Saturday, December 29, 2007

From all angles

In my days back in the UK for Christmas and New Year I'm trying to pack in as much as possible, seeing friends, and family and some of the exhibitions I've had to miss out on while away.

My first trip to London was an enjoyable couple of days catching up with friends. We took a trip to the South Bank to the Hayward Gallery, a rather fine space where I've seen a number of exciting exhibitions over the years (Howard Hodgkin being one of the most memorable). The Painting of modern life is a rather strange show of paintings made from photographs of subjects from the mundane to the revolutionary. A large percentage were close reproductions of the original photographs using some style that the artist thought would bring out an aspect of the subject matter, though most of these I thought I'd rather own the original in its unadulterated form. In the age of Photoshop, even the pictures which had been dramatically altered didn't have the impact that they may have had in the age before digital photography, when the manipulation of the photographic image was a much less trivial affair. Anyway, a mediocre exhibition in a pleasing space with a few gems (Liu Xiaodong amongst the top) made for a relaxing morning.

Going back a few weeks, but the exhibition of photography in Santiago by Sebastiao Selgado was absolutely mesmerising. His work in war-torn African over the last 3 decades is one of the most powerful sets of photographs I've ever seen, not only because of the subject matter, but his technical abilities are incredible. His photographs along with a few other exhibitions I've seen over the last few weeks are teaching me that for real impact I need to tell a story with my shots, not just get a pleasing configuration of angles and tones. This is one of my new year's resolutions. Others surely to follow.

We made our way to the Tate Modern where the crack in the turbine room continues to generate discussion. Apart from being technically very impressive, the whole thing feels rather tired to me. The Louise Bourgois is still on display which I thoroughly enjoyed last time I was in London, but forking out the huge prices for two exhibitions in a day is a little beyond me for now.

Sadly the Terracotta Warriors and Tutankhamun exhibitions have waiting lists of several months already, so that was out of the question.

In the evening we went to the Clapham Picturehouse cinema to see I am Legend (see review at Bad Astronomy Blog for a pretty good picture of it). Sadly the film is only 3/4 of the way to being a great zombie movie and the very sudden ending is a huge anticlimax to the combination character study and suspense fest of the first part of the film. I'm still not sure whether this detracted from the film or added to it but I've just read a book entitled The Hot Zone (recommended by a good friend from Beijing) which tells the tale of the Ebola virus and how in the 1980s it found its way into an US monkey house just outside of Washington. This is a nightmarish story about an even more nightmarish virus, the effects of which are simply beyond belief. The illness in I am Legend looks is a mild head cold in comparison. The book is well worth a read, though don't be surprised if you end up waking up in the middle of the night, sweating, and checking for one of the endless list of symptoms which come on before you end up a big bag of mush.

I want to end on a slightly lighter note so I'll point you back to some art. First to Hare and Bear designs who have a few of my photographs in their collection of unusual greetings cards. and secondly to the webpage of a friend of mine, David Crooks who is living and working in Santiago as an artist. Formerly a string theorist and an ex student of my PhD supervisor in Southampton as well as an ex-employee of the department in Santiago, he's now a full time artist and his work is displayed in various cafes around the city. Take a look around his website. Though he confesses that it's a little out of date it has some great work, the drawings I think are particularly fine.

I now have 4 more cities to get to before heading back to Spain in a few days and I think that getting back to research is going to be wonderfully relaxing after this. I've projects which are heading in the right direction and it's a lot of fun to be working on slightly new things...

Friday, December 28, 2007

Beijing smoking

I've spoken many times about my love of Beijing. Sadly, these days she's a sick, sick city and I'm glad I'm not there. The API (pollution measure) which usually hovers around the 100-150 mark (compare with London which is rarely above 40 on the same scale) today hit 500 (which seems to be the top of the scale from what I can tell).

This is really serious for the inhabitants of the city. China has around 400,000 deaths directly related to pollution every year and I can't see that number lowering with the current trends. Beijing has just eight months to get its act together before the curtains open and everyone comes coughing and spluttering to the start line. I hope for everyone's sake that the media frenzy is enough to shame them into getting this sorted!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Season's Greetings

My first Christmas back in the UK since 2004 is a lovely chance to catch up with family and friends. The weather is crisp and a little misty and so walks out on the nearby fields are wonderfully atmospheric. Season's greetings to all!

Christmas card

Monday, December 17, 2007

The year's best astronomy images

No rest for the wicked, but I didn't want to miss pointing you to this year's top 10 astronomy photos, from Bad Astronomy Blog - another awe-inspiring set of images!

I think that anything more detailed from me is likely to have to wait until the Christmas break. Setting up home, settling in and trying to get a project finished before the break has been filling all hours.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Advanced study in Dublin

Sorry, things are quiet on the blog front and I'm very busy with running round in circles.

Having spent a very enjoyable few days in Cambridge at the Newton institute with my former supervisor, chatting through ideas both new and old and possible new directions for further study I have now made it to the Institute for Advanced Study, in a very rainy Dublin, where I'm spending a couple of days. Today I gave my talk and tomorrow we will be hearing from one of the professors here on some interesting work related to emergent geometry.

Hopefully I will have a few hours on Saturday to see the city before flying back to England for less than 48 hours, and then back to Santiago to try and furnish my flat (my first night in the new flat, just before flying to England, was spent on a half inflated airbed covered only by a winter coat!).

A 4.15 start this morning to catch my 6.30 flight means that I'm a little tired, but the talk seemed to go ok and the questions were all interesting. Now, with a few loose ends to tie up I'm going to see if I can get me a Guinness.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

I'm a Cyborg, but that's ok

The fact that there has been a month of great cinema on (10 films a night) in Santiago and I have made it to just one of them is testament to my current state of chaos. I've been getting ready to go to Cambridge and Dublin, with stops in London and Oxford, starting tomorrow and have had a great deal of work to get done in the meantime. All good though...

Spanish has also been coming along reasonably, though I will have to take a new direction for it next month. I've learnt around 1000 words of Spanish vocab this month (not that difficult as many are very close to English and/or French) though knowing vocab is vastly different from being able to speak a language. Next month I will cool it on the vocab and attempt to learn 10 or so new, useful phrases a day.

A test of my Spanish vocab came when I took a late evening out to see the film mentioned in the title. I'm a Cyborg, but that's ok, is a Korean film by director Chan Wook-Park (director of the revenge trilogy starting with Old Boy) is a strange but rather beautiful film. Telling the story of a young woman who believes she is a cyborg and is sent to a psychiatric home, the story revolves around her relationshop with another of the patients who believes that he can steal people's souls. This second patient is played by the Korean singer Rain. Anyone who has lived in Asia will probably have seen pictures of Rain showing off his six-pack and prancing around onstage, his voice drowned out by that of his screaming fans. So, I was a little worried that he was going to be a rather hollow actor.

Quite the contrary however, he really is a superb actor and a rather fine yodeler, and moreover, never uses his looks to cover any lack of skill on screen. The performances of the patients are knowingly over the top and play up the various behavioural eccentricities that they display. These eccentricities are in general suitably caricatured for this not to feel exploitative.

As is usual in his films, Wook leaves some loose ends but more for effect than out of carelessness. He wants you to leave the film feeling puzzled as well as satisfied. He also can't help but put in a bit of relatively needless violence for his personal touch and the balletic scenes of the 'cyborg' getting revenge are typically Wook with tongue firmly set in cheek.

The love story which develops is touching and as the film finished the audience was impressed enough to give a round of applause. This is my first time in a Spanish cinema so I don't know how unusual this is, but it felt well deserved on this occasion.

Luckily, the month of solid vocab learning I've put myself through seems to have paid off as I could understand perhaps 80% of the subtitles - not the grammatical subtleties, but at least the general meaning. Having the beautiful tones of the Korean language (which I like a lot) with the Spanish subtitles was rather confusing for the first few minutes, but became decipherable after that.

This success with reading spurs me on to continue the rather tiring effort that I've been trying to keep up so far.

Anyway, if you're a fan of love stories set in psychiatric hospitals then your sure to enjoy this rather curious film from Wook.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Adventures of the Pisco Kid - A Review

I met Michael Standaert, after reading on his blog that he'd written a novel, was in Beijing and was looking for people to review it. I e-mailed him to say that I was interested, having read a review on another site which looked intriguing.

