so bars, all of which offer pretty much the same loud music, overpriced drinks, with a mix of Westerners and Chinese being pushed and pulled to jump from one bar to another. Loud though it was, it was an enjoyable night meeting some new people and winding down after a hard week in the office. The second bar we went to had a live band, and it appears that I've discovered where 80s camp now resides. Though genuinly talented musicians, I'm not convinced the woman had any idea what she was singing and a pitch perfect rendition of "I can't wiv,if wiving is without you" was a version I've not heard before.

There may be some more photos of the evening to come.

So today, I got some photos of things that have intrigued me for a while now.

It's a strange thought: what would be five floors straight underground with double doors each a foot thick and enough food to last 100 people a good while?

Well, in this case there are three answers. The first answer is that you would clearly put a nuclear bunker forty foot underground with two foot of steel between you and the outside world with food to last some considerable time. The second answer is our local campus supermarket where I go everyday to buy tea, water, fruit etc. The third answer is Pan, one of the guys who came along to the bars with us all last night. He's studying law in Beijing, but that's a three hour bus ride from the bars we were at! Anyway, it amuses me that everyday I buy my groceries in a nuclear fall-out shelter. I'm told it's because the members of the Chinese academy of science are a highly valued lot and they want to do their best to keep them alive in case of, well WWIII!

The next set of photos are something that I walk past every day on my way to work. I guess I was just not expecting this sort of thing in a place with the politics of China. In some parts of society democracy is warmly accepted, especially in the scientific community where of course a healthy discourse between all levels of the hierarchy is a progressive force.

Last and possibly least is a picture of me, standing in -10 with another -5 or so of windchill on top of that doing my best to stop my eyes from freezing in the wind. I'm wearing the warmest jacket I've ever owned which does a stirling job of stopping me getting hypothermia.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Take fifty cloves of garlic and a whole catfish (this is no minnow of an animal). Place in an iron pot with a miscellany of root vegetables, some chilli and pepper. Place in the middle of the table on a ceramic hot plate and heat until the fish begins to curl with heat. Pour over a sauce of dubious origin and perplexing viscosity. Heat for another ten minutes, consume the contents of said pot leaving a goodly quantity of fish bones, flesh, and vegetables. Pour in more stock then refill the pot with leaves of variable shades of green and subtle hints of aniseed. Add fried flat bread, cubes of duck's blood with a texture of tofu and scoff till you can scoff no more. All for a pound per person. (Bringing it all back home - Bob Dylan).

This was in a Beijing style restaurant today and it's great to have food prepared in front of you as I'd love to be able to recreate some of these wonderful dishes back home some day. I'm also really hoping to learn a good deal from our aye.

Other than arriving home to wonderful smells and excellent food on the table, yesterday's highlight was to unwind in the sauna for a few minutes. The flat is lovely but I have no really comfy place to sit and read a book as everything is built pretty hard round here. So, to sit and perspire the week's stresses away was a great release.


Well, the English lesson which I was supposed to be giving this week was called off at the last minute as the students all have end of year assessments which they're all desperately cramming for. This is probably good for both them and me because it gives me some more time to come up with some fun games to play.

I find it a little confusing; I find the working practices here so alien, as I expected. I'm certainly no expert in effective working practices though I have my own techniques, I'm well aware that different people learn in very different ways. It just seems that so many people here may be stifled by the ethic of having your head in a book for so many hours a day. Of course this is my prejudice having come from a system that gives a great deal of freedom for people to study as they want which is great if people know which way they want to work but not so great if people need a little more guidance. Here, some people seem to become computational machines with great recall but less ability to think at a tangent. I think of myself to some extent the opposite - which has both its good and bad sides. I can't claim that I've read nearly as many papers as I should have or have worked through all the problems relevant to my topic area. I do however feel that I am reasonably quick at thinking of unorthodox routes around a problem. I guess the point I'm trying to make is that in Jon's experimental lab where he can play with people's lives, I'd be really interested to see what would happen if these incredibly bright young minds with stunning powers of concentration and recall were allowed to roam free for a while. I think that this would probably be a complete disaster as some would just fumble and wouldn't know how to free themselves and perhaps those who could would go off at such a tangent that they'd never be seen again. I'm sure that if the opposite were done to me I wouldn't work well and would feel stifled rather than motivated to work hard.

In fact, having read through this paragraph again, I think that I'm misrepresenting the system to some extent. People in the department aren't forced to work so many hours a day and I don't think that they're pressured into reading paper after paper. I guess the ethic is ingrained at an earlier stage. As I understand it, at school repetition is the primary tool for learning SOME things. I'm also misrepresenting the people as I have met some researchers here who do have the ability to think around problems in interesting and different ways.....the above is however my prejudiced, generalised, gut-instinct!

Talking about this also reminds me of one of my gripes about schools in England and the teaching of effective learning (not teaching) techniques but I shall leave this rant for another time.

