Thursday, November 29, 2007

I'm a Cyborg, but that's ok

The fact that there has been a month of great cinema on (10 films a night) in Santiago and I have made it to just one of them is testament to my current state of chaos. I've been getting ready to go to Cambridge and Dublin, with stops in London and Oxford, starting tomorrow and have had a great deal of work to get done in the meantime. All good though...

Spanish has also been coming along reasonably, though I will have to take a new direction for it next month. I've learnt around 1000 words of Spanish vocab this month (not that difficult as many are very close to English and/or French) though knowing vocab is vastly different from being able to speak a language. Next month I will cool it on the vocab and attempt to learn 10 or so new, useful phrases a day.

A test of my Spanish vocab came when I took a late evening out to see the film mentioned in the title. I'm a Cyborg, but that's ok, is a Korean film by director Chan Wook-Park (director of the revenge trilogy starting with Old Boy) is a strange but rather beautiful film. Telling the story of a young woman who believes she is a cyborg and is sent to a psychiatric home, the story revolves around her relationshop with another of the patients who believes that he can steal people's souls. This second patient is played by the Korean singer Rain. Anyone who has lived in Asia will probably have seen pictures of Rain showing off his six-pack and prancing around onstage, his voice drowned out by that of his screaming fans. So, I was a little worried that he was going to be a rather hollow actor.

Quite the contrary however, he really is a superb actor and a rather fine yodeler, and moreover, never uses his looks to cover any lack of skill on screen. The performances of the patients are knowingly over the top and play up the various behavioural eccentricities that they display. These eccentricities are in general suitably caricatured for this not to feel exploitative.

As is usual in his films, Wook leaves some loose ends but more for effect than out of carelessness. He wants you to leave the film feeling puzzled as well as satisfied. He also can't help but put in a bit of relatively needless violence for his personal touch and the balletic scenes of the 'cyborg' getting revenge are typically Wook with tongue firmly set in cheek.

The love story which develops is touching and as the film finished the audience was impressed enough to give a round of applause. This is my first time in a Spanish cinema so I don't know how unusual this is, but it felt well deserved on this occasion.

Luckily, the month of solid vocab learning I've put myself through seems to have paid off as I could understand perhaps 80% of the subtitles - not the grammatical subtleties, but at least the general meaning. Having the beautiful tones of the Korean language (which I like a lot) with the Spanish subtitles was rather confusing for the first few minutes, but became decipherable after that.

This success with reading spurs me on to continue the rather tiring effort that I've been trying to keep up so far.

Anyway, if you're a fan of love stories set in psychiatric hospitals then your sure to enjoy this rather curious film from Wook.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Adventures of the Pisco Kid - A Review

I met Michael Standaert, after reading on his blog that he'd written a novel, was in Beijing and was looking for people to review it. I e-mailed him to say that I was interested, having read a review on another site which looked intriguing.

We met up for the launch party of the book which was a small but enjoyable affair at Hutong Pizza along with a few other friends. After that we met up in Beijing regularly, though not frequently enough and I was sad to say goodbye to him, his wife and all the other friends I met through them, I'm looking forward to catching up with them next time I'm back in Beijing. As a parting gift I received a signed copy of his book, and one of the few to have made its way to China.

Of late, the only time for reading has been between about 1.30 and 2 in the morning when I'm trying to slow down before sleep. However reading The Adventures of the Pisco Kid, is not an exercise in slowing down.

If Kafka were to have gone to Las Vegas on a drugs bender, or Hunter S Thompson had tried to rework The Trial, they may have come up with something along the lines of The Adventures of the Pisco Kid. Surreal, satirical, moody, funny, chaotic and extremely eloquent, it's rather difficult to write a review about this book and not look like I'm simply writing a good review for a friend. However, I promise this isn't the case!

