Saturday, April 28, 2007

Mouse brain simulated on a computer

OK, half a mouse brain, but even so this seems to be an incredibly exciting step.

From the BBC comes the news that the modeling of around 8 million neurons with up to 8000 interconnections each was conducted on the BlueGene L supercomputer and...

The vast complexity of the simulation meant that it was only run for ten seconds at a speed ten times slower than real life - the equivalent of one second in a real mouse brain.

On other smaller simulations the researchers said they had seen "biologically consistent dynamical properties" emerge as nerve impulses flowed through the virtual cortex.

In these other tests the team saw the groups of neurons form spontaneously into groups. They also saw nerves in the simulated synapses firing in a ways similar to the staggered, co-ordinated patterns seen in nature.

I'd love to know from experts how realistic this is and how much further we can go with current technology.

Update: From what I've found on the subject it seems that the link to the mouse brain was simply a comparison of the number of neurons and synapses. The structure, unsurprisingly was not there. The paper is supposed to be linked to here but doesn't seem to be working right now.

Upcoming KITPC events

It was almost a year ago that I first wrote about the KITPC (Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in China) when David Gross came out here prior to Strings 2006 to announce officially the deal to build the KITPC. (original piece here).

Well, the building is completed, there are people milling about in there and the interviews which I mentioned a couple of posts back were for management and computer staff for the department.

At the end of May the KITPC will officially open with a ceremony filled with the great and the good. Fred Kavli himself will be out here as will David Gross, Shing-Tung Yau and many other eminent physicists and mathematicians from around the world. We'll be heading back to the Great Hall of the People for this and I'll report on events as they happen.

Anyway, one of the reasons to write this post is as a piece of advertising. This year there will be two programs running at the institute.

The first is a two month program starting in June on "Quantum Phases of Matter" and the organisers for this conference are Sankar Das Sarma, Eugene Demler, Yu Lu, Fu-Chun Zhang and Xiao-Gang Wen. It says the deadline is over for applications for this program but it's always worth a go.

The second program is more relevant for my work and looks like a superb event. "String Theory and Cosmology" will run from September 1st to December 15th and is being organised by Miao Li, Shamit Kachru, Eva Silverstein and Henry Tye. The blurb reads as follow:

String theory is the best motivated theory that can address fundamental issues like physics beyond the Standard Model, the origin of our universe, the quantum nature of gravity, the mystery of black holes, dark energy, supersymmetry and the dark matter.
Studies of the cosmic landscape, model/vacuum building and time-dependent solutions are making contact between theory, phenomenology and cosmology in new and exciting ways. WMAP and PLANCK, together with LHC, have begun to usher in a new era of string cosmology and string phenomenology.

This program aims to take advantage of all these recent and coming developments, with a slight emphasis on cosmology. The program hopes to bring together string theorists with an interest in phenomenology and/or cosmology, and cosmologists, particle astrophysicists and phenomenologists who are interested in new ideas coming from string theory. Mathematical string theorists who are interested in these issues are most welcome.

There isn't much more information up there yet but the idea will be to have lecture series and workshops running through the three and a half months with people staying in residence at the KITPC for varying lengths of time.

This is a great chance for China to represent itself once more on the world stage in its scientific capacity and a part of that is for others to come and see Beijing at work.

I wrote a piece just before the strings conference last year as a Beijing survival guide which people responded well to. I'm very happy to answer any questions, either by e-mail or in the comments if people have queries about coming here. That includes information about China and information about the workshops. I can ask for the website to be altered or added to as people see fit (not that I have any great power over it but that those in charge are down the hall).

It's been my pleasure over the last couple of years to help several people make up their minds to come to Beijing either for a long time or for a holiday and then to settle in. Many people don't realise that Beijing really isn't such an alien world and is certainly a highly developed city, with both running water and electricity - and more internet connectivity in the cafes than I witnessed even in Tokyo.

Anyway, I think that these events will be a fantastic chance both to bring together some of the top scientists working in these research areas and to see Beijing as it readies itself for the 2008 Olympics.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Royal Society science book shortlist

From the big questions of cosmology through headline making scientific findings, personal journeys in discovering about disease to history-through-science and science-through-history, biography, the brain and the anthropic principle, there's a good range of subjects in this years Royal Society short list of the best popular science books. Of the wide ranging subjects I'm most taken with the Erik Kandel's 'In search of memory', but most of them look enjoyable.

