Thursday, February 28, 2008

TED talks in Monterey

Follow this year's conference in Monterey, California on the TED website and from their blog. It looks like there's a whole host of interesting talks to watch. Tell me if you find anything particularly inspiring...

Also check out the slightly less high profile, but no less interesting Bil.

One of the latest talks was from Roy Gould, on the WorldWide telescope:
'a technology that combines feeds from satellites and telescopes all over the world and the heavens, and builds a comprehensive view of our universe.'

This is one of the top on my list to watch soon.

See a few of my reviews here of previous TED talks.

Saturday, February 23, 2008


The lamprey it seems is not only a curious looking creature but an interesting organism to help biologists understand the evolution of the jaw. I am told that it also makes a fine dinner, something which Henry I would at one time have attested to, before it was too late! I caught the following guy mournfully looking at the passers by in the old town of Santiago de Compostela last week.
lollamprey suggestions will be accepted.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Science and religion

We have Fernando Alday here in Santiago for the next few days. He's talking about gluon scattering amplitudes in the planar limit (large number of colours) from AdS/CFT. Today he was taking us through the recurrence relations which one gets in the small ('t Hooft) coupling limit, but which, after resummation seems to give a general equation for all values of the coupling. (See Bern, Dixon and Smirnov)

In the next two lectures we will find out how Alday and Maldacena were able to use the AdS/CFT correspondence to show similar relations in the large ('t Hooft) coupling limit.

You can see one of Fernando's talks from when he was visiting last year's string programme in Cambridge here. He's a great speaker and I'm all for the use of blackboard talks whenever possible.

(See Jacques Distler's explanation from last year's Strings conference.)

A quick snap from last weekend.

The Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela is not only the end of the p.t. but also home to one of the largest incense burners in the world (Google Santiago de Compostela - I find the fact that it's so hard to find out anything about this place without it involving the p.t. rather frustrating so I'm aiming to steer searchers to something more about this place - even if on this case it is of a liturgical nature.)

The Botafumeiro was originally put in place to hide the smell of the pilgrims who had spent months on the road on the way to be relieved of their sins. It's still used today, though now it's more of a tourist attraction than a form of air conditioning. It takes several people to lift it onto the huge pulley system and six monks to swing it, and boy does it swing!

Have a look here for a simulation of the movement and a brief explanation of the mathematics behind it - I'm afraid my French is a little rusty to give a full translation.

Anyway, I took the following photo while they were loading the Botafumeiro.
Bota Fumero II
and a couple more here.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A bit of HDR fun

After the conference in Sitges I went through some photos and played around a bit with some HDR trickery (High Dynamic Range). The idea is to take a photo where normally the extremes of contrast would mean that some bits were overexposed while others are underexposed. By taking several photos at different exposures and a good tripod or flat piece of ground you can take the pieces from each photo which are correctly exposed and put them together into a single shot. Actually you trick and get a program to perform such an algorithm for you. Anyway, sometimes the result is completely over the top and sometimes it's very powerful. Take a look at some of the photos from Trey Ratcliff at Stuckincustoms. Anyway, the following was taken out of my lounge window at sunset. In fact this is taken from a single RAW file which contains enough information to perform an HDRification from a single shot. Perhaps a bit too easy to call art, but fun effects nonetheless.
Santiago sunset Take IIClick for larger versions and a couple of other attempts at HDR. (Many thanks to Trey for the tip on the above photo - it may not be quite there but it's given me some more ideas to play around with)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Brains and brawn, and brains (and branes)

I've bookmarked a few videos over the last couple of months of people doing things which people simply shouldn't be able to do, both mentally and physically and thought I'd share them.

The first is the story of Daniel Tammat, a British boy with an unusual form of Autism. He is an autistic savant, but very high functioning in that his social interaction, one of the key impairments of many people with autism, is largely unaffected. His ability shows up through a form of synaesthesia which links colours and shapes with numbers. It appears that he can perform incredible mathematical calculations simply by manipulating the images in his head. Don't be fooled by the first few calculations he pulls of, which are the sorts of mental trickery which I've seen other people perform, and impressive though it is, it's not the result, but how he gets there which is most interesting. He even has a feeling for the properties of numbers, such as whether one is prime or not. Such 'feelings' must surely be limited, but they are stunning nonetheless. At the end of the video Daniel shows off his other talent which is for languages, when he goes to Iceland to see if he can get familiar with some local phrases.

