Thursday, August 31, 2006

From Distant Lands

I have a temporary housemate in the form of a Viennese couchsurfer. He's currently spending a couple of months travelling around China before starting a PhD in physics (coincidentally) some time soon. Chinese long-distant transport being what it is his bus, due to arrive in at 22.30, was a little delayed and when at midnight I got a text saying they'd just passed a sign saying 150 km to Beijing I headed back to my side of the city from the bus station to get some sleep before going to meet him. At 2.30 am we met up after a successful all-Chinese conversation over the phone with a taxi driver, explaining where to go and then we quickly crashed out.

He's staying in Beijing for about 4 days, so seeing all the major sites in the day before we're meeting up in the evening to experience some of the delights of the Beijing nightlife.

As he's into rock I thought that we could head to a local music venue which has a decent selection of local bands and thought that the number of biker-looking Chinese guys and girls looked promising for the forthcoming music. After being thoroughly beaten at pool by a burly, bearded Chinese rocker the first band came on. Unfortunately this particular Chinese bluegrass ensemble, though technically very talented, exuded absolutely no personality in their music whatsoever and when we got to the medley of Benny Hill with circus music we called it quits and took our beer elsewhere. In fact elsewhere was just next door at club D-22 which was looking distinctly more interesting. With films playing quietly projected over the stage, dimly lit with drum kit waiting in the wings, this promised more than the previous venue. Indeed the first act of the night was a bizarre mix. A guy with a guitar, with floppy hair and a lurid, rose patterned polyester top, though Chinese he sang his wonderfully melancholic songs with a voice somewhere between Dylan and Chris Difford (Squeeze). Gently enthusiastic if completely self-indulgent it was a fun set. Next came the Sino-version of the Beach Boys and the elastic, nervous looking singer gave a couple of fun renditions in between taking big drags on his cigarette. At this point it was getting late so we had to make a move, F, wanting to get up early to go and see the great wall.

Things have been really hectic for me recently with several projects deciding whether to take off or not. In particular a recent paper by Csaba Csaki looks to have some really important implications for AdS/QCD so I'm seeing where this can be taken.

As well as attempting to accelerate my own language learning and continuing to take the ever-enjoyable English corner once every two weeks I'll be starting to teach a private lesson once a week to a former TV presenter which should be fun.

Anyway, time being what it is I have many things to do before the weekend which itself promises some interesting activities, which I shall endeavor to talk about when I can.

Friday, August 25, 2006

All Things Unrelated

I hinted that I would talk about some physics a few days ago but haven't been able to as I've been busy doing it for myself. I've managed to fashion a computer system which works and am now busy with the baryon work I started with my Japanese collaborator some time ago. I'm also now supervising another student which looks like it should be both enjoyable and productive.

However there are a few things to mention re. physics over the last few days.

On Wednesday we were lucky to have a talk from Robert Griffiths from Carnegie Mellon university whose talk was entitled 'What is quantum information?'. I was ignorant of many things about Professor Griffiths and this subject but feel like I've glimpsed some insights in the strange world of quantum mechanics having heard about his work.

Griffiths was one of the originators (along with Roland Omnes, Murray Gell-Mann, and James Hartle) of what is known as the consistent histories approach to quantum mechanics, which acts rather like a completion of the Copenhagen interpretation. One of the main problems with the Copenhagen Interpretation is that it describes the collapse of the wave function when a quantum system is measured by a classical system. There are two obvious questions which are raised and never answered by The C.I. The first is 'what is a measurement?' and the second is 'what do you mean by a classical system?'. Griffiths points out that really there are no classical systems, merely macroscopic ones. In the consistent histories approach the idea of decoherence is bought onto more solid foundations by an absence theorem which is related to the flow of information from a quantum system into its quantum (though possibly macroscopic) environment. This idea rings far more true for me as I'd always had a handwavy idea of a conservation of some sort of entanglement as a quantum system was measured, not just the removal of all non-zero elements of the wavefunction in the measured basis. Anyway, the consistent histories approach is something that I'd like to learn more about and from the sounds of the talk there are things which you can say in this interpretation which would be completely taboo in normal textbooks. Phrases like 'performing a measurement on a quantum system to find out what state it was in before the measurement took place' would seem to go against what was taught in the modern university approach. Anyway, clearly there's a lot more I should learn about this and Griffiths has a book online which I shall peruse some time soon.

