Archive for February, 2012

The Expanding Universe

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on February 22, 2012 by telescoper

The furthest stars recede
Faster than the earth moves,
Almost as fast as light;
The infinite
Adjusts itself to our need.

For, far beyond the furthest, where
Light is snatched backward, no
Star leaves echo or shadow
To prove it had ever been there.

And if the universe
Reversed and showed
The colour of its money;
If now unobservable light
Flowed inward, and the skies snowed
A blizzard of galaxies,

The lens of night would burn
Brighter than the focussed sun,
And man turn blinded
With white-hot darkness in his eyes.

by Norman Nicholson (1914-1987).

The Quality of Physics

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on February 21, 2012 by telescoper

Just time for a quick post this lunchtime,  in between meetings and exercise classes. My eye was drawn this morning to an article about a lengthy report from the Institute of Physics that gives an international comparison of citation impact in physics and related fields.

According to the IOP website..

Although the UK is ranked seventh in a list of key competitor countries for the quantity of its physics research output – measured by the number of papers published – the UK is second only to Canada, and now higher than the US, when ranked on the average quality of the UK’s physics research output – measured by the average number of times research papers are cited around world.

The piece also goes on to note that the UK’s share of the total number of research papers written has decreased

For the UK, however, its proportionate decrease in output – from 7.1% of the world’s physics research in 2001 to 6.4% in 2010 – has been accompanied by a celebratory increase in overall, average quality – with the average number of citations of UK research papers rising from 1.24 in 2001 to 1.72 in 2010.

This, of course, assumes that citations measure “quality” but I’ve got no time to argue that point today. What I will do is put up a couple of interesting figures from the report.  This one shows that Space Science in the UK (including Astronomy and Astrophysics) holds a much bigger share of the total world output of papers than other disciplines (by a factor of about three):

While this one shows that the “citation impact” for Physics and Space Science roughly track each other…

..apart from the downturn right at the end of the window for space sciences, which, one imagines, might be a result of decisions taken by the management of the Science and Technology Facilities Council  over that period.

Our political leaders will be tempted to portray the steady increase of citation impact across fields as a sign of improved quality arising from the various research assessment exercises.  But I don’t think it’s as simple as that. It seems that many developing countries – especially China – are producing more and more scientific papers. This inevitably drives the UK’s share of world productivity down, because our capacity is not increasing. If anything it’s going down, in fact, owing to recent funding cuts. However, the more papers there are, the more reference lists there are, and the more citations there will be. The increase in citation rates may therefore just be a form of inflation.

Anyway, you can download the entire report here (PDF). I’m sure there will be other reactions to it so, as usual, please feel free to comment via the box below…

Wee

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on February 20, 2012 by telescoper

Here’s an exhilarating little duo featuring alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson and the extraordinarily brilliant  pianist Tete Montoliu. Lou Donaldson at times sounds more like Charlie Parker than Charlie Parker ever did, but if you’re going to play bebop there’s no better example to follow. Tete Montoliu on the other hand never sounded like anyone other than himself. He was from  Barcelona, by the way, and was born completely blind. The tune, written by drummer Denzil Best, is called Wee although it does have an alternative title, Allen’s Alley; it’s yet another one built around the chord changes of Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm. Anyway, it’s a typically intricate and edgy tune that finds these great musicians at their playful best.

The Sins of the Fathers

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on February 20, 2012 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist a very short post this lunchtime about the story about Richard Dawkins run in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph  (which, I hasten to add, I don’t buy). It seems that some of Dawkins’ ancestors were slave traders:

He has railed against the evils of religion, and lectured the world on the virtues of atheism.

Now Richard Dawkins, the secularist campaigner against “intolerance and suffering”, must face an awkward revelation: he is descended from slave owners and his family estate was bought with a fortune partly created by forced labour.

The implication seems to be that Dawkins should not be taken seriously because of something that was done by his ancestors almost three hundred years ago. I’m no great admirer of Richard Dawkins. I think he’s the sort of chap that gives us atheists a bad name, advocating a kind of fanatical fundamentalism that I find just as unpalatable as if it had a religious flavour. But, really, is there any need to smear him with the transgressions of his forefathers? Dawkins is reported to have been “speechless” when he heard about the Telegraph story – which I have to admit is no bad thing – but it does strike me as  a puerile stunt.

