Thursday, May 31, 2007

KITPC opening II

(Continued from here)

So, the KITPC is open, on time, remarkably, after only a year and a half of the idea being mooted. The six story building has been formally opened, lectures have been held, students are seen buzzing around, the blackboards are full of musings and equations and though the smell of coffee hasn't yet infused the walls, I'm sure that's only a matter of time.

The opening ceremony was held in one of the grand rooms of the Great Hall of the People. Fred Kavli himself came along and gave a rousing speech, discussing his long term dream to be able to add to the sum total of humanity and indeed with 14 institutes set up around the world allowing for the cultivation and exchange of ideas and theories on both the most theoretical and applied ideas in the sciences, it seems that his dreams are being fulfilled. He spoke of his high esteem for the Chinese, both culturally and from an academic standpoint. At 80 years old, he walks tall and speaks powerfully on a topic which has clearly driven him to do great things, both financially and in parallel philanthropically.

A short extract from Wikipedia:

Already in his early teens while attending Firda Landsgymnas high school in Sandane this entrepreneur had visions of doing something for the good of humanity. A deeply philosophical person he is influenced by his high school studies of Nietzsche, Kant, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner and Dostoyevsky.

At 14 together with his brother Aslak he began his first enterprise creating wood pellet fuel for cars. During these early years during the Second World War and the Nazi occupation of Norway he experienced dramatic incidents. Due to the lack of fuel he would regularly steal fuel and lubricants from the enemy. Only luck saved him and his brother when they were observed by a German airplane patrol while smuggling weapons to relatives in the mountains.

The following speakers talked not only about the great efforts which have gone into creating the KITPC but also of the future efforts which will be necessary in order to place the institute as a true, international centre for excellence.

Michael Freedman
gave a talk entitled 'How topology will save Moore's law'. This was on the topic of quantum computation and in particular how one can study two-dimensional systems of interacting electrons, the topological states of which can be manipulated to give 'natural' quantum computers. If you get a chance to see Michael speak, this is a good advanced public level lecture and his musings on artificial intelligence emerging from a quantum system are interesting, if not terribly well-founded. Note that this is not the strong conjecture of consciousness emerging from quantum mechanics in the brain (a la Penrose). My uncle, sister and friend came along and with a psychology and two mathematics degrees between them agreed that they understood a lot more than they had expected to.

Around 11 we left the Great Hall of the People and headed into the furnace outside. We knew that it was hot, but hadn't realised that it was the hottest day in Beijing for over 50 years - 39 degrees in Tiananmen. I spent the next few hours going around Qianmen market nearby with my family, dodging in and out of the shadows and haggling for gifts to take back home.

I didn't have a chance to see the lectures which resumed on Saturday afternoon in the KITPC. The two day conference on frontiers in physics included talks on extra-planetary life, string cosmology, quantum computing, laser powered particle acceleration and much more.

The Powerpoint files can be found here and videos should follow.

Now the first of the programs, 'quantum phases of matter' is starting officially tomorrow and I will try and give an update when video files start to be uploaded.

Again, I urge people to come along to these programs and please contact me if you have any questions about coming to China.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Testing the waters

The police arrived within perhaps 5 seconds of us getting the large, multicoloured parachute out in the middle of Tiananmen square. I had warned Phill that perhaps the authorities wouldn't view parachute games in the same way that he did and sadly, on this occasion, my guess was right.

Having spontaneously organised two large crowds to play games on the Great Wall and a couple of classes at a local primary school to spend an hour or so having a lot of fun, meant that taking the props cross-continent had been worthwhile. Tiananmen would simply have been the icing on the cake. The puppets (Susan the tarantula, Blodwyn the rather amorous orangutan from the Welsh valleys and Barbara the sheep) came along almost wherever we went and were met with a huge range of amusing reactions, from shock and incomprehension to laughs and smiles, they did at least seem to placate the policemen at Tiananmen.

Sadly I don't have photos of the all too brief appearance of the parachute on the square, though there is evidence of the Great Wall games. A few here and many more, including more Dashanzi on here.
Making friends 3
Susan 2
Susan 4

More photos to come...

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

KITPC opening

Photos from the opening ceremony of the KITPC at the Great Hall of the People. Amongst others there were speeches from Fred Kavli, David Gross, Shing-Tung Yau and Michael Freedman. The first photo is of the KITPC itself. A post with more content is in preparation.


