Wednesday, January 31, 2007

On video lecture resources

Spurred on by An American Physics Student in England (who writes much more eloquently on the subject than I will) and Asymptotia's follow up I've been spending a couple of hours each evening back at the guest house winding down with videos of theory seminars from various graduate summer programs - With a Chinese budget, going out on the town is not on the cards, though I've spent a few pleasant evenings in local cafes. Anyway, I thought I'd talk about these video lectures in general and try and add to the original voice and push to make this more widespread.

Learning theoretical physics is hard - it takes time and effort in equally large helpings. There's so much of it that it's easy to be distracted by a million questions and one could spend years following leads from one confusing point to another. It's clearly very complicated though with practice and time the confusion clears and the mass of formulae converge into a meaningful whole. Sometimes books and people explain things in such different ways that it's hard to see that they're talking about the same thing. Often this can be beneficial however because you build a more structured picture of the given subject - physics for cubists perhaps.

Before I say anything about sitting back and watching videos I should stress that the only way you will learn to use the tools of quantum field theory, string theory, advanced areas of mathematics and the like or indeed far simpler topics in maths and physics is not just to read the hundreds of books on the subjects but to do it.

Many people claim that they don't give advice. This is all very humble but those with experience have been through the system and seen what pitfalls lie in wait. I am keen to hear advice from anyone who has been there and done it, however subjective it may be.

Though I'm not that far from being a graduate myself I think that my memories are fresh enough to provide my tuppence worth on the subject.

I think that the following is one of the most important points to stress to first year graduate students: Now is perhaps the only time that you will have the luxury to be able to sit down and go through all the problems in a book. Do it! Do every problem you can get your hands on. Don't just look at the problems and think if you can do them (though of course thinking about problems abstractly is a useful skill) but write out the indices, dot your alphas and make sure your factors of two are right. This will be obvious to most I'm sure but it's so easy to fall into lazy habits of simply reading books in a comfy chair with a cup of coffee. My opinion is that daydreaming is also an integral part of consolidating understanding in these subjects but in general it won't solve the nitty gritty of calculations.

In my first year I tried to take this approach of going through problems but probably not in a very organised way. I had pieces of paper flying all over the place and ideally I should have ended up with neat notebooks full of the correct solutions which I could easily look back on if I need to do a similar problem in the future.

After this, when you start doing research you (or at least I) won't have time to devote to spending several months going through a book. Currently I do spend a lot of time reading papers and books on various subjects but this is often piecemeal and is on top of pursuing research problems. I usually have to devote evenings and weekends to the former and it's frequently interrupted by the latter.

So, do it, speak to people who've been there and find out what books they found useful and go from beginning to end. If it's an appropriate book you will learn how to solve real research problems for yourself. If you don't do the problems and work through the examples then you will probably be able to sit through a seminar on the subject and know what's going on but you wouldn't have been able to get there yourself.

OK, that said lectures are vital because they give the interaction between student and expert. It means you can follow the thought patterns of someone in the trade and you can ask the questions you can't pose to a book, this is pretty obvious. On top of this if the lecturer is good they will take you at an appropriate pace through a subject. As all good books on learning techniques will stress, stimulating different areas of the brain during learning is a good way to memorize things and so using both the auditory as well as visual inputs will surely be beneficial. I wonder if because our brains have evolved since the advent of language if we're better at learning through speech than through the relatively recent addition of the written word.

Still useful but without the benefit of interaction is to watch the lectures on video which is what I've been doing for a couple of hours each evening. I probably haven't learnt how to solve any of my research problems from them but they've taught me new ways to see things and given me motivation to go and look stuff up in books. Institutes are slowly but surely videoing lectures and making them available to the public. I would urge all institutes to do this. It's a waste not to. There are some wonderful lecturers out there and for something that costs so little, so many people could benefit. This is a treasure trove of resources waiting to be utilised.

As an addition I would hope that at some time there can be a real central repository rather than hundreds of sites dotted round the place with small catalogues of lectures. Spires has a search function for videos but they're not all there. Perhaps it would be possible to include a comment or voting section. I'm sure there are hundreds of courses around the world on QFT but if through time people gravitate towards a particular set of lecturers that's even better for newcomers who don't want to search through all the others.