Yesterday (written a few days ago) we had an interesting talk by a professor from Damascus university on his extension work to KKLT-like approaches. Many people on many string blogs have written much about KKLT but the idea is that by turning on fluxes in string theory via the addition of D-branes, the moduli space of string vacua can be lifted, to remove the continuous possibility of solutions of a given compactification. Chamoun's work is related to turning on charged matter fields on the D-branes which can lift the vacua even without the non-perturbative effects which are needed in the normal KKLT approaches. I'm no expert on this area and in a one hour talk it's difficult to get a real sense of what's going on but it was a nice seminar and another area of string theory which I'm keen to learn more about...I seem to be saying this rather repetitively but, with all subjects the more you learn, the more you realise there is to learn. Though it feels like I'll never 'catch up' I may at least progress.


This week I've been doing 12-16 hour days in the office in order to catch up with some of the work I haven't been able to do without the computer. I'm getting there but in the time before collapsing completely I've been able to keep up with some reading both scientific and fiction. I've been reading a few books about dynamics, chaos and attractors which lead to a fascinating set of insights about so many aspects of all the sciences. There are many wonderful biological applications to this area of mathematics which I hope to blog about when I've finished the current books.

Last weekend I read Ian McEwan's novel Saturday, which was mysteriously not in the 2005 booker shortlist. This is a post 9/11 novel about the effect that the modern world has on our minds and personal lives. Told from the point of view of a London neurosurgeon it goes into wonderful detail about his work as well as his thought processes as his strange Saturday unfolds. This is a superbly written contemporary novel about life today and though there are some slightly dubious happenings, it doesn't detract from the suspense, shock, and tenderness of the end result.


Chatting to a friend today who is always worked really hard in the office I asked what they'd done over the weekend. They said that on Sunday they rested and watched about ten hours of television. A lot, but for a lazy day doing nothing after a really tough week I can understand the need to collapse completely. What shocked me were the details as I learned more. It turns out that this is a Korean soap opera (in Mandarin) which has been running for several months. In fact all ten hours had been spent watching just this soap opera. Not only that but it's shown on both Saturday and Sunday (new episodes) running for several months. The idea being that to follow the show you have to watch around 20 hours every weekend for several months. It seems really popular here but completely excessive television viewing for me. A rough estimate means that this is around 250 hours of television, just for one show which I guess is about two years worth of a regular UK soap opera. Still, after a hard week at work people seem to lap this stuff up.

Having said all that I watched a couple of movies last week, one of which was 'Swallowtail Butterfly', the story of Yentowns (the name of the immigrants who come to Tokyo to make money) in Yentown (the name that the immigrants give to the city). It's a huge mixture of styles and emotions but an interesting near-future story about an excluded community with their extreme ups and downs. It gets some rave reviews on imdb and I think it's worth a watch though maybe hard to get hold of in the UK.

'Sympathy for lady vengeance' is one part of Chan Wook Park's vengeance trilogy and though without the energy of 'Oldboy' develops enough of an interesting plot and twisted ending to make it an interesting film. Rather like the three colours trilogy the energy (set by the cold calculation as well as the time of year and the weather) of this film acts as a contrasting atmosphere from the other films in the trilogy. Not for the fainthearted but another fine Korean movie.

Lastly for recent happenings I went to the Confucius temple this Sunday as well as an ancient 'university' where students would learn the classics from experts including the emperor himself. The school is Yuan dynasty and unfortunately under refurbishment for 2008 at the moment, but still the ancient cypress trees and quiet road leading to it make for a pleasant stroll. Photos to follow.

I've finally managed to prepare some of the photos from the amazing plane journey from Munich back to Beijing hope you like them.

Almost certainly Venus rising early in the morning.

I liked the abstract form of the colours slowly coming up over the horizon with the contrast of the plane window and the wing.

just broken the 50 citation mark for my first paper, a pleasing mark to have reached.

Got to go and pick up a new couchsurfer who'll be staying for a couple of days...

Monday, August 21, 2006

Shanghai Express

It's been a while but tomorrow I may actually be able to write about some physics. For now you will have to put up with a minor rant plus the descriptions of a wedding, Shanghai style.


If it wasn't for the fact that I currently look like Donald Duck (due to a rather amorous mosquito last night), it would be clear that I'm fuming, well, about as much as I ever actually fume.

