Archive for May 16, 2009

Eurovision

Posted in Opera with tags , on May 16, 2009 by telescoper

Just  in case you’ve had the misfortune to sit through the tedious spectacle that is the annual Eurovision song contest,  let this be a reminder that Eurovision wasn’t always synonymous with utter garbage…

Divided Loyalties

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics with tags , , , , on May 16, 2009 by telescoper

It’s easy to tell that summer is on the way. England are playing the West Indies at Cricket. It’s the penultimate weekend of the Premiership football season. The undergraduates are taking their exams. I’m sitting with a pile of projects to mark. And it’s raining.

I suppose I have to mention the football. My team, Newcastle United, gave themselves a chance of avoiding relegation on Monday night by beating local rivals, Middlesborough 3-1. A win today at home against Fulham would pretty much have guaranteed safety. They lost 1-0. It now looks inevitable that they will be relegated after 16 years in the top flight.

It’s a thankless task being a Newcastle supporter. I’ve followed them all my life and they have managed to avoid winning any competition of any significance since the Fairs cup in 1968 (now called the UEFA cup). They have loyal fans and a wonderful stadium, but somehow seem completely unable to convert that into success on the field. This season they were doomed as soon as the manager Kevin Keegan quit over the owner Mike Ashley’s refusal to allow him to be involved in signing any players. After a period without a manager, during which they lost game after game, the club appointed veteran relegation specialist Joe Kinnear, who did OK for a while then at Christmas had to go into hospital with heart problems. Another run of poor results followed until, in desperation, the club appointed the iconic former player Alan Shearer to his first managerial position. His lack of experience showed, though, and he’s only managed to win one game. In short, the season has been a shambles.

When my father died (about 18 months ago), I thought that my interest in Newcastle United would wane. Football and music were the only two things we had in common after my parents split when I was about 12 and I went to live with my mother. I saw him only rarely in later years,and much of the time we spent together involved talking about football. However, I still find myself getting nervous on match days and looking anxiously for the scores whenever they’ve been playing. It’s like there is an umbilical cord that still connects me to my home town and I can’t get rid of it.

That feeling was reinforced yesterday when, following a conversation at the RAS Club last week, Robert Smith sent me a booklet that he had received when he attended a conference in Newcastle in 1965. The Official Guide to Newcastle upon Tyne (priced 2/6) filled me with a mixture of nostalgia and amusement. Ironically, given the football team’s inadequacies the motto of the city is FORTITER DEFENDIT TRIUMPHANS, which was also the motto of my old school, the Royal Grammar School (also mentioned in the booklet).

The little picture on the left shows the armorial bearings of the City of Newcastle upon Tyne. The official blazon is: Arms:- Gules three Castles triple towered Argent. Crest on a Wreath of the Colours. A Castle as in the arms issuant therefrom from a demi Lion guardant supporting a Flagstaff Or, flying therefrom a forked Pennon of the Arms of Saint George.

Supporters: – on either side a Sea Horse proper crined and finned Or.

Obviously supporters don’t guarantee success, even if they’re proper crined and finned.

Of course, I shall be disappointed if and when Newcastle get relegated next week, but I don’t go along with all the guff in the newspapers about how it will have dire consequences for the city. They’ve been relegated twice before in my lifetime, and the world didn’t end then nor will it now. In any case, I’d reckon the Football Club has taken much more out of the economy of Newcastle in recent years than it has put back into it. Hard-earned cash from supporters has gone straight into the pockets of overpaid players and inept management staff. Maybe relegation will shake the Club up, which will be good in the long run.

Anyway, every cloud has at least one silver lining and this one has two. At the start of the season, I was prescient enough to place a large bet on Newcastle to get relegated at quite long odds. I expect to be handsomely compensated by Mr William Hill when they do go down. The other thing is that they will have to play Cardiff City in the Championship next year, which will give me the chance to see them play in Cardiff’s brand new stadium.

Incidentally, Cardiff City blew their promotion hopes in spectacular fashion. Needing only to avoid losing to Preston North End by 5 goals in order to secure a place in the play-offs, they lost 6-0.

Meanwhile we’ve been coming down slowly from the high that was Thursday’s launch of Herschel and Planck. I was surprised to see Matt Griffin in the department yesterday afternoon because he was actually at the launch in Kourou. He had left after the launch and flown directly back to Cardiff (via Paris). Our other representatives will return over this weekend, and things will start to get back to normal.

Matt told me that he was so impressed with the professionalism of Arianespace, that he wasn’t at all nervous about the launch. Matt’s instrument, SPIRE, will switch on during 22 May and testing will start. I’m sure that Matt and his team will be more than a little nervous about that!

Assuming both Planck and Herschel work satisfactorily, the next problem we will have to face is the deluge of data that will shortly be upon us. The astronomers at Cardiff University have submitted an application for rolling grant support from STFC (not Swindon Town Football Club) to enable us to extract scientific results from new data especially from Herschel. Unfortunately, though, the coffers are pretty bare and it seems very unlikely that we will get the substantial uplift in funding we need to carry out the work on a reasonable timescale.

A rolling grant is intended to support an ongoing research programme. Typically the grants cover 5 years’ funding, enabling the group to offer longer term contracts to staff than is allowed by the 3-year standard grant format. After 3 years of the rolling period, the group has to bid again for another 5 year period but the timing means there is always two years’ grace, meaning that if renewal is not recommended the group still has two years’ funding so the plug isn’t pulled immediately. If an extension is offered but at a reduced level of funding, a group might decide to refuse the new grant and carry on with its existing two years, perhaps to apply in the following round.

The problem with the current financial situation is that STFC barely has the funds needed to continue its existing rolling grants. In other words if all the groups applying for rolling support declined their new contracts and rolled on their existing grants, STFC would only just be able to pay them. In such a situation there would be no new grants or any kind of increase in existing rollers. The implications for successful exploitation of Herschel and Planck appear to be grim and there could well be a lot of difficult decisions within the department to be made if we have to operate within a much reduced budget.

It would be ridiculous if a billion-dollar mission like Herschel ends up stymied because of the relatively small sums needed to exploit the data, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Football teams aren’t the only organizations to suffer from bad management.

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