Time warp

My job, and that of those around me is, in theory, to tackle some of the deepest questions about the universe around us, both on the largest and the smallest scales, to gain a true understanding of the nature of reality and to discover what are the underlying structures of the amazing phenomena we see in nature. Whoever, as far as I know nobody has tried to solve the strangest puzzle of them all: how on Earth did it get to Friday already? Yet again I'm at a loss to know where the middle days of the week vanished to. I've checked my Mathematica files and my LaTeX scripts and some of them are indeed date stamped with the intervening time period, but like an ancient mathematical riddle Monday+Friday seems to equal a full five days. I'm at a loss.

Anyway, however we got here, Friday arrived although the weekend is not upon us, at least here in Beijing. The 1st of May marks the start of a one week holiday and, as always, we must work the preceding weekend to earn our rest. The holiday starts on Tuesday so we still have a bit of a slog until we're given our respite.

This morning I spent interviewing nine candidates for various positions at the KITPC, from management to computer administration. My job was simply to spend time with the candidates before the official interviews (a 15 minute presentation in front of 20 or so members of staff) to chat informally and gauge their English level. It doesn't seem appropriate to make any comments on the results, but it was another interesting insight into life here and an enjoyable morning spent talking with the prospective employees.

I still need to give full reviews of the concerts last week but before I talk about the music I wanted to mention the strange phenomenon of Chinese crowds I encountered. ...

It's no secret that the Chinese are not known for their queueing skills. As a Brit I spend a good amount of my time in queues and think that it's a jolly good way to wile away my hours. Here in China any queue which forms through random, chaotic processes tends to disintegrate within a few seconds. I find it frustrating that when I'm trying to buy a ticket, get my lunch or wait for the train, the only way I've found to get what I want is to stand my ground very firmly, which is sometimes a strain for the blood pressure levels. I haven't found myself pushing people yet, but it's been close on occasion.

Before the Sonic Youth gig we were supposed to have a show from one of Beijing's top rock bands - Carsick Cars, who I haven't seen before, though the guitarist had been accompanying Elliott Sharp the previous week. All 1000+ of us piled into the venue a little after 7 on Monday evening waiting for the 7.30 start of the support band. But we waited and waited, with the occasional blur of a guitarist or roadie seen through the door at the back, but nothing more than that...for two and a half hours. Standing in a concert venue for two and a half hours with nothing to see isn't my idea of fun (no orderly line, you understand). What amazed me, however, was that had this been in England, land of patient, needless queuing, there would probably have been a riot within half an hour of the band's absence and a painful chorus of 'why are we waiting' would have kept people going until blood was spilt. However, here in China, where my toes are constantly stepped on when waiting for my baozi for breakfast by an overly eager security guard or impatient school kid, there was an eery calm and complete acceptance of the situation. Some of the Westerners in the crowd attempted to start a round of calls for the band, but they just sounded a bit out of place.

I wonder how much longer the crowd would have stayed patient. The way things were going I couldn't see the calm breaking for some considerable time to come. Lesson learnt: Queuing is a no-go here but patience is a true Chinese virtue!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Earth-like extra-solar planet discovered

Take a look over at Bad Astronomy Blog for information about Gliese 581, the first Earth-like extra-solar planet discovered. A little larger than the Earth and the right temperature to have liquid water. Exciting stuff!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Weekend snaps

Truly no time for blogging at the moment but a few pictures for now from this weekend, which included:

amongst other things.

All of them are worth writing about and I'll do so when I have a spare moment.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Unparticle physics

I only stumbled across Howard Georgi's latest work when his paper "Another odd thing about unparticle physics" appeared on the Arxiv today. Clearly there was a first odd thing to know about unparticle physics, which leads the reader to "Unparticle physics". This is a very short paper with some fascinating commentary on a possible, previously unremarked scenario for LHC phenomenology (unremarked as far as I'm aware).

The idea is to have a non-trivial scale invariant sector, at least with an IR fixed point, and see how the coupling between the normal particle sector and the scale invariant sector, using effective field theory techniques, effects the low energy physics. The strange terminology is used because in a scale invariant theory the quantum mechanical treatment of particles doesn't make sense and Georgi names the 'stuff' 'unparticles'. The question he tackles in the first paper is what signals one would see in the accelerator if there is a coupling between unparticles and particles. The answer is that although the theory may be highly non-linear, the conformal nature means that the correlation functions can be understood simply through the scaling behavior of the unparticle operators.

Depending on the scaling dimension of the 'stuff' the signature gives a different decay width of regular particles as a function of energy. This very specific signature would be quite clear, giving signals of missing energy at particle accelerators, in a different form from SUSY or large extra dimensions.

The paper is short and clear and gives a hint that there's lots of interesting, easy phenomenology to extract from this strange but not necessarily crazy model. Two new papers today follow this although in the conclusions of the latter paper it seems that the signals from the LHC would not be so clear.