We met up for the launch party of the book which was a small but enjoyable affair at Hutong Pizza along with a few other friends. After that we met up in Beijing regularly, though not frequently enough and I was sad to say goodbye to him, his wife and all the other friends I met through them, I'm looking forward to catching up with them next time I'm back in Beijing. As a parting gift I received a signed copy of his book, and one of the few to have made its way to China.

Of late, the only time for reading has been between about 1.30 and 2 in the morning when I'm trying to slow down before sleep. However reading The Adventures of the Pisco Kid, is not an exercise in slowing down.

If Kafka were to have gone to Las Vegas on a drugs bender, or Hunter S Thompson had tried to rework The Trial, they may have come up with something along the lines of The Adventures of the Pisco Kid. Surreal, satirical, moody, funny, chaotic and extremely eloquent, it's rather difficult to write a review about this book and not look like I'm simply writing a good review for a friend. However, I promise this isn't the case!

I started reading this with moderate to high expectations. Michael has been a journalist for the LA Times, has written for the Huffington Post and is now an editor for a Beijing magazine so I knew he knew what he was doing. However, the difference between a writer who can string a story along and someone who can play with words as Michael does is a huge one. The characters in the book have the wonderful caricature of those in A Confederacy of Dunces, the flaws in the characters melt off the page in a slimy mass of neurosis and physical repugnance, bringing the whole thing to life in a vast, Daliesque psychedelia.

We follow the adventures of Pisco, a boy found in the bull-rushes, adopted and bought up by a Jamaican, heavily Christian woman, filling him with skepticism and bitterness having set him up to be a modern-day Messiah. A rat-catcher, and rock band reject, Pisco gets ever deeper into a crazy world where he seems to have no say in how his is pin-balled from one calamity to another. Perhaps if Cervantes had lived in the '60s he would have given us something similar.

The language of the book flows fantastically, and although the author whom I write about most frequently (Steinbeck) is a minimalist when it comes to fancy word play, I'm very happy to read a book where the words and phrases have been picked carefully to develop a rich atmosphere. This is exactly what happens here, and I love it!

The story is punctuated by lyrics from the band that Pisco left before they became big, along with sayings from Navajo and Inuit and the words of Soft Cell and David Bowie. This only adds to the surrealism.

Michael would never really tell me what the book was about, and I shall not do so either, but would recommend this to anyone who is a fan of very witty and well crafted writing, and doesn't mind being taken on a surreal journey which makes the writing of Marquez or Bulgakov seem pretty plausible! I namedrop here simply because I was reminded throughout of the different styles of many of my favourite authors.

I have a good number of people in mind who will like this, though it's not for the faint-hearted reader. Let yourself be taken on the trip however and you'll be very pleased you did. I look forward to reading Michael's next novel, whenever that comes along.


Michael has written a previous non-fiction book "Skipping Towards Armageddon: The Politics and Propaganda of the Left Behind Novels and the LaHaye Empire" which looks similarly intriguing if rather more scary.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Getting in on the act

It's taken me a long time to start using the RAW format for my photography, but as soon as I did, I've noticed the huge difference it can make. I really hadn't realised how much was lost when the camera applies its algorithms to determine what settings should be used on the raw data in terms of white balance, color saturation, contrast, and sharpness before compressing to jpeg.

I spent all of yesterday working through a series of papers, relevant to the work I'm about to start, plus writing out flash cards to speed up my intake of Spanish words - up to around 500 in passive use, not much in active use yet. With a good day's work under my belt I headed back, and took a detour to a sculpture that I'd previously spotted and thought would make an interesting subject.

This is the sculpture, though the obvious angle wasn't the one I was particularly interested in:

Santiago reflections_181107_01.JPG
I often get strange looks as I'm taking photographs, as I often find myself in strange angles, under objects to get what I think will be an interesting shot. These were a few that I managed from the above sculpture:
Santiago reflections_181107_14.JPG
Santiago reflections_181107_12.JPG
Santiago reflections_181107_07.JPG
Santiago reflections_181107_03.JPG
This set of buildings also caught my eye, and it's the much higher dynamic range that I seem to get with RAW that has me so excited for the prospects. Perhaps it may not look like much, but I can see a big difference. Click on the photo to see more detail in the larger versions:
Santiago building_181107_01.JPG
and finally, one, before I started with the new format, of the Cathedral, as seen through Santiago's winding alleys:
Santiago cathedral through street_281007_09.jpg

Out in the cold

I believe that making a good first impression on ones neighbours is a good idea for peaceful community life.

I thought long and hard about how to best do that here in Spain. My innovative way was to lock myself in my garden at 11 o'clock at night when the temperature was plunging and I was wearing nothing on top but a thin shirt.

As I walked out to hang my washing I thought, cleverly, that I would close the door so that the mosquitoes which have been plaguing me would be shut out. At the click of the door I realised the subtle flaw in my plan.

My back garden is a walled affair with 10 foot of concrete all around. The flats above me also look out onto the garden but don't have any access. I assessed the situation for a few minutes, trying the doors and windows to no avail. I realised that I may be able to scale the wall at the back and make my way around to the front - I did at least have the front door keys on me. As I scaled the wall in the pitch black I looked down on the other side to see a 50 ft drop into the foundations of the block of flats they have just started building, a short distance from my window.

Standing there in the cold I realised that I was actually pretty helpless, imprisoned and quickly chilling.

There is one other flat overlooking the garden, though with barred windows perhaps 8 foot up, and no other access. I peered in from the other side of the garden and saw the shadow of a man, making movements which looked like they probably shouldn't be disturbed! His humiliation versus my freezing I realised was a fine line, but not one which I was willing to cross with enough language to explain myself.

The other side of the garden is a wall and on the other side of the wall is another garden leading to the flat of what I believed to be an elderly couple. I could have scaled this wall and banged on their door, but doing so without immediately being able to explain what the hell I was doing, inappropriately clothed in their garden did not seem like a good idea.

I tried to shout across, with the few appropriate words of Spanish I could muster, but ten minutes of this, plus banging on the wall, did no good. I could see that they were in, with the television on, but I was worried that they would soon be going to bed - probably not a real worry here in Spain.

After half an hour in the garden, pacing, scaling, shouting and banging, in the near pitch black I fashioned a suitable device to tap on their patio doors without actually going into their garden. Perched precariously with one arm over the wall I lent as far as I could and tapped on the window, attempting to start softly and build up the volume, with intermittent shouting. Five minutes later and I saw movement, the woman came to the door and peered around. I spoke to her, and managed to mime that I was locked out and could she possibly open the door for me. After she finished laughing and telling her husband what I'd done she took the keys, went to my door and let me in, beaming at the stupid foreigner!

Anyway, I'm left with nothing but humiliation and a slight cold today and took round a box of chocolates to show my gratitude. Had she not been there, I probably still would be!


I should fill in some blanks about where I'm at these days. I'm currently sharing a very nice house with a couple of Argentinians, who are working on the Auger project which has been reported on in detail recently in regard to their recent results on ultra high energy cosmic rays coming from active galactic nuclei.

I was privy to the results before most as they had a party at our place and, after an 8 o'clock watershed, were allowed to tell me the exciting news. Had I not been working till 2 in the morning that night anyhow I would have written something about it. Thankfully others did a great job!

I was planning on living in this place for the next 3 years, as the two others will be leaving here at the beginning of December, and I'm really looking for a place of my own. Sadly the owners of the very nice flat want it back and so, in less than a month I'm out and looking for somewhere new. With academic travel plans for December including trips to Cambridge and Dublin, and lots of work to do before that, I'm a bit pressed for finding spare time.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The problem with Macs

So, no sooner have I arrived in a new country, but they're trying to get me to use a new operating system. As a native XP user I was a little concerned with having to go over to Mac and my worries were well founded.

For a start, the people at the Mac shop are clearly either lazy or stupid. They came along with my computer in a box, but forgot to actually bring anything but a keyboard, mouse and monitor. Luckily there seems to be some widget in the monitor which presumably connects wirelessly to the hard drive, motherboard, CPU and memory which must still be in the shop, or even the factory, I still haven't got to the bottom of that.

Secondly, when I switch the computer on, I have absolutely no time to make a cup of tea, eat my breakfast or read the paper. I switch it on and then it's on. With XP I could clearly get a lot more done in the time between turning it on and actually being logged in.

