Saturday, March 31, 2007

Every cloud...

Sometimes you need a bit of shock treatment (no pun intended) to push you in the right direction. My last post may have sounded a little negative and, perhaps, defeatist but writing my thoughts down and considering it more has motivated me to start talking with the professors in Chinese. Since Thursday I've been attempting as much as possible to speak Mandarin with them and although it's messy and there's a lot of English in there when I don't know the Chinese, it's a big step and after a year and a bit here, it's about time.

Hopefully I'll be able to keep this up over the final months of my stay in Beijing and look forward to seeing what possible opportunities this presents. The main moment of enlightenment was seeing just what doors can be opened by showing willing and an interest in the culture and language (witnessing the melee around my German friend). This may seem obvious from the outside but when you're sitting in the midst of the system, struggling with the confusion around you it's easy to give in and withdraw to your own isolated world.

OK, here goes!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Lost for words

My lack of blogging is perhaps as indicative of my current state as when I'm posting regularly. This week has been non-stop but on the whole enjoyable. I have a friend here from Germany doing some work with me and we're all too aware that a week is a short time in physics, so we're trying to make the most of it. On top of a rather last minute seminar that I will be giving on Friday, continuing Chinese lessons and several other projects on the middle burner there isn't much time for anything else other than the current calculation.

In fact my collaborator coming out here has bought something rather starkly home to me, which highlights a concern I had only been partly aware of.

I enjoy Beijing a great deal. The city is an amazing place with so many things to go and see if you make the effort, the night life is variable but often spectacular and the food has been mentioned in this blog enough to last a blogging lifetime, my life as a physicist is also, for me, an extremely enjoyable one, but...

my Chinese is still not up to much. This isn't because I'm awful at languages, though I'm not great, but I just don't have the time (or motivation, if I'm honest) on top of long hours in the office and occasional attempts to explore the city to practice reading and writing - which is how I will actually increase my vocabulary. If I have a conversation and somebody just tells me a word without me concentrating for some time on remembering it, quickly the memory of the sound fades and the new word is gone. My hope is that the less alien nature of Spanish will make this sort of learning more possible.

I'm at the stage that I can listen in on a conversation and perhaps 80% of the time I have a good idea what they're talking about. That's because picking up one in five words usually gives a good clue. However, one in five words isn't enough to answer a one sentence question, unless it's something very familiar. So my part in conversations is generally a passive one.

This makes for an occasionally rather lonely existence in the office - note that I'm not writing this in a melodramatic flood of tears but feel that as I chronicle my time here the bad should be written up with the good. Thankfully there's generally a lot more of the latter.

Anyway, what has made me think about this a great deal this week is that my collaborator speaks extremely good Chinese, really remarkably so. Having learnt for 5 or 6 years, living in China for one and having a Chinese wife clearly helps and so I have no pretensions that I should be anywhere near his standard. We went for a coffee in the department coffee corner a couple of days ago and within a few minutes most of the staff were gathered around us, chatting away in wonder with him as I sat, passively listening, nodding whenever anyone looked at me and told me how good he was.

I realised that in perhaps an hour's conversation he had spoken with and found out more about my senior colleagues than I have in the year and a bit I've been here. I'd be lying if I said that this didn't make me feel pretty pathetic. They all speak very good English but I just haven't bonded with them as I would have liked. clearly they're all very friendly but my passable 'ni hao' as we meet in the corridor is a bit of a conversation stopper. Occasionally they will reply 'your Chinese isn't bad!' in Chinese, to which I make an appropriate response, and then I'm a bit stuck.

The point is that a) I need to learn more Chinese, which undoubtedly takes time and effort and isn't something which is simply absorbed passively. Time is something that has to be made, but other things must be sacrificed, and b) it would be nice if I could find a way to bond more with the professors here, who are all decent people, with a lot to say.

Anyway, that's what's on my mind at the moment so I shall go home now after 12 hours in the office and see if I can add a few more words to the vocabulary. Just six months to go here which seems crazy and I've had, without a doubt, a fantastic experience. Regret is an emotion I try and stay clear of, but I can certainly try and make the most of the short time I have left here.

Postings may continue to be infrequent for the moment, I'll do my best.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Pipe dreams

I made the fatal mistake of listing my current projects which are filling different parts of the pipeline, some blocking the spout, others peering down the far end. This was a bad idea and having come back from serene Kyoto via a relaxing Tokyo I find myself in a mild panic. However, my current collaborator from Germany has just arrived and I can spend a few days concentrating on just one, or perhaps two of the most pressing ideas. We've spent this afternoon in my favourite 'all you can drink for a quid fifty' cafe and the dumplings and cups of pearl tea have seen us through a few nice problems already.

With Chinese lessons back to a regular schedule and the gym membership renewed (to try and shed a few of the higher curvature features picked up in Japan) there's already little space to breath. Beijing has, as of today, started to shed it's depressingly gray fog and has given us a few hints of blue sky. Spring may be on its way and before the sandstorms hit we should have a few decent days. Depending on the pollution levels we may even venture to do some work in a local park.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Expandable post hack for Blogger

This is a quick test for a new Blogger hack I've been looking for for a while. Currently things are back up to full speed and I don't have much time to write an extensive post. If this hack is working then... should be able to read all of this sentence.

The hack comes from this site, and includes a javascript add-in to the template file for the blog. If anyone has any ideas as to the security of this I would be interested to know.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Thinking Blogger Awards

I return to this polluted, noisy orgy of people and concrete which is 'The Jing' (So good they only named half of it), and though the smell of the smog-filled air crept into the plane as we landed and the jack-hammers greeted us as we left the airport, it does feel like home, and that's pretty good.

I have all the detritus of a long trip to clear up and mounds of dust which have crept through the gaps in the door frame to hide, but that's fine because having managed 5 hours sleep in 3 days I need a bit of catch-up.

On arriving back into the office this afternoon I was greeted with 100+ blog posts to sift through in the feed reader, including a very pleasing nomination from Retrospectacle.

The Thinking Blogger award means that I get to nominate 5 blogs which I deem to fit the title - I also get to show the badge of my pleasingly geeky status:
A bit of fun, but it's nice to know that the random mix of thoughts which I lay down here in no particular order are appreciated.

