Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Spaghetti Soup

So, I promised to write about my impressions of the workshop I attended last week at CCAST, the top floor of my building, the ITP.

It was an extremely interesting meeting for many reasons, both from the physics perspective and the sociological perspective.

The workshop was a satellite meeting from the quark matter conference in Shanghai which had happened in the preceding days. It seemed that most people left that conference talking not about the physics but about Larry McLerran's comments on those who were 'shamelessly enthusiastic' about using the AdS/CFT correspondence to study heavy ion physics. In fact I'm not sure I heard much else about the conference in Shanghai. You should really have a look at the file here so as not to take the above comments out of context.

The workshop here in Beijing could be subdivided into three parts. There were two sets of review lectures, one on AdS/CFT in general and one on AdS/CFT with respect to quark-gluon plasma. Then there were lectures by heavy ion physicists using these techniques in their work and finally there were AdS/CFT people who were going into these calculations from the other direction. Oh, and there was me. I had been invited off the back of a talk I gave in Wuhan to give a seminar on AdS/CFT and hadron physics. Slightly off the main subject but it turned out, for me, to be one of the most enjoyable talks I'd given. The difference between this and talks I gave a year or so ago is pretty big. Still a long way to go but at least it feels like progress.

I spoke with many of the physicists there about their past, present and future work and from these conversations and both the lectures and the questions being asked it seemed that this subject is currently extremely dynamic. Physicists coming at the problem from both directions are finding their way and meeting in the middle to come up with some extremely exciting results.

Probably the most exciting results come in those regimes where not only do the lattice results not predict those seen at RHIC but those calculations where one simply can't ask the questions on the lattice. These are questions of dynamics, in particular, transport coefficients.

One of the most interesting talks was by Urs Wiedemann who seems to have been a key player in a lot of the work in this subject (I say this with little knowledge of the subject other than reading some of the recent AdS/CFT - QGP papers before coming to the workshop). I believe it was he who conjectured the non-perturbative definition of the jet-quenching parameter in terms of Wilson lines.

These Wilson line expectation values are pretty easy to calculate in the AdS/CFT correspondence for pure AdS_5xS^5 or the black hole background, or even in more complicated backgrounds. It turns out that the results one gets from these calculations give good agreement with the results at RHIC. What is more is that predictions are continually being made and these will be tested at RHIC and at the LHC.

There are many other interesting results, related to the dependence on the number of colours, the temperature and the wind velocity amongst other things plus evidence that all gravity duals are in the same universality class, giving exactly the same result for the ratio of the shear viscosity to the entropy density. This result again ties in very well with the low viscosity of the quark gluon plasma seen at RHIC.

I would recommend these overviews (1,2) of the subject and these recent papers showing where we're at now.

Calculating the jet quenching parameter from AdS/CFT - Liu et al.
Holography of radiation and jet quenching - Sang-Jin Sin and Ismail Zahed
Strongly coupled quark gluon plasma: The Status Report - Edward Shuryak
Drag force in AdS/CFT - Steve Gubser
Dissipation from a heavy quark moving through N=4 super-Yang-Mills plasma - Friess et al.

(This is another good overview. Anyone who wants to suggest their own or somebody else's pdf or ppt here is free to do so. Backreaction has a recent post though the link to the original post with more detail about AdS/QCD and the QGP doesn't seem to work from where I'm sitting).

At the end of the conference was a banquet where the AdS/CFT quark matter workshop joined the heavy flavour workshop at Tsinghua university. A fine meal and some very enjoyable chat at the table with physicists from around the world. When I was asked what research I did I naively mentioned that my work was related to string theory. This was received with a few chuckles but followed by some quite aggressive remarks and the usual questions about what string theory has done for us and isn't ten years quite enough time for the AdS/CFT correspondence to have been proved. I know that this is probably a daily occurrence for most string theorists but in my somewhat sheltered position here at the ITP, this is the first time I've got into such a discussion where those asking the questions sounded more angry than amused. Speaking with one physicists, a very friendly chap on all other physics subjects, whenever we got near string theory a sneer of derision appeared and another haughty comment as to the facile nature of the quest was made.

This was an eye opener to me to see the other side of what appears to be a fence where before I wasn't even aware that such a fence existed. Naive, I know! It's a rather strange situation where I'm sure that both sides feel like they're talking to proponents of intelligent design (I don't equate string theorists or non string theorists to intelligent design advocates). The other side seemingly won't listen to the debate and the evidence is clearly stacked up with the illusion of perspective. This debate has been had many times on many blogs and though I will not to censor anything (unless it is, in my opinion, in bad taste or overwhelming the overall aim of this blog) I'm not going to try and start something here which seems to have failed many times already. It's clear that whatever the situation, there will be many who are not going to be completely happy until either string theory is ruled out or proved beyond all reasonable doubt. As we gain more and more understanding into the fundamental nature of the universe it seems, unsurprisingly, that such definitive decisions become harder and harder. I've made comments on this previously in relation to The Trouble With Physics.

