Monday, December 28, 2009

Dragon's Egg by Robert Forward - a review

Sci-fi isn't usually my thing, I tend to get wound up by ridiculous names of endless two dimensional characters and mind-boilingly bad science, though clearly there are some major exceptions to this generalization.

I no longer remember where I came across the shining review of Robert Forward's Dragon's egg (possibly from some of Douglas Hofstadter's writing) but the idea hooked me immediately and despite the fact that it's no longer in print I managed to get hold of a copy through the wonderful AbeBooks.

The concept is based on a simple question: Is it possible to have life in conditions where there is normally little complexity? The majority of Dragon's egg takes place on the surface of a pulsar, where gravity is 67 billion times stronger than that on earth and there is no 'chemistry' as we know it. In this world the complexity comes from a chemistry where the leading force is the strong nuclear force and combined with the fast spin of the star, when life evolves it evolves at a rate a million times faster than that on Earth.

The story itself is rather wonderful (we see intelligent life, albeit far smaller than on earth, evolve from the prebiotic soup of the thin crust of white dwarf matter and accelerate past that on Earth) but what is even more astounding is the level of physics that went into the writing of the story. Starquarks, giant magnetic fields, the interplay between the beings and their landscape and the exchange with the humans who come to visit them all make for an incredibly detailed and well thought-out novel on a fascinating subject stemming from an important question. The book includes an encyclopedia of the biology, geology and history of the star and its inhabitants which adds to the depth of the story.

The writing is not going to blow you away, but for sci-fi it's very readable and is definitely going to get you thinking. As this is the five year anniversary of the observation of one of the most monumental events in our galaxy on a star not unlike that which the book is based on, see if you can get yourself a copy and think about what else may be out there.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A very merry Christmas

I hope that all are well and that you have a fantastic Christmas and New year. I'll leave you with a view from my parent's garden in Oxford after a wonderful night of frost. The journey that day between Oxford and London was truly spectacular.

Christmas Berries

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Gap filling

This week I have been mostly.....Santiago leaving, Stansted fretting, coffee drinking, Oxford home-coming, mince-pie scoffing, cold feet chilling, night snowing, wine mulling, TV despairing, Christmas present belating, academic meeting, paper writing, deep breathing, London visiting, norovirus cuddling, program writing, cafe frequenting, gallery visiting, book worming, photo taking, path pondering.

Gaps may be filled in, or not.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

On chaos and the teaching of mathematics, in no particular order

The normal busyness continues apace but I fancy punctuating this chaos with a little update. I'm currently doing some proofreading of a book (not my own) which is both fascinating and densely packed with information (I'll reveal details when possible). At the same time I'm attempting to get two papers finished before Christmas and if at all possible next week.

Ah, yes, and I'm back in Santiago, if only briefly. My carbon footprint continues to increase month on month and December is no exception as I had to come back to Santiago for a week in between my Dublin trip and Christmas. After an 11 hour mammoth journey back to Spain on Thursday (starting from Oxford at 4am and culminating in a 4pm collapse back home) I have lots of things to finish before I head off again on Thursday including giving a short talk to the postdocs and grad students in the department. I'll be introducing in 15 minutes the depths of string theory, gauge theories, the problems with strong coupling dynamics, AdS/CFT and its applications to heavy ion physics, and more importantly why they should care about all this. This will be aimed at a diverse audience ranging from the groups which work on non-linear systems to those in nanotechnology and beyond. Anyway, it'll be a challenge but it should be a fun one.

Christmas farewells are filling the evenings, with a big party last night (in which I managed to make sushi for a group of 30+ whilst avoiding food poisoning, the latter being my principle triumph) and dinners until I leave but somehow I have to get these papers finished and as much of the book proofread as possible in the meantime (snide comments about my own bad spelling are not strictly necessary/neccessarry/necisary/nessacary).

On the night before coming back to Spain I had dinner with a friend of my parents, an ex maths teacher who has spent a great deal of time attempting to spread his ideas for teaching maths not only more effectively, but in a way which avoids the building up of the normal hierarchy of students in a class which leads to a range of bad feeling between those who can and those who can't. The method is simple and I'd like to talk more about this some time, but the basic idea is to get the students to read out a very short section from an appropriately chosen text book following which another student will explain what the section means. I think this is an extremely intelligent way to get pupils not only to be able to solve maths problems but to truly understand the workings of mathematics as they are introduced to it. Far too much emphasis is put on getting kids to learn through repetition of solving problems and not enough is put on building up the background of true understanding which is needed for getting onto ever more complex concepts without getting lost in the forest of terminology and notation. Clearly problem solving itself is necessary for polishing the edges but problem solving is infinitely easier if one has a thorough understand of the internal workings of mathematics rather than simply knowing how to turn the handle.  Unfortunately it seems that getting teachers to try this method is extremely difficult, especially in the current climate where schools are terrified of trying anything new for fear of dropping down the league tables - one of several curses of the current UK education system. Anyway, I'd love to devote some more time to discussing this so we'll see if the Christmas 'break' allows. Until then, it's back to reading and typing...

