Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Unfathomably, somehow Dan turned up on time, with his luggage, looking relatively fresh from a gruelling trip from the UK. Beijing airport is a pretty simple affair and his first taste of real Chinese life was a trip to Starbucks in the arrivals lounge.

Not only did Dan bring his good self but he brought me, as requested, a few books which I'm stupendously happy at receiving. Two new Steinbeck, the latest Murakami, another Marquez and a Kundera have lit up my rather sparce book collection here no end and shall keep me entertained for some time.

So Dan arrived on New Year's Eve. My third of the year, and for this one I couldn't work out what we had in store for us. My campus is an absolute ghost-town. Usually one has to push and jostle to get anywhere around the campus. Now generally I'm the solitary figure roaming the deserted paths. Almost everyone else has returned to their families for some time. This means that with Dan's arrival I really didn't and still don't know how the trip will pan-out. There is talk that almost everything will be closed this week but I'm sure we'll be able to keep ourselves entertained with careful choices.

After a bit of a kip for Dan, we headed to my local for a quiet drink before going to the Chaoyang district to meet another couple of friends.

Ah, yes, the fireworks...from four in the afternoon Beijing turned into a war-zone! Firecrackers and rockets gave a constant barrage of bangs, cracks and whizzes to ward away the Nian spirit and probably any chance of hearing in later life. As the sky darkened with the setting sun and the increasing smoke in the air, illuminations joined the cacophony to give eight hours of the most spectacular fireworks display I've ever scene. As I mentioned before, fireworks were banned in Beijing for over a decade until this year. It's a strange logic but basically many, many people die in Beijing every year from illegal fireworks (almost 200 in the last six months) so the authorities have legalised it. However, from what I can tell, because the illegal ones are cheaper it just means that far more illegal fireworks are bought. Anyway, also because the authorities aren't really happy about them, I don't believe there were any organised displays. People in the city don't have gardens which means that families peppered the roadside with their displays as we rode in the taxi on the eight-lane highway.

We were aiming to celebrate the New Year with a traditional Beijing duck meal but it turned out that all the restaurants were closed. Tiananmen square was completely deserted and the streets were eerily quiet, save for the deafening noise of firecrackers.

After much running around and rumbling of stomachs, the four of us finally found a restaurant which was willing to serve us. We were the only customers in this large Beijing duck eatery save for an enormous table where the proprietors, the waiters and the chefs were having their enormous celebratory meal. I'm still not sure who cooked our dinner which was good though completely chaotic with much singing, shouting and confusion as we finished our dumplings without finding the lucky coin that they only told us afterwards was hidden in one of them. I have a feeling I may find it today!

Anyway, a couple of relatively empty bars later and Dan (tired from jet-lag) and I (tired from getting up at silly o'clock to get to the airport) headed back to watch the fireworks display from my flat. At midnight the sky was truly lit up with what must have been 1000 simultaneous displays that we could see in the near vicinity. Pretty awesome stuff. Unfortunately no great photos but we managed to get a movie of it which I may try to link to the blog sometime.

The next day after a really decent rest and a stroll around the local areas to orient Dan a little, we headed to our first real taste of New Year's celebrations, Chinese style. Within many of the major temples there are huge festivities so we went to Ditan park (The temple of Earth) which is supposed to hold the most extensive Miao Hui.

It turns out that the reason that the streets have been completely empty everywhere else in Beijing is because everyone and their dog is at Ditan park in a huge moving crush of people bumping between stalls serving all varieties of festive food to games and incense burning ceremonies, performances of classical tales and fashion shows.

We went there with one of the PhD students from my department. She's one of the few people from the department left in Beijing and not spending the day with their families.

A few decent photos from the Miao Hui (Please correct me if you know the right spelling).

Dan and Laura on the bridge on the way to the temple.

The enormous crowds of people.

The year of the dog celebrated with true kitsch

Dan eating scorpion, Laura eating starfish. Scorpion tastes pretty good. The legs are kinda crunchy but the bodies are a tasty little treat. It turns out the starfish tastes a little like sand.

Cicadas, scorpions, locusts, squid, starfish and sparrows were all on the menu.

Dan attempting not to be stung during his gastronomic adventures.

New year is a time here for colourful decorations everywhere.

Dan with luminous green drink complete with flour balls.

One of the traditional stories being reinacted with songs, dancing and drums.

Making some form of culinary delight with a big mallet looks like fun. Couldn't quite work out what was being produced.

After the delights of crowds of millions of slightly hung-over Beijingers we headed back to the flat before finding a Japanese restaurant and warming ourselves up with some sake before hitting the clubs. It appeared that we were the only club-hitters that night as we sat alone, playing pool and chatting in what is usually one of the busiest live music venues. The folk singer who was supposed to be performing clearly didn't think that we were audience enough so we had to be content with the entertainment of the Chinese version of Jeremy Beadle on the bar TV.

Next day we headed Tiananmen way, wandered around the hutongs and a few shops before going to the natural history museum. Listed in the guidebook for its gruesome preserved specimens, I was mildly impressed with some of the lepidoptery displays and the dinosaurs which were just like those in any natural history museum I've ever been to.

We did find the human display which surprisingly had quite a few families taking their children round what were pretty gory specimens. Perhaps because of this it wasn't a terribly shocking display but interesting to see bits and pieces of preserved folk at various stages of life including a couple of whole specimens in different states of bodily undress!

