Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Chinese bus tour to Jiuzhaigou - or a lifetime of cultural experiences in three days

In response to a friend who told me that I would give an excuse about not writing this post due to too much current chaos in my life, thank you for giving me an extra motivation for getting this written, titivations and all!

I wanted to write a post about the trip I made last week to northern Sichuan where I had without a doubt the most interesting cultural experience of my time in China - spending three days on a Chinese tour-bus as the only foreigner.

I return to Europe now after two months in East Asia, six weeks in China and two in South Korea, tired, but very happy with how the program at the KITPC went. I'd been getting this ready for two years, on and off, and the last few months have involved a lot of work getting everything prepared for the start. Once the program began I had the dual responsibilities of keeping things going with talks and discussion sessions, as well as showing friends, colleagues and collaborators who had come out to the program, the Beijing that, thanks to my short time there I seem to know better than many locals. This was a hugely enjoyable task, though after six weeks I was about ready to drop and a two week trip to Korea, working at the APCTP in Pohang and CQUEST in Seoul was a welcome break.

On return from Korea I attended the last two days of the program, said a few goodbyes, and then took off again from Beijing Capital into central China, to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province where I was going to treat myself to a photography based trip for a long weekend. My destination was the northern Sichuan mountains, and in particular the valley of Jiuzhaigou, where I went three years ago and learnt a huge amount about photography in the process. Last time I had done everything pretty ad hoc, without booking hotels or arranging my stay during the days in the mountains at all, and it had worked out well. I had arrived from Chengdu, found a bus going the six hours in the right direction, got into the town late at night, found myself somewhere to sleep and then went into the park just before daybreak the next morning.

After asking a friend to help book a flight this time from Chengdu to Jiuzhaigou airport I was told that there was also the option of a deal with a bus trip into the mountains all the way from Chengdu, including accommodation, food and entry to the park for a four day trip for just 45 quid. This sounded like an excellent deal, and having flown in before, i thought the bus ride seemed like a good alternative.

My alarm went off at 4am and I dragged myself to the reception in the hotel in Chengdu, ready for a lift to the main bus pick-up point. By five thirty I was standing with 70 others being bullied by enthusiastic sellers of travel pillows and exotic breakfasts, waiting for buses to various destinations around Sichuan and by 5.45 I was on the bus, crammed in at the back with 35 Chinese men and women from all over the country. Two things were unsurprising at this point, 1) I was the only non-Chinese in the group and 2) I attracted a lot of confused attention. As normally happens in these situations I was spoken about for some time until they realised that I understood Chinese (to a greater or lesser extent) at which point a barrage of questions came my way. These questions came most of the time not in Putonghua, the normal Chinese dialect, but a range of dialects stretching from Shaanxi, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Jiangxi and Sichuan. I struggled a lot of the time to grasp what was being asked, and this continued through most of the trip, though there were a few on the bus who could speak the normal dialect, including the tour guide - I'm still not sure if this was a good thing or not. The guy I sat next to throughout spoke with a very strong Shaanxi accent and I understood perhaps a sentence or two a day of what he said to me.

At 6am we left, set for an eight hour drive ahead of us, and I sat back, ready to get some shut-eye. At this point the tour guide (导李 - 导游 is tour guide and his name was 小李)got up at the front, and with a perky 大家好! started to tell us all about the trip ahead, and about Jiuzhaigou, and the regions of the Northern Sichuan, and the history of the area, and the number of kilometers of road constructed in the last decade, and the stories of previous tour groups, and the local dialects and....well, you get the picture. Three hours later he stopped his stories, admitted that he should let us rest for a bit and finally I drifted off, ready to doze until lunch.

Indeed, I managed to sleep deeply until lunch, but somehow lunch arrived very very early and at 10.30 in the morning we found ourselves in an unheated restaurant, with plates of simple food in front of us, mostly vegetables, the only meat on offer being processed sausage meat which was occasionally thrown in with the veg.

One thing that needs to be mentioned at this point is about heating, something that became an over-riding theme for me for the trip. In Beijing, although the temperatures in winter may dip below minus 20 on occasion, the buildings are heated with central heating - government controlled, and switched on some time around the beginning of November when the authorities deem it cold enough to give the people some warmth, the reverse process taking place some time around March. In the South of the country, roughly from the line of the Yangtzi river down, although temperatures may not get that cold through the winter months, they have no such luxury as central heating and spend the winter much much colder than their northern brothers and sisters. Indeed in Chengdu, where the temperatures may hover around the 5-10 degree mark this isn't much fun, but at 2500m in the mountains of Northern Sichuan, where temperatures spend most of the time below zero, this is not a joke.

I'm not good in the cold and I sat the first day in the unheated restaurant at 10.30 in the morning, shivering in my coat, scarf and hat, digging into 馒头 and simple plates of vegetables while a barrage of questions came my way. Cold, tired and a little confused, it wasn't perfect, but I was at this time aware of the fact that this was an interesting experience to be going through.

Interestingly, through the three days of the trip (it was cut short in the end by a day) I wasn't once asked my name and no name from anyone else was offered to me. This wasn't just because I was foreign, as I never heard anybody else introducing themselves, even though many strangers had come together for the first time to spend an intense few days together. I should also note that had I been introduced to everyone I would have had a very hard time remembering their names. Five years after arriving in China for the first time, remembering Chinese names is still something that I struggle with.

After a ten minute lunch (the first day was quite a leisurely lunch and by the end of the trip, restaurant lunches had been reduced to five minutes of quick slurping and scoffing, frequently taken standing up) we were back in the coach and continuing our winding route up into the mountains.

An hour or so later we hit our first problem as traffic was held up by a landslide on the mountain path. We, sat, patiently as people craned their necks and got out of their cars, but I didn't hear a single complaint about the fact that nothing was happening. Nor did people complain about the fact that smaller cars were overtaking the line of stationary vehicles, thereby blocking both lanes of the narrow road and, when finally the bulldozer arrived, making it virtually impossible for it to get through to the scene of the blockage. When the landslide was cleared we were then left with another conundrum. There were now two lanes of vehicles facing each other, as on both sides of the landslide people had vied to be first in line, and we sat there cars honking and people waving as nobody moved.

It was another half an hour until the congestion was cleared, but again, there was no pointing of fingers and blaming of the people who had blocked the lane of oncoming traffic, and on we went. Each time this happened in the future and I saw the inevitable log-jam build up I would curse the senseless drivers who, through their selfishness wanted to be first in line, thus holding up the whole flow. Of course I kept this to myself as everyone else sat back and either didn't think through the consequences of the overtakers, or just didn't care. This is one of my over-riding annoyances in China, that the selfishness of the individual on the road, although possibly helping them for a few seconds, will add to the burden of traffic and in the end, holds everyone up. The idea of a communist society where the group is more important than the individual seems to be left behind when the car keys are in hand. This is true also of pedestrians and cyclists however who will cross the road without looking where they are going, cars swerving and breaking to avoid them in a bizarre ballet that seems always to be on the edge of disaster and puts me on the verge of a heart-attack several times a day.

An hour later we hit another landslide, this time at the entrance to a tunnel, and again, the same story. This time however the problem of oncoming traffic was faced inside the tunnel which had recently been built and only allowed for a single vehicle to go through some sections, which were still bumpy and wet from recent rains (the tunnel was open on one side). The driver revved the engine to get over a bump and out of the way of an oncoming motor-bike with an enormous loading platform attached to the back. All of a sudden the bus juddered and there was a huge shearing sound followed by a bang. The driver ran to the back of the bus, opened a panel in the floor and got to work on the transmission which had just snapped. Stuck in a tunnel, in the mud, with oncoming traffic facing us, their horns echoing through the small space and a driver running back and forth taking everything from bunches of wire to silk scarves to the back to reattach the transmission, I wondered why I hadn't taken the plane. It truly felt like we were in an impossible situation, but incredibly, after a couple of hours of sweat and concerned looks from the driver, a fragile transmission was reconstructed and, after much toing and frowing, we made our way around the oncoming vehicles.