Still, these few negative exchanges aside I felt that the flow of ideas at the workshop I attended more than made up for those people who believe that a wild goose chase is in progress. It was an extremely enjoyable opportunity for me to learn from those working in a different area to mine and also to be able to provide helpful advice. Several quark matter physicists left the conference with lists of references, jotted diagrams and explanations of equations which I'd happily provided. Such exchanges are part of the joy of the subject I work in and, though I regularly go to talks telling me how high-energy particle physics has been in the doldrums for the last 20 years (though things will soon change), it's wonderful to be in a subject that really is growing, developing and producing results all the time.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Rhetorical Answers

As Mathematica chugs along and I attempt to bully it in the right direction I have a few moments to write about another interesting week.

I will talk shortly about some of the comments which have been made recently on Asymptotia, and Backreaction about a certain presentation at the quarks meeting in Shanghai. I attended a satellite conference to this where the talk was discussed with both amusement and frustration. The conference was particularly interesting as many of the people there are heavy ion physicists who have recently moved into AdS/CFT as they really see it as a promising step forward. Shamelessly enthusiastic some would say but I think it's a great sign that there is renewed exchange between these disparate communities. However, I have to leave that to a time where I can think a little more clearly. The end of a tiring week with lots still to do is not the time.

One picture from the conference however is, as usual, gastronomically related. We were taken to one of the best Peking Duck restaurants in town and, unusually, were given a good range of dishes, not toned down for the foreigners. This included the following which is worth trying simply for novelty value.

Monday's English corner was as usual full of surprises. Recently I haven't had time to prepare anything in detail, however, because the previous session in which we'd read through, acted out and analysed Ibsen's The Doll's House, had been a success I trawled the web for some more plays to go through. Finding free, short plays online turns out to be a none-too trivial task. After a good deal of searching I found two plays, both of which were abstract enough to keep discussions of the interpretation going for a long time while having language which wasn't going to be a burden. This worked well and we had multiple interpretations of both stories after an hour and a half of playing with them.

I'd struggled to come up with anything terribly inspiring but, as it's an English corner for students who already speak pretty fluently I thought that a discussion on rhetoric would be worth pursuing (both of the plays had included interesting structures of argument which had exemplified tricks of persuasion).

In fact I was also interested to know about rhetoric in China's history and whether there was a similar idea to that of the Greek system of structured argument. Having looked on the web I could find many famous speeches from the Western world but nothing from China so wanted to know whether this was just a language thing. Speaking to the pupils they said that, unsurprisingly, with China's recent history great public speeches of protest were rare and though there had been a few politicians who had persuasive techniques, such a skill was not considered such a great attribute as it was in the Western world.

We moved on to the case of Corax and Tisias and I was impressed to see that several of them had seen this example before. I now realise that getting them to read through a passage in silence in the class disturbs the flow quite considerably so I shall try not to make that mistake again. Still, we discussed this for some time and subsequently started talking about the ancient Chinese philosophers and in particular the language used many centuries ago.

The language in China at that time was filled with even more degeneracy than it is today and a single word, and character could have a vast wealth of meanings. Such sparsity seems initially to be a bad thing, but when used intelligently this means that ancient Chinese writing can conjure an entire story in just a few words. The modern example of this is the four word idiom, which I'm only starting to learn about, but can give a few of examples:

入木三分 means "one with a keen, penetrating intellectual strength" but literally it is translated from "ru mu san fen" as "enter tree three centimetres". This particular example comes from an ancient calligrapher who's forceful brush strokes would penetrate deep into the wood.

囊萤映雪 "nang ying ying xue", (capture firefly reflection snow) - Means to read by the light of bagged fireflies or the reflected light of snow.

望洋兴叹 "wang yang xing tan", (watch ocean breath out) Means to lament one’s smallness before the ocean.

悬梁刺股 "xuan liang ci gu", (suspend beam stab thigh) Tie one’s hair to a beam to keep from nodding off or prod oneself awake with an awl in the thigh.

OK, a few examples but it seems that they are still used in conversation and writing today to express concisely a metaphor for some sentiment or action. I'd be interested to hear from any Chinese speakers about your favourite idioms or correct me on any of the above comments

Lots of photos and comments from the conference I attended this week to come, including the joys of giving a talk which seemed to go successfully. For now my program is calling me so I must get back to work.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Beijing Resummation

The winds rolled into Beijing a couple of weeks ago making even short excursions outside a treacherous event.