The lectures I've been watching have mostly been of a relatively basic level but I've learnt things from each one and spent a long time following up leads on the web and in the Yukawa Institute library. If nothing else it's a great chance to sit back at leisure and contrast what makes a good and bad lecturer (though almost all of them have been great) and get a few tips.

Most of the lectures from the ASTI summer school are excellent, ranging from true pop-science level to some reasonably technical first year graduate material. Don't be put off by the fact that occasionally the audio and visual get out of synch, this simply adds to the different ways your brain is having to function and makes the learning experience richer ;-). Lectures from Tony Zee on beginner's QFT, Clifford Johnson on strings and branes, Jeff Murugan on solitons (great but the synch is testing), James Gates on supersymmetry, Don Marolf on black holes and Robert de Mello Koch on the fundamentals of group theory are particularly recommended, though there are many that I still haven't seen. (See below for some hints on downloading these).

The lectures from the PITP school aren't quite so clear but there's still a great range of courses (mostly four lectures each) from the basics of string theory by Richard Szabo and the AdS/CFT correspondence by Mark Van Raamsdonk to slightly more technical lectures by Leonard Susskind on de Sitter space (really not very clear visuals at all).

From the Perimeter institute is another fantastic resource though unfortunately I've not found a way to download them (only viewable as far as I can tell in Internet Explorer). The summer school on strings, gravity and cosmology has extensive introductory lectures.

Serkan Cabi has a long list of pages with videos online and I've spent a long time searching through for the most appropriate. Many of them are streaming but if you want to download them there are programs out there that allow you to do this. In particular I've been using a program called Hidownload which is free for something like two months. For the ASTI lectures the link seemed to break easily and I found a program called DAP which allows resumption of downloads meant that I could go away and over a long time the lectures would end up in one piece on my computer.

Anyway, I hope that's of use. In particular if anyone has the knowhow, energy or power to get a real central repository or search engine which enables comments I think it would be very beneficial. Bottom line - don't waste lectures. Make them as freely available as possible.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Minimal ado

The opportunity to get steady work done here is just too great and though there are a few other things that I hope to talk about briefly, a full description of Saturday's tour will take too long if I want to include all the photos. Consequently I've set up a Flickr site which has a few of the highlights of the tour (some of which include me looking both slightly awkward and very awkward - enjoy). The titles are working titles and I hope to give some more explanation when possible.

In summary I spent about five hours walking around the stunning temples in the foothills of the Eastern area of Kyoto, close to Gion ending up at the famous Kiyomizu temple - nominated to be one of the new Seven wonders of the world. It is a beautiful setting but if you want to see it in its full glory I've no doubt that the Spring cherry blossom season and Autumn maple seasons are the peak time.


If I have time I'll be back to talk a little bit of food and a little bit of physics, in no particular order.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Temple hopping

Blogger is really playing up at the moment so I'll give this weekend's adventures in installments if possible.


It's difficult to think of Kyoto as a city most of the time, indeed even as the former capital of Japan and a place where many bloody battles were fought between the samurai, most areas just feel too peaceful to give it city status.

As I mentioned previously the view from my guest house room over the local streets is a typically classical Japanese scene.

and from my office the view is a rather distracting one

I seem to be spending most of my time staring at the clouds puzzling over brane interactions. I'm counting on it being written in the sky.

Though I've got a few weeks here I headed the way all tourists in Kyoto must and on Saturday I went wandering through a few of the 400 temples. Kyoto is networked by a very easy bus system so getting anywhere is pretty trivial. All stops are announced on both the speakers and the display at the front in English. I headed to Gion, the area famous for the Geisha (though I hear there are less than 100 true Geisha left) and really the heart of the city and went towards the closest temple to hand.
Fortuitously there was a wedding going on at the time in an open-walled building and with chanting and incense burning all around it was a stark contrast to the busy shopping street outside. That said there are enough tourists (mostly Japanese) in most of the temples to make it all seem pretty busy. The power of the gardens and temple buildings are that even with the throng of onlookers they still feel stunningly peaceful places.
A recently married couple (I presume) were also in the area having their photos taken.
This monk was one of the overseers of the ceremony.

