Saturday, August 29, 2009

Random hints and tips

On Chinese, pinyin and spaced repetition

I've been spending the morning inputting some example sentences into Anki (by far the best flashcard program I've found - freeware, very well supported and, most importantly, built from the ground up on a spaced repetition algorithm). Doing this is always a bit hit and miss but I've found a useful series of steps which may be useful for some people.

For example sentences, you can't go far wrong using Chinesepod. The particular example I've been looking for today are sentences using the word 发生 (fāshēng - to happen). Searching in the glossary on Chinesepod you will find a list of around 20 examples which include this character combination - see here. This is all well and good but the pinyin (pronunciation of the hanzi) can only be found by hovering over the characters which makes it hard to copy the sentences directly into Anki without looking up any tone marks you don't know one by one. Perhaps the action of writing the pinyin may be worthwhile but I find writing tonemarks such a hassle that I'd rather spend the time in other ways (US extended keyboard on Mac: Option key + (a,e,v,`)+o=(ō,ó,ǒ,ò)).

The most efficient way I've discovered for getting pinyin directly is simply by copying the characters from the Chinesepod page and pasting it into the popupchinese adsotrans page and hey presto, instant pinyin. Copy this and paste it along with the hanzi and the meaning into Anki.

Update from the creator of Anki (see comments):

...there should be no need to generate the pinyin in another program. Install basic chinese support or the pinyin toolkit plugin in Anki (file>download), and Anki will insert the pinyin automatically
As an additional note I'd always wondered about the placement of tonemarks in pinyin which nobody had managed to quite explain to me. In fact the rules are simple, if not apparently terribly logical, and can be found here, where it says:
* A and e trump all other vowels and always take the tone mark. There are no Mandarin syllables in Hanyu Pinyin that contain both a and e.
* In the combination ou, o takes the mark.
* In all other cases, the final vowel takes the mark.
See the discussion here on Sinosplice with regards to spaced repetition software where several people, including myself mentioned the potential benefits of using SRS on Chinesepod.

Random addition: see here for a review of on Laowai Chinese. This looks like a potentially very useful resource.

On video lectures and time saving

It's been a long time since I mentioned the use of video lectures, but right now I'm going through a couple of courses online which I've found from itunes university (Berkeley, along with many other institutions now place many video and audio lectures online, making my gym time doubly useful!)

This is a great resource, but one of the particular lecturers I've been watching speaks and writes far too slowly for my liking. I'm watching the video in VLC and can increase the speed to about twice the normal rate while still being able to follow along quite happily. The only problem with this is the chipmunk effect by which on speeding up the voice, the tone is raised. A quick look around gives a solution to this too. If you go into the preferences of VLC and click on all in the bottom right you will get an advanced menu. In this menu, go to Audio:Filters and click the button marked "Audio tempo scaler synched with rate. This will activate a plugin called Scaletempo which brings the tone of the voice back down to the original while allowing fast playback.

These lectures (guide for the lectures here) by John Conway on the free will theorem are a lot of fun.

On Research

I've spent the last four days simplifying a series of equations by hand from around 200 lines of mathematica code down to around 20. Some day I'm going to set up a supervised neural network which will learn how to simplify equations a whole lot better than the current Mathematica algorithms can! Thankfully although this has been a painful few days of tedium the result is that all the numerical instabilities have vanished from my calculations and as I sit here (unless there has been another powercut) my code is churning out meson masses in a model I've been working on for a good few months.

In the next couple of weeks I have to write a talk on our latest paper which has just been accepted for publication, and get a little further through my To Read pile sitting precariously at home. September holds so far a trip to Milos to a conference which looks to be packed with people and talks (eight hours a day!), including my own.

Enough, lots to be getting on with but a couple of photos to finish both taken from my window zoomed in with a 300mm Canon lens.

The wind turbines in the sunset
evening light over the hills
And the moon with Arcturus:
the moon and arcturus

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Perseid redux

It was only a week after taking it to the shop that I got my computer back, fixed and with new memory. Only last night did I have a chance to look at my photos from the Perseid meteor shower and to my surprise I discovered a lone meteor in one of my photos - I was expecting nothing. It can only really be seen on the larger size, in the top left, rising almost vertically. This shot was from a 73 second exposure and so the star detail isn't bad, and Andromeda can be seen quite clearly about 5 o'clock from the centre (click on the photo to see the notes).