I started reading this with moderate to high expectations. Michael has been a journalist for the LA Times, has written for the Huffington Post and is now an editor for a Beijing magazine so I knew he knew what he was doing. However, the difference between a writer who can string a story along and someone who can play with words as Michael does is a huge one. The characters in the book have the wonderful caricature of those in A Confederacy of Dunces, the flaws in the characters melt off the page in a slimy mass of neurosis and physical repugnance, bringing the whole thing to life in a vast, Daliesque psychedelia.

We follow the adventures of Pisco, a boy found in the bull-rushes, adopted and bought up by a Jamaican, heavily Christian woman, filling him with skepticism and bitterness having set him up to be a modern-day Messiah. A rat-catcher, and rock band reject, Pisco gets ever deeper into a crazy world where he seems to have no say in how his is pin-balled from one calamity to another. Perhaps if Cervantes had lived in the '60s he would have given us something similar.

The language of the book flows fantastically, and although the author whom I write about most frequently (Steinbeck) is a minimalist when it comes to fancy word play, I'm very happy to read a book where the words and phrases have been picked carefully to develop a rich atmosphere. This is exactly what happens here, and I love it!

The story is punctuated by lyrics from the band that Pisco left before they became big, along with sayings from Navajo and Inuit and the words of Soft Cell and David Bowie. This only adds to the surrealism.

Michael would never really tell me what the book was about, and I shall not do so either, but would recommend this to anyone who is a fan of very witty and well crafted writing, and doesn't mind being taken on a surreal journey which makes the writing of Marquez or Bulgakov seem pretty plausible! I namedrop here simply because I was reminded throughout of the different styles of many of my favourite authors.

I have a good number of people in mind who will like this, though it's not for the faint-hearted reader. Let yourself be taken on the trip however and you'll be very pleased you did. I look forward to reading Michael's next novel, whenever that comes along.


Michael has written a previous non-fiction book "Skipping Towards Armageddon: The Politics and Propaganda of the Left Behind Novels and the LaHaye Empire" which looks similarly intriguing if rather more scary.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Getting in on the act

It's taken me a long time to start using the RAW format for my photography, but as soon as I did, I've noticed the huge difference it can make. I really hadn't realised how much was lost when the camera applies its algorithms to determine what settings should be used on the raw data in terms of white balance, color saturation, contrast, and sharpness before compressing to jpeg.

I spent all of yesterday working through a series of papers, relevant to the work I'm about to start, plus writing out flash cards to speed up my intake of Spanish words - up to around 500 in passive use, not much in active use yet. With a good day's work under my belt I headed back, and took a detour to a sculpture that I'd previously spotted and thought would make an interesting subject.

This is the sculpture, though the obvious angle wasn't the one I was particularly interested in:

Santiago reflections_181107_01.JPG
I often get strange looks as I'm taking photographs, as I often find myself in strange angles, under objects to get what I think will be an interesting shot. These were a few that I managed from the above sculpture:
Santiago reflections_181107_14.JPG
Santiago reflections_181107_12.JPG
Santiago reflections_181107_07.JPG
Santiago reflections_181107_03.JPG
This set of buildings also caught my eye, and it's the much higher dynamic range that I seem to get with RAW that has me so excited for the prospects. Perhaps it may not look like much, but I can see a big difference. Click on the photo to see more detail in the larger versions:
Santiago building_181107_01.JPG
and finally, one, before I started with the new format, of the Cathedral, as seen through Santiago's winding alleys:
Santiago cathedral through street_281007_09.jpg

Out in the cold

I believe that making a good first impression on ones neighbours is a good idea for peaceful community life.

I thought long and hard about how to best do that here in Spain. My innovative way was to lock myself in my garden at 11 o'clock at night when the temperature was plunging and I was wearing nothing on top but a thin shirt.

As I walked out to hang my washing I thought, cleverly, that I would close the door so that the mosquitoes which have been plaguing me would be shut out. At the click of the door I realised the subtle flaw in my plan.