Not only was the ad-hoc piece of DIY impressive, but the patience of everybody was truly inhuman, or at least un-occidental. There wasn't a single complaint, a raising of voices or eyebrows (except from me as my eyebrows have a life of their own when it comes to expressing opinion), or even a questioning of progress. Everybody sat back and waited, chatting happily in the cold and the semi-darkness. This is in great contrast to taking a plane in China in which the businessmen get very nasty very quickly if the plane is delayed even a few minutes. The difference between those with and without money, and working in the business world in China appears marked in their expectations of others. Many of those on the trip had taken buses or trains to Chengdu, the budget option but often taking a couple of days. These were not rich Chinese off for a jolly between meetings, but nor where they at the economic level of the migrant workers who come into the cities to find work.

Anyway, we made it out, and on our way, changing gear carefully until eventually we stopped off a few hours later outside a small house where the driver found the right contraption to give the transmission a more stable constitution. It took some time, and a few failed attempts and as we sat there and the time ticked by I was getting ready to take my passport from the tour guide, my bag from the bus and hitch hike the next few hundred kilometers to Jiuzhaigou, where I would have been quite happy to find my own accommodation and sort out the next few days independently. However, just before my patience ran out (though I seemed to be the only person getting restless - internally I should note) the bus started up again and we were on our way. The next few hours went by peacefully and without event and at 8 in the evening we arrived into Jiuzhaigou, where I was ready to have a bite to eat, shower off the day's stresses, and collapse into bed.

It became clear pretty quickly that things were not going to be so easy. We checked in and sat down to dinner (the same, simple but perfectly edible food we had had for lunch, and the same that we would have throughout the trip), shivering in the cold as the doors to the freezing mountain air outside stood wide open (the idea of shutting doors when there's no heating inside seems anathema in China - the fresh air seeming to be a positive thing). After five minutes the power suddenly cut out and we were left, not even able to see our breath condense in front of us as we sat in an amused semi-silence.

Candles were distributed and I made my way into my room where I sat on the bed and wondered what the hell I was doing. It was too cold to get undressed, so I got under the covers, coat and all with an extra layer of socks and tried to drift off to sleep, the impotent electric blanket lying uselessly under me. An hour later I got up to check the situation and found that the power was back on and the electric blanket saw that in the end I had a reasonable night's sleep. This was me, in my room, by candlelight wondering what the hell I was doing:

6 am we were up the next day and although the driver had asked us to all be on the bus by 7, all seats were filled 15 minutes early and so we headed off to the gates of the park. This would be unheard of with a Western tour group, and the only such trips I've been on, there would always be the odd few stragglers who would hold up the morning starts. Here however there wasn't a single moment that we had to wait for anyone, and every time we left before our agreed upon time.

We drove the few minutes to the park, the tour guide adding a few additional embellishments to the hours and hours of information he had regaled us with the day before and by 7.15 we were in the park, making our way to the highest reachable point in the West of the valleys.

My biggest fear was that we would have to go around the park in a group, following a flag and all wearing identical red caps, but thankfully once in we were free to do our own thing, so I set off, camera kit in hand and started taking photos of some of the most beautiful scenery on Earth.

Jiuzhaigou is so spectacular that it's almost unreal. The valley is around 20 km long , rising 1500 or so meters to its summit (at around 4000m) and the river that runs through its basin flows into crystal clear lakes where the copper compounds give some of the most vibrant colours I've seen in any natural setting. Between the lakes are stunning waterfalls you find hidden behind moss covered forest floors.

I had planned, like last time I went, to walk the length of the valley, thereby escaping the crowds who take buses between the scenic spots, but sadly, because it was winter, the paths were closed and the buses were the only option, so I took the buses and made my way down the first valley, experimenting with my camera along the way. Though the winter means that the footpaths are closed, it also means that the skies are clear and this was one of the main reasons I'd chosen to come back. I was hoping for snow on the ground and blue skies, and while the former hadn't yet arrived, the latter was spectacular and I got the bright colours which had been lacking last time with the white blanket of fog reflecting off the blue waters.

In terms of photography I had a few new tricks up my sleeve, and a few more years of experience. For landscape shots I had a 10-20mm sigma lens, I had two neutral density filters (ND8) for long exposure shots of the water and I had a 70-300mm lens for zoom. This along with the Canon 7D I'd brought not long before meant that the new bag of tricks should have given me quite an advantage over the last trip.

I'll detail the rest of the trip soon, but in terms of the results I'm still not that happy. I still have a great deal to learn about composition and technique, but every time I go somewhere like this I find there's a huge learning curve. I'd like to spend a week or so in this sort of situation, going through my photos in the evening and reassessing what went right and what didn't. There are some major compositional changes I'd make to my photographs the next time and some technical alterations, especially in that I would use liveview for every shot and mirror lock-up for added stability, even on wide angle landscape shots. Anyway, although I am only happy with a handful of the couple of hundred shots I came away with this has taught me a lot and I look forward to coming back for a third attempt in the future.

So, I made my way down the valley, finding as many photogenic spots as I could, and attempting to battle with the brights of the sky and the snow on the higher peaks together with the shadows of the trees and mountains.
Jiuzhaigou 1
Jiuzhaigou scenery
Jiuzhaigou waterfall
waterfall in black and white
jiuzhaigou reflection
Jiuzhaigou scenery
(*NB, though I've altered the dynamic range to be able to catch the lights and darks, I haven't increased the colour intensity on any of the above photos. I have a video I took at one of the lakes to show that this is for real*)

As I stopped off in each place I would frequently be called upon to be in a shot with a Chinese man or woman, who wanted their photo taken with the only foreigner in town, and an incredibly tall one at that. At one point I was stopped by a group of four women from Guangzhou and asked to pose with each of them individually and then in an ensemble of dissonant heights. They didn't know at first that I could understand them (they were speaking Mandarin as one of the women was not Cantonese) but I chipped in after one of them made a particularly amusing comment and we all started chatting. I haven't seen a lot of TV in China, but from what I have seen a large proportion of it is taken up with game shows and chat shows with young women gasping excitedly in what seems to be mock amazement at the answers and actions of guests. I'd always presumed this was somehow put on for TV but for the first time I was the centre of this as my answers brought on ever higher shrieks of excitement: British, from Oxford, scientist, post-doctoral researcher, worked for the Chinese Academy of sciences (this is the most prestigious science institution in the country and has an amazing reputation, apparently known to every Chinese man, woman and child), currently working for a Spanish University, etc. etc. It was fun to be the centre of attention for a little while and as we spent the next couple of hours going through the valleys together I basked in my few minutes of stardom, posing whenever they begged for a photo. At the end of the tour through the valley we parted ways, as their tour guide looked on disdainfully at the pouting women.