Anyway, so, my nominations for the award go to:

  • Flip Tomato - An American Physics Student in England. As a part III student at Cambridge he's recently been posting a great mixture of expository writing on physics and his ideas and tips for how one can make the high energy physics community a better and more efficient place to work(not that it's not in many ways already).
  • My personal bias is for blogs which have an eclectic mix of topics and not simply science. This helps to show the wider world that while we love what we do, many physicists have a wide range of interests and can be pretty well-adjusted people - I'm sure I've met some, anyway. Backreaction has some of the best sets of introductions and overviews of topics which I've read in any blogs and mixes this with a bit of art, a bit of social commentary and a bit of, erm, physics rap.
  • I mentioned this as a newfound blog a couple of posts ago - Khymos mixes my love for food and science in excellently balanced proportions in his site dedicated to the world of molecular gastronomy.
  • There are a huge number of expat blogs from China. I tend to stay away from a lot of them which simply expound on how stupid the Chinese are and how country-X is better. It's very tiring very quickly - sure, everyone has their particular quibbles with life out here but generally nobody is forcing us to stay in this strange land and usually the arguments about the ignorance of the Chinese are cheap, generalised shots to make the other expats laugh. The Weifang Radish provides a more level-headed commentary of life out here though includes the politics which I usually shy away from.
  • There are many blog giants out there, some of whom I respect greatly and some of whom I enjoy reading, if only to get aggravated. However, one of them stands out for me as an exceptional mix of cutting edge mathematical physics and very good introductions to a whole range of subjects. In fact the title 'intelligent blog' may be debated simply because the site, starting as a proto-blog has a large range of formats within it. As an undergraduate I learnt many things from John Baez's site and was prompted to go and read lots of excellent books, having had a taster for various topics. Both the diary and this week's finds are blog-like areas of the site which frequently contain a lot of fascinating, thought provoking material.

OK, that wasn't easy, and I link to most of the above regularly, but I hope that those stumbling upon this site for the first time will check out some of these blogs and find lots to interest them.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The best of a good lot

The Couchsurfing website was down for a good part of today and I haven't managed to get a place for tonight. It now being tonight means that I'm in the office again after a day which has not bought many surprises having had less than two hours sleep last night. I expect similar tonight but tomorrow evening I'll be flying back to Beijing where, unless my last guest has booby-trapped the flat (something which I'm not ruling out) I should have a good night's sleep waiting for me. 4 hours in 3 days isn't ideal but I can catch up soon.

Anyway, because I'm not going to write anything remotely original in this state I'll try and catch up with some links from the last week or so.

  • One of the problems with the debate between string proponents and opponents is that there is usually little in the way of actual scientific debate. On the internet such debates usually end up in a comment section of name-calling and little physics is actually discussed. It looked like Joe Polchinski had really got the ball rolling when he wrote a reply to Lee Smolin's book, answering many of the accusations which had been leveled against the subject and the community. This was the perfect opportunity to have a level-headed debate but, as far as I'm aware, Lee Smolin never replied. In a comment on Asymptotia Lee states that he doesn't feel it necessary to respond to Joe's points because they are already answered in the book. Having read the book and Joe's article thoroughly disagree with this statement.
  • However, there has now been a public debate on the subject (which can be downloaded from here) (now another debate at Oxford as well) with contributions from Lee Smolin, Michael Duff and from Nancy Cartwright. Clifford's thoughts on the debate can be found on his blog, together with a very long comments thread involving all relevant parties and achieving nothing, yet, as far as I can tell. (NB. I haven't listened to the debate yet but plan to as soon as I'm awake enough to concentrate on it).
  • The last couple of posts from Backreaction have involved the interface between science and art. Justin Mullins is a British artist, also interested in science and has some pictures of some of the most important equations in physics and mathematics. I've been in contact with him since finding his site, about a couple of points of explanation. He seems like a friendly chap and I'd be interested to see the work and chat with him when I'm back in the UK.
  • A nice article from the BBC about how technology can promise so much, but occasionally take much longer than expected to deliver, deals with high temperature superconductors and what they may/will be able to do for us in the near future.
  • I was also interested in this article from the BBC about the robot which is teaching itself to walk. The linked sites from the article are worth looking through for more information, too.
  • Another great photo from Bad Astronomy Blog shows over 1000 black holes lighting up the sky. This may seem a little counterintuitive but of course black holes are not even slightly black if they are busy eating.
and a few videos:
  • From Pharyngula comes the History of Creationist Thought, by Robin Ince, which has some lovely observations and superb timing.
  • Toomanytribbles has a good range of interesting short movies on a range of both inspiring and depressing subjects, but I particularly enjoyed the short animation Das Rad.
  • I had planned to post two videos a while ago but Retrospectacle beat me to both of them. The first is a demonstration of one of my favourite hands-on physics demonstrations from school - the phenomenon of non-Newtonian fluid dynamics. This can be found displayed within the scientific context here (though not very enthusiastically discussed), and the not so scientific context here, both are fun, but if you haven't tried it before I suggest getting a few tablespoons of cornstarch (cornflower) and mixing it with just enough water to form a liquid paste. Then try and pick it up and see what happens.
  • The second video was from a documentary I saw on octopuses several years ago and is remarkable footage of what happens if you put a giant octopus up against a shark!
  • From Laowai Chinese comes a table of all 409 Chinese words you can possibly say - with the odd variation allowed ;-)
OK, I've run out of steam. It's getting late and I have a desk to lay my head on so I'll see if I can get some shuteye.

Update: Just remembered this news today that caves which may have necessary conditions to harbour life on Mars have been spotted. This is all highly speculative, but exciting nonetheless.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Closing chapters

It's a little past 7am here in Tokyo. I'm in the office and have managed perhaps 2 hours sleep, so I'm feeling a little weary but the early morning light is filling the room and I'm not going to manage any more. I must point out that my current situation is completely down to my own frugal state. The university funded me for a generous number of days and simply because of possible flight times I had a few days over at the end. I try and avoid talking money on the blog but the idea of spending almost a week's wages on a night in a cheap hotel doesn't appeal very much - I'd much rather spend the money on good food; just my personal set of priorities in life.