We headed back home but first stopping off at a spa to have a massage. This is the first massage I've had in China but felt that this was a good time to try and unwind after a tiring three months. We found a reputable looking place and with a mixture of bad Chinese and slightly better English had a whole hour's massage. Dan's it seemed was a little too gentle but I came away feeling slightly more tense than before having spent most of the time with clenched teeth trying not to groan from the pain of thumbs and elbowed poked very hard into knotted muscle.

Anyway, I think I feel better for it today so it seems to have been worthwhile.

As the hang-overs of the locals have worn off they seem to be going back to the clubs now and we spent a decent night in one of the locals relaxing, drinking cocktails and dancing till three in the morning.

...and so the adventure continutes.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

A lack of offensive forum posts, a renewed blue sky, a pleasant evening and some pleasing news has for the moment cheered me up Michele. Also the fact that I only have TWO DAYS until my holiday is lifting my spirits.

The good news today was that I've been invited to work at a University in Tokyo for a week and Kyoto for a week at the end of February on a really interesting project, which is clearly good for several reasons. Not least of these reasons is that I've been wanting to see Japan for a long time and it will be interesting to see how it compares to my vision, influenced largely by Haruki Murakami novels (which I highly recommend) and Japanese movies. I'm hoping that it doesn't parallel too many details of Audition, a great film, I think often misunderstood as simply a nasty movie but I think it's a beautifully paced and written story of loneliness and cruelty (doesn't sound fun I know but I think it's worth a watch if you have a strong stomach).

Anyway, I look forward to some really interesting work and a truckload of great fresh fish (Slow motion - Pole).


My music listening has recently been revolutionised once again by a program on a site called pandora.com. It's a personalised radio player. You put in the name of an artist or track that you like, it then plays you something with a similar feel by analysing the rhythm, tempo, ambiance etc. of your choice. The next track is again in a similar vein but at any point you can vote for or against a track and it will bias the choices in the directions you decide.

So far, having started with Plaid, I've been listening to a whole world of electronica that I've never heard before. I really advise giving it a spin. If you register (for free, but you don't have to in order to use it), it will save
the stations that it's made for you from your initial choices and likes/dislikes of a particular playlist so you immediately have many personalised stations which are likely to play music that you haven't heard but fits in very well with your tastes.


Be warned, I have plans of talking physics again soon. Lots of interesting stuff to discuss but will have to wait momentarily. For now, just a couple of bits of news:

The first is actually a couple of weeks old now but I think worth mentioning. Various theories of cosmology predict that at different regions of space where different phases (phases of quantum fields, not liquid/gas etc.) meet there will be defects at the boundaries between the phases.

Think of a large group of people in a room. Everyone is looking at the floor to start with. Placed around the room on the walls are a large number of interesting pictures. People start randomly to look up. One person sees a picture he likes and gets the people around him to look at the picture as well. As more people around him look at it, so the people around them look at it as well. Now there's a small subgroup of all the people all looking in the same direction, influenced by that first random glance. The group of people looking in the same direction is increasing in size as more people are influenced to look in that direction.

However, somewhere else in the room there was another person who looked up initially and saw a different picture in a different direction. They also have a group being influenced by that first glance, which increasing in size. In fact, there are several of these sources of influence (people who influence an ever increasing group around them to look in a particular direction). However, as the size of the groups increase, two of them will meet at a line of people. One side of the line will be looking one way, the other side will be looking another. This is the defect caused by different regions of the universe choosing a different phase (read direction). The people at these defects will have a lot of energy as they argue with the ones directly next to them about which way to face (The analogy is a little weak here but it's roughly right!). I don't know if that makes any sense at all to anyone but me!

Clearly because of the gradient across the boundary, the energy of such a configuration will be huge and, consequently, so will the gravitational field of such an object. The possible defects are given by the internal symmetry group, broken by the choice of phase, and the number of dimensions of space-time. One possibility in a 4d universe is that there could be 'cosmic strings' out there stretching across vast swathes of the universe. This isn't some cosmic fantasy but is truly predicted by many theorists. It would really be like a massive piece of extremely long string stretching across the sky.

The signal for such an object should be pretty easy to spot by the way that its gravity warps the light coming from objects behind it as it reaches us. Great excitement a while ago when it was believed that a cosmic string was found
from this image though unfortunately it has now been shown not to be a real string.

(Sorry if you've seen this on every physics related blog on the web!)

It's still an interesting example of gravitational lensing, one of the predictions made by Einstein on GR. The search continues. Incidentally, cosmic superstrings are also predicted in string theory (produced during the inflationary era) and the debate (I believe) continues as to whether you would be able to tell a cosmic string from
a cosmic superstring (Polchinski vs. Tong I think).

(My apologies if anyone who understands it knows it already and anyone who doesn't, doesn't have the faintest idea at what I'm blathering on about!)

Anyway, the second more positive piece of astronomical news is that an Earth-like planet has been found circling a star in our galaxy. It's too far from its parent sun and therefore too cold to harbour life, but of the 160 or so extrasolar planets now found, this is the closest we've got to something like the Earth. These 160 have all been found in the last couple of years and as our techniques for finding them improves, it seems pretty likely that before long we will find a planet pretty similar to our own. A really exciting prospect, especially as with all its efforts SETI has turned up zilch so far.

In summary:
1) We thought we'd spotted the signatures of a vast piece of string stretching light-years across the universe. We hadn't but we had taken a nice snap of an interesting phenomenon.
2) We've seen (again, the signatures of) an Earth-like extrasolar planet. At the current rate of discovery, my view is that the likelihood of finding one emitting an intelligent signal is not vanishingly small.


