Monday, October 30, 2006

Art for Art's Sake

OK, an unusual blog post today. This is in the midsts of way too many work things going on at the moment, all of which are good and all of which deserve all of my time. However, in the name of art and all things conceptual, if ethereal I wanted to complete this now.

A little background is needed. My mother is currently enrolled on an art foundation course at Oxford and Cherwell valley College in Banbury where she goes to broaden her art experience three days a week, in between full-time roles in many guises. At Banbury they have a variety of media they are taught to use, from pencil, paint and charcoal,textiles,photography and 3D to various clever computer programs. Some of the projects last just a short time and some can last a few weeks, from the planning and researching through to the execution.

This blog post is related to one of the recent projects which came under the heading of conceptual. The brief was both strict and vague, citing that one had to use any material of volume 30cm by 10cm by 10cm, then record its dispersal. The idea my mother had was to use candles as the dispersed medium, though clearly this idea needed more depth to it. The depth came not from the structure but from the concept, in particular the symbolic representation. It was decided that the candles would represent the art colleges which have given up the teaching of fine art in place of the increasingly fashionable conceptual route that many have chosen to take. A caveat is needed at this point to note that there are still colleges and universities which do indeed teach the technical aspects of fine art and Banbury is one of them. So, this ouroboros of an idea is a memorial to fine art, slowly dying in our colleges. But there's more...

Though clearly this is not always the case, it has always seemed to me that in conceptual art the idea itself and not the construction is often the powerful element, so I made a suggestion that the term dispersal could be taken in an alternative way. Though indeed the candles are dispersing, by passing on the information about this concept to others, the information itself is being dispersed. I suggested that this project could become an international dispersal if the idea was written about and the final record of it was posted on the blog. Unwittingly you have now become part of a conceptual art project, your brains being the medium!

So, the actual setup also benefits from a little explanation. Behind the candles is a picture called "Experiment with an Air Pump" by Joseph Wright which symbolises both the art of fine drawing and the art of the experiment. This picture ties in with the project again in the use of candles, though in another form and the skull mirrors the dispersal of information from one person's brain to another. The young girl covering her eyes symbolises the lost skills burning down before her.

The text in front says: "These candles are lit in memory of all those Art Schools that used to teach drawing and now have conceptual art as the main product of their courses. Their dispersal will symbolise the skills that their students will be left with at the end of the course."

So, without further ado I give you the photographs chronicling the dispersal of skills, as the idea itself is dispersed who knows where.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Critical Points

I seem to have reached saturation point, such that I have so many things going on right now that I have no time to write about them, until now. In the department things have been particularly hectic as I attempt to spend all hours getting some results for my boss on a project we're working on before he heads away for a while. Production of significant results has recently been invariant under temporal scalings. (symmetry broken as of this writing).

We've been having an interesting array of lecturers coming to visit recently. Yesterday Nobel Laureate Walter Kohn came to talk to the students and postdocs in a question and answer session. With his Viennese heritage he reminded me a great deal of my grandfather. Kohn was one of the developers of the density functional approach which has allowed the quantum mechanical study of an unbelievably vast range of applications. Not only are the two original papers apparently the most cited scientific papers of the last century but today the computational power that goes into calculations involving this formalism are second only to US defense computation. The idea is a relatively simple but extremely powerful one. The revolution came when it was noted that the Hamiltonian of a system of charges could be written simply as a functional of the charge density of the system. This is a function of just three variables as opposed to 3*N where N is the number of particles under consideration in the system. This may seem like an obvious statement but many of the consequences are far from trivial. In particular Kohn noted after a particularly insightful question that with this approach it's possible to show that in the groundstate of any system is encoded the information for all of the excited states. This, apparently, was not possible in the preceding formalism.

One of the reasons for Kohn's visit at the moment is that he has just completed a film about the sun, in particular its place as a source of energy and the increasingly critical dependence of the world on fossil-fuels. As a country whose main source of energy is coal, China is a key target for Kohn's video and his current aim is to get the video shown on Chinese television in as unadulterated a form as possible. Knowing people in the top ranks of the Chinese Academy of Science should help with this task. Speaking of coal-burning, in a BBC web-report today, Linfen was listed as one of the most polluted cities in the world, its main industry being coal mining. Friends of mine have told me that within just a few minutes of being in the city your skin becomes greasy and black. This is no small city and the cost of treatment for lung diseases alone must be astronomical, if indeed people are treated at all.