Anyway, the week draws to a chilly close. I guess I'm getting on for a little over five weeks here now and this weekend promises some new people, some new sights, some new sounds and almost certainly something new to eat, my gastronautics continues. There are also several things I really want to get photos of but haven't had camera ready at opportune moments. This is one of my missions for the coming couple of days.(Savoy blues - Louis Armstrong)

Thursday, December 08, 2005

As the sun rose this morning, the temperature peaked its head above -10. Still, as I walked in, there are 70 year old women practicing Kung Fu outside. They either make them seriously hardy round here or the Chinese have it all wrong and these women are only mid fourties but have aged faster due to spending so much time in this freezing
weather. There are some benefits of it getting into the negative double figures. I'm not sure what most of them are yet but certainly longjohns left on the radiator overnight become one of life's great delights!

Speaking of making them hardy round here, we had a lecture yesterday by a guy in his mid-seventies, in English. This was on the topic of coupling constants in asymptotic expansions. I plan on writing something about this topic and will make a link to it when I do and I hope to give an idea to the non-physicist of roughly what this means. We'll see.

On the work front one of the other postdocs and I are rearranging the group almost as I type. Before I get gasps that the new boy is coming in and rearranging the furniture, the head of the group seems delighted that we are doing this and has given us his go ahead. The trouble is that there are ten PhD students in the group who are all pretty reluctant to participate in anything unless firmly prodded. We want to make the group more proactive so we're doing away with Saturday morning three hour meetings which are good for neither man nor beast. We may try and run a masterclass which would be good for us too as currently I don't feel terribly masterful in anything much! We're also toying with the idea of getting everyone together once a week to a cafe or restaurant where hopefully the atmosphere should be lighter. We won't force people to talk about physics but hopefully if we set the tone right we should be able to get some interesting discussions going. We just want people to become comfortable with chatting through ideas and intriguing questions that they have. It may be a big disaster but it can't be much less productive than what we have at the moment.


After going around Chalefoo (Carrefoure) yesterday with our Aye (cook/cleaner/general help around the houser) I now have a kitchen stocked with everything from 20 pounds of rice and its own cooker to sauces I've never heard of but look forward to trying and experimenting with. Today we had our first meal which was excellent. It should make life that much easier, coming home to a clean house with food on the table before returning to the office to do another couple of hours work.

The weather promises to continue its descent with -13 likely over the next few days. Apparently it hasn't been this cold at this time of year here for 50 years. January is generally the coldest month. It's strange, even now I see people jogging around the campus to keep warm in the evenings and couples are still out with their kids playing football at 9 in the evening. I guess it's just a part of life. People don't complain about the cold here as they certainly do in the UK. In fact, people don't seem to complain about very much here. Perhaps this is partly because complaining doesn't really get you anywhere around these parts, or at least not without a lot of effort.

Anyway, on that random note I leave for the gym to try and unwind after another 12 hour day.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Blogspot is getting harder and harder to get hold of here but I shall do my best.

The last few days have been hectic though enjoyable and still the balance of life is shifting before reaching an equilibrium.

Sunday was another lazy day after a late night on Saturday at a friend's watching some surprising movies. Surprising for different reasons. The first film was the Piano Teacher (La Pianiste - translation lost somewhere in transit) which was surprising as it genuinely shocked me. I'm reasonably well known for being scared by the tamest of scary movies but this is more a matter of not liking sudden jumps. This film was shocking in its subject matter and frankness and though I think it's well worth watching, it's not to be taken lightly. The other film was Lord of War which surprised me as it was substantially better than I was expecting. Nicholas Cage had his two expressions stretched to their limit but I was pretty impressed.

So, Sunday a few of us went to an area a taxi ride from here which has something in the region of 50 small bookshops crammed into a couple of large buildings. There are a large number of physics texts, mostly ripped off but it's an interesting warren of stores, including a place to buy cheap Western literature. I got these photos, the first just before going in with some great reflections of the modern buildings and the second because I was interested that abacuses use is still widespread.

Sunday afternoon brought up a bit of a conundrum for me. In order to counter the vast amount of food I'm currently consuming as well as to give me some respite from mental exercise, I've joined a gym. It's a superb place with more modern equipment that I've ever seen in a gym in the UK. On induction, you get prodded, poked, measured and weighed in more ways than I thought possible before they give you a training schedule. The conundrum was the fact that it appears that my gym wants me to eat more fat while at the same time telling me that my blood pressure is that of an overweight man on the verge of a heart-attack. I'm going to concentrate on the latter for now and am making a concerted effort to stay off the salt, sugar and fat which is in so much of the food here.