Last of all for now. Fireworks have been banned in Beijing for the last 14 years or so. Tomorrow is New Year's eve and fireworks are back. People have a lot of catching up to do. This should be big!

Sunday, January 22, 2006

I end this week feeling a little bruised and battered. This is partly due to the bizarre goings on started by forming a pretty innocuous group of friends. It's also due to me starting arguments full of holes with unclearly thought out routes of reasoning such that it's become clear that I'm beginning to eat my own tail. It's also because the pollution has taken a turn for the worse over the last week and going outside is not a particularly pleasant experience at the moment. Mainly I think it's because of the three month blues that I was warned about.

It's arrived pretty much on queue and is just about as it was described to me. I realized that my subconscious is playing games with me as I started humming 'We've got to get out of this place'. I was surprised when I was arrived at the lack of culture shock. Perhaps that's because it takes (or at least it has for me) a while to set in and isn't so much a shock as a frustration. I'm now pretty exhausted and direly in need of the break that is coming up in a week's time so I feel I have just enough energy to make it through this week, including an attempt to go the British embassy tomorrow.

Anyway, enough of slightly depressing matters. There are still many enjoyable things to talk about.

I'm thoroughly looking forward to the arrival of Mr B and a great couple of weeks ahead.

Last night after some games of pool in a Korean pool hall (regular pool, run by Koreans) I ended up, after being driven by a taxi driver who genuinely didn't know what to do with a map, at a heavy metal club. Not generally my thing but seeing live bands is almost always great fun and this was no exception. Chinese metal (or at least this stuff) is really energetic and the crowd was up for a great time. Only one serious incident in the night when an overenthusiastic fan grabbed the female lead singer of a ska-metal band and in trying to hold her aloft toppled over in his drunken haze and slammed her head first onto the floor. Gasps and a rapidly cleared audience looked on to see if she was ok/unconscious/dead but after a few moments she got up looking dazed and confused with a sore bonce and a bad case of bed-head. Within a few minutes she was back on the stage and surprisingly said fan was back at the front both hands up in sign of the beast salute head banging to his heart's content.

Today has also left me slightly puzzled. I would have thought that Ikea in a country with over a billion people would be a horrendous place to be at the weekend, my mother having spent six hours stuck in one in the UK. However, by design or good fortune I managed to get in and out having picked up a bed en route within half an hour. My advice, if you want a lamp-shade or some cushion covers, come to Beijing, you'll probably save some time.

My penultimate unconnected story...I've finished the Grace Paley book which I thoroughly enjoyed. Short tales of urban American life told in a very unusual style disregarding the norms of grammar on a lot of occasions to great effect. Any other recommendations of her work would be gratefully received.

...and finally, some great news...Stephen Hawking will be coming to Beijing for strings. I won't say too much but I was connected with this and am consequently officially elected to the communications committee for Strings '06. Should be good for the CV.

Anyway, enough, I retire weary but still happy to be here even if I'm tired of playing hop-scotch with spit on the street and being elbowed out of every queue I join! For now, adios.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Wow and...wow and gosh and blimey and wow! Things turn from strange to somewhere off the scale!

As I explained a couple of posts ago, we've been having threats from the owner of a yahoo group who has been opposing the book and movie club that we've set up. I've attached our correspondence here with all other peoples names changed as I don't want to start playing their games of defamation of character, you'll see.

So, the other person and I who started the club terminated our membership of this first one as we'd had enough of the threats and didn't want to be in a club with which we had such disagreements. I thought the problem was resolved and I had e-mailed the British embassy to make sure that our positions were firm and we really weren't doing anything illegal.

So, today I receive an e-mail from a friend who is still on the original group saying that someone had put a strange post up about us. There are usually 10-20 posts a day on the group and around 1000 people read them. I've posted quite a few times and I would guess that my name is reasonably well known on the group. My friend sent me the post which has left me truly shocked. Below is a copy of the post with all names but my own changed. Stupendously bizarre, though I have to fill you in on a couple of bits of info to put some of it in context. Somebody a couple of weeks ago in Shanghai put up a post trying to organise a jacuzzi party and inviting all the 'sexy' girls to hang out with him and his handsome friends. Fine, whatever, if he wants to say stuff like that and people want to go, I don't have a problem with it. Anyway, that's what that's all about. The other important point is that we'd explained many many times to this group that our club is not one where we review individual books, we just chat about books we've read in the past, this is why we didn't 'provide titles for moderation'. The text follows:

Just share the incident heard from someone that have experience in
forming book-clubs in China. After compare with the Jaccuzi Party,
I think F's honesty and directness are remarkable in
compares to wheeling ways to invite girls.

Some recent book club in Beijing revealed the highly danger case
for innocent girls in China to give away their virginity under
literal hypnosis. They way it operats is by utilizing a low level
of hypnosis technics, by guiding from 1-2-3. No reviews were priorly
given to the book club party to avoid sense of on-guard. When a
simple "book-club party" made ease for girls to accept.But once
attending the result can be high danger in "sexual hypnotise within
literal fascination". It leads to emotional dependence.

The type of bookclub is unlike F's Jacuzzi Party. F made
clear about "he is handsome so who is sexy". He allows people to
be in charge of their own choices and respect their state of being.
No misguiding,nor emotional and spiritual defraud. Adult made
choices based on the information given.