One of the deals with the tour was that I would have to pay to see a cultural show, put on in Jiuzhaigou town. In fact there were two of these, but having attended such performances before I agreed only to see one of them - most other people on the bus seemingly going for both. After resting in my room for a bit (still without a shower as the water was off during the early evening and cold the rest of the time) I went along to the theatre and after again having a huge amount of attention from the performers who greeted us at the entrance I sat down for two of the coldest hours of my life. The enormous theatre, again with doors open to the outside world was sub-zero and I sat, wearing five layers on top, shivering uncontrollably for the duration of the show. The show itself was a mix of ethnic songs from the local minority groups, dances, outlandish costumes and the recreation of various ceremonies from the traditional cultures of the area. All of these would be extremely interesting if all Chinese performances weren't infused with an enormous dose of what has been perfectly described as the Spring Festival Craptacular, a garish over-performance of kitsch nauseating flamboyance. Melodramatic pop songs sung with heart-rending passion and stomach-churning over-production together with pseudo-grinning dancers pretending to play traditional drums as the recording blasts at 120 decibels over the top of their prancing around tells me little of local culture and a great deal about the clash of Communism and 20th century Western entertainment. Anyway, after two hours of frozen feet and painful muscles, having spent the whole time in convulsions, I was free to leave the theatre and go home to collapse. I had dreamt throughout the performance of running off to find a foot massage place but in the end I was so tired that all I could do was to crawl on top of the electric heater on my bed and fall immediately asleep.

The third day was another 6 am start and although the plan had been to head to Huanglong, we were told that because of the lack of rain and the very cold temperatures up at 5000m it wasn't going to be worth visiting and so we would head back to Chengdu a day early. Our way back was paved with stops at local jewelry factories, traditional Chinese medicine centres and a yak-meat retailer. These presumably are the real way that the tour is able to function, as although the people in the bus had paid little for the trip, a few of them spent fairly enormous amounts on outlandish pieces of jewelry, gems and bunches of winter worm, summer mushroom. Nobody could resist buying a few bags of yak meat, having about 50 spicing options available and I bought a few bags for thank you and goodbye presents for friends in Beijing.

After another 10.30 lunch we started the final 8 hours back home and along the way the tour-guide started telling us about the various rock-falls on the opposite side of the river to the road that we were taking. He spoke of collapsed tunnels, and death-tolls, of cars trapped under enormous boulders and of falling mountain-sides, as the rocks above us teetered precipitously. There were a few key-words that I couldn't understand from his explanation and I asked a girl behind me, who I had just discovered spoke excellent English, what this one particular word meant. It then clicked, that the whole discussion was about the Earthquake back in 2008 which had completely devastated the precise area we were driving through. The road we were on was new, not because the previous one had been old, but because in most places it simply didn't exist anymore, having been torn to pieces in May two and a half years ago.
Wenchuan earthquake road

The stories were terrifying and I realised that the place we were headed for, as an alternative destination to Huanglong was Wenchuan the epicentre of the Earthquake and the village which had been devastated by the tremors and the landslides, the side of the mountain which overlooks the valley having fallen into the village and killed thousands upon thousands of residents. We arrived in the early evening and looked around what is an incredible testament to the energy and effort of the Chinese in times of trouble. The village has been all but rebuilt with houses vastly superior to anything they would have had before and a spectacular modern school to replace the one that was buried in the landslide. This of course cannot replace what has been lost, but the effort that has been put into this is place which lost everything is truly remarkable. A good friend of mine went to the village a year after the Earthquake and looked after the children, all of whom had lost family members and friends and many of whom were still in intense trauma, neither smiling nor speaking. She described to me her experiences there where she had volunteered for a week, and the stories were a combination of the amazing strengths of humans and the terrible effects of the disaster.
Wenchuan earthquake epicentre

Throughout the village there were people selling locally made handicrafts, not of the finest quality and whereas I would not normally buy much from these stalls I went a bit all out and filled my bag with a fair number of trinkets and fabrics. I found the whole thing a bit strange as the others in the group bargained as furiously as ever with the sellers, I felt completely unjustified in doing so, however much it was expected and however much the prices were inflated to take into account the bargaining process, telling someone that a bag they are selling is far too expensive may be a fun game in Beijing, but not standing next to the ruins of a school!
Wenchuan flower sellers

And on we went, eventually arriving into Chengdu a little after dusk. I had expected to arrive into Chengdu the next evening and then leave early in the morning, but unexpectedly I'd found myself with an extra day. Although I know Chengdu reasonably well, I'd never been to see the star attraction of Sichuan and so early the next morning I made my way north of the city to the panda reserve, which has just celebrated the birth of the 300th panda, a landmark which they had been aiming for for some time. A few photos follow and not much commentary is needed. Pandas, both giant and red: very cute, very playful, very photogenic.
red panda
feeding time
feeding time
baby pandas
baby pandas in Chengdu

I went in the afternoon to one of the areas I'd explored before in the West of the city which is a group of streets filled with some of the best food in China, tea houses galore and a recreation of what the city would have been like 100 years ago.
smoker in Chengdu

Unfortunately in the last three years a lot of the tea houses that I visited before have been taken over by fashionable cafes and a lot of the places are exorbitantly expensive and full of tourists, but I did manage to find myself in one of the nicest remaining tea houses where I sat down with Landau and Lifshitz and sipped chrysanthemum tea for a couple of hours.
rose in the tea house
I sat in the garden of the tea-house, under the branches of a wonderful yellow-leaved tree as locals chatted around me, played games and ate endless supplies of sunflower seeds. From time to time a photographer would come in to take a photo of the tea-house in the shadow of the tree and I discovered on speaking to them that the tree was almost a thousand years old and a renowned tree throughout the city. They all arrived with giant tripods and wide angle lenses in hand, trying their best to get both the giant spread of the tree, and the layout of the tea-house in shot. This seemed like a pretty difficult task so I turned my camera the other way and took some photos of the small golden balls on top of the posts separating areas of the garden, attempting to get a fish-eye view of the grounds, tree, tables and all.
Golden orb
I got some curious looks from the other photographers but when I showed them the results, everyone turned their cameras round and started following my idea. This is definitely my most successful if not only instance of trend-setting amongst photographers.

In the evening I indulged in some of the great local cuisine before an early night and a trip back the next morning to Beijing. The last 24 hours in Beijing was packed with seeing friends, some last minute shopping and the conundrum of how to pack two months worth of purchases in some relatively small bags. The answer in the end was to send all the books I'd brought in the post to Germany where they should arrive in three month's time.

The trip back to England was a long and tiring one: nine hours Beijing to Doha, four hours wait in Doha then seven hours Doha to Heathrow. The final leg was made a lot more interesting as I was sat next to Graham Brown-Martin, the founder of Learning without Frontiers who spends his time going between the worlds of technology, education and entertainment, trying to bring the education system screaming and kicking out of its industrial revolution era mold and into the era of interactivity rather than passive learning which is being made ever more exciting by the technological advancements going on right now. I spoke to him of Clay Shirky, Sir Ken Robinson and many others that I know from TED and other such sites and it turns out that he spends a good load of his time with these people when he's not discussing in Westminster, trying to persuade the monoliths of government that perhaps a teacher standing at the front of the class and regurgitating lines is not the best way for kids to gain understanding and creativity. Anyway, we spoke a great deal and if time allows I will go to see an event he's organising with Sir Ken Robinson in London in March.

So, 24 hours in London seeing friends and now I find myself waiting in A Coruna for the train back to Santiago where I have ten full days to finish a bunch of reports, hopefully a paper, give a public colloquium on atmospheric optics, and many last minute odds and ends before I leave officially on the 20th for Christmas. 2010 has been an incredible year and I've had so many wonderful opportunities. I'll do my best to wrap up some of these in the next two weeks as well!

Monday, November 29, 2010

For the love of Hangul

(Much of the information in this post can be found on the Hangul wikipedia article, but I've taken what I consider the most interesting points for this blog and expanded them)

I've mentioned briefly in previous posts here about Hangul, the Korea alphabet, but haven't gone into exactly why it's such an incredibly beautiful system. I thought I'd do that now, before leaving Seoul on Thursday and thus never getting it done.

You can learn to read Hangul in an hour or two, mostly due to its amazingly logical structure, something which I've not seen in any other alphabet. In general alphabets evolve slowly whereas Hangul is relatively new and its original structure was so perfect that it hasn't had to change much.