Things have been really busy of late, hence a lack of posts. I finished another paper on Friday which is online today. We've got some interesting results related to AdS/QCD. We've calculated the back-reaction on the pure AdS geometry of a quark bilinear condensate. From this we can perform the usual five-dimensional holographic calculation to get the vector, axial vector and pseudoscalar sector masses and decay constants. The important point about this is that an IR cutoff can be dynamically generated (as you would expect from some sort of brane-distribution in the IR) leaving you with just three free parameters, as in QCD. We get consistent results, of the same order as those without the back-reacted geometry. The check here is that adding this singular behavior to the geometry doesn't mess up all the good results you already get from AdS/QCD. There are additional directions that we want to take this, in particular to investigate linear confinement. In particular the paper was motivated by these two papers (,2).

Anyway, so, that's been taking a little time to finish off. On top of that I gave a one and a half hour talk on Friday to some of the students on 'hadrons from holography' trying to introduce the idea of holography independent from the AdS/CFT correspondence (which is the most concrete example we have of a holographic theory). There's a very good talk by Raphael Bousso here on holography which is probably fully understandable by anyone with a degree in physics and still interesting to anyone with a keen interest in the subject.

Tomorrow there's a conference in my building on AdS/CFT and quark matter where I will be giving a talk on the first day. Most people will be talking about the recent, interesting work on quark-gluon plasma so my research will, I hope, be an interesting diversion. I'm also looking forward to chatting with some of the researchers and finding out the latest developments.

So, along with keeping up Chinese lessons (my two co-flounderers and I attempted to translate a Chinese version of Kurt Vonnegut's A Man Without a Country into English with reasonable if slow success!), English lessons and English corner (for which I still need to plan two hours of activities tonight) life-has been hectic as ever.

On Saturday night I met up with a friend who is about to leave for Singapore to become an air-stewardess. We went to a superb Thai hot-pot restaurant called The Lemon Leaf and spent three hours chatting while dipping all manner of exotic flora and fauna into a tom yum broth. It's expensive but well worth it. After that we headed for a foot massage to let the food digest. It's constantly amusing to see the faces of the masseuse when they see the size of my feet, often never having seen any quite so flipper-like. I had a new treatment this time which involved the use of hammers, little ones with rubber on the end. Though they sound soft, when they're perccusing your legs vigorously the feeling builds up pretty steadily to a fiery ache. I didn't try the scraping treatment however which I was told with a grin leaves you red-raw but free from bad energy, or something. I'm actually a fan of some Chinese medicine (though most of it should be investigated for long-term side-effects) though removing bad moisture with suction cups and bad air with pins and needles is something I've avoided so far.


So, this is the long-promised post attempting to sum up my feelings so far on the ultimate reason that I'm out here; not as one may perhaps imagine the cheap food and fine night-life but my research. So, I'd like to try and identify what it's like to be a post doctoral researcher and, in particular, one in Beijing.

Even with the inherent pressures of getting the next position, advertising myself through giving talks and contacting other researchers, getting interesting papers published and trying to stay on top of the recent results, life as a postdoc is generally a pretty relaxed one when compared with most office jobs. That is not to say that what I do doesn't require a great deal of effort and I don't spend some considerable time stressing over calculations and understanding the latest papers but in terms of being in charge of my own time and efforts, I'd say I'm pretty well off.

I don't have someone watching over my shoulder to see that I turn up at nine on the dot (though I usually do) and there are generally few deadlines. This lack of obvious, listable pressures presents its own problems as, in order to keep yourself motivated when calculations inevitably go awry and you haven't given a talk for a while is not trivial.

Especially out here where one is easily cut-off culturally from the discourse that one may have in a native English speaking department an extra effort has to be made. One year in and I'm fully aware that my lack of Chinese is an added burden to interacting fully with the group. There's currently an American Professor in Chengdu who is absolutely fluent in Chinese after three years here though I'm told that he doesn't spend much time with the laowai and immerses himself in Chinese culture and language. Clearly the way to go but this is a step into the dark which I've been hesitant in taking. Doing this and research seems a tough juggling act.

The structure of the department is a little different from that which I've experienced in the West, though not vastly. My boss has four postdocs and around 10 PhD students which unsurprisingly makes him a busy man. As he will also be head of the KITPC when it opens for real his juggling act between heavy burdens of administration and research must be very difficult indeed, but he does seem to manage. This group of 15 or so has a diverse range of interests from perturbative and non-perturbative QCD through cosmology, supersymmetric model building and more. The group gets together fairly regularly for one of the students or postdocs to give a talk, as I did last Friday. They're casual affairs which usually culminate in getting a food delivery. It seems that this way of organising the group has made for a good, relaxed atmosphere for the students to learn and research in.

