Sunday, August 31, 2008

Western Union Scam

Yesterday in my state of exhaustion I was almost caught by the Western Union scam. I looked for a lens on Craigslist, only to find an advert for a Canon 5D + lens at a ridiculous price. I got in contact with the seller to find out more. It all seemed a bit strange, but I couldn't work out where the catch was. They gave me instructions of how to pay, which also seemed to be secure, as they said that I wouldn't actually pay until I received the product. However, speaking to a fellow photographer/internet guru/friend I heard for the first time about the Western Union Scam, the trap that I was about to dive head first into.

Watch out for it! If a deal is too good to be true, there's a catch.

Back in Santiago

I'm currently more tired than I've been for a long long time, but I'm also home, and although the summer has been useful/interesting/exciting in equal measure, to be back in my own flat is a good feeling. I arrived back into Santiago this morning after a 5.30 start in Stansted. This on top of the 48+ hours I went without sleep on the way from Seoul to the UK means I'm on the verge of collapse.

However, life goes on and I'll be heading back into the department tomorrow to catch up with everyone and to restart things which have been on hold while I've been away (for this I'm currently feeling rather guilty, as I didn't manage to keep juggling things from afar as well as I'd hoped). I'm not expecting a day of great brainwaves tomorrow, as I guess it's going to be another few days until I've recharged my batteries completely. Food needs to be bought, bills need to be paid, the flat needs a thorough dusting, Spanish lessons need to be restarted, and life has to be generally settled back into.

In three weeks I have to go to Portugal for a couple of days to give a talk in Porto, but I believe I don't have any other travel priorities before Christmas, which is a rather comforting thought.

Anyway, for now I'll be settling back into life here with plenty to be getting on with, so I'll simply update here as seems appropriate.

Friday, August 29, 2008

On the road, off the road

Fifteen hours in the air, chairs not designed for 6 ft 4 chaps, no sleep, a couple of movies, lots of turbulence, a fine sunrise, lovely views over Hong Kong, saying goodbye to Asia - again, back in Oxford, family reunion, back to Spain on Sunday, jet-lagged, contented, full of tea and toast, people to contact, people to thank, normal work life beckons, stream of consciousness, sleep needed!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

End of travel adventures for the summer

I spent the last couple of days in Taegu, Daegu, 대구, mostly at Keimyung university, which has truly one of the most beautiful campuses I've ever visited, set as it is in the mountains surrounding Korea's third largest city.

I came back today on the very comfortable 300 km/h KTX train and arrived into Seoul at around 9 this evening. Tomorrow is my last day in Korea. My stay here, for a little over three weeks, has been extremely useful and I certainly feel as this rather ridiculous summer of work/travel draws to a close that talking with so many people over the last two months has been well worth the tiredness that I'm now succumbing too.

Tomorrow I fly in the evening to Hong Kong, stay there for a few hours, before heading to the UK where I'll spend 48 hours before getting back to Spain in time to go to work on Monday morning. Unfortunately I'm due to land in England around 5 am on Friday morning and given my usual inability to sleep at all on flights, I'm expecting my body clock to be all out of kilter for a few days.

Anyway, with this last post before I head back home I'll leave you with a photo from the Royal Palace in Seoul, which I visited on Sunday - some shameless HDR (click for larger versions)
Royal palace, Seoul

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Give and take

My research period here in Seoul is (officially) over now, having handed in my visiting researchers report on Friday afternoon. We now have a few calculations to be getting on with over the next couple of weeks which, as always, may or may not lead to anything. Whatever happens, my time here has been lively and enjoyable, spending dozens upon dozens of hours talking with my collaborators in the two departments I've been visiting.

I'm now here for another few days before heading back to Spain via two days in England (just the way the cheapest flights went). I'm now couchsurfing in the South of the city and, as always happens with Couchsurfing, meeting some wonderful people. My host is one of the most exceptional people I've met, having such a diverse range of talents and interests that surprises never stop and we seem to be constantly discovering shared passions. My host's friends who I've met over the last few days here are also a great group, many of whom are couchsurfers themselves and it's been great to get some insights into life in Seoul as seen by the expat community, which is made up predominantly of English teachers. I don't particularly chose to spend all my time with expats, figuring that time in a foreign country is best spent finding out about life from the local residents, but on this occasion it has simply worked out that way, and it's one of the most lively intelligent groups I've had the pleasure of meeting.