Prior to the invention of Hangul, some 550 years ago, the writing system in Korea used the Chinese characters (this can still be seen in a huge number of words which are very very similar to Chinese - today's new one for me was on the screen of the printer in my office - 준비- junbi cf. the Chinese 准备 - zhǔnbèi - ready).

The reason for the invention of Hangul was, quite sensibly, because although the Chinese writing system has many artistically sensible reasons for its existence, efficiency in learning it is not one of them. On average it takes a couple of years longer for a student to get up to the same standard of reading using characters as it does when studying a non-character based alphabet. Half a millennium ago when the majority of Korea was illiterate, King Sejong, commissioned the writing system and this was clearly a visionary step. I do wonder how China would have developed differently had it also had such a huge literate population.

Anyway, the history of the writing system is interesting, but it's the structure which is so beautiful. For a start, if you ask a Korean to write down the alphabet, they will not write it down in a single list. They will in general write it down with the consonants and vowels separately, plus the diphthongal vowels, the doubled consonants and the iotized vowels (ya instead of a, etc.)

I'll get onto these in a moment, but first the actual structure of writing the words. Every Korean word is built out of a number of syllables and each syllable has either 2 or 3 letters in it. However, unlike most alphabets you may be used to (save for Hebrew and Arabic), the letters may go above and below each other. A two letter syllable is either places with the two letters next to each other, or one above the other, while a three letter syllable has two, at the top, next to each other followed by one at the bottom, or all three in a column. You read left to right then top to bottom withing a syllable.

For instance, in my opinion the most important word in the Korean language: 김치 kimchi (actually pronounced with more of a 'g' than a 'k'), is made of of the two syllables 김 gim, and 치 chi. The first syllable is read clockwise from the top left and the second is read from left to right.

But this also isn't why it's so beautiful. The reason that Hangul is such a beautiful language is because the consonants are based on the sound of the letter and the shape of your mouth when you say it (known as articulatory phonetics). As a good example. The 'n' sound is written as ㄴ, which is the shape of your tongue when saying the letter 'n'. In my opinion we could have written the Pioneer plaque in Hangul ;-)

How about if we have a sound similar to 'n' but with the tip of the tongue making more contact with the roof of the mouth. This is 'd' written as ㄷ where the new line at the top represents this contact. And if we aspirate this sound with a burst of air to make it 't', this is written as ㅌand has the shape of the tongue (the bottom line with the vertical), the stronger contact (the middle line) plus the aspiration (the top line). The 'r' (or sometimes 'l') is another variation of 'n' but this time it takes the form of a flap consonant. 'r' is represented therefore as ㄹ.

'g' and 'k' are ㄱ andㅋ which are the shape of the back of the tongue on saying these consonants, the second line in 'k' again marks an aspirated sound.

The consonant group 'm', 'b' and 'p' are written as ㅁ, ㅂ and ㅍ and are the basic shape of the mouth on forming these letters where the 'b' is explosive and the 'p' is aspirated.

, ㅈ, ㅊ, 's', 'j' and 'ch' is the least obvious set but given the first, the second and third follow as being the same forms with contact with the roof of the mouth and an additional aspirated sound for 'ch'.

The two glottal sounds 'ng' and 'h', ㅇ and ㅎ have the shape of the throat opening in glottal consonants. The 'ng' can also be a silent letter which is used at the beginning of a syllable when it starts with a vowel sound - no syllable in Korean can be written with a vowel to start. As far as I know this is to do with the aesthetics of the written form.

So, those are the basic consonants. I'd wager that if you've read this far you could probably recognise most of the Korean vowels without trying to remember them. Some of these letters can be doubled up to get glottalized sounds and a few combinations make up consonant clusters (ls, lt, bs etc.).
Now onto the vowels. The basic forms of the vowels can be recognised within seconds, so I'll just list them here:

ㅏ,ㅓ, ㅗ, ㅜ, ㅡ andㅣ which are a, eo, o, u, eu and i. Want to add a y to the front? Add another short line: ㅑ,ㅕ, ㅛ and ㅠ - ya, yeo, yo and yu. Note that there's no yi or yu as these are included in the diphthongs

and then there are the diphthongs, which are simply combinations of these vowels:
ㅐ, ㅒ , ㅔ ,ㅖ, ㅘ, ㅙ , ㅚ, ㅝ, ㅞ, ㅟand ㅢ - ae, yae, e, ye, wa, wae, oe, weo, we, wi, yi Note that these can in general be worked out from the simple vowels. ie. ㅒ is ㅑ'ya' withㅣ'i' and thus yae.

So, there you have it, that's hangul, more or less. There are some subtleties related to the sounds depending on where the letters sit in a word, for instance ㄱ can appear to sound like a g or a k depending on whether it's at the beginning or middle of a word. Similarly the difference between 'd' and 't' can be subtle to a non-native speaker.

For English speakers perhaps the hardest thing I've noticed is that the non-dipthongal vowels are very pure in Korean. What we would normally count as a pure vowel in English would often be seen as a combination of two in Korean. I'm staying in an area called Sinchon but there's another area the other side of the city called Sincheon and I still have a really hard time telling the difference between the last vowels.

Anyway, that's a basic flavour of the alphabet. I've slowly been adding to my vocabulary this time, mostly with words related to foods but I'll try and pick up a few more useful phrases for next time I come.

If you're a native speaker and have any comments on this, please do tell me. For now 안녕히 계세요!

(With many thanks to Yumi for the consultation and for answering my constant stream of questions)

A taste of Korea

So much to blog about from the last couple of weeks, but right now I'm recovering from a bought of something that hit me hard yesterday. I'm still not sure if it was food poisoning (the most likely option given some of the strange things I've been eating recently - including yukhoe (육회) and the biggest sea urchins I've ever seen) or a 24 hour virus, but yesterday morning it knocked me for six. Anyway, I made it into the CQUEST office this morning in Sogang university and had a reasonably productive day working on a couple of projects.

I only have a few days before leaving Korea and heading back to China for a week, and there are still a fair few friends I've got to catch up with before I head off but today I still need to rest up and make the most of the next couple of days in the office.

For now I leave you with a tour of some of the food in the market in Pohang and a few plates that have made the last two weeks so...well...tasty.

These and more can be found on my Flickr stream.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Squid boats and Autumnal colours in Pohang

The brilliant lights on the horizon in the previous post's photo were from the squid-fishing ships which head out around dusk with rows of lamps hanging from ropes from bow to stern. As you watch you can see the ships go over the horizon where the light is still visible but dims significantly as they disappear from view. To keep them so bright they are cleaned meticulously before each trip and as we walked along the harbour yesterday we saw them cleaning them before heading out:

cleaning the squid lights
Today was another packed day as we took an hour's bus ride to Naeyeon San (mountain) and visited the buddhist monastery, Bogyeongsa, at the foothills of the peak. I still have to process a few of the photos from the temple but for now I'll post an autumnal photo from the trip up the valley which currently has only a small stream and some rather lovely waterfalls along the way. This place must be spectacular in the rainy season when the torrents crash down the very steep slopes.
autumn colours in neun san
Tomorrow I'm back in the office and giving my first talk of this trip to Korea.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Pohang arrival

I got into Pohang yesterday after a sleepless night in Beijing (recent late nights at work have shifted my body clock again and a four am start was not much fun). After racing from Incheon to Gimpo airport across Seoul to catch my connecting flight I arrived into Pohang and made my way to the APCTP where I'm spending the next week.