Having spent considerable time, effort and cost trying to get my computer fixed back in England, things were finally looking up. It was returned from the manufacturers with a new motherboard and hardrive and some of my old data was replaced on it from the old, faulty hardrive. My parents then packaged it up and parcelforced it off to me so that I didn't have to spend too long swinging from system to system to get any work done.

Sunday it arrived and I rushed to open it. At first sight all seemed fine, the 'Received in damaged condition' stickers only seeming like an aesthetic edition, until, on closer inspection it turned out to have been dropped at some point in its journey. The chassis is warped, the DVD writer snapped and the keyboard wonkey. It works, to an extent, I can actually do some, though not a great deal of work on it, though of course transferring all my files onto it which are currently on rewritable DVDs (unreadable by the computers around here) holding all my data isn't possible.

Anyway, the insurance division at Parcelforce says that this may take 60 days to clear up which is not impressive so tomorrow I have to go and fork out for an external DVD drive just to be able to function in the mean time. Fume.

OK, fuming over, I had a lovely if rushed weekend down in Shanghai. This time, unlike Wuhan I did at least spend more time there than travelling and got to experience my first Chinese wedding. This is an interesting insight into some of the differences between Chinese and Western culture which made for a fascinating, sometimes bemusing, but always enjoyable day.

There is an official legal ceremony though this is a completely private affair where the bride and groom go to an office on their own to sign a document. This is usually done on a date far removed from the actual wedding and is rather casual from what I understand. As one of my colleagues said, they just go in, sign the documents and then cycle home again.

The day itself however is a big do and is all about family, friends, food and drink.

I arrived an hour before things kicked off at my friend's (the bride's) house where I was immediately given a feast to replenish me after the flight. With everyone walking around organising, every time they walked past me they would urge me on with 'chi, chi' (eat, eat) and so I did, until I could eat no more, having made my way through less than half what had been provided.

So, the first part of the day begins with the groom turning up at the bride's family's house, coming into the house and knocking on the bedroom door where the bride is residing. This act has been explained to me in retrospect and it seems that the girl then asks for money, at which point the groom puts an envelope under the door. If she is satisfied with this she opens the door and goes in where they whisper sweet nothings to each other.

Incidentally at every single moment of the day a photographer and cameraman are capturing every possible angle of the events.

Having been accepted by the bride, the bride and groom then give cups of tea to the parents and, sitting down, the groom feeds the bride with a sweet bean soup.

Not only is all of this accompanied by cameramen but at short intervals firecrackers and bangers are let off in the street to tell everyone that there's a wedding in progress (possibly, as is the case at New Year, also to dispell the evil spirits).

We then leave the bride's house and head to the new flat where the married couple will soon move to. A rather nice apartment with a room for mum and dad. At this point the groom's parents also turn up and the photographs and tea giving are reperformed with them.

An entire album worth of photos are taken in the flat, including in the bedroom, where everyone but the camercrew seemed to be steering clear of so I don't know quite what was going on in there.

Onto the park where there's an artificial beach with Shanghaiers playing and catching some of the very powerful sun which was roasting the groom in his rather fine suit. We spent an hour or so here, finding shady locations and romantic spots to get just the right angle for more photos. The Chinese really go in for well planned, framed and setup photos and there's a lot more deliberate posing (not in a derogatory sense) than one would normally see in the West.

From the beach and park we headed to the hotel where the evening's entertainments were planned in perfect, military coordination. At this point we had a couple of hours to rest up, so I went and found a cafe serving a decent coffee to perk myself up after just a few hours sleep the previous night.

One of the main differences between a Western and Chinese wedding is the sanctity of the bedroom. Most of the time spent resting, people mingled and played around in the marriage suite where the groom got some rest on the bed while the bride had her makeup retouched by the makeup artist who followed us around throughout the day.

One thing that I was rather disappointed by was a strange ritual which I was told about some time in the middle of the afternoon by one of the groom's friends. It seems that often at the end of a Chinese wedding when most of the guests have left, the couple and a rabble of drunk friends all go up to the bedroom where they dare the couple to perform acts in front of them. It was never quite explained to me exactly what this entailed but it was always mentioned with a slightly sheepish giggle which left me wandering. Sadly at the end of the night there were not enough people either willing or standing to make this worthwhile so I never did find out what this was all about. Before it was discovered that this particular event wouldn't be happening, I heard people making phonecalls to organise the most evil dares possible. I'm left intrigued, if a little disturbed.

