Sleep well last night?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on July 18, 2014 by telescoper

We had a spectacular thunderstorm over Brighton last night. I do love a good thunderstorm. Although I enjoyed the show, I didn’t get much sleep. Judging by the following graphic from BBC Weather, I’m not the only one…


Romance – from the Gadfly

Posted in Music with tags , , on July 17, 2014 by telescoper

It’s too hot today to stay inside blogging at lunchtime, so here’s some lovely music from the Gadfly Suite by Dmitri Shostakovich. I’ve been called a Gadfly myself from time to time, but I’m also partial to a bit of romance now and then….

IAU Symposium 308 – Conference Photo Caption Competition

Posted in Beards, Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on July 16, 2014 by telescoper

Regular readers of this blog (Sid and Doris Bonkers) will recall that I recently attended IAU Symposium No. 308 in Tallinn, Estonia. To prove that I didn’t make it all up, here is the official conference photograph.

iau308 conference_photo 1 lres

You can see me three rows back on the right-hand-side of the picture; you can click on the image to make it largely should you wish. Behind me and to my left as I look at the camera you will see the esteemed cosmologist Carlos Frenk wearing an unusual facial expression.

I wonder if anyone might like to suggest an explanation for Prof. Frenk’s behaviour by way of a suitable caption for the photograph?

Campaigners welcome first Tory Cabinet Minister with a beard since 1905

Posted in Beards, Politics on July 16, 2014 by telescoper


An important and under-reported aspect of yesterday’s Cabinet reshuffle…

Originally posted on Kmflett's Blog:

Beard Liberation Front
Contact Keith Flett 07803 167266
The Beard Liberation Front, the informal network of beard wearers, has welcomed David Cameron’s decision to appoint Preseli Pembrokeshire MP Stephen Crabb as Welsh Secretary in the new Cabinet.

Crabb becomes the first Tory Cabinet Minister with a beard since the 4th Earl of Onslow stepped down as President of the Board of Agriculture in March 1905*

The campaigners say that the Tory Party has had a reputation for pogonophobia, reinforced when John Selwyn Gummer was reputedly told by Mrs Thatcher to shave his beard off if he wanted a Cabinet seat. In more recent years there have been a few hirsute Tory MPs such as John Randall who has just signalled his intention to step down as MP for Uxbridge
BLF Organiser Keith Flett said…

View original 53 more words

End of Term Report: David Willetts

Posted in Education, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on July 15, 2014 by telescoper

News broke yesterday that the Minister responsible for Universities and Science within the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, David Willetts, had stepped down from his role and would be leaving Parliament at the next election.

Willetts’ departure isn’t particularly surprising in itself, but its announcement came along with a host of other sackings and resignations in a pre-Election cabinet reshuffle that was much wider in its scope than most expected. It seems to me that Prime Minster David Cameron has decided to play to the gallery again. After almost four years in which his Cabinet has been dominated by white males, most of them nondescript timeserving political hacks without beards, he has culled some of them at random to try to pretend that he does after all care about equality and diversity. Actually, I don’t think David Cameron cares for very much at all apart from his own political future and this is just a cynical attempt to win back some votes before the next Polling Day, presumably in May 2015. Rumour has it that one of the new Cabinet ministers may even have facial hair. Such progress.


David Willetts was planning to step down at the next General Election anyway so his departure now was pretty much inevitable. I never agreed with his politics, but have to admit that he was a Minister who at least understood some things about Higher Education. In particular he knew the value of science and secured a flat cash settlement for the science budget at a time when other Whitehall budgets were suffering drastic cuts. He was by no means all bad. He even had the good taste – so I’m told – to read this blog from time to time….

The campaigning organization Science is Vital has expressed its sadness at his departure:

We’re sorry to see David Willetts moved from the Science Minister role. He listened, in person, to our arguments for increasing public funding for science, and we appreciated the support he showed for science within the government.

We look forward to renewed dialogue with his successor, in order to continue to press the case that science is vital for the UK.