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

and quickly...

I wanted to post a photo of a little project I started after my friends in Santiago gave me a photo printer for my birthday a while back.

My flat is covered with my photos, but most of them are of the inanimate, so I thought I'd start a wall of portraits I've taken over the last couple of years. This wall will grow, with time, but for now I'm just setting up bordered sets of photos, some of which have something to do with their proximate pair, and some of which do not. Just a bit of fun for now, but it's nice to have a few familiar faces around the house:

Wall photos
The one photo of me (middle right) was taken by Toomanytribbles in Athens mid camera swap.

Click for a closer look.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Everything under the sun

Having not stepped foot in the British Isles for more than a few hours since February, there have been a few changes over these last months. The streets of Oxford have their transient shops, going through waves of success and failure, and changing week on week, but despite the new facades it feels something like home. I count myself as lucky that while I don't currently feel I have a place to call home (knowing that at each stage of my journey I will, sooner rather than later, be moving on somewhere else), I actually feel quite at ease in this state of fluidity.

I spent today back in the centre of Oxford working in a couple of cafes before coming home to tea and mince pies to continue study. I have two more projects that we would like to finish before Christmas and these will keep me out of trouble for the coming weeks.

Thankfully television is no distraction. In my hotel in Dublin I made the mistake of turning on the TV (the first time I've seen television in many many months) and realised that I'm so out of touch with British pop culture that I have no idea who any of the "celebrities" on the unending, jaw-droppingly bad reality TV shows are. Such ignorance fills me with more than a little pride.

I don't have a raft of exciting tales to tell from Dublin, though yet again this charming, if outrageously expensive city brought several days of enjoyment, both through plenty of scientific discussion, the odd guinness and a little time to tour the city. On an icy cold Saturday I sat atop an open-air bus to see the city, something that I can highly recommend if you have a short time to see somewhere you don't know well. Touristy though it appears, it's convenient, and unless you're reading up on the place before you arrive, you're likely to learn a great deal whilst catching all the highlights.

Anyway, the only other tale to tell is of the flight over from Stansted to Dublin where, above the murky cloud-line I was greeted with another wonderful halo display, this time witnessing my first ever sub-sun as the light reflected of the plate crystals in the clouds below us. Seated over the wing (in order to take advantage of the leg-room) I missed out on any possible Subparhelia but caught a few glimpses of sundogs, changing quickly as we passed layers of cirrus clouds.

Bright subsun:

halo and subsun from a plane
22 degree halo with sundog:
halo and subsun from a plane
and 22 degree halo with subsun tangent arc:
halo and subsun from a plane
As always consult atoptics for the full explanation of these phenomena.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

AdS/CFT and novel approaches to hadron and heavy ion physics - Beijing KITPC program 2010 - an advert

While in Beijing for an academic visit in the summer of 2008 I spoke with my old boss and director of the KITPC, Yue-Liang Wu about the possibility of organising a program on an AdS/CFT related subject. I got the support of the director, got together a team of people for an organising committee (Stanley Brodsky, Nick Evans, Hong Liu, Craig Roberts, Dam Son, Xin-Nian Wang, Urs Wiedemann) and over the last year have been going through several stages of proposals before getting confirmation of support and the go ahead to start inviting people. We've been sending out invitation letters over the last couple of weeks and have a few people now confirmed internally (the names are only viewable currently to the organisers) and thought that now would be a good time to advertise via the blog.

The program will last for seven weeks from the 11th of October until the 3rd of December  2010 and we hope to get as many people interested in AdS/CFT applications to hadron and heavy-ion physics and those involved in these subjects from other perspectives to come along, collaborate, speak, and integrate their ideas in order to advance the field through interdisciplinary works. The idea is for people to come for at least two or three weeks in order that there time can be relaxed and there's plenty of opportunity to build up lasting collaborations.

One of the main problems of the field as I see it is that there are many groups trying to essentially deal with very similar questions but with such different languages that collaboration is often difficult. One of the aims of this program will be to give people the platform and time to reduce this difference and for ideas in diverse areas to be exchanged and discussed in a nice environment, with a good cross-section of international researchers.