A normal day is a little difficult to pin down but the general pattern goes something like this:

I tend to get up around 8.30 when the diggers and angle-grinders outside my window make sleeping impossible (they often start at 6 but I can now cope for a couple of hours with them disturbing my rest). I stroll towards the office about nine o'clock from the accommodation campus (with its 5000 or so students) through to the ITP site, about five minutes walk. On the way I usually pick up a snack from the stand serving students with a plethora of fried treats and cups of milk.

It's often this walk between my flat and the office which sets the mood for the day, whether or not I get charged down by a speedy cyclist or whether the lights turn in my favour as I get to the road, whether I get cut in front of at the food stall or whether the sky is a particularly glorious blue. The shuffle function on my ipod can also set me bouncing, or not, though currently I'm listening to some superb Chinese lessons which a friend has sent to me. I will talk about them some time as they're the best material I've yet come across for learning the language (this isn't Chinese Pod which is also a great resource).

The trees are coming to the end of their autumnal transformations, many of them now a vibrant yellow, having turned deep red briefly last week. If you can get here and walk up xiang shan (fragrant hills) when the red maple leaves are out, it's well worth it but timing is both crucial and very difficult.

Getting into the office I check the notice boards for interesting talks coming up, though most of the time the notices are all in Chinese. I head up to my third floor office which I share with another postdoc sit down and spend half an hour checking e-mails, the news, my site feeds (updated blogs) and the arxiv for recent additions, both good and bad, to the sum total of our knowledge of the universe. I may spend some time reading through any interesting papers which have come on that day.

The rest of the day is a bit of a slippery beast and working out the most efficient way to plan it can depend on many factors.

Currently I'm working on three different projects, all of which deserve significant proportions of my time and so I try and juggle that sensibly. Some of the time will be spent performing calculations, with pencil and paper or on the computer. Some of it will be spent writing up my thoughts and some will be spent talking with my collaborators about our project. As I mentioned before I'm working with a Japanese researcher in Japan and a German researcher in Poland and we often spend several hours on msn battling through our brain-waves or arguing over interpretations. Sometimes I will simply go and sit in the library working through a problem or browsing books for ideas.

Reading papers and books is my main source of input at the moment because, as I've mentioned before, most of the seminars are in Chinese. This is something that I would tell people to take into account as a huge factor if you're thinking of coming to a country where English is not a language which is spoken extensively. Because people unsurprisingly also chat about physics in Chinese, this makes talking with other researchers difficult. This isn't because they're unfriendly, they clearly have a great time from the animated conversations and frequent laughter I hear rattling down the corridors but I've failed myself in integrating with this set. I think I would probably recommend more than anything else spending a couple of months before you start research in a place like this to learn the language as intensively as possible. There are many good schools where you can spend 6 hours a day in class. You won't be fluent but you will pick up enough such that learning more becomes a lot easier. If you don't do this I suspect you will constantly be stuck at the first hurdle. Please get in contact with me if you are thinking of coming out here and I can find out the best schools to attend.

So, depending on the day of the week, my time in the office will end at around six or I will stay here till ten or eleven at night. Currently because work has been so busy I've been working at the weekends too which explains the lack of exciting extra-curricular activities to talk about. Usually I spend some of that time working in a nearby cafe, reading through a text book or a paper and taking things a little more easily. This is in no way as stressful as it may sound as relaxing with a coffee and a paper is an enjoyable activity. I'm not however somebody who can do this all the time so I do take time off to watch movies and read books (more reviews coming up shortly)

Rather unusually I have just learned that I will have to write a thesis at the end of my time here. Without this I will not receive a certificate. I hope that a concatenation of my papers with sensible editing will be enough for this. I've learned today that in China the reason for getting this certificate is that without it you can only become an assistant professor and not an associate professor.

So, that's a rough idea of the day-to-day life of an English postdoc in Beijing. On top of this I have the next stage to think about and am currently behind on my applications for next years position. As life goes on for a researcher, the burden of teaching, grant applications and supervision clearly supersede the rather casual, if busy lifestyle I've outlined here but, as people are certainly not in it for the money, there must still be a fair share of highlights to life as a researcher further down the line.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


I'm in the process of writing a lengthy post attempting to sum up what it's like to be a postdoc in Beijing. This sounds like a fairly niche market but if my advice is useful to anybody coming out here or thinking about going for a postdoc then I'd be happy.

Anyway, I'm afraid this has to be a rather more negative post than that one will be. The saga which started here, related to my computer continues.