Next, I'm horribly confused with where all my little files have gone. Normally if I want to install or uninstall something I have to make sure my dlls are all in the right place, and then make sure they've all gone when I remove the program. It seems that they've forgotten about that too. What am I going to do without a thousand files flitting around that were nominally used by a program five years ago?

Next, and most embarrassingly the user interface to Mac OS X is such that everything swirls around the screen, zooming in and out and warping to fit into the appropriate spaces so much that I occasionally find myself lost in the user interface from Minority Report, I spend several minutes waving my arms around in front of my face, one eye closed, trying to move my icons around and save my documents, while those around me in the office are trying to work out what I'm doing. Lucky most of them are on XP and so have programs to look after.

I also miss the friendly Windows task manager which I would have to pull up every hour or so to manual close a temporarily frozen program. At these points I felt I was really at one with my computer.

By the end of the evening I am left with a surplus of frowns, which would otherwise have been used up throughout day on the fascinating panoply of errors which would colour my day. This is making my nights considerably more depressing.

These things and more make me think that I will have to go back to Windows where I am safe in the knowledge that I am working with a thinking, delicate, edgy machine that I have to at all times nurture and feed. I am distraught without this bond.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Weekend musings

Santiago is dead at the weekend (until 2 am at which point people start tentatively coming out to the bars). The reason Santiago is dead at the weekends is because all the students have gone home on Friday. They go home on Friday because there are no lectures on a Friday. There are no lectures on a Friday because all the students go out on a Thursday and nobody would turn up on Friday morning. They go out on a Thursday because it´s the last day of the week they can all go out together, because they´re all going home for the weekend. They do so because they don't need to go to lectures on a Friday.

Somehow I see a circular argument here and if the professors aren't careful the students will call a moratorium on Thursday lectures too.

In lieu of the fact that there is almost nothing to do here at the weekend (many shops are closed on Saturday, all are shut on Sunday. The gym closes at 1 pm on a Saturday for the whole of the weekend, many cafes are running at half capacity) it means that I have a chance to catch up with reading some research papers and going over the Spanish from the previous week; this week, week one of my Spanish lessons I estimate I have around 250 new words to learn!

A major difference between life here and in China is that coming into the office here at the weekend is a pretty solitary experience. In China the offices were usually just as busy at the weekend as in the day. Given the cafe culture already in place here I'm likely to relocate at the weekends to a place with a bit more going on.

My major success this weekend was that I may have tracked down a Chinese teacher. Santiago has a large number of Chinese shops selling all manner of imported cheap knick-knacks and I've popped into most of them now, chatted with the owners, all of whom seem to be from Zhejiang province, and may finally have a source for a tutor.

I'm also already on the hit-list for being an English tutor but this is definitely out, given that spare time is pretty non-existent.


For now I'll leave you with a couple of photos taken as we flew into Northern Sichuan and the mountains poked through the cloud line.


Saturday, November 10, 2007

A very rough guide to Jiuzhaigou

This post has been a long time coming, but other things have taken much higher priority as I've settled into life in Santiago. It's been an exceptionally busy week for work and getting started on Spanish, but I enjoy this rather non-stop method of getting things done, so I´m currently quite content.

I wanted to write about one particular part of my trip which I took before coming here, before the memories faded completely.

In my two weeks traveling in Southern China before I left to come to Spain I spent three days in an area of Northern Sichuan called Jiuzhaigou. This is often said to be the most beautiful place in China, and although you will hear this about countless other areas, it is without a doubt truly stunning. However, the fact that it is truly stunning makes it a tourist hell hole and, if you follow along with the crowd you're journey is likely to be marred by the fact that there are thousands of others jostling to marvel at the serene beauty of this natural wilderness. Not my idea of fun!

Somehow, more through luck than judgment I seemed to get Jiuzhaigou right and so I would recommend the journey that I took, if you are able to.

Jiuzhaigou would not be easy without any Chinese. The hotel which I found at 9 in the evening on my arrival had no English speakers and I only spoke to a single person in the park who could speak more than a couple of phrases. That said, it´s always possible to stumble your way through, and I would suggest trying to do so, rather than coming on a package tour, the method that 99% of people opt for, as it is without a doubt much easier.

Jiuzhaigou nature reserve is made up of two valleys which come together in a Y-shape. The entrance to the site is at the bottom, at somewhere around 2500 meters above sea level. The top is closer to 4000 meters and the length of the valley is around 30 km (from the top of the Y to the bottom). Along the two branches run rivers of crystal clear water, through forests, opening into magnificent lakes, surrounded by mountains with spectacular waterfalls every few km along the river´s length. The very top of the right fork of the Y is an ancient forest, with a floor padded in thick moss, which you can look at, but can´t walk in.

Along the length of the park is not only a series of rivers and waterfalls, but also a winding road, upon which the park's buses run constantly through the day, ferrying tourists from one spectacular spot to another. As I got to the entrance and saw that this was the way to get around the park, my heart sank. The last thing I wanted to do was to spend a day in a paradise going from breathtaking points A to B with 50 other people on a crowded bus.

I generally prefer to turn up to a place with knowledge only of the basics and stumble around for a while finding out for myself how things work. For this reason I never booked any hotels in advance before my trip, but always turned up in a city, found a local restaurant or tea house and then worked out where was best to go - this worked well for me throughout the trip. Consequently my knowledge of how the system worked in Jiuzhaigou wasn't up to much. On the advice of my hotel, I turned up at the entrance very early (a little before 6.30 am) to get my two day ticket, which allows entrance to the park on two consecutive. Officially you are not allowed to stay in the park over night, but there are guest houses in some of the villages which pepper the lower areas of the valley.

By 6.45am I was on one of the coaches, not really knowing how this was going to play out and we started making our way up the valley. After 15 minutes or so we got to the first lake and everybody trudged off the coach, taking snaps in the early morning mist. The couch disappeared and we were left to wander around the little area by the road side, shivering in the rather chill air. A few minutes later another coach arrived with another load of people who disembarked and we took their place, to go up to the next scenic spot. As we drove up I could see the footpath, a sort of board walk, some way away from the road, which appeared to be going even more directly up the valley, next to the river, than we were. This was clearly the way to be doing it.

Not knowing how it was going to work, I stayed on the coach at the next stop, as everyone else got out to take more photos. I stayed on the bus for another 45 minutes or so as we continued to climb and more people got on and off. Eventually we made it to the top by which point there were perhaps 5 people on the bus.

The trip to the primeval forest at the top was by footpath only, which took perhaps another 15 minutes. I strolled ahead and within four or five minutes I was suddenly, completely alone! The mist was still thick and the forest was just waking up. The air was thin at this altitude and I struggled for breath, but knew that this was exactly what I´d come for: the absolute tranquility of being away from it all! Getting to the top, I spent some time looking around at the ancient forest feeling for the first time in a long time, in complete peace. I miss Beijing very much (though Santiago is wonderful) but peace is something that you get very rarely when you´re there!

Soon the other hikers arrived and the peace was broken, so I started back down. Getting back to the top most coach stop it seemed that others were getting back on the coach to go back down, but I saw the planked foot path and took that option instead. Again, I was completely alone, walking beside the stream which at this point in the valley was little more than a trickle. I walked reasonably quickly but not so quick that I couldn't take in what was around me, and stop for the occasional photo. It must have been about four hours until I saw another person, as everyone else sat, packed into the coaches winding up and down the tarmacked road.

As I descended to the area where the lakes started I could see the opposite side of each one, packed with tour groups and coaches as they jostled to get the best position for photos. More and more people joined the footpath as I got lower, but it was rarely crowded with more than a few hikers.

I had a vague idea of how long the path was but in the end it took me around nine hours of pretty constant walking to cover the 25 km, not even down to the bottom, but to the lower most spots of particular beauty. The day was spectacular. The lakes and waterfalls are truly magnificent and I was extremely happy to have found a way to see the park without following the usual trail. The sky was constantly overcast and I missed the snows by a day, but nonetheless it was possible to get a few nice shots. Searching through the hundreds of photos afterwards I realised that I find it particularly hard to get striking shots of places which are already very beautiful.

