Christmas in China

Christmas in China was pretty interesting.

I have to admit I was pretty surprised by the amount of Christmas decorations that had gone up around Beijing. Kind of made me wonder if people here really understand what the holiday is all about. I asked a few of my friends, and they all told me pretty much the same thing: Shopping.

So I guess they understand it pretty well.

I wasn’t planning on doing anything special for Christmas, but it seemed like a shame to just sit in my apartment on Christmas Eve alone and feeling sorry for myself, so I went downtown with some friends. In the spirit of Christmas, they took me to an ‘80s music concert. Not Western ‘80s music, mind you, but Chinese ‘80s music.

Yeah, I have no idea what this has to do with Christmas either.

Still, it was a lot of fun. The highlight for me was when a really hot girl in tight jeans and an exposed midriff came out and sang what I swear was the theme song to Final Fantasy V. It was pretty awesome.

But here’s the thing for me: I ran into this other Western guy, and he was devastated that it was going to be Chinese ‘80s music and not Western ‘80s music. He was dressed like some kind of Trendy Dweeb, which I guess is how he imagined people looked in the ‘80s.

His melodramatic dismay was pretty hard for me to understand. I mean, he was only in Beijing for a short time, and seemed to be really into Western ‘80s music, so I’m sure he’ll go to plenty of Western ‘80s music-themed events when he goes home. Yet there he was, with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience ‘80s music from a Chinese perspective, and he was acting like it was the end of the world. It seemed pretty odd to me. Why come to China if you’re not even going to try to experience some Chinese stuff? It would be like going to Italy and eating only at McDonald’s. What’s the point?

Sometimes I feel like even though we share the same planet, I really just live in a different world than some people.

Anyway, Merry Christmas everyone!!

reinventing the broken wheel

Just got another rejection email. This time for How I Saved the World by Doing Nothing. And looking back now I can’t believe that I ever thought that even an online literary journal that doesn’t actually pay for stories would want to publish it.

Don’t get me wrong, I still really like the story. I’m just not happy with the way I wrote it. And, obviously, neither were the editors of the journal. I do appreciate the feedback they gave me though.

As aspiring writers themselves, I think they felt it was important to give every submission one positive comment and one negative comment. For me the positive comment was that they liked my narrative voice. The negative comment was that I took it too far, and tried to explain things too much, rather than just letting the narrative flow.

In the literary world, this is pretty much a universal rookie mistake. Basically, I made the fatal error of “telling” instead of “showing”. In good literary fiction, the detail and description should flow spontaneously and organically from the dialogue and narrative. If the author tries to beat the reader over the head with what they consider to be important details, they’re doing it wrong.

This is why I feel like I’m simply reinventing the broken wheel; I’m making the same clichéd mistakes that pretty much all beginning writers make.

Still, there is hope for me, and I’m not about to give up without even really trying. The thing is, there’s a ton of resources available for free on the internet for aspiring writers, and I know exactly what I need to do to fix my problems. Basically, I just have to read a LOT, and write a LOT. Simple as that. Which is why I’m moving to Australia in six months to dedicate a year to nothing but writing.

And yeah, if I wasn’t serious about this I could be content with just posting stuff on this blog and having my Mommy and maybe one or two other people tell me I’m great, but in order to make my writing palatable to a wider audience, I’m definitely going to need to spend a lot of time and a lot of effort working on improving my writing style. But to me it’s worth it.

The funny thing is, just like the last time I got a rejection email, within a day of getting this latest one I received and email from a friend of mine telling me she’d finished reading the rough draft of my novel, and she really liked it. She even said it was so good that while she was at the bar with her friends, she just wanted to go back home so she could finish reading it.

Wow. That is seriously the biggest compliment anyone could give me at this point. And it really meant a lot to me. Hell, even if she was just saying that to make me feel better, it’s still the kind of encouragement that I need right now.

So my big goal this week is to try and find a literary agent. The book is nonfiction, which is good because there’s actually a bigger market for nonfiction than fiction, and with nonfiction you’re allowed to get away with more “telling” instead of always “showing”, so my greatest weakness—lack of descriptive ability—doesn’t hurt me quite so much.

I’d really like to have a career as a writer. I think it would be cool to make a living doing what I love most. Unfortunately playing video games and chasing women doesn’t generally pay that much, so I guess I’ll just give writing a shot. And I may not be a decent writer at the moment, but I think I have the potential to get there if I really work at it.

We’ll see.

fresh tracks

The rest of the conference was actually pretty cool. Much better than I expected a conference on computational chemistry to be, anyway. I definitely learned a lot. And most of it had nothing to do with any of the talks.

Scientific conferences are pretty interesting in and of themselves. It’s a chance for people to present the results of their latest research, share and exchange ideas, and it’s a great opportunity for the younger folks—PhD students and postdocs like me—to get a feel for what the field is all about.

Plus there’s free food.

But I think the most important thing about scientific conferences, like conferences in any field, probably, is the chance to network. To get your name out there, to make connections, and to discuss possible collaborations. Because science is becoming so specialized that it’s practically impossible to be an expert in everything, and therefore it makes more sense to become very good at one specific thing, and to collaborate with people whose specialties complement yours.

In a way it’s kind of a shame that I’m leaving science, because I’m actually pretty good at the networking part of it. Of course, come to think of it if I were as good at my research as I am at interacting with people and talking about research, I probably wouldn’t be leaving science.

Regardless, it was pretty interesting to interact with some of the Big Guys in the field. One of the things that really struck me was when one of them mentioned that for the most part, scientists don’t do what they do for fame or fortune. They do it because discovering new things about the world we live in and how things work is their hobby.

And that’s just it. I’ve been planning on leaving science because I’m not passionate about it, but you don’t necessarily have to be passionate about it. But at the very least, you have to be, um, hobbiate about it. Is that a word? No? Damn.