In summary, having sent my laptop from England to China via Parcelforce, it was severely damaged in the post. Parcelforce know this because they've been given a detailed description and photos. I moaned in the original post I wrote about this that Parcelforce say it may take up to 60 days to sort this out. Well, day 84 and I haven't heard anything from them. My father, the sender of the parcel, has attempted to contact them on numerous occasions only to be met with completely ludicrous brick walls. First they said that they needed me to give them details about the state of the package when it left the UK. As the receiver of damaged goods it's pretty hard for me to say what state it was in when it left, but I have the senders word that it was in perfect order prior to its journey here.

Secondly Parcelforce said that they would need to send me a letter for me to answer their questions. When it was put to them that perhaps an e-mail would be quicker, the woman in charge said that she would not be able to send an e-mail without the permission of her boss. In the 21st century, sending an e-mail still seems to give some people problems.

So, we've now made genuine threats to send letters to the appropriate high up places to get them moving and the deadline we gave them (today) has now passed.

The reason I'm writing this post is simply to warn people that if you're going to send anything valuable long distances, DO NOT USE PARCELFORCE. If you do and you are unlucky enough for something to go wrong with the parcel in transit, the likelihood of sorting out the situation in a reasonable time seems small.

So ends the rant.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Getting Two Thumbs Up?

And another seven people know the depths to which my singing abilities can plummet. This was the culmination of a stereotypically strange but enjoyable evening.

A couple of weeks back I'd been asked to help out with the career development society of the Chinese Academy of Sciences as a native English speaker. Because many of the students will head into industry or beyond in multinational companies, it is important for them to have good experience with professional interviews. I said that though I had no experience with such interviews I was very happy to take part. Somebody else from a large company would be there interviewing with me so I wasn't too worried about my lack of experience. I was simply there as a native speaker. The first strange aspect of all this was that the rest of the career development society would be there as an audience.

I was sent the resumes of the students I'd be interviewing and had a quick look through to get some ideas of sensible questions. I was also sent a list of oft asked interview teasers. The time came around last night and I headed over to the room, only to discover that I was the lone interviewer and the professional was a no-show. I met this with mixed emotions including a mild feeling of panic but figured that I could still make this a respectable experience (speaking of which I was dressed up in my finest suit). A had expected that the other person would be leading the interview and I would simply interject when appropriate so this left me with 15 minutes to read through the resumes again and come up with something sensible. 20 minutes later having introduced myself to the audience of 20 or so I gave the first half hour interview to a student of polymer sciences, hoping to take his academic knowledge into the real world. Five seconds before I started I hadn't clearly decided what I was going to say but having composed a reasonable first question as I spoke, the rest of the interview went smoothly and was a lot of fun. I neither made my interviewee cry, nor do he have a free ride and people seemed genuinely pleased with the outcome. After each interview I gave my feedback which I expressly pointed out would simply be my 'common sense' and was in no way a professional opinion. Still, they all seemed to nod sagely as I spoke and came afterwards to give very pleasing feedback on the whole experience. Apart from the fact that the room was truly freezing and I couldn't feel my feet by the end I would definitely be happy to help out at this sort of event again.

So, in celebration of this event (having interviewed four students over a two hour period) karaoke was the order of the night. Some student qualities being universal, the fact that karaoke becomes very cheap after midnight made this the sensible time to head there. As the guest I seemed to sing considerably more than my fair share. After a shaky start and a shaky middle my singing continued on to a shaky if enjoyable end. From the three times I've been to karaoke so far there have been a reasonably large selection of Western songs to choose from. Unfortunately my knowledge of NSync, the Backstreet Boys and Boyzone isn't up to the challenge, so I spent my time mutilating Beatles classics and a few other more embarrassing numbers.

Around three in the morning my eyes lit up as I spotted one particular song on the display and, though I think the others perhaps didn't share my enjoyment, my highlight of the evening was giving a rendition of Bad Touch by the Bloodhound gang. A truly memorable experience.

Along with a great deal of rather surreal dancing, some good free food and some fine singing from the others, it was another unexpectedly enjoyable evening. Having got back at around four in the morning, I've spent today struggling to keep my eyes open while finishing off a paper which must now be checked over by the other authors, and writing a couple of talks which I'll be giving over the next week and a bit.

There was a photographer in residence to take photos of the interviews which I shall post when I get hold of them. Fortunately the karaoke was neither recorded in audio or photographic format. This, I promise is a good thing for the rest of the human race.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

One Year On (Part 3)

I realise each time I finish a review posting that it's virtually impossible to sum up these subjects satisfactorily in a few paragraphs. I would like to add many afterthoughts to the last two postings but simply don't have time at the moment.