We also currently have a delegation of scientists from Thailand visiting and today we had a whirlwind tour of applications of Feynman integrals in condensed matter physics. The importance was clear, in particular in polymer science but the rate of slides was rather overwhelming!


Today, (having written the previous content yesterday) we've had a talk from George Atkinson on Globalisation of Science and Technology, US and International Strategies. Professor Atkinson is both a scientist, working currently on the Cassini-Huygens mission and the Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of State. The overall aim of the talk was to discuss the trends in globalisation of science and technology and how this can and will impact everyone. The role of science, both pure and applied as an essential driving force was emphasised but the most important point that I took away from the talk was that as a scientist it is my duty to be as involved as possible with policy making. If the scientists leave it to the politicians who are advised by just a few people, both the directions of academia and the impact of research on the world will most likely not take the most efficient or helpful route.

Atkinson spoke about the Jefferson Science Fellowships, whereby academics spend a year as scientific advisers followed by 5 years back in their institutes continuing to drive policy. This seems like a great scheme and from the diversity of the current fellows it looks to have an impressively global view.

The other main point was the importance of international collaboration which is again clearly a vital theme. With 70,000 Chinese students currently in America, the partnership between the two nations is clearly an important one. When the younger members of the audience were asked why they had not been to the States a unified echo of 'visas' was the response. Several members had applied and been rejected. Atkinson said that this was a known issue and things were being done about it.

I was recently contacted by an American academic who was over here on a conference. He wanted to meet up and have a chat and although I had no time to get away from the office we did exchange a few e-mails. I was interested to learn his perspective on the state of science in China in the short time he was here. One thing which shocked him and unfortunately undermines several of the above statements was that most of the researchers from China at the conference he was at were unaware of his work, even though he is from a leading institution in his field. The reason for this was a simple one. The campus on which he was staying had internet access to Chinese websites only. To get hold of material from non-Chinese research departments was not a simple task and consequently they were working in a strange sort of research vacuum. Until such basic requirements such as ease of communication are tackled, there will always be a gap between the Chinese and non-Chinese scientific community. The transfer of knowledge, even if it is second-hand is clearly vital to a globalisation of science and technology - this is a really basic step that must be taken.

The talk was driven by statistics and graphs and though his overall arguments seemed reasonable it's difficult to come to quantitative conclusions. He's an impressive speaker and this leaves me wondering whether I was impressed by what he was saying or by the way he was saying it. My conclusion is that it's a bit of both.

At the end were some nice quotes, related to what politicians actually want from their advisers. I'd forgotten George Bernard Shaw's quote that "If all the economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion". In fact Atkinson was paraphrasing and this was not his slight on economists by any means.

If I can get hold of this talk I will try and put it online.


At some point this week I should be getting a couple of British couchsurfers, coming over from Korea, though currently their communications have stopped. Couchsurfing really seems to be taking off and I generally get one or two requests a week to stay at my place. I'm very much looking forward to using this when I next go traveling independently.

Saturday afternoon I have a meeting with a British school party to tell them about life in China which should be fun. I'll report back on that soon I hope.

Because of so much work, reading and movie watching have been kept to a minimum recently though I have continued to take English corner for the Chinese students and teaching English once a week to a private pupil. All in all things are a bit ridiculous now. Of the three projects I'm working on, two are in relatively late stages of maturation and I hope to be able to finish them in the next few weeks.


I did make it to a friends birthday last weekend and we headed to one of the big clubs to go and see Mr Thing, formerly a member of the Scratch Perverts and former DMC world champion. The transformation from the slightly chubby mid-thirties guy who could quite easily have been the bloke who ran the terrible disco nights in my hall as an undergraduate, to a kid, absolutely on top of the world, stunning the audience was awesome. Scratch DJing as I've seen it comes in two categories, one of which is scratching and one of which is making music. There's a superb movie called 'Hang The DJ' which includes Q-Bert, very definitely filling the latter category. Along with MC Yung Gun (don't blame me!), Mr Thing whipped up the crowd into a frenzy and while we weren't dancing like crazy we were staring open-mouthed at the speed and skill with which he created the sounds. I've also never seen an MC who has managed to get the audience on his side so quickly. Several times I've seen them crash and burn in a sweat of awkward looks and a silent audience but this time he knew exactly what he was doing and got everyone shouting along. A great night and, with the winter nights coming in quickly, I expect to be spending less nights out at the outside bars and more in the great clubs.

