Archive for July, 2010

The Balding Version

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on July 31, 2010 by telescoper

Now that I’m back from a period of rest and recuperation I thought I’d try to get back into the swing of things by posting a few short items about things I found interesting in the papers. One item today caught my eye as it touches on a theme I’ve addressed before: Freedom of speech, and its limits.

This story concerns sports presenter Clare Balding who is apparently presenting a new TV series called Britain by Bike. I don’t know much about her or the new series, but it was reviewed last week in the Sunday Times by a person by the name of AA Gill who referred to her as

…the dyke on a bike, puffing up the nooks and crannies at the bottom end of the nation

Not very nice at all. I’m not linking to the original article (a) because it’s behind a paywall and (b) because I don’t want to send the Evil  Empire  of Murdoch any traffic. You can find the gist of it in a story at the Guardian.

I didn’t know that Clare Balding is a lesbian, but then there’s no reason why I should have thought about her sexuality as it’s not at all relevant to her job.  Apparently she is quite open about and comfortable with her orientation, but the obviously pejorative reference to the word “dyke” got her understandably riled. She complained to the Sunday Times editor, a nasty piece of work called John Witherow, who replied

In my view some members of the gay community need to stop regarding themselves as having a special victim status and behave like any other sensible group that is accepted by society.Not having a privileged status means, of course, one must accept occasionally being the butt of jokes. A person’s sexuality should not give them a protected status.

Clare Balding was unhappy with the response, saying

This is not about me putting up with having the piss taken out of me, something I have been quite able to withstand, it is about you legitimising name calling. ‘Dyke’ is not shouted out in school playgrounds (or as I’ve had it at an airport) as a compliment, believe me..

She has now made the matter to the Press Complaints Commission under article 12 of its Editor’s Code of Practice, which states

The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

There’s no denying that the word “dyke” is a pejorative term for a lesbian so one would imagine that this will be an open-and-shut case. Note also that the response from John Witherow explicitly refuses to accept the terms of article 12. Whether he likes it or not, sexual orientation is specifically protected in the Editor’s Code of Practice to which he is a signatory. John Witherow probably thinks so little of this code that he hasn’t even read it. If he is exonerated it will prove beyond any doubt that the Editor’s Code of Practice is simply a sham.

Whether the right to free speech should be bounded by law is a topic that has come up several times on this blog, including one very recent example and one rather older which has direct parallels with the Clare Balding complaint. I think it is right that this matter should be dealt with outside the law courts. Gill’s comment may be nasty but I don’t think such things should be regarded as criminal, unless they are clearly intended to harrass. If, for example, he’d screamed the word dyke through her letterbox, I think that would be a criminal matter.

However, the problem with voluntary “codes of conduct” such as this – including those that form part of certain employment contracts – is that they usually amount to nothing other than window-dressing, at least when it comes to sexual orientation. The word “dyke” is as offensive to a lesbian as the word “faggot” is to a gay man, but cases involving these words are rarely taken as seriously as those involving racial or gender-based terms. Can you imagine the outcry if AA Gill had used the word “nigger” or “paki” in a review?

Mentioning “sexual orientation” in a list isn’t the same as taking the related prejudice seriously or trying to something about it. The fact of the matter is that lesbians and gay men may be more accepted in society now than they were twenty years ago, but there are still many walks of life in which this is not the case.  In fact, I think the depressing reality is that the vast majority of heterosexual people simply don’t like homosexual people and resent their apparent “acceptance”.  You can argue about the rights and wrongs of “politically correct language”, but the problem it is trying to address in this case is very real and it is often the only thing that prevents overt abuse, as indeed it is with racist abuse.

Having said that, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Sunday Times gets away with this clear violation of the PCC code. It would just be another example of gross hypocrisy to add to the many that already demonstrate that political correctness is  a very thin veneer. Far better, in my view, to dispense with the code of practice altogether if this happens than keep it there and openly flout it. At least then we’d all know where we really stand.

A Martian Oz?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on July 31, 2010 by telescoper

I noticed a news item last week about research which points out that the remarkable fact that parts of Mars look a bit like Australia. Take this image, for example, of the region called Nili Fossae in which the Sydney Opera House can be seen clearly in the upper left…

Apparently the rocks in this region “resemble” those in an area of Australia called the Pilbara. Scientists believe that microbes formed some distinctive features in the Pilbara rocks – features called “stromatolites” that can be seen and studied today. According to  Adrian Brown, who works for the SETI Institute,

“Life made these features. We can tell that by the fact that only life could make those shapes; no geological process could.”

Unfortunately however, all that has really been established is that the Martian rocks have a similar mineral composition to those found in Australia – there’s no evidence (yet) that the “features” made by living creatures are present. Nevertheless, the newspapers have got very excited about this and today’s Guardian even ran an editorial on this item, from which I quote

Sceptics may think the comparison tenuous. They may also note that yesterday’s news reports either framed the possibility as a question – could there be life? – or put it in inverted commas. There is no proof. There is quite likely no life either.


I always find it very interesting how everyone gets so worked up about the possibility of there being, or having been, life on Mars when we’re such careless custodians of the flora and fauna of our own planet. I suppose behind it all there’s a hope that there might be sentient beings out there in space who can tell us how to look after ourselves a bit better than we’re able to figure out for ourselves.

Unfortunately, the recent “discovery” provides very strong evidence against there being any form of intelligent life whatsoever on Mars. After all, it’s just like Australia.