The second day I got to the park early again, and took the coach up the left arm of the Y. This time I did take the coaches a few times because I wanted to see several areas in different lights and with the time available, I wouldn't have been able to do so on foot. My enormous blisters from the first day were also not helping matters but I hiked for a good 15 km the second day to see more of the incredible scenery.

Anyway, the moral of the story is that you should definitely pay Jiuzhaigou a visit if you´re anywhere nearby, don´t be too put off by the crowds and dive off the road and onto the footpaths at the top of the site, in order to walk back down. Be warned of course that it´s quite some way and I take no responsibility for those who take the above advice and get into trouble.

The town attached to the park, is a not particularly pleasant area, heaving with hotels, guest houses and trinket shops, catering to the tens of thousands who descend on it every day. The food in the restaurants is fairly basic, but the yak meat stews are really very good.

Anyway, that's my roundup of Jiuzhaigou but below are some of the photos I got from the two days walking.

I've posted this panorama before, but it was one of my favourite shots from the two days:
Jiuzhaigou panorama 1
The crystal clear blue waters are breathtaking:
The top of the left most fork has a lake, surrounded by wonderfully gnarled trees:
These are the sort of crowds you can expect at some of the spots where there's just no getting away from it:
The hundreds of waterfalls are also tourist magnets, but you can find the occasional one without all the crowds:
The footpaths are also not terribly picturesque, but are probably the best option for this area which is regularly very rainy.
and one of my brief companions:

Thursday, November 08, 2007

In the mean time

All is currently well for me in Santiago. There's just no time now for serious blogging. I've been going non-stop every day from 10 am until 2 am, what with Spanish lessons, starting new projects, continuing with current ones, reviewing old ones, writing talks, planning trips (Cambridge, CERN and Dublin are coming up on the academic front) and getting the admin polished off.

Perhaps this weekend I may have a few spare minutes, but that's not guaranteed. Anyway, an informal talk to give tomorrow has to be prepared now.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Memories of Lijiang

I'm almost a week in and I've now got most of the administrative bothers out of the way. In fact, thanks to a lot of help from those around me it has been almost entirely painless - give or take a medical exam which is to come on Monday.

I'm now officially a number in the Spanish system which means that I can get contracts/bank accounts/mobile phones etc. without too much problem.

Monday evening I start Spanish lessons, but even before this the work is piling on as I try and catch up with the couple of weeks I took off. The brain is slowly getting back in gear but I'm currently a little overwhelmed with different projects which all need my immediate attention.

It's now around midnight and the work I'm trying to do is not getting anywhere so I'm going to call it a day. I thought I'd post a few photos from Lijiang, in Yunnan where I happened to be for one of the traditional Chinese festivals. I can no longer find any information on the web about this (some time around the middle of November this year) but this day one could see all the old people of the town walking around with roses, chatting with each other in the old town square. Those not talking with others were sitting around, some thinking of lost ones and some remembering good times, by the looks on their faces:

old woman with rose copy

Plenty of work to be getting on with this weekend but I plan on getting some photos before settling down in a cafe.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Comet 17/P Holmes

The science blog community has been awash with news about this comet which suddenly increased its magnitude by a factor of some 400,000 making it easily visible with the naked eye. I'm aware that some readers of this blog are not regular science blog readers, so I urge you to go and take a look before it's no longer visible with the naked eye. I took a look this evening in a relatively brightly lit neighbourhood but could clearly make out the extended nature of the comet and although its span is only a tenth or so of the diameter of the moon (my guess) you can still make out that there is a central core and a diffuse region around the outside. So, go and take a look. See here for directions - very easy to make it out close to Cassiopeia.

Lots of information at these sites (more here, and more photos here)

Evolving clocks

I've always had a fascination with genetic algorithms, and have played around with them a good deal in the last few years. This started when a good friend wrote a simple logic based game where one could play the computer. He set the computer going against itself and evolved it through a simple genetic algorithm. Soon enough we weren't able to beat the computer and it would play moves that we simply couldn't understand until later in the game.

The following is a lovely example of a relatively simple genetic algorithm used to create a time keeping device from its constituent parts:

(Noted on Pharyngula)

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


I spent five days in a predominantly rainy Lijiang, in Yunnan province, just before coming to Spain. It was perfect for sitting in cafes and reading, although this did mean that I didn't get to see Tiger Leaping Gorge, which is supposed to be spectacular. There was a single day when it was mostly clear and I took the chance to get as many photos as possible. I'm still not happy to take photos of people without asking their permission and this often gives rather unnatural effects, but sometimes it works out pretty well. I would always try and chat with the people first. They would generally be very happy when they found I could speak a little Chinese and this usually lead to a reasonably high percentage of people willing to let me take their photo. I chatting with this guy who was chopping wood outside his house. He had a wonderful smile and seemed incredibly happy to talk with me. He invited me in for dinner but unfortunately I was already meeting some other people and had to decline. He did however pose for a couple of photos and this was one of my favourites of the time I was away. (taken using the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II):

Culture Shock

I arrived in China, two years ago, knowing that my new life was going to hold things which I had never previously imagined. Time does funny things to memory and of course I've left things out of the blog which it didn't feel right to talk about, but I don't remember having any sort of culture shock as I settled into life in a city of 14 million, in a country of 1.3 billion, with cultures, and social practices I had never come across.

Inevitably as I settle into life in Santiago de Compostela I will have to draw comparisons with my past two years, some of which will be good, and some of which will not. Exactly the same thing happened in Beijing.

I arrived here on Saturday and had the weekend to myself to explore and get to know my surroundings. On Sunday as I walked around in the afternoon and evening, having spent the morning getting down to some Spanish grammar in a cafe, I started to feel the closest I've come to culture shock on my travels.

Santiago de Compostela (which I shall from here on call SDC) is a city of 90,000 and the main city areas can be walked across in around half an hour. The centre is made up of an old town, with windy streets, built around the Cathedral, and a new area, with shops, cafes and flats traversing the sides of the hills upon which the city is built.

My feelings of shock are rather hard to explain and have gone away ever since I arrived in the office on Monday morning, met the group and have since learned much about life here.

Sunday it turns out is a bit of a strange day in SDC. Shops are of course all shut, people are it seems mostly with their families, and those who are not (predominantly men) are filling the bars to bursting point, watching the football.

I certainly didn't want to spend my second day sat in the residence reading so I walked around the area, not particularly wanting to join the football fans (I regularly shocked people in China by explaining how I was an Englishman who genuinely had no interest in football). So, I just wondered, rather aimlessly, covering the same ground again and again, feeling rather a lot like I was rattling around in a cage, with nothing to do and nowhere to go.

By 7 I wanted a bite to eat and so started trying to find a suitable cafe or restaurant to indulge, but none seemed to be serving. I went into one where the woman (one of the few people in the city who has admitted to speaking English) called me sweetheart for being so naive and told me to come back later.

So, I continued to walk around the same area, getting more and more hungry, until eventually restaurants started opening their doors and I dived in to get some food in me (I'd missed the fact that the clocks went back and so had last eaten some 9 hours previously).

Anyway, the lesson it seems is that on Sunday this city is dead, and my tour was not illustrative of the place in general. My worry as I walked around was that I was going to spend 3 years in a place with nothing going on except football and a cathedral, but I have since learnt that this is far from the truth.

All of November sees the SDC film festival in a variety of cinemas around the city, the modern art scene seems to be flourishing, as does the music (both classical and contemporary) and the guests who come to visit are impressively varied (this goes both for the town itself and the department - David Berenstein will be out here shortly, among a list of people I look forward to meeting).

Yesterday evening saw a talk given in the museum of modern art by Peter Lax, recent winner of the Abel prize in mathematics. He spoke for an hour on the life of John Von Neumann, a fascinating and important character in many areas of mathematics, physics and engineering. I would rather have liked to hear something about Professor Lax himself, but hearing his stories of Von Neumann was interesting too. In a week or so we will have John Nash coming to give a talk which I'm extremely excited about and will try and report on that in detail.

Anyway, along with slightly claustrophobic feelings over the weekend which have now gone away, the language issue turns out to be rather stranger than I had expected. As I arrived in China I was entirely cut off from any Chinese conversation. Here however I can understand what people are talking about perhaps half the time (though I miss most of the details), yet can't say anything back. This feeling of vocal paralysis is extremely frustrating for the time being, but I imagine it's something I will get used to in the time before I can actually interact properly.

