Archive for June, 2011

An Azed Prize!

Posted in Crosswords with tags , on June 26, 2011 by telescoper

I was thinking on the way home on Friday that I haven’t posted anything about crosswords recently, and I know some crossword solvers occasionally visit this blog, so resolved to do something this weekend. By sheer coincidence, something arrived in yesterday’s post that makes that any easy task:

It seems that, after a decade of trying, I’ve finally managed to win a prize in the monthly Azed competition. As I’ve mentioned before, this involves not only solving the Azed crossword but also supplying a cryptic clue for a word or phrase given only as a definition in the crossword. This competition is tough, partly because Azed is a stickler for syntactical soundness in submitted clues, and partly because many of the competitors are professional crossword setters. Quite a few of my clues have received a “VHC” (Very Highly Commended) but I’ve never been among the winners, until Azed No. 2036! I only got 3rd place, but since I’ve never been among the winners before I’m still thrilled to bits with my coveted Azed bookplate, and £25 in book tokens.

The fact that I got a prize in this one is quite funny, actually. The crossword appeared in the Observer on Sunday 5th June, the day after my birthday and the day before I flew to Copenhagen for a mini workshop. I managed to solve the crossword on the Sunday but didn’t have time to think of a clue. I therefore put the completed grid in an envelope and took it with me to Denmark. One evening in the hotel, I concocted my clue but, lacking access to a printer, I had to write it out by hand – normally I send in a typewritten version. To save time I used one of the sticky self-address labels I carry in my diary to put my address on the clue which was scribbled on hotel notepaper. That’s why my name appears as “Dr P. Coles” in the list; they are old labels!  I also carry stamps around so put one of those on so it was all ready to go when I got home. When I arrived back in London on Friday 10th June, my flight had been a little delayed, so  I just had time to race out of Paddington station, find a postbox, and pop the clue inin time for the last collection, before running back into the station to catch the train back to Cardiff. I’ve never been so close to the deadline before – entries must be postmarked no later than the Saturday following the publication of the crossword – and almost missed my train to get it posted. It turns out it was worth it!

Anyway, you can find the crossword itself here and the answers to the clues here.

The competition required a clue for AL CONTO, an Italian phrase meaning the same as the French À LA CARTE. My clue was

Training via this could be vocational, with courses priced separately.

The definition is supplied by the phrase “with courses priced separately”, and the cryptic allusion is of the type Azed describes as “Comp. Anag.”, i.e. a composite anagram, which is rarely seen in daily crossword puzzles but not uncommon among his own. “Training” is the anagram indicator and VIA+AL+CONTO is an anagram of VOCATIONAL. I was pleased with the way the clue lays a false trail towards something educational.

There are only a couple of puzzles left in this year’s competition, so it looks like I’ll finish in my highest ever position. Now I’ll set my sights on getting a 1st place!


For Sidney Bechet

Posted in Jazz, Poetry with tags , , , , on June 26, 2011 by telescoper

Just stumbled across this excellent documentary about the great Sidney Bechet and couldn’t resist posting it alongside the poem by Philip Larkin that follows it, which is called For Sidney Bechet. Watching great jazz musicians play, including the rare clips of Bechet shown in the video, the thought always comes into my mind that if you took the instrument away from them, it would just carry on playing by itself…

That note you hold, narrowing and rising, shakes
Like New Orleans reflected on the water,
And in all ears appropriate falsehood wakes,

Building for some a legendary Quarter
Of balconies, flower-baskets and quadrilles,
Everyone making love and going shares

Oh, play that thing! Mute glorious Storyvilles
Others may license, grouping around their chairs
Sporting-house girls like circus tigers (priced

Far above rubies) to pretend their fads,
While scholars manqués nod around unnoticed
Wrapped up in personnels like old plaids.

On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes. My Crescent City
Is where your speech alone is understood,

And greeted as the natural noise of good,
Scattering long-haired grief and scored pity.

Astronomy Look-alikes, No. 58

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes with tags , on June 25, 2011 by telescoper

If you don’t think astronomer Robert Connon Smith looks like singer Roger Whittaker, I’ll show you something to make you change your mind. I wonder if, by any chance, they might be related?

Roger Whittaker

Robert Connon Smith

In Memoriam: Peter Falk (1927-2011)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on June 25, 2011 by telescoper

I came home last night to the sad news of the death, at the age of 83, of the actor Peter Falk, most famous for his role as the eponymous Lieutenant in the TV detective series Columbo. The newspapers are rightly filled with tributes today, but it can’t do any harm to add one more of my own. Falk was a fine actor, and I think the character of Lieutenant Columbo was a truly brilliant creation. I’m going to spend this evening watching a few old episodes on DVD.