The abstract of the program can be found here and I would highly recommend anybody interested in this field to apply to the program, to come and chat with a lot of like-minded people and to explore Beijing, a truly incredible city with a diversity of cuisine, history, language, music, art, architecture and nightlife unlike any I've experienced anywhere else in the world. I love this city, and am hugely looking forward to not only working with a lot of people on a fascinating topic in physics, but to sharing the city with many newcomers.

If you have any questions at all about the program then please ask and I will be happy either to answer directly, or to find out anything you need to know from the staff at the KITPC who are organising all the local details.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Ireland way

Feeling pangs of blog neglect these days but I'm spending every evening reading up on a range of new subjects that I'm currently interested in. I'll explain when possible, but in the mean time it simply means that life is twice as full as ever before and that blogging rears its head only when something time-dependent is closing in, or when the guilt gets too much.

I'm off to Dublin via London tomorrow where I'll be giving a talk and spending plenty of time talking with my friend and collaborator at the IAS. Flight prices mean that it's actually cheaper to spend a couple of days back in the UK on the way back so I'll be popping home briefly before coming back for the final week of the year in Spain where I have another talk lined up which I'll explain nearer the time - a slightly unusual one.

Anyway, finishing off my Dublin talk now and pondering the woes of dispersive media from holography.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Orion setting over Santiago de Compostela

I don't post these pictures as great examples of astrophotography - that much is clear but I'm always keen to point out what is around us to be observed with very little effort and minimal cost.

I woke up around 3 in the morning a few days back and thought I'd take a look outside to see if the Leonids were in evidence. Sadly as I poked my head from the seventh story of the building to the West of Santiago there were no shooting stars in evidence but Orion was standing there clearer than I'd seen it for a long time - we've had terrible storms for the last week or so and this was the first chance to see the stars in a while.

I set up the tripod, mounted the 300mm lens onto my Canon and took a few snaps to see how clearly one can see the orion nebula from a small city. I'm pretty pleased with the results for a first serious try and with a body which deals better with low light I think one could get some spectacular results.

The point to make with such a shot is simply that although we think of the night sky as a simple distribution of points of light, really there is structure out there even at the grossest scales, from the giant gas clouds surrounding old supernova remnants to the galaxies observable with the naked eye on a truly dark night to the phases of Venus, the bands of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn - such things are not only there to be seen by those with research budgets and large inheritances. All you need is enthusiasm, some truly minimal equipment and a little time to explore.

M42 Orion nebula

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Life in a 22 degree arc

Lots to do this weekend so not much time to write but I'll simply post a picture of a solar halo that appeared as I was on my way to work a few days back. An HDRified take on the scene taken with the new lens I got a couple of months ago. With my 17-85mm Canon lens I can just fit a 22 halo into the screen, but with the 10mm lens in fits in with acres to spare! Yet again I stood there contemplating for a good quarter of an hour with passersby not wondering for a moment what I might be staring at....I despair!

Santiago halo

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Sunday random odds and ends

  • Go to the Everything Seminar blog to learn about the first beam splash at the LHC in 2009. This is exciting progress and means that the detectors really are doing their job and the machines are almost ready to start collisions.
  • Cineuropa is in full swing and so far I've seen:
  • Tokyo Sonata, which was enjoyable though had at least half an hour which felt completely farcicle. Generally a worthwhile watch and I'll be keeping an eye out for more films by director Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
  • Tulpan, a film from Kazakh director Sergei Dvortsevoy. The cinematography is stunning, set on the steppes of Kazhakstan and centering around the seemingly simple story of a nomadic family and the tensions between traditional and modern life. It's sometimes hard to know how concrete the storyline was pre-filming as there are a number of sublime coincidences which seem impossible to manufacture in the absence of huge special effects budgets.
  • Tonight a group of us are off to see Wong Kar Wai's Dung Che Sai Duk, seemingly a kung fu movie with a difference. Will give a one-line report if it seems appropriate...
  • And on an asian theme, my kimchi supplies are back up to maximum after an epic kimchi making afternoon yesterday. I have a feeling it may even stand up to the assault of a large group of Koreans who will be descending on my place for dinner on Thursday night.
  • I've almost finished Douglas Hofstadter's book: Fluid concepts and creative analogies: Computer models of the fundamental mechanisms of thought. This discusses Hofstadter's own projects in the direction of creating something akin to AI, and reading this really makes all other approaches I've come across seem so hugely lacking - although there are many projects which can solve much more complicated problems than those discussed in the book, the way they do so seems to answer none of the deep problems about how we think. The projects which he and his colleagues have tackled are simple to define problems in very restricted domains: anagram solving being perhaps the easiest to discuss. Clearly it is trivial to write a program which can solve anagrams. Brute force is really the forte of the artificial computer but this goes no way to showing how we think or even trying to imitate our thought processes. Instead Hofstadter's programs attack such problems with stochastic sub-processes which go in to attack the problem on a number of different levels, spotting groups, patterns, and finding the strengths and weaknesses in its own formulations as it goes. As the book discusses more and more such problems it really does appear that Hofstadter has managed to model to a high fidelity the fluid non-deterministic nature of our own methods for such problem solving. In some ways it's rather frustrating reading, coming from a generation where we see that the difficulty of solvable problems increases with Moore's law. We are used to being able to tackle more and more complicated challanges year on year, but the bottle-neck to the methods discussed here is not computer speed, but our own understanding of the processes by which we make analogues define concepts and spot solutions. This is another fantastic book from Hofstadter and a highly enjoyable read.
  • I haven't had time to watch this video, but by the looks of things this is Hofstadter discussing the concepts which are dealt with in the book:

