Sunday, September 28, 2008

Stephen Hawking and the Fonseca prize

This weekend has been as non-stop as always. In a push to keep the momentum from my intensive Spanish course going I've spent a few hours in a cafe reading through National Geographic and have been pleasantly surprised that it's not been too much of a struggle. On top of this I've had a bunch of programing to do and a paper from a collaborator to read pre-publication. Plus, of course, the healthy dose of couchsurfers descending on Romero Donallo.

However, the big event of the weekend was the public seminar of Stephen Hawking in the Palace of Congress which began with Hawking being presented with the Fonseca Prize for the Popularisation of Science.

The talk was on black holes and was pretty well given and received. Nothing terribly unexpected, though there were a couple of tongue in cheek remarks as Stephen layed claim to the Nobel prize (this slide clearly taken out of context!).
Hawking claims the Nobel prize ;-)
(I'm proud to put in my first Gallego translation here:)
Thus it may still be possible that I receive the Nobel Prize after all.

And here is a snap of Stephen mid-seminar. We were lucky to be very near the front, as the 1500 seat palace was fully packed!
Hawking at the Palacio de Congresos in Santiago de Compostela
A non-stop week lies ahead!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Spanish in perspective and Stephen Hawking in Santiago de Compostela

My schedule is again back to something approximating sanity, with the Spanish course having finished today. We managed to fit a three month course into two and a half weeks of lessons. During this time I felt frustrated at the lack of practice I was getting while in the classroom, but as it comes to an end I see that I have actually got something valuable out of these three weeks.

We 'learned' a great deal of grammar in the class, a lot of structures and syntactical constructions. My frustration came about because it was just too much and I can't don't remember to use very much of this in my conversation. However, what I have gained is a set of points which I can look out for in other people's conversations and gradually, through immersion can start to put in my own speech. It's going to take time and effort on my part, but I think this awareness of what to look for in conversation is key. I now have some ideas for exercises that I can try out with the television, a rich resource which I rarely use. I'm going to attempt to watch the TV for around 20 minutes a day and, with paper and pen in front of me, look out for specific constructions, jotting them down when I hear them. This will give me a good familiarity with them and also should help me understand the frequency with which they are used in everyday life. Anyway, I'll let you know how that goes.

In other news...Stephen Hawking is in town and this is huge. It's especially important for a relatively small city which has gone crazy over his visit. Saturday will be the big day, but he has so far taken part in many events, including the last 150 or so meters of the Camino, a major press conference, and a talk in our department on inflation in the early universe.

The talk (based on this paper with Hartle and Hertog) focused on the reason that we started at the top of a potential, which has been conjectured to give rise to slow roll inflation, and not in a minimum. The claim is that using the appropriate weighting for calculating the probability of starting at a maximum, using the Hartle-Hawking wavefunction of the universe, you are led to a high probability for such a 'boundary condition'.

Anyway, the talk was just 20 minutes and the room was absolutely rammed. I've seen Hawking give a couple of talks now, and the media circus which follows him around is fairly crazy. He seems to have pretty good control over what he will and won't allow, and when enough was enough, with the cameras and film crews, he asked them to leave at which point they shut up shop. The audience was warned that it was indeed going to be a technical talk but almost none of the members (mostly made up of non-physicists) budged, leaving many of those who were actually there to hear what he had to say, without a seat. Still, it was an interesting talk, on a subject I haven't studied myself, but was pretty understandable in the short seminar.

For a video of some of the things he's been up to here in Santiago, I've embedded this short video:

On a Hawking related note, I'll also add this video of the chronophage, which has recently been inaugurated in Corpus Cristi, in Cambridge, and is a wonderful time keeping device/steam punk engineering

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Stephen Hawking coming to Santiago de Compostela

Population and press are collectively very excited to have Stephen Hawking coming to visit Santiago for a week of events, culminating in a public seminar next Saturday for an audience of around 1500. He is primarily coming to receive the Fonseca Prize. He's also going to be spending some time in our department where he will give a talk on Wednesday afternoon. On top of this there will be a press conference and various public events which the people of the city and surrounding area are extremely excited about.