I spent a short time in the department before it was time to head out to eat, as my eyes could no longer focus on the computer. My friend had little hesitation in taking me to a place which served, in no uncertain terms, one of Korea's most unusual dishes, which is really saying something! I took a video but won't post it here because the likelihood of my family letting me stay for Christmas would fall sharply on seeing this plate of food. Anyway, more or less, it's hag-fish (a pretty unpleasant looking eel-like animal) which has been killed and chopped up, but when it's cooked in front of you it's still very much thrashing around! It makes san-nak ji look pretty tame, although in contrast to that dish, the eel is very much stationary when you eat it. After cooking you eat it in the Korean barbeque style, wrapped in lettuce leaves with various sauces to give it some kick. Very tasty, but not for the faint-hearted. (It's called 꼼장어 in Korean but be warned...)

Anyway, I got into my superheated apartment after dinner (the Koreans, as far as I've been able to tell, like to have their houses roasting in the winter and there's not much I can do with the underfloor heating system) and caught up a little on my missing night. Today was a packed one which included a trip to a Korean wedding, replete with traditional Hanboks, a series of terrifying bus-rides by the local bus drivers who seem to think that speed (and all its higher derivatives) always wins over comfort and a trip out to the famous sculpture on the most easterly point of the Korean peninsular. We got there at sunset and by the time I'd stopped faffing around taking pictures of the moon, the light had gone and we were left with the view of the hand, rising out of the sea, with Jupiter and the moon rising above. A 20 second exposure gave a nice effect but it was definitely a moment that a tripod would have been valuable, guessing the angle of a 10mm lens when placed on a makeshift platform on the ground is not easy.

Pohang sculpture
Anyway, tomorrow is a little more sightseeing and I'll have to get my talk ready for Monday when work starts again in earnest.

My apologies for not keeping up to date with Beijing adventures, we'll see if there are moments spare to add snippets over the coming days

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Everest in the early morning light

The absence of leg-space on my flight from Doha to Beijing made for a pretty tiring flight, standing up for most of the journey, but it did have one benefit. As the sun rose and the Earth-shadow slowly faded, the sight revealed below was the foothills of the Himalayas, a sight I'd never seen before. I watched the peaks rising from the gently rolling hills, and in the distance a familiar sight appeared. The light was still relatively low, and perching by the emergency exit, peering through the small window made for awkward photography, but this was one of the first shots I took of it. I'll try and process some more of the photos from this series in the next week or so.

Everest in the early morning light
If I'm mistaken and somebody knows better then please tell me, but I've compared this image to others in google and the surrounding peaks look right.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Dancers in Tian Tan

I bought the camera without any plans to use the video feature, but I played around with it a little in Tian Tan park last weekend and found the quality is absolutely breathtaking. The following, rather shakily taken footage (this is my first attempt at film making) was reduced by a huge factor to put on youtube, and the colours in the original are stunning. I may put up a higher definition version at some point.

I thought the whole thing was a rather lovely moment with some great expressions, both facial and through body language of people out for the day, to enjoy the weekend together in one of Beijing's most pleasant temples. Give it a moment for the second couple to come to the front

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Three weeks in and extremely loud on the Eastern front

Blogging has been on the tips of my fingers for the last three weeks but time simply hasn't allowed. There's a critical point where the number of blogworthy events becomes so high that there's no time to blog about them as you're too busy doing them, and helping to run this conference while attending lectures, writing papers, organising lecture visits and showing people the wonders of Beijing has kicked us way into the criticical region. We've had some fantastic lectures and some wonderful evenings and now, three weeks into this eight week program, I'm feeling very happy with how it's going, even if I'm pretty exhausted. The highlight, in addition to meeting up with some old time collaborators and starting a load of new projects has been having the chance to show good friends around a city which I feel very comfortable in, and to see their impressions of China change from a scary, exotic unknown, to an exciting, inspiring place with so much to offer (we've seen everything from hardcore Beijing punk, to tango in the park, to Sichuan face changing, to kungfu in the early mornings to traditional singing in Tian Tan, and so much more).

So, given so little time (about to head out for another meal) I thought I'd update with a few photos from the 7D, which I'm extremely pleased with so far.

From the Forbidden city:

forbidden city
kid in the forbidden city

and Tiananmen. I love the little doll she's holding limply as the guards march by:
From Tian Tan, on a very smoggy day:
and a close up in Tian Tan:
Sculpture in Tian Tan
and the soju bottles at the end of an evening in a Korean bar in Wudaokou:
all in a row

There are a few more here, and plenty more to come.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Back in town

After a long trip (no extra leg-room on the flight from Doha to Beijing and so I had to stand up for most of the seven and a half hour trip) I arrived, heavy eyed, but excited to be back in Beijing. I was greeted with the heavy smog of a city of 14 million, and the smell and noise to match. Taking the bus from the airport to Zhongguang Cun and walking into the Chinese Academy of Sciences campus felt wonderfully familiar, even though it was the end of the national holiday when I arrived and so the place was deserted.

I took my key from the porter and made my way back to the same building that I lived for two years here, arriving fresh faced from my PhD five years ago. Nothing has changed, the jaozi stands are still there. The copy shops and the hordes of people playing games remain, the grandmothers taking babies for walks in split bottomed trousers (the babies, not grandmothers) are still as numerous as ever, the men, old and young hacking up big spots of phlegm on the sidewalk remain to keep the pavement from drying up, the smart shoed fruit salesmen still talk noisily on their cell phones and in the tennis courts next to my place there is still a group of people practicing tai qi though I have to see if the sword wielding grandmothers still come out in the early morning.

I'd been rather worried that I'd come back to find a post Olympic sanitised version of the city, but thankfully it's the old Beijing that I know and love - the buildings change, but the underlying feeling is exactly the same.

I'll be here for the next two months and I have to say, though I know from past experience that the stresses and chaos all get too much after a while, I'm enormously happy to be back!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Jupiter, Io, Ganymede, Callisto, Europa and Uranus from Santiago de Compostela

This may not look like much, but it took a fair few shots to capture it. Jupiter at the moment is one of the brightest objects in the sky, rising around sunset and shining through the night, it's currently the closest it's been to us for almost 50 years. I've caught Jupiter with the four major moons before, but this shot was a bit special. When I enhanced the image, a bright green spot jumped out. I knew what it was having seen on Stellarium a few days earlier what else was in the sky, but I double checked to make sure that I'd really captured the very faint image of Uranus around 2 billion kilometers away from us, just to the top left of the Jovian system. Here's the result (my photo on the right) as compared with Stellarium (on the left):

Jupiter and its moons with Uranus

Here's another image from the same set of shots, but at a different setting on the camera, such that I could get the moons in better resolution. Here's Callisto, Europa, Io, Jupiter and Ganymede
Jupiter and moons

Monday, September 27, 2010

Sundogs burning over Santiago

Back in Santiago and with an intimidating amount to get done in a week before I hit the road again, but I wanted to post some photos I took yesterday.

I was heading into town to see a friend I haven't seen for a couple of months and on the way I noticed the hint of a sundog as the cirrus cloud tickled the 22 degree peripheries of the suns reaches. We went for a walk in the Alameda park in the centre of the city and by the time we got to the point overlooking the hills in the distance, the lone sundog had turned into two brilliant points of light in the sky, dazzlingly colourful and being bisected by a sun column and the faintest hint of an upper tangent arc. It was the strongest display of a double sundog I've ever seen and so I got my normal volley of shots off before the sun disappeared into the clouds:

fire in the sky
sundogs and upper tangent arc
sundogs over Santiago
Keep an eye out over the next few days. It tends to be as the seasons change that we see more of these glorious scenes.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Lunar halo over Oxford

I just came back from a long, tiring but very enjoyable day visiting the University of Southampton where I did my PhD. I went down there to give a talk and spent a long time chatting with the students and postdoc, and my former boss about a miscellany of ideas and possible resolutions to current problems. It was a positive visit and people seemed enthused by the talk.