Bowling them over

I don't include Google ads on here but I'm happy to promote products and services if I think that they're worthy of a plug, especially if my family and friends are involved.

My father went into semi-permanent early retirement in order to work twice as hard as ever before (not that he ever slacked off) to start turning bowls - the obvious sideways step from chemical engineering and scientific consultancy. His website has lots of his work but I thought the new postcard was worth a post here. So, if you are looking for fine wood turning, take a look at the site.

Odds and ends

I continue to make excuses of being too snowed under with work to blog extensively at the moment, and this excuse holds for the time being. The projects are moving in the right direction, and there's plenty else going on besides. I'll be writing my talk 'Three paths from AdS to QCD' over the next week or so which I'll be presenting at a workshop in May.

I'll be working until late this evening before going to a concert by Elliott Sharp, at D22, which should be a lot of fun. If anyone picks up on this and enjoys experimental electronica/jazz then come along to see a classic, if not strictly classical, composer.

On an aside-aside, I have The Amon Tobin mix of the Chris Morris 'Bad Sex' track whirling around in my head, which is as intense as it is strange. Amon Tobin is one of my favourite artists and together with the tangential world view of Chris Morris, this is bound to produce something warped and fascinating. Again, if you like your music slightly rough and a little experimental then look out for this track.

Sonic Youth tickets have been booked for Monday which should also be superb and tomorrow the artWALK Beijing event starts at Dashanzi at 5.30.

A random cooking challenge for anyone interested in the new science of flavour pairings: Take a look at this molecular gastronomy blog to find out more.

Flip Tomato continues to give well written accounts of his journey into particle physics, this week discussing chirality, soon to be followed by a posting on orbifolds.

From a 2003 talk by Weinberg comes four golden lessons for theoretical physicists. This article deserves more discussion but, time, etc...the review at the bottom of the linked page is depressing (particularly in relation to points 3 and 4) and, in my opinion not a healthy way to go into theoretical physics. If you're going in with these sort of thoughts, you're probably not in the right game, IMHO.

If you're a fan of internet radio, for instance Pandora, then take a look at this petition which is attempting to stop the possible change in licensing fees which will cripple many of these sites.

Finally, a call for advice. My camera is on its last legs, which is a slightly better state than my ipod now finds itself. I'm seriously considering investing in a digital SLR and the Canon 400D (also known as the Digital Rebel XTi) seems my best bet. If anyone has any invaluable advice on this I'd appreciate the extra input, all reviews I've seen have been pretty good.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Grease Monkey tips

I was in the office very early this morning and thought I'd try and fix a few pet gripes with the internet which have been bothering me for a while. When this is the case, Grease Monkey usually has an answer.

Grease Monkey is an add on to Firefox which allows users to write scripts which alter how a webpage looks and acts. As a simple example, if you don't like the Google background being white you can write a script which takes the source for the google page and turns the white to any colour you like. This is a trivial example and what is most helpful is that many people have already written a plethora of codes which you download and are automatically integrated into Firefox, via the Grease Monkey addon.

I still use Hotmail, purely for historical reason, and the advertising banner which takes up roughly half the screen is both an eyesore and inconvenient for viewing e-mails. Use the Windows Live ad remover to get rid of this and fill your screen with e-mails again.

I've been very impressed with Flickr since starting to use it a few months ago. One of the common complaints however is that viewing photos on a white background isn't the best way to get the most out of them. This addon to change the background colour does the trick though it leaves a few residual ugly spots.

The LaTeX for blogger script is another nice one, especially if you are using a blog for your collaborations, which I know try and do.

Hope this is of use and if others find particularly useful scripts then please let me know.

Public awareness

I figured that having never been on television before, a short interview on a program with an audience of around 200 million on a subject I know nothing about would be a good step into the limelight, a tentative dip in the water such that nobody would notice, if you like.

Yesterday I received a message from my English student who is rather a big player in one of the CCTV channels (Central China Television), asking me if I'd like to be on television to talk about mobile phones in the UK. I mentioned that I knew almost nothing about this topic and the mere fact that I have one does not give me any expert status. Yes, but you're from the UK, was the reply to which I had no good response.

My student has been extremely generous to me and so I figured that a) I owed them a favour and b) It would be another interesting experience if nothing else. I checked at this point that it really was OK that I knew nothing about mobile phones, to which the answer was positive. I spent a few minutes in the afternoon checking up on ofcom and finding out about the ins and outs of the usual mobile contracts and the like.