Now that he has gone, my main worry is that the commitments he gave to ring-fence the science budget will go with him. I don’t know anything about his replacement, Greg Clark, though I hope he follows his predecessor at least in this regard.

Other aspects of Willetts’ tenure of the Higher Education office are much less positive. He has provided over an ideologically-driven rush to force the University sector into an era of chaos and instability, driven by a rigged quasi-market propelled by an unsustainable system of tuition fees funded by student loans, a large fraction of which will never be repaid.

Another of Willetts’ notable failures relates to Open Access. Although apparently grasping the argument and make all the right noises about breaking the stranglehold exerted on academia by outmoded forms of publication, he sadly allowed the agenda to be hijacked by vested interests in the academic publishing lobby. Fortunately, there’s still a very strong chance that academics can take this particular issue into their own hands instead of relying on the politicians who time and time again prove themselves to be in the pockets of big business.

My biggest fear for Higher Education at the moment is that the new Minister will turn out to be far worse and that if the Conservatives win the next election (which is far from unlikely), Science is Vital will have to return to Whitehall to protest against the inevitable cuts. If that happens, it may well be that David Willetts is remembered not as the man who saved British science, but the man who gave it a stay of execution.

This Is Our Music – A tribute to Charlie Haden

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , on July 14, 2014 by telescoper

I was saddened at the weekend to hear of the death, on Friday 11th July, at the age of 76, of the great jazz bassist, Charlie Haden. I always associate Charlie Haden with a series of great records he made with Ornett Coleman and Don Cherry during the late 50s and early 60s, including The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century, both of which I’ve blogged about already. I thought I’d pay a little tribute to Charlie Haden by writing about another of these masterpieces, a disc called This Is Our Music. As with the other two, this is also available in full on Youtube so you can listen to it here:

When he first arrived on the jazz scene the licence Coleman allowed himself in his improvisations drew criticism bordering on abuse from several prominent musicians. This a view echoed, for example, by the great Charles Mingus in quote I got from another blog about Ornette Coleman

Now aside from the fact that I doubt he can even play a C scale in whole notes—tied whole notes, a couple of bars apiece—in tune, the fact remains that his notes and lines are so fresh. So when [the jazz dj] Symphony Sid played his record, it made everything else he was playing, even my own record that he played, sound terrible.

Although he clearly admired his originality, Mingus may have been right about the very young Ornette Coleman’s technical ability; but I don’t think any unbiased listener could argue that he lacked mastery of his instrument by the time this record was made, in 1960. His skill in sustaining notes (always difficult on alto sax, which he plays throughout this album) is especially evident on this album in the standard Embraceable You whilst the precision of his articulation at any temp makes it quite clear that he really had little to learn in any aspect of control of his instrument. The slurs and distortions that are so much a part of his style are beautifully managed, and combine with his daring tonal approach to give the impression of great freedom that he strove to convey in his music.

It used to be question whether the liberties in which Coleman indulged were not so as extreme as to preclude overall unity, yet for all his virtuosity in rhythmic and melodic invention, he displays a genuine continuity of line in everything he does on this record. On Blues Connation, for example, his solo evolves with impeccable logic, each phrase growing almost inexorably out of the one before, whilst the general melodic shape bears continuous affinity to the theme. Moreover, his music boasts an intensity of feeling that no charlatan could ever hope to achieve. As I hear it, the dominant emotion in his playing at fast tempo is not love, as some have claimed, so much as fear, although this mood is often relieved by flashes of lyrical sadness. In the slower pieces, such as Beauty is a Rare Thing and Embraceable You, and the medium-paced Humpty Dumpty, the latter sentiment comes through even more strongly.

Don Cherry was an ideal partner, for his work is cast in a similar mould, but at this stage in his own development he did tend to stand in Coleman’s shadow. Drummer Ed Blackwell is very good throughout, but Charlie Haden is nothing short of brilliant, which is why I chose this as a tribute piece for him.