So, anyway, the reception started and people arrived for the main event, everyone being photographed with the bride and groom under the floral arch. Though it looks like I'm exceedingly underdressed for a wedding, I'd been told to go casual and indeed most of the other guests were similarly atired. Only the bride and groom and their maid and best man were seriously dressed-up.

It seems from speaking to others that one of the purposes of the bride's maid (of which there's only one) is to help the bride with the drinking, as she goes round every table toasting each one in turn, if she begins to falter the maid takes over. The bride and groom getting drunk at a Chinese wedding, it seems, is all par for the course.

Before, during and after the meal were speeches and ceremonies of varying intricacy, involving, at various points, knives, fire, rings, alcohol, swords, bubbles and confetti. Nothing, as far as I could tell was lacking.

This is a flaming sword entwined with roses that was used to light a candle on each table.

The dinner itself was marvelous with an array of delicacies from lobster to pidgeon to tripe. All good stuff in my books. Finally, with everyone sated there were some final photos before the farewells.

Though it was a long day in all, the whole thing was officially over by a little past eight and by eight thirty just about everyone had left, so I did the same, heading back to my hotel nearby to ponder this strang but delightful day.

Everyone was extremely hospitable to me, as I've always found when it comes to friends in china, though there were some things that I'm still left bemused by in terms of the day's activities. Perhaps if I'm lucky enough to go to another Chinese wedding some of these things will become a little clearer but as it was it was a thoroughly enjoyable day.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Joys of Jet-Lag

The sound track to today's slightly disjointed post is a mix of Kit Clayton and Bonnie Prince Billy, which have been keeping me sane as I jump from computer to computer, a string of files being lost and created as I go. All being well (as if!) my computer will arrive here from England some time the beginning of next week and I can do all the things for which deadlines are now looming: resubmit the paper I should have finished long ago, start the painful postdoc application cycle again and get on with the baryon work I was whizzing along with before.

So, Bonnie Prince Billy I've spoken about previously. Gentle, powerful American folk music, poetic and painful with the soul of Leonard Cohen and the softness of Nick Drake, only a little more so. Kit Clayton on the other hand is semi-abstract electronica which is getting me bouncing along the streets to and from the office. Not as deranged as Aphex Twins' Melodies from Mars though with a few of the same miss-matched beats, for those who are into more ambient autechre and plaid, Kit Clayton is well worth tracking down. Meshing together Billy and Kit are admixtures of The Big Bopper and Sarah Vaughan. Never, ever let me choose the music for a party, guests will leave in a horrific superposition of moods!

Due to a fair amount of travelling and many sleepless nights due to jet-lag, I've had a chance to read a lot of good books over the last couple of weeks, so before they disappear into the quagmire of quark-gluon plasma I'm slowly becoming submerged in I thought I'd scribble some musings on them.

A little disappointingly 'Birthday Stories', an anthology compiled by Haruki Murakami, didn't quite hit the mark for me as his own writing usually does. The stories, all based around birthdays are by a mix of writers of varying fame and although a few of them felt like they could have packed a punch if extended, I find short storied which base their impact on a surprising event happening to a character rarely have much power unless the writer can build up the dimensions of the people involved very quickly. Mostly underwhelming with a few gems hidden in between the mediocre.

Very much like Murakami's own writing but much more enjoyable than the anthology, 'Oryx and Crake' was my first Margaret Atwood novel and is a literally fantastic, imaginative story about a future dictated by genetic engineering and a populous fed on extreme images of abuse, sex and murder. One of the interesting points about this future is that it's not clear whether this is a utopia or a dystopia and this lack of knowledge (original sin) is one of the subthemes. Chronologically entangled, the book deals with a character in a post apocalyptic world and slowly builds up the story of how he, and the rest of the world got there. The book deals with a whole
load of interesting issues from cloning and love to desensitisation and what it is to be human. A great deal of the appeal of the book comes from the fact that the picture of what's going on is only built up very slowly and the punchline is left till late enough to keep the momentum going to the end. Any more recommendations of Atwood are appreciated.

Still on Science Fiction, I was given a copy of an old science fiction classic, 'Flowers for Algernon' which is again related to genetic engineering, this time about altering the brain of a man with very low IQ to make him into a genius. A little cliched, but the book's interest is in studying what happens to his emotional intelligence as his IQ soars. Algernon is a lab mouse who is the first case where this process is apparently performed successfully. Of course we soon find out that the success is short lived and the human patient is left in a situation where questions of 'is it better to have known great intellect before returning to his original state, or was he better off untouched?' are addressed. It's a good sci-fi book and a classic though what's frustrating is thinking what possibilities there are for a novel where a patient suddenly becomes super-humanly intelligent. Perhaps thankfully the protagonist doesn't go for the most obvious choice in his situation giving the parting chapters a good edge to them.