It was also a good chance to catch up with an old friend that I see far too infrequently these days, so we went for a curry and chatted in one of our old haunts, while freshers drank themselves into a stupor around us.

I got back home to Oxford after taking four trains around midnight and saw, as I got into the drive, a halo around the moon. I got the tripod out and went into the back garden and took a few shots. The halo itself was delicate but lovely, made all the better by Jupiter, just to the bottom left of the moon. Uranus, just above Jupiter couldn't be seen with the flare from the moon.

lunar halo with jupiter
While we're on the subject of atmospheric optics and ice halos I'll post up a photo I took from the airport in Vienna on Monday evening as the sun was setting and the plate crystals in the split cirrus clouds reflected and refracted the light toward me:
sundogs over Vienna

Tomorrow I head back to London to check on my visa situation, and then on to the wedding either tomorrow night or Friday early morning. In the mean time there are calculations building up which will be tackled in transit.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

fifty bits to make you wonder - by helen sotiriadis

I will update the last couple of days of hectic travels, but first I really wanted to put up an advert for a new book, out today, which any fan of photography should get their hands on. I've advertised the work of Toomanytribbles (aka Helen Sotiriadis) on numerous occasions, not just because she's a friend but because I think that her work is really spectacular. We met in China after she found my blog and quizzed me about life in Beijing and it was a pleasure to see her photography go from good to outstanding in a short space of time, helped on by the inspirational architecture and sights around the city.

She's just created a book of some 50 of her best works which can be previewed here.

anyway, if you want your own copy of this lovely work, go here and order one...or several. Mine is in the post.


So, onto more mundane matters...

I caught up with a couple of hours of sleep today after a tiring night. I flew from Vienna to Gatwick and got into London some time after midnight, making way towards Oxford Street where I'd booked myself into a hostel in order to get up as early as possible to the Chinese visa agency (a great company if you haven't got time to go to the embassy yourself) I've been using for the last few years. Normally I stay with friends in London but the timing just wasn't going to work on this occasion. I realised yesterday that I wasn't going to have time to get the passport to the agency and back before I leave for Spain again and so I had to hand it in in person this morning. The snorer in the room in the hostel however scuppered any chances of a good night's sleep and though I drifted off some time around 5 am, getting up before 7 wasn't easy.

Anyway, though tired, it worked out ok so far. I made it to the  agency, handed everything over, confirmed all forms and photos and made my way back to Oxford where I've spent today drifting between sleep and work.

Tomorrow morning I'm out of the house before 7am on the way down to Southampton where I'll be speaking with the students of my PhD supervisor about my recent work and theirs and meeting up with old friends in the evening, before racing back to Oxford once more late at night. Then Thursday to London to pick up the visa and Friday to the wedding of one of my best friends. In between all this I'm trying to keep the momentum going on a new calculation which we want to add to a new paper, to come out in the not too distant future.

So, in summary, the normal chaos, and in a few days my penultimate stay in Santiago will begin which I'm looking forward to very much.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Spain-England-Austria-Slovakia-Hungary and back

It's been almost three weeks since my last post, and the time has been crammed absolutely full since leaving Santiago. The last two weeks have mostly been spent in Vienna which has been both enjoyable and very productive. Two weeks sitting down in the same office has allowed for progress on three projects, though there is still some way to go on all of them, and the rest of the time in the institute has been spent talking with collaborators (and drinking large quantities of coffee). The fact that there are blackboards in the toilets shows just how serious these people are about doing good science!

I took last weekend off to go to Bratislava and Budapest, neither of which I'd been to before and given that Bratislava and Vienna are the two closest capital cities in the world,  I thought it silly not to take the opportunity. I took off on Friday evening on the train and booked into a botel on the Danube itself. Nothing special, but I figured that given that it would be churlish not to spend a night on river. I went out in the evening, had some very good local fish (Slovakian food, from the variety I saw, looked very good indeed) and then walked around the town before chatting with a load of locals and foreigners in a bar in the centre and then moving on to a club as the evening drew into night.

The next day I headed off early on the train to Budapest, two and a half hours away, and checked into a hostel before taking the train up north to the Turkish baths and spending a very enjoyable few hours soaking, swimming and being steamed at a range of temperatures. That night I went out for a fine Hungarian goulash before going bar hopping with some people I'd met in the hostel. It's been nice to go to a fair number of clubs in central Europe and to see that they're full of people who actually enjoy dancing, something that I see less of in Spain (plenty of jumping, not so much dancing!).

The Sunday I did the tourist trail in Budapest, walking up the hill to the castle and going around the park full of the preserved communist monuments, which have been kept as a reminder of the past, something unusual in an ex-communist country, most of which destroyed such structures when communism fell.


Sunday evening I got back on the train and made my way back to Vienna, spending most of the way talking physics to an Indonesian art student and her mother who bombarded me with questions about the nature of the universe.

This week has been another busy one in the office, working on my projects and giving a talk on Wednesday. Thursday morning I took off though as it was my birthday and I fancied heading out to the summer palace in Schonbrunn, where I'd been before, but it's one of the most spectacular palaces in Europe and the tour around the house is pretty well done.
and then the weekend, which was taken up with tourist things in the day, sitting in cafes and getting on with some paper editing, and a little partying at night. I have one more day now in the department and will be heading back to England tomorrow night, where five full days of work, admin nonsense and weddings await me.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

On the road again

I've just moved out of my flat in Santiago, a place which has been my home, when not on the road, for the last three years, and has been a truly wonderful place to live, with a kitchen which could accommodate even my most ridiculous dinners, with rooms to house many friends and couchsurfers, with a view of an amazing palette of greens and wide skies, looking out towards the setting sun.

I've had a friend living with me for the last few weeks while she finds a place of her own, but last night I asked to be alone. I arrived in the flat three years ago, alone, without a bed to sleep on, without memories or knowledge of what life had in store for the next era of my life, and I rather wanted my last night to be alone there as well, sitting, thinking about the last thousand days, about the dinners and friends who've come to eat and stay, about the 120 or so couchsurfers from almost 30 countries who have come into my life for just a few days, to share their stories and to hear tales of the universe, of life in China, of crazy meals and lost days, of a life in research, of what we know and what we don't know. The number of art's students who now have a basic knowledge of the holographic principle is non-negligible, thanks largely to these walls in el Calle Romero Donallo. I wanted to think about the work I've done in this flat, of where I've come since leaving China, of the papers I've written and the papers I almost wrote, of the new collaborations, of the arguments, heated and impassioned which I've had, and which have increased my understanding, or decreased my misunderstanding of the field, of the time spent silent and motionless on the sofa, trying to play mathematical tricks to solve a problem,  of the nights where I couldn't sleep, because every time I started drifting off, mathematica code would stream across my visual field and I would jump out of bed, only to realise that my idea was ludicrous, or not. I wanted to remember the kimchi making parties with crowds of Korean friends coming round to get their taste of home, of the dumpling evenings where a bunch of friends would be put to use in a production line around the dining table, filling jaozi after jaozi with scallions and pork, of the sushi, paella and pulpo lunches where we would take advantage of the wealth of seafood off the Galician coast...and so much more.

This isn't my farewell to Santiago, but I will be here for only another two weeks before Christmas and on the road the rest of the time, at conferences and programs, and so it didn't seem worthwhile to keep the flat. My belongings, boxed and labeled, are taking up most of the spare room of a friend's flat, for the time being, until I send them off to Munich some time before December. My life is temporarily reduced to a rucksack of clothes and a bag with my notebook, my laptop and my camera. The rest of my belongings will sit in silence, enshrouded in cardboard and tape for the next few weeks. This minimisation is something I rather like, though I feel there is more I could do without.