(Part one of five:)

See the whole video here.

The other videos are shorter but impressive nonetheless.

From the mental to the physical and a couple of videos from Tim Ferris which appealed to me. I'm sure that when I was at primary school, people would try break dancing which invariably involved some pseudo-Cossack dance with an attempted head spin. Things it seems move on and this video is frankly unbelievable. Some of the things he does suggest that his centre of mass is rather further up his body than that of most 'normal' human beings, but then normal isn't an adjective that describes this guy very effectively! Frankly I find watching this just incredible and it makes me chuckle to realise that most of us push ourselves to extremes so rarely.
Also check out another French guy named Lilou who I believe is the world number one break dancer currently, and while he is insanely impressive, I find his dancing more like contortion than an art.

Also, for another video of people doing amazing things, this time with footballs on the streets of Mexico, have a look here. Somewhere between Parkour, Capoeira and keepy-uppys, even if on occasion the ball is CGI, it's impressive to watch.

And back to the mind...

If you ever thought that Rubik's cube was too devious for you, or indeed too easy, then you will be appauled or pleased respectively to know that there are order-7 Rubik's cubes out there. Once you know that there are algorithms for solving such things the amazement lessens, as it's not a matter of knowing every step in advance to go from the beginning to the end.

From The Unapologetic Mathematician - John, of course, has more on the mathematics of this.

Anyway, I have T-dualities to get back to, hope you find something inspiring in the above

Spanish update - three months in

I've just come back from my first Spanish language exchange so I thought I'd give a bit of an update on how things are coming on with the language.

After what felt like a blistering start, working very hard and late into the evenings on learning Spanish vocab, things felt like they've hit a bit of a brick wall. I learnt around 1000 words in my first month but I'm not sure that that has increased much in the following two. With such a gradual process it's rather hard to monitor my own progress, but certainly with recent conferences and winter schools, there have been some big breaks in getting into the language.

Things look relatively clear ahead and I'm managing around 4 hours a week of lessons in the evenings, one-on-one. My teacher speaks no English during the lessons and I use almost none. With my work currently moving along reasonably well I'm working solidly in the day and then usually for a while after dinner. The idea of then going through flash cards of vocab and drilling myself on the grammar seems to become less and less appealing.

So, as an incentive to get another mode of language input I went along tonight to a bar in the old town which hosts a weekly language exchange. I turned up late but was still able to find a Spaniard to torture for a while and language was indeed exchanged. I'll certainly be going back as I'm finding the biggest hurdle at the moment is actually using what I know.

As with Chinese I'm going through the Pimsleur course which is a great addition. In the case of Chinese it was the best method I found for picking up the correct sounds, whereas for Spanish, the sounds are less of a problem and the grammar (which is in some senses non-existent in Chinese) is much trickier.

In fact I find it much more relaxing to listen to Chinese podcasts (Chinesepod) these days and am probably picking up more Chinese than I reasonably should be - they have hundreds of lessons at all different levels, highly recommended. As I've said before, having put a modicum of effort into the Mandarin before, I really don't want to lose it.

I thought that watching Spanish television would help but the programs seem to be so mindless that I simply turn my brain off and let it wash over me - not a terribly good solution. Radio is slightly better but harder to understand due to lack of context

Anyway, three months into Spain and I can converse on a pretty basic level. Not quite where I wanted to be by now, but definitely heading in the right direction.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Kevin Rudd's apology and a few tales of Aboriginal society

It's unlikely that I'd be writing this post if it wasn't for Couchsurfing and in particular the Couchsurfer who is currently staying with me. My Couchsurfer, Jada, is an Australian girl of Aboriginal descent who was brought up an Aboriginal community in Northern Australia. For her this week has been extremely important, historically, and I feel privileged to have spent so much time talking with her and finding out about the significance of this week's events in the grand scheme of the last century and more.