I was picked up in the evening to meet the crew and we went for a fancy Japanese meal in one of the CCTV owned buildings. Sake was flowing but I reasoned that the commandment 'though shalt not blog whilst drunk' probably held for appearing on TV, too. I tried to press them on what I was going to have to say or do and the information came thin and diluted with sushi. How much does it cost for a mobile phone call in the UK? Do you have to pay extra for calls between cities in the UK? Did you know that in China people have to pay more between cities? Were the few hints I got. I would have an interpreter and the questions would be very simple.

We set up the camera in the main atrium of a hotel complex where I stood facing the camera and the interviewer along with the interpreter to the side. I was still trying to find out a bit more when the camera was turned on and they started asking questions.

First the easy stuff, some of which I replied to in bad Chinese and some of which I would turn to the interpreter for assistance.

Q. Where are you from, how long have you lived in China and what do you do here?
A. (reply in Chinese)

Q. (Various questions about how much I like China and where is my favourite city)
A. etc................

Q. Do you own a mobile phone in the UK? and how much are call charges in the UK
A. Yes, I do. (I explained a little about the different rates for different monthly tariffs, and the fact that I probably paid about a penny a minute - guessing wildly).

Q. Do you own a mobile in China and how much do you pay a month?
A. I do, and I pay between 25 and 50 RMB per month (around £2-£4).

Q. Really? (Looking slightly worried) how come? That's so little.
A. I tend to text more than call, I use msn and skype to speak with friends and I would rather see my friends than talk to them on the phone (feeling slightly smug before realising that this is a good way to look like I haven't got many friends).

Q. Do you have to pay extra for long distance calls on mobiles within the UK.
A. As far as I'm aware calls within the UK on a mobile phone are a fixed price for each contract. They vary with time but not location, but to call out of the UK costs more...(goes on a little).

Q. Do you think it's right that people in China should have to pay more for calls between distant cities? (It appears that my interpretation of this question may have been incorrect).
A. (Slightly taken aback at the lack of information given for me to make a judgment on) If it costs the companies more to set up a long range network then I can understand that they would charge more for this service.

Q. But you know that it costs them just as much to connect you on a long distance call in China as a short distance call?
A. Well if that's the case then it does seem strange, though the company clearly has to make money, it's a business, and perhaps by charging more for long distance calls your short distance calls can be made cheaper.

Q. (Rather puzzled - definitely not expecting this answer) but do you think that it's fair?
A. (Feeling that I wish I had more background to this and reword my last answer with a few extra points).

At this point the cameraman steps in, having understood my translated response and asks if I really understood the question, how can I think that it's right for people to have to pay more for this service?

Q. You know that most Chinese people think that this is terrible?
A. I didn't, but not knowing the situation in detail I think it's possible that people are having to pay less for short distance calls, offset by higher priced long distance calls.

(Interviewer is looking rather worried about my capitalist propaganda)

Q. Thank you very much.
A. Thank you.

Not quite what I expected and certainly not what the interviewers had expected. Apparently they had interviewed an Australian woman on the subject earlier who thought that the situation was terribly unfair.

It seems now that they may have been telling me that the price of phoning from different cities varies, which seems marginally less reasonable. I also only realized afterwards that it is the government here who decides on the cost of mobile phone calls.

It was only afterwards that I dared ask how many people watch this show, to which the response was roughly 200 million.

Well, another experience at any rate, I'm not planning on watching it personally, even if they do find enough after the editing process to call an interview. I can't help but feel completely bemused and indeed amused about appearing on a program in front of four times the population of England.

JTA continues...

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


Something very strange is going on today! First my ipod has inexplicably died overnight (inexplicably other than falling onto the tracks at Munich railway station 6 months back). Died as in the hard drive refuses to move. This was always going to be the portent to a slightly odd day and we're only half way through.

My local mail account then packed up, suddenly it says it's too full though I had deleted a large file several days ago, purged it and hadn't received anything unwieldy since.

30 seconds later my hotmail account told me that I had sent the maximum number of messages in a 24 hour period. I've sent less than 10, as far as I'm aware, and I find it hard to believe that this is stretching my bandwidth.

30 seconds after this my gmail account opens but refuses to let me compose a mail. I am now disconnected from the outside world apart from this blog!!! Is the Nanny just having a particularly spiteful day?

Not sure where this is leading to but it's all pretty tiresome.

Monday, April 16, 2007

As we expected

There have been a couple of recent experiments which are definitely worth a more complete blog post which is in progress, but has to wait for now.