The Complete Animated Shakespeare

Posted in Literature with tags , , on July 30, 2010 by telescoper

While I was blathering on about Shakespeare a couple of days ago, I suddenly remembered this marvellous animated film I saw when it was first released over 20 years ago. I couldn’t remember the name so it took me a bit of time to find it, but I got there in the end. It’s by Aardman Animations (best known for the later Wallace and Gromit films) and it was part of a splendid series of animated shorts called Lip-synch commissioned by Channel 4 and broadcast in 1990. It’s hard to imagine Channel 4 doing anything this good nowadays.  This film, called Next,  is only 5 minutes long yet it manages to refer to every single one of Shakespeare’s plays by having the immortal bard himself do them all as an audition. It’s not only clever and visually appealing but also a lot of fun…

Astronomy (and Physics) Look-alikes, No. 35

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes with tags , on July 30, 2010 by telescoper

I wonder if anyone else has noticed the remarkable resemblance between these two international celebrity heart-throbs? I wonder if by any chance they might be related?

Enrique Iglesias

Joao Magueijo

A Commonplace Blog

Posted in Biographical, Poetry with tags , , on July 29, 2010 by telescoper

Just a brief interruption to my holiday from blogging. Posting from the old Blackberry isn’t particularly easy, so I’ll keep it brief. It struck me that this would provide a nice postscript to my recent navel-gazing post about blogging so I decided to put it up before I forget which, in fact, is part of the point of the text…

Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear,
Thy dial how thy precious minutes waste;
The vacant leaves thy mind’s imprint will bear,
And of this book this learning mayst thou taste.
The wrinkles which thy glass will truly show
Of mouthed graves will give thee memory;
Thou by thy dial’s shady stealth mayst know
Time’s thievish progress to eternity.
Look, what thy memory can not contain
Commit to these waste blanks, and thou shalt find
Those children nursed, deliver’d from thy brain,
To take a new acquaintance of thy mind.
These offices, so oft as thou wilt look,
Shall profit thee and much enrich thy book.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 77 is open to quite a bit of interpretation, but it seems clear that the “vacant leaves” refer to the blank pages of a “commonplace book“. To paraphrase wikipedia

Such books came into use in the middle ages and were essentially scrapbooks, filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students, and humanists as aids for remembering or developing useful concepts ideas or facts they had learned. Each commonplace book was unique to its creator’s particular interests.

Dare I say, just like a blog? In particular, the phrase to “take a new acquaintance of thy mind” surely rings true to anyone who writes a blog…


Posted in Uncategorized on July 24, 2010 by telescoper

Well, dear readers, the old batteries definitely need recharging so I’ve decided to take spot of annual leave during which I’ll be away from the blog. Accordingly, in the words of the old BBC continuity announcers, there will now follow a short intermission..

Back in a week. Toodle-pip!

PS. The suitably restful and very typical bit of 1950s  “light” music accompanying this is called Pastoral Montage, and it was written by South African born composer Gideon Fagan.

A Problem in Dynamics

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on July 23, 2010 by telescoper

I thought you might enjoy this “poem” which, believe it or not, was written by the great physicist James Clerk Maxwell. You can find other examples of his verse here. All I can say is I’m glad he didn’t give up his day job…

An inextensible heavy chain
Lies on a smooth horizontal plane,
An impulsive force is applied at A,
Required the initial motion of K.

Let ds be the infinitesimal link,
Of which for the present we’ve only to think;
Let T be the tension, and T + dT
The same for the end that is nearest to B.
Let a be put, by a common convention,
For the angle at M ’twixt OX and the tension;
Let Vt and Vn be ds’s velocities,
Of which Vt along and Vn across it is;
Then Vn/Vt the tangent will equal,
Of the angle of starting worked out in the sequel.

In working the problem the first thing of course is
To equate the impressed and effectual forces.
K is tugged by two tensions, whose difference dT
Must equal the element’s mass into Vt.
Vn must be due to the force perpendicular
To ds’s direction, which shows the particular
Advantage of using da to serve at your
Pleasure to estimate ds’s curvature.
For Vn into mass of a unit of chain
Must equal the curvature into the strain.

Thus managing cause and effect to discriminate,
The student must fruitlessly try to eliminate,
And painfully learn, that in order to do it, he
Must find the Equation of Continuity.
The reason is this, that the tough little element,
Which the force of impulsion to beat to a jelly meant,
Was endowed with a property incomprehensible,
And was “given,” in the language of Shop, “inexten-sible.”
It therefore with such pertinacity odd defied
The force which the length of the chain should have modified,
That its stubborn example may possibly yet recall
These overgrown rhymes to their prosody metrical.
The condition is got by resolving again,
According to axes assumed in the plane.
If then you reduce to the tangent and normal,
You will find the equation more neat tho’ less formal.
The condition thus found after these preparations,
When duly combined with the former equations,
Will give you another, in which differentials
(When the chain forms a circle), become in essentials
No harder than those that we easily solve
In the time a T totum would take to revolve.

Now joyfully leaving ds to itself, a-
Ttend to the values of T and of a.
The chain undergoes a distorting convulsion,
Produced first at A by the force of impulsion.
In magnitude R, in direction tangential,
Equating this R to the form exponential,
Obtained for the tension when a is zero,
It will measure the tug, such a tug as the “hero
Plume-waving” experienced, tied to the chariot.
But when dragged by the heels his grim head could not carry aught,
So give a its due at the end of the chain,
And the tension ought there to be zero again.
From these two conditions we get three equations,
Which serve to determine the proper relations
Between the first impulse and each coefficient
In the form for the tension, and this is sufficient
To work out the problem, and then, if you choose,
You may turn it and twist it the Dons to amuse.