Today is my last full day in Japan and depending on how I'm feeling in a little bit I may do some more exploring, though there aren't many major tourist sites left to see. Yesterday I took a morning walk around the Shinjuku area which is home to many government buildings along with plenty of shopping and the red-light district. The architecture is a mixture of very stereotypical modern Japanese high-rise with some great little alley-ways filled with noodle bars and run by the local Yakuza (The area I've been staying, Ikebukuro, is also one of the largest Yakuza areas). So, a few of snaps from Shinjuku:
Shinjuku street
perspective 2
A good tip is to skip going up the Tokyo tower, which is expensive and head to the Metropolitan Government Offices which also has a great viewing area and is free.
Panorama 1
drummers 1
Panorama 2
(The photo which looks like it's been taken with a fish-eye is a panorama of three shots tied together using ArcSoft Panorama Maker which I found online yesterday).

After some lunch in one of the local soba restaurants I hopped to the other side of the city with a couple of students from the department to go to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo (MOT). The museum is an exciting and well designed space with very good lighting, showing some of the best of modern Japanese art. Currently the temporary exhibits are also excellent with a collection depicting the idea of the individual in today's digitised society, and an amazing collection of work by Hiroshi Nakamura. I wish I could find more online to link to but have had little luck.

Sayaka Akiyama records her journeys in a scrap/map format on homemade paper, fabric and any other materials which are relevant to her particular travels (be it within a single building or a more distance trip). She has a series of perhaps 20 or 30 maps created from her time in Barrow-in-Furness in 2004. I find it hard to believe that Akiyama hasn't been heavily influenced by Peter Greenaway's short film A Walk Through H: The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist which is filmed almost in its entirety as a voiceover describing the mysterious journey of Tulse Luper showing a series of maps through H. This is a rather hypnotic film and the DVD of Peter Greenaway's early short films are intriguing if not always fully comprehensible.

Among the other interesting works at the gallery I would advise looking out for Daisuke Nakayama who has some haunting and rather pessimistic views of the digital age and Yuri Shibata whose "Material Color works involve the harvesting of some natural material (hair, kudzu, etc.) to be ground into pigments and made into paint. The resulting paintings are both of and by their subjects. One cannot conceive of a more completely representational art form". Sounds cliched but the work is actually rather fine.

In comparison the Chinese contemporary art scene often feels less polished but consequently more visceral than the Japanese scene which has been growing pretty steadily since the 1940s. The Japanese work seemed knowingly clever whereas the work in Beijing feels more reactionary, which is no surprise.

I've recently discovered artWALK Beijing which looks like a great resource and I'll be going to the next meet-up if at all possible.

I'm really looking forward to getting back to Beijing now, though I've had a great time out here. I have three or four projects to work on and really want to push them forward quickly. This whole trip has been immensely valuable, from the serenity of Kyoto to the frenetic but stimulating atmosphere in Tokyo, both of which have been useful for my work in different ways. When I get back I'll have to prepare some lectures for an upcoming workshop to introduce AdS/QCD which will be more detailed than my previous seminars. I also have a friend/collaborator turning up in a few days and several friends and family booked up to head out. It don't stop!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Conservation of Energy

I am become sumo, the eater of worlds. I am more sushi than man, more okonomiyaki than flesh. It transpires that brain work in the day and foot work at the weekends is not enough to counter the calorie intake from the stupendous food out here.

I should take note from the 24 hour a day food programs which fill most channels on the television. Whereas in the UK there are an uncountable infinity of programs related to cooking, most of the food programs in Japan are about eating, they are filled with slim men and women who populate every channel and clearly spend all of their time stuffing their faces. The key to how they stay svelte, however, is that they expend the same amount of energy gasping and wowing over the food as they take in, in Calories - this is truly over the top enthusing. Spend your meals jumping up and down excitedly, waving your chopsticks and you too can eat what you want as often as you want. Atkins et al, eat your heart out (err)!

This is another food post, mostly unrelated to Japanese cuisine but the science of food.

Ever since reading about Heston Blumenthal and his nitro green tea and lime mousse, I've been rather fascinated by molecular gastronomy; the idea of using science in the kitchen as a driving force rather than a way of explaining why something works after the fact. With practice we become pretty good at using our intuition to come up with combinations of flavours and tastes which will be complimentary, but this intuition is also clouded by prejudices, the likes of which are now being broken down. I can see that all of this may seem a little like the Emperor's New Clothes, and people are simply being cheated out of large sums of money just for the novelty of eating bacon and egg ice-cream but I buy into it - I've eaten enough weird combinations to know that most people live in a tiny corner of culinary parameter space and there's a lot more to be explored.

On somewhat less extreme notes the basic methods of cooking are being questioned. For instance, the lore which says that steak should be cooked quickly at a very high temperature to seal in the juices turns out to be fiction. The Maillard reaction does sear the outside and give a good flavour and colour, combining the proteins of the meat with the natural sugars, but in fact this method drives out the moisture, rather than sealing it in. A better way to prepare a steak is to put it in a sealed plastic bag, in water at around 60 degrees centigrade for an hour or so and then at the last minute, remove it from the bag and quickly sear the outside. The details of this and many other molecular gastronomy tips and tricks can be found at this site, which includes a rather fun blog.

One of the major bonuses of molecular gastronomy has been the study of the aromas and flavours in a large number of ingredients to see which will combine well. This often results in strange mixture, but I am promised that the outcomes can be spectacular - white chocolate and caviar, for instance both contain high levels of amines and compliment each other extremely well - I'm looking forward to trying this one. I've always enjoyed playing around in the kitchen with rather unusual combinations and it's great to understand some of the reasons behind why such odd mixtures work well.