Hypothetically, when a book-club is utilizing materials such as
describing EYES. IT may slowly work their way in for Chinese girls
to use eye contacts and stimulates emotions in which they are not
used to by nature of own cultural. By the end of the material, the
hypnotiser/teaser will bring you into the next level of exploring
body contacts. Then eroticism at last. BOOK CLUB that took
advantage of criteria between the two culture in training the
innocence on eyes of soul is recognized in many culturals. Chinese
girls are happened to be the likely victims due to the traditional

Both F & Jonathan Shock and M use this group
to invite people. One is direct, the other one is not. The innocent
girls here in China which many people earlier discussed and agreed.
Chances are F will not invite innocent ones by mistake. But such
misguiding bookclub could ends in abusive result without a trace
on betraying sexual unwillingness in girl's original intention.

I strongly think Proper Book Club must fit the criteria especially
innocent Chinese girls before they join, I also recommand any
future book club must provide reviews to the moderators to ensure
members' safty. Public places instead of someone's home to avoid
special mist or aroma senses trap for girls to reach unexpected
cloud 9 by mistake. I also suggest the host to provide you or the
group with the SN # and name of the author to make sure they are
approved by the local principle in China.

That's some SERIOUS ALLEGATIONS, and read by around 1000 people!!! I would imagine most of them realise how bizarre this rumor is but it wouldn't take many of the 1000 people to make our lives pretty tough.

From starting a club where people talk about books they've enjoyed reading I did not expect this.

I'm attempting not to exacerbate matters any more and am going to go to the British embassy to make sure that we are completely in the clear. If people did take this seriously, things could really get nasty so I want to clear up the matter ASAP.

This has all left me a little shaken but hopefully it can all be cleared up very soon.

OK, I'm going to stop prattling on about this soon but I guess I have realised a couple of ways that the character system does have an efficiency over an alphabetised system. Though the Japanese, the Taiwanese, the Mandarin and Cantonese speakers all talk a different language, they can all read (less so with Japanese) text that is written in by a speaker of another tongue. The other point is that it's condensed. I suppose this can be compared with writing in high or low base maths. Writing in base two, I only have to know 2 numbers to write anything but a single string can be very long. Writing in a high base means I need to know more numbers and how they fit together but a number is much more compactly written even though the two systems contain the same amount of information. Chinese is a very high base language so consequently you need to remember more to use it but it doesn't take up much space on a page, just more in your brain! I'm still trying to figure out how written language is ordered in the brain of someone who speaks a character language, but that's another story.

I was also clearly generalising when talking about English schools. My experience was that I was taught French from the age of 13 for three years. I never got very good because I was never forced to practice much and three years of non-intensive learning isn't enough for me to learn a language fluently. I never got very good at Russian because I got so tied up with all the grammar that it never became natural. There are schools in England that teach languages from a much younger age and much better than I think I was taught. (The language teaching did suit some people at my school but not me).

Friday, January 20, 2006

A really bizarre couple of days that have left me rather confused...

I mentioned in the previous post about perceived problems with the book and movie club that a friend and I had started. Today this has only intensified with a stream of threatening e-mails cumulating in warnings of deportation as it was said that we were trying to 'disseminate anti-governmental propaganda'! Wow!

We are merely a group of friends getting together once a week to chat about the books and movies that we've enjoyed over the years. It's also clearly stated on our web page that political discussion will not be tolerated, specifically so that such things won't happen.

Since then we've been thrown-off the original expat forum which has been so helpful in connecting us with friends. We've also been in touch with the British Embassy to make sure that our positions are not in jeopardy. A fun day indeed.

I was surprised how little government censorship there was when I got out here but this has been a bit of a shock to the system - incidentally this is not government censorship, this is supposedly coming from an American who wants to report us for our non-patriotic activities. Will keep you posted.


The following is a bit of a rant, it's not clearly thought out but it's my gut-instict, possibly even my git-instinct.

I was sent a link by TI a couple of days ago to a news article about the increasing number of schools in England teaching Mandarin. Lots of people posted their views on the subject but I feel that with only three months experience my ideas are still in their infancy. I do however feel quite strongly about this.

From what I understand, it takes an extra two years for a child to learn to read and write using a pictographic (character) system of writing than it does for a child using an alphabetised system. This is reasonable as it takes such a long time to learn the many thousands of different characters (2500 needed to read a paper).

My personal view is that if I was made to learn this at school I would now feel that the many hundreds of hours I would have to put in to learn the system by rote would have been wasted. I say this EVEN THOUGH I'm now out here and struggling.

My personal views are that the emphasis on memorising things as opposed to understanding things in schools is too high already. I understand that this is an inherent problem of learning languages and I see that it is something that us English speakers are generally very lazy about (uptake of French in schools is declining steadily).

To me it just seems like such a gargantuan task to learn the Chinese writing system that anyone who takes it seriously will have to put less effort into other subjects which will develop skills other than a good memory for learning abstract characters.

I do see it as great to give Mandarin as an option for kids but when a college makes it compulsory it seems like the wrong move.

The essence of the article is that Chinese is going to be the language of the future and will be hugely helpful for these kids as they grow up in a Sino-dominated world.

Perhaps, but maybe I'm cynical as I was forced to study Russian for five years for exactly the same reason - "Russian will be a hugely important language of the future". I do feel more sure about Chinese place in the future than I ever did with Russia at the time.

I now feel that I never 'got' Russian, it just never clicked even in five years, and I believe that I gained little from the many thousands of hours I spent practicing. Perhaps I believe this because I have for most of my academic life been pretty sure which direction I was heading and so the many hours I spent not learning maths and physics feel like they were stolen hours.