End of installment 1, blogger doesn't want to comply today.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Strange Fruit

Taking time away from work isn't easy here. The institute is extremely conducive to steady concentration which is wonderful but it does mean I probably haven't been taking it as easy as I should have while I'm on the road to full recovery from the flu. Still, with long hours in the office followed by a five minute stroll to the guest house, there's not much to do there except read and continue with the work. No TV, currently no other guests and no internet makes for complete peace!

About the only distraction is the stunning view from my office window with the green mountains, the red trees and the almost constantly changing sky.

Photos don't seem to be uploading to blogger at the moment so they will have to wait.

I've seen more talks in the first four days here than I normally would in a month at the ITP. The Yukawa institute is unusual in its international feel, with many foreign visitors and postdocs.

On Wednesday we had a great talk from Frank Wilczek. He spoke about the high pressure, low temperature phase of QCD, which is the condition found at the centre of neutron stars (low temperature here is not in the astrophysical sense, but on the scale of the QCD phase diagram). In this region the phase is said to be colour superconducting and one can perform a weak coupling expansion using BCS theory and find the spectrum of states.

In particular in this phase there is a diquark condensate formed which induces colour-flavour locking and the SU(3) colour symmetry along with the left and right flavour symmetries are broken to the diagonal subgroup of the colour and flavour symmetry. The condensate which is formed has non-zero electromagnetic charge but only a particular combination of the electromagnetic U(1) with the SU(3) colour symmetry remains unbroken, meaning that the asymptotic states of the theory are integrally charged under the new U(1).

The asymptotic states of the theory are found to be single quarks, gluon bilinear pairs and goldstone modes. Though this looks rather different from the non-extreme phase of QCD it turns out that the quantum numbers of these states in the basis chosen by the particular symmetry breaking pattern are exactly the same as in normal QCD: an octet of baryons, an octet of mesons and an octet of pseudo goldstone bosons.

It is found by studying the fermi surface from the point of view of colour superconductivity that the numbers of u,d and s quarks are equal and because of the equality of the number of quarks in this phase, the whole is electrically neutral, meaning that there is no sea of electrons to counter the positive charge that one would have in ordinary quark matter (just u and d quarks with a quark bilinear condensate). Photons (of the unbroken U(1)) are neither absorbed nor reflected, meaning that though the particle density is very high, the substance is also transparent. This has been compared to a very high pressure diamond and it's thought that in the centre of neutron stars may reside a huge diamond like phase (though the edge of this region will merge with the low density region on the outside of the neutron star complicating astrophysical comparison with the weak coupling expansion from the theory).

(See here for a review of the subject, though this doesn't contain the more recent diquark studies of baryon spectra)

It's fascinating to see that there are places in the universe where not only such strange matter may reside but that we can make predictions about it from our knowledge of QCD. Frank mentioned that once we get measurements from gravitational wave detectors (and here) to high enough precision we will be able to make measurements of coalescing neutron stars which we can test against the predictions from the above theory. Exciting stuff indeed. There have been some nice articles detailing quite how unbelievable the gravitational wave detectors are. As an example of how difficult these machines are to construct and use, in order to make a measurement of a gravitational wave it is necessary to measure the changes in the length of a beam several kilometers long which will be on the scale of one hundred millionth the diameter of a hydrogen atom. It's been said before but this is simply preposterous!

(It's very likely that I've misunderstood some of the statements made in the talk so if anybody knows that I've made mistakes, please do correct me. Unfortunately the current valuable research time means that I haven't had a proper chance to read up in detail on this subject yet).

In addition to this lecture there have been a couple of highly theoretical string theory lectures and, as I remembered from being here last year, the questioning during the lectures can be rather intense. Whenever I give my lecture here, which will be on a topic I haven't discussed in detail before, I'll have to aim to a pretty high level. There are many all-rounders here (lattice QCD experts who know their way around an M2 brane for instance) so you never know where the questions may spring from.

Anyway, I gotta get back to work. Projects are progressing reasonably well but as always there's much more to do

Monday, January 22, 2007

Kyoto Story

I look forward to returning at some point to Korea to get an uninfected view of it, my opinions this time being clouded by a mucusy, feverish mist. On Saturday I left, another week's worth of antibiotics in hand having missed all but two lectures this week. And now, I'm in Japan, having landed in Osaka yesterday.