The best view, photographically speaking was certainly the rising moon which came up a deeper red than I've ever seen it before, an incredible sight, looking down at the horizon at a lower altitude than we were:
moon rise
Anyway, four friends are about to turn up from England one of them acting as my tea mule, and we shall be spending the weekend out exploring while the good weather here continues.

Txalaparta in Quintana

On Thursday night I went to a truly remarkable concert, part of the season of music and events which are going on every day in Santiago at the moment. This concert was in the Plaza de Quintana, the main square at the back of the cathedral and in my opinion a much more pleasant space than the main square at the front.

The Txalaparta is a Basque instrument, played by two people who act as one. The instrument comes in a variety of forms, but in essence it's a large xylophone, played with wooden sticks and where the players play alternating notes (or alternating pairs, etc.). The players on this occasion were two of the most famous, Igor and Harkaitz, this time accompanied by Aziza Brahim a woman with a voice like the desert.

Txalaparta with Igor and Harkaitz and Aziza Brahim

They came with two txalapartas, one wooden and one of stone, though accompanying the players were videos of their recent tour where they have been going around the world constructing txalapartas of all manner of materials, including ice. The trailor for this video can be seen here and is well worth a watch:
The speed at which the musicians play and the perfect synchronisation are truly remarkable and with the accompanying voice  of Aziza Brahim and the setting with the cathedral to the right and the rising walls of the nunnery to the left it was a powerful evening. (bad quality due to high ISO, sorry).
Txalaparta with Igor and Harkaitz and Aziza Brahim

These guys seem to be touring most of the time and I'd highly recomment trying to see them if they're in town.

Monday, August 17, 2009

English Postdoc chases the eclipse

This was sent to me from a Hubei journalist who interviewed me during the eclipse in Wuhan. It's now online and in printed form. I haven't been able to track down any photos from the journalists who were taking photos of my slightly strange setup but I'll see if I can find anything online.


荆楚网消息 (楚天都市报) “哪里有日食,哪里就会有我的身影。”昨日上午在黄鹤楼公园,英国帅哥Jon.Shock摆 弄着专业相机,一脸得意地对周围人说。“希腊、俄罗斯、土耳其、西班牙,这些国家我都去过,当然,要不是为了看日食,我才不会去,因为我没有那么多的Money。”29岁的Jon老家在英国牛津,目前在西班牙工作,是个物理学方向的博士后。自从去年在甘肃看过日食后,就惦记着今年7月 22日的日全食。“ 这 可 是500年不遇,并不是每个人都能碰到。”他很早就在网上查询最佳观测地点,最开始他选择在上海,并于一周前从西班牙飞到那里。但后来从天气预报了解,22日当天上海的天气不好,所以Jon赶紧更换地点,乘火车于21日晚到达武汉。
Jon指了指身边的几个同行——德国的john、美国的休斯、法国的巴赫、马来西亚的阿罗约,都是在来汉的火车上碰到的。“他们和我一样疯狂。”(记者王进良 实习生胡幸).

I'll write up a full translation when I have a computer at home (still being fixed in the shop). In the meantime, feel free to google translate. The online version of this article can be found here.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Perseids at Pico Sacro

Last night saw perfect conditions for watching the Perseid meteor shower. A car-load of us headed up to Pico Sacro, around 15 km outside of Santiago where the Milky Way shines brightly above the light pollution from the towns and villages below the peak. We set ourselves up as Cassiopeia was rising and before the moon had reached the horizon and watched as perhaps 40 or so meteors streaked across the sky through the time we lay back, watching the display. A few absolute corkers made up for the occasional dry spell, but during those periods the view was still stunning, with Jupiter outshining everything around it.