As I said, these views are less liberal (I think) than most of my views but my main argument is that the time a child spends rote learning three thousand characters which I believe they are unlikely to need in the future could be much better spent doing other things. Of course there will be kids who love it, thrive on it and go on to become successful because of it but my guess is that compared to the number who struggle painfully through will outweigh the benefits of this push.

Here endeth the lesson, my apologies.

I'm interested to hear the viewpoint of other people who aren't shrouded by a cloud of Chinese characters that they feel slightly bitter about.


Some film news from last week: I'd never heard of The best of youth (La Meglio Gioventu) - a 6 hour Italian epic about a group of friends growing up in the 60s and watching them progress to today. It takes in many of the historic events of Italy over the last 40 years and in its many hours paints a superb character study of several fascinating people. Another wonderful movie.

Finally, I promise...chatting to a friend I realised an interesting point though clearly a generalisation. While watching Irreversible, the hugely shocking scene in the underpass caused little emotion (I lie, little outward emotion) to my hosts as opposed to the scene later on with nudity. It was the second of these which prematurely ended the viewing of this film. I don't know if I'm reading too much into it but was intrigued by the different attitudes to sex and violence out here.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

More busy days with strange goings on and infuriating meetings abundantly fruitless.

Tuesday evening was the second meeting of the Beijing books and movies club which had another decent turn-out. A couple of students from the Chinese Academy of Film came along which was a great chance to find out some interesting directors to hunt down.

I was also given a superb book called 'Who got Einstein's office?'. Einstein was the first resident professor in the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. The IAS was set up in the 30s from a hefty donation as a centre where the greatest minds in the world could get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life with no pressure to teach, to produce papers, to be bombarded with administration but to concentrate on the most abstract problems of mathematics and physics that anyone has ever pondered. It's been home to 12 Nobel Prize winners and many Fields medal winners (the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Prize).

The institute is set in a leafy background away from any big city with its distractions, noise and traffic and consequently some incredible discoveries have come out of this idyll. Currently the ruler of the roost is Ed Witten, probably the most brilliant mind in the scientific world today. He's slightly unusual as a theoretical physicist as he has also made huge contributions in areas of abstract mathematics and won the Fields medal in '93.

The book is a great look at the history of the department and the amazing, bizarre minds who have changed the world of the abstract and the concrete there over the years. Though he didn't make the discovery at the institute, Kurt Godel who worked there at the same time as Einstein, changed the way mathematics is viewed as a consistent enclosed system of logic by proving that there were problems that you could pose but which are unprovable. Not just very hard but logical impossible to prove. This may sound trivial but it rocked the established viewpoint of mathematical reasoning as a subject that with enough work could prove anything.

Anyway, for anyone interested in some of the greatest minds of the last hundred years, this is a wonderful book.

(While I'm on the subject of great minds, I came across Joe Polchinski's page on Wikipedia. Anyone from Tasi 2005 will know why this is particularly amusing, apologies to those who weren't.)

Since the gathering on Tuesday, people who were not there seem to have got the wrong end of the stick and think that we've formed some sort of political discussion group and are currently threatening to report us to the authorities. Though a bit of a shock at first we're not worried because having spoken to people who know about these things, we know that we're not in the wrong. An interesting insight into the paranoia of group gatherings however and something that we're going to keep a good eye on. I shall attempt not to get arrested in my time out here, though with Mr B coming out in a few days, that may be easier said than done.

I had planned to learn another 20 Chinese characters yesterday but instead was forced to sit through a three hour meeting in Chinese. This was the yearly report by all postdocs on progress and future plans and perhaps the biggest waste of time I've ever witnessed. First year postdocs got five minutes to explain their proposals to a group of thirty or so scientists from a diverse range of fields from biophysics and crystallography to quantum groups and cosmology. Second year postdocs had ten minutes to sum up the last year's work. Completely infuriating and I'm going to do my best to get out of such future things as much as possible without insulting the high and mighty.

I bit of a disappointment for this weekend as I was hoping to travel the 3000km round trip by train to Harbin to go and see the ice festival which is held there annually. Unfortunately because it's coming up to the Spring festival train tickets are in short supply and the two hour queue in -5 didn't appeal. I'll sort myself out for next year. However, to brighten up this post, here are some photos of what I would have seen!

As far as I know it's the largest ice and snow festival in the world with lifesize replicas of many of the great buildings and sculptures of the world. Garish in the extreme but it ought to be an amazing sight. Next year, next year.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

I've managed to track down some photos from Monday's bizarre afternoon. This is good for two reasons. First of all no doubt everyone will enjoy seeing me make a fool of myself and secondly because the less I type, the fewer spelling mistakes I'm likely to make and will avoid the embarrassment of my literary failings (see previous comments).

The crowds watching the proceedings:

Those with ages in multiples of 12 were awarded fluffy toy dogs:

Me playing the game which now makes a little more sense having seen the photos. First the obstacle course was there:

Then it wasn't, genius!

Of all those taking part in the game, I was voted the most something (still not sure what, you may guess) and consequently got to draw tickets in the lottery, picking myself as one of the winners...oops:

My poetry recital with suitable smarmy smile:

and finally a game of musical chairs for the professors:

Unfortunately no photos of grandparents cheering along to abusive rap yet, but will endeavor to find some.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

As I stood on stage, blindfolded, in front of 200 people: professors, students, friends and family, I grinned the grin of the irretrievably bemused, safe in the knowledge that life doesn't get much more bizarre. It was a game, I think. Chinese was being shouted at me from all sides as I attempted to get through an obstacle course constructed of human beings and string, with my eyes fully covered. It turns out that the obstacle course wasn't there, it had been removed when I put my blindfold on - ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha, indeed, ha! This was just one part of the surreal afternoon which was the Spring festival party. Almost everyone from the department attended this carnival of the bizarre and it appeared that I was to play the role of the newbie foreigner. I have to say that I didn't mind doing this in the end and all in all its sheer bizarreness made for a relatively enjoyable afternoon.