I can't put my finger on what it is about Japan but, although it's just as confusing and alien a place as Korea, I feel instantly peaceful and at home. I still don't understand the menus and the profusion of train lines is a mystery but the quiet, smoothness by which everything works (perhaps another example of mono no aware) just makes me smile.

I was picked up by Tatsuya, from the Yukawa institute and we communicated for the hour and a half back with me using a pen and paper (the voice is now returning today but it's still croaky) on the Shinkansen, through the lights of Osaka to the nearby lights of Kyoto. By taxi we made our way through Kyoto and I was reminded immediately of what a stunning city this is, with its 400 or so temples and palaces and its ring of mountains.

I'm staying in a minimal but comfortable guest house for the next month in a little street with a view from my window of the mountains and the classical Japanese houses surrounding it. Though the external architecture of the building I'm staying in is the least aesthetically pleasing around, I realise that this is the best situation. Who wants to be stuck in the most exquisitely designed palace when you can't appreciate it?. I'm rather looking forward to staying here. The minimal nature is rather monastic which feels very conducive to good work.

In my drugged up, deafened (my ears did funny things on the plane) state I managed to start ticking off the ways to offend people here straight away by stepping over the threshold of the hotel with my shoes on (not the done thing) and in my humble apologetic state, tipping over a vase of flowers. The elderly hotel manager smiled knowingly but appeared to accept my quickly drooping face as sign of true humility.

After the first good night's sleep for a week I wandered around the area and picked up some simple food for breakfast. Last time I was in Tokyo I had a local cafe for breakfast where I would drink coffee, eat toast and jam and listen to the barista's favourite CDs of Thelonious Monk and Oscar Peterson, those were very happy mornings. I look forward to finding something similar here.

Tatsuya then popped by and walked me the five minutes to the Yukawa institute to show me around. I stayed for a while to get myself settled in and attempted amongst other things to try and work out why none of my bank cards work here. I had presumed it was just a Korea thing so I'm getting a little concerned. (An update from the institute tells me that Japan just doesn't accept Lloyds TSB visa cards!)

Lots of great talks coming up here including Frank Wilczek on Wednesday which I'll report on. The Yukawa institute, though mostly made up of Japanese researchers has an international feel with several Western postdocs and visitors so most of the talks are in English, a wonderful change for me.


I just came back from dinner and am reminded of a tangible reason for my love of the place. I wandered around the quiet streets looking into the restaurants for one that caught my eye and that I thought I had a chance at getting roughly what I wanted. In the end the restaurant closest to me had some nice pictures in the window so I plumped for that. The elderly waitress in the kimono showed me to the sushi bar (though bar makes it sound modern) made of wood with comfortable wooden stools and tatami matting, signs above the bar saying how much each cut of each fish was and a selection of sake bottles filling those shelves not stashed with sashimi knives. Behind me a tank in which, amongst other things, swam fugu, the infamous puffer fish floating peacefully around. I don't know if this is for sale, I seem to remember that all licensed fugu chefs had a hanging paper fugu outside the shop which wasn't in appearance. Anyway, I'm only going for this dish when I'm with someone else who knows what they're doing!

Beside me at the bar were three generations of a family out to dinner and the mother and highschool daughter started chatting in English about whether I liked the food and where I was from amongst other niceties. My continuing inability to equilibrate the pressure in my ears made this a little tricky but I still appreciated the friendly chat - and then the food came, so simple, so unadulterated, such a contrast to Chinese food (which of course I'm a huge fan of too). It's almost certainly that it's been a while since I ate in Japan but the tempura seemed lighter than ever, the sashimi more succulent and fresh than I can remember and the miso soup a beautiful contrast of white tofu and bright green watercress in a lacquered mahogany coloured bowl. I have two words of advice for sushi lovers. First: come to Japan, the sushi will absolutely blow you away. I've been for some reasonable expensive sushi meals in various capitals of the world but none of them come close to the real thing. I can't understand why this is, surely really fresh fish is really fresh fish, but there seems to be something extra. My second piece of advice is: never come to Japan, you will never want to eat sushi anywhere else ever again, or when you do you will feel ultimately slightly disappointed. Strangely my advice for people who are fans of Chinese food differs slightly. The reason is that Chinese food in Western restaurants is so far removed from most (not absolutely all) genuine Chinese cuisine as to be non-influential on your likes or dislikes when you return home.