As an aside to today's postings I should mention something that currently fills me with some guilt. The heating in Beijing has not been turned on yet and, if last year's winter is anything to go by, the heating in the flat is simply not enough to keep my extremities much above freezing. I spent most of last year in gloves and scarf. So, with a bit of persuasion from those at home and abroad I bought an electric heater for the flat to make things more comfortable. In a nation choking itself with such atrocious pollution from the coal-burning power-stations (currently one built every week), adding another load to the system is not something I feel good about. Unfortunately because we don't have the power to control our own flat temperatures, I feel forced to do this. The fact that I currently take public transport almost all the time now makes up for this a little but I'm still left with a heavy conscience.

OK, I don't have much time today to write anything so will simply sum up a few of my favourite views from the last year. I guess I must have taken four or five thousand photos since I arrived but these are a few that sum up some of the stunning and sometimes bewildering things I've seen. Again, these miss out many important and astounding things that I've seen and done in the past year but, searching through my photo folders these are the ones that jump out most. They will be in no particular order as sorting that out will take too long for now (Mathematica is fighting back today).

The weather here may be the next posting and the storm clouds that frequented the city through the summer kept me mesmerised for hours. These ones glaring at my flat through a couple of nearby skyscrapers bought some fine fireworks with them, though I've still not managed to catch a lightning strike on film.

Sunrise in the plane flying from Munich to Beijing gave a satisfying abstract.

The summer palace as we headed into winter last year.

Fiery leaves in Tongli.

Happy driver in Souzhou.

Slow life on the Yangzi river.

Picnic with English Corner students.

Happy kids in my neighbourhood.

Mount Fuji in all its stunning glory.

Pondering in the Forbidden City.

Back home in England for a few minutes of relaxation playing frisbee with friends.

Ex-houses in Xi'an.

Happy families in Tongli.

Reflections from the Golden Palace in Kyoto.

Dancing man tree in Souzhou.

Hangzhou reflections.

British summer wildlife.

Boatman on the Yangtzi

Bamboo view in Souzhou.

Monks in Xi'an.

Ant-cleaners on a local office block.

Beijing Punk.

Duck tongue delicacies.

Beautiful clouds from my balcony.

From this list I can already think of many things I've missed out but this gives a cursory idea of what's been going on. Still to come I want to talk about research over the last year as well as the bizarre weather patterns, the music, cinema and literature scene and a few others. I feel that it's injustice enough to try and sum up these topics so 'the people' is certainly not a subject that I will attempt to dilute into a single posting. Coding battles to return to.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

One Year On (Part 2)

The second installment for the year's review will be on another subject which dominates my time here. That is language, both Chinese and English.

Chinese continues to be bewildering, frustrating and, at times, enjoyable with more and more flashes of recognition all the time. As of recently I'm having lessons with two other Westerners which is making the two hours a lot more enjoyable. Previously I had found that after a 10 hour day in the office, the prospect of two hours of Chinese lessons, mimicking tones and constructing sentences from words which are individually meaningless, was not something to be savored. However, with three of us, the pressure is off and I get more time to think about what I'm learning. Unfortunately I just don't have the time to practice in between the lessons in a structured manner, though I do talk to some of my friends in Chinese now (perhaps 10% of what I say is in Chinese when talking with some people). I estimate that I now recognise two hundred or so characters and 500 spoken words. This is not a great deal though it is at least some progress.

I now get together to practice on a Sunday afternoon in a cafe with my two classmates and this extra, relaxed sessions is very helpful. Having two other learners (both of whom are substantially better than I am) to drive me on is a real boon.

I should probably start to add the odd Chinese character here and there to the blog, as most expats seem to do when they're learning the language. It would probably be good practice for me, but as this blog is predominantly for friends and family, few of whom speak Chinese, I shall attempt to alienate as few as possible.

A short, technical aside. Up until now I've been learning the speaking and writing together, learning to write a character when I use it in a dialogue from my book. This approach has missed some basic structure on the written side, which I would advise everybody whose learning Chinese, to study first. On the writing side, before getting onto building your character database, I would really advise getting a book which goes through the hundred or so most common radicals.

