Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Return from Beijing.

Okay, I'm back! Had a great time and it'll take a number of posts to explain it all. First, the conference. The conference was known as the “World Congress of Scientific Inquiry and Human Well-being: Improving Science Spirits and Building Harmony Society”. The conference was more academic and serious than a TAM with dozens of professors and researchers giving 15-minute talks on a number of topics. Some of the local talks were . . . different, with titles like “The sci-tech culture leads the construction of a harmonious society” or “A special case reflecting the worship of numbers: the numeric metaphors in Chinese internal dan theories” but some were more down-to-earth and discussed items like the results of science teaching initiatives in rural schools. Western presenters included Peter Atkins, Scott Atran, Daniel Dennett, Murray Gell-Mann, Lawrence Krauss, Edward Kruglyakov, Jean-Claude Pecker, Paul Kurtz, and a number more. Most of the time the various presentations were held simultaneously in two rooms so I could only see about half of them.

The talks were only 15-minutes, which didn’t really give much time. Only two talks that I attended were affected by having to stop so that the Chinese interpreter could translate for the audience, essentially only giving the speaker about 8 minutes! Pecker and Kruglyakov’s talks were affected, and Krauss and Atran, once seeing this, refused to stop their talks for translation, telling the hosts to translate a summary afterward.

For talks in Chinese a translator sat next to us foreigners (at any given time 3-8 of us) and would verbally translate the talk to English as it was given, so Chinese speakers did not have to pause for translation. It generally worked out well but sometimes the translators would not know how to translate if a talk got very technical. All-in-all though having the translators was much appreciated. With only 15-minutes though none of the talks could go into much depth.

What was interesting was that the Chinese talks were heavy on ideology and key buzzwords, similar to most speeches you hear from Comm Party meetings. Lots of mention of “science spirit”, “embracing science popularisation”, and “harmonious society” in almost every talk. It was sort of a cross between a science conference and Communist meeting. I’ve been told by westerners at the conference who live in China that this is fairly typical for speeches in China --and let’s not forget that all of the Chinese speakers were from a government-approved list.

As for the non-presentation part of the conference it was great! With so few foreigners there, I think there were all of about 8 of us there who were not giving presentations, we were invited to all of the events and tours so you got to chat with many of the speakers. Any distance between speakers and attendees didn’t exist: Jean-Claude sat down at our table for lunch one day, Gell-Mann the next, Krauss joined our table for dinner, Dennett went out with us to the TGIF for a drink one afternoon and so on. All of the speakers were very approachable and this was no exception: no attitude, just regular folks looking to meet with other attendees and speakers to chat. Just that instead of 900+ people at TAM (the Vegas conference I went to last January) there were about 30 of us, Westerners that is. Our hosts provided us with lunch every day, two banquets with entertainment (acrobats, magician, ladies playing traditional instruments), front-row seats at a Chinese Opera, and a tour of the Great Wall. I appreciated all of the work that they did for us, they were wonderful hosts.

One amusing thing was that because there were so few foreigners a lot of the local attendees assumed that I was “somebody”. I got asked many times what my talk was going to be about and lots of people were taking my photo during the sessions. Any westerner was a minor celebrity there.

I had a few days after the conference so did the usual sights: Forbidden City, Temple of Heavan, Summer Palace (my favourite), Lama Temple, acrobat show, some shopping for pearls & jade. Another attendee stayed over for a couple of days so we did most of the sights together, everyone else had moved on to a week-long tour to Xian etc. In the evenings I usually met up with a guy I met on the JREF forum who showed me various bars to sample the Beijing nightlife.

I'll post more about the sights & sound of Beijing over the next week or so.
For those of you on the e-album list it is on its way.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

I'm off to China!

Heading to the airport in two hours for my trip to Beijing. Because the Eid holiday starts today this will likely be one of the busiest times at the airport this year - so I'm giving myself 3 1/2 hours to check in and board.

I took some time today to review my Lonely Planet guide to Beijing and they had a bunch of phrases at the back for people to say if they need to get key info across in Mandarin. So I tried it out on a Chinese coworker (Singaporean actually) to make sure that I had the pronounciations correct. It was great doing this because I discovered:

-- the english sayings in the Lonely Planet are not phonetic;
-- Chinese people cannot understand a word that I say in Mandarin; and
-- Saying things from the guidebook is a great way to get Chinese people to laugh hysterically, which should be useful to break the ice at parties.

For example, one of the words Lonely Planet lists as 'bushi'. How would you proounce that reading from the book? Bu-shi is my guess. How is the word really pronounced?


So why the %@$&@# does the guide say bushi ??! This was repeated with most of the words I tried - my colleague had no clue why the book translated them this way, but laughed and laughed at my attempts to say them.

Also, from the limited phrases given in the guidebook it appears Lonely Planet readers are generally concerned with things like:

"use the meter please"
"where does this bus go?"
"where is the nearest gay nightclub?"

but the guide is silent on "where is the toilet?" or words like "left" "right" or "down the street two blocks". Apparantly it is much more vital for Lonely Planet readers to find gay nightlife than a washroom. (I don't even want to think about why - is that even legal in China?)

Anyway looks like I'll stick to English as much as possble. See ya in 10 days!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Road fatalities and other updates

Geez it's been two weeks since last update. Hands are improving but not 100% so I'm still taking it easy. General updates:

A comment was recently posted on an old blog post that the website for the Qatar Animal Welfare Society has moved to . Coincidentally the day before I was talking to a colleague who recently moved here, his family was thinking of getting a pet. So thanks to the person who sent the update.

The newspapers recently reported that last year Qatar had 207 road fatalities, which works out to approximately 6.9 deaths per 10,000 vehicles on the road. For comparison this webpage has the deaths per 10,000 cars rate for most countries in the world for 1996, in the US the rate was 2.0, Canada's was 1.8. Thus 6.9 is pretty bad. The Government has just passed tougher laws and installed more speed cameras in an attempt to crack down but people are skeptical as to whether it will be enforced. Time will tell. I think the problem is not the laws, it is just that enforcing those laws, and punishing reckless drivers, is weak at best.

[update: I think my rate calculation for Qatar is overinflated, please see my post of 28 January 2011]

I forgot to mention that it's Ramadan now. Restaurants are closed all day, only opening in the evening and alcohol is not for sale anywhere in the country. All the Muslims are fasting now so it makes for cranky drivers near the end of the day. I like Ramadan though because the morning commute is much better and we get to leave work 2 hours early. For people into nightlife the only option is house parties.

A week to go before I'm off to Beijing! I'm definately looking forward to it.