Another preposterous piece of ying and yang occured when I tried to pay by card. The restaurant accepted it but when fed into the machine there was a malfunction and the machine wouldn't stop printing receipts, even when rebooted. This went on for about ten minutes with about 15 m of tape spilling out onto the floor. I sat back unable to do anything but look like it was probably my fault. Finally it stopped, they tried again and it worked, no bad feelings apparently, all smiles. I left mildly confused, perfectly sated and very happy.


So, now that I'm in a more settled, better adjusted mood I can formally announce that I've accepted an offer of a postdoc position at Santiago De Compostela in Galicia in Spain. It's a great group, headed by Alfonso Ramallo with many excellent researchers and I'm hugely looking forward to starting up there some time towards the end of October. I've been doing a bit of scouting around about the city and the surrounding area and so I'll write about my findings soon. I'll also write about some of the research which goes on there some of which is very close to my own interests and some of which is in directions I'd like to turn at some point.

My last trip to Spain was when I was four in Ibiza. I remember little more than the loud, late music, the plane trip and, of course, the food. I'm looking forward to discovering a little more than that this time.

OK, I have more that I've written but most of it doesn't fit comfortably into this post so I'll save it for the next few days.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

A little wallowing

This post has been a while brewing and will be an unapologetically self indulgent one. I would normally try and stay clear of this but events this week have, at times, been so farcical that I need to get it out.

Almost two weeks into Korea (just three days left) and I've spent most of my time here tucked up in 'bed' feeling sorry for myself. After seeing the doc on Saturday in Seoul who prescribed me a huge list of medicines to obliterate this bug we headed off, on Sunday, to the ski resort at Phoenix Park. By this time I could barely talk and for the last four days have barely said a word - conversations have involved me with a pencil and paper. I've been impressed at people's patience and lack of funny looks.

I reasoned that going to one of Korea's biggest winter tourist attractions I would surely be able to get out some money when I arrived so I turned up with almost no Won. Unfortunately though the docs have given me a good range of pills and capsules I have to take them after meals and just three times a day. This includes the pain killers. By the time we got to Pheonix Park the germs writhing around in my head had made it firmly to my ears and they felt like someone was pouring molten lead in there. I was pretty desperate and despite the fact that I was informed that though there were no doctors in the resort (unless I had a broken leg) there was a pharmacy. I wondered weakly, meekly to the pharmacy where I managed to scrawl that I could do with some pain killers. These were produced but all my cards were turned down, cash only. The cash machine next door rejected my card as did those by the main reception. As I pleaded with the receptionists they said that there was nothing they could do and I was simply trapped here with no money. This major tourist resort accepts neither visa nor mastercard.

It seemed I was stuck and until I'd eaten I wasn't allowed to take any of the prescribed medicines. Exhausted and in quite considerable pain I wondered round feeling helpless until I found a restaurant which did offer to take my credit card. The only thing on the menu which wasn't spicy was a stew of old beef and some rice of which I forced down a decent portion. My taste buds have been doing strange things in the last couple of weeks and almost no food, especially bland food which is all I can manage currently, appeals to me.

The accommodation in the resort is, in theory, fine. I'm in a flat with two Japanese students and a Korean. A fine cultural mix where, if I could talk it would be a great opportunity to chat and get to know them. However, instead I've spent the last four days, ghost-like moving silently about the rooms. We each have a futon which in theory looks to be a nice little bed setup that can be neatly folded away. I presume I'm just not used to it but the fact that I'm not made solely of fat and muscle seems to cutout a reasonable night's sleep - hips, elbows, shoulders and knees push themselves painfully into the floor. The other factor that adds to the discomfort is that the rooms are heated from the floor, so we're on a 1cm (not an exaggeration) piece of material above a searingly hot floor (seemingly unaltered by playing with the thermostat). On top of a throat swollen and made of sandpaper and ears that want to jump off my head I haven't had more than ten minutes sleep at a time since I got here. Because I can't sleep at night I'm a zombie in the day and have made it to just two lectures this week, both of which I slept through. One of the main reasons I came here was to see Ken Intriligator talking about dynamical SUSY breaking which has been a fascinating advance in the last year. In fact there are lots of great lecturers here but I just can't make it through a lecture at the moment, the doc has also told me to have complete bed-rest.