Columbo was remarkable in many ways. For a start it eschewed the conventions of the usual detective story because the audience knows exactly what’s going to happen before it’s even started. Its lack of reliance on the traditional elements of a murder mystery means that you don’t watch Columbo to find out who did it, or whether or not the Lieutenant will ensnare them. We know who did it and that Columbo will catch them out. But how will he do it?

Every episode begins with the murderer – nearly always a highly intelligent, highly successful and extremely confident individual, often from the upper echelons of society – carefully planning and executing what looks like the perfect crime – establishing an alibi, removing forensic evidence, and so on. It always seems to work, at least until the shabby character of Columbo shuffles in to inspect the scene. The criminal always underestimates Columbo, at least at first, but in that grubby raincoat hides his nemesis. The lieutenant is a lot smarter than he looks. Sub pallio sordido sapientia.

The show’s creators, Richard Levinson and William Link, in fact based the character of Columbo on Petrovitch, the detective in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Both men have keen intellects masked by shambolic exteriors, and way the detective drives to distraction, and inevitable capture, a criminal who makes no attempt to run also echoes the great Russian novel.  It was an ingenious idea, but it needed a great TV actor to make it work. In Falk’s hands what might have been a clumsy stereotype became a marvellously believable character, sometimes infuriating, sometimes comical, in his own way lovable, and always fascinating.

There’s also Columbo’s wrong-footing “false exit”, accompanied by the catchprase “There’s just one more thing…”.  Just when the perpetrator has begun to relax, the bloodhound returns. The more trivial the “thing” is, the more damning it proves. As an application of psychology, it’s a superb tactic and it slowly but surely grinds down the criminal’s resistance. Often the murderer’s exasperation at Columbo’s relentless badgering  leads to rash actions and errors; the second murder, if there is one, is never as carefully planned as the first. .

It’s hard to put your finger on exactly why this plot format works so well, but it certainly does. Episodes of Columbo are still shown on TV all around the world. As a matter of fact, I watched one on TV in my hotel room in Copenhagen on Thursday night (with Danish subtitles). Part of it is the delight in seeing the humble but decent detective bring down the rich yet evil murderer. But most, I think, is just the excellence of the central performance by Peter Falk. He didn’t do much else of any consequence – an exception is a very amusing self-parody in the spoof detective film Murder by Death – but who cares? As Columbo he was quite superb, and he’s left a woderful legacy.

Rest in peace, Peter Falk.

P.S. It’s no secret that I named my cat Columbo in honour of the detective, largely because of his habit of leaving through the catflap only to return suddenly a moment later. He doesn’t say “just one more thing…” but I’m sure he would if he could. I do hope the passing of Peter Falk isn’t an omen for my Columbo…

Flying Home

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on June 24, 2011 by telescoper

Not much time to post today: I’ve got a full morning’s work finishing the drafts of two papers before flying home this afternoon….so here’s an appropriate piece of music from the late great Lionel Hampton.

Ex Officio

Posted in Education, Finance on June 23, 2011 by telescoper

I’ve been remarkably subdued and rant-free these days – partly because I’ve been too engaged with other things. However, I just came across a story in the Times Higher which put me in the mood for a short diatribe.

It seems that the Higher Education Council for England (HEFCE) has published a report entitled “Performance in Higher Education” which looks into university estates management. Among other things, this report states that in English universities academics are assigned an average of 13.2 sq m of office space per person, Scottish institutions offer 14.5 sq m, and Welsh universities a “whopping” 15.7 sq m. By contrast the average office space per person across all sectors in the UK 10-12 sq m.

The conclusion is that

The enduring perception of an office as a status symbol has contributed to the higher education sector lagging behind nearly all others in the efficient use of space.

An interesting inference, this, especially as it gives no definition of what is meant by “efficient”. Note also that it resorts to the pure cliché of the office as status symbol without a shred of evidence to support this as an explanation of alleged inefficiency. I have quite a large office – it seems Welsh universities are generous in this regard – but I don’t see it as a status symbol at all. It just means I use it for more things.

For one thing, I use my office for research. I can’t speak for anyone else but for me that means having a space to myself, free from distractions, for thinking. My room also contains many books and research papers that I use for both teaching and research. I also hold tutorials and discussion group meetings for which the large whiteboard is essential (although I would have preferred an old-fashioned blackboard). On occasion I also have private meetings with students and other staff at which confidential matters can be discussed in private.