Around half past midnight a strange red apparition appeared on the horizon as the waning moon rose over the hills in the distance. I'm not sure I've ever seen such a blood red moon of which I have a photo which I'll post up soon. Photos may take a little while to process as, on arriving back home I discovered my computer had silently passed away in the night. It's now in the shop were the death squeals are being analysed to see what is salvagable. At 18 months old this is a surprising turn of events, but hopefully given my backups, nothing should be lost.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Jupiter and friends

I finished reading last night at around three, looked out of the window and saw Jupiter, in the full glare of the moon, but still looking grand, so I got a shot and compared with Stellarium. I'm still always surprised what can be viewed easily without a telescope or binoculars! Note that Jupiter itself is saturated in order to get the moons at all.
Jupiter and moons
I almost bought a telescope last week, only to discover at the last minute it was another scam. The seller promised to sell it to me at a great price through e-bay, but when they e-mail came through it was from and the e-mail simply told me to pay through Western Union (never, ever a good thing!).

A good scope would be a lot of fun!

Saturday, August 08, 2009


The last of my China photos for the time being. The train from Shanghai out to the airport is currently the fastest scheduled train service in the world, a mag-lev of extortionate costs and and outrageous numbers. The train takes around three minutes speed up, stays at it's maximum velocity for a few short moments and then pulls to a halt in the airport station 30 km and 7 minutes later. It's a smooth ride with steeply banked curves and is about the cheapest way to get from the city to the airport. Here is a snap of the speedometer as it topped out:

Shanghai Maglev

Since coming back to Santiago my life has been considerably simplified, through both external influence and a little help from myself. Shortly after arriving back my butane canaster which I use for cooking (the norm here) ran out, and I've been left with almost nothing to cook with and little time to organise for a new delivery at a suitable time. I had however inherited a rice cooker from a Japanese friend and this simple machine not only cooks rice to perfection but has a steamer compartment too. The discovery of my constrained cooking possibilities has actually opened up a world of subtle but extremely tasty cooking as I've been steaming fresh fish, marinated in herbs and juices, with summer vegetables for the last week, and frankly save for the streaming cold which is making today less than comfortable, I've never felt better.

Wednesday's offering: The timing still needs some tweaking with courgettes becoming overdone in just a couple of minutes (a minute appears to suffice), but the fish and langoustine, marinated in lemon, thyme and pink peppercorns on top of spinach whole-grain rice is a 15 minute, no hassle treat - served with a dollop of lemon and green peppercorn mayonnaise:
Steamed dinner

In addition to this I made the bold step of phoning up my internet service provider on Thursday and turning off my connection to the outside world (I'm currently in a cafe having just completed today's Chinese practice). Having wasted more hours than I care to calculate watching House I thought that enough was enough and have made my home gloriously, digitally silent. Since then I've read more papers and books than I've been able to for many weeks preceeding and the pile of papers which I'd been slowly working my way through for the last few months is actually looking conquerable. I realise frequently that I'm not terribly good at self-control and so need to impose draconian restrictions on myeslf in order to let life continue efficiently.

Anyway, for now I'm going to spend a little while browsing through a new purchase, Heisig and Richardson's Remembering the Simplified Hanzi, which I've been wanting to read for a long time, before getting back home and attacking the pile of articles waiting patiently for me.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Beijing snapshot

The department is virtually empty at the moment, as is the city, and I'm working on a couple of papers which have been dragging on for way too long. The work itself is extremely interesting, but ironing out the numerical niceties is beginning to be rather tiresome. Sadly, without these niceties it's much harder to put across our results. Still, I've learned that motivation goes through surges and ebbs, and I'm not worried that the current situation isn't perfect for the work. We'll have these done soon enough and then be onto the next set of calculations...

In the mean time, to continue the updates from my journey:

On the day of the eclipse in Wuhan I headed to the train station, not knowing where I was heading next. I turned up, waited in the queue and pondered where to go. By the time I got to the front of the line I figured that I could just make it to Beijing and back to Shanghai in time to catch my flight which would give me a few days back home (Beijing home) to see friends and go check out some old haunts. It turned out that the only tickets left were for the next morning, which I took and booked myself into a cheap hotel close to the station. I spent a few hours wondering around Wuhan, reading in cafes and snacking on streetfood before heading back and catching my train the next morning.

Train rides in China are good for either practicing your Chinese or getting a good way through a thick book, but such options are exclusive and I ended up talking to those around me for the ten hours of the journey. I arrived in the evening and took the metro back to my old stomping ground and indeed my old building where I was staying with a friend. Plenty of old faces greeted me and I had a nice chat with the dumpling lady who was still there, still hand rolling the same flavours that had been there since I arrived four years ago, before heading up to meet old friends.