OK, quite enough for now. More work to finish before the weekend.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


In contrast to my complaints of research descending into mathematical contortionism last time, I had a four hour conversation on msn with my collaborator in Poland yesterday which was entirely related to the concepts of the problem we're solving. After many hundreds of lines of toing and froing we had decided on the important definitions in our work and, by studying the mathematics which we've been playing with for some time were able to convert this into concepts about the physics. Leaving some things to mull over and with rather sore typing fingers from frantic conversing we left it for the evening. Rather fuzzy minded as I did some tidying in the flat I realised the final steps to the problem and managed to program it up this morning. We seem to be reaching the final steps of the project which is clearly a dangerous thing to say but may just be true. Anyway, a good day for breakthroughs.

Anyway, I promised some photos which follow shortly. First a review of a couple of very strange films which I watched in between food poisoning affecting my schedule this weekend. I'm much better now but whatever disagreed with me came to visit with friends in tow.

David Lynch is known for making films which leave you thinking, often wondering whether there really are answers to the question he poses or whether he's just playing with you. Mullholland Drive I've seen many times now and slowly but surely either bits make sense or I fool myself into thinking they do. I'm convinced that the strange tramp is the same tramp as is found in the Hellraiser movies, but I don't know the link other than the obvious one of both films being about dreams.

Anyway, I didn't watch Mullholland Drive again but I did watch Dumbland, a series of cartoons from David Lynch. This doesn't leave much to the imagination and didn't leave me pondering much at all, just a little disturbed. It's no surprise that the maker of Eraserhead would write something like this, a visceral, cynical view of the worst waste-of-space side of society mixed with some bizarre surreal ideas. Some moments of genius that leave you open-mouthed at the stupidity/abstractness/barbarity of it.

A DVD of Peter Greenaway's early short, experimental films including "A walk through H, the reincarnation of an ornithologist" are interesting ideas though mostly rather overplayed. In fact the highlight of the DVD is Greenaway's post-film commentary where suddenly, unlike Lynch's movies, light is shed on what we've just witnessed making it infinitely more meaningful for those poor souls among us who didn't get the symbolism the first time. I'm not sure if I'd recommend these movies. Greenaway calls them moments of juvenility and although they may be important moments in the history of experimental cinema, I fear that that's all they are and their merits as pieces of entertainment are now lost.

OK, so some pictures from recent adventures.

Tiananmen square during the national holiday was a floral sculpture park with the recent headline grabbers from Chinese achievements:

First the upcoming Olympics are not complete without the overly colourful mascots. They have names, but I've chosen to forget them every time I see them peppering all shop windows from here to Lhasa.

The finishing touches of the three valleys project is another cause for celebration. I remain unsure about how the difficult balance ends up on this one.

While I was in Japan, it was remarked upon that since Sumo has been opened to the rest of the world, Japan has become somewhat less dominant in the sport with Bulgarians, Mongolians and Americans suddenly filling many of the top rankings. It seems that the Chinese also want to get in on the act.

The train to Lhasa is both a trade route and an international symbol by which China can claim firmer ownership of its land. With various details about the construction being in the Guinness book of records, the completion of this filled TV channels for days.

Sunset over Houhai lake.

A trip to the lake in the holiday left us the other side of the bright lights, such that we could admire without being deafened or hassled.