(In fact, during a train ride to work, I was informed by a perfectly friendly Korean student that the reason many of the younger people I met claimed not to speak English, when really they did, was because Korean people don't like foreigners. Rather shocked at this I probed a little further and he, very frankly, said that Koreans don't like things that are different and they would rather spend time with people who were the same than with people who were strange and foreign.

My experience with those Koreans I've met has never matched with this opinion, but it was an interesting moment of matter-of-fact conversation. There are indeed many idiocyncratic aspects to modern Korean society but in my brief time here, none of these has made me dislike the place at all. I've discovered a lot by speaking with the expats who teach one-on-one with young Korean adults who often open up to the teachers with very frank statements about marriage, work, love and social life.)

Anyway, spending time with the couchsurfers and their friends here has been great and I'm continually being surprised by the fact that not only are people not silenced when I tell them that I'm a theoretical physicist, but more often than not I'm met with gasps of astonishment, followed by a flurry of great questions. Explaining physics to people with a genuine interest is hugely enjoyable and I've spent a lot of time talking with very intelligent non-physicists about many many fascinating topics over the last few days. The 'oh my god, I never knew that. That just blows my mind' response makes talking with such people so enjoyable, and thankfully I've had a lot of opportunities to get such reactions.

Getting people interested in science is a real buzz!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Solar halo over Seoul

A tiring but enjoyable day today, doing a bit of sightseeing around Seoul, I headed to the hill where the Northern Seoul tower is based, which turns out to be quite a trek in the midday heat. The view from the top gives a good sense of scale of this metropolitan area with a population of some 23 million people, pretty big, even by Chinese standards! The North mountain, Namsan houses not only the tower, but a host of other cultural exhibits and museums, and is worth a couple of hours wondering around. The forest leading to the top is also a rather pleasant change from the nearby buzz of the city.

Up at the top I was greeted with another solar halo, though only partial this time (click on the solar halo tag below this post to see more halos I've previously taken). Still, always a beautiful sight. Sadly I couldn't get to the right angle to get the tower with the halo, so opted for this simple view instead:

Solar halo over Seoul
Apart from wondering around another of the temple complexes, it's been a relatively quiet weekend, in the knowledge that I don't have so much time to work here and still with plenty to do, yesterday was spent trying to get some ideas and calculations ready for tomorrow. It's going to be a busy week in the office, but, I hope, a productive one.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Rough and tumble

It's a strange profession when a seven hour argument is the highlight of your week, but that's the way it goes in research. At around two this afternoon we started a discussion on a new idea that we've had over the last week and started battling out all aspects of this problem, from the mathematics and the feasibility to the interpretation and possible power of the model. Things got heated at times and we went through all possible combinations of disagreeing with one another, but as we left to go for dinner at around 9pm, we were all very happy, not just with the outcome, but because this is what we love to do. It's a strange game of strategy, knowledge, luck and judgment where each person tries to understand the situation, put their own spin on it and persuade the others that their interpretation is right, but it's an exhilarating one, and this sort of collaboration is my favourite kind. Who knows if this idea will come to anything, but the process so far has been a lot of fun, and we've all learnt a great deal already, by confronting old problems in new lights.

Tomorrow we've agreed to spend some time knuckling down and actually doing some more of the mathematics which underlies our idea, as by the end of our seven hours today, we were running in circles. Anyway, after raised voices and looks of despair, we left with friendships perfectly intact knowing that this is the way research goes.

In fact tomorrow is Korean independence day, but it seems like in the university, all will be as normal. Tomorrow evening I'll be going to a couchsurfing meetup in nearby Hongdae which should be a lot of fun.