For those who didn't know, this week Kevin Rudd, Australia's Prime Minister made an official apology on behalf of the Australian government to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders for the stolen generations. The taking of children, mostly from mixed white and indigenous backgrounds, took place from the 1870s all the way up to the 1970s. The reasoning was that those with some white blood needed saving from the barbarous non-Christian influences (of the oldest continuous civilization on earth!). They were taken by law from their families and placed in the care of good Christians. The communities were ripped apart by this policy over a period of about a century. This was on top of the culture being already invaded by Western influences and the lack of rights to the indigenous peoples (they were not fully represented in the census until 1967, despite being sent to fight in the second world war - and not being counted back).

Jada, my Couchsurfer, has been directly affected by the policies of the last century. Jada's aunt and great grandmother were taken from their families, in the 1920s and 70s respectively and so this has had a direct influence on her life.

The apology has been met with mixed feeling, though I understand that in general it is seen very positively. Some people don't believe that such an apology was necessary and some believe that because it wasn't this government which implemented the policies, that it shouldn't be them that says sorry. The sincerity with which the apology was delivered was moving and frankly if it helps to mend the ruptures which have been caused, then claiming responsibility for being part of the system which has caused the last centuries tragedies seems valid. The similarities with the Truth and Reconciliation commission in South Africa are not great but the idea of admissions of guilt and in particular the stories being told in the Australian media now appear to be engendering similar feelings of amity.

Having chatted with Jada over the last few days I've learnt many interesting things but clearly in such a short time I've heard just a fragment of what there is to know about this millenniums old culture. I'd love to be able to write down all the details which I've learnt but sadly I feel it's rather rude to have a guest around and then record them in an interview :-)

Since the British settlers arrived in Australia towards the end of the 18th century, more and more of the indigenous populations have been forced out of their natural way of living. I wondered how many people still live in the completely original way.

The answer is that of the 400 thousand or so Aborginal people, none lives as they would have done a couple of hundred years ago. Not a single one still lives off the land in the original nomadic lifestyle. The last nine literally walked out of the outback onto the streets of Alice Springs in 1984!...and that was it. No more! In fact Jada looked after one of the nine who walked out, a guy whose Western name is Thomas, . He didn't speak English then and he still doesn't today, though apparently he likes to take a Country and Western book around with him which he likes to look at from time to time. He's now an extremely well-renowned painter of Aboriginal art.

There's simply no incentive for the current generations to get back to the original way of life, which is not surprising. Not to say that life is easy for the communities.

One of the reasons that there has been mixed reaction in Australia to the apology is because there is some considerable resentment towards the Aboriginal people. In some occasions the social benefits they get are greater than non-Aboriginals and a large percentage of the Aboriginals that others see live in squalor and spend their days drinking.

(In some places there are laws about how much alcohol can be bought by Aboriginal people in a single day. On one occasion Jada went with a cousin into a shop to buy a bottle of wine. They left to get a bag and when they tried to come back in, her cousin was unable to reenter. Her cousin's skin was much darker than hers and so the rules dictated that she wasn't allowed back into the store until the next day. This isn't a story from 50 years ago - this is happening today, by law!)

Anyway, the resentment on one level is understandable. People say that the Aboriginal people should be helping themselves more and that if they sit around all day drinking, why should anyone else care? Well, a large factor is that if your culture has been disrupted after some 5000 years of continuity, your children are taken away, you're treated as a second class citizens, or worse, that it's not really surprising that things fall apart. For instance, for people who were born into a nomadic lifestyle the concept of money is simply not ingrained and when such communities have money, the idea of saving, rather than spending it on readily available alcohol just doesn't register.

The positive note seems to be that in the grand scheme of things the last 200 years is a blink and the last 50, though very serious, may not be irreparable. The deep pride which the Aboriginal people have for their culture should, in time be enough to get over the mess which has been caused by the muddled intrusion of one society on another.

We spoke a little about the religion. Jada is an actor by training as well as a musician and artist and paints the Aboriginal art (This has been coined the Dreamtime stories by European settlers) - the spoken and painted forms which allow the folklore to pass down through the generations - the culture has no written language. The lore dictates that Jada is not allowed to draw anything other than her Dreaming. Her particular Dreaming is called Caterpillar Dreaming and is related to a mountain range not far from Alice Springs, called the Macdonnal Ranges. She paints and repaints this Dreaming through her own interpretations and it's a vital part of the culture that these tales do not get lost.

The Dreamtime stories are a vital way in which the culture continues from generation to generation and if these are lost it would truly be a tragedy. The languages are already disappearing and even in cities with large Aboriginal communities, the options to learn the native languages are few and far between.