Heston Blumenthal not only aims to please the taste and smell senses but has experimented with sounds and counterintuitive combinations of temperature. From this article:
"In doing work on the perception of crispness, we were looking at sound cues and the sound of food," says Spence. "The feel of the food in your mouth is determined largely by the sound of it in your ear. We looked at the particular sounds of food that give you that sense of crispness or crunchiness. Can we do things to the taste by manipulating the sound? We both worked on an idea for the restaurant in which headphones are used to pick up the sound of the food that you are eating, which is then played back to the customer by changing the sound subtly and thereby affecting the perception of the crispness."

I haven't had the chance to go to The Fat Duck but I am told by a friend who has that it is truly spectacular (T - please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments).

Living in Asia I'm regularly faced with tastes and textures which are out of the ordinary for Western pallets, for instance in Japan, chicken cartilage is regularly crunched on, grilled in a soy based sauce, and I'm coming to rather like this new addition. The list of new tastes and textures I've come across in China is almost endless.

In fact I was motivated to write the above having found out about El Bulli, voted in 2006 as The Best Restaurant in the World (The Fat Duck took top spot in 2005). El Bulli uses techniques from molecular gastronomy for its recipes and the head chef, Ferran Acosta, spends six months out of every year experimenting in his workshop, perfecting his recipes. The 30+ course meals are fully booked for 2007 but as I will not only be in the same continent but the same country (Spain) by this time next year, I'm highly tempted to see how to get on the waiting list.

and back to Japan where I'm beginning to learn how onomatopoeic the language is. Perhaps onomatopoeia isn't quite the right name because many of these words describe feelings as well as things which make a noise - if anyone can tell me if there's an alternative word for that, I would be grateful to find out.

I asked on the off-chance a few weeks ago if there was a specific word in Japanese for the feeling of wasabi going up your nose, and indeed there is. Tsunn, which I can't find in the dictionary but I have heard it from separate sources, describes the feeling as the wasabi wafts up into your nasal cavity and makes your eyes burn. This is in the same class of words as kyeen (spelling unknown) which is the Japanese for brain freeze - the icecream induced headache. In fact every thought or feeling I've asked about has a Japanese onomatopoeia to describe it. Today's was petti (pronounced like the French petit) as the sound of tobiko (flying fish roe) popping in your mouth. I'll leave it there for today. Happy eating!

Translation invariance

I'm in a minor pickle right now but will get onto that shortly.

It looked like I was going to miss the cherry blossom in Japan for the second time this year but the TV news informed us that just outside the government buildings near the Imperial Palace a few trees had blossomed early. Most of the trees around the city are predicted to be in full bloom by Monday, by which time I will have left but I'm delighted to have been able to take a visit to the early-starters. These photos were taken yesterday when I went with a couple of students and one of the professors from the department.

Officially I'm now free to go see the city but there is some work I would like to finish soon and am now back in the department. On top of this I am, as I mentioned above, in a minor pickle.

I Couchsurfed last night at the flat of a student from Tokyo university. I hadn't expected to stay up till late chatting about emergent phenomena, Boltzmann brains and Milliavin calculus, but my host happens to not only be doing research into complex systems in biological processes but also has a strong mathematics research background and seems to be up on just about any subject I bought up and frequently knew a lot more about it than I did. Pretty impressive, especially for an undergraduate!

Anyway, it was my fault but I had misconstrued the e-mails we'd exchanged and expected to stay for four nights. Looking at them again it was reasonably clear what the deal was, so now I'm without somewhere to stay tonight or indeed until Sunday, when I fly back. I'm going to do a quick Couchsurf call and see if I can find somewhere in the next 12 hours or so. Forking out for a hotel is not really a last resort.

So, that's where we are I think, it's going to be a bit of a frantic day so I'd better get about my business.

Oh, before I forget, there was a small earthquake last night, my first in Japan and a pretty strange experience. Very different from the small tremors I've felt in England and China. I'll mention it when I'm not so homeless.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Flickr Collections

Anybody with a Pro Flickr account will be pleased to know that subsets of sets has now been implemented. This feature has been a while coming and members have been champing at the bit for it. This is a huge improvement on the previous tools for organisation. Thanks Flickr.

Unfortunately Yahoo Pipes still haven't released their documentation and until they do I'm not going to spend hours trying to do what may be impossible. This technology promises so much but I haven't been particularly impressed by what's been done so far.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Yukawa reflections

I wanted to mention one of the features of the Yukawa Institute which particularly impressed me. In the departments I've been in as an undergrad, a postgrad and a postdoc I've found that the various subgroups in a physics department have not mixed as much as I'd hoped. I think that this is less at the higher levels and it seemed that the professors knew each other through committees which they commiserate each other for having to sit on, teaching arrangements and various social events. However, certainly at the grad student level, apart from a few friends I had in other sub-departments I had little idea what went on in the astrophysics department, the 'ultra-fast' department or the geophysics department, for example. I would occasionally peer into a lecture but was quickly put off by the quantity of buzz words which were incomprehensible to me.

Anyway, once a week at the Yukawa Institute is a lunch meeting, for the whole department. The first 20 minutes or so is set aside for having a bento lunch and chatting with whoever you find yourself near, be it a cosmologist, a solid state physicist or a string theorist, perhaps a new masters student and perhaps the head of the department. Then there's a short talk, really very short, perhaps 15 minutes or so introducing the basics of somebody's research area. It's at such a level that people in the audience start asking questions although it's not in their research area and by this simple, sociable meeting once a week, there seems to be more healthy discourse between the research groups.

It's not necessarily vital for a cosmologist to know about advances in traffic theory phase transitions, but it certainly introduces them to a slightly new subject and makes the department more of a transparent place to work. A good thing in my book.

Another inclusion, though of a technological nature which I was impressed by were the whiteboards in all the coffee lounges - though these are no ordinary white boards. I spent some time at these explaining to various people about what I did and chatting to grad students who asked questions, mostly about the fundamentals of the AdS/CFT correspondence. I would fill the white board with diagrams, equations and a few words at which point the student would press a button, an arm would move across the white board and a scanned printout of what I had written would appear. I'd then wipe the board and start writing again. By the end the student was left not just with the memory of my illegible scrawls but a solid copy. Perhaps this is an expensive addition, but in the land of such gadgets, this one ranks about as highly for me as the electronically controlled toilet, a fine invention in my book!