I've just returned from a photo shoot, which I will explain at some point soon. My family is still here so I'm trying to cram in as much work as possible in the hours available. Hopefully things will ease up around the weekend and I can start to fill in a few blanks.

For now, the widget to the left called 'blog posts and news of note' is a link to my Google Reader which allows me to share stories which I believe to be noteworthy at the click of a button. This can be placed as a widget into any blog by copying a few lines of code. Ironically, anyone who reads this blog through a feed reader will not be able to see this widget.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

On the move

I have my sister and uncle out here in Beijing at the moment (complete with puppets and parachutes - photos may follow) which means that I'm working in the day and seeing them in the evenings, hence no extended blogging time. Beijing has opened its skies today and the plans to see the Forbidden City have probably been washed away.

Last weekend was very enjoyable, meeting up with fellow blogger, Michael, to celebrate the release of his book 'The Pisco Kid' - sounds intriguing. We dined at Houhai which is a lovely area to come on a summer evening and steal a relaxed few hours.

A couple of photos from the weekend, but that's all I have time for now - work to be finishing.

Houhai lake, click to zoom in larger:
Houhai Panorama
The Houhai hutongs:
Houhai hutong 3
and this photo of Vela as she was pensively staring out of the window in between English lessons:
Distant memories
Lots more on the photo site...

Thursday, May 17, 2007


Chaoyangmen as taken a couple of weeks back:
Click to view the full image. Panorama created with ArcSoft Panorama Maker 4, by far the best software I've found so far.

The blogroll in the left column has finally been updated to reflect most of my Google Reader content.

The Criteo blogroll to the left is currently underwhelming me with the content that it's providing. As I wrote a few posts back, this tracks which blogs readers of this blog also read, though it can only track blogs with the criteo tracker installed. It's going to take more time and more people to install this for anything useful to come of it and it seems that people are being put off too soon to really see any benefit. I'm going to give it 6 months and see what happens.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


Five months to go here in Beijing, and that thought makes me rather sad. Perhaps just two months ago I would have said that I thought it was the right time to be moving on. My plans are still firmly set and I am very much looking forward to making my way to Galicia to experience a new culture, pick up a new language and work in a different environment.

So, what has changed in the last couple of months? Nothing of any discrete alteration, just a gradual change which means that I feel more and more at home here and the comfortable, easy life of both a physicist doing what he loves and an expat living a semi-expat life makes for a fine existence. I still get an itch every few months and Beijing just gets a bit too much, the shouting, the spitting, the pushing and the pollution can get you down when you're feeling edgy or vulnerable, but I've been lucky to be able to escape, if only for a day on such occasions.

Now summer is here and Beijing becomes an altogether different beast. The chilled edge of winter cutting through to your core has vanished and this makes life infinitely easier. If only to be replaced by hungry mozzies and hot nights, I much prefer the latter.

One thing that has definitely changed is, as is so often the case, a matter of the language. On arrival in Beijing I knew perhaps 100 words and could use just a fraction with any comfort. One of the hardest things to understand was people's attitude to becoming my friend. I've had the same reaction from every expat I've met who arrived in China with a similarly small Chinese vocabulary.

I met many people in the first few months here who I would chat with for a few minutes or perhaps a few hours, on the street, in a bar or cafe or a friend's friend. On many occasions they would hook onto me as a best friend, and this frequently felt uncomfortable. Sadly it often felt like they wanted to be my friend because either I spoke good English and could help them, or they wanted to know about English culture, or they wanted me to help them to get a job. Of course this was not always the case and there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to know somebody for these reasons. It just felt uncomfortable and I found myself making promises to ring people or go to dinner with people and never did. I still feel bad about that and I also feel bad because there were genuinely interesting individuals who got bundled into the same mass of mobile numbers and name cards.

What has changed is unexpected but a real pleasure. At first I met people who were interested in me because I could speak English, I was rather unusual and almost like a new toy (part of this may be tied in with the one child policy but I'm not sure how speculative that guess is). As of the last few weeks I've started bumping into people in various situations and have spoken Chinese with them. Although it's bad, broken Chinese and about fairly basic subjects, the smile that I'm received with for being an expat who has made an effort and is interested in the people and culture is a very different smile from that which greets the expat who can help with English practice.

When I was taking photos of the strange metallic sculpture I posted last week I met another photographer there, from Anhui province, in the East of China. I told him I thought the sculpture was beautiful and and interesting piece to have on the street and we started talking about our backgrounds and life in our home towns. We must have spoken for half an hour, but it felt like a true two-way exchange, and I left feeling elated by having met an interesting person on the same level that I would in an English speaking country.