And finally, tomorrow is officially a holiday for all of Spain so I shall be looking out for an appropriate cafe to sit and get on with some work, now that administrative duties are quieting down.


Photos from Chengdu and Jiuzhaigou are slowly coming online. (Apologies for the first two which those who don't like strange foods may not enjoy). At some point I'll pick a few to post up here.

Inside out

Thanks to Bee at Backreaction comes this fantastic video illustrating how a sphere can be turned inside out. It's around 20 minutes long and you're not actually going to learn much solid mathematics, but the process is very very well explained and the animation is excellent.

Santiago snaps

A couple of quick photos from my first day in Santiago. Things are pretty busy now, sorting out all the administration and getting back into work. It's now a little past 1 in the morning and I have another packed day tomorrow. Sunday's writeup will have to wait I'm afraid.

For now, this is a view from my current flat (until Sunday):
And the Cathedral which is the hub of the city:


I haven't posted a video for a while, but this one has rather startled me. I had a room mate while I was staying in Jiuzhaigou in the form of a large myriapod:

Jiuzhaigou myriapod
(Larger versions available)
It seemed friendly and never bothered me so I let it move about. I'm scared of few animals, but I really don't like the way centipedes and millipedes move, somehow it just creeps me out. In fact this one was ok, but the huge one I saw in the Australian outback still haunts me.

Anyway, I was taking a look around to find out more about the beast above and came across some information about the Amazonian Giant Centipede which can grow to over 30cm. This video from Youtube is pretty graphic and shows what such an animal can do to a small mammal. It's startling to say the least, and frankly gives me the creeps.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Santiago de Compostela, day 1

It's a little after midnight on my first day in the office, having spent the afternoon looking for flats and having just come back from dinner at the house of a couple of students. Eating at 11 in the evening is something which I will have to get used to having spent the last two years regularly finishing dinner by 6!

I wrote the following on Saturday, the day I flew here, but have not had internet access until now.


I flew into Santiago de Compostela today with stories of rain and gloom and was greeted not only with stunning blue skies and temperatures around 20 degrees but also with simply one of the most beautiful cities I've ever seen. I spent the day walking round the old windy streets up and down the narrow alleyed hills, buying replacements for all the things I had to leave behind and throw away because of Ryan airs pitiful baggage allowance (total of 25 kilos for carry on plus stowed. My laptop and camera probably approach 10 kilos alone).

I had been told by Spaniards that this city was lovely and I was going to like it a lot, but I wasn't prepared for quite how stunning it is. It reminds me of Florence, of the back roads of Montmatre in Paris, and of small Tuscan villages. I sat having a lunch of chorizo and good bread - I've missed good bread so much in Beijing, though the wealth of other wonders never made me crave for it - in the Cathedral square as the sun moved around to illuminate the front of the wonderfully ornate building which Santiago is famed for. People having just completed El Camino - 'the way' - on foot or by bike made for a constant stream of tired but happy pilgrims.

Trying to find information on Santiago on the web is rather difficult because almost everything focuses around the Pilgrim trail and the Cathedral, so in my time here I hope to find out what else the city of 90,000 has to offer. Stunning countryside (excellent for hiking and cycling) is one thing which made itself abundantly obvious as the plane descended this morning.

After lunch I made my way to a small cafe, ordered an excellent coffee and started writing the extensive list of things to buy. I've yet to get a flat so I'm staying in the residence on campus until I have my own place, but there's still much to get in the meantime.

It being Saturday, only half the shops are open and I'm promised that all of them will be closed tomorrow - the man in the computer shop rolled his eyes, made the sign of the cross and tutted - clearly not one of the large percentage of the population who are still practicing Catholic.

The small restaurants stuck in the back alleys around the cathedral square decorate their windows with displays of some of the most impressive seafood I've ever seen and, though I thought I'd never say this, I think that Galicia may just give Japan a run for its money on the fish front! (Having now tried the octopus I can safely say that this is the best I've ever eaten).

One other thing which has greatly surprised me has been the scarcity of people who speak English. This isn't just the older people in the shops, but the administrative staff in the reception for my residence and even the students - I've been attempting to connect to the wifi and have asked half a dozen students, all of whom tell me they don't speak English. I think that having spent time in a scientific institute in China I have been somewhat spoiled for ease of getting around. It was compulsory for all of the students at the ITP to obtain a reasonably high standard of English to get into the PhD program and so all of them could hold at least a basic conversation, most of them a lot more. Here I have simply been greeted with 'no' from all those I've asked on campus if they could speak English. It seems that Spanish is going to be even more vital to learn than Chinese was. Thankfully it should also be somewhat easier!


There's a follow up post from Sunday but that will have to follow at some point tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Quick update

I'm back safely in the UK, which having not been here for 15 months is rather strange. I'm staying here for a couple of days before heading on to Santiago de Compostela.

The last couple of days in Beijing were filled with paperwork needed to be completed before I could officially leave. Boxes had to be ticked left, right and centre in order to prove that I was up to date with bills, canteen payments, doctors, finance offices, keys, internet, books, office space and more but in the end , after much running around (literally) all appropriate duplicates were filed and after a final dinner with my boss and his students I had my final night in Beijing.

Packing was somewhat panicked as I realised that my bags were well over weight and had to throw out or, in most cases give away, a large percentage of my belongings. So, two pairs of oldish shoes, all my novels, toiletries, stationary and various weighty pieces of winter clothing have to be repurchased at some point. There was a nervous moment when I was told my carry on was too large and would have to thow much of that out too, but some gentle pleading pursuaded those concerned that the extra couple of centimeters were allowable.

I'm now in an even tighter position as I find that although my flight with Ryan air to Spain is very cheap, I'm only allowed a total of 15kg stowed luggage and one bag weighing 10kg carry on luggage (I took around 28kg carry on and 20kg or so carry on back from Beijing). Seeing as I'm going to be living in this, probably until Christmas, this is really not a lot, given that the computer and the camera plus a pair of shoes (I wear something akin to canoes on my feet) probably take up a fair percentage of that weight!

Today I've spent in London getting various bits and pieces done and popping into the Tate Modern to see the Louise Borgeois exhibition, which is very interesting (the earthquake crack in the main turbine room does little for me). As I walked around I was struck by many things, probably the largest being the racial diversity which is in general not visible in most parts of Beijing (there are exceptions). This included the number of foreign languages I heard on the trains, in the cafes and on the street. I was pleased to be able to chat briefly in Chinese as I heard the waitress in a cafe talking on the intercom in Mandarin.

People, expats especially, complain bitterly about how crowded the trains are in Beijing but I was rather taken aback that the London underground is far worse. Taking a train back to Wimbledon (where I'm staying with some friends, my parents currently being out of town) I was forced to see four trains go by without being able to get on them. Football fans in the front two carriages of one of the trains singing and shaking the car didn't do much for my feelings of patriotism either.

Still, cups of tea and baked potatoes have bought back feelings of homeliness and yesterday's wonderful blue skies over London have made it lovely to come back home, if only for a couple of days.

Much to get done in the meantime so best be off for now...

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Beijing and beyond

I'm back from my travels about Southern China, feeling refreshed and raring to get back into work. There are a few things which come first though, including crossing continents. As I came back to this polluted, crowded, noisy place which I have called home for the last two years and will be calling home for another 36 hours or so, from the idylls of the South I had some time to reflect on the last two weeks and the last two years. Two years ago I could never imagine that it would be this difficult to say goodbye to China, but getting on the plane is not going to be easy. Nevertheless I am hugely looking forward to the new start in Spain which I'm sure has many things in store for me, both academically and culturally.

Anyway, there are a dozen blog posts buzzing round in my head at the moment since the last ten days traveling but as it's almost 1 am and I have my last day in the office tomorrow, these will have to wait. There's a lot to write in particular about Jiuzhaigou and I have at some point in the future to go through the 500 photos I took there but for now I shall just post one to show why this place is famed for being paradise on Earth:
Jiuzhaigou panorama 1
Click for larger versions. Many more to come when time allows.

Friday, October 19, 2007


I've spent the last few days in a frequently rainy Lijiang, in Yunnan province, home to the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge, which has been rained off most of the time I've been here.