  • Incidentally, if anybody has any knowledge of the views of Marvin Minsky on Douglas Hofstadter or vice versa I would very much like to know. These are two giants of the field, who frequently come over as feeling pessemistic of the current trends in the subject of AI and I'd love to have an idea of their criticisms of one another.
  • I really, truly, genuinely have almost finished the two projects I've been banging on about for the last few months. When they're out I'll try and explain a little about why it's taken so long to give them the final push.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Carl Sagan day and a Cosmos coincidence

I was due to post an advert for a monthly event here in Santiago, part of the International Year of Astronomy, which has been going on for a few months and is due to continue into next year. Every month in Pub Fuco Lois the landlord has cleared the way for a showing of an episode of Carl Sagan's Cosmos. I attended the last event which was extremely enjoyable, though not as well attended as I'd hoped. After watching the episode (dubbed into Spanish) people chatted over drinks about the show before dispersing into the night. A fun evening but it will be improved by the inclusion of more people. So, come along next Tuesday and enjoy the show!

The coincidence of course is that today is Carl Sagan day and would have been his 75th birthday. For some words from a true Sagan oficionado go and see what TMT has to say on the subject and watch the videos linked therein.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Cineuropa coming back to Santiago

Just a quick note to advertise Cineuropa, the annual film festival here in Santiago which shows a great array of recent world cinema (all undubbed which is unusual for Spanish cinemas). The program doesn't seem to be up yet but the festival starts on the fourth of November and goes on all month.

Three years ago I went to no films, two years ago I saw one and last year I saw two. If the most obvious sequence holds I should see 720! films this year which means I definitely won't get to finish the papers I've been promising for so many months already. I heated few hours on google chat this week has cleared up a few issues with one paper and muddied a few others. I enjoy the challange of individual problem solving but for me the greatest pleasure of what I do is to discuss with other people and together evolve a coherent picture of a problem and a solution. This has been happening a goodly amount this week on a number of problems which has been a lot of fun!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Phineas Gage rediscovered

Of all the incredible pieces of history on this page of recently rediscovered photos, the one which really astonished me was the portrait of Phineas Gage, the famous railway worker whose dicing with death via a metal rod and a stack of dynamite was the cause of a revolution in our understanding of the brain. I've no time to write about him now but his story is well worth a read.

Photo taken from the above wikipedia site.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Lecture on gravitational waves and their detection

A little advertising for a seminar next Wednesday here in Santiago if you're around. A talk on the fascinating subject of gravitational waves and their detection which I'm told will be at the divulgative level. These experiments are truly spectacular in terms of their mind-boggling precision, measuring the length of a vacuum chamber several kilometers long when the distance changes by one-hundred-millionth the diameter of a hydrogen atom! These mammoth experiments are designed to detect the gravitational waves given off when extremely violent astronomical events occur, such as the merging of black holes (see the LIGO website and and VIRGO website for more details).

One o'clock in the department of physics on the South Campus of the university of Santiago de Compostela (presumably in Spanish).

Sunday, October 25, 2009

quote of the hour/day/week/until next time

The plural of anecdote is not evidence

A quote which rests on the definition of anecdote and whereabouts it might lie on a sliding scale of observation, a worthy sentiment nonetheless.

Too busy to blog at the moment but was tickled by the above line, the source of which eludes me (though an elusion through lack of searching as opposed to clever hiding - perhaps here).

Monday, October 19, 2009

Light painting spectacular

A quick note to tell you to go see TMT's latest photo which just made me gasp in wonder this morning. This is a fantastic use of a long-exposure technique known as light painting and I hope to see some more of this from TMT in the near future.