Away from sci-fi was Hemingway's book of short-stories 'The snows of Kilimanjaro'. Unlike 'Birthday Stories' the power and shock from these tales are not from what happens to the characters in often dire situations but how they deal with them. This semi-autobiographical book deals with many of the aspects, both emotional and geographical, of the writer's life and goes from one atmosphere to its polar opposite with striking contrasts.Complementing the main story of 'The snows of Kilimanjaro' is Camus' 'The fall'. The reason they are complementary is because in the Hemingway, the main protagonist spends the last days of his life talking about
the loss of his talents and beliefs in much the same way as in 'The Fall'. Camus' book is a deep one and I will ponder over this some more before making any comments.

I'm currently getting on very well with David Mitchell's first book 'Ghost Written' which is another book of short stories (though all quite sizable) interlinking in cunning and unexpected ways which Mitchell seems so adept at. Having read his 2004 novel Cloud Atlas before this one, I wasn't aware that this was an old trick for him, weaving themes through a book, stitching together the seemingly unrelated texts to give a whole which is much more than the sum of its parts. In fact, it's only hinted at subtly but this book and Cloud Atlas are also subtly woven together using very small plot additions. This book takes each story in a different country,
written in a different style and about completely unrelated matters but none seems out of place. Starting with a sympathetic look at one of the brainwashed attackers of the Tokyo subway, it goes through Japan to Hong Kong and then to rural Szechuan with a stunning story about a woman who owns a tea shop on the sides of a holy mountain. Taking in a good swathe of the darker parts of 20th century Chinese history, the ending is a beautiful, poignant one which would stand on its own as a powerful tale. Through Mongolia with a bodyless spirit, we go to Russia and London and on in a series of twisting tales which I've no doubt will turn full circle to
created an impressive whole.

OK, there are a few other books to mention but I'm a bit reviewed out right now. I also have to try and concatenate the 17 files on 8 different computers which should be forming a paper when I get my act together.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Wuhan Adventures

It turns out that there is an occasion on which it's a luxury to get up at 5.30 in the morning. That is when you've miscalculated and thought that you had to get up at 4.30 in the morning...and so, with a reasonable amount of sleep I started a rather long but interesting day, heading to the airport before a two hour flight to Wuhan, in Hubei province. Wuhan is known for a few things but one of them I was told with a grin, as soon as I landed, is the heat. Wuhan is one of the 'three furnaces' of central China, the others being Chongqing and Nanjing. Early morning it was 32 and just got hotter and hotter through the day, getting to around 36 or so by mid afternoon. It seems that Wuhan does have a fascinating 3500 year history but this time I didn't get to see any of this. The university itself (HuaZhong Normal university) is set on a hillside and its 100+ year old grounds are filled with woodland, making it a rather pleasant place to walk around (or at least it would if the air temperature were significantly less than body temperature).

I was in Wuhan to give a talk at a workshop on quark/gluon plasmas, not something that I've worked on but a subject I'd like to learn more about. In fact this is a topic which some of the grad students in the ITP here in Beijing are working on and I have meeting schedule for this afternoon to chat about this topic. Unfortunately, because of various pressing matters in Beijing at the moment I wasn't able to attend any of the other talks at the workshop. As it had been arranged just a few days before I was due to talk, they slotted me in first for a two hour seminar which was a pedagogical introduction to my research. An hour and a quarter or so introducing the AdS/CFT correspondence and the rest of the time talking about meson spectroscopy and future directions. There's currently some interesting work concerning high density/temperature physics from AdS/CFT which would have been right up their street but as yet I'm in no position to talk about this.