So, in my hour of need, I very sheepishly accepted an offer of 20 dollars worth of Won from one of my new room mates which has been seeing me through on pot noodles for the last four days. Lunches which are provided by the organisers are Korean and again spicy so lunches have consisted solely of a plate of plain rice.

Running out of the first lot of antibiotics two days ago with no effect I went back to see a local doctor, having been driven there very kindly by one of the organising staff. Docs here seem to like taking photos of your insides and showing you them and it was quite a shock to see the state of my throat and ears, I shan't go into details. Having been given another three days worth of meds and an injection which seemed to do nothing more than give me a numb bottom I headed back to the resort to watch people frolic and play in the snow and whiz down the mountain as I had imagined myself doing just a few weeks ago.

Anyway, this is all feeling a bit unnecessary but it is part of my travel adventures and it has been a truly unpleasant, completely useless and very expensive way to spend two weeks in bed. In theory I fly to Japan on Sunday though if my ears still feel like this I will have to make sure it's not a bad idea. In a minor complication British nationals are only allowed two weeks in Korea without a visa and that time will run out on Sunday so I'm not sure what happens if I'm not better by then.

Huge frustrations and unless the fever has gone down by tomorrow I'll be back to the docs to see if three weeks with no respite for a bug like this is to be expected.

As I mentioned before, I do have good news to share but will wait until I'm in the right mood to write about it.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Mild Irritation

My tales of exotic Seoul are sadly few and far between. In fact I've spent most of the conference not being able to get out of bed. Having finally seen a doc today who was willing to take a look at me I've been diagnosed with laryngitis, pharyngitis and rhinitis, which could explain why I haven't been feeling on tip-top form. My throat is currently so swollen that they felt it necessary to pass a camera up my nose and down my throat to have a decent peek, not something that I'm particularly keen on repeating. Anyway, with a few days worth of antibiotics I should be better soon.

This doesn't recover the lost days from this week and those in the coming days that I've been so looking forward to for the last couple of months. Anyway, I'm going to attempt to stay reasonably positive, though that may make this a rather short post.

We're a 45 minute commute from the KIAS which isn't a great arrangement, so to get to lectures on time we have to get up pretty early every morning. There have been some great lecturers here including talks by Ooguri on calabi yau geometries and topological strings culminating in the OSV conjecture and a nice set of talks by Sugimoto on his D4D8D8bar construction of chiral symmetry breaking. In many ways it's very different from the models of chiral symmetry breaking I've worked on in the past with some very positive aspects (you start with a full U(Nf)L x U(Nf)r symmetry) and some rather troubling points (I'm not sure there's any way of introducing finite mass quarks into the picture). I'd like to talk in detail some time about the difference between this D8 flavour model and the D7 flavour models I've worked on. What was particularly interesting was hearing some of the questions about these sorts of models from somebody who comes from a deeply stringy background, Ooguri amongst others, and hearing questions that with my background I usual wouldn't consider.

Unfortunately apart from a couple of talks by Ashoke Sen and Spenta Wadia I simply haven't been able to stay awake for more than ten minutes at a time in the lectures. I've just been lying in the accommodation flicking between repeats on the Discovery Channel and unintelligible Korean game shows. The language sounds to me a little like Japanese spoken with a Welsh accent, a strange combination indeed and I'm not going to get a chance to learn more than a few basic words. The writing system is a compact alphabetised one and from sitting on the train for a few commutes one can learn most of it from studying the transliterations of the stations. It hadn't occured to me that I might actually miss speaking Chinese but the realisation that it's going to slip quite substantially in the 10 weeks I'm away is quite a shock. I now speak a reasonably amount of Chinese every day in various situations and I'm quite comfortable with the (very) little I have mastered.