First of all,
MiniBooNE returned the result which many expected that there is no need for sterile neutrinos. This neutrino oscillation experiment receiving a neutrino beam from a collider has falsified the data from LSND which part of the collaboration claimed gave evidence for sterile neutrinos. From what I understand the LSND group was so split on the evidence that two papers were written disagreeing with one another. Anyway, there are good posts about this at these various locations

Secondly another interesting experiment with unfortunately unexciting results has tested frame-dragging, as predicted by general relativity and showed that it holds to within 1% of the predicted results and within half an error bar of the experiments resolution (See here and here for discussions).

While I'm posting up a few links I'll add Strange Maps as a worthy visit if cartographic curia is your bag. It appears to be mine and there are plenty of surprising and intriguing bits of trivia to be picked up from this site.

Art for the people

I've written recently of the Bird's Nest and in the past about the new CCTV building. Recently from Toomanytribbles came this video of the Ren Building, currently under construction in Shanghai which looks like fun.

I spoke in the above post on the CCTV tower about the odd dichotomy of the freedom to build outlandish buildings as the government spends a lot of their time making a statement to the rest of the world. There's some truly hideous architecture in Beijing but there's also some startling and attractive buildings going up around the city.

English Corner ideas

English corner returned this week and I managed to collect a couple of hours worth of material this afternoon.

It's difficult to find material online, simply because the students are all pretty advanced and the last thing I want to do is make it feel like a class. Most online EFL information is either too basic or too much like being at school for my purposes. A game of Call my bluff turned out to work pretty well however.

Having chosen five words for each team, that the students were unlikely to know, I gave each of the two teams the correct definition and asked them to come up with two more false but plausible definitions for each word. They then explained all three definitions of each word to the opposing team who had to guess which one was correct. As always I was impressed with their imagination and lateral thinking. Spoonerism was defined to be the philosophy of one who is born into a rich family (with a silver spoon in their mouth), a somnambulist was an expert in cognitive psychology and ebullience was the license you needed to drive oxen in Spain. For anyone who's trying to come up with an English corner idea, this seemed to work well. The idea is simply to get them talking fluently which they're all doing now. I've got some debate plans afoot but this will take more than a couple of hours of planning to make a success of it.

Weekend ramblings

We're back to a completely full schedule again with the first English corner since I arrived back from Japan. Work is still a little crazy with too many projects on the boil but I did get a chance to escape from the office for a bit this weekend.

It's a pleasure when the rather anonymous words on the screen turn into a real person and I finally met up with Kevin of Weifang Radish fame and his wife Jinjin of Weifang Radish fame, by proxy. A very enjoyable evening chatting with someone who has spent a good length of time in various parts of China and who's blog continues to be an interesting read. Lots of hints for places to try and visit in my remaining time here, too, though I fear spare time may not be in great supply.

There's been talk in the local papers of the rather infamous Sensations art show coming to Beijing's Capital Art Museum. Unfortunately, having read the papers I completely forgot which gallery it was to be shown at and ended up at a rather insipid exhibition at Beijing's World Art Museum of photographs of 'new Beijing' which was very uninspiring. They're currently also showing a display of Egyptian artwork with some fine sculpture but anyone who has been to the British Museum or the like is probably going to be rather unimpressed. In the basement is a carved mural of Chinese history which is worth a peak and the central golden columns are wonderfully gaudy, if nothing else.

World art museum
On the way to the train station I passed a young girl sitting idly in a chair overlooking the remains of the flats which had once sat where she now was. I found it rather more moving than any of the art on display at the museum.
Home from home

Sunday, April 15, 2007

artWALK Beijing

Next Saturday (21st of April) will see the second of Beijing's artWALK events which will be going back to the Dashanzi art district (see here for my first impressions of Dashanzi). This will include tours of several galleries, a chance to meet and talk with some of the movers and shakers of the Beijing contemporary art scene and a lot more besides. The website currently hasn't got so much information but I received the following after e-mailing for more details:

  • artWALK Beijing has invited the following 798 Dashanzi art district venues to participate on Saturday, April 21st : 798 Beijing Art Place, Anni Art, Dimensions Art Center, Xin Dong Cheng Space for Contemporary Art I & III, Marella Gallery, Red Gate/798 Gallery and Star Gallery. As part of its monthly lecture series in conjunction with artWALK, Timezone 8 Editions will also host a discussion with owner Robert Bernell, who will talk about the history of the 798 art district.
  • During artWALK there will be a few local acting troupes doing improve and outdoor theater. The cocktail reception will once again be at Yan Club although we're looking for new entertainment (the lovely Syndicate DJ's will be at a reggae gig that night over in Zub which would be great to go to as an after-artWALK party).
  • As always we're looking for volunteers (email elyse @ and are constantly improving our website artWALK beijing is a non-profit organization and runs on the donations and goodwill. We will be selling tee shirts at the April artWALK as a way of getting better funding, so (and sorry, I have to do my plug here) tell your friends. One of the t-shirt designs is the tiananmen picture you see when you visit, another is a robot design. There will be a total of five more artwalks after the April one. Three will be at 798 but two will move off location to farther locals such as the winery and caocangdi. We're looking to get shuttles for those trips as they are rather off the beaten path.
This looks like fun to me so if you're in Beijing and fancy coming along to see what's happening in one of the most vibrant art areas I've ever been to then pop along.