My back garden is a walled affair with 10 foot of concrete all around. The flats above me also look out onto the garden but don't have any access. I assessed the situation for a few minutes, trying the doors and windows to no avail. I realised that I may be able to scale the wall at the back and make my way around to the front - I did at least have the front door keys on me. As I scaled the wall in the pitch black I looked down on the other side to see a 50 ft drop into the foundations of the block of flats they have just started building, a short distance from my window.

Standing there in the cold I realised that I was actually pretty helpless, imprisoned and quickly chilling.

There is one other flat overlooking the garden, though with barred windows perhaps 8 foot up, and no other access. I peered in from the other side of the garden and saw the shadow of a man, making movements which looked like they probably shouldn't be disturbed! His humiliation versus my freezing I realised was a fine line, but not one which I was willing to cross with enough language to explain myself.

The other side of the garden is a wall and on the other side of the wall is another garden leading to the flat of what I believed to be an elderly couple. I could have scaled this wall and banged on their door, but doing so without immediately being able to explain what the hell I was doing, inappropriately clothed in their garden did not seem like a good idea.

I tried to shout across, with the few appropriate words of Spanish I could muster, but ten minutes of this, plus banging on the wall, did no good. I could see that they were in, with the television on, but I was worried that they would soon be going to bed - probably not a real worry here in Spain.

After half an hour in the garden, pacing, scaling, shouting and banging, in the near pitch black I fashioned a suitable device to tap on their patio doors without actually going into their garden. Perched precariously with one arm over the wall I lent as far as I could and tapped on the window, attempting to start softly and build up the volume, with intermittent shouting. Five minutes later and I saw movement, the woman came to the door and peered around. I spoke to her, and managed to mime that I was locked out and could she possibly open the door for me. After she finished laughing and telling her husband what I'd done she took the keys, went to my door and let me in, beaming at the stupid foreigner!

Anyway, I'm left with nothing but humiliation and a slight cold today and took round a box of chocolates to show my gratitude. Had she not been there, I probably still would be!


I should fill in some blanks about where I'm at these days. I'm currently sharing a very nice house with a couple of Argentinians, who are working on the Auger project which has been reported on in detail recently in regard to their recent results on ultra high energy cosmic rays coming from active galactic nuclei.

I was privy to the results before most as they had a party at our place and, after an 8 o'clock watershed, were allowed to tell me the exciting news. Had I not been working till 2 in the morning that night anyhow I would have written something about it. Thankfully others did a great job!

I was planning on living in this place for the next 3 years, as the two others will be leaving here at the beginning of December, and I'm really looking for a place of my own. Sadly the owners of the very nice flat want it back and so, in less than a month I'm out and looking for somewhere new. With academic travel plans for December including trips to Cambridge and Dublin, and lots of work to do before that, I'm a bit pressed for finding spare time.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The problem with Macs

So, no sooner have I arrived in a new country, but they're trying to get me to use a new operating system. As a native XP user I was a little concerned with having to go over to Mac and my worries were well founded.

For a start, the people at the Mac shop are clearly either lazy or stupid. They came along with my computer in a box, but forgot to actually bring anything but a keyboard, mouse and monitor. Luckily there seems to be some widget in the monitor which presumably connects wirelessly to the hard drive, motherboard, CPU and memory which must still be in the shop, or even the factory, I still haven't got to the bottom of that.

Secondly, when I switch the computer on, I have absolutely no time to make a cup of tea, eat my breakfast or read the paper. I switch it on and then it's on. With XP I could clearly get a lot more done in the time between turning it on and actually being logged in.

Next, I'm horribly confused with where all my little files have gone. Normally if I want to install or uninstall something I have to make sure my dlls are all in the right place, and then make sure they've all gone when I remove the program. It seems that they've forgotten about that too. What am I going to do without a thousand files flitting around that were nominally used by a program five years ago?

Next, and most embarrassingly the user interface to Mac OS X is such that everything swirls around the screen, zooming in and out and warping to fit into the appropriate spaces so much that I occasionally find myself lost in the user interface from Minority Report, I spend several minutes waving my arms around in front of my face, one eye closed, trying to move my icons around and save my documents, while those around me in the office are trying to work out what I'm doing. Lucky most of them are on XP and so have programs to look after.

