Although I've always maintained that this site is for me to jot down my odd thoughts as I stumble from place to place, taking in what's around me, I'm also happy to write up the odd review and advert when there are things which I think are particularly worthwhile.
I was contacted through the blog a couple of weeks back when I said that I was getting on well with the Chinesepod lessons, from a company called EChineselearning who offered me some Skype Chinese lessons. Because life is just a little too busy at the moment and I'm currently not happy to take time out of the middle of my day to continue what is in essence an added extra to life, I've ended up scheduling these lessons at midnight once a week - this is 7 am Beijing time which is the earliest they can manage.
Anyway, I had a quick test over the phone to find out what my level was, and soon after received the materials for the first lesson: a chapter from some way through a text book.
My first lesson was a pleasant surprise. I wasn't sure if it was going to be awkward having a lesson over the phone, but as they are set up with web-cams, being able to see the teacher is a big help. We spoke predominantly in Chinese, though on the odd occasion where the teacher did have to explain something in English, she was clearly very good - As far as I know most of the teachers have degrees in teaching Chinese to foreign students. They use both Skype text as well as a blackboard behind them to write down anything supplementary and the Skype text is particularly useful as you can simply keep this is a file on the computer for later.
I've just had a couple of lessons so far, and though I don't have much time during the week to practice (though I have an hour extra conversation once a week with a Chinese student) it still feels like this is going to be a very useful resource to help improve my skills before I head back to visit the KITPC in Beijing.
This is also much cheaper than most one-on-one Chinese lessons would be. The lowest prices they offer are under ten dollars a lesson, and compared to most one-on-one language lessons, this seems very reasonable.
Anyway, if you're looking for a resource of very professional Chinese teachers but can't spare the time or money to find a private tutor in your neck of the woods I'd definitely advise giving this new language learning method a go.
Monday, March 31, 2008
Although I've always maintained that this site is for me to jot down my odd thoughts as I stumble from place to place, taking in what's around me, I'm also happy to write up the odd review and advert when there are things which I think are particularly worthwhile.
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Toomanytribbles has been shooting some amazing architecture photos in Beijing recently. I took this shot last year in Beijing of the Bird's nest Olympic Stadium:
Somehow it's taken on a rather more finished look which TMT captured in this stunning photo:
Check out more of her photos at her Flickr site here and on her blog here.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Posted by Jonathan Shock at 1:51 p.m.
This is pretty big news, though as I've said before, unsurprising in the run up to the Olympics which will see tens of thousands of International journalists in Beijing. They don't want a lot of angry writers on their hands and not allowing them to see their own news sites would certainly be one way to be sure of firey words!
My only hope is that when they discover that China doesn't fall apart when a free flow of press is allowed that perhaps they won't shut everything back down after the games.
(On the other hand, there's this)
Sunday, March 23, 2008
I've had a chance to watch the first two parts of Sidney Coleman's legendary lecture course on QFT this weekend. Each is about an hour and a half long and although you won't learn much more of the fundamental physics than in any basic QFT book, the insights and thought patterns which come through from Sidney's wonderful lecture style are a superb addition to the current resources on the subject. The blackboard is not easy to read but the audio for the most part is very clear, even when Sidney is walking around, puffing on his cigarette. I would advise following along to the lecture notes which have been partly TeXed up here. (Thanks to theoreticalminimum for the reminder).
There have been a few other interesting posts this week in addition to the good news about the above lectures:
One of the most substantial posts came from Flip Tomato with a vast list of resources for anybody wanting to learn supersymmetry, from just about any level. I would probably add to this the book by Buchbinder and Kuzenco: Ideas and Methods of Supersymmetry and Supergravity: Or a Walk Through Superspace, though this is notation-heavy it's also very very thorough. I've never had to deal with this subject in anger but would probably turn to this book if I did.