This should be relatively easy now and is related to my second quandary of the week. I'm trying to justify this one to myself because I'm working silly hours in the office and don't have time to do it myself, it's cheap, it provides employment and because many other people do it. I still find it strange however that the postdoc who lives next door and I have just hired a chef and cleaner who will cook for us and clean the flats every evening. The height of luxury perhaps but it still feels a bit odd. Today we go with this bubbly butter ball of a woman to the supermarket to buy cooking equipment.

Finally for now, I've had my first Chinese lesson here which seemed to go OK. The intonations are still mighty tough and I can't see that changing any time soon. I can say a word 50 times and my teacher will correct me each time. I will then say the word in what I think is precisely the same way and she beams, satisfied that it was infinitely better than the other poor attempts. Trial and error I guess. She does however want me to start learning the characters, so, as far as I'm concerned, I have 15 random combinations of dashes and lines to memorize by this time next week.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The preparations for my early morning Saturday seminar seemed to go awry about one in the morning when I found myself at one of Beijing's top clubs. It wasn't quite supposed to be like that but somehow I appear to have got away with it. Chronologically back to front but I'll start off after last night's fantastic meal (more later). I got back to the office about 8.30 last night to finish a few bits of work before heading home for an early night before giving my second presentation today (Saturday) to the group. Talk was almost prepared (just the last couple of slides to go) but I could finish it in the morning. As I'm leaving the office, I get a text from some friends inviting me round for brownies followed by a trip to a bar. Well, I've got a presentation early the next morning but I know my friends won't be leaving to go clubbing for a while, an after dinner brownie sounds perfect...and then to bed. A two minute cab ride gets me there and everyone's in a festive spirit. Brownies are cooking and it seems like the perfect relaxed end to the evening. As the first snow of Winter descended on Beijing at 11.00 last night I should have been safely tucked up in bed thinking about all the great things I was going to fascinate the class with today. Somehow, and I'm not sure of the intervening events apart from the fact that there was some serious arm-twisting and kahlua involved, my first view of snow in China was from the queue at Cargo, one of Beijing's top clubs waiting to see Deep Dish, voted the second best DJ in the world.

Beijing are currently having the top ten DJs come and play once a month. Last month was Sasha, this month is Deep Dish. Cargo is awesome, very stylish, beautiful people, horrendously expensive and lavishly decorated. You get a massage as you're washing your hands in the bathroom! Anyway, an
excellent night dancing to some superb music. Arriving back at the flat at two last night, I managed almost five hours sleep before giving what I think was a reasonably coherent lecture and somehow I think I got away with it.

So pre-doing-irresponsible-things, five of us went to one of the best Beijing duck restaurants in the city and had a lavish banquet, some truly superb food. No, lots of truly superb food and some pretty decent Chinese wine. Here's a couple of picture of the evening, the first with me looking remarkably smarmy and the second one some of the food. Click here if you want to know what it is.

Friday, December 02, 2005

I stand corrected (Mutual Slump - DJ Shadow) to some extent on the matter of private rooms in restaurants. It has been pointed out to me that Taiwan and Japan have the same system and in fact in many restaurants in Japan (so I'm told) all dining is done in personal rooms. This means that my argument isn't quite right as these places have developed under very different social structures but I do still believe that the rooms where used for the purpose of having private meetings where 1)people outside didn't know what was being discussed and 2)people didn't know if the wrong people were talking. Anyway, if anyone else wants to add their two pence to the discussion, I'd be interested to hear.

I suddenly feel like I'm stuck in the middle of an Italo Calvino novel. Having found a new form of cinematic cranial stimulation I've found that it's possible to have a similar sensation from written material. I spent a small fortune on an imported book, Salman Rushdie's 'The Ground Beneath her Feet'. (In the mind - Nitin Sawhney) I've been looking forward to reading another Rushdie having been very impressed by Midnight's Children. Anyway, having a quick flick forward in the book I noticed some writing in a subtly different font. After a little detective work I believe that pages 450-550 of my brand new book are in fact in Swedish from a completely different novel. I'm renowned for getting royally ripped off but this is getting a bit silly. (Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds - The Beatles).

I think I've found my enamel ceiling, my gastronomic limit if you will. Though it's supposed to have miraculous healing properties and some find it truly delicious, I can assure you that I won't be picking sea cucumber as a tasty starter again any time soon. It's not distasteful, in fact it tastes of nothing whatsoever and perhaps along with its texture of (Touch me I'm Sick - Sonic Youth) firmly set jelly, this is why it's pretty difficult to eat much. As I ordered it and it was pretty expensive (by our usual standards) I felt it was my duty to eat my fair share which I did but not without some serious contemplation. I find that if I analyse the taste and texture it's not too bad because there's nothing inherently bad about it (Recently at the Opera - Minus 8) and it's palatable.

Here's a link to the photo of today's lunch. Have a look if you want to see how sea cucumber is prepared in China.

Anyway, I shall stop putting you off your food.