A couple of weeks back we had the cameras in our department from the local news channels, interviewing various students and researchers about what Stephen Hawking meant for them. As an Englishman, I had to give my take on what he means to me, as a compatriot. I have to admit that my two minutes or so was probably not terribly impressive, and I usually feel more comfortable giving an hour seminar than a short sound-bite. Anyway, another learning experience for me.

On top of all this, my intensive Spanish course draws to an exhausting close with a couple of exams on Wednesday. In fact these exams don't matter in any academic sense, but I'm still going to take the opportunity to do my best...we'll see! Finishing off the homework from the lessons on top of a regular day in the office has been taking its toll and I'm feeling pretty shattered right now - this weekend has given me a good chance to see how my Spanish is coming on though, which has been pretty pleasing on average. On top of all this and cooking a large meal last week for a group of friends, I kinda need a rest, though this may have to wait until Christmas!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Maybe it's not so bad after all...

I spent a pretty crazy number of hours studying this weekend, hence the slightly snotty last post - I tend to do that when I'm overdoing it! Anyway, somehow it doesn't feel quite so hard when you get to study in wonderful parks in a medieval city. Of course I took my camera along too and to give you an idea of my surroundings as I sat there struggling with the past subjunctive I took this shot in the grounds of Parque de Bonaval
Parque  de Bonaval
Click for more details as ever

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Frustrations in the classroom

The intensive Spanish course which I'm currently taking for two hours a day is proving useful, frustrating and difficult in somewhat unequal measures. My classmates are mostly Brazilians and Italians who have been studying Spanish for several years, so already I'm out of my depth. However, the time that I spend after the class talking with them is great practice, and likely more useful than the class itself.

It's been some 12 years since I was last sat in a traditional language class room. I didn't much enjoy it back then and I feel ever more frustrated now. This is not to say that my teacher is not good. She's actually an excellent teacher who explains grammatical points well and keeps the momentum of the classroom going. By any normal measure of language teachers, she's truly first grade. However, I have some deep hangups about teaching languages in the 'traditional' manner.

Most of this stems from the audio courses I've been using for Chinese and Spanish for the last couple of years, and is what, I believe, I can put a lot of my 'success' down to (the playing down of success is not modesty but simple fact - there are many people who do a great deal better than I do in a shorter time).

With the audio courses I've been using it is almost like having a teacher one-on-one, and feels wonderfully effortless. You spend around half the time talking and the other half listening, and none of that time is spent trying to work out the logic of the grammatical constructions, but is somehow like being immersed. In a classroom of 20 pupils however I guess I say less than 50 words in two hours - that's seriously inefficient if you believe, as I do, that physically saying the words is the best way to memorise them - the mouth and ears, and not the eyes and hand are the gateway from the teacher's wealth of information to the brain. I have a bunch of ideas on how I believe we can 'revolutionise' language learning in the classroom, but of course having little experience of language teaching I have little authority on the subject. (Actually this isn't quite correct - we spend some time talking in pairs, but I probably spend a lot of that time talking bad Spanish and I can do that in my own time :-)

One thing which surprises and frustrates me on this course is that although we have a large number of exercises to work through, I find that having done them, I haven't actually used the parts of my brain which allow me to remember how to use the grammatical details in a real context. I'm too busy working out the answers, to let myself relax and simply become familiar with the natural use. As kids, clearly we don't spend time filling in the blanks, or changing the present subjunctive into the imperfect subjunctive. Somehow it all feels too artificial and I immediately put up a mental block with such methods. It may sound very old fashioned, but I'd rather just listen to and repeat phrases until they feel natural than work out the logic of grammatical constructions. I still believe that it's a loss that we are no longer taught grammar in schools, but I think that when learning a foreign language, there are better ways than most of the methods we use currently.

Anyway, I'm keeping on with the course because I am at least spending some time actively working on the Spanish, and that is certainly a good thing, however time spent in the classroom takes me right back to the years I spent in classrooms at school, not very efficiently learning French, Russian or Latin.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Full circulation of beams in the LHC successfully completed

Great news!