The bassist Haden not only displays all the classic jazz virtues expected of him, but also possesses an amazing sense of anticipation that enables him to work hand in glove with the two hornmen. Blackwell is neither a loud nor an aggressive drummer, but he evinces genuine drive and the interweaving mobility he and Haden achieve together is truly remarkable in its own right as well as fitting well with the richness of the leader’s own work.

Had I the time, I could write a lot more about this album in particular and about Charlie Haden in general, but all I can do his suggest that you listen to the LP for yourself. Coleman was still refining his concept of how his Quartet should function, so it’s a little rough around the edges in places, and in any case I know many devout jazz fans who find this kind of music challenging. It is worth it, though. Charlie Haden was only 22 when This Is Our Music was recorded. He went on to many great things during his subsequent career. Sadly that spark has now gone out, but he will live on in our hearts through his music.

Rest in Peace, Charlie Haden, Jazz legend (1937-2014).

Awards Day at West Dean College

Posted in Art, Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , , on July 13, 2014 by telescoper

Last week was a very busy week at the University of Sussex (including the Graduation Ceremony for students in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences), and yesterday (Saturday) saw me attending another event on quasi-official business, this time at West Dean College, which is situated in West Sussex, a few miles North of Chichester.

The occasion for my visit there was Awards Day at the college, and I got the chance to go because one of our Pro-Vice Chancellors was unable to attend so I volunteered to go in her place. I didn’t know much about the College before yesterday, except that it is one of several institutions whose degree programmes are validated by the University of Sussex.

In fact, the College provides MA degrees, diplomas and short courses for students of all abilities, from the beginner to the advanced professional practitioner across a wide range of creative arts, design and conservation (including rare and old books, furniture, and clocks).  The various degree certificates, diplomas and other prizes were handed out to students of all ages, which was great to see. Before I go on I just like to congratulate them all again on their wonderful achievements, especially those creative arts students whose work we were able to view after the ceremony including prize-winning sculptures by Lotti V Closs. I even made a discreet inquiry about whether it was possible to buy some of the pieces…

Anyway, West Dean College is based in West Dean House, part of an ancient estate that was eventually inherited by the poet Edward James, a notable patron of the arts particularly famous for his support of the surrealist movement. The house was extensively modified during the late around about the turn of the twentieth century which presumably accounts for the distinctive arts-and-crafts look of some of the exterior.


The house is surrounded by an estate of 6000 acres in beautiful countryside. Ownership of the house, the estate and the art collection housed therein was transferred to the Edward James Foundation, a charitable educational trust, in 1964.

Many sheep were in attendance, although they didn’t come to the actual ceremony. To be honest, it was a much grander setting than I’d imagined it would be. In fact I think the last time I saw a place like West Dean House it was the site of a Country House Murder during an episode of Midsomer Murders or some such. The awards ceremony was held held in a Marquee on the lawns which, in the muggy weather, was a little uncomfortable though the programmes came in very useful as fans. Fortunately it all passed off peacefully without any murders although I did see a large group of crows in the fields, if that counts.


The manner of my arrival was much less grand than the location seemed to require. I took the train from Brighton to Chichester and then got a bus to West Dean. Being about half an hour early for the kickoff, I had time to walk around the grounds of the house. There’s a beautiful walled garden with many lovely flowers.


I recognized  Crocosmia Lucifer and Phlox among the following..


These curious but beautiful lantern-shaped flowers evidently belong to some type of lily, but I don’t know what kind. Any offers? (UPDATE: I am reliably informed that these are examples of Erythronium Pagoda


The walled garden is just one small part of the estate, which also comprises workshops and studios used by the students, a very nice dining room and bar area plus rooms for meetings and conferences. I enjoyed a quick tour of the facilities after the Awards Ceremony, but must go back some other time to have a proper look. The other gardens are fine too:


And this pergola would put most garden varieties to shame!


Anyway, since one of the Prizes presented yesterday was for blogging about conservation, I couldn’t resist advertising the West Dean College blogs. They have two, in fact, one for Conservation (here) and one for Visual Arts (here). These are both hosted on wordpress platforms, so if you’re following this blog on WordPress why not give them a follow too?


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