Now, to relax a bit I'm trying to catch up on some of the Olympics on one of the 70+ channels on TV, however, here in Korea it seems that almost the only televised events are ones where there are Korean high hopes, which makes for a rather restricted cross-section of the games. Strangely, or not, I found the same thing in Japan and China at various times. I'm not sure if I just haven't watched English TV for too long, but I seem to remember a rather more global outlook on sport, though that may simply be that we wouldn't have enough events to fill the timetable if we only watched games we were good at!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Drawing to a close-ish

I've just given the last of my eight talks on this trip. It's been enjoyable discussing with so many people, though I'm feeling pretty pooped right now.

We have ideas spilling out of our notepads at the moment here, and not enough time to finish them all off. I have another week or so with the researchers here and it would be great to get something really concrete going quickly. There are also unfinished projects in Santiago which will really be demanding my attention as soon as I'm back home, in fact they should be demanding my attention now and I've been working on a few of them in the background, but they really need a push soon.

It's been a great, productive and interesting few weeks going through France, Germany, China and Korea, but I am looking forward to settling back into life in Spain for at least a few weeks (give or take a few talks I have to give when I get back). I'll be back there at the end of August, after a few days here to do some sightseeing and track down some san nak ji.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Photo updates

A few shots from the last couple of weeks. First of all I feel I have to post an eclipse-ish photo. As I said a few posts ago, the sky was pretty cloudy where I was, though clearly as you can see from this photo, it wasn't complete cover everywhere. The photos from totality are rather featureless, but this photo was taken perhaps a minute before the lights went out completely, taken in Pingliang, Gansu province:

moments before totality in Pingliang, Gansu
Before the eclipse, as I said, I attracted the attention of some local kids, I gave them my camera to play with and they had a blast snapping everything around them. This was one that I took of them, great expressions, great kids:
Kids in Pingliang
Back in Baoji, before heading back to Beijing I met up with a guy taking birds to market, chatted with him briefly and asked if I could take his photo. There's a compromise to be made between being overly polite, in which case you are likely to get the least natural photos, and being rude, which will probably give you the most spontaneous images. I tend to err on the side of caution a little too much, perhaps.
Birdman of Baoji
Onto Seoul, and just before the fantastic cloud shadows posted yesterday, caused by the layers of haze below the main visible clouds, we had a show of rather fine sun beams over the temple complex:
Chaonggyegung sun beams
and finally, yesterday afternoon, this guy was sat perched in a tree. I waited for around half an hour for him to fly off. Eventually he did but I fluffed up the timing and didn't get a decent photo of the ascent, still, he gave me some time before to watch him stalking the fish:
Stork in Seoul
More photos on my Flickr site and all can be found in larger sizes.

Today I've rested up and spent some time relaxing in a local cafe. Lots of things to get on with tomorrow after some productive conversations on Friday evening.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Cloud shadow over Seoul

This week has already been very busy, with many many hours of interesting, fruitful discussions with the researchers here. There are many people in the various universities here working in my area, so this is a very enjoyable time. Yesterday I also gave my first talk here, which seemed to go fine, Wednesday I give another but apart from that I already have some new calculations to try.

In the meantime, after a late night last night, beginning with watching the truly incredible opening ceremony for the Olympics, I got up today and headed to Changgyeongung, one of the many temple complexes in the city. Most of the temples were destroyed at some point in the last 500 years, and this is no exception, though there are remnants left from the 17th century. The complex includes a very nice wooded area which I spent some time walking through. There are various photos from this, but the main pic I wanted to upload now was from a wonderful cloud shadow that appeared over the complex when I arrived. This was the strongest cloud shadow I've seen and the sun beams which I have in separate photographs were truly stunning. (You may see a clipped version of the picture, so click it to see the whole thing).
cloud shadow

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Hangul basics

All good here, a long first day in the office with lots of good time to chat through a range of possible projects to work on while I'm here.

This evening I found a local bar to read through some things for tomorrow, and having just got back to my flat, found this great site: Learn to read Korean.

You should be able to get the alphabet memorised in less than an hour, as it's truly the most wonderfully logical alphabet I've ever seen. I'll have to go through it all again tomorrow to get it into long term memory but for the time being I can practice on the many signs plastered outside my window. I've just got a few of the basic words memorised, though I'm still really in Chinese mode at the moment.