With thoughts and best wishes.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

With weather conditions exploring the extrema through the days and nights my body has decided that I've had enough months feeling good and is going all pathetic and fevery presently. So, I'm sitting at home without the ability to concentrate on anything practical for more than a few minutes which gives the perfect excuse for watching some TED talks. This one by Henry Markram on building a model of the brain on a supercomputer was news to me in terms of the complexity that can be modeled on such a system and looking around the project's website it looks like an impressive endeavour.

which reminds me, through rather tenuous links, of this video by Dan Ariely on our buggy moral code which itself ties in nicely with work on universal moral grammar which makes you realise quite how basic some of our decision making skills are.

Anyway, a couple of random links. I may update more depending on the gradient of my descent.
With apologies on free-flow brain->blog input.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Heating up

I know that blog excuses are generically tedious, but sometimes enough time goes by with the neglect of your thoughts and jotted opinions that such a statement is needed. With the termination of in-house internet the chances for such stream of consciousness writings has diminished, but they will continue, when time allows.

I'm still getting on with the papers which have been plugged into my bloodstream, gently leaking my energy levels for more months than I care to mention. They are genuinely in the final(ish) stages of writing and though thoughts of having them finished by the beginning of, middle of and end of summer vanished quickly into the distance the light at the end of the tunnel is at least close enough that parallax effects are noticable.

On top of this I've had a full house including two year old which has made for a surprisingly peaceful and enjoyable week. Cooking good food in the evenings with said baby's parents has added to the pleasure and a week's worth of hearty, good quality meals is helping the energy levels.

Tuesday saw a visit from James Lovelock who won this year's Fonseca prize, last year awarded to Stephen Hawking. The 90 year old polymath gave an impressive, if depressing speach, with little of the cliche and ranting that many climate change talks may be liable to, but with bleak predictions and the urge to plan for the future rather than to try and alter current fuel usage, the emphasis being that we've simply gone too far and are pearing over an inevitable cliff with no reasonable escape. The main claim and attack was that climate models tend to focus far too much on a small range of affects, be they meteorological, biological or otherwise, and few look holistically at the world as a complex entity with many interlocking effects - Lovelock's Gaia theory being the antithesis of such commonly used models.

Anyway, with thoughts of climate change, baryon densities, flat hunting, food hunting and tedious preoccupations with recurrent chalazion attacks (truly more boring than aggravating) the last couple of weeks have gone by apace and the coming weeks will likely have the same blurred passing.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Jupiter Moon conjunction

It's one of those days where I have a huge list of things to do but somehow nothing can be done in parallel and there's a lot of waiting around, never with quite enough time to get on with something else useful. I write this as I'm waiting for two programs to finish running and give me results for a paper I'm finally writing up having met up with a collaborator in Greece last week - of which more, perhaps, soon.

Anyway, after dinner with some friends last night I got home and saw the moon in near conjunction with Jupiter. I took a few shots and put two of them together to make the following, where Ganymede, Io and Calista were easily seen with the 300mm lens.

Jupiter and the moon

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Milky Way over Milos

I haven't taken any landscape shots since I arrived here in Milos. Everywhere is stunning by the times we've been out of lectures the light hasn't been that interesting. However, last night after dinner I took myself round to a secluded corner a few minutes walk from the hotel, set up the tripod and took an hour's worth of photos of the spectacular sky, the milky way slicing it in two and Jupiter lighting up a good part of it. In this photo Jupiter is the bright light in the top left.

Milky Way from Milos
In this photo you can clearly see the Lagoon nebula just above the horizon in the band of the milky way.
Milky Way over Milos
The colour balance is a bit wonky in this panorama so I'll try and replace this when I have time after my talk on Friday:
Milky way panorama
The first two photos were taken with a Canon 17-85 at 17mm, f/5 and around 60 seconds exposure at ISO 1600. The last photo is a panorama of six photos taken with a Canon 50mm at f/1.8 for 30 second exposures at ISO 400.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Milos on the fly

All is well here in Milos. I spent an enjoyable 24 hours in Athens, caught up with a friend I used to share a flat with in England, gourged myself on feta, moussaka, sun-dried tomatoes and baklava, caught a glimpse of the Acropolis, panicked about my talk, finished a bunch of calculations which have been dragging on and attempted to get some sleep before heading out here on the boat.

The island is beautiful but I haven't had any time yet to explore, this is the double-edged sword of being on a beautiful island with your collaborators! Still, the talks so far are not bad, and the coffee time discussions are proving useful (I've well and truly fallen off the coffee abstinence wagon). I haven't had a moment to take any photos yet but I plan on heading out to a peak to catch the sunset if I can tonight.

The next few days will doubtless fly by, then I have a couple of days in Athens, before I head back to Spain where I have to dive straight on with projects and finally getting one of my papers written up...

Friday, September 18, 2009

Off to greece

I haven't had a moment to think about my trip to Athens followed by Milos, starting tomorrow. It's been a very enjoyable but utterly chaotic week with lots of work getting done along with some time spent turning 30, and little sleep.

