26 June, 2008

"If By a Man's Works Shall We Know Him...

...then you, sir, are a colourful, nine-dimensional blob."

A quote from a colleague. I take it as a compliment. If you can't make pretty graphs, what's the point of science?


Apologies for my absence - recent days are mostly spent taking tea in a rough-and-ready way while writing up. With a new position starting for me next week (though happily in the same group), my thesis-writing time will be squeezed into evenings and week-ends alone, so I don't see much chance of improvement in the immediate future. Your patience is appreciated!



11 June, 2008


Despite having my head buried in my thesis, I've been relaxing with one my hobbies - modelling.

A tiny boat on a Venetian canal:


...and a painstaking version of the Summer Palace:


Do please enlarge them by clicking on the photos before we go on...

Of course, these models were a wee bit unorthodox, being the product of tilt-shift. It's a very easy way of tricking the eye into thinking that an object is very small, because it has a blurred foreground and background. Combined with accentuated model-like colours and lighting, the results can be startling. For further reading, and much more accomplished examples than my crude first efforts, more can be found at Flickr.

The originals are below, for your reference.



09 June, 2008


Thanks again for all of your haiku - it was a pleasure to read each and every one. Pictured below, the entries. Selecting a winner was impressively difficult - we used Basho's ancient "Seashell Game" method for selecting the eventual winning pair, in which every haiku is paired with similar haiku, in a contest of elimination, until only two remain.

(Click to enlarge)

The runner-up prize goes to JC. Despite only learning Chinese for a single year, he bravely provided a haiku in Chinese pictograms. We found appealing the Zen-like sense of infinite potential, of which we usually only have an imperfect, restricted view. Here's our highly imperfect translation, paired with a humble photo of our own.


strong tea scent -
limitless ability,
limited by the drinker


The first prize (inc. calligraphy) goes to RJ. His haiku is absolutely "my cup of tea", and a very accomplished haiku in its own right. The image is perfectly ambiguous - is it the fading light that wanders over this town with the clouds? The lack of resolution sticks in the mind like a thorn, trying to be resolved, with no resolution possible. It is that irresolution found in koans, that frustrates the mind's rational purpose.

Then, it has a level of wabi-sabi, a serene detachment, a wandering sense of natural purpose that sits very well in haiku, with a melancholy touch. The clouds feel like old Daoist mendicant priests, roaming our towns, treading with light footsteps. Really very good.


fading light
over this town wanders
a shade of clouds


To all entrants, do please send me your addresses, and I'll post your samples and prizes as soon as possible. Other entries from the competition will follow in future articles. Many thanks once again to all for a decided treat.

05 June, 2008

HH the Dalai Lama

One of my favourite spots in town is the Sheldonian Theatre, built about 40 years after the Mayflower took the pilgrims overseas. It's quite dear to the university, being the place where we matriculate and graduate - but recently, it became just that bit more dear, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama honoured us with an address.

Sheldonian Theatre

Like many Westerners, the only real exposure I have had to His Holiness' teachings are through the books attributed to him. His autobiography, Freedom in Exile (Harper Collins, New York, 1990) is particularly powerful. To hear him speak on the troubles of current times was a true education - but perhaps just to witness his character when speaking on the troubles of current times was the real education.

HH Dalai Lama

It is undoubtedly not easy, being the 14th Dalai Lama. The Mainland Chinese accuse him of inciting atrocities; most well-educated Chinese scholars that I meet (and my college is about 30% Chinese) believe him to be a dissembling fox at best and an lying terrorist at worst; factions within the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy address him with vitriol. It seems far from easy being the 14th Dalai Lama.

Yet, he speaks with a kindness towards all these attacks that is truly remarkable. His voice is filled with sincere warmth, he speaks with his whole person, as if describing with gentle humour the activities of a much-loved but errant child. His is not the position of aloof authority or condescension, but one of apparently great and honest compassion. I have seen nothing like it before, and I am sure that my clumsy words fall far short of being able to describe it properly.

His address was 30 minutes long, his admittedly broken English occasionally assisted by his translator (pictured above), followed by an hour of answering questions from the university's senior dons. Throughout, the distant chants of protestors outside nearby Hertford College could be heard. His Holiness' energetic but aged voice was often swallowed up by the sounds of protest.

Some weeks prior to the event, my college issued a warning that the university square should be avoided because of a "visiting dignitary" and the "expected protests". However, the scale of the protesting was surprising.

In the blue corner (pictured above-left), the pro-Tibetans, waving their made-in-China (amusing but true) Tibetan flags. In the red corner (pictured above-right), the Chinese and a faction of Tibetan Buddhists - the latter being very keen to distance themselves from the former.

My favourite placard was one held up by some Chinese undergraduates (wearing full sub-fusc), entitled "A Newlywed Tibetan Couple", picturing a happy Tibetan man and wife in Western wedding costume, against a background which was the PRC flag transposed onto a love-heart. You couldn't make it up.

Through it all, His Holiness seemed absolutely unperturbed, holding up his fingers over his head and chuckling that "they think I am a daemon". The sheer force of his endless humour seemed to have every member of the audience laughing alongside him - his giggling flowed naturally and ceaselessly.

After his address, His Holiness noticed that the Prof. Gombrich's DPhil robes were slipping down, and hoisted them back up around his shoulders with a mighty tug as he walked past. I don't suspect I will ever see the likes of that again...

Whisked away in a car alongside his security personnel, he waved energetically at the gathered crowds, smiling at supporters and protestors alike. The 14th Dalai Lama is a unique character indeed.

HH Dalai Lama