The three full days in Beijing passed very quickly but I had a chance to pop into the physics department and meet with the head of department, my old boss, about the program I'm organising for next year (more on this soon). I also met many of the graduate students I'd known before which is always a pleasure. It's good to see the progress they make when you come back only once a year.

On the second afternoon I walked up to the electronics district (Zhongguancun) to see if I could find a piece of kit for my camera. On the way I passed my favourite restaurant, a simple place with fantastic Hunan food: big fish head, mapo dofu, black bean bitter gourd and spicey pork dishes being some of the best I ever ate in China. Sadly my restaurant was no more and the dozen or so establishments which used to feed me most nights of the week along the same stretch had vanished, the space being readied for another anonymous block of high-rises.

My favourite restaurant, Beijing

Further along, where the demolition has not yet been felt I came across an English academy which I don't believe I'd seen before and one of the most ironic pieces of Chinglish I've had the pleasure of seeing:
Talenty English, talenty translator
Another piece of Chinglish I wish I'd had the piece of mind to photograph was no a T-shirt of a woman selling clothes on the streets of Wudaokou. The T-shirt was emblazoned with a Union Jack, under which in bold letters was written "New York, New York". Sometimes it's hard to tell how much of it is a double bluff. 

On arrival at zhongguancun it became clear that the item I wanted was out of my price range, but one of the enthusiastic salesmen wouldn't let me go before I gave him an hour's English lesson - I'm surprised that I haven't been barraged with e-mail questions from him since, though that may be because I recommended he make his way to Talenty English!

Anyway, after a few short days in Beijing I got back on the train and headed another ten hours down to Shanghai. This trip used to take 16 hours and within a year or so will take just four when a very high speed track (300km/h+) will be finished, linking the two East China hubs. A lot of Chinese infrastructure sure puts that of it's British and Spanish counterparts to shame, though the reasons behind such advances are simple and often sad.

Anyway, I should have the last instalment tomorrow night, and then we're back on dry land in not so sunny Spain.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009


This one was going to wait, but I've just been informed that it's been made the Atmospheric Optics Photo of the day, with many thanks to Les at Atoptics.
Taking the morning flight from Stansted to Santiago on a cloudy day meant that the only place to sit in the plane was on the right hand side, opposite the sun, with a good view of the cloud cover below. I got lucky and had a great view of a glory during most of the flight:

Glory over England
This was one of the clearest I'd ever seen with a very nicely defined double defraction pattern. See here for the partial explanation of the glory.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Wuhan eclipse animation

Just a quick post today, with many thanks to Toomanytribbles who took my photos of the cloudy eclipse and turned them into this lovely animation. I wasn't taking these in order to get such an animation, so the timing is non-constant, but at least the contrast between light and dark is very clear in the couple of seconds between frames of totality and partiality.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Night and day in Pudong

Another couple of shots from Pudong. The first from the Jinmao tower, a five shot panorama of the bottle opener, a Japanese designed building which gives fantastic reflections of the surrounding architecture.

Apart from stitching together the panorama, tweaking the levels, and applying an unsharp mask, this photo is unaltered - no HDR, no saturation manipulation:

bottle opener panorama
And secondly from an evening on the Bund. We went to a bar on the roof of one of the old buildings to pay extortionate prices (My can of tonic water cost me around 4 quid!) but to get a fantastic view over the river and to the sky scrapers on the other side.

A fifteen second shot set up on the ledge of the building:
Pudong from the Bund
More to follow.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Arranged marriage in Jinan park

No time for extended essays at the moment but I'll try and put up a photo or two each day for the next week or so from my recent travels. The rest of my time is being taken up with catching up with three ongoing projects plus applications which continue to feed on time and energy.

We'll start at the beginning in Shanghai and Jinan park, home of the loudest cicadas I've ever heard, a rather fine bar on the lotus covered lake, an English corner run by an extremely enthusiastic Mr Paganini (adopted name), a swarm of dragonflies in plague-like quantities, but most importantly of all matchmaker's corner. Here parents come to find suitable partners for their children. The pieces of paper you see here are advertisments from desperate parents with all the information one needs to get rid of a child who just won't leave the nest.