Mark at Good Math, Bad Math is starting a series of posts on Game theory, which I'm looking forward to following. We were lucky to have John Nash come to Santiago back in November and a few members of the physics and maths department had a question and answer session with him the day before his public speech. It was fascinating to watch a man who usually shies away from the spotlight but has been so instrumental in developing whole new areas of mathematics with many many applications to the real world. He spoke a little about string theory (his sentences would move continuously from one subject to another, with carefully chosen words, but a seemingly chaotic sense of direction) and in fact one of his first published results (the Nash Embedding theorem) details the embedding of Riemannian surfaces into higher dimensional Euclidean space which seems to have some cute coincidences with the dimensions of string theory - he did point out that he didn't see anything deep in this apparent numerology.
The blogosphere has been going wild over the case of PZ Myers being expelled from a free showing of a film in which he was interviewed, under false pretenses. The pro-creationist film Expelled - No Intelligence Allowed (which has been given bad reviews on just about every facet), lived up to its title. The list of ironies is endless including the fact that Richard Dawkins, Myers' guest was not recognised and was allowed into the cinema. After the showing Dawkins asked why PZ had been ejected and was given a series of ridiculous answers. The story can be read from the first hand account here.
Note that Myers' first post on his expulsion has so far racked up around 1500 comments! See here a discussion between Myers and Dawkins after the event.
News that MIT and google are teeming up to search for Earth-like extrasolar planets is extremely exciting!
News from Slashdot of a new X-prize being offered for the design of ultra-energy efficient cars.
From science to food and Food for design had a short article a mysterious billionaire who has quickly become a world expert on the art of sous-vide - cooking meat in highly controlled conditions for extremely long periods of time. Khymos is a good place to start to learn about this culinary art form.
My friend and author of The Adventures of the Pisco Kid, Michael Standaert, has been writing about the situation in Tibet over at the Huffington post. Danwei has also linked to an interesting video of how easy it is to pull the wool over everybody's eyes. See also here for Michael's discussion of talk of boycotting the Olympics - I agree in large part with his sentiments on this one.
The online photographer discusses the rights of photographers in public spaces and includes a rather disturbing video from London.
And in some of the strangest news of the week (and I still don't know whether to believe this or not) it seems that the Eiffel tower is going to be added to for its 120th anniversary - Looking around on the web it seems to be for real!
Anyway, during a relatively productive week in a generally quiet office I've managed to squeeze in listening to a good deal of the Michel Thomas Spanish course in my walks around the town and to and from work. Perhaps not for everyone but I'm finding his teaching method perfect for me. On top of this, having an Israeli, a Spaniard, a Brazilian, an Italian and a Texan all couchsurfing this week has made for enjoyable after hours company in the flat and in the town.
Saturday, March 22, 2008
I'd heard talk that Sidney Coleman's legendary lecture course had been recorded, back in the 70s, and there was rumour that it had even been transfered to DVD, but the idea that it would ever come to light seemed somewhat distant.
Well, as pointed out by Clifford Johnson, the films are now available for everyone. There's a childish excitement in me wanting to watch these legendary films froim a man whose expository writing was second to none. So, I'll leave you with the link, and go and start watching!
P.S If you want to watch them offline, you need Firefox and the unplug plugin.
In a winding medieval street in the old quarter of Santiago de compostela, the rain is falling in a misty drizzle and the dark is cut only from the haze of the lights shining from the top of the cathedral. There's a strange silence and few people are on the streets. We walk for a few minutes and gradually feel a rumble through the ground. The rumble grows to an audible, rhythmic, deep bass. As we approach the source of the sound we arrive in a small square, surrounded by the tall shadowy columns of the ancient architecture. A crowd has gathered but is entirely silent. From around the twisted corner the sound is getting louder, and the bass is echoing off the walls. Slowly they appear, walking in procession. A group of twenty or so robed figures, with bare feet and white peaked hoods with holes in the eyes, these hoods bring only one thing to mind and it sends a shiver down my spine. The source of the sound is now also clear. Each hooded processor is armed with a thick metal fork, 6 foot high and, with two prongs at the end. As they slowly walk, in solemn unison, they bang the pitch-forks on the ground, a little slower than the pace of a heart beat, this sound is as terrifying as the image of their disguised faces. On their shoulders is a stage, on top of which is a model of the Virgin Mary. Somehow I feel both terrified and angry at the mix of images I see in front of me. The procession moves on, and with it, the chilling, ritual echoes of the staves on the medieval paving slabs. We're all left in stunned silence, in need of a sit-down and a quiet drink. It feels like we've somehow crossed paths with the same place, a millenium ago. Belief is strong here, and it's left me shaken.