I also miss the friendly Windows task manager which I would have to pull up every hour or so to manual close a temporarily frozen program. At these points I felt I was really at one with my computer.

By the end of the evening I am left with a surplus of frowns, which would otherwise have been used up throughout day on the fascinating panoply of errors which would colour my day. This is making my nights considerably more depressing.

These things and more make me think that I will have to go back to Windows where I am safe in the knowledge that I am working with a thinking, delicate, edgy machine that I have to at all times nurture and feed. I am distraught without this bond.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Weekend musings

Santiago is dead at the weekend (until 2 am at which point people start tentatively coming out to the bars). The reason Santiago is dead at the weekends is because all the students have gone home on Friday. They go home on Friday because there are no lectures on a Friday. There are no lectures on a Friday because all the students go out on a Thursday and nobody would turn up on Friday morning. They go out on a Thursday because it´s the last day of the week they can all go out together, because they´re all going home for the weekend. They do so because they don't need to go to lectures on a Friday.

Somehow I see a circular argument here and if the professors aren't careful the students will call a moratorium on Thursday lectures too.

In lieu of the fact that there is almost nothing to do here at the weekend (many shops are closed on Saturday, all are shut on Sunday. The gym closes at 1 pm on a Saturday for the whole of the weekend, many cafes are running at half capacity) it means that I have a chance to catch up with reading some research papers and going over the Spanish from the previous week; this week, week one of my Spanish lessons I estimate I have around 250 new words to learn!

A major difference between life here and in China is that coming into the office here at the weekend is a pretty solitary experience. In China the offices were usually just as busy at the weekend as in the day. Given the cafe culture already in place here I'm likely to relocate at the weekends to a place with a bit more going on.

My major success this weekend was that I may have tracked down a Chinese teacher. Santiago has a large number of Chinese shops selling all manner of imported cheap knick-knacks and I've popped into most of them now, chatted with the owners, all of whom seem to be from Zhejiang province, and may finally have a source for a tutor.

I'm also already on the hit-list for being an English tutor but this is definitely out, given that spare time is pretty non-existent.


For now I'll leave you with a couple of photos taken as we flew into Northern Sichuan and the mountains poked through the cloud line.


Saturday, November 10, 2007

A very rough guide to Jiuzhaigou

This post has been a long time coming, but other things have taken much higher priority as I've settled into life in Santiago. It's been an exceptionally busy week for work and getting started on Spanish, but I enjoy this rather non-stop method of getting things done, so I´m currently quite content.

I wanted to write about one particular part of my trip which I took before coming here, before the memories faded completely.

In my two weeks traveling in Southern China before I left to come to Spain I spent three days in an area of Northern Sichuan called Jiuzhaigou. This is often said to be the most beautiful place in China, and although you will hear this about countless other areas, it is without a doubt truly stunning. However, the fact that it is truly stunning makes it a tourist hell hole and, if you follow along with the crowd you're journey is likely to be marred by the fact that there are thousands of others jostling to marvel at the serene beauty of this natural wilderness. Not my idea of fun!

Somehow, more through luck than judgment I seemed to get Jiuzhaigou right and so I would recommend the journey that I took, if you are able to.

Jiuzhaigou would not be easy without any Chinese. The hotel which I found at 9 in the evening on my arrival had no English speakers and I only spoke to a single person in the park who could speak more than a couple of phrases. That said, it´s always possible to stumble your way through, and I would suggest trying to do so, rather than coming on a package tour, the method that 99% of people opt for, as it is without a doubt much easier.

Jiuzhaigou nature reserve is made up of two valleys which come together in a Y-shape. The entrance to the site is at the bottom, at somewhere around 2500 meters above sea level. The top is closer to 4000 meters and the length of the valley is around 30 km (from the top of the Y to the bottom). Along the two branches run rivers of crystal clear water, through forests, opening into magnificent lakes, surrounded by mountains with spectacular waterfalls every few km along the river´s length. The very top of the right fork of the Y is an ancient forest, with a floor padded in thick moss, which you can look at, but can´t walk in.