I've learned much more from Jada, about the superstitions, the funerals, the current and past situations and I certainly feel like I would like to find out more. It's a fascinating culture which has gone through serious upheavals in our lifetime. The future is looking brighter, but by no means easy and I hope that the extra attention which is being drawn to the current situation of the culture helps things to improve.

I don't wish to gush, but I am extremely grateful that Couchsurfing has helped me to meet so many fascinating people since I joined two years ago, and on this particular occasion to meet and talk with Jada over the last few days. If you are open minded and don't mind letting a stranger come into your house to share your city then I would highly advise joining up and meeting a lot of wonderful people!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Barcelona take 2

...and a couple of photos taken on Sunday afternoon walking around Barcelona before catching the flight back to Santiago

This was taken with a 5 second exposure and some post processing (It seems to be clipped in some browsers so click for the full version):
Park in Barcelona
and of course the Sagrada Familia. This building makes the construction of the LHC look relatively painless. It is hoped that it will be finished by 2025, 100 years after Gaudi's death.
Sagrada Familia

Contrasts and reflections on Barcelona

From the Catalan art gallery, which is on a hill overlooking much of Barcelona. It's a wonderful building with a lot of light and shadows:

Catalan art gallery dome
and from just behind the gallery one can walk to the area where the Olympic games were hosted. The Telefonica tower makes for a striking white contrast against the blue sky, but I'll just give you this reflection for now:
Barcelona Olympic area reflection

Click for larger and here for more.

A busy week ahead with a few more ideas to play with since going to the conference. It's really tough to ignore other possible projects even when you have lots on and I'm just happy to be learning lots from those around me at the moment.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sitges and more

I've just returned from Barcelona where I was couchsurfing last night. The workshop in Sitges was very good and has given me a few things to think about. In particular I was interested in the discussion of calculating entanglement entropy using AdS/CFT plus a rather good talk on Kac-Moody algebras in supergravity which ties in with some reading I'm currently doing. My talk seemed to go down fine too, though I know that I spoke too quickly, something I have to pay more attention to in general.

The Couchsurfing was a lot of fun, though when I turned up in Barcelona at 6 in the evening, my host (who I'd never met) was out with friends in a bar and we didn't have a chance to go back to her flat to put down my bags. The night was enjoyable and I got to meet a lot of locals, from all walks of life (artists, directors, ex-physicists, Ibizan party animals and more besides). Today, I took some time to walk around Barcelona and have a lot of photos to process when I can.

I'll just post one photo for now. This was from the first night in Sitges, where the conference was being held. Sitges is known for the huge carnival which lasts several days. On the final night is a special ceremony on the beach, known as the burying of the sardine. After this there is a huge fireworks display over the church. This was the photo I took from the balcony of my hotel room:

Fireworks over Sitges

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Photo in National Geographic daily dozen

I just received an e-mail telling me that one of my photos appeared in the National Geographic Daily Dozen (January, week 4). Well, that's nice surprise. This was the photo:

Net censorship to be removed - briefly

Yep, kind of inevitable. As I've said before, China and in particular Beijing is going to be a spotless paradise for the time around the Olympics after which the pollution will roll back and the net nanny will resume her duty. From the Peking Duck


After the previous slightly low post I took myself off to a local Chinese restaurant where I was doted upon and made to feel much better. In the mood to tackle these problems now...

Ups and Downs

My mood is currently in a bit of a strange state of manic flux - something which I don't often experience, but I want to write things down to try and stabilise everything in my own mind.

I'm currently at a conference in Sitges, just outside of Barcelona.

Yesterday I was up at 5.30 to take the flight to Barcelona and spent a few hours walking around this absolutely beautiful city. I had expected the architecture to be impressive but I have to say I was absolutely taken aback by how stunning it was. Lots of photos to follow when I get back to Santiago and process them.

I met up with three of my colleagues later at Barcelona airport and we took the train to Sitges, a small, seaside town on the Med. So, the good points:

I'm at a conference, listening to some interesting talks, by some very good physicists. There are a lot of impressive people here and I should be able to talk to a fair number and make some good links.