Despite the Disneyesque feel, the overwhelming crowds and the constant drizzle, this classical Chinese town with it's many minority influences (Naxi minority in particular) has proved to be a lovely place to spend a few days. I've been wandering around most of the time snapping happy with the nifty fifty (my new fast lens), and getting some fun shots of the local residence who beam as I chat with them in broken Mandarin (in fact some of the locals don't speak Mandarin at all, but one of the many minority dialects which I nod along to with a bemused smile).

I've been staying in a wonderfully calm, wooden guest house for a grand total of around 2 pounds a night, warming myself around their little coal burner and reading in the covered courtyard. I'll attempt to track down a website for this place (Panba guesthouse) as it's well worth a stay, being situated in the old town but far enough away from the crowds to feel very peaceful.

Tonight I head to Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, not particularly out of choice but simply because I need to head here before taking my flight tomorrow night back to Beijing, as my trip draws to a close.

Some point when I'm not sitting in a freezing cafe with wet clothes I will update the blog with posts about Jiuzhaigou and Chengdu, take II. For now I will head out and try and track down something interesting to have for lunch (grubs are frequently on the menu, though the local cuisine is not a terribly inspiring one).

Greetings to those who are warmer and drier, but possibly not as relaxed as I currently am.

Monday, October 15, 2007


I'm currently writing in an internet bar in Jiuzhaigou, in Northern Sichuan province, where I've spent the last 3 days. It's a truly spectacular area but I'll get onto that later. (Update - I wrote this a few days ago and am now in Chengdu, about to fly to Lijiang in Yunnan. Blogging has been difficult.)

On Sunday I flew into Chengdu for the start of my journey after a rather tired 5am start. I'd heard good reports about the laid-back lifestyle in Chengdu and so was looking forward to relaxing after a hectic few months in Beijing. As I took the bus from the airport I was a rather disappointed. Despire the addition of more greenery Chengdu seemed to be constructed of the same concrete blocks, cars and crowds that I see everyday in Beijing, accompanied by the same grey sky and smell of pollution. Getting off the bus I wasn't entirely sure where I was in the city though I knew that I needed to get to Renmin park, nearby which my couchsurfing host lived. I was wearing a heavy backpack (mostly books and camera kit) but was happy to wonder round the area till I found someone who could tell me where I should be heading. The sounds of Sichuan hua (the local dialect) drifted over me reminding me of how I felt in Beijing two years ago. There are in fact enough similarities to regular mandarin that I could pick up a little of the local goings on.

I asked a young couple at a traffic lights if they knew where the park was and they told me that they were heading that way and could walk me there. I'm now no longer convinced that they actually were heading that way as I've learnt how friendly the Sichuanese are. It was a 15 minute walk in which time we chatted casually, pushing the limits of my Chinese. I was given their numbers and told that any time I needed any help I could give them a ring. They dropped me off at the park and I quickly found myself a little noodle shop where I shed my many bags and got myself a fine bowl of beef noodles. I ate slowly, taking in the looks of those around me staring at the strange sweaty laowai with the big nose and the big book on China, which I was casually consulting. I sent a text to my couchsurfer to see if it was good to head to his place to dump my things but got no immediate reply.

I made my way into the park to take a wonder around and quickly found myself sat at the oldest teahouse in the city, an outdoor but covered area where people were sitting, playing cards, reading the paper, having arguments, massages and their ears cleaned out, all while drinking tea which was constantly refilled by the house fuwuyuan. I got myself some bitter green tea and sat to wait for the text and watch the locals. Soon a couple of women passed by, one with a camera similar to my own which I took a glance at. She came over and introduced herself saying that she was a photography student and had studied for several months in Bolton. I invited the two to sit down and we spent the next few hours chatting about photography, the local area, travels in China and teahouses in Bolton (her major interest was photographing people in tea houses around the world).

With no reply to the text I tried phoning my host but was greeted with a message saying that the phone was no longer in operation. This left me with no way of contacting him and nowhere to stay, so I asked for some advice from those around me and was directed to a relatively cheap hotel a few minutes walk away.

By this time I felt homeless, yet completely at home, the friendliness of the locals and the completely relaxed atmosphere masking the concrete jungle that it was all set in. Finding the hotel I booked myself in, settled my bags and went out for a walk around the area. Finding a night market I marvelled at the chillis and cuts of meat and got myself a bag of zhi er gen (stinking fish grass) and some local snacks for later. A nearby restaurant saw my first taste of genuine sichuan mapo dofu which was excedingly numbing (packed with Sichuan pepper) but very tasty.

Sated and happy I headed back to the hotel and got a reasonable night's sleep, despite the muzak piped in the corridor directly outside my room.

Early the next morning I was off again and took the plane the forty minutes to Jiuzhaigou, with no plans other than to see the sights which I'd read and heard much about and knew were not too many hours from the airport. As we descended, the tops of the mountains poked through the cloud line and the scenerey slowly opened itself to our view. This looked to be a spectacular place and I haven't been disappointed. I found a local bus which would first take me to huanglong, another scenic destination with calcified pools set in a large valley patched with wooded areas. The 2 hour bus ride to the site was spectacular as we wound our way up the mountain rodes and it was wonderful to finally be breathing some unpolluted air, the first since January where I spent a week ill at a conference set at a ski resort in Korea. The only problem with this pure air was there wasn't enough of the damn stuff. At over 10000 feet the air was thin and trekking up to the valley I found myself struggling to catch my breath. The elderly carried around portable oxygen cannisters which they would regularly puff from as I wheezed and ached.


I'll post photos of Huanglong and of my next few spectacular days trekking the Jiuzhaigou valley when they are organised back home. I'll also continue with tales of spending days without meeting another English speaker, eating brain hotpot, having my ears cleaned out and more when I get a chance. It's been a wonderful trip so far and the last few days spent in Chengdu has entirely made me forget that I'm in another Chinese concrete jungle....


I've been continuing, when possible to add blog posts of note from other blogs into the tab in the top left of this one, of which there have been many. In particular, go and vote for Shelley at Retrospectacle for the student blogging scholarship. Shelley and I started blogging at about the same time and she is one of the most diverse, entertaining and informative bloggers on Scienceblogs - well worth both a read and a vote.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Quick update

Just a quick post to say that all is well, though I haven't had a chance to blog while away. I've spent 3 amazing days in Jiuzhaigou trekking through the valleys(google it to see pictures, though mine will follow when I've sorted through the many hundreds) and I'm now in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province and without a doubt the most relaxed city I've ever been in. Spent lots of time sitting in tea houses watching people go by and catching up with reading which has not been happening in the last few months of busy work. I'll be here for another few days and then go to Lijiang in Yunnan province for some more trekking and some more relaxing before getting back to Beijing.

Most likely there won't be much serious blogging for a few days.

Hope all are well in the real world.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Carolyn Porco on the Cassini mission to Saturn

Another fantastic talk from the TED conference. This is from Carolyn Porco on the results from the Cassini mission to Saturn which bought us the incredible photos from Titan and continue to give us new insights into the other major moons. Well worth a watch to see an inspirational speaker talking about where we are at the frontiers of space travel. In some ways incredible, in others rather depressing given where we were 50 years ago.

I've linked to it before but Burt Rutan has many interesting thoughts on the history and future of space travel.

Thanks to Toomanytribbles.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

More linguistic frustrations

I was rather hoping to be both learning about and simultaneously blogging about string cosmology this month as the KITPC program started up (and continues for the next two months). Sadly, because I was the only non-Chinese speaker for the first two weeks of the conference, all of the lectures introducing the subjects were held in Chinese. I gave up after just a couple of days.

Tom Banks came out for the third week and gave some excellent lectures on holography and De Sitter space, a subject which I've been reading up on since. From now on all of the lectures should be in English, but I will not be here to report on them (leaving on Sunday to Chengdu). There are many things I will miss about China but the lack of input from talks in English is one thing I'm really looking forward to getting back to. As I speak with my collaborators who have been racing around Europe all summer to conferences I see that there is still some considerable way to go in the true integration of West and East on a scientific basis. Things are at least steadily improving and the KITPC is a good step in the right direction.

Video lectures from Berkeley

UC Berkeley has just started putting video lectures up on Youtube. It's a great start but there's a long way to go in making education truly open source.