Another trip to Dashanzi to see this months installations had both powerful works and some disturbing installation art, see previous post.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Merry Moon Day

This week is the Chinese National Day holiday, signifying the creation of the People's Republic back in 1949. For me the holiday means that I get to sit in pleasant cafes and do my work rather than sit in the office. A relaxed change of pace for the week, though somehow it seems almost over before it's begun. This is partly due to the fact that I was called into the office on Sunday, when I'd planned to make a Beijing excursion, to discuss progress on one of the current projects. The outcome of the meeting was that we're still attempting many different avenues for the problem we're tackling but as is often the case in such research, we just can't get solutions to our equations yet. This is one of the frustrating times of such research. We've taken some physical principle which we understand, even if in a slightly abstract way, and translated it into mathematics. The problem then is to manipulate the mathematics until you get an answer which can then be analysed and reinterpreted in the language of physics. The intermediate step is a frustrating one because you're often not learning anything new about the physics, simply manipulating equations. Still, in such cases it's got to be done and we seem to be moving in the right direction.

In fact, in between the work this week I've managed to take in a few holiday sights. Tiananmen is currently awash with flowers and fountains in celebration of the foundation and these flowers are part of several sculptures, this year marking the coming of the Olympics, the completion (or near completion) of the three valleys dam project and finally a reproduction of the palace at Lhasa to mark the completion of the Beijing-Lhasa train. Wherever there were no flowers on Tiananmen there were people, out with their families and snapping photos at all possible angles, a few with me in to contrast my height with that of various women who wanted a picture with the lanky foreigner.

From there, via a three hour, five bus tour unsuccessfully going to an outdoor music festival we ended up at Houhai lake, drinking beer, eating spicy duck neck and dangling our feet over the embankment. Photos from this and Tiananmen to follow when I'm not in such a rush. On our way back we stopped off at one of the few restaurants serving true old-Beijing style food and gave dou zhi a go. This is probably Beijing's most famous old-style snack though few who aren't real Beijingers will go near it. It's a grey/green warm liquid with the consistency of slightly gone off cream and the smell of stilton mixed with a light vinegar. It's fermented mung bean milk and some love it. It's pretty hard to swallow as it tastes a lot stronger than it smells, stimulating several areas of the mouth which rarely get tickled. Though I could only manage a few sips it was actually quite tasty, just a bit too overpowering on a first attempt. I'm told that it should be accompanied with pickled vegetables which I can imagine would make the whole thing a bit easier. It did make me yearn for some good strong cheese which I plan on getting as soon as I can find a good source.


I'm still a member of several forums for foreigners here which I joined when I first arrived, having no other way to meet people of similar interests. Though I haven't been on them for a good six months I get the occasional message through them and last week an Indian woman got in contact with me, asking for some advice on the city. Having guided her via the web through a few Beijing hotspots, we met up on Friday evening in Houhai and spent a fun few hours talking about everything from mingling with the stars (she used to look after bands, Sting, Michael Jackson, etc. when they came to Bombay) to string theory to couch surfing and more, over some fine Beijing beer and stewed frog. She's in Beijing training people in a computer company in communication skills which turns out to offer some interesting insights into the thought processes of those working in the company. A good change for me as at the moment I'm generally pretty snowed under with work to meet new people other than through hosting them in my apartment.


Yesterday was another surprise which made me even more impressed with the Dashanzi art district, which I spoke about in detail here. Not only are there 50 of the most exciting galleries I've ever visited in this amazing site but I now find that the turn around time for the artists is very quick, meaning that if you go back to the area one month later, you're likely to see a completely different selection. I believe that many of the artists live in or around Dashanzi and the exhibitions roll round once every few weeks. Some really fine work this time from highly abstract to super-realist via a performance artist in a small room, alone who wanted people to sit next to her while she put a small drop of blood on a stamp and put the blood on whoever wanted to take part in the performance. We were the only people in the room, my friend declined the offer but I wanted to know more and so asked her what the significance of it all was. The answer unfortunately was lost on me (though she was a native English speaker) and so without knowing what it was all for, I too declined, feeling that such conceptual art is often, though not always, just as powerful in the concept as the action. Indeed my friend was rather shaken by the whole thing despite the fact that we'd seen no blood and everything had been discussed rationally and calmly. There may at some point in the near future be some concept art on this site, via my mother who is currently part way though an art degree. (There's a fine report of a video installation in Hull over at Trouble On Westbourne from September 22, worth a read too.)

OK, I'm in the office because I have no internet at home these days so I shall take a wonder to a local cafe and mull over those equations some more...