Tomorrow is officially my last day at Ochanomizu, though I may return for a couple of meetings if I get the chance before I leave. After tonight I will be Couchsurfing for the rest of my time here and I'm not sure how likely an internet connection is. I'll report when possible.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Culinary dilemmas

I've been pondering about how to write this post for a few days now, but I'll just start and see where it goes.

I had been surprised when I arrived in Japan to see how many sushi restaurants served whale. I spoke to several people about this subject and certainly had no intention of having any myself. In fact I even shied away from the horse meat sushi, though that was more to appease a friend than from my views on equine dining.

Those I spoke to had positive memories of eating whale meat at school, mostly because the high fat, high protein content makes it a very powerful source of energy and nutrition. I did a little scouting around on the internet to read more on the subject, to find out the current state of affairs and to try and understand some more of the moral implications. As in any hotly debated topic there is strongly worded rhetoric on both sides. I certainly find the claim of killing 500 or so whales a year for scientific research a poor excuse, though if you're going to kill them, better not to let them go to waste. However, the idea of making money from the trade certainly muddies this argument.

The latest hunting methods, when they are implemented, at least finish the job faster than the traditional techniques. The grenade spears can still lead to a pretty unpleasant death. It seems that the cost of this method is somewhat too high and sometimes the scientific research crews need to cut some corners - frankly that's completely unacceptable from any scientific standpoint.

The question of how intelligent a whale may be and how much of an issue this is is something that I haven't got to the bottom of but whatever the levels of thought process it all seems like unnecessary cruelty. Unfortunately I feel that the majority of farming involves unnecessary cruelty and I buy free range whenever possible (almost always in the UK). I don't remember the last time I bought chicken or eggs which were not free range (This does not include shopping in China!). Paying a little extra helps to ease the conscience but I'm not convinced that the non free-range is always great either.

Anyway, I read enough to know that I wasn't going to be ordering whale meat any time soon. Unfortunately sometimes life isn't that simple. On Friday evening I went to a sushi restaurant with a student from the university and sat down to peruse the menu. An elderly Japanese gentleman in a finely tailored suit, a gray trilby and sporting a most preposterous handlebar moustache started talking to us. He had a smattering of English but most of the time my friend translated admirably. We exchanged the usual pleasantries and I mentioned that I was planning to go to Tsukiji the following morning. Aha, he said, he knew just the person for me and got out his mobile to call a woman he knew who worked at the market, she was to be my tour guide. Unfortunately she was busy but I greatly appreciated the offer of assistance.

He then asked if I liked sushi, I nodded energetically and at this point he started telling me that I must try, something. He kept repeating something, something bacon but I couldn't make it out. I looked at my friend and as I did so he called the waiter over, said a few words to him and pointed at me, smiling wide-eyed. At this point he remembered the English and repeated whale bacon, whale bacon. When it dawned on me what he was saying my heart sank, I turned to my friend and gave a worried look. "Whale meat? Really? I really didn't want to try that.". I'm sure it's OK, my friend said, thinking I was worried about the taste. I responded that I was not happy with the culling of whales to which I got the scientific research response. I told her that I didn't believe that that was a valid reason but by this point the piece of whale was being sliced in front of me.

I asked if I turned it down whether this would be very insulting, but the answer was pretty obvious. Perhaps turning it down would make a statement but my reasoning at the time was that it would simply indicate how ungrateful and ignorant foreigners were. So, there it was, sitting in front of me, four thin slices of whale bacon and four thin slices of whale fat, on a bed of dressed lettuce. The trilbied gentleman, Cheshire cat-like at my side. So, I gave in, I ate it, it was OK, but marred by the feelings of guilt as I did so.

OK, I'll admit something I wasn't going to admit, I was thinking more: what would other people think about me doing this, than that some whale had been slaughtered for this. The whale was already dead and I had no thoughts of it being my fault - that's the truth.

and it's been playing on my mind since - not that I did a bad thing, but what the right thing to do was. I guess the point is that my feelings about whaling are not much stronger than my feelings about intensive farming methods. As I said above I think that both involve unnecessary cruelty and the latter involves a huge number of animals, while the former a small number but has a large environmental impact. If I was as bothered as I should be I would probably not eat any meat in China, but I do.

The decision was not 'shall I kill a whale or not?' but 'is it worth me insulting those around me and embarrassing myself to make a point?'. Well, the answer is above and given the same choice I'd probably make the same decision again, but I would certainly never order it myself and would try and talk a friend out of ordering it if they were planning to. By the time I'd finished the plate, the gentleman in gray had vanished, his grin still lingering at my side.

I'm interested to hear what other people think and whether they would do the same thing. I've been reading around more on the subject and the surety with which both sides state their cases doesn't draw me to either side, though I state again that I am against the practice. There are some interesting articles linked to below:

The British Commissioner to the International Whaling Commission has some discourse on humane killing standards here which includes the statements that:

We accept that it is not easy to define exactly what constitutes humane killing. The aim must, as with the slaughter of terrestrial animals, be to render a whale immediately insensible to pain, and for its subsequent death to occur without avoidable pain, stress, or suffering. It is accepted that this is unlikely to be achievable in 100% of cases, but we would not wish to define as acceptable anything that falls short of this standard. We are, moreover, firmly of the view that current whale killing standards, with, at the most, some 60 % of whales killed instantaneously, is not acceptable.

From this definition I can't see that whaling could ever fall within these standards unless the grenade tipped harpoons were made unfeasibly large.

and from the same source comes this discussion on the ethics of whale hunting. Some good points here but I think that the ideas that:

# Man has no right whatsoever to harvest whales, in other words, that whales have an absolute right to live
# It is unethical to violate other people's feelings by killing their symbols - whales have become an important symbol for the environmental and animal protection movements in the western world.

are too general to apply to such a discussion. The first four points in the article are much stronger, in my opinion.

Some comments from Greenpeace here include the interesting remarks that:

Japan claims it only hunts whales for 'scientific' reasons. Yet the body for which the "research" is being done, the International Whaling Commission (IWC), does not need the data, and has called for the programme to be ended.