I didn't have my camera and I don't think that a photo would be able to capture the dark atmosphere. This video, doesn't show the full picture, but gives an idea of some of the imagery. I should also note that what has left me shaken is somehow what the imagery has now been linked to. My knowledge of the history of such costumes is sparse and the current stereotype of the white hooded figure leads to prejudice which presumably has nothing to do with what I witnessed yesterday. This is similar to how the Swastika, when seen all around India, feels hardwired in my mind to bring up other, unrelated feelings. I think that it's this misfiring of crossed wires which makes the spectacle somehow more confusing for me.
Friday, March 21, 2008
My second link to incredible astronomy news via the Bad Astronomy Blog today, but Phil's article on the possible oceans below the surface of Titan makes for fascinating reading. Sadly, as he points out, it is likely to be a long time before we know whether the combination of organic compounds in the atmosphere and liquid water below the surface have produced a second body in the solar system teeming with life.
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Usually the timescale of events in the universe is measured in billions of years. However, sometimes that isn't the case. When astronomic events happen over shorter timescales, they tend to involve fireworks. In fact, sometimes they're so impressive that we can not only detect them with the most advanced telescopes as the light reaches us from the other side of the observable universe, but we can see it with the naked eye. This is what happened last night, or would have happened if you'd been looking at just the right area of the sky.
(From pi of the sky, who have the best steam-punk set up for a telescopic system I've ever seen.)
A gamma ray burster, some 7.5 billion light years away exploded in spectacular fashion, and in a few seconds, released more energy than our sun will release in its entire lifetime of several billion years. Considering the energy that the sun gives off every second (billions of times the energy of the largest nuclear bomb ever created) this is enough energy to power a whole lot of lightbulbs. This sort of power outshines entire galaxies, consisting of hundreds of billions of stars and if one ever goes off in our neighbourhood, we're in some pretty serious trouble!
In the words of the Bad Astronomer:
It’s difficult to put this into the proper context. GRBs are monumental explosions, the exploding of a massive star where most of the energy of the catastrophe is channeled into twin beams of energy. These beams scream out from the explosion like cosmic blowtorches, and for thousands of light years anything they touch is destroyed. Happily for us, GRBs always appear hundreds of millions or billions of light years away.
Neil Turok, a high energy physicist originally from South Africa, is a researcher in Cambridge, and is probably most famous for his models of the Ekpyrotic and cyclic universes. He was also instrumental in setting up AIMS - the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences which aims to nurture the brightest minds in Africa as a way forward in finding solutions for the many problems on the continent, from within - all the hopes of the developed world putting Africa back on its feet seem to be having little effect.
On top of the above achievements he this year won one of the three TED prizes and in his speech, talks here about the current situation at AIMS and his hopes for the future, hopes for 15 more AIMS across the continent and hopes to find the next Einstein in Africa. It's a powerful idea and it's clearly this sort of motivation which is needed to give people the chance to make a difference.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Having just spent two years in a country where we worked right through Christmas, it's now rather strange to be in a land where everything shuts down for Easter too. There were a few of us in the office nonetheless and current programs spent today nicely spiraling into chaos.
A few years back I went on an object oriented programming course where we were informed that no one sub-program should be more than 7 lines long. A program should be made up of many of such sub-routines, but the likelihood of losing track of what you're doing drastically increases when you have to keep 7 lines worth in mind at any one time. Anyway, I'm flagrantly breaking such rules and paying the price right now.
Anyway, mid-day today I was invited for lunch to the house of one of the professors, who lives up on a hill overlooking the city. Following an extremely fine meal cooked by his Swedish wife and some excellent Spanish brandy, I was given a large bag of home-grown lemons to take back with me. So, this evening half of them have been sliced, salted and juiced and are sitting, glistening on their way to being preserved. The first week is the salting week, after which they are steeped in oil and left for up to six months to be used in tagines, risottos and any number of other Middle Eastern recipes.