So, I gave the seminar for a couple of hours and got a lot of good questions from enthusiastic people who really want to learn about this stuff so that they can start doing research in it. Nice to have a really receptive audience. After a glug of tea I rushed back to the airport to catch the flight to Beijing. At the time the sky was darkening, though I couldn't work out what direction the ominous clouds were coming from. As soon as we got in the air this became pretty obvious. As we got above the main cloud-line, a perfectly flat sea as far as the horizon, we were reduced to a tiny speck in a chaotic sky. Though the main cloud line was flat, on top of this ocean were dozens and dozens of anvil shaped cumulonimbus, the biggy when it comes to clouds, and I've never seen any looking so stereotypically shaped. The plane seemed tiny as, with the setting sun, the anvils lit up like smoked out greenhouses full of firecrackers. Each one a fizzling, crackling storm cloud with constant activity. It's difficult to get any sense of perspective so I don't know how close we were but there were enough of these amazing beasts around to make it all rather exciting.

Though we swayed and avoided each of the storm clouds it was clear that there were major updraughts causing some serious turbulence and the next hour was a rather treacherous one with airhostesses looking ever so slightly worried. This turbulence kept us firmly glued in our seatbelts and meant that I didn't have time to get the camera out.

Yesterday the air hostess were doing a wonderful job and I've no idea how they keep their cool in the situations they encounter. I'm not talking about the active weather patterns I've been flying through recently but the passengers themselves. The flight out to Wuhan was delayed and several angry, sweaty businessmen were not happy with the situation and spent the time we were delayed on the ground either shouting at the air hostesses or grumbling to the rest of the passengers. The hostesses kept level headed and didn't seem phased by this at all, simply ignoring what they couldn't answer politely. On the way back , despite the usual announcements, a man got up as the rear wheels of the plane touched down, got his bag and started making a call on the phone. Perhaps I'm a little over sensitive but I always think that a plane is one place that obeying the rules is a pretty good idea. Another ten passengers standing up as the engines were still thrusting in reverse got the hostesses walking briskly but never raised their voices to the shout that I'd probably let out in their situation. Anyway, everyone arrived safely and relatively unabused.

I need to get on with some work again. I've got my first ever student to supervise who is proving receptive and (no surprise here in China) very hard working. We've got a fun project started now on AdS/QCD which I will talk about when it's appropriate.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Photo blog roundup take 2

Due to my inability to understand the commands in the Chinese version of blogger I can't move the blog post which I saved a few days ago and only just published. For some photos of my round Britain tour, see the post two or three down the page entitled Photo blog roundup.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Interesting Developments

Big news: Blogspot seems to be viewable in China at the moment! I haven't seen any official notices about this but it's an interesting development. I'd also like to know whether it's only the computers that I'm using or this is a nation-wide unblocking. Any info would be gratefully received. Other sites such as BBC news and wikipedia are still blocked.

Working on this Chinese computer all the commands are in Chinese. I hadn't thought about it before but the Chinese version of blogger (which has always been available) has no spell-check function - I apologise for any confusement corzed.


The talk yesterday seemed to go pretty well with several interesting questions from the professors and students. 15 minutes introducing the AdS/CFT correspondence plus my current research is not an easy task but people seemed to nod along and not off which seems a positive response.

Next week I have to fly down to Wuhan in Hubei province (about two hours flight) to give two hours on the AdS/CFT correspondence as an introduction to a group who are interesting in quark-gluon plasmas. Should be fun.

For now, as I haven't got my own computer and I'm temporarilly usurped from my office I have some time, in between filling out claims forms and starting to supervise students, to sit in the library and catch up on some reading. Photo blog to come soon I hope but that will have to wait for a day or so.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Ups and Downs

I have to admit that last week was one of the most stressful of the last few years. Several things which I've mentioned in passing and several which I won't be talking about on the blog all added up to a constant nagging feeling and a knotted stomach to such an extent that I could barely eat the last few days. For one who eats anything and everything all the time, this is a little disconcerting.

Anyway, I figured that I would be able to hide myself for a little while in a newly purchased i-pod. I pre-birthday present from my parents before I left England once more. Having uploaded as many songs as I could mange before heading off I was content to sit in my own little world away from all the worries which have been getting to me. As I ran for the train at Munich station having missed the last bus, time slowed down as my i-pod flew from my jacket pocket and sailed balletically to the floor. Time slowed down sufficiently for me to think "It can't possibly be heading for the train tracks" as it glided off the platform and onto the train tracks. I stood aghast, not knowing whether to laugh or cry so instead I stood and swore a great deal for some considerable time. The thought of being taken off by the Munich police (watching the exact spot on CCTV) and my own sensible streak stopped me from getting on to the tracks to retrieve it so I searched frantically for someone official looking to help me out. Ten minutes later back in the airport I finally found someone who was uniformed enough to be of some assistance. I gushed my stupidity to them and they took pity, getting another official to come and help me out on what was turning out to be a pretty rubbish day (I'd already been ignored by the bus driver who would have taken me straight to the hotel and shouted at by a taxi driver who accused me of playing a joke on him when I quoted a price to the city which I'd been told by another taxi driver). Worried that somebody with less scruples had already picked up my i-pod we quickly went back to the spot where it was still standing. The official said that he wasn't going to get down there, and before I could offer, a short plump German man was on the tracks retrieving my key to sanity. It seems to work and thankfully landed on its backside leaving a large dent there, rather than on the screen. Having missed the train, I caught the next one and finally arrived at my hotel around one in the morning.