I haven't noticed this claim stated so strongly anywhere else and indeed in this in depth article from the International Whaling Commision which discusses the decision making process in giving permission to hunt whales for scientific purposes there is both information to the contrary to the above view as well as some in agreement. The IWC states that main points to be taken into account when granting scientific permits are:

1. whether the permit adequately specifies its aims, methodology and the samples to be taken;
2. whether the research is essential for rational management, the work of the Scientific Committee or other critically important research needs;
3. whether the methodology and sample size are likely to provide reliable answers to the questions being asked;
4. whether the questions can be answered using non-lethal research methods;
5. whether the catches will have an adverse effect on the stock;
6. whether there is the potential for scientists from other nations to join the research programme.

It seems that of the four Japanese whaling programmes there are some positive research outcomes but there are also major question marks over certain important details, for instance (for one of the programmes):

In the discussion of these permits in the Commission, an additional factor raised is that the catches take place within the Southern Ocean Sanctuary declared by the IWC in 1994 (to which Japan lodged an objection with respect to minke whales). If a Sanctuary is in place, it can be argued that information on improving management of whaling in that region is unnecessary. Each year, the Commission has (by majority vote) passed a Resolution urging Japan not to issue a permit for these catches.

There are also a couple of interesting articles from Retrospectacle here, and here with a good dose of vocal opinion in the comments.

Well, I hadn't planned to go into quite so much detail but there's a lot of information out there.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Sensory saturation

I didn't manage the 5.30 start for the tuna auction, though it transpires that tourists can no longer view this early morning spectacle. The likelihood of me blagging my way in as a Japanese tuna salesman was minimal, so I decided against that plan. I was however out of the hotel before 7 and at the market in good time. Tsukiji market is the largest seafood market in the world and I recommend it as a must see for any food lovers, or for those simply interested in seeing this incredible spectacle. The market is on reclaimed land in Tokyo harbour and sees around 2 million kilos of fish pass through its doors every day.

The 900 or so wholesale dealerships are packed close together with just enough room to walk through the rows and enough space for speedy little trucks to dash through the columns, transporting large pallets of marine produce. After you've been struck by the efficient hustle and bustle, the people slicing frozen bodies of tuna with bandsaws and the incredible colours of fish around you, the smell, or near lack of seems quite remarkable. The fish is all so fresh that the only odour in the whole place is sweet and the similarity with what you'd call a fishy smell is almost non-existent.

I spent a good hour walking around the stalls, taking photos and marveling at the quantity and quality of what was around me. Rather than posting them all here individually I've linked to this Flickr set on the slideshow below. It really is an incredible place and certainly worth the early start.

However, the real treat is the fact that the restaurants dotted around the market receive the fish fresh each morning and serve what is simply the best sushi and sashimi in Tokyo, and therefore almost certainly the world. A sushi breakfast of the chef's recommended catches that day is not cheap - for me it set me back about two day's wages (total of 15 quid or a little under 30 dollars). However, to buy food of this quality anywhere else in Japan would be completely extortionate. Sushi for breakfast isn't my usual choice but walking round the market got my appetite into overdrive. The combination of ten pieces of sushi with a stunning fish soup were truly spectacular and, a day later I can still remember their flavours very distinctively; sweetness being the over-riding taste.

I sat and watched for a while after finishing this amazing meal as the chefs prepared breakfast for the other highly appreciative customers. It's a lot of fun to watch though I have to admit I don't really understand what the years of training perfect - perhaps that's the idea: they're so good that it just looks easy. (Incidentally, I have a sushi moral drama to explain/admit at some point soon.)

Anyway, leaving the restaurant I wandered the other shops surrounding the market which sell vegetables fresh from the market (which deals in flowers, fruit and vegetables as well as fish) and the stalls selling cooking equipment. I was extremely close to buying a knife and a whetstone but sadly they're just too expensive for now.
whetting my appetite
Walking around somewhat aimlessly, only vaguely attempting to find a metro station I found myself outside the Kabuki-za theatre and couldn't help but ask about the timing and prices for the day. Last year the only option was to see a full show which can take up a good few hours of the day and though I would have loved to do that again, economics once more won out. However, they now offer tickets for a single act of a play for a very reasonable price and so I went for this option. Sadly you cannot take videos or photos inside the performances but I've tracked down a couple of short clips on youtube. Kabuki is perhaps the most accessible of the classic forms of Japanese theatre with the costumes and movements being both exaggerated and beautiful. I find the music a lot more pleasant and often haunting than Beijing opera, which is also very beautiful visually but, for me, prohibitively cacophonous. These first two videos are of onnegata, the female characters played by male actors, which are some of the most incredible players in the troupe. See here, here and here where the shouts you hear are kakegoe from the audience showing their appreciation for the actors. The voice-over is very similar to that which you hear in your earpiece as you watch the performances live and, for me, is completely invaluable.

There are many different style of acting, which can be found within a single performance and the videos I've found show only a very limited number of techniques. Clearly seeing it for real is far more spectacular than seeing it on Youtube and a full day performance ranges from around £15 to around £80.

So, after a very enjoyable first scene from Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura I headed further North to Akihabara, the electronics district, hoping to be bowled over by the high-tech gadgets on display. Unfortunately, this gave me one of my first disappointments from Japan (not bad in two months). This area is the main retail district for computers, cameras, TVs and the like but though there's plenty of gaudy advertising, this is really a minitropolis of small shops packed with electronics, just as you would find in most modern cities. This is not the area where Sony, Phillips and Nikon show off their latest wears, this is simply for consumers, not for people wanting to play with the latest tech gadgets - I get the impression that Shinjuku is probably the area for more gadgedty tech displays.
I grabbed a quick walking lunch of Takoyaki and started strolling. It was a stunning, sunny day and I had nowhere in particular I needed to go so I started walking in roughly the direction of my hotel, the other side of the city. Five hours later I arrived back home, pretty exhausted but having taken in perhaps 15 km of the city including circling around the Imperial palace and seeing the blossom (though not cherry) that's in bloom at the moment:
Blossom in the park
seeing the interesting architecture around Nihon University:
Nihon university
Nihon university 2
passing by some in-city fishing.
City fishers 2
and a lot more besides. (Each photo can be enlarged on the Flickr site).