I'd love to be able to write more about the food but apart from some street food and meals in the canteen I've been limited to popping out to get meals from the local convenience store. One of the staples of the Korean diet is kimchi, a pickled cabbage dish which is often rather spicy. The food seems to be extremely healthy (other than some of the street food, including what appears to be battered deep fried chips on a stick) with lots of vegetables and fish, plus extremely small portions. That, sadly is about it for cultural commentary, apart from the fact that every Korean music video I've seen ends up with one half of a couple falling of a cliff or being blown up. I'm not sure what that indicates about the national psyche.

Anyway, a couple of photos from the times I have made it out of the guest house. This rather strange display of Christmas lights and giant transformer greeted me as I made my way to the accommodation on the first day.

I popped out for street food having failed miserably to get anything in a restaurant. Some good soup, tasty sushi and Korean fried dumplings went down a treat.

Though I've been told to rest up (and not talk) I don't have a choice but to go on the bus tomorrow to the ski resort where I shall not be getting any skiing done. It may be that we have no internet access for the next week so apologies to anyone for e-mails I don't get a chance to reply to for a week or so.

Shortly I'll talk in more detail about the postdoc position I've just accepted :-)

Monday, January 08, 2007

No Seoul jokes

I'm a day into Seoul and lots of impressions to write about but I still have a few things from the last days of Beijing to get down. I'm also still recovering from what appears to have been the flu and after 10 hours sleep last night I awoke this morning still feeling utterly exhausted with big black bags under my eyes. Though the lectures were all good today I'm still not in proper form to appreciate. It's going to be another couple of days yet I fear.

Anyway, last time I wrote, Tim was staying with me in Beijing eating any weird and wonderful delicacies Beijing could throw at him. His description of fermented Mung bean milk as "like drinking cabbage boiled in bile through a sock made of stilton" is a pretty fair assessment.

I'd never planned to give any money to Beijing zoo having heard enough about the conditions. Unfortunately it was too late when we realised that having bought tickets to the Beijing aquarium (Asia's largest) entry to the whole zoo was included. We didn't go into the elephant world which, from the outside, looks like some monstrous concrete prison, nor did we see any of the other land animal exhibits. We did go into the aquarium which is an impressive centre with a vast variety of fish in the same conditions I've seen them in anywhere else in the world.

From there we headed to the CCTV tower to have a look at the Beijing city lights. My body decided to go into shutdown mode as soon as we got to the top and the biting wind whipped through every layer of clothing I'd carefully worn. Attempting to warm up with a hot drink in the observation room clearly wasn't going to do the trick so we headed back for a foot massage instead.

After an amusing Korean meal (no pictures, no English, lots of pointing, lots of laughing) we headed to Lush to see the live music. If anyone is in the area on a Friday night I'd really recommend going to see some of the regular singers who play there. Though it's not a professional event some of the singers are truly exceptional with one particular male blues singer standing out from the crowd. Every Friday in Wudaokou.

On Saturday we headed out to the hutongs though our taxi driver was most perturbed. I explained to him that I didn't know where we wanted to go, we were just looking for somewhere that looked good. He raised his arms in desperation exclaiming "how can I drive you if you don't know where you want to go?" Anyway, after sufficient aimless wondering we ended up at a suitable hutong and wandered the little alleys for an hour or so peeking in at the discretely hidden restaurants along the way.

We were making our way to Houhai lake with its mass of neon bars which I generally try and avoid at all costs. The bars weren't our goal as the frozen lake was covered in people performing all range of icey activities. Only out here does one realise how deprived we are of fun with such stringent health and safety laws. Have a look here for some ideas of what's more fun than being pulled slowly on a plastic bag across a frozen pond. You can get up some serious speed on them. Slowing is not easy and turning at speed is very tricky as we found several times to our cost. Also on offer were chairs strapped to skates with ski poles for propulsion and some sort of motorized, two-man, sitting, sliding contraption. All good fun though after 20 minutes we were very very cold. It probably didn't help my recovery much either.

Unfortunately I wasn't able to take Tim to any of the superclubs as I'd hoped, partly because my headache procluded me from being able to bear it and partly because Beijing seemed all partied out from the weekend before. Still, a trip to Beijing wouldn't be complete without a trip to Sanlitun so we headed to some of the usual haunts there for some final night orange juices. A couple of hours was as much as I could handle so we headed back around midnight.