Anyway, long day, so I'll leave it at that for now.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Eclipse redux

I'm now in Seoul, after an exhausting couple of days coming back from the depths of central China. All good here, though I really need a good night sleep before heading into the office tomorrow.

In summary, I didn't get to see the eclipse in it's completeness due to pretty heavy cloud cover. However, the moments of totality were still wonderful and the whole trip was well worth the tiredness, the effort, the stress of getting tickets en route, the worst of the worst squat toilets and more. It seemed that few in Pingliang knew about the coming eclipse and there were screams to be heard from around the rather impoverished area I had found to set up shop for the event.

Somehow the real time experience of a truly astronomic phenomenon is very exciting, even if I didn't see the beauty of the solar corona, the surreal experience of the light changing over a period of a minute was great. I'll see the real thing at some point, so I'm not disappointed having missed it this time.

In fact a while before the eclipse started, three local kids came up to me to see what on earth A) a foreigner was doing in their city (I didn't see a single other Westerner in four days of travels, and only one person who spoke a lick of English) and B) why on earth I was standing in the dust, looking out at nothing in particular. The kids were great and we chatted for some time. I gave them my camera to play with which they loved and I have some great photos they took of each other to put up at some point.

After the eclipse came and went I got on the train back to Baoji in Shaanxi province. As I mentioned previously I had no seat ticket, but in fact was given a seat after a while of standing. The whole journey was rather surreal from start to finish. As I got on the train 200 people turned to stare at this strange creature who had just arrived (the train was a two day train from Urumqi to Chengdu). They all started talking about me and it didn't take long for them to realise that I had some idea what they were saying. From that point on I spent a good four hours being bombarded by questions from those in the train who weren't sleeping on newspaper under the seats (mostly elderly men). Had I not been so exhausted from the last few days it would have been a treasure trove of new Chinese vocab, as I stumbled from topic to topic and we pieced things together along the way, sadly, most of the new words I heard I've now forgotten, as I could barely keep my eyes open by this point.

The next day I had another 16 hour train journey back to Beijing, which was rocky, but reasonably comfortable, and yet another good chance to meet a lot of people from around the country. If I were seriously learning Chinese I would certainly spend the weeks with my books and the weekends out in the countryside, or on short trips, practicing what I had learnt. Given such spare time I would suspect fluency would come in just a few months. Still, that'll have to wait for another lifetime.

And now, after a 5.30 start this morning I'm in Seoul, visiting a university where I'll be giving some talks and hopefully starting a new collaboration. I'm in a very nice flat, not far from the department, and I'm feeling a good deal better than the last time I was in Korea, suffering from two weeks of nasty flu.

For now I've just dealt with one of my photos, from Kong Tong Shan, the famous Daoist and Kung Fu mountain which I had planned on seeing the eclipse from, but, as explained in the previous post, managed to muck up my timing completely. Anyway, it's a rather stunning temple complex, built on and into this beautiful mountain, overlooking the flats of Pingliang. Not the greatest photo I've ever posted, but this one should really be seen for real
Kong Tong Shan

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Englishman who went up a mountain and came down a mountain

So, I was up at 5.30 this morning to head to the mountain I was going to see the eclipse from. The eclipse was due at 10.24 according to the website I'd read it from. However, having made it to the top in reasonable time, 10.24 came and went, and the faint glow of the sun showed no signs of dimming.

Having just found an internet cafe I now see that very cleverly the time was quoted as UTC, not local time. I simply didn't consider that one would write an eclipse time in anything but local time! So, this means I have another 6 hours to wait, which may just give time for the clouds to move a little.

Still, I've seen a rather beautiful, sacred mountain this morning, with stunning panoramas, gorgeous pagodas, and piped music blasting out to remove any feelings of authenticity the place may once have had. That said it was stunning and I'm glad I  made the journey here, if only for that.

Off to read some papers now (no cafes here to work in, so I'll sit in the lobby of the hotel for a while) and will head out again later to try my luck once more. After this I have a four and a half hour train ride with no seat (all the seats were sold out by the time I arrived here and there was no way to book the ticket at my previous location). So, I'll be standing till around 1 in the morning, crash in a hotel for the night and then take off on another 16 hour train ride for Beijing tomorrow evening. Adventures, adventures!