I've been told that the event will start around 6pm, though I haven't found any confirmation of this. I will be going earlier to wonder around some other galleries so anyone who wants to come along too and doesn't know Dashanzi should send me an e-mail.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Manatee endangerment issue

Time is scarce at the moment and I'd like to be able to look into this topic in more depth. It sounds like a worthy issue to be bought to light and for people to make an effort. Anyway having a mouth piece, if only a simple one, I will simply link to and tell you to read the article at Retrospectacle on the current push for the endangerment status of manatees in Florida to be downgraded so that people can whizz about on their boats a little faster.

Kurt Vonnegut 1922-2007, simultaneously

The news and blogosphere are awash with tributes and personal reflections on Kurt Vonnegut who died yesterday at the age of 84. There are a lot of interesting memories and quotations of a man I knew little about, other than what one learns reading Slaughterhouse Five. This is a moving, temporally warped story with perspective altering thoughts on time and memory, fatalism and humanity. The author of the book was clearly both a talented writer and a deep thinker. It's based on his almost unbelievable tale from Dresden where he was one of just 7 US prisoners of war to survive the firebombing, stuck as he was in the meat cellar of Slaughterhouse Five.

Many authors of the blogs I read are deeply into sci-fi and have some lovely and amusing stories of him. Read the posts from these blogs to learn a little more about this intriguing man who sadly past away: Bad Astronomy Blog, Pharyngula, Retrospectacle and NPR for some audio of and about Kurt.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Beijing blossom

I'm down with the cold that seems always to come, for me, soon after the heating in Beijing changes. It's warmed up considerably here over the last week and the heating has been turned off for the few hundred million households whose heating is controlled 'from above'. However, the insulation in my flat is not bad and as it heats up outside, even with the windows open the flat takes a while to warm up. So it's a bit too chilly and I'm now paying the price. Anyway, all very tedious and I'll be better in a day or two.

This weekend was the usual mixture of work and running around the city. On the way to meet some friends of the family I was shouted at by my taxi driver, twice! Once for drinking a mixture of Chinese tea and a Chinese cold remedy - a no-no, and once for not knowing how to get to my destination, although I gave the exact address and a description of the building. The first offense I thanked him for his advice but I have to admit that I laughed when he started chastising me for not knowing my way in the city.

Having been asked to find somewhere not too touristy to meet up with some friends of my family, we met up in one of my favourite tea houses. Although going for a tea ceremony is, perhaps, a touristy thing to do, it is at least a very relaxing way to spend an afternoon away from the crowds. The road leading to the Confucius Temple from Yong He Gong houses a few interesting restaurants including, so I'm led to believe, a rather fine all-vegetarian place. It also has an extremely peaceful, if tourist driven, tea house where for about 50 kuai (£4) per person you get a selection of teas which are refilled as long as you are happy to sit there letting the world rush by outside. They talk you through the method of preparation and will pick the teas to your taste. See here for a good breakdown of the basics of Chinese tea.

On the way back I took a few more snaps of the city which is now coming into bloom along with a few city life shots, here's one, but more can be found here.

Beijingers in the blossom 2

Anyway, while the cold levels are up, my concentration and productivity for work is down so I'm trying to spend some time reading up on a few topics while the current calculations are put on hold. Given enough vile tasting medicine I should be fighting fit in a day or two.

Friday, April 06, 2007

With seconds to spare

A few random links...

  • First to a site which I mentioned, perhaps a year ago, but is always worthy of a plug. There's big news in the Beijing music scene this month as Sonic Youth are due out here. The tickets are very expensive but I would love to go and see them, so will attempt to pick some up tomorrow. Pandora is one of the best resources I've found to discover great new music. By selecting a band or song to begin with, this online radio player choses songs based on the style of music from your original choice. By telling the station whether you like a particular track or not it will evolve to give you more and more of the type of music you really like. Listening to a station today seeded with Sonic Youth I've found a host of new bands I'd never previously heard of.
  • Discovery sites (Digg, Pandora, Stumbleupon, del.ici.ous Plime, and presumably many more) are becoming big business and allow the user to find web content based on what other people with similar tastes have liked in the past, rather than based on a specific web search. It's a powerful tool but also an easy way to fritter away time jumping from one interesting site to another, not taking anything of any real content in. It's definitely one of the many new branches of web technology which will be interesting to keep an eye on.
  • On a side note I wonder if anyone has tried to develop a community del.ici.ous site where papers from the ArXiv can be tagged for searching more appropriately than the current search functions available online. At the very least I would like my pdf files to be tagged with the basic information about each paper and not have to type it all into an unweildy title name.