So, give or take a few busses, underground rides, taxis and planes, that takes me to Seoul, Korea where we have the first week of the two week winter school. I'm going to leave it there for now and write my initial impressions of the country in the next post as I still feel like I need a full 24 hours sleep.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Paying the Price

I think that the last day I had completely away from my work was sometime around 5 months ago. I reckon the last two months I've been running on adrenalin fumes only. Somehow my comments in a post awhile ago about the easy life of a postdoc seem rather meaningless now, though at least it's all self-imposed and I don't have a boss telling me to work overtime.

So, New Year's Eve I finally let myself go, relaxed completely and went to the biggest party in the city. The Yen New Year's Eve party has been advertised for weeks and was clearly going to be a popular event. We turned up at the Dashanzi art district early to be on the safe side though the atmosphere was still gently simmering. The venue was one of the old factory spaces which is now used as an art gallery. At 10 the industrial bass was already warming up and the Jeigermeister girls were mingling with the crowd with their dangerous test tubes of German alcohol. The mix of people was as expected. About 70:30 expat to locals and, as usual many of the expats were in their unattractively arrogant mode. Still, getting past that there were enough people who simply wanted to have a good time. At midnight as the ball dropped (and apparently a fire-extinguisher into the crowd) the usual jollities ensued. Something strange happened to me at this point though (not stimulant induced I must add) as the music turned to manic jungle I felt transported back to my early days of clubbing and, well, just went a bit crazy. For two hours or so I danced my little feet off, oblivious to the strange looks I was undoubtedly getting. Drenched in sweat and thoroughly enjoying myself as the music slowed down and we had some fun house DJs on I continued at a reduced pace for a few hours, leaving at a relatively early 3.

It was with little surprise that with the sudden relaxation and completely overdoing it, the next day I came down with a fever. Having recovered from the fever, four days on I've still got a pounding headache and my limbs just don't want to move. It's generally tedious to read about someone else's minor health hiccups so I'll leave it at that.

On a positive note I have one of my very good friends from England staying here at the moment. I thought I'd start him off with the alternative Beijing tour and, as he also enjoys art galleries I thought we'd go to see the rather surprising world of Chinese contemporary art, back in Dashanzi. I continue to be impressed that not only are the 50-100 galleries chock full of interesting art but that they change continually.

That rather whacked me out so next day I sent him off on the more regular tourist trail to the forbidden city and eventually Wangfujing snack street where he sampled some of the famous delicacies. It's good to see that someone with no Chinese whatsoever, a page of instructions and a decent smattering of common sense can make his way around Beijing without a problem. I mentioned before but I become a little over-protective when my friends come out here, thinking that I'm going to send them off unprotected into the dragon's lair.

I'm also pleased that my friend is as adventurous as I am when it comes to exotic foods, so a Chongqing hotpot last night went down a treat. Though the pig stomach, duck intestine and solidified slabs of blood didn't shake him, we were both a little taken aback when our fish turned up and jumped off the plate! Though I'm pretty sure they were actually dead, the latent muscle movements meant that the waitress had to hold each fish in the hotpot for ten seconds or so with chopsticks to make sure it didn't thrash about. Animal rights activists need not apply!

So, today I'm in the office finishing off some odds and ends before heading off to Korea on Sunday for the winter school followed by a two month stay at the Yukawa institute which I'm very much looking forward to. The pollution in Beijing has recently been truly aweful and that's the main thing I'm looking forward to escaping from briefly. Wunderground stated yesterday that the weather in Beijing was 'smoke'. This site appears to be indicating that on the 11th of December the pollution levels went off the top of the scale at 500 microgram per cubic meter of pollutant (80 or so being the safety limit as far as I can tell with minimal scouting. cf. annual average in London at around 20). Today however we are at a mild 180. If anyone has any more concrete information on these figures I would be very interested to learn more. Anyway, I'm not terribly surprised that my recovery isn't very speedy in this atmosphere. Even if the air in Seoul isn't much better, the ski resort where the second week of the school is being held should help my recuperation no end :-)

I don't know what sort of access I'll have to web connections for the next couple of weeks but I hope to be able to give frequent updates from the school.