This gave me a day in Munich to go to the Deutsche Museum which is well worth a visit and I may talk more about when I'm less jet-lagged.

Anyway, I've arrived safely in Beijing and when the talk is over tomorrow that will at least be one thing off my mind. Due to a dead computer I've had to write the talk today having had an hour of sleep on the flight over last night. Though I was crammed into a window seat on a technologically backward Lufthasa flight it turned out to be one of the most spectacular flights I've been on.

The cloud depth was vast and we spent the first two or three hours skipping atop the highest layers as they played on the turbulence. I've taken a couple of videos as the strata swept over the wing and made amazing colours passing in front of the sun. If I can upload them I'll try and put anything worth seeing on the blog. An hour or two later as it got dark I spotted a flash outside and for half an hour we passed over a series of thunderstorms lighting up the sky beneath us. A strange combination of my slight obsession with the weather and my mild fear of flying made this an altogether exhilaration experience. It didn't stop there though as not only did I get a small show of shooting stars but the backdrop for this was a sheet of nacreous clouds sitting much higher than most. Anyway, all in all a pretty stunning flight and definitely worth the pain of the window seat.

Right, I'm beginning to lose it and really must make sure the talk for tomorrow isn't complete gobbledygook.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Photo blog roundup

As promised, or possibly threatened...

While spending time in Leicestershire with my godparents I got a few snaps of the local flora and fauna. Having not played around much with close-ups on the camera (not an SLR) I was impressed with some of the detail

An unsuspecting wasp had been caught out by the carnivorous sarracenia.

On the trip to London a fine Saturday afternoon was spent messing about on Wimbledon common.

The kitchen view in T+A's flat isn't the most scenic but it does have a certain northern industrial charm about it, especially when taking in black and white.

The next day in Wimbledon there was a Hindu festival in progress. Though I asked a few friendly people, everyone was pretty vague about the meaning of it all. They simply said that it was a festival which was held once a year and the meaning didn't seem terribly important. If anyone has more info (it was around the last weekend of July) please do tell.

Back in Oxford I spent a day walking around being a tourist in my own town.

Christchurch college was swimming with tourists as usual but is still a great place to go for a stroll.

The Ashmolean, the oldest museum in the world with currently one my least favourite pieces of sculpture (the brown metal mess at the front) destroying the view. I was pleased to find out that this is soon going to be disappearing for good, much to the delight of most of the staff.

A large family reunion including an impromptu circus skills workshop

OK, that'll do for now, if I can get the photos from the flight uploaded I'll do so soon.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Playing Catch-Up

At the time of writing the following post I was content to have finally, after two weeks, received my computer back with a shiny new hard drive and most of my photos. This morning as it threw another wobbly I took it to the computer guy who showed me the correct way to fix this perennial problem of ACER laptops. Unfortunately half way through this demonstration the computer decided to fry the hard disk completely, leaving me with no computer at all. Come tomorrow, ACER will pick it up, spend two weeks mucking about with it, send it back to my parent's house who will then send it on to me in Beijing. All in all this means a good few weeks with no computer which is rather detrimental to most of my work. So, this is where I stand now, typing on my folk's computer as I try and work out what I have and haven't managed to salvage from the wreckage.


It's been a very busy couple of weeks though in general extremely enjoyable. Now, drawing to the end of my stay back home I have a lot of odds and ends to get finished before flying back. Insurance to buy tomorrow which will cost me a couple of months wages so it's pretty vital that I work out just how important this is.

All told I'm actually feeling pretty stressed about the number of things that I have to do when I get back, but the majority of them should at least be useful experiences. The day after arriving back I'll be giving a 20 minute talk to 150 PhD students and postdocs about my research and, as far as I know, most of them will not have come across the AdS/CFT correspondence. Another useful challenge however and another thing to add to the CV.