The hotel is incredible, or rather the view is. The view from my window looks out over the perfect blue skies and the Mediterranean sea. The beach is perhaps 20 meters or so from my balcony and the palm trees gently rustling in the wind make for a relaxing accompaniment while I work at my laptop.

So, everything should be perfect...but

I try not to talk or blog about negative things, but sometimes they just build up and you gotta...sorry!

The cold which I caught back in Santiago is turning into a bruiser. My normal symptoms for a cold are sweating from the face like a pig and this is never pleasant for me, or anyone else - this doesn't make me feel terribly sociable. Consequently I slept badly last night and so am feeling grouchy today.

I'm reminded here of the fact that my Spanish hasn't come on as fast as I'd have liked. Trying to juggle physics and learning another language is proving tough once more and though I've learned a lot of vocab, the active use of it is coming along frustratingly slowly. Hopefully when I stop running around the country I'll have more time to concentrate on it. People are very very good about speaking English when I'm around and so it's a lot easier than it ever was in China, but I do occasionally think it would be nice to interact normally in shops and restaurants in the country I live.

A couple of my projects have just hit problems which is the way with research, but an accumulation of very different things has suddenly dealt me a bit of a blow and has knocked my confidence a little. Sometimes you just have to take a deep breath and get on with it...

OK, so I feel like I should just pull myself together, pump myself up with some pills and enjoy this amazing place and get on with the the work at hand. Sometimes it's just good to get these things down on paper...may not sound like much but sometimes, especially when you're tired from travelling it can get to you. Right, better, off and out for dinner!

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Santiago de Compostela Carnival

There is a patron saint for every day of the year and it seems that there's one holiday for every patron saint. It seems we have nominal holidays here at least every couple of weeks, where many things close, including the department. That said, most of us are still in the office working but today things really came to a halt.

Today, being Shrove Tuesday is big business in this predominantly catholic country and I got my first taste of a real Spanish carnival. Things kicked off at about six in the evening as the streets, lined with people readied themselves for the party. People had been mulling about in costume for at least the previous hour, dancing, and singing to keep themselves warm.

I had expected a couple of rickety old floats with people waving and was stunned by the costumes and energy which went into the whole thing. Despite the rain which towards the end fell hard. Everyone seemed to have a great time as the carnival wound its way up from the station to the cathedral square.

You could spot me a mile away (not just because I was the tallest around by almost a head) but because I was the only person completely unprepared, with no umbrella, and I was also one of the few people with a camera. In China I became used to the idea that the smallest of events was enough to start snapping pictures, and people in all parts of China that I visited liked to invest in very expensive equipment.

In Spain it appears to be the polar opposite and I guess there must have been one camera for every few hundred people - anyway, just a slightly strange cultural anomaly I hadn't expected. There are plenty more photos from the day on my Flickr site but here are a few for the blog:

white woman
green dancer
colourful man
boy in gold

Tomorrow I'm flying to Barcelona early in the morning and then taking a car to Sitges where I'm attending a three day conference. I will be giving a talk on Friday to a pretty distinguished audience and though I'm feeling a little intimidated, I am looking forward to it. I'll report from the conference if there's both wifi and time.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Bubbly goodness

A friend of mine in Beijing is employed in the great army of international experts working to make the 2008 Olympics run smoothly. It so happens that she also makes the occasional video of her travels around Beijing. This week she has been lucky enough to go to the stunning National Aquatic Centre - The Watercube, which is the largest ETFE (read plastic bubble) clad building in the world and stands next to the Bird's Nest. Here is her video composition:

(Via Toomanytribbles)

Ancient and modern

I hope to talk in more detail about this weekend soon, having had a fascinating Couchsurfer staying at my place for a couple of days.

Today we went for lunch with another of Santiago's 20 or so active Couchsurfers for a delicious, traditional Galician meal. I was thoroughly impressed when our host bought out his Gallego water cooler, a device which is traditionally taken into the fields while working a hard day in the hot sun. The jug is made of a slightly porous material which lets the water slowly through where it evaporates and cools the contents.

What is more, Fara has written the equation for the rate of cooling of the water onto the outside of his vessel. This formula takes into account the humidity in the air, the surface area of water in contact with the container, the outside temperature, and the specific heat capacity of water.

At some point I'll also post up a photo of the crutch converted into a flute but that will have to wait until a more reasonable hour...