I'll see if I can update from Greece but it looks like that's going to be non-stop too. I hope that everyone else is managing life at a more reasonable pace...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Islas Cíes (With thanks to Daniel for the correction)

It's been a decent 13 hour work day so far and it seems like the week is going to continue in this fashion. With two projects to finish off, a talk which I desperately need to write for Milos next week, a friend and visitor (one and the same) turning up on Wednesday, a precarious pile of papers which I need to catch up with before the conference and a dozen other things which absolutely have to be done in and out of work, it looks like it's going to be a busy one.

Sunday saw a trip to the Islas Cíes which I'll post up if I have any time in the next couple of weeks. The Isla is one of Galicia's greatest treasures and the Galicians are very proud of pointing out that it was once voted the best beach in the world in a Guardian list a few years ago. The water is beautifully clear, the sand is truly some of the finest I've ever walked on and the forested hills covering the island are stunning, but any beach which backs onto such East Atlantic waters is going to have some problems in the water temperature department - I managed nothing more than a five minute swim. Anyway, definitely worth a trip across on the ferry from Vigo if you're in town.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

A little light and colour

It's been a non-stop week with a depressing number of hours spent simplifying a pair of equations - finally to good effect, but such mindless work is pretty tiresome.

The weekend has also been pretty non-stop but I'm taking a couple of hours this morning to catch up on a little Chinese. I've had some great couchsurfers from the States this week including a photographer who has passed on some great photoshop hints and tips.

I like to follow the position of the sunsets through the year, the position of the moon in the sky through the month and the planets as they pass through the constellations. I find that having scraps of this knowledge mean that wherever I am I feel quite settled because I can orient to these phenomena. We've been having some great sunsets for the last week and the position of the sun right now casts a shadow from the hills in the distance across the slopes to the South with some spectacular sunbeams. This was taken last week as dusk set in.

Santiago sunbeam

When my friends were out from England last week we went up to the church on the hill at Pontedeume, a lovely fishing town with some wonderful windy streets through the old town on the slopes. The walk up to the top of the  hill is a good few km of stunning views as the bays below pan out. On the way down we passed some felled trees, and the colours in the early evening were particularly vibrant.
Pontedeume colours

Next week a good swathe of the department is out of office at a meeting but I'll be busy preparing for the conference in Milos towards the end of the month. I'll be talking on a paper we wrote earlier in the year and have to remind myself of a fair few subtleties which have faded in the mean time.

so, until next time...

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.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Shanghai heights

Arriving back yesterday after around 72 hours of marginally interupted travel meant that I was never going to get anything terribly productive done. Today has been suprisingly smooth, given the mosquito buzz filled slumber I got last night but I'm now flagging.

I did take the opportunity yesterday to go through a few photos from Shanghai, though I'm yet to go through my eclipse photos in the detail they need yet.

I was in Shanghai for around five days before heading West for the eclipse and had a good length of time to do all the very touristy things which I've never had a chance to do there before (last time I was in the city for 24 hours for a wedding). This included a trip to the top of the Jinmao tower, China's second tallest building, just next to the tallest building, the bottle opener (depending on who you ask - if you ask anyone in China they will tell you that the Taipei 101 is the tallest building in China).

From the top you get a good sense of the scale of this city of 20 million and the amazing variety of architecture, in the skyscrapers, in the Bund and in the burgeoning sprawl which goes on into the haze of rippling heat and smog-filled air.

From the inside the Jinmao tower is spectacular. Around half way up you'll find a hotel which can be peered at from the observation deck around the 80th floor and the seeming helix of mezzanine levels is hypnotic:
Inside the Jinmao tower
Looking out you also get a series of stunning views, of the river:
Panorama from the Jinmao
and of the buildings around:
Pearl tower panorama
One of my favourite views takes in this triptych of the sharp edges of the Jinmao, the towering reflection of the bottle opener, and the swathe of the city into the distance:
Shanghai triptych
All photos can be clicked for larger versions.

During the many hours of traveling over the last few days I was able both to read a great deal and also to make some plans for myself for the next few weeks and in general for the next year. For now there are things which I need to get finished in the coming days and so I'll get on with processing the rest of the photos either when the current tasks are finished or when jet-lag means that my brain is too mushy to do anything more academic.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Ten hours on a train from Beijing to Shanghai, eleven hours in a plane from Shanghai to Frankfurt, an hour from Frankfurt to Heathrow, an hour and a half in a bus from Heathrow to Stansted, four hours on the floor overnight in Stansted airport, two hours stood in queues in Stansted, two hours from Stansted to Santiago - home, tired, happy, in need of nutrients, will update when lucid thoughts flow with less interuption from bodily needs.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Shanghai as it goes by

All good to in China though this will be a quick update.