Even away from the computer I've had a chance to chat physics with a good variety of people. Down in Southampton, along with seeing friends and going back to the local haunts I had my graduation ceremony and spoke with Nick, my former supervisor about some sensible directions to take things. Graduation was infernal, with temperatures well above 30 degrees, heavy gowns over suits and then being packed into the theatre with less space than airplane seats made me rather worried about fainting onto the chancellor. Blood stayed in the right places and I took my part in the strange ceremony.

Back in Oxford I chatted to Steven Clarke, a good friend who studied in Bristol with me and who's doing some great work simulating optical lattices. This work goes back to a paper of Feynman who noticed that one could use a quantum computer to simulate another quantum system (as opposed to solving mathematical problems of factorisation and data retrieval). At the moment a one dimensional optical lattice can be set up with a simple Hamiltonian using lasers, and phase transitions of various statistical mechanical systems can be studied in detail without actually having to muck around with liquid helium etc. Steven's job is to work out, on a computer, exactly what the experimenters should see when they study these lattices. There's a great deal to be learned from such systems and it looks like the experimenters and theorists are working well together on this particular topic. If I can persuade him I'll ask Steven to write something both more accurate and eloquent about his current research.

From Oxford back to Leicestershire to see my godparents to spend a fine day in the countryside and relaxing in their garden, surrounded by butterflies and carnivorous plants. Good food, good walks and good chat were provided in spades and we all left gastronomically and mentally satisfied.

Via Oxford I headed London way to meet up with some of my best friends who've just bought a house in Wimbledon. I'd been promised a trip to an interesting restaurant and was not disappointed. One of the foods which I miss most in Beijing is a good steak and so heading to the Gaucho Grill, off Piccadilly Circus, couldn't have been better. The greatest steak I've ever had, straight from Argentina, cooked to perfection with a porcini and truffle sauce, served with classic Argentinean side dishes and washed down with a fine Malbec. Anyone who likes their steak and is in the area should definitely check this place out.

I have many photos of antics on Wimbledon common and the goings on in Leicestershire but these will have to wait for now.

A fun night out at some clubs in Soho which provided me with the first pangs of culture shock. Coming from the Korean and Chinese clubs in Beijing straight into the London clubs where the suits are stumbling after the ladies who themselves are tottering around in their high heels is a very strange and somewhat unsavoury sight. Somehow in Beijing people seem to be out to have a good time on the dance floor with no ulterior motive. I can't quite put my finger on it now, several days after the event, but it was a rather bemusing sight for me.

After a big night out we took it very easy the next day, playing frisbee in the park and heading back for a home cooked meal. Later on James from TASI came along and, though we were both pretty tired, it was great to catch up after a year. James has a whole slew of interesting projects on and has suggested that some of my ideas may be worth putting to those at Queen Mary, where he's finishing his PhD.

London to Cambridge to see another good friend and spend another couple of relaxed days sitting in cafes and watching movies before heading back to London to go to a some galleries.

Unfortunately due to various pressures and tiredness beginning to get to me, the Kandinsky didn't have quite as much impact on me as I would have liked. There are a couple of very powerful pieces, including The Deluge (or perhaps another, the name escapes me now) which is strikingly similar in tone to Guernica. The Howard Hodgkin at the Tate Britain was excellent however and, if you haven't seen his work before I would highly recommend seeing one of Britain's greatest living painters. Unfortunately onscreen and in books the paintings lose a great deal, so if it appeals at all it's worth a look.

Image removed but can be found at this site.

Next door is an atmospheric Chris Ofili work.

Unfortunately one of my favourite pieces of sculpture, Eve by Thomas Brock, is currently on loan to the V&A so wasn't in it's usual striking position. When lit properly, this late nineteenth century piece can be absolutely astounding and the first time I saw it I was mesmerised by the warmth and light given off by the skin

From the Tate Modern via my Grandmother in North London and then home to finally rest up for a couple of days before heading back to Beijing (via Munich).

So, it's been fun but pretty tiring and I'm not particularly looking forward to this rather ambiguously aimed talk I will be giving almost as soon as I touch down. Anyway, another full day tomorrow in England to pack up and head back. It looks like this will be the only time I can came home in the two years out in China so I have around another 15 months back in Beijing. Let's see what delights are in store for the next year and a bit...