Given the variety of activities carried out in a space which is only fractionally larger than the national norm, I would be quite confident of making a case that universities -or at least those that do both research and teaching –  already use their space more efficiently than other sectors.

And another thing. Many of us work in old buildings. Mine is a hundred years old. Converting it to an open plan environment would cost a fortune. Perhaps in order to effect the “cultural change” HEFCE desires universities should knock down the old buildings and put up brand new, smaller ones, with open plan offices? Pity in that case that capital funding has been slashed.

The HEFCE report states that “other sectors have … embraced a more open-plan scenario”. That may be the case, but other sectors are not universities and they don’t do the range of things we do. How am I supposed to hold tutorials in an open-plan office? And how would I be expected to do research with chit-chat going on all around?

Managers will probably argue that we could have dedicated rooms that could be booked for tutorials, etc. Fine. So we would have to decamp from our (small) offices to a bare cell with a group of students. If something comes up that makes me want to refer to a book or paper, I couldn’t pop over to my bookshelf and get it, I’d have to come back to my office. Or just not bother. There’d also be no space for impromptu meetings. No room for books either, but who needs them? Most university libraries don’t bother with them any more so why should staff?

I know exactly what would happen if these measures were introduced. First, academics would have to do their research at home. Opportunities for interaction between staff members, and between staff and students, would be greatly diminished. Students would no longer feel that the staff were accessible for advice and discussions, greatly diminishing the student experience. The impact on research would be extremely negative, as would be the effect on staff morale.

But who cares about teaching or research? It would be more efficient.


The Cloud

Posted in Poetry with tags , on June 23, 2011 by telescoper

I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers,
From the seas and the streams;
I bear light shade for the leaves when laid
In their noonday dreams.
From my wings are shaken the dews that waken
The sweet buds every one,
When rocked to rest on their mother’s breast,
As she dances about the sun.
I wield the flail of the lashing hail,
And whiten the green plains under,
And then again I dissolve it in rain,
And laugh as I pass in thunder.

I sift the snow on the mountains below,
And their great pines groan aghast;
And all the night ’tis my pillow white,
While I sleep in the arms of the blast.
Sublime on the towers of my skiey bowers,
Lightning, my pilot, sits;
In a cavern under is fettered the thunder,
It struggles and howls at fits;

Over earth and ocean, with gentle motion,
This pilot is guiding me,
Lured by the love of the genii that move
In the depths of the purple sea;
Over the rills, and the crags, and the hills,
Over the lakes and the plains,
Wherever he dream, under mountain or stream,
The Spirit he loves remains;
And I all the while bask in Heaven’s blue smile,
Whilst he is dissolving in rains.

The sanguine Sunrise, with his meteor eyes,
And his burning plumes outspread,
Leaps on the back of my sailing rack,
When the morning star shines dead;
As on the jag of a mountain crag,
Which an earthquake rocks and swings,
An eagle alit one moment may sit
In the light of its golden wings.
And when Sunset may breathe, from the lit sea beneath,
Its ardors of rest and of love,

And the crimson pall of eve may fall
From the depth of Heaven above,
With wings folded I rest, on mine aery nest,
As still as a brooding dove.
That orbed maiden with white fire laden,
Whom mortals call the Moon,
Glides glimmering o’er my fleece-like floor,
By the midnight breezes strewn;
And wherever the beat of her unseen feet,
Which only the angels hear,
May have broken the woof of my tent’s thin roof,
The stars peep behind her and peer;
And I laugh to see them whirl and flee,
Like a swarm of golden bees,
When I widen the rent in my wind-built tent,
Till the calm rivers, lakes, and seas,
Like strips of the sky fallen through me on high,
Are each paved with the moon and these.

I bind the Sun’s throne with a burning zone,
And the Moon’s with a girdle of pearl;
The volcanoes are dim, and the stars reel and swim
When the whirlwinds my banner unfurl.
From cape to cape, with a bridge-like shape,
Over a torrent sea,
Sunbeam-proof, I hang like a roof,–
The mountains its columns be.
The triumphal arch through which I march
With hurricane, fire, and snow,
When the Powers of the air are chained to my chair,
Is the million-colored bow;
The sphere-fire above its soft colors wove,
While the moist Earth was laughing below.

I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die.
For after the rain when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams
Build up the blue dome of air,
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and unbuild it again.

by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822).