For now I'm waiting to take a train, to catch a bus, to take a plane to England where I'm off to a wedding this weekend, before flying straight on to Vienna where I'll spend two weeks at a school on applications of AdS/CFT to the quark gluon plasma, a subject that I haven't worked actively on this year but which I hope to get back into over the coming weeks. There are still some ideas from last Christmas that one of my collaborators has reignited and I hope to give a push to as soon as possible.

So, for now I say goodbye to my home in Romero Donallo, to the library which has been my home from home over the last two weeks where I've been calculating furiously, to the cafe which has been keeping me well caffeinated and whose waiters would greet me with a sly grin every time I popped in for another giant mug of cortado upon cortado, to the swimming pool which has cleansed my mind every few days and has almost certainly saved me from complete melt-down, while working late into the night, and of course to friends, who I'll be seeing again in a few weeks time when back for the penultimate time, just before heading off to China.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The low down

The calculation I've been working on all day every day for the last couple of weeks pretty much wound up today and, along with finishing packing up my flat, all boxed up and labeled ready for shipping at the end of September, I feel almost ready to head off again on Thursday for another few weeks of adventures. Upcoming: Wedding in England, two weeks at a program on AdS/CFT and the quark gluon plasma in Vienna, a talk in Southampton, another wedding in England, and then back to Santiago for a week before taking off once more. I'm thoroughly looking forward to spending a couple of weeks grounded in Vienna, the birthplace of my Grandfather, and by the sounds of things, a rather lovely physics institute.

For now a quick picture, again with thanks to Gerardo for the use of his camera, on the evening kayak trip through the lakes of Bariloche in Patagonia. We arrived back after dark, with the stars out and the light from the snow on the mountains marking out way.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Muse on the hill

The sunshine has returned to Santiago but for now I have to make up for lost time and plug on with calculations. I've spent almost all day every day plus a fair few nights in the library this week and the same is true this weekend. Progress is not bad but there are still a few puzzles in the current work which I would like to get sorted today.

Friday night was an exception and I was able to make it to the Muse concert up on Monte do Gozo overlooking the city with Venus setting over the stage and Jupiter rising behind us. I'd been wanting to see Muse for a few years and was one of the lucky few (tens of thousands) to get a ticket. The crowd was huge as this was the main event of the biggest time in the most important year in Santiago's calendar and so the youth of the city had turned out in force. The concert itself was the first big concert I've been to since seeing Sonic Youth in Beijing three years ago and it was worth the wait. If you haven't seen them, Muse is one of the most impressive groups to see live these days and the production was really incredible, just about undifferentiable from the albums.

Anyway, fullsimplify has stopped so I'll just post up another photo from Bariloche I took on the cycle ride around the lake as a passed some workmen burning some recently felled trees, the crepuscular rays streaming off the still-standing trunks and branches:

forest fire

Thursday, August 26, 2010

El Ateneo in Buenos Aires

The chances of me getting more than a couple of minutes at a time to sit down and write a final post for the recent South American adventures is pretty low, so I'll drip feed it here to the blog as and when I have a moment. I'm currently spending my days in the library in Santiago working on a couple of different calculations which never made it quite from mind to hand to paper on the trip and finally it's time to sit down and get them rather more organised.

Anyway, I was lucky enough, after the conference in Buenos Aires, to have a weekend to explore the city and so I headed for the famous Ateneo bookshop, renowned as one of the most beautiful in the world. It is indeed stunning, set in an old theatre, but I have to admit that had it been a second hand bookshop it would have been infinitely more pleasant with the combined aroma of old books and the exuberant architecture. As it was, the old surroundings rather clashed for me with the bright lights and buzz of the commercial enterprise. Still, I browsed for a while before sitting down with some Marquez and a coffee. I rather wish I'd gone for Borges now as I still struggle quite a bit with Marquez's Colombian Spanish and complex phraseology.

El Ateneo
Anyway, worth checking out if you're in the area though I discovered some rather less commercial bookshops with very nice cafes in the Palermo area of the city which I think are even nicer places to spend an afternoon.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Dawson Bros new clip

For those of you who haven't come across the Inman/Dawson Bros, it's about time you did. This is doubly so for those who saw Avatar and wondered what all the fuss was we know

Tim, Steve and Andy have been working with the likes of Peter Serafinowicz, Derren Brown and Mitchell and Webb over the last few years and got their own half hour comedy show Happy Finish recently. Well worth looking out for and a few of the clips can be found online (including the first in the Internet Hate series (Definitely not safe for work)).

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Evening Kayaking in Bariloche

With thanks to Gerardo for the photograph

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Full circle to Buenos Aires

My South America trip has come full circle and I'm back in Buenos Aires, having flown from Santiago de Chile this morning. The last few days have been exciting and surreal and for some reason, still unknown to me, I had my 15 minutes of Chilean fame (ok, mild fame, but I'll take that too). The last two days have seen interviews with three different papers, including one which promises to go into Chile's biggest magazine, El Mercurio, a videoed interview and a couple of rather odd photoshoots. This was all in relation to my talk on Atmospheric Optics which was the first in hopefully a series of talks for the general public in Andres Bello University, one of the top private universities in Chile. The talk itself went pretty well, with plenty of questions once the students got their confidence up and my first experience of being simultaneously translated. I ran through the basics of the talk with the translators beforehand to make sure there wasn't too much jargon, and the only thing they wanted in the end to look at in detail was the quote from Descartes which I include on the section about rainbows:

"A single ray of light has a pathetic repertoire, limited to bending and bouncing (into water, glass or air, and from mirrors). But when rays are put together into a family - sunlight, for example - the possibilities get dramatically richer. This is because a family of rays has the holistic property, not inherent in any individual ray, that it can be focused so as to concentrate on caustic lines and surfaces. Caustics are the brightest places in an optical field. They are the singularities of geometrical optics. The most familiar caustic is the rainbow, a grossly distorted image of the Sun in the form of a giant arc in the skyspace of directions, formed by the angular focusing of sunlight that has been twice refracted and once reflected in raindrops." 

Still the most poetic explanation of a rainbow I've come across.

Anyway, there are still adventures galore to catch up on, but these, as normal will have to wait. For now I thought I'd share some of the photos I've just put up on Flickr from the trip across the Andes by bus from Bariloche to Valdivia, where I gave an enjoyable two hour talk. The seminars in Valdivia are legendary for their questions and the idea, which I highly approve of, is that there should be no time limit, but that the talk goes on until the speaker wants to stop, or the audience truly understands what is being said. The atmosphere is really wonderful and although there are a huge number of questions, none of them is aggressive, and I get the impression that the members of CECS in Valdivia really have a deeper understanding of a larger range of subjects than the average group of theoretical physicists, largely due to this atmosphere of probing questions.

Anyway, the trip to Valdivia was stunning (I was lucky enough to see the Andes from above today as we flew straight over the top with perfect clear skies. I sat in my seat itching to get the camera out but there's no moving around until you're clear of the peaks) and although from the bus I didn't manage to get any good shots of the higher mountains themselves, the snowy scenes were pretty spectacular. This was the lake skirting Bariloche town centre as we pulled out early in the morning, with the morning fog resting on the water

smoke on the water in Bariloche
And the tree lined roads leading up into the Andes:
winter trees in the Andes
Bariloche to Valdivia
Getting to Valdivia I met my Couchsurfing host and we went for a quick stroll down the river where the sealions were basking in the rather unusual sun (Valdivia is reknowned for its constant rain):
So, I leave South America on Sunday, though I'm sure I'll be back. It's been a good trip for giving talks, a fascinating trip for talking with lots of great physicist, an excellent month for thinking of new ideas, but in terms of sitting down and calculating, it's been pretty tough. Moving from place to place isn't conducive, at least for me, to deep concentration and now I'm really looking forward to getting back and having two weeks in Santiago to try and finish some long overdue calculations before heading off again for weddings and a two week stay at a long term program in doesn't stop.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Arcos, Halos y rayos: Un tour por la óptica atmosférica

Things are getting serious! I've just come out of an interview with the university journalists about my talk here for the public on Thursday. Here's the advert which is about to be linked to on Twitter.