Shanghai has been mind-bogglingly, roastingly hot, hovering between 35 and 40 all of this week with very high humidity. Luckily I enjoy the heat a great deal and when I don't have to wear long trousers feel very comfortable in these conditions.

Sadly the predictions for the next couple of days are not looking good for the eclipse so I'm going to be heading off tomorrow West to Wuhan by train where the sun promises to show itself not showing itself. Wuhan looks to be even hotter than Shanghai and the heat index for Thursday is set to be a completely unreasonable 64 degrees centigrade! The heat index is supposed to reflect how the air actually feels, taking into account the humidity and other factors which affect how well your body is able to cool down. I plan on being well out of the city by then, hoping currently to head up to Beijing or Qingdao on the afternoon of the eclipse.

Apart from that I've been hugely enjoying my time in Shanghai and while I don't know the city at all, I feel very much at home in a Chinese metropolis, with the chaos, the smells, the people and the food all making me feel very settled here as soon as I arrived. I'm staying with a friend of a friend in the French concession which is a particularly pleasant part of the city, with thin tree-lined avenues and European style buildings branching off little side-streets. The chaos continues here however and there is no lack of street vendors, dodgy KTV parlours and fake designer hand-bag shops.

I've been getting my fill of exotic food whenever possible, though the heat and a few days of stomach troubles have stopped me from devouring at full throttle as I had planned. I definitely expect to get back to some old favourites in Beijing if I do end up there.

Anyway, I hope to expand some more on my thoughts on Shanghai with plenty of weird and wonderful stories when I get back to Spain in a little more than a week, with photo accompaniment but for now we're off for a quick drink on the Bund and a view of the lights of the city at night.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

and on that note...

I leave in a couple of hours on my Shanghai adventure. I have almost no plans for the next two weeks which is perfect in my book - I like to travel with a blank slate in front of me. I will arrive in Shanghai tomorrow afternoon and am staying with a friend of a friend somewhere in the city and then who knows. I'll spend a while finding where is likely to have the best weather conditions for the eclipse on the 22nd and try and make my way there by train, bus or boat, depending on where it turns out to be.

I have a lightly packed bag, weighed down mostly with camera bits and pieces, and books. To this I need get hold of a guide to Shanghai as I've never spent more than a couple of days there and would like to spend some time getting lost in the city.

Current thoughts are of possibly heading in the directions of Huang Shan, Nanjing, Qingdao or back to Chengdu, depending on timing and trains, but I think I'm going to leave that until the moment I'm at the station and really have to decide.

Anyway, from what I understand, most useful internet means of communication are blocked these days, but I'll do my best to get online when I have a chance and update you with my latest traveladventures....

The Beijing of Possibilities - A review

I met Jonathan Tel back in Beijing around three years ago when he came to research his latest book. He contacted me as an expat to discuss some of my views on life in the city and we met for a meal in a Hunan restaurant on the North side of Haouhai lake.We spent a few enjoyable hours talking string theory, writing, travel and food (in a past incarnation Jonathan had been heading the way of the theoretical physicist).

Shortly after this I read Freud's Alphabet, Jonathan's second novel, which I now realise never received the full review it deserved. It's a dream-like look at the last days of Freud's life and the playful language alters as Freud's state becomes ever more influenced by the cocktail of cancer and morphine. The book, split into 26 alphabetically ordered vistas is well worth a read, both for the word play and for the slightly Joycian stream of unconsciousness which takes you through the book via a series of chaotic passages in one inevitable direction.

But that's not what this review is about. I was lucky enough to get a copy of The Beijing of Possibilities a few weeks ago and the fact that it has taken me such a long time to write this is a sorry reflection of life over the last few months.


Beijing is a land of unfinished stories. Every time you leave the flat you will see some loose thread of a scene which has a mystery behind it: the man wandering around in his pyjamas, the sullen girl at the bus-stop with empty eyes, the tattooed businessmen arguing at the table next to you, the Beijing goths in the I love kitty car. Everything has a back-story, but you are always left wandering.

When I met Jonathan back in Houhai he was researching the iceberg beneath the water that filled in the rest of these tales.The Beijing of possibilities is a book of short stories about the depth of Beijing life, mixed helplessly between ancient and modern, these are the windows into the split second pieces of action you see every day on the streets of any big city, but in Beijing more than any you know that the truth is much more interesting than what your imagination can muster.