But yeah, you do have to have at least some positive feelings about it. There has to be something that compels you to spend the vast majority of your time working on it. Because it’s definitely not for the money.

That’s what gets me. Writing is my hobby. And I could probably be a fairly decent writer if I devoted a serious amount of time to it—just like I’m pretty sure I could be a decent scientist if I really devoted myself to it—but I can’t do both. At least, I can’t do both well. And that’s where I’m at right now. At the moment, I’m just kind of a mediocre writer and a mediocre scientist, but that’s not what I want. I’d like to be as good as possible at either one or the other, and I just do not have the time to do both, so for me writing wins.

Which is why I’m moving to Australia. In six months. I do want to at least finish the project I’m working on right now, and write a good paper on it, because I’d rather leave science on a high note than just sort of wash out.


The actual conference only lasted three days. The last two days consisted of a trip to the “Snow Village”.

The Yabuli Ski Resort is only 200km from Harbin, has 20 runs and 17 lifts, and has the longest ski runs in China. In fact, it’s where the Chinese ski team trains.

Which makes me wonder why we didn’t go there instead.

No, the place we went to was a 7-hour bus ride away, and the “ski hill” only had a single run, with a t-bar lift. By the time we got there it was too late to ski, and we had to leave the next day by noon if we wanted to make it back to Harbin in time to catch the train back to Beijing.

But that didn’t stop us. We got up at 7:00, wolfed down some food, and made it to the base of the hill when it opened at 8:00. I thought I was going to have to babysit the guys I was with who had never skied before, but they actually had a dedicated group of instructors for that. So I was free to go off and hurt myself on my own.

I haven’t skied in 15 years. And even when I did do it regularly I was never particularly good at it. But naturally this didn’t stop me from going straight to the top of the mountain, going down full speed, and trying to hit a jump.

This is the general level of common sense that I have. It’s no wonder I’m not a very good scientist.

at a conference

Right now I’m at the International Symposium on Theoretical and Computational Chemistry – 2010: High Performance Computing Simulations.

Yeah, I don’t know what any of that means either.

The conference is in Harbin, which is in the northern part of China, in the province adjacent to Russia. And yeah, it’s pretty damn cold here. In fact, one of my friends told me that the name “Harbin” comes from the fact that when you walk outside it’s so cold you immediately go “Hhhaaaarrr” and your breath turns to ice, which in Chinese is “bin“.

Makes sense to me.

We took the overnight train to get here. This seems like a good idea in theory because it’s an 11-hour trip, so if you take the train at night it’s like you’re getting free lodging for the price of your transportation. Unfortunately it doesn’t actually work that way because some silly asshole had their phone going off like every 10 minutes the entire freaking night, and another guy was snoring. So it was more like free sleepless misery for the price of transportation, but it was cheaper than flying and I didn’t pay for it anyway.

We arrived in Harbin early Saturday morning. A total of eight of us from our research group came to the conference–another postdoc like me, plus six students. I was the last to exit the train, but when I looked around I couldn’t find my colleagues anywhere. All I managed to spot was a huddled group of figures with no skin showing whatsoever and fogged-over glasses where their eyes should’ve been.

Yes, it’s that cold here.

Regardless, we made it to the hotel, got checked in and situated, and since the first day was just orientation and registration for the conference, we decided despite the cold to go play outside.

Our hotel is not far from the river, which is naturally frozen over at this time of year, so we went and slid around on the ice for a while. I tried to start a snowball fight since I figured I was the only one who had ever played baseball and thus would have a tactical advantage, but then the sole girl in our group picked up a largish chunk of ice and threatened to bludgeon me with it if I threw any more snow at her, so that was pretty much the end of that.

After we got tired of walking around on the ice, we decided to go visit the Siberian Tiger Park. Apparently there’s only like 500 Siberian Tigers left in the wild, but there are around 100 at this park. And despite the fact that it was basically like going to a zoo, it was still pretty cool to see them. You can actually buy live animals to throw to the tigers and watch them devour. I thought about asking if I could feed one of the students to the tigers, but unfortunately I actually really like the students in my group, and in the end I wouldn’t really want to see any of them get eaten by a tiger. I thought I heard them ask if they could feed the laowai to the tigers, but I don’t know what that means. Must be some kind of exotic bird, or something.

Today was the first day of the actual conference. And I hate to say it, but I was actually surprised by how interesting I found the talks to be. I hate to say this because I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that the main reason I wanted to come here in the first place was for a chance to see the Siberian Tigers and the “Snow City” we’re going to on Thursday. But I guess despite my plans to throw away what’s actually becoming a pretty promising future in the field of computational chemistry, I still am a scientist at heart. Because I really do find things like quantum computing, using GPUs instead of CPUs (graphics cards instead of traditional central processors) to run simulations, and the latest advances in computational methods interesting.

I can’t help feeling like a bit of a fraud. Some of the people at this conference are literally pioneers in the new and exciting field of computational chemistry. Seriously, the Chinese researchers are pretty excited by the fact that the Tianhe-1a is now the fastest computer cluster in the world, and the research they’re doing on it is pretty cutting-edge. Even the American researchers here are pretty enthused, I think, to be attending a conference in China and getting a chance to share their thoughts and ideas with their Chinese colleagues. Because despite how some people might feel, researchers everywhere in the world, regardless of nationality, are united by the same common and tremendous purpose–to get funding for their research.

And to do good science. Not just for the prestige and recognition, but to add something to the collective knowledge of the human race. To expand the understanding and information base that we as a species have of the world around us.

With that it mind, it’s pretty hard for me to admit that I plan to move to Australia in six months to write a novel based primarily on stupid humor.