  • While we're on the topic of the ArXiv I'll point to both the papers by Jacob Bourjaily (here and here )and the subsequent positive analysis by Lubos Motl. The papers are geometric engineering of F-theory (a 12 dimensional theory where the complex dilaton-axion of IIB string theory take on a geometric interpretation as the complex structure of a two-torus). The geometry of the compactified dimensions determines the symmetries and matter content of the low energy theory and so in these papers the standard model gauge groups and matter content are constructed via this process of geometric engineering, 'unfolding' from larger gauge groups.
  • Jacob shows that not only is a three flavour standard model a generic feature of a particular (and perhaps natural, from the string theory perspective) orbifold singularity but that smaller gauge groups are more natural from this construction than grand unified theories with large gauge groups. He points out however that the fact that the standard model symmetries aren't completely 'unfolded' is not obvious from this model.
  • Lubos gives a more thorough explanation although the general idea of the papers isn't too difficult to understand, even without knowing the background in great detail.
  • There was lots of news a couple of weeks ago about a huge calculation of the structure of an immense but important symmetry group. I'll just leave this as a series of links, if you want to read the maths there's some fascinating discussion at John Baez's site and if you just want to look at the pictures, well, they're pretty too. The American Institute of Mathematics has some details here, too.
  • The subsequent edition of This Week's Finds also contains a wealth of interesting material on solar flares plus more information about groupoids.
Apart from that I've been rather too busy calculating to read any new science over the last week or so.
  • From the BBC comes the news that the new wing of the Tate Modern has been given the go ahead. Without a doubt it's an exciting piece of art but it has a lot of critics who are not impressed. I like the look from the artist's impressions and the claim that London is becoming riddled with different styles of architecture is a century or so too late. The architects, Herzog and de Meuron, are also the designers behind the Beijing Olympic stadium - The Bird's Nest. I go past this whenever I go to the airport and would love to get there some time to take some photographs myself.
  • My parents recently came back from a trip to Paris where they took this rather fun picture:

This is an original image.

  • From Kevin at the Weifang Radish came some useful hints for internet use in China, definitely good if you want to keep up with blogs and news but don't want the lag of proxies.
Right, the weekend beckons and I have another few hours to work before I start running around the city again. Happy Easter to all...

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Qing Ming Jie

Things have been completely non-stop, mostly with work this week to stop and think about blogging. In fact I've barely read any articles but there are a few things which are worth pointing to, which have come to my attention.

Yesterday was a festival day in China - Qing Ming Jie - clean and bright day. This is the day on which one is supposed to go and clean the tombs of your relatives, pay your respects at the temple and eat only uncooked food. In fact today a lot of the department is out at Fragrant Hills where the ashes of one of the great Chinese Academicians, who passed away earlier this year, are scattered. From Xiang shan you get this view of Beijing, if you're lucky:

Xiang shan panorama
Click for a larger image.

The e-mail invitation was in Chinese so I am not there. However, it makes for a peaceful office.

The reason one goes about these rituals on this day are supposed to go back to a Tang dynasty story. While in exile, Chong Er, the disgraced son of the King, was saved by one of his men, Jie Zitui, who offered a chunk of thigh when the royal was about to starve to death. Though temporarily overwhelmed with gratitude, having been saved by a bit of broiled man leg, the prince promptly forgot about his savior and when he came to power gave many high positions to important persons but not to the man who had sacrificed his flesh for him. He later realized his omission and set about trying to find the man who by this time had taken to a hill with his mother, retreating from the world.

The emperor eventually found where he was but couldn't persuade the man to come down. Thinking he would be able to force him down he set alight to the mountain. However the man and his mother stayed steadfast and died in the flames. Leaving only a poem, wrapped in some cloth in the trunk of a tree. With regret the emperor proclaimed that everyone must remember Jie Zitui on that day and hence on Qing Ming Jie the Chinese remember the good man and his sacrifices, go to the graves of their relatives to give them a spring clean and don't cook the day before, in order not to start any fires.

Any Chinese experts know whether it's appropriate to wish Qing Ming Jie kuai le?