22 degree solar halo in Santiago de Compostela

Thursday · 7:00pm - 9:00pm

LocationAv República 399, sala 002

Created By

More Info
Arcos, Halos y rayos: Un tour por la óptica atmosférica.
Dr. Jonathan Shock
Universidad de Santiago de Compostela

El estudio de la óptica atmosférica ha despertado el interés del hombre desde que miramos el cielo para observar nubes, rayos de sol y la interacción de la luz y el agua en todas sus formas. Nos preguntamos cómo estos ingredientes colaboran para desplegar la belleza de los fenómenos que iluminan el cielo. En esta charla... se analizarán varios de estos efectos. Desde los más comunes, como el arcoiris, hasta los más extraños e increíbles halos de hielo y el famoso rayo verde. Acompañaremos la charla con fotografías de expertos y amateurs, para dar así una mirada científica que nos ayude a apreciar mejor estos hermosos fenómenos que nos acompañan a diario, pero que la mayoría de las veces pasan desapercibidos de nuestra mirada.

(en inglés con traducción simultánea)
Cupos limitados (llegue temprano)

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Buenos Aires-Bariloche-Valdivia

I'm now in Valdivia, Chile, having skipped out, blog-wise on the last couple of legs of the journey and only given cursory details of any of the last two weeks. I've just arrived at a hotel after staying with a great couchsurfer in a very very cold house last night. I'm slowly defrosting, but was glad to have the chance to spend some time with local residents for an evening at any rate.

Before this I spent three days in Bariloche, though it felt like a good week given the amount that was packed into the short time. Bariloche is where Juan Maldacena spent a few years studying before moving onto Princeton. I was the guest of hist former supervisor Gerdardo Aldazabal who was an excellent host, both in terms of organising my physics activities but also as a keen outdoors activities man who made my stay really special. Given that I was giving talks on the last two days of my stay, having arrived at 2am on Wednesday morning I wanted to take full advantage of the Wednesday to see some of the Patagonian countryside. Staying on the campus of the centro atomico it was a short roll out of bed and into the office to chat with Gerardo about a possible route for the day, and I soon found myself alone with a rented bike, a thin pair of gloves, several layers of clothes plus a good calorie intake from a Welsh breakfast (there are large Welsh communities in Patagonia and a few valleys where Welsh is the predominant language, Welsh teahouses are a common sight) ready to head around the lakes.

The Ciruito Chico takes you around the gently rolling countryside through the occasional steep section or dirt road, around a series of stunning, crystal clear lakes, flanked by snowy mountains and dense forests. I spent the first two hours or so going around taking pictures and stopping occasionally to warm up my icy fingers, before turning back three quarters of the way around the lake when the traffic started increasing and made my way to a restaurant in La Colonia Suissa, a Swiss community with wooden houses, and plenty of traditional Alpine regalia to dine on the famed Patagonian trout in Las Siete Cabritas, an outlandish restaurant with some of the best prepared food I've eaten in Argentina. A coffee and a lemon meringue pie later and I was ready to get back on the bike and take the dirt road section back to the start. 45 km and two very tired legs after having started (I haven't cycled seriously since the Land's End to John O'Groats trip a decade ago - though I plan on starting again in Munich) I gave the bike back to the rental company and chatted for a while with the owner over a cup of tea. Given that it was still early and it was the only day to be able to sight see I walked up the road to the start of the hill trail to the Campanaria watch tower and started pushing my legs up the extremely steep path.
A few pictures from the trip:

still life on the water
lakes and mountains in Bariloche
Passing a controlled bonfire in the forest:
light through the smoke and trees
Some icy proof:
Ice structures in Bariloche
This slightly strange looking photo was taken by resting the camera on a icy pond in front of the lake. The ice you can see stretches for about a meter in front of the camera but looks to go much further because of the unusual perspective:
stone in the ice in bariloche

After the cycle ride my legs were none too fresh and the half hour scramble up was quite a struggle, but the view from the top made it well worth it, as I emerged from the undergrowth to be greeted by the crowds who had come up by cable car. The panorama of the lakes and mountains is really one of the most stunning scenes I've seen and I would highly recommend this area to anyone coming to Argentina. The light wasn't that easy for photography, but I got a couple of pictures to try and give the general impression. Here's one for now
 Bariloche from the Campanaria

Back down the hill and into the centro atomico for a quick shower, before heading into the town centre to take a look around. It's a ski-tourist haven and a chocolate-lovers dream, somehow giving the impression of a Patagonian Swiss Alps and the usual crowds of skiers fills the streets lined with restaurants serving trout, lamb, deer and a few other local delicacies. Sadly by the time I got back to the lodgings it was too late to go out again so I popped to the local supermarket to munch on some empanadas before bed.

Thursday was a full-on work day and I was in the office and getting on with some calculations in the morning before my talk in the afternoon. The group is quite diverse and so I had to change my talk a little from the one I've been giving recently, adding a few slides of introductory material and bulking out a few explanations. Of the 20 or so in the audience, I'm not sure I saw a single sleeper which I count as a good performance in a technical seminar. With the snow gently drifting outside and a positive audience with good questions, I left relieved that at least some people had understood, and happy to have been able to give a talk in such stunning surroundings. Tomorrow incidentally I'll be giving my talk in Valdivia, famed for talks which can last for many, many hours so I'm not going to get complacent yet about my seminar-giving abilities. Anyway, Thursday night I managed to find a table at an asado restaurant and sampled the Patagonian lamb which was very very good.

Friday was time for the colloquium on atmospheric optics, and not only the whole of the centro atomico but also the whole of the town had been told about it. Half an hour before I was due to start I was introduced to a journalist with whom I gave a quick interview. It was a good chance to try and explain a little about atmospheric optics in Spanish, and also a chance to realise that my decision to not give a Spanish version of the talk in Santiago de Chile in a few days was probably the right one. Although I could explain about the different effects to the journalist, it was with a lot less of the technical precision and detail than I like to be able to give in English. For the talk, I guess there must have been a few over 50 in the room which was a nice sized group and they seemed to enjoy the images and explanations. It's a pleasure to be able to tell people about things which are always around them and therefore get to change the way they see the world a little on a day to day basis!

The talk over and a little more work later and it was time to get in the car with Gerardo and head out to the lakes for the Friday evening kayak session. In sub-zero temperatures we were well-prepared with several layers of neoprene, hats and gloves although I wouldn't have wanted to get any more than my feet in the icy waters. I shared a double canoe with Gerardo and we headed out into the lake, with the mountains looming around us and the sun gently setting as we paddled our way from the shore. Although I used to canoe a lot when I was around 10, I've done it only a handful of times in the last 20 years and although it was really wonderful to be doing so in such surroundings, my shoulders burned constantly for the two plus hours that we were out on the lake. It felt like a really serious workout but thankfully I haven't been aching since, the only complaint being the lack of skin on the inside of each thumb. Gerardo had brought along a water resistant camera and so I'll try and put up some photos when they're available.

After a lovely dinner with friends at Gerardo's house I got home and prepared for an early start the next day, to take a morning bus over the Ande's and into Chile where I am now, but I think that that will have to wait. I have to prepare a few more things for tomorrow but will see how things  go later today.