This has happened a few times now, on the street, in taxis and bars and it seems, naturally, that the warmth of the welcome to a foreigner who can speak the language is far greater than I had known before.

As I say I have several, though not a great many, Chinese friends and those in the department who I've got to know, I do not put in the same category as those who have latched onto me in the past after a few minutes of talking English. I would still like to build stronger friendships with those in the department.

Anyway, that, I'm sure is a great part of my increased comfort of living here. When I return to see my friends they should not expect me to be speaking fluent Chinese but simply enough to get by and have a basic chat with a stranger.

Of course I'm going to miss the food greatly, anyone who has read more than a few posts of this blog will know that it's a great obsession of mine, but I hear that the food in Santiago is excellent too and I shall continue to explore whatever I can get my hands on. (See here for a rather fuzzy photo of the Hunan bee pupae and bamboo worms I had last week - pretty tasty!)

The mix of Western and Eastern culture in the arts also makes for a fascinating time out here and a trip last week to see the first 3 hours or so of the Kunqu opera, The Peony Pavilion was in stark contrast to the experimental electronica, Chinese punk and techno which I'd seen throughout the previous week. It doesn't have quite the finesse and simplicity which so attracts me to Kabuki but the movement, the poetry of the lyrics (translated very well on subtitle screens) and the exuberant colours of the costumes make it a fascinating art form.
Peony pavilion 2
Peony pavilion
The voices are not easy for most Westerners but I find it substantially better than the Beijing opera, three hours of which would definitely be too much.

Anyway, a few reflections on recent changes. I would really recommend any expat who comes out here for any length of time to make as much of an effort with the language as possible. You will have a great time out here without any Chinese but you will love the place if you can truly integrate. I just wish I had learned this sooner and had more time to put these lessons into practice.

Not set in stone

Many thanks to Toomanytribbles. My previous nominations can be found in this post and are all well worth a visit.

While I'm in a mildly gloaty mood I should say a) that scientists who are also photographers or vice versa should join the 'scientist photographer' group on Flickr for a bit of fun and b) My picture was chosen last week in the weekly competition, the topic being 'Memories due to concrete'.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

More on the KITPC

The two day opening ceremony for the KITPC is coming up in a little over a week. After the official opening at the Great Hall of the People (with talks from Fred Kavli amongst others) there will be two days of lectures at the KITPC from many highly eminent scientists. The morning of the 26th will see a public lecture given by Michael Freedman, winner of the Fields medal for his part in the solution of the Poincare conjecture. Title:

'How Topology will save Moore's law' - Some thoughts on the human condition expressed through the history of the concept of "number." This concept carries us finally into the interface of topology, quantum mechanics, and computer science.

After this there will be lectures on subjects from quantum information, the search for habitable planets, laser technology, dark matter, the origin of the universe (from Henry Tye) to the future of physics, both worldwide and in China.

The closing speech will be by David Gross on Sunday the 27th. I'll report on what I get a chance to go to. I'll try and get some photos of the building too to give those who are thinking of coming to the future meetings a bit more of an idea about the place.

Turing universality prize from Wolfram

Not quite the big bucks of the Millenium prizes, but a nice $25,000 for proving that an exceedingly simple Turing machine (an abstract symbol manipulations device) discovered by Stephan Wolfram is in fact a Universal Turing machine (A Turing machine which can simulate any other Turing machine, and therefore any computer program, which generally have much more complex rules).

The contest is to show that a particular two state, three colour Turing machine is universal.

This comes from the newly created Wolfram blog. See here for details about the competition, more about Turing machines, and more about this particular, incredibly simple algorithm.

[Thanks to Blake Stacey for pointing out the typo in the above. Indeed the Universality of the 2,5 Turing machine had been proved already, by Matthew Cook]

Monday, May 14, 2007

New Toys

Having spent all of last week preparing for my big talk on Friday and most of the week before away from the office, it's only now that I plunge back into my projects. I've managed to cut the ones that I'm working on reasonably full time to just three and have shelved a couple for now. It feels a little more manageable but still a juggling act.

The talk was enjoyable though rather tiring. At two and a half hours it was a great chance to go into some of the details which I usually have to leave out of a talk. As always lots of good questions although I fear that the students who were not versed in AdS/CFT were a little lost.