See here and here for the progress over the last hour or so.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

LHC startup - links only

I'm afraid that things are simply too busy for me to justify a full writeup, the length of which the LHC deserves, so I shall just jot down some thoughts for now and link to the best places to get information on tomorrow's start-up.

Tomorrow is not that day of first collisions, that will come presumably in a few weeks time. Tomorrow is the first day of full circulation of protons within the beam pipe. This is a technological milestone, and a hugely important day for the progress of the machine, but not a special day for scientific discoveries.

The LHC is the largest, most complex machine ever built to discover what happens on the smallest, most basic level of nature - somehow this seems rather perverse, but that's the way the world works, and this is how we've learnt to probe the forces that govern the universe, and the matter which lies within it. The LHC is a feat of engineering, technological and political marvels, and the fact that it is already many, many years behind its original startup date does not detract from the fact that it is an incredible human achievement...and tomorrow we discover whether or not they correctly connected the starter motor. In fact tomorrow they will be discovering many new things about this machine which cannot be known until protons are running through it.

Having spent some time myself at Babar, a particle accelerator at SLAC, in Stanford, and spent many many hours in the control room, watching over the histograms, and seeing the engineers lose the beam over and over again (this isn't a criticism, it's a comment on how difficult the job is, even for a well-established machine), I won't be too surprised/dissapointed if tomorrow things do not go off to a perfectly smooth start straight away. If it takes hours/days or even weeks to correctly get the proton beams circulating, it wouldn't be that incredible, but I look forward to seeing what happens tomorrow nonetheless.

Anyway, tomorrow I will be keeping up with the progress in the morning through various sources. You can find many good links from:

A quantum diaries survivor
Cosmic Variance, who will be live-blogging the events
The US LHC blog

Of course, the CERN/LHC webpage
Including the live webcast
Twitter on CERN, or indeed CERN on Twitter - I've never looked at Twitter, being already deluged with too much information, but it seems that for up to the minute events, this is probably useful.
Also check out the TED website for some more information.

OK, that'll do for now. Enjoy!

Monday, September 08, 2008

In at the deep end

Tired of not having as much Spanish as I should have after almost a year here, I signed up to a free course that the university offers to Erasmus students. Last Friday I took an exam (the first exam in many years) to see which class was appropriate for my level. Most of the test was multiple choice, and, using logic rather than knowledge I seemed to do much better than I should have done and ended up in the top class.

Today I turned up to my first lesson, with 20 other students many of whom are here for six months, only to discover that most of my other class mates are Brazilians or Italians who have been learning Spanish for several years. They seem, to me at least, to be virtually fluent and it seems that this class is going to be hard going, but I hope very useful.

Today, amongst other things we were given three novelas to read by the end of the course (the course is less than three weeks) and answer questions on them. I started tonight and am a good way through the first one, though it's pretty hard going for me and I spend as much time with my nose in the dictionary, as reading the text.

Anyway, for the next three weeks I'll be taking these lessons for a couple of hours every day and I'm really hoping that it's going to give me some more confidence, which I believe is the main thing holding me back at the moment. This is clear to me because at times I can converse with people quite happily in Spanish, while at others I close up completely and look like I know nothing.

Anyway, will try and keep you up to date with progress.

Depending on how work and study goes tomorrow I'll be giving some information on the LHC startup which I'll certainly be watching on Wednesday morning.

See here for a very good summary of the coverage which you can keep up to date with.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Leaving Incheon

I have an intensely busy month coming up, with a Spanish course about to take over my lunchtimes and the usual number of projects on the go. Couchsurfing is on hold for a little bit too, though I did meet up with a Norwegian couchsurfer last week who contacted me wanted to know all about string theory. We spent an enjoyable couple of hours over a coffee chatting about all things high-energy.

Anyway, I'll post the last of my Korea photos for now, which aptly is the photo taken as I was waiting in Incheon airport for this summer's travel adventures to draw to a close.