Along the length of the park is not only a series of rivers and waterfalls, but also a winding road, upon which the park's buses run constantly through the day, ferrying tourists from one spectacular spot to another. As I got to the entrance and saw that this was the way to get around the park, my heart sank. The last thing I wanted to do was to spend a day in a paradise going from breathtaking points A to B with 50 other people on a crowded bus.

I generally prefer to turn up to a place with knowledge only of the basics and stumble around for a while finding out for myself how things work. For this reason I never booked any hotels in advance before my trip, but always turned up in a city, found a local restaurant or tea house and then worked out where was best to go - this worked well for me throughout the trip. Consequently my knowledge of how the system worked in Jiuzhaigou wasn't up to much. On the advice of my hotel, I turned up at the entrance very early (a little before 6.30 am) to get my two day ticket, which allows entrance to the park on two consecutive. Officially you are not allowed to stay in the park over night, but there are guest houses in some of the villages which pepper the lower areas of the valley.

By 6.45am I was on one of the coaches, not really knowing how this was going to play out and we started making our way up the valley. After 15 minutes or so we got to the first lake and everybody trudged off the coach, taking snaps in the early morning mist. The couch disappeared and we were left to wander around the little area by the road side, shivering in the rather chill air. A few minutes later another coach arrived with another load of people who disembarked and we took their place, to go up to the next scenic spot. As we drove up I could see the footpath, a sort of board walk, some way away from the road, which appeared to be going even more directly up the valley, next to the river, than we were. This was clearly the way to be doing it.

Not knowing how it was going to work, I stayed on the coach at the next stop, as everyone else got out to take more photos. I stayed on the bus for another 45 minutes or so as we continued to climb and more people got on and off. Eventually we made it to the top by which point there were perhaps 5 people on the bus.

The trip to the primeval forest at the top was by footpath only, which took perhaps another 15 minutes. I strolled ahead and within four or five minutes I was suddenly, completely alone! The mist was still thick and the forest was just waking up. The air was thin at this altitude and I struggled for breath, but knew that this was exactly what I´d come for: the absolute tranquility of being away from it all! Getting to the top, I spent some time looking around at the ancient forest feeling for the first time in a long time, in complete peace. I miss Beijing very much (though Santiago is wonderful) but peace is something that you get very rarely when you´re there!

Soon the other hikers arrived and the peace was broken, so I started back down. Getting back to the top most coach stop it seemed that others were getting back on the coach to go back down, but I saw the planked foot path and took that option instead. Again, I was completely alone, walking beside the stream which at this point in the valley was little more than a trickle. I walked reasonably quickly but not so quick that I couldn't take in what was around me, and stop for the occasional photo. It must have been about four hours until I saw another person, as everyone else sat, packed into the coaches winding up and down the tarmacked road.

As I descended to the area where the lakes started I could see the opposite side of each one, packed with tour groups and coaches as they jostled to get the best position for photos. More and more people joined the footpath as I got lower, but it was rarely crowded with more than a few hikers.

I had a vague idea of how long the path was but in the end it took me around nine hours of pretty constant walking to cover the 25 km, not even down to the bottom, but to the lower most spots of particular beauty. The day was spectacular. The lakes and waterfalls are truly magnificent and I was extremely happy to have found a way to see the park without following the usual trail. The sky was constantly overcast and I missed the snows by a day, but nonetheless it was possible to get a few nice shots. Searching through the hundreds of photos afterwards I realised that I find it particularly hard to get striking shots of places which are already very beautiful.

The second day I got to the park early again, and took the coach up the left arm of the Y. This time I did take the coaches a few times because I wanted to see several areas in different lights and with the time available, I wouldn't have been able to do so on foot. My enormous blisters from the first day were also not helping matters but I hiked for a good 15 km the second day to see more of the incredible scenery.