Monday, April 02, 2007

Basic resources for learning Chinese

I mentioned to a fellow blogger who is learning Mandarin that I would pass on the language resources I've found useful, but it seems sensible to make this list available to all.

I have a two hour lesson once per week, when work allows, and we use a book called Chinese Conversation 301. I have little to compare this book to but my impressions are that although it covers all the grammar needed and introduces about 15 new words per lesson, it's a bit drier that it needs to be. I tend to be rather fickle about these things and so without discipline I would simply flick from book to book, being a little dissatisfied with them all.

[Addition: Kevin mentioned his more extensive list of resources in the comments, which are definitely worth checking out here]

I would definitely advise getting a book on Chinese radicals if you're going to learn to read and/or write. A great deal of the complexity of the written language can be broken down when you understand the roots of many words and learning the 100 or so most often used radicals will give a good boost to the seemingly impossible task of learning characters. I have this book, and have found it to be very useful.

I haven't bought any yet but there are many kids books with lots of pictures of objects, animals, foods etc. with the Pinyin written by them. This is probably also a very good source for learning vocab by getting a rather more colourful image in your head.

ZDT is the best flashcard program I've found which allows the user to define several different modes to test yourself on Pinyin, English definitions and Hanzi (characters). There are also audio plugins so you can hear the words read by a Chinese reader. Importantly the format allows you to use word lists from several sources and there are a few which are well worth using, certainly for beginners, here.

Included in the word lists above is mention of the Pimsleur language lessons which I still use regularly and these are probably my best and, importantly, most hassle-free resource. The lessons are half and hour each and highly repetitive. I try and get through 5 or 6 of these lessons a week, though it wouldn't be a stretch to do much more as I potter around the flat or walk to work. I imagine this is the sort of thing you can get in most libraries in the UK and, I guess, in the US.

The Chinese pod lessons are also a useful resource though Pimsleur has taken over on the i-pod for me.

For Chinese dictionaries online I tend to use mostly because it has a useful interface for understanding the links between and roots of words. If it's not in this rather small dictionary then it usually gives an option to check several other dictionaries.

I added Laowai Chinese to my feed reader as soon as it started and although he tends not to post very frequently, this blog has had many interesting articles on different aspects of learning the language and I recommend taking a look and picking up a few words there.

Any other invaluable resources are welcomed in the comments section!

Spring cleaning tips

Though great plans were afoot over the weekend for various activities in the city it all fell through in the end in a fit of apathy and I ended up doing some much needed spring cleaning of the computer having scattered all the photos from Japan in a swathe of directories, some backed-up, some not, along with collections of papers and music in various degrees of replication. Anyway, this fact isn't so interesting but I found a couple of useful programs for anyone trying to consolidate files on their computer:

The first is Dump3 which can be used to find duplicate files on a computer by comparing the content, not the size and name, including music and picture files. You can set the criteria for a match manually allowing for similar but not exact copies of the same tune to be found. For pictures and music it takes a while but for pdf documents it's pretty snappy.

The second program is Foldersync which allows you to take two folders, searches for their differences and can copy and delete content accordingly. Useful if you have a backup of an old folder which has had a few changes made to it, including having changed the structure. These two programs together have let me get rid of a lot of duplicate files while making sure that I have everything backed up without replication.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Breath and stop

It's that time of year once again when the sky turns to ochre and you feel constantly like you're having a picnic on the beach. Each year the sand from the Gobi desert heads Beijing way, and beyond, last year getting far enough to hit Tokyo. This year apparently the Chinese meteorological association, in cahoots with the army have been seeding the clouds in order to try and limit the effects of the incoming cloud of dust. Though this has come to me only through complicated routes of hearsay it seems reasonable as we've been having rain for the last few weeks, whereas last year there was virtually no rain in Beijing for 6 months, give or take.

This weekend has been a respite for me as the last week was an intensive mix of research with my collaborator, new insights into the power of language and me giving a rather last minute talk. I took the opportunity to give the talk (on heavy quark potentials in AdS/QCD) as a blackboard talk, my first talk of this kind and something which I can see takes both careful planning and practice.

I spoke for a little over an hour from a few sheets of notes and though I hope I got the general idea across, this is clearly something I need more practice at. I've been asked to give a couple of review lectures on AdS/QCD at an upcoming workshop in Beijing so may take this as another chance to use this technique which, when used appropriately, can produce very effective presentations. In particular this is because the pace is automatically slowed. The chance of large equations, which rarely elucidate a problem in a seminar, is small, and it makes the whole process a more active one for all involved.

I still have numerous projects on the go but hope to post up a few things of note over the coming days.

Type rest of the post here