We all arrived and collected our spring festival bonuses - Shampoo AND conditioner followed by our prizedraw tickets ready to win big.

Sitting in a semicircle about the stage surrounded by bananas, sweets and nuts the first act got underway. An impressive dance act by four guys, early twenties to some of the most racially abusive and sexually explicit gangsta rap I've ever heard. Children and grandparents clapped and cheered as I sat back aghast at what clearly I was the sole person to understand. Games of various varieties, singers, violin players, speeches by the eminent and established followed in the run-up to whatever it was that I took part in - Many people took photos so I may be able to piece together this puzzle. Following this I drew lots for the prizedraw, including, I later found out, myself, winning a fine saucepan.

Next, small toy dogs were given out to all those who were multiples of 12 years old (this year is the year of the dog), the 72 year olds seemed happiest of all.

Following a game where people from the audience who came from regions of China with different dialects had to read a passage to uproarious laughter came my official turn. Having made very sure that 'Ning nang nong' wasn't rude in any dialect of Chinese I gave almost certainly the first performance any of them had ever seen of Spike Milligan and Lewis Caroll. Deathly silence did not follow and tumbleweed did not tumble though I was perhaps saved by my parting with wishes of happy new year in Chinese which seemed to go down very well.

Following a game of musical chairs played by the professors and a version of 'Sailing' that will surely stay with me forever the party dispersed and we all went to a fine dinner of assorted Chinese goodies including beef lung and eel.

All in all the strangest afternoon I've had for some time - enjoyable nonetheless.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Much to my friend and her husband's embarrassment, they found to their horror that 'Irreversible' is not particularly suitable dinner viewing. An intriguing film that I'd like to finish watching. It contains some shocking scenes and is filmed with shots and sound to disorient and disturb as you see in reverse order the events that lead up to the final/first bizarre, gruesome scene. This was replaced after much blushing with a Chinese soap opera, the acting and effects of which made 'Monkey' look like Palm d'Or winning material. With Chinese subtitles I just about managed to conclude that I wouldn't be hiring this one myself.

Further film news is that Kim Ki Duk managed two out of three great films. Unfortunately (IMHO) The Coastguard is simply clunky in almost all respects though with a story line with some potential (damning with faint praise).


In a further feat of reverse engineering, at a local hip-hop club the Chinese students have managed to turn themselves with remarkable precision into mini-50 Cents and Xzibits. Hip-hop is by no means my music of choice but it's the closest club to the local bar where they have live music on a Friday night and has a lively atmosphere.


Finally managed to track down a couple more books and though I'm enjoying Anna Karenina, I've been looking for something else for a while. I've been wanting to read a Nikos Kazantzakis (The Fratricides) and found a book called Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley which has some rave reviews on the back. If anyone has read either and can comment I'd be interested in your opinions. The Kazantzakis was his last novel and is a cross-over between his religious and the epic Greek novels so am looking forward to reading it.

I'm painfully aware that in my one-sided quest to read novels from around the world (one-sided in that I don't bother to learn the languages as I do it), most of the books that I read are in translation. Not being fluent in any other languages, I don't know how much I lose through my laziness though I am aware that I was originally put of reading Homer as the first copy I tried was in an atrocious translation. I've since found translations that almost certainly didn't give me the sense of rhythm of the language but did allow me to read the story with enjoyment. I would like, when I have a spare five minutes, to relearn Russian and reread some of the novels I've enjoyed in bastardised form.

Anyway, again I must return to my learning of Chinese characters. I find it really difficult to motivate myself to rote-learn as I find that this is not the way to gain an understanding of physics, I'm having to use bits of my brain that I haven't used for a long time.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

I return from a meeting extremely confused and somewhat frustrated. This was a funding meeting for the head of our group to obtain money for a two year project. The project is clearly ambitious but with some interesting possible outcomes. The reason I'm frustrated is that there was absolutely no reason for me to have been in that two hour meeting in Chinese with Chinese slides. My only participation was a passive one which included much pointing at me by both the speaker and the funding body. I was asked no questions and my opinion was never asked so I spent the whole time playing spot the 50 characters I know in the slides which got tedious after about 5 minutes. Anyway, we'll see what the outcome is but I feel a little used!


In order to stem the burgeoning Beijing population clearly not affected by the one child policy, my gym has taken the task in hand and has installed extensions cables complete with open plug sockets through the showers in order to fix the faulty sauna. This game of shower roulette is certainly an invigorating one and it perks me up far more than caffeine shower gel ever could.


Last night in contrast to today's meeting was great. It was the first meeting of a group that I'm sort of involved in setting up in Beijing for those passionate about books and movies. The idea is to get a load (about 20 last night) of like minded people together at someone's flat, everyone puts their photo with their favourite authors, directors, films, genres etc. on a big board. You go look at the board to see someone with similar or indeed dissimilar tastes and then mingle. Last night was very enjoyable though we were hoping there would be fewer people who were there purely to improve their English, a worthy pursuit but not the aim of the particular exercise.