The basics of the Chinese written system is an interesting topic even if you don't want to learn the language. Of the 50,000 or so Chinese characters, many of them developed from pictograms. Over the last couple of thousand years they've gone through major changes, generally ending up in a form which looks nothing like the original object. The last change was a move to a simplified written system, which did make the characters easier to write, though often removed any similarity the character still had to the original picture. Modern Chinese characters are often made of two parts. One is called the radical and gives some clue about the rough subject of the character, the other part is often phonetic, giving a clue about how to say the character. This means that even if you've never seen a character before, you can often have a rough idea of the meaning and a guess at how to say it. For example, the following character is the character mama meaning mother: 妈妈. Each ma, 妈, is made of two parts. The part on the left means woman and is found in many characters: 好, hao (a combination of mother and child), meaning good, for instance. The second part of the character in 妈 is the phonetic part, which means horse and is pronounced ma (though with a different tone from the word for mother). The phonetic part itself is found in many words: 吗,ma, indicating a question, for instance (again, a different tone from both mother and horse). Other examples of radicals indicate that a word is related to movement, speaking, hearing, strength, shellfish, people, water, fire, etc. etc. and learning these to start with should make your life a lot easier. This is all really basic stuff to most Chinese learners. What I'm saying here is either for those who are about to start learning Chinese or simply for those who are interested in knowing a little about the structure of the written system.

I've only just started to learn the radicals in a structured manner, rather than just learning them as I come to a word with one in. Having started now, I've almost doubled my comprehension of the characters I see around me in just a couple of weeks. I can't pronounce what I see as my knowledge of the phonetics is not great but understanding and spotting patterns is part of what I do for a living and so is the most natural way for me to learn this bizarre language.

Often when I talk with a Chinese person about learning the language they ask me what I am learning it for. This doesn't mean that they don't think I should be but, sensibly, that one should have a goal for such a task. If I want fluency then I'm clearly not going about it the right way and, without a doubt, my research would suffer if I did aim for that. It's sad to say but I can't see myself continuing to study Chinese in any great capacity when I leave the country. The likelihood of me ending up in a non-English speaking country next is pretty high and so another language will probably take over as top priority. It would be a real joy if my Chinese was good enough to have a conversation with a stranger about topics other than where I'm from, what I do, the price of oranges and the weather. I have a year to go and by the end I hope to reach this point, especially with the added impetus from my new classmates.

I can't pretend not to think that the character system is simply inefficient though I have learned to understand the power of a large degeneracy in character meaning. Though I haven't read any Chinese poetry I have now heard some (most Chinese students it seems put in a great deal of effort to learn the classic poems and everyone seems to have not only read the classic texts but enjoyed them and continues to return to them). I've got glimpses of the power of the language from this as a short line with perhaps four or five characters can express a vast wealth of feelings and imagery that English doesn't seem to be able to do so simply. A deep knowledge of the characters would clearly make Chinese poetry a fascinating area and it is with regret that life just doesn't seem free enough to take on that challenge right now.


I continue to teach English to a private student once a week and in addition to substantial payment, I get taken to restaurants which I would never be able to afford on the Chinese salary I earn. In fact this student is already pretty good though, as is often the case, confidence is the main area which is lacking. I hope that fluent conversation in a relaxed atmosphere will be enough to make a difference.

English corner continues and is an extremely enjoyable activity for two hours on a Monday evening. Last week we had a dozen students turn up and spent the session reading through, acting and analysing Ibsen's 'The Doll's house'. Though reading is still one of my passions and I enjoy writing short criticisms of the books I read out here, I haven't sat down and really analysed a play, or short story since I was about 14, and I remember it being a real bore then. However two hours talking through the final scene from Ibsen's play was an enlightening experience and every insightful comment provided by the student added another facet to the story. It was agreed at the end of the session that we should do something similar again which I very much look forward to. Up until now we've played a lot of word games in the class and that has proved an interesting exercise for me to see what aspects of language are easy and hard for people who've grown up learning a character system.

As I mentioned previously, one of the most enjoyable days was a short trip with the English Corner group to Tsinghua University where we sat by one of the beautiful lakes, eating a picnic and chatting.


One of the biggest problems with the language is still the fact that I don't get to follow very many seminars here in the department, so it is easy to get out of the flow of any research which isn't directly related to my work. I've given up sitting through lectures for the most part as I could spend my time far more constructively reading a book on the subject rather than struggling to pick out the odd word which may mean something to me. As the first Westerner in the department of course I can't expect them to change the way they do things just for me, so I must simply try and make up for the lack of direct input via other sources.

OK, enough, more tomorrow if I have time.

Monday, November 06, 2006

A Year On (part 1)

Typing is far from easy at the moment as I currently have little to no feeling in my fingers. Eating with chopsticks is also a non-trivial task! I don't want this anniversary posting to be a negative one but it's a simple truth that I don't like being cold. The weather has turned from high 20s to a wind-chilled, howling gale in just a few days. It was a strange, sudden change as the Siberian front hit and immediately the outside world was thrown into chaos, as people leaned into the wind to stop from teetering over backwards and outdoor markets were turned upside down. It's still a couple of weeks until they turn the heating on and in the meantime my flat is virtually uninhabitable. I shall be spending the maximum possible time defrosting in the sauna in my gym.