Match making in the park
In fact if it weren't for such artificial marriage arrangements, this place would a fine place for a romantic stroll
Shanghai blooming
More tomorrow

Total solar eclipse in Wuhan, July 22nd 2009

I spent a frantic few days in Shanghai trying to find where and when the tropical storm was going to hit the city. Two things quickly became clear: one was that the weather websites hadn't predicted a single day correctly in the previous two weeks, and the second was that the skies of Shanghai sure seemed to be clouding up fast.

Searching for satellite data, other eclipse hunter's predictions and any weather website I could get my hands on it seemed that the best bet was going to be to head West to Wuhan. Wuhan sits around 1000 km to the West but luckily the transport system in China is remarkably good. Catching the train on the afternoon the day before the eclipse gave me not only a pretty comfortable five hour ride to the city, but also the chance to meet some fellow eclipse hunters. John, from Germany, stuck out from the crowd with bags bulging with camera equipment, videos, filters and tripods, making my single camera and solar filter rigged up from a Pringles packet look somewhat ridiculous (I did at least have a Manfrotto tripod to give me a little more credibility). John was travelling with May, who works in Shanghai but is originally from Wuhan. In addition were a couple of American TV producers who were in the country for a week or so hunting for this, the longest eclipse of the 21st century.

We got into Wuhan and all made our way to a hotel right next to Huang He Lou, the yellow crane tower, and what I thought would be a good spot to see the eclipse from. Getting a bite to eat the night before in an outdoor food market gave me a chance to indulge in some stinky tofu and an excellent dish of spicy pork before heading to bed.

I hadn't slept more than a couple of hours the night before, worrying about where I could see the eclipse from, and that night too I couldn't sleep for the expectation of what we may see the next day. Arriving into Wuhan the skies were clear and at night the stars came out, or at least attempted to poke through the light pollution of the city of ten million.

So, a little bleary eyed, but very excited we met at 6.30 the next morning to get ourselves ready for the event with plenty of time to find a position and set up shop.

Walking out of the hotel I looked up to the sun and was greeted by a wonderful morning solar halo, a fine view indeed, but a sure sign of some cirrus clouds joining us for the show.

Solar halo in Wuhan, morning of the eclipse
We walked up to the temple and found a large crowd, equipped with eclipse glasses who had had the same idea. At 7.30 we were all let in and rushed around to vie for the best spots. John, the seasoned eclipse hunter discovered the best place and we set up our equipment, waiting for the first signs of occlusion.

While setting up my kit I was greeted by a never ending stream of reporters, keen to chat to the only Chinese speaking foreigner and I was asked the same dozen question for an equal number of newspapers. At one point I was also interviewed for TV but sadly shied away from giving the interview in Chinese.

As the time grew closer, the clouds moved in and it was clear that we were not going to have an easy ride. Indeed as we approached the moments before totality the clouds thickened and we were left with only a few glimpses through the patchy cloud of totality itself. I managed a few photos of the sun as the moon gradually moved across the face but it turned out to be very hard to find the sun with a zoom lens and a strong solar filter when the sun is partially blocked by clouds. The solar filter is so strong that only an unobscured sun is clearly visible. Still, I got a few shots and these were perhaps the best couple.
Solar eclipse Wuhan 22nd July
Solar eclipse Wuhan 22nd July

For totality itself the crowds around cheered as the sky darkened completely, lit only by the horizon where totality was not apparent. They seemed happy enough with the darkness and were not sad at the lack of the spectacular corona. I did my best and got a couple of shots with the zoom before changing lenses and taking in some wider angle shots to include the temple itself. I have a series of 20 or so shots which I will make into an animation as soon as possible. In the mean time, here are my efforts from the moments of totality, clouds included. These were from the clearest ten seconds or so of the five minute totality.
Solar eclipse Wuhan 22nd July
Solar eclipse Wuhan 22nd July at Huang He Lou
Solar eclipse Wuhan 22nd July at Huang He Lou

It was a strange mix of excitement and disappointment, mixed with not a little amusement, knowing that I'm probably one of the few people in the world who has seen three cloudy solar eclipses in a row. I will of course keep on hunting, and though I may not make it to the next showing in the Easter Islands, I'll be on the case before too long.