Last week we also had a talk on unparticle physics which is taking off, as expected. As a phenomologist friend of mine pointed out, it seems strange that people are using this model which is so little understood and may have so many possibilities to start studying precision physics. Georgi's paper which talks about distributions of missing energy from a generic unparticle physics model seems a long way away from corrections to g-2 of the muon or B-Bbar mixing. Still it's interesting to watch a new subject develop and I'm sure there are surprises to come.

Anyway, with little time to blog recently it's all been adding up. I'll randomly update on recent events as I have spare moments. The big news from this weekend was that I finally picked up my camera, a 10.1 Megapixel Canon 400D (Digital Rebel XTi) SLR with a 17-85mm Canon Lens. Suffice it to say that I am both hugely excited about having a new toy and overwhelmed by what it can do.

I've been spending a bit of time over the last few weeks reading up about digital SLR photography and techniques with this particular camera and so it felt remarkably comfortable playing with it once I'd set it up. That's not to say that the shots are great by any means yet, but I can see what it's going to be capable of. Though my point and click is just 3.1 Megapixels I've had it long enough to know both its limitations and what it's good at and so have managed to get some pleasing results from it over the last 3 years. With the new baby it's clear that it's much easier to get a bad shot (unless you're on fully automatic) but the possibilities of getting a superb photo rather than just a mediocre one are also vastly improved.

I spent Sunday afternoon and evening walking around the old Summer Palace (Yuan Ming Yuan) which was destroyed by the British and the French around 150 years ago - a particularly embarrassing period. Though the buildings are all almost entirely destroyed, the lakes are still beautiful to walk around and the place is a lot more peaceful, tourist-wise than the new Summer Palace. Yuan Ming Yuan is just by the West Gate of Tsinghua university, so you can do both in a long afternoon. There's also the famous West Gate barbecue restaurant where you can stuff yourself with chicken wings, chicken hearts and lamb kebabs, while sitting with a hundred others on plastic chairs by the pavement drinking cheap beer and breathing in the car fumes. I give it a bad image but this is a truly enjoyable part of Beijing life - the casual streetside eateries where summer nights are easily lost.

Anyway, of the 350 shots I took yesterday there were a few which show some of the nice bits of Tsinghua university:
Tsinghua waterfall 1
Tsinghua peakock
and Yuan Ming Yuan:
Yuan Ming Yuan reflections 2
Yuan Ming Yuan sunset
There's clearly a lot still to learn about the camera but I'm currently having a great time finding out.

Pandora restricted

A sad day indeed when a site has become restricted for us, not because of the Great Firewall of China but because of new licensing laws implemented in the US. Pandora is down for all of us outside the States, as I found today when trying to access the site:

Dear Pandora Visitor,

We are deeply, deeply sorry to say that due to licensing constraints, we can no longer allow access to Pandora for most listeners located outside of the U.S. We will continue to work diligently to realize the vision of a truly global Pandora, but for the time being we are required to restrict its use. We are very sad to have to do this, but there is no other alternative.

(Thanks to Piskokid whose site I just came across and found the above information)

Thursday, May 10, 2007


I'm still here, just. Have been preparing to give a three hour talk tomorrow morning. Today was the first of two days of a workshop on AdS/CFT with just four speakers. I don't know what the first two said, as it was all Chinese to me. My talk 3(\pm 3) paths from AdS to QCD may or may not be pitched at a suitable level but whatever happens I'm sure to be exhausted afterwards. Will report when I've recovered.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Back to the fray

The end of an eventful and enjoyable holiday and we rush headlong back to work. I've been thinking more about my overall views on life in China and the fact that I have less than 5 months left here. I'm going to be really sorry to leave the place and will certainly come back in the future. I can't see myself living out here forever at any point but somehow a two week trip here or there doesn't feel like it can do justice to any small part of China. Anyway, I'll write more when I have a spare moment.

I'm giving 3 hours of talks on Friday morning at a workshop that I know next to nothing about. I know neither the title nor the exact location or, most importantly, the range of people I will be lecturing to. I know there will be 3 hours on AdS/CFT the day before so I can try and simply build on this.

Anyway, more to write before Friday but I wanted to post a few photos from the last few days.

I took these photos in Haidian district of a new piece of sculpture that looked stunning on this wonderfully blue-skied day.
Splash 3
Making a splash
Making a splash 2
and these are taken in Chaoyangmen of a new building going up at the moment
Chaoyangmen 3
Chaoyangmen 2
More here.