Swapped a few movies and chatted with lots of new people including a Finnish guy who has made me reassess my thoughts on the difficulties of learning Chinese. Finnish seems to be one of the most grammatically complicated languages on the planet with a huge range of variations of a single word depending on circumstance. This includes morphisms for intent, hesitation, urgency...etc. As an example, the noun 'shop' has 2253 possible endings depending on where it fits in a sentence and how your neighbour may feel about said shop. Suddenly Chinese is a breeze!

Talking of language it's becoming clear that the Chinese are generally not very good at guessing. I look forward to playing mastermind with a China man (or indeed woman). I live near a place called Wudaokou. This word contains three tones which are important to define the word. However there is nowhere else in Beijing with any name similar to Wudaokou. If I get one of the tones wrong which I do about 90% of the time, the taxi driver stares at me blankly like I've just sneezed and is waiting for his directions. I repeat with all possible combinations until hitting upon the right one at which point he repeats it back volubly and with gusto as if, up until now I've been talking in tongues. If I only spoke a tonal language I might understand this but to me it just seems frustrating that they really can't extrapolate from a similar word.


So though today's meeting was frustrating, yesterday's first reading group session seemed to go really well. Eight of us, including six students, four of whom actively participated in the session which is much more than I had imagined. If this takes off I hope that some of the other students will come to realise that it's a valuable opportunity and will join in. Anyway, I'm really pleased that I've got half the group involved and active. I've given up on trying to get them to speak English in the sessions as I know I would only have one person attending (other than me), though 'English corner' should start in a couple of weeks.


So now I'm spending my days trying to find a problem that I have a hope of solving in a reasonable amount of time. I've got a few ideas but feel like a collaboration would be good. Will see....

Monday, January 09, 2006

Another busy week and thankfully only a couple more to go until the Spring festival when I will get some time to relax a little more, perhaps.

Most of this week was spent finalising my paper before submitting it to the Arxiv which I finally took the plunge and did on Thursday. It's a scary moment to press the button and release my own work to the community to ignore/delight in/tear apart at their pleasure. So far I've got some friendly responses from people, mostly asking to be referenced. So this leaves a bit of a void in my work life at the moment. This work has taken a couple of months from start to finish which was quicker than I was expecting so now I have some decisions to make about the next direction for research. Currently I'm just reading through some books attempting to learn techniques that I should have learnt a long time ago. There are a few options of the next project on the horizon but all are looking a little hazy at the moment.

One evening this week was spent in the flat of a couple of Uyghuirs whom I met in the lift and started chatting to. Had a pleasant evening drinking tea and finding out about a very different side of China. Uyghuir also known as Xinjiang takes up one sixth of the size of China and with a population of around 13 million is a mix of mountains, deserts and oases along which the silk route still runs. The Uyghuir people look very different from the Han people who make up most of the Chinese population, and are more akin to the Turkic peoples of whom Kazakstan and Kyrgystan border their province. Predominantly Muslim, there are great frictions between Xinjiang (know as an autonomous region) and the Chinese government for whom China is supposed to be a purely secular state. Lots of interesting views on the Chinese government and state of the province at the moment which I shan't share online. Anyway, a very friendly couple of Urumqians (the capital of the province) who have promised to take me to a Uyghuir restaurant some time and to go and listen to some of the traditional music which sounds intriguing.

Friday morning was somewhat frustrating with a three hour lecture on a subject I'm looking forward to learning about in a lot more detail. I don't know why they don't learn that a three hour lecture without breaks is an almost pointless activity, especially when the subject you're trying to teach is rich in formalism and symbolic manipulation. By midday I was hungry and tired and hadn't taken in anything for the last two hours or so.

Friday afternoon and the first of the student seminars went OK. The trouble is that the students are so shy that they feel too inhibited to clap, so the end of the seminar is a rather deathly silence. As I don't know quite when the speaker has finished (as again it was in Chinese) it was only when everyone started getting up to leave that I started clapping and everyone joined in. I just find it really rude when a student has made the effort to stand up and give a seminar and nobody has the decency to thank them. Anyway, perhaps if I do this enough they might start clapping automatically, it just seems like common courtesy to me. Incidentally, this isn't me trying to bring in my funny Western ways. In the official departmental seminars people do clap, I think it's just shyness from the students in a small group that leaves the noiseless finale.

Friday evening was spent taking it easy as I still didn't feel fully recovered from the food poisoning earlier in the week but Saturday I wanted to take full advantage of and so set out into the city once more. I headed to Wangfujing, the main shopping area, though shopping was the last thing I wanted to do. After a tasty lunch in a Muslim restaurant I spent the next half an hour walking around with a constant stream of people wanting to practice their English with me and coincidentally to show me their art galleries just around the corner. I went along and saw some very fine work. Lots of silk, calligraphy, lacquer work but they all seemed rather disappointed when I explained that I was on a Chinese wage and suddenly the need to practice their English evaporated. Anyway, I now know for next time.

Art was the focus of my trip as I headed towards the Beijing Art Museum which promised to be a large, diverse collection of China's art through the ages. I may well have seen China's version of Da Vinci, possibly. I could have seen the Sinologue equivalent of the Venus de Milo, perhaps, and I might have been looking at Beijing's Tracy Emin. Unfortunately, in Beijing's largest art gallery there isn't a word of English so I've got no idea what I was looking at. Though I've read bits and pieces about the history of Western art, apart from some of the very big names, I've got no idea about the story of Chinese art and so, although faced with some stunning pictures, I was underwhelmed by lack of context. I can appreciate a piece far more if I know the symbolism and some of the background of the artist and the time so in the three or so hours I spent wandering around the gallery, I felt pretty lost at what I was looking at. That said I think that given the correct information, the museum would be a stunning collection of some of the prime examples of Chinese painting, fabric and sculpture. This is somewhat surprising on the Chinese part who know that they have an increasing market for foreigners who don't speak Chinese. I would have written something for the suggestion box but I don't know the word in Chinese and none of the staff spoke any English.