Leaving Seoul

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Takoyaki with Galician pulpo, a first?

Yesterday we had a seminar from a Japanese researcher who is currently doing a postdoc in Chile. After the seminar a few of us headed for dinner to a local restaurant and had the usual, very tasty selection of Galician delights, Pimientos de Padron, Pulpo a la feira, xoubas and much besides. I chatted with the speaker and his wife, also from Japan and when I mentioned that I'd inherited a Takoyaki pan from a Japanese friend who had left Santiago a couple of months back, their eyes lit up and they told me that it had been many moons since they'd had takoyaki. So, I invited them for lunch today for a hands-on takoyaki fest. This was the first time I'd made it, but in fact it turned out rather well and I'm sure to do it again soon. So, this is my/our recipe for takoyaki.

Start off by making a dashi, a Japanese stock, which traditionally isn't as strong as a western stock. Before my guests turned up I made a shiitake stock by steeping a handfull of dried shiitake mushrooms in boiled water. This takes just 20 minutes or so.

When they arrived, the stock was ready and to the dashi (around 275 ml) we added 200 grams of flour, one egg, a pinch of salt, a quarter of a teaspoon of baking powder, a finely chopped spring onion, and a couple of finely chopped shiitakes, previously well soaked.

Take your takoyaki pan, should you be lucky enough to have one (see below), or equivalent and heat it directly over a flame until it becomes very hot. A good takoyaki pan should be as heavy as possible in order to distribute the heat slowly and evenly. Coat the pits in a little oil and spoon in the batter. This should sizzle straight away and start to rise a little. Immediately add a small piece of cooked octopus to each batter section. After a minute or so, take your takoyaki pick and turn the batter and octopus upside down. The bottom of each one should now be spherical.
Homemade Takoyaki
Cook for another minute or so and then put straight on a plate.

For the sauce, mix a few teaspoons of Worcestershire sauce to a few tablespoons of mayonnaise and a dash of soy sauce (really one should get hold of an okonomiyaki sauce, but this is rather hard to come by in my neck of the woods) and spoon it over the takoyaki. Sprinkle the top with dried tuna flakes and enjoy, piping hot!

Though my guests admitted that they weren't exactly as in Japan, they said this was mostly due to the sauce not being quite the same, but they seemed to enjoy them as much as I did, and I'll be sure to make them again.

I'm sure that you could do the same thing with any normal cup cake tin, though you'd have to be careful with the quantity of mix and the temperature distribution, but it's worth giving it a go.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Huajiao in a Baoji market

Almost three years ago now at the beginning of my stay in China I discovered a weird and wonderful spice that I'd never heard of before. Huajiao, or Sichuan pepper contains hydroxy-alpha-sanshool which leads to a tingly, numbing feeling and, along with the subtle clovey/lemony overtones makes for a rather addictive experience. A mapo dofu (麻婆豆腐) would be nothing without the use of a good handful of huajiao and the expat favourite, gongbao jiding (宫保鸡丁) would lose a vital dimension sichuan pepper-free.

Anyway, I'm writing this to link to this photo, taken in Baoji, Shaanxi province as I went hunting for the solar eclipse last month. I often found that markets were good places in China for getting shots of the street-sellers who were usually very happy to have their photo taken, given a few minutes of small-talk first.

Huajiao in Baoji

Right now, having arrived back here just a couple of days ago I'm having to stock up on food and having made a batch of humous which should last a good few days I have a chicken soup on the boil now. The local shops give away chicken carcasses for free and the pot is now full to overflowing with six carcasses. The smell is not helping my work!

Monday, September 01, 2008

Panorama from Namsan, Seoul

Over the next few days I'll try and put up a few more photos from the summer. This is a 12 shot panorama taken from Namsan, Seoul's South mountain with a little HDR to boot. Click the photo to get to a huge version (almost 12000 pixels wide!). Note that blogger is likely to cut this image off halfway anyhoo so click to see the whole thing.

Seoul Panorama HDR