Anyway, enough of the negative. It's been a year, half my time here, since I left England (after a slight false start) and strolled blindly into this adventure. It's been a great experience so far in many many ways and I figured now was the time to sum up a bit of what's been going on.

I just haven't had the time to blog as frequently as I was before, mostly due to work being very active at the moment. Currently most of the time that I'm not working I'm teaching English or having Chinese lessons. Socialising has sadly taken a bit of a back seat and I hope to be able to do something about that over the next few weeks.

I wrote a long post over the weekend about some of the things which have been going on recently which I still need to go through, so I thought that I would give daily installments with some of the highlights of life out here.

As it was one of the first things that I got excited about out here and something that still pleases me constantly, the delights of Chinese food seem like a good place to start so today I shall be enthusing about all things culinary from dou zhi to ku gua and everything in between.

I haven't really spoken about the summer food much but there's a lot to get excited about. The roads are littered for several months of the year with trucks and stalls selling a cornucopia of amazing fruit. The honey-sweet grapefruits the size of your head, the fantastic watermelons and the pomegranates from Chengdu without the bitter pith of those we get in the UK, are all daily treats. All around the city you see giant persimmons growing on the trees and they come straight to you with all their leady goodness for a small price.

The range of flavours of vegetables is also astounding with the bitter melon a favourite Hunan delicacy and from Yunnan the stinky fish grass proving to be one of the most unusual flavours but rather fine when your taste buds get over the initial shock. When you go into a supermarket the fruit and vegetable stalls are overwhelming with a carpet of amazing colours to match the smells which assault you as your walking around (the durian fruit with its smell of old socks being the prime example). The spectrum of fungi alone is incredible with perhaps 20 or 30 different shapes and colours available through most of the year.

...and onto the main course which was what I loved to talk about when I first got here and reveled in the exotica on the menu. The highlight was probably pig's brain which melts in the mouth and tastes subtly nutty, though you should be careful as porcine encephalitis is not uncommon. The giant snails in a spicy Szechuan dish which you eat wearing plastic gloves are also sumptuous. The Chongqing hotpot is a minefield of unusual flavours and textures with tripe and intestine being one of my favourite additions. Along with a lot of chili in this dish there is always a good handful of the infamous Szechuan pepper which numbs the mouth and, in combination with the chili, leaves you tingling for hours. Another dish dominated with the chili is the oil-boiled fish which, give or take the bones, is a stunning combination of simple, powerful flavours.

Some of the other unusual dishes which I won't be ordering again in a hurry are sea cucumber (a little like slimy bunsen burner tubing, though probably with less flavour), donkey, and camel's hoof (makes me think of eating a woolen tea-coaster soaked in gravy). Surprisingly beef lung isn't that bad and the ever popular chicken's feet and chili-oil duck's neck now make a regular appearance most times I sit down to watch a movie.

Eating from the street-vendors stalls is a bit hit and miss and I've had a couple of bad experiences with dodgy food disagreeing violently with me. That said, the pancakes and dumplings are usually a good bet. Down in Wangfujing the tourist haunt for the weird and wonderful left me thinking that silk-worm grubs are kind of cheesy while scorpion and star-fish are more crunch than taste. I wouldn't be surprised if such delicacies were on lists of endangered species so a) I won't be trying them again and b) I wouldn't recommend them simply because the novelty value is really all there is to offer.

I'm still to make my way through the true, old Beijing food but my one recent foray, trying dou zhi, fermented mung bean juice reminded me of stilton with fermented cabbage. Apparently this should not be sipped walking through the hutongs but drunk slowly over some fine pickled vegetables. I'm game if I find another vendor at an appropriate time.

I remain unconvinced that Beijing duck is much better here than elsewhere but I suppose while you're here at least it's cheap.

I still have a long list of things to try though a few dishes which I will definitely not be trying have been added to the list, most of which contain some combination of household pets. As an omnivore I recognise that this is a strange line to draw but I'd rather eat pig any day over dog or cat. Yunnan and Guandong cuisines seem to offer the highest number of the weird and wonderful so I shall try and get down South when I can. This quest to try different dishes isn't just some attempt at proving my gastronomic worth but is a genuine journey in sampling new and interesting flavours and textures. I became convinced within just a few days here that the constraints of good and bad food we have placed on our palates in the West are detrimental to the enjoyment that we can get out of a full spectrum of ingredients. I shall certainly try and look out for many of these things when I'm back home, and convince as many as possible that they're really missing out without them.

OK, lunch-break is over. Calculations to continue with so I shall call it a day for now. Questions on the above topics are welcome if any seem appropriate. I shall continue tomorrow on another aspect of the last year if time allows.