Sunday, March 16, 2008
This is another step forward in the detection of life on other planets (something which I wrote in detail about here). However, the news is that a planet which is too hot to support life has methane in its atmosphere. I presume that this has been found by looking at the absorption lines as the light from the star travels through the atmosphere of the planet. NASA will be holding a press conference on Wednesday to talk about these results. Note that the exciting point is that we now have the technology to do this, not particularly that this finding is in itself that surprising.
(TMT who shared this item)
Saturday, March 15, 2008
A few items that I've starred in my Google Reader this week:
There have been a number of interesting posts on the mission to Enceladus, one of the many fascinating moons of Saturn which the Cassini orbiter (NASA link) has been studying for the last couple of years (including the Huygens mission to Titan) and will be for the next few. This week the probe skirted across the surface of Enceladus (well almost) including going through a giant gas plume. I've yet to see more than pretty pictures (any data), but the pictures can be found here:
Before the event, TMT also posted some data on the plans for the flyby.
More astronomy links:
From Physics world, the news that Alpha-Centauri, our nearest star may itself have an Earth-like planet. All simulations of planetary formation about the star seem to suggest an Earth-like planet is likely.
A Boing-Boing article on the giant cargo which took off this week on its way to the International Space station. A large part of this cargo is a huge robot, slightly reminiscent of those in Alien.
Astronomers are not terribly good with coming up with names for their new bits of equipment. For instance one overwhelming large telescope being built is going to be called the OWL (I'll let you work that one out!). At Slashdot is an article on the similarly aptly named Large Binocular Telescope which took its first image (sadly not of a terribly inspiring object, in the grand scheme of things - from the Bad Astronomy Blog)
Lubos Motl discusses the news that the sonic equivalent of a black-hole has been simulated. A Bose Einstein condensate in certain conditions should exhibit an event horizon and even Hawking radiation.
On the ArXiv:
A tour de force of calculational complexity is the result that the six-gluon MHV amplitude at two loops does indeed equal the hexagonal Wilson loop (An AdS/CFT prediction amongst other things), though not equal to the BDS conjecture - again as expected from AdS/CFT because the dual conformal symmetry is not strong enough alone to tie down the form of the amplitude. This was seen in two papers, by J.M.Drummond, J.Henn, G.P.Korchemsky and E.Sokatchev and by Z. Bern, L. J. Dixon, D. A. Kosower, R. Roiban, M. Spradlin, C. Vergu and A. Volovich.
We also saw another step on the path to understanding unquenched flavour in gravity duals of gauge theories in the paper by Felipe Canoura, Paolo Merlatti, Alfonso V. Ramallo where they studied the holographic dual of a 2+1 dimensional field theory with backreacted flavour branes in various regions of the parameter space of the N=1 field theory.
Frederick Denef has his notes on constructing string vacua, from the Les Houches school, online which I'm yet to read through but would like to.
Off the ArXiv but still in physics writing, Blake Stacey continues his discussion of supersymmetric quantum mechanics>
A link from a long time ago about hydrophobic sand (from Food for design). A fascinating substance which, if the cost could be reduced, would be an ingenious solution to quickly clearing up oil spills.
Videos from TED continue to be almost unendingly fascinating and the good news is that the whole archive of recordings from the very first TED conference will gradually be released. It says a lot that back in 1984 TED was forward thinking enough to record all the talks.
From Slash-dot, comes an article discussing whether huge cash prizes could be a good way to quickly progress in making breakthroughs in major scientific and technological problems. Definitely worth debating.
From Cosmic Variance comes a link to the Bloggingheads video with Sean Carol and John Horgan. I watched this this evening and thought that Sean did a great job at setting the current status of much of modern cosmology.
And finally on a couple of non-scientific notes:
I don't have the time to read as much as I'd like these days. The last book I finished was Godel, Escher, Bach, a rather monumental study of logic, art, consciousness, beauty, the foundations of mathematics, music and much more besides. A fascinating book and great for an introduction to the logic by which our universe seems to work, though I felt he tried to pack in a too many subjects which, while they do have connections and these connections go deep, it felt as though each topic was trying to burst out of the seams of the book and become a book in its own right.