Here ends the procrastination. (Virtual love - Joe Pass)

Thursday, December 01, 2005

So, blogspot is no longer viewable here again. It's happened before and I've no doubt it will happen again but for now, generally it's impossible to see blogspot sites. Ask no questions I tell you, just read, comment, smile and act natural.

I'm now fully legal here, perhaps not entirely kosher but at least legal. It took less than five minutes to get my visa sorted out at the central Beijing police station, where they clearly deal with many thousands of people like me every day (now there's a terrifying thought).

I've discovered a new dimension in fully-immersive-movie-watching. I bought a couple of DVDs yesterday expecting that they may well be fakes. It's pretty tough to find the real thing here. As I mentioned before, even in the large department stores, the genuine and fakes are mixed together. The governemt has promised many times to sort out this problem but it's so widespread that the task is almost impossible. Anyway, one of the movies was Sin City which I didn't get a chance to catch at the cinema the first time round but heard rave revues from friends. I started watching and was a little surprised when I found that the first scene was in French but it sort of fitted the atmosphere of the scene so I carried on watching expecting it to flip to English any moment. It never did and turned out that the whole film was the dubbed French version with no option to switch. This was fine though as there were Engish subtitles. My French is a little rusty but not too bad and it quickly became apparent that the subtitles were a pretty poor imitation of the dialogue. In fact, after not too long I realised that the subtitles were for a different film entirely. In fact they were the subtitles to The Piano and had nothing to do with Sin City at all! It's truly a mind-expanding experience to watch a film, dubbed into another language with subtitles to a different film which frequently slips into Maori dialogue. I would take it back but there are some superb moments when people are being beaten to a pulp while being asked politely about their coming concert or falling out of windows contemplating whether they have their keys on them. Worth a watch I assure you.


They were neither blindfolded nor were they playing using their feet but I managed to win a couple of games of tabletennis yesterday. This was either down to the fact that I was humiliated in such a vast number of games that statistical fluctuations became noticable or that I'm such entertainment for them that they got together pre-match and pulled straws for who would lose to me in order to keep me returning for more punishment. Not sure as yet but it worked and I shall be returning next week.

I've been asked to continue noting the musical context within which I type so whenever you see a random song in brackets, that's why. Currently I'm not listening as I should really be working but it may happen in future posts.

I liked the idea of TK's of collating articles and material on diverse subjects written by enthusiastic people to create an annual 'best of written'. I don't have the time at the moment to do anything with the material but would be happy to act as a repository where people send me anything that they've read recently which they found enlightening/uplifting/bizzare or merely that they'd like to share with like-minded people. If you can think of a better way of doing this, please leave a comment or e-mail me and it would be good to discuss it. For now, I suggest that people send me links which I'll start collecting. I shan't censor the material at all and will just create a list of websites. Be sensible, but if you've find something that you'd like to share, send a link to me.

Another example of a strange Chinese nuance, this one left over from the times when the working structure of society was far more firmly fixed. At this time, people were given jobs almost at random. The pay was the same and there was little chance to change. You became an expert in your area and were supposed to know nothing about any other subject. I hadn't realised that this was the reason that in almost all restaurants here, there are many private rooms off the central area of the restaurant which are continuously used for business meetings. The reason is an historical one. Previously, if you were for instance the man who built the bridges it was thought of as pretty dangerous if you were speaking to the man who manufactured steel. You might exchange information which could make you start to think about better working practices, not a good thing! You two certainly shouldn't know anything about the other person's subject so if you were going to meet, you'd better do it in secret and where better than a private room, shut off from the rest of the world at a restaurant. This is the same reason that until recently, most private cars in China had blacked-out windows. Basically there is still a paranoia about who people are seen with. The blacked-out car windows has changed because people realised that you could see better with lighter windows but at the moment there's no evolutionary reason why restaurant practices should change so I guess it will stay like this for some time (Symphony no. 9 in E minor - Dvorak).

I've spoken about global warming in previous posts. This was in relation to the frequency of strong hurricanes in the South-Eastern US seaboard. In fact the crux of that discussion was that though it might appear obvious, it's actually pretty tough to find a strong scientifically verifiable (and that's the important point) link between the two. I wasn't indicating that I didn't believe that there was a link but just that scientific evidence appears to be pretty incoherent at the moment. Anyway, an interesting new article today about the fact that the Gulf stream currents have weakened by 30% over the last 12 years. This is a pretty startling number and with emmisions of greenhouse gasses showing little sign of reducing (especially with car markets beginning to boom in developing countries) (Cherry Blossom - Susumu Yokota), things are looking like getting pretty chilly over the next few decades. I mentioned it before but I really advise reading this cartoon about climate change (to be added to my list of interesting information that I think is worth reading).

Anyway, I'll stop there before I think of another entirely disconnected paragraph to add. My apologies to anyone who was expecting coherent prose.