The stories combine these events with ancient Chinese folktales to give a real sense of the Beijing which people who don't know the city well have real trouble understanding - the metropolis simply has too many layers of history, culture, pain and change to get a real idea of the diversity and complexity of life there, from the migrant workers to the modern couple living their dreams in a small Haidian apartment, from the factory worker to the opera librettist, Jonathan has captured the strange mix of brilliant colour with smudges of black and white without which it is impossible to think of Beijing.

In addition to the stories themselves, there is a more subtle play. Milan Kundera likes to put himself firmly in the middle of his stories, and sometimes you don't know on what level the narrator is with you as novel and commentary intertwine. Jonathan Tel pulls the opposite trick and sits in the shadows of his book making the pen seem to move without an author, and I have to say that I enjoyed this a lot. It influences the book only subtly but adds to it Jonathan's own style and character.

This book of short stories can be found at Amazon UK and Amazon US and I'd highly recommend it for anyone wants to see behind the door into the Beijing of possibilites.

See also the review at Timeout Beijing, where this was book of the month not long ago.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Rapa Das Bestas - hairdressers sans frontieres*

In a country where bullfighting is still commonplace, I really didn't know what to expect when I received a text from a friend saying: "Tomorrow is 'rapa das bestas' in Sabucedo - very spectacular fights between humans and horses"!

Indeed it turned out that the Rapa das Bestas was probably the last thing I would have thought of and it turned out to be a fascinating day.

In Sabucedo, the horses, though owned by the villagers, are free to live in the woods on the hill during the year. However, with my limited equine knowledge, I wasn't aware of the hairdressing needs of such beasts. Every year the villagers round up the horses, drive them into a corral, and cut their hair.

Surprisingly, semi-wild horses don't stand still when you come at them with a pair of shears, and so the event is an incredible competition of horse versus hairdresser. Luckily, it turns out that the hairdressers in Sabucedo are about the manliest bunch of men and women I've ever seen, and getting into a ring with 200 horses, kicking and brawling, and running after them until you have them under control enough to wield a pair of horsehair clippers is all in a day's work.
The event actually goes on for four days and draws such a crowd that there is a whole festival built around it, with camping over the weekend, music, and pulperias selling fantastic octopus all over the place.

We only went for the haircutting though, missing out the massive hangover that I presume 90% of the people there seemed to be suffering from (the other 10 percent still being heavily under the influence). We got into the seating around the corral a little before midday, and soon enough the 200 animals where herded into the arena. 200 animals in a space that size was presumably quite a culture shock for animals which are used to roaming freely and so there was a lot of angry neighing, biting of neighbours, kicking and the occasional reared brawl. This was about the most inhumane part of the ordeal, but it seemed that apart from the odd nibble, none of them was really hurt, save for the feelings of a few alpha males.
First was the children's turn and the kids, I guess as young as 10 or so, ran around, getting hold of the fowls, as the adults tried to keep the larger horses at bay. The fowls, though small, are extremely tough and gave the kids a run for their money, but it seems that with one on the ears, and one on the tail, they could usually keep them under control enough to steer them out of the corral and to their own, personal salon.
Once the foals had all been safely taken out, the main event began. Three main groups of men and women would walk around the arena, sizing the horses up, and on choosing one to go for, one member of the team would take a run up and jump on the horse, holding onto the mane. Unsurprisingly the horses would not have any of this and would attempt to race through the crowd, with the rider on its back.
Rapa das bestas
Rapa das bestas
Rapa das bestas
By this time there was usually another man holding on at the back to the tail, trying to keep the horse from throwing the rider off. After some powerful coercion, and attempting to get the horse into a free space, the rider would leap off again, holding onto the head off the horse, with one arm over one eye, and gripping at the bottom of the jaw, while another man would be the other side, with his arm over the other eye, grabbing the other side of the jaw.
This generally seemed to calm the horses down enough that with three people holding on, they would stand still and the hair cutting would commence, with a couple of men with big pairs of scissors snipping away at the tail hair, the mane and the fringe, getting the style more in line with this years equine fashion.
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Quite frequently the horses really didn't want any of this game and the teams would have to wrestle the horses to the ground in order to calm them down, three or four men lying on the horse to keep it from jumping up and trampling those around.
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Amazingly, with 200 horses, nobody was seriously hurt and only one man got the tail end of a kick, limping off briefly but coming back a few minutes later. Although the horses would occasionally kick each other it seemed that the shouting from the men and women really was enough to get them out of the way when they needed it, and stop them from kicking the people in the ring. It was truly a remarkable sight.

After a couple of hours and perhaps half the horses shawn, the groups called it a day and the horses were led back out of the corral.
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It was truly a spectacular event, and if you want man versus animal without the bloodshed of a bullfight, I would highly recommend checking this out.
Rapa das bestas

(* The title of this post is in reference to a Mitchel and Webb sketch, and not of my own making)