Anyway, from Boing-Boing came a link to a beautiful looking book on Mumbai, somewhere I'd love to go and I'm sure that if I read this, my desire to go there would increase even more (Maximum City, Mumbai lost and found by Suketa Mehta)
And finally, an essay from The Online Photographer on the tendency for the populist photographers of today to overdo colour contrast and saturation to create a candy-filled world, with none of the subtlety which great photography captures. I know this is something I have to be careful of and the comments made for an interesting set of reactions.
Anyway, a full day tomorrow of Mathematica decoding - I plan a blog post on this subject alone some time :-) but for now I've Spanish practice to be getting on with.
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Having gone on last time about efficiency and packing in as much as possible I'm now out for the count with a lurgy which has knocked me out for the last couple of days. Thankfully with Mathematica on the laptop and collaborators with instant message programs I've been able to continue contributing somewhat to the progress of the current project - a project which is going in all sorts of directions we'd never expected (the best kind of project in my mind).
With the lurgy currently winning I wanted to look for some inspiration (this was not going to come from Spanish daytime television!) and found a couple of great TED talks to share. One of the most incredible ones came from Craig Venter, who is currently running a lab which is pushing the boundaries of creating synthetic life. The hope is that we may be able to make lifeforms which can be tuned to perform processes that life wouldn't naturally evolve to do (at least not so efficiently) in an Earth-like environment. Things like converting high concentration carbon-dioxide back into combustible fuels. Anyway, the process of this is fascinating and well worth a watch:
Plus a talk from Nicholas Negroponte, the man behind One laptop per child, from a talk in 1984 on the future of huge computer interaction. Some remarkably insightful thoughts.
And lastly some rather wonderful theramin playing from Pamelia Kurstin.
Anyway, I'm going to wrap myself back up, make a hot drink and retire once more...
Saturday, March 08, 2008
I'm currently trying to balance a few too many things in my life. It seems to be settling however and I'm not feeling too rushed any more. While putting most of my effort into my research I still want time to learn two languages, get to the gym and keep a reasonably active social life (frequently focused on Couch-hosting these days). I've found a few things recently which are helping me to manage this all of the above in a reasonably sane manner.
The first tip is that I'm taking full advantage of new technologies for my language learning. Having listened to the 90 half hour Pimsleur lessons for Chinese while I was in Beijing I now need something a little more advanced and Chinesepod is proving extremely useful. They have around 800 lessons, with around a hundred lessons each of six different grades, from Newbie to really very advanced. I'm still only on the second grade and listen to these while I walk to and from work. This gives me around 40 minutes of Chinese language practice every day and while it's not truly interactive, it is helping me to improve. One face to face lesson of Chinese per week on top of this means that I can actually practice what I learn.
(For a great blog on Mandarin, especially the Beijing dialect, check out Beijing sounds. Have a read of this post for the best explanation for the importance of the Beijing-R I've ever heard - from a 6 year old. The recordings on this site are very good and there's plenty of decent feedback after each of his posts - found on Laowai Chinese.)
For Spanish I went through the first 30 lessons of Pimsleur Spanish and found that they weren't quite as good, for me, as the Mandarin lessons had been. So, I've switched to the Michel Thomas method. In this method you and two other students (on the recordings) are taken by Michel Thomas himself from the very basics, quickly building up sentences and discussing some of the rules of the language. The male and female students on the recordings start from zero knowledge and spend about as much time messing up as you do (well, the guy is purposefully, I believe not a great student). With half an hour of this in the evenings I can become a little more familiar with Spanish every day. In particular Michel Thomas is all about relaxation and not about stressful rote learning.
I've also started a regular language exchange after lunch with a physics masters student who is looking to improve his English. It's probably pretty painful for him to hear me murder the language but I'm convinced that there's a barrier in terms of confidence, and not knowledge, which needs to be overcome to really see improvements in speaking. On top of all this is half an hour of more tedious rote learning and three hours of lessons per week.
In terms of not turning into a bag of potatoes as I sit at my desk most of the day I've been following Tim Ferris's advice and getting to the gym twice a week for half an hour each time. That half an hour is murder but I'm finding it just as effective as trying to pack in more time and more sessions. I don't agree with everything on his site by any means but he has a lot of great tips for cutting down wasted time.