Powered only by high quality fish I left myself completely exhausted by the end of the day. Taking the underground gives such a blinkered view of a city and spending a few hours getting thoroughly lost in areas that you weren't expecting to end up can be a wonderful way to see a good deal of the city. I advise getting lost whenever you have the liberty to do so, I tend to stick to this rule fairly religiously whether I want to or not. More of the pictures from the day can be found here.

Today, Sunday my mind is feeling refreshed enough to battle on with some problems I'm working on and hopefully a little more progress will be made in the few days I have left at Ochanomizu. Two months has flown by and though I'm having a great time here, it will be nice to get back home to Beijing.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Half empty

A two hour seminar yesterday has left me pretty tired. I hope that I will be able to lecture at some point in the future, though I don't know how people manage it day in, day out. I enjoy it a great deal but it knackers me out no end. It's also great to have an audience who wants to work on the topic I'm talking about and has lots of interested questions.

I have lots of things I'd planned to talk about but I've got one paragraph in and am flailing about listlessly on the keyboard. It's been a good week and with just three days left in the department I think that I will be finished off concentration-wise by then. I'll have a couple of days break before diving back into Beijing life though I can't see a proper break being imminent. The Spring Festival has been and gone so I think that the next holiday probably comes some time around August. Deep intake of breath! Having been on the go, non-stop every day for this long is beginning to take its toll.

All being well I'm off to Tsujiki fish market tomorrow - the biggest fish market in the world and the source of the best sushi, though everything kicks off at 5.30 am, which may be a bit of a struggle.

Nope, a failed post I'm afraid but I currently can't even bring myself to delete it, so I'll simply link to a couple of interesting articles which have come up over the last couple of weeks:

Robots teaching themselves to walk, from the BBC, and a very nice explanation from Scott Aaronson on the Shor algorthm, for factoring large numbers on a quantum computer - a subject I studied and enjoyed a great deal as an undergrad.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


I'm at the last leg of my Japan trip, now at Ochanomizu University to discuss some work they're pursuing here. Kyoto was a wonderfully peaceful city and I got more done there than I have done in a long time and Tokyo is also proving useful, if not peaceful. The fact that it's been non-stop now since I spent two weeks being pretty unwell in Korea means that I'm reaching my limit and my level of concentration is slipping. I'll be giving my last talk out here on Thursday and I'll be talking AdS/QCD - that will be three different (though similar) talks to three somewhat different audiences in two weeks. Comparatively not that many but I'll be pleased to have them all wrapped up.

Currently the students are slowly returning to the department here having spent the last week at the Japan winter school in Hokkaido studying string field theory, with the likes of Zwiebach and Kazakov amongst others. They seem to come back filled with enthusiasm, which is great to see. Hokkaido, the Northernmost island of Japan is really a winter resort where there are both hot springs and great skiing from what I hear. They also have there own regional cuisine which consists of high quality seafoods in rich stock - great for the winter!

There are too many things to finish to write anything extensive at the moment but I wanted to post a picture which I remember seeing in a book of astrophotography at school and wanted to share it.

From NASA and the NSSDC and produced with ESA's Faint Object Camera (FOC) on the Hubble Space Telescope. This was certainly the first and, as far as I'm aware, the only direct observation of the surface of a star, other than the sun. For the pinpricks in the sky to suddenly become real, tangible objects was quite a revelation for me. Betelgeuse is a huge star (probably around 300 million times greater volume than the sun), nearing the end of its life. The extra hot regions on the surface are more easily visible in infrared. The star will at some point in the not too distant future (astronomically speaking) explode as a supernova, sending off its outer layers to form a nebula. When it does explode it will probably be a similar magnitude to a crescent moon and will be clearly visible in the day, just as the crab nebula was 1000 years back. Anyway, just wanted to share that.

Another couple of spectacular photos (and here) from the Cloud Appreciation Society. I guess there may have been some HDR play going on but they're still pretty eerie.

Anyway, enough procrastinating, I have calculations which need finishing off. So much to write about, so little time!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Taking it easy

I have discovered to my cost the extreme generosity of Japanese businessmen. This post will be a somewhat labour intensive task for my now slightly dazed brain cells.

After going for a meal with the department on Friday evening, post-talk I made my way to my Couchsurfing host's flat. Couchsurfing is a fantastic scheme and is built in large part on trust. I met up with Chi on Thursday evening for a bite to eat and a trip to a Gifu bar where we chatted and she made sure that I was a reasonably trustworthy sort. Having passed the test I futonsurfed for Friday and Saturday night. Not only is CS a great way to get free accommodation all around the world (almost 200,000 members now) but it's the perfect source for useful local information.

Gifu snacks of Natto and egg:
Gifu food
Last time I visited Tokyo I spent most of my time looking at traditional Tokyo, the temples, and the Kabuki-za amongst many other things, so this time I've decided to see some more of the modern city. On Saturday we headed to the West, to Shibuya, Harakuju and Shinjuku, to see the famed fashionable areas which have a good mix of both big name brands plastered all over the buildings in neon and very alternative, counterculture shops if you get off the main streets.

Shopping is big here and some of the shops (mostly the 'underground' shops) are so popular that there are queues just to enter. People wait in line outside sipping on McDonald's milkshakes waiting to get into their favourite place to buy the weird and wonderful.

This area is famed for the huge crossroads where the people flow like ants across the street in a huge wave of bodies and then, just as suddenly it stops and the traffic resumes. It's a strange sight to see so many people synchronised like this. Interspersed between the shops are many little galleries for art, hand-made jewelery and clothes. My host makes bags made form vintage kimono fabric (I'm quite happy to advertise these as they are really very good indeed, they would make superb presents. The prices look high but many of the fabrics used are over 100 years old). We popped into a few places selling whole kimonos and pieces of old fabric, some of which are hugely expensive, just for a small patch of design. A paradise for anyone wanting to make their own clothes.
The Omotesando shopping complex:
Omotesando shopping centre
The design Festa art space:
contrasting with the Audi building:
Audi building - Shibuya
The main attraction of coming to this area (if you're not much of a shopper, like myself) is to simply people watch. Dressing up is big here, and I don't mean simply taking care of your appearance. There are several very distinct styles readily apparent as you walk around the streets here. This is most visible with the women, but some of the men fit into distinct categories of counterculture.