Another fun night out on Saturday night though I headed home earlyish to try and beat off the cold that is currently creeping up on me.

Though I'm now fully under the influence of a cold passed on to me by somebody whose coughing and hacking would make Felix Unger look normal, this week promises some more interesting activities. I shall report back forthwith.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

I've always been worried when I look back at events over the past few years and realise that in fact they happened much further in the past than I thought. Both TI and AC were as surprised as I was that it was eight years ago that we went skiing but perhaps this is a good thing. If I've really packed in as much stuff in the intervening time as I think I have yet my memory of those events are as if they happened last year, that seems like a good thing to me. I hope that in another forty years time, I can look back on all the things I've done as if they've only just
happened. Perhaps life going past so fast just means that memories are still fresh, that don't seem so bad. Indeed the cycling holidays we went on seem like just a year or so ago. Strange that I can still feel the burn of Shap Fell in my calves even though it was over half a decade ago that we struggled up there in the freezing cold and pouring rain. It was four and a half years ago that we were in Prague and mid September 2001 the world turned temporarily on its head, strange times were had and phone calls were made that will live on as legend, yet I can still remember sitting in the hotel room as the air-raid sirens sounded, the TV went black and some unknown force took over every station, like it was last week. Anyway, all I'm saying is that I shall think more positively that these memories are still almost as fresh as when they were made, I guess it means that this stuff is all worth doing as it really does
stay with me and builds who I am.


On a completely different note, something hit me yesterday as I was chatting to a friend on msn. I was asked if I had a myspace site, and the answer was that I didn't know, I couldn't remember. I'm now so diffused throughout the aethernet, so diluted in cyberspace by being registered with a thousand different usernames, passwords, e-mail addresses, likes and dislikes, forum comments, program registrations that I don't know where I am in the web anymore. The web has become the sticky trap that confuses and paralyses its prey that its name suggests. This is a problem and I can only see it getting worse. Yesterday I spent half an hour registering with another site called couchsurfing. A great idea whereby people from around the world offer their couch to fellow travelers and in return get free accommodation throughout the world. You're under no obligation to host anyone but instantly have a new network of contacts, verifiable by other couchsurfers around the world...but this site is not the point. The point is that again, I was putting in all my information, coming up with a new and slightly different persona from the other thousand I have floating around somewhere in 1s and 0s. Surely we'll all fade into a strange superposition of
disconnected registrations unless somehow we can centralise. Alarm bells ring as the idea of putting all your information in one place raises spectres of identity theft, big brother control, insurance set-ups etc. but I feel I'm becoming more and more spread over the world where I have far less control over my information because I've now put it in so many places that I can't even remember who knows what. What should be done about this? Any ideas, I'm intrigued.


On a positive note, I'm over the food poisoning, back on solids and after a short week, ready to go exploring this weekend. There are musings of an excellent DJ being in the city but will see. I plan on making up for my lost two days so may go in search of some of the many galleries in Beijing. Photos I hope will follow.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

I shan't dwell on this less than impressive start to the year though I am feeling positive and expect/hope that this is merely a blip on a fascinating year ahead.

New Year's Eve was fun though there were far few people than expected and we're still not sure where a large group of people got to that night. It's strange that having gone to such outrageously lavish clubs over the last few weeks, this one, which by most English standards should have been great, didn't quite hit the mark that night. This is almost certainly because New Year's for me for the past ten years has been about being with friends I've known for a long time, being silly and cheering in the new season with champagne and a cigar (my yearly cigar). I was with some great people and genuinely some people I'd like to get to know better over the next couple of years here, unfortunately, though the music was superb with the most enthusiastic DJ I've ever seen, (this is going to sound old!) it was just too loud to talk and too crowded to really dance much. That said, it was an enjoyable evening and I'll probably be back there sometime soon.

Sunday was spent relaxing and getting ready for my ski/snowboard trip on Monday with the architecture contingent which I've been looking forward to for a while now. I haven't skied for eight years now and couldn't wait to get back on the slopes.
Unfortunately, Sunday night intervened and something I ate over the past day or so decided it was incompatible with my insides. I shall spare the obvious details though I spent Monday in bed with my eyes as tightly closed as possible to stop the room from spinning rather than being on the slopes, such is life. Unfortunately having planned to phone my fellow skiers Monday morning at 7 which is when we were supposed to meet, I attempted to ring and found that my phone was out of money. So, I dragged my achy body from bed and went on a wild, early morning goose chase trying to find a phone to call them with. Anyway, I did after much angst, so all OK in the end.

So, Tuesday, which should be our second day of holiday (we can take Monday and Tuesday off if we come into work on Saturday!) is currently being spent in the office attempting to cram in another 15 Chinese characters before my lesson tomorrow.

Somehow it appears that 2006 may be even busier than 2005 and so with open arms and an empty stomach I look forward to whatever adventures may await me.


Film update - Luca, I watched Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring which is excellent and though it's very different, if you enjoyed this you'll probably enjoy Three Iron.