Anyway, on this slightly drizzly Saturday evening on which I'm not attempting to expand my social life I thought I'd note down my current pointers for not having a nervous breakdown - Any other tips would be gratefully received!
Wednesday, March 05, 2008
Update 19th March: The video can still be found here. It's been taken down most other places.
Phil at The Bad Astronomy blog has posted a link to the alternative ending for I Am Legend, which has to be a good thing, as the ending spoilt what was actually a pretty reasonable Hollywood movie (something which is pretty rare these days). There were religious elements to the ending which were simply unnecessary and you were left wondering why they'd bothered. The new ending replaces religion with love, which makes it cheesy but substantially better than the original. Note that the movie is a zombie movie, so watch it if you're into this kind of thing.
Something which is far, far more terrifying than any zombie movie is the idea of the galactic police having itchy trigger fingers and their taser pointed directly at us. Well this may be the case and if the gamma ray burster were to let loose on us, we'd be in a whole lot of trouble. Could be quite a fireworks display! Again, a link from BAblog
Tuesday, March 04, 2008
I spoke about Yahoo Pipes a long time ago, but here's a fun one from Googlesystem blog. This pipes the comments feed and sees who has been commenting most on your blogger blog.
A quick pic from Sunday when I drove with a couple of friends up to Pico Sacro, about 10 km from Santiago de Compostela and a great peak for looking over a whole swathe of Galicia.
Sunday, March 02, 2008
It's been a long and exhausting but ultimately very satisfying day today. Two of my friends are here from England to visit for a couple of days so I was at the airport at 7.30 this morning to pick them up after their flight from Madrid. Having been kept awake until early morning by partying neighbours this was not an easy task but good strong Spanish coffee made the job that much easier.
We picked up a hire car and after dropping things off at my flat we headed out for the coast, my first real excursion in Galicia (I'm a little ashamed to say it's taken me so long to do this!). We took the car to Muros to the West of Santiago where we stopped off for another caffeine hit and walked along the extremely pleasent harbour front, while the not so pleasant political vans went past, urging us to vote for the various candidates in this month's general elections.
The journey from Santiago to Muros is very pleasant with lush green hillsides - unlike most of Spain which is in general very arid. However, this area is known mostly for its spectacular Atlantic coastline, and indeed it is stunning.
From Muros, North, up the Coast of Death to Fisterra (the end of the world, though a different end of the world from Finistere) takes you on winding roads past beautiful, isolated beaches and small towns with fishing and agriculture still the main source of income.
We stopped along the way in a local bar for lunch and rather confused the very accommodating boss with a request for a vegetarian option. After he waved a piece of beef in our direction and we suggested that probably wouldn't fit the bill he nodded, smiled, walked around the corner and came back with a bucket full of octopus which he cooked up specially. Not wishing to seem rude the two non-vegetarians ended up gorging on beef, pork and octopus while the veggie had nothing but a few nibbles.
On, up the coast and there were picture opportunities aplenty, from the crashing waves to the moss covered houses and seawater eaten bits of machinery. The 60 km up to Fisterra is dotted with thousands of wind turbines, which many don't like though I actually find them rather inspiring, sitting up on the crests of the hills, facing the Atlantic gales. (If you haven't seen it already, this video of 'When wind turbines go bad' is short and well worth a watch)
Getting to Fisterra I was a little worried that we would be met with the same sort of theme park which resides in Land's End, the most Westerly point of the Southern mainland of Great Britain. In England it is a candy floss drenched amusement park of the most sickly, exploitative proportions. Somewhere which should somehow feel isolated simply feels like a gaudy playground full of cheap shops and coin machines.
Anyway, Fisterra is much more underplayed and consequently more pleasant. The density of people is not much lower but, apart from the cafe, the lighthouse itself and the panoramic view of the Atlantic ocean are the only attractions.
Anyway, it's been a spectacular day, after an atmospheric start with low clouds we were left with bright blue skies and all returned wind-swept and exhausted but definitely pleased to have made the effort.
More photos to follow and more on Flickr, but these were a few from today:
Lighthouse near Muros