The shopping area is mostly noted for the gyarus. Girls with a dark artificial tan, towering heels and bleached or coloured hair. On the way to Yoyoji park we passed a group of gyarus practicing their dance moves in the street, possibly ready for a competition. You can't see here but usually they have white makeup around their eyes giving them a startled panda look.
Dancing ganguros
Regular gyarus are perhaps the most un-extreme of all the subcultures, though the ganguros are more to the panda end of the spectrum.

A lot of the styles are derived from Manga and the Harajuku bridge is mostly populated with cosplayers who dress in clothes to look like Manga characters. Unfortunately it seems that they take the day off on Saturday, so I didn't see so many of them and got fewer photos. However, Flickr has lots of images of some of the interesting costumes and makeup which go on display on the bridge. Some of the most startling cosplayers I've seen are: The blue bride, Tatsurou, Ninja, and these girls in black.

It seems that some of the locals are not cosplayers but simply like to come and dress up in their own style. Also available on the bridge are free hugs, though there didn't seem to be many takers.

Near Harajuku is Yoyogi park where there was some Samba going on which we sat and watched having been on our feet for a few hours. I'm told that the woman on the right is a famous actress, but I haven't pinned down a name yet.
Samba in Yoyogi park, Tokyo
Samba in the park by Harajuku - Tokyo
After dinner (number 1) in a conveyor belt sushi restaurant we headed to the East side of the city where Chi works in a bar. I wandered off and had a look around the local temples, which were closed by that time but the grounds were open and wonderfully quiet after the hectic crowds in the West.

I headed back to the bar, expecting to have a quick drink before going back to the flat and at this point the trouble started. It was a small bar and there were a few businessmen in, each with a bottle of shochu in front of them, gradually being consumed with green tea. It didn't take long to start talking with them. First there was a test of my Chinese character skills to see if I could read their names in Kanji, then there was the explanation of what I'm doing in Japan which resulted in a short explanation of electrons in metals and the electrician in the group literally jumping up and down with excitement as his job suddenly, apparently became clear (this has more to do with shochu than my skills at explaining atomic bonds). I was sitting happily chatting with, um, everyone in the bar, nursing my one pint that I felt I could afford and trying to keep four conversations going at once when the first drink arrived in front of me from the ship salesman to my side.

Unfortunately it seemed that if one of them was going to buy me a drink, the others would look bad if they didn't join in and so, inevitably I got through a fair number of the consumables in the bar, including several plates of the not inconsiderably portioned snack-food - mostly of the raw meat variety.

At one point I was being asked about my thoughts on Japanese life and culture and I mentioned mono no aware, which I know of only from reading about Japanese cinema. The bar became hushed, everyone looked at each other, rather confused and then shouts and cheers as I realised I'd pushed just the right button. I guess that the knowledge of this concept was enough to get me into 'the club' and the generosity only increased from this point on.

Somehow 1 o'clock rolled around, I was still relatively stable and had acquired a rather nice leather passport holder at some point. I was asked if I liked Korean food , I confirmed and we headed to dinner (number 2) a little way down the street. Dish after dish piled up as we got through a huge Korean barbecue. I'm pretty sure that conversation, though still extremely enthusiastic, had diminished in its fluency and for some reason French and Chinese dominated linguistically on and off.

Leaving the restaurant there were five of us, though we quickly lost one who fell asleep on the pavement. The fact that one of them had just bought me a very nice dinner left the other one looking bad, so a Japanese dinner was then offered. In another favourite restaurant of theirs, dinner number 3 arrived in the form of a large plate of sushi. I was truly stuffed but to turn this down would have been very insulting. It was great sushi but I probably didn't appreciate it as much as I should have!

Anyway, by 4 am after three dinners the others seemed to have forgotten how to get home if not which way was up. The group dispersed and I have to presume that the others made it back intact.

Sunday was not a lot of fun. Taking my luggage on the Tokyo underground with a stonking hangover and a belly fit to burst was not a pleasant experience. After a good sleep and a bite to eat I was a good 30% on my way to recovery and today (this post has taken a day to write) I'm 95% back to 'normal'.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Tokyo story

I haven't been able to post for a few days, partly because I've been too busy, but mostly because Blogger blocked this site using its clever spam-prevention tool. Apparently my blog has all the hallmarks of being written by a spamming robot - not impressed.

This has to be a quick post but I wanted to update on my current whereabouts. In fact my exact whereabouts are in the flat in which I've just couchsurfed, but more of that soon.

On Wednesday I lugged my now considerable quantity of luggage (including whiskey, wine, many books and a fishing rod - don't ask) on the shinkansen to head to Tokyo. The Shinkansen is a joy to ride, covering the 500 km in about two and a half hours. The journey was smooth and almost silent, save for an orchestral man sitting, sleeping two seats away.

So, I'm now at Tokyo University which has a rather beautiful campus here at Hongo, not far from Tokyo central station. I'm meeting with Professor Imamura to discuss some work I've been doing and will be presenting a talk tomorrow (Friday). The string theory group here is large and experienced and so my talk has to be adjusted from the seminar I've been giving for the last few months (not that I haven't been talking to experienced groups, but that the ratio of string theorists to non-string theorists is much higher here). I gave this talk on Monday in Kyoto and got a lot of good questions and I expect more tomorrow. Should be fun.

I'll try and post some more over the next couple of days but things are busy.

For now, here are a couple of photos from the train. Fuji was as stunning as last time I saw it, a year ago, but this time covered in a layer of cloud.
Mount Fuji
And the food on the train is somewhat better than that found at most British stations. There's a great deal to be learnt from the service industry in Japan.
Bento lunchbox

OK, more to post soon, including the weekly world-in-blogs summary. Though I'm staying in a flat in Kiba at the moment I will be moving to Ochanomizu University on Sunday for a week or so and should be able to catch up a little on Sunday evening.