Scitalks continues to add more to their database and the new version of the site is very much in the making.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

New horizons

Work is winding down as I finish off some odds and ends (all nonetheless important) and I try and work out how much I am going to be ripped off by as I send my books to Spain by ship. Packing up of the flat is currently consisting of friends coming round to relieve me of the piles of DVDs and books which I won't be taking with me. Somehow I need to find an extra zero in the British Airways baggage allowance.

I head off on Sunday to Couchsurf in Chengdu and then go straight to Jiuzhaigou to hike for a few days. I've just bought myself a prime lens (Canon 50mm f/1.8 II) to get me some fine pictures in the dawn and dusk, along with a relatively cheap tripod (I've no large telephoto lens to worry about stabilising) and a remote control.
Midi festival cameraman
(Taken at the 2007 Midi festival, Beijing)

(Trivia - Kubrick's Barry Lyndon uses a NASA built f/0.7 lens for the candlelit scenes - perhaps the largest aperture lens used in film history.)

Friday, September 28, 2007

End of an era

This is tough, really, this is a lot harder than I was expecting it to be. I'm currently in my flat, surrounded by piles of papers, foreign coins and clothes. I have a little over a week to go before I leave Beijing but I have to get things packed up as soon as possible. I'm shipping some of the heavier items to Spain and so this all needs to get done now.

I was expecting it to be physically tiring, but it has become emotionally quite draining. As the days tick by and my time in this amazing city diminishes fast I stop to wonder where the time went, how so many things happened in the last two years, yet it seems only last week that I stepped off the plane, into a country and a culture I had never previously experienced, with eyes wide and mouth constantly open to the amazing sights, sounds and smells about me.

Lots of things have happen, as can be attested to by the 300+ blog posts since I arrived here. I've written about ups and downs, more, thankfully of the former, but of course there have been many things I haven't written about, many friendships, many meals, many insights, many cultural faux pas, many nights spent wondering what I was doing here in the first place, and days spent wondering how I would ever leave.

And somehow it's all coming to an end, rather abruptly, or so it feels. I never decorated my apartment. I know it's rather strange but two years didn't really seem long enough to bother (plus, on a Chinese wage, spending money on household adornments isn't the first priority) and so it has stayed as a rather impersonal space, adorned only by my books, films and clothes. This, perhaps is why it's so strange packing everything up. Though the space seems to have no character, somehow the walls are ingrained with memories of the last two years and the piles of clothes are, at least, my piles of clothes.

I came to China not knowing a soul. I've made some lifelong friendships and there are people who will be very hard to say goodbye to. Ties will not be cut, but I don't know the next time I will see these good friends again. I certainly will be coming back to China some point in the not too distant future, but Beijing will no longer be my Beijing, I will be a casual visitor. I know this because I know how fast this place changes. The Beijing I see next time will not be the same one I leave.

I will miss many things about this place. I had planned to write a list of what I would be sorry to leave behind and what I would be happy to turn my back on, but that list would be far from complete and would trivialise so many ideas. If you want to know some of these details then I hope that the last 300 blog posts nicely summarise my feelings about this place.

I'm hugely looking forward to getting to Spain and starting something new, but the last two years has, as was inevitable, changed me in many ways I am unlikely to know until I return to a reality that I'm more used to. I'm not sure when that will be, and I'm not sure how the effects will manifest themselves.

I've promised myself that I wouldn't let my Chinese slip, but I don't know how practical that will be when I put Spanish in with the mix and have piles of work to be doing in Santiago. Thoughts of sitting in quiet cafes with a coffee getting on with my research temporarilly replace the waves of nostalgia I have sitting, writing this. We are the lucky few who land in a job that we get so much from.

Before I leave China I will be travelling for almost two weeks. Next week is a national holiday which I will work through, then I fly to Chengdu, in Sichuan province, on the 7th, to make my way to Jiuzhaigou national park where I will spend three days walking round the incredible scenery. Then back to Chengdu to sit in the tea houses and wander by the river before going down to Yunnan province to see some of the diversity of minority cultures in this country as well as the amazing South China scenery. It's going to be a packed trip, but it should be a lot of fun. Then back to Beijing for two days before flying to England and then almost straight away to Spain.

So, much to be getting on with, and this may well not be the last post about my feelings on leaving China.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Living Beijing

A busy weekend, both work and play. I made it to the Beijing jazz festival on Saturday afternoon, which deserves more time than I have to write. I went for a wander around the park, into the gardens and took some photos of the nature on show there so will leave you with this snap for now:

(Click for much larger versions)
dragon fly 2

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Unexpected results

Kosher options not
Without risk of upsetting
The careful balance

Food delights seem non-
Universal, better to
Opt for static choice

Film nasties lacking
Extreme warnings result in
Rather surprised Shocks

Haiku to undo
Misdemeanors appears quite

A new dimension in culinary delights

A short post as there's still lots of work to get done before I leave here in just over two weeks.

Last night I finally got around to trying a dish I'd been promised by a Korean friend for a while. It turns out that it's not difficult to find around Wudaokou where there is a huge population of Korean students.

The dish is called San Nak Ji and is an octopus based dish, in fact it's just raw octopus. Nothing particularly strange about eating raw octopus which I've had many times in Japanese restaurants. However, San Nak Ji is still moving, on the plate, in your chopsticks, in the dipping sauce, in your mouth. The suckers make it pretty difficult to pick up off the plate, especially with the Korean style metal chopsticks. You dip the pieces in a chilli sauce and then eat. You don't feel them moving much in your mouth but they do stick to your tongue and palate as you're eating them. The suckers can be really rather strong.

Because the tentacles are detached, I certainly wouldn't count this as eating a living creature. Though some may think this is a particularly barbaric act, I would claim that the more you remember that your food was once a living being and don't take this fact lightly, rather than prepackaging everything so that you don't have to think of the horrors of the slaughterhouse or the terrible conditions that your Sunday lunch has had to endure, the better. I am in favour of choosing free-range where possible. Sadly in China this is not an easy task and would certainly mean that I would never eat out.

Anyway, San Nak Ji is worth a try and goes well with a good cold Soju. My camera batteries didn't work so no video from me. I will try and return before I leave and get a personal video of the events. In the mean time you can take a look at a Youtube example of a similar meal. (Obviously do not watch this if you think the sight of writhing tentacles may cause you to be put off your next meal).

Monday, September 17, 2007

Sunday brunch at the Westin

I haven't spoken of food for at least a week. Usually when I do it's about gastronomic exotica. Many of the things below will seem a little closer to home but should be taken no less lightly. It's taken me a year (since it started) to get around to heading to the Westin hotel for their Sunday brunch deal. It's the sort of thing I've generally stayed away from, attempting whenever possible to go for the oriental options. However, a deal like this can only be avoided for so long. There are several hotels offering all you can eat deals for around £20 a head here in the city. In the UK if you happened upon such an offer you would be greeted by a selection of fairly uninspiring dishes which, on the third return would look ultimately unappealing.

Things in Beijing are somewhat different. The Westin hotel in Beijing offers an extravaganza of luxury foods for this price. Champagne flows freely, as do cocktails, fine wines and spirits and beer, to accompany everything from caviar, sushi and lobster, through steak tartare, cured meats, fresh barbeque to chocolate fountains, handmade chocolates and imported cheeses. If you happen to like food and have a spare 20 quid lying around on a Sunday morning GO TO THE WESTIN HOTEL AND INDULGE. heart attacks may be included. We stayed there for around 4 hours, chatting, relaxing and eating the most spectacular food. I remained happy with just a glass of champagne, not wanting to spoil the food and had a couple of the finest cups of coffee I've had this side of Italy after the meal. Anyway, a few photos from the day follow:

Click on the photos for more detail.

The chocolate dish with a piece of gold leaf on the top has a layer of olive oil in the middle which was spectacular. The steak tartare in the martini glass was better than any I've eaten in France and the selection of caviar was worth the trip alone. It may fill you with guilt at the sheer indulgence but that will soon be displaced by unreasonable quantities of fine food. The man standing, beaming, in front of the steak tartare stand is the head chef and was extremely happy to chat as he wandered around making sure everything was going well. I probably tried a quarter of the foods on offer and left satisfied but not stuffed. Well worth the trip!

Pale blue dot

Tales of a spectacular meal yesterday must wait until I can get the photos onto my computer. In the mean time and totally unrelated. Toomanytribbles linked to this video which is worth a watch. Makes you feel pretty insignificant!