Anyway, the moral of the story is that you should definitely pay Jiuzhaigou a visit if you´re anywhere nearby, don´t be too put off by the crowds and dive off the road and onto the footpaths at the top of the site, in order to walk back down. Be warned of course that it´s quite some way and I take no responsibility for those who take the above advice and get into trouble.

The town attached to the park, is a not particularly pleasant area, heaving with hotels, guest houses and trinket shops, catering to the tens of thousands who descend on it every day. The food in the restaurants is fairly basic, but the yak meat stews are really very good.

Anyway, that's my roundup of Jiuzhaigou but below are some of the photos I got from the two days walking.

I've posted this panorama before, but it was one of my favourite shots from the two days:
Jiuzhaigou panorama 1
The crystal clear blue waters are breathtaking:
The top of the left most fork has a lake, surrounded by wonderfully gnarled trees:
These are the sort of crowds you can expect at some of the spots where there's just no getting away from it:
The hundreds of waterfalls are also tourist magnets, but you can find the occasional one without all the crowds:
The footpaths are also not terribly picturesque, but are probably the best option for this area which is regularly very rainy.
and one of my brief companions:

Thursday, November 08, 2007

In the mean time

All is currently well for me in Santiago. There's just no time now for serious blogging. I've been going non-stop every day from 10 am until 2 am, what with Spanish lessons, starting new projects, continuing with current ones, reviewing old ones, writing talks, planning trips (Cambridge, CERN and Dublin are coming up on the academic front) and getting the admin polished off.

Perhaps this weekend I may have a few spare minutes, but that's not guaranteed. Anyway, an informal talk to give tomorrow has to be prepared now.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Memories of Lijiang

I'm almost a week in and I've now got most of the administrative bothers out of the way. In fact, thanks to a lot of help from those around me it has been almost entirely painless - give or take a medical exam which is to come on Monday.

I'm now officially a number in the Spanish system which means that I can get contracts/bank accounts/mobile phones etc. without too much problem.

Monday evening I start Spanish lessons, but even before this the work is piling on as I try and catch up with the couple of weeks I took off. The brain is slowly getting back in gear but I'm currently a little overwhelmed with different projects which all need my immediate attention.

It's now around midnight and the work I'm trying to do is not getting anywhere so I'm going to call it a day. I thought I'd post a few photos from Lijiang, in Yunnan where I happened to be for one of the traditional Chinese festivals. I can no longer find any information on the web about this (some time around the middle of November this year) but this day one could see all the old people of the town walking around with roses, chatting with each other in the old town square. Those not talking with others were sitting around, some thinking of lost ones and some remembering good times, by the looks on their faces:

old woman with rose copy

Plenty of work to be getting on with this weekend but I plan on getting some photos before settling down in a cafe.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Comet 17/P Holmes

The science blog community has been awash with news about this comet which suddenly increased its magnitude by a factor of some 400,000 making it easily visible with the naked eye. I'm aware that some readers of this blog are not regular science blog readers, so I urge you to go and take a look before it's no longer visible with the naked eye. I took a look this evening in a relatively brightly lit neighbourhood but could clearly make out the extended nature of the comet and although its span is only a tenth or so of the diameter of the moon (my guess) you can still make out that there is a central core and a diffuse region around the outside. So, go and take a look. See here for directions - very easy to make it out close to Cassiopeia.

Lots of information at these sites (more here, and more photos here)

Evolving clocks

I've always had a fascination with genetic algorithms, and have played around with them a good deal in the last few years. This started when a good friend wrote a simple logic based game where one could play the computer. He set the computer going against itself and evolved it through a simple genetic algorithm. Soon enough we weren't able to beat the computer and it would play moves that we simply couldn't understand until later in the game.

The following is a lovely example of a relatively simple genetic algorithm used to create a time keeping device from its constituent parts:

(Noted on Pharyngula)