I went camera shopping yesterday at the largest professional DSLR market in China. I'm getting my new camera next Saturday and will reveal details then. Needless to say, I'm very excited about having a new toy.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Auto blog-rolling

There's a new toy to the left of the blog which I'm giving a test-drive. I was contacted by Criteo to see if I would like to use this product which they've developed for blogs.

The information they gave me on this auto blog-rolling tool is:

What's it all about?

AutoRoll is the blogroll of your readers. It's a widget that displays links to the blogs that your readers are visiting the most often.

How does it work?
We trace the number of visits of each unique reader on each blog that has installed AutoRoll. The more often a reader visits a specific blog, the greater his affinity is with this blog.

What are the benefits for you?
First of all, you will provide your readers with a very entertaining blogroll since it's based on other readers with similar reading habits. Moreover, you will attract highly qualified incoming traffic to your blog. Indeed, as other similar blogs display your blog on their AutoRoll, they will feed you with new readers that have a strong affinity for your blog.

Sounds clever so I'll see if it's useful. I guess it will take some time to collect data about the readers of this blog.

Midi take two

The Midi festival is one of China's greatest music events, pulling in local and International talent alike. For four days Beijing's Haidian park is filled with tens of thousands of music fans excited as the scene explodes in so many directions. Punks, goths, rockers, emo fans, hip-hop junkies and techno heads get together to dance and jump to their rythm of choice. I hadn't expected to see either heavy metal or contemporary art as big things here before I got to China but in all their rebelliousness they are, at least from the outside, thriving - I'm not enough 'in the scene' to know what is and isn't allowed.

Anyway, I have to admit that though I enjoy the local music scene here I don't go to Midi for the music, but for the atmosphere and the diversity of people there. Yesterday was a perfectly sunny day with temperatures around 30 and necks and backs crisping up nicely. I was caked in enough sun block to keep me going completely pink.

So, we sat around, saw a few bands, wondered the parks watching people sat reading in the sun. A few snaps from the day:

My personal favourite, as the sun was setting:
Midi festival cameraman
Skateboarders doing what skateboarders seem to do best - falling over:
Midi skateboarding
Rockers rocking:
Midi rockers
Punks punking:
Midi punks 7
Another silhouette:
Midi halo
and all manner of crazy hair on display:
Midi hair 1
Post festival we celebrated the holiday with a night of Korean soju, rather like sake and far too easy to drink! Some didn't relish the bright sunshine the next day but I seem to have escaped lightly.

Tomorrow I have to get back to work though it will be relaxed, in a cafe which is certainly my favourite way of working.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Noodly fun

The one week May Day holiday starts today here in China though many people will be firmly seated in the department. I'll have to spend some time there this week getting my talk ready for the upcoming workshop at Beijing university.

Yesterday I went with a few friends to one of the best Sichuan hotpot restaurants in the area and had a fine feast of all the usual suspects one finds in the ma-la (numbing and spicy) sauce. It's always rather disconcerting to have the huang na ding fish, which is so freshly killed that it has to be held under the boiling oil for a few seconds to prevent the thrashing around from splashing the diners.

This particular restaurant has hand-made noodles, pulled to entertain the crowds. Take a peek at the video I took yesterday evening.

A Sichuan hotpot restaurant is traditionally loud and crowded with a frenetic atmosphere, waiters speeding about balancing trays piled high with ingredients to boil in the soup in front of you and a steady stream of baijiu (white spirits) flowing to keep the guests relaxed. Downstairs diners waited while playing mahjong and poker, relaxing with cups of tea before they were rushed to their tables.


Today is the (sixth) return of the Midi festival which was a lot of fun last year and a great place to take some snaps. The four day event is brining all the local talent out as well as around 20 international bands. Along with Goldie making an appearance in Beijing next week and my first real experience of Chinese theatre on the 11th it's looking like a fun start to the month.

Temperatures are now climbing to the low thirties having only just risen above freezing a month or so ago. We seem to have escaped the sandstorms which plagued much of North Eastern China last year though my flat still picks up a good heap of dirt if I keep the windows open for any length of time.

If you're worried about traveling for the May day holiday where you are, just remember that there will be almost 100 million Chinese travelling around the country here over the next week. The lines outside all travel agents are monstrous and, until they all get out of the city the roads are in gridlock. Happy May Day, everyone!