Friday, September 14, 2007

File transfer on Meebo and more

I'm almost alone in the building today. Everyone else has gone to Chengde for the weekend. The ITP organises these huge group outings a couple of times a year, but I usually miss the e-mails. It makes for a peaceful day in the office anyway and work is getting done.


Anyway, this post is a quick tech note. I use Meebo as my instant messenger client. It's entirely web based, so you don't need another program running in the background constantly giving you adverts or using up more memory. It also allows you to integrate various accounts: Hotmail, Yahoo, Google Talk amongst others (not Skype - yet). I use instant messaging as a vital part of my work, talking with my collaborators in various continents.

The one drawback has always been that file transfer was not possible - until now! I always had to switch back to msn in order to send and receive files but now I see no reasons to use msn any more.

Of course if you're bothered by the design of Meebo there are dozens of Greasemonkey scripts you can use to make the interface more to your liking.


Cory Doctorow, from Boingboing was in Beijing this week and spoke at the Bookworm. Sadly I couldn't make it, but the video is up on Youtube. Cory talks about the future of information dissemination, copywrite, Web 2.0, piracy, social networking and more.

Have a good weekend!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Reflections, endings and beginnings

This blog is two years old today, and I believe this is the 369th post.


Work finally calmed down late on Tuesday evening. Over 40 hours of intensive calculation in 3 days left me utterly exhausted. I've never needed to work with quite such fevered intensity as this. I've never been a crammer, exams at undergraduate level were a relatively relaxed affair in terms of timing as the revision was usually well planned. So, the task of pulling a series of very late-nights and early mornings was not something I envisioned enjoying. However, the hours did go between complete fatigue and a strange, work fueled euphoria which was actually rather empowering at times.

Yesterday I was too drained to do anything of any use, so I had a relaxed day in a cafe and then went to see Bergman's Wild Strawberries at D22. An early road trip movie, concerning the realisition of an elderly man about the path his life has taken and what he has lost, both physically an emotionally through the years. It's a reflection not just of the individual, but a look at how we sometimes ignore the mirror of those around us, forming our own crooked picture of the way we appear, and our own moral absolutes. This is perfect Bergman material and well worth a watch. Having seen Through a Glass Darkly, earlier in the year I now realise how adept Bergman was at capturing troubled emotions through simple images - sometimes cliched, but always powerful.


I wanted to add an extra note about the Kabuki, which I watched twice last week. I'd been pondering the use of the onnagata, the men who specialise in playing women's roles (there are no women in kabuki performances, though there used to be).

As I watched the second performance on Wednesday evening I wondered what it was about a 76 year old man (Kabuki legend Nakamura Senjaki III) playing the role of a young woman, a teenager, dancing on stage, that was so captivating to watch. This sounds strange, I'm sure, but in fact it comes off as absolutely natural and beautiful to watch.

I was trying to work out why one would have men playing female roles, other than through simple discrimination, but I think I have a clue now, after my fourth viewing of Kabuki. The vision of a man playing a woman's role is an entirely de-sexualised one. There is no thought of the player on stage having anything to do with sexual allure, as it might do if it were a beautiful woman playing the role. What you are left with is a neutered form but still retaining all the elegance and grace which may have been masked by any erotic distractions. The stripping of one aspect of attraction to reveal in much more clear contrast another. It may sound strange, but it really is fantastic to watch.

OK, I think that's probably my input on Kabuki for now, but I'm sure it will crop up again in the future.


I'm still feeling pretty drained but have plenty of work to be getting on with now. Just three full weeks left in Beijing is a fairly terrifying thought - two years have gone very very quickly - thoughts of Bergman resurface!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Brane freeze

I hurt, both in brain and body. 15 hours so far today in front of the computer trying to get this calculation done. I'm guessing another 4 hours at least tonight, but we'll have to see. Thankfully I'm in a bar where the manager has given me free drinks for the month so I'm keeping myself going with green tea. I just want this to be over!

Sunday, September 09, 2007

This month in Beijing

For reasons which I'm not going to go into now I'm working like crazy at the moment. I will probably be up all night at least for tonight, tomorrow we'll just have to see.

I'm taking a five minute break and so will put up a post I wrote a few days ago about the current goings on in Beijing. If work continues like this I'm not going to get to any of it, but I can always hope.

With less than two months left in Beijing I'm keeping a close eye on the things that I haven't done yet which I would like to. There aren't many places that I haven't explored in Beijing that I'm aware of but I'm sure there are many interesting hidden treasures to be found. The ancient observatory I would like to check out when I've time and the underground tunnels which are rumoured to go for hundreds of miles under the city sound intriguing.

There's plenty on over the next month too. There will be a couple of weeks of movies commemorating Bergman on at D22. This week there was The Seventh Seal, which is excellent and I'll definitely see it for a second time when I have a chance. The Bergman season continues with Wild Strawberries and The Magician on the 12th and 13th and finishes with The Virgin Spring on the 19th. Michaelangelo Antonioni's death is not going unnoticed with L'avventura, La Notte and L'eclisse on the 20th, 26th and 27th. Sadly Blowup is not being screened.

At the Box Cafe on the 25th is Au Hassard Balthazar, a very moving story about the life of a donkey, named Balthazar, directed by Bresson. Very very sad but a fine film.

Director Diao Yinan will be talking at Cherry Lane movies before his film Uniform, which I haven't seen but is promoted in That's Beijing.

Cory, from BoingBoing will be in Beijing next week at the Beijing Bookworm, so go early if you're around Sanlitun on Wednesday.

On the music front there's the Beijing Pop Festival in Chaoyang park this weekend, with a truly bizarre line up of Nine Inch Nails, Public Enemy, Brett Anderson, New York Dolls, Marky Ramone and a few decent Beijing bands (Joyside and the Scoff being the two who I've seen and enjoyed). Carsick Cars, Beijing's favourite band to make it outside China (currently on tour with Sonic Youth in Europe) will be back in D22 on the 29th which is bound to draw a big crowd.

I'll definitely be heading to the Beijing Jazz Festival ( For jazz in the meantime the Red Hand Jazz band every Sunday at D22 are well worth coming to listen to. I was very pleasantly surprised when I saw them for the first time a few weeks ago, though with D22's reputation and a manager who used to own a bar in New York, I shouldn't be.

Beginning of next month sees Faithless and Talib Kweli with Ozomatli on two consecutive nights at the Star Live. Ozomatli are supposed to be superb live.

For big nights out Armin Van Buuren is coming to Ba Hao at Chaoyang park on the 30th of September. The Tuesday night experimental electronica also continues at Dos Kolegas which is well worth a trip if you're feeling like something a little more interesting.

Beijing is getting in on the molecular gastronomy game with a relatively new restaurant, the Blue Lobster, which has superb reviews though is very very expensive. Depending on how work and cash flow goes it may be a treat for myself later in the month.

A friend and I have vowed to go to a new restaurant every week. Next week I have been promised by a friend that I will be taken to eat san nak ji (산낙지). (Only click on this link if you're not feeling squeemish - I really really mean it. - no, really!)

ok, that will do, but with many hours ahead I will need a break later...

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Slowing down

Things have got marginally calmer though I still have work to do for Monday. I've been sitting in a cafe this afternoon doing some work and reading 'Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Braid' by Douglas Hofstatder, a wonderful book on mathematics, logic, information, music and art. Well worth a read if you're interested in the deep workings of logical systems but a fascinating read even if this has never grabbed you before.

I mentioned Nav, my couchsurfer in my previous post. It turns out that Nav is a rather fine photographer and he spent a good length of time on Thursday evening showing me the basics of using Photoshop, which I had never truly appreciated the power of. My own photography, in its limited capacity owes a lot to a friend and designer explaining a few simple rules. Nav explained a more extensive list of factors which go into making a fine photo. I can see that almost all of my photos fail on at least one of the six factors he mentioned (often more), meaning that very few of my photos are quite as good as I'd like. This is surely a matter of practice and with these new guidelines I look forward to seeing what I come up with.

Looking back through some of my photos I noticed this one, which I don't think I've posted before. Unfortunately, the close and blurry foreground detracts from the photo but I am pleased with the look in the child's eyes and the gesture. Yesterday I went for a cruise around the hutongs getting a few more local shots which still need to be seen to.
Who me?