There’s probably hardly a family in Britain that hasn’t got a connection with slavery somewhere down the line. It’s a shameful part of our collective past, but it’s no more Richard Dawkins’ fault than any other living person. All I can say is that I hope the Telegraph’s hacks do a similar job digging up the dirt they’ll no doubt find in the history of any number of wealthy families, including those to which prominent members of the Conservative Party belong.

Anyway, mindful that the Telegraph journalists, being the deeply honorable people that they are, will now in the interest of balance be going back through the family histories of everyone in the UK who has an opinion about anything, it is time for me to come clean and reveal that my  own great-great-grandfather, Ebenezer Coles, was himself guilty of the heinous act of forcibly taking his entire family to Newcastle…. (geddit?)

First Crocus

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on February 20, 2012 by telescoper

This morning, flowers cracked open
the earth’s brown shell. Spring
leaves spilled everywhere
though winter’s stern hand
could come down again at any moment
to break the delicate yolk
of a new bloom.

The crocus don’t see this as they chatter
beneath a cheerful petal of spring sky.
They ignore the air’s brisk arm
as they peer at their fresh stems, step
on the leftover fragments
of old leaves.

When the night wind twists them to pieces,
they will die like this: laughing,
tossing their brilliant heads
in the bitter air.

by Christine Klocek-Lim.

Anonymity Revisited

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , , on February 19, 2012 by telescoper

I’ve a lot to do today – a backlog of crosswords to clear, for one thing – so I’m going to indulge in a bit of recycling. I posted some years ago about internet anonymity in the wake of a spate of abusive comments on this blog. I’m not sure whether a spate can have a wake, actually , but I’ll press on regardless.

Today there’s a typically insightful piece by David Mitchell in the Observer on a similar topic, cleverly juxtaposing St Valentine’s Day (where anonymous messages are welcomed) with the rise of the internet troll whose messages are of a distinctly unwelcome character. I think he gets it just right (as usual):

Like love, hate is something that makes us go red in the face. It’s safer expressed covertly lest it be rejected.

I’ve encountered more recent – and much more serious – examples of what people are prepared to get up to under the cover of anonymity. I’ve refrained, and shall continue to refrain, from describing them in detail here. Some of my friends – and some of my students – know what I’m talking about. All that has now stopped, but if it starts again the gloves will definitely come off.

These experiences have confirmed my distaste for anonymity. I will therefore persist with my policy of requiring a proper email address for commenters on this blog. The address will not be revealed to the public, of course, and commenters are free to use pseudonyms if they wish. I can understand that people might want not to be identified if they say something controversial, especially if it amounts to whistle-blowing. However, if you wish to express opinions on my blog I think it’s not unreasonable for me to know who you are.

Anyway, the following is taken from an old post (from 2009) which arose from a story in the press at the time.

–o–

It’s not often that I blog about celebrity tittle-tattle – I have no idea who most “celebrities” are these days anyway – but a little story in last week’s Guardian online caught my eye. I thought I’d mention it here because it raises some interesting issues.

The story is of a fashion model, Liskula Cohen (whom I’d obviously never heard of). It appears that an anonymous blogger (with the charming pseudonym “Skanks”) wrote some derogatory remarks about said Ms Cohen on a website. The latter decided to sue for defamation, but that was difficult because the identity of the blogger wasn’t known. Cohen therefore went to court in an attempt to compel Google to identify the person responsible. She won that case, and duly found out that the blogger was a person called Rosemary Port (who I’d never heard of either). Anyway, to cut a long story short, Ms Cohen dropped her original lawsuit but Ms Port is now suing Google for handing over her real identity…

Of course the story is all a bit childish, but there is a serious question behind it, namely to what extent one has a right to anonymity. I’m not at all sure what the law says on this or what it should say, in fact, especially when it comes to the internet.

In Britain we don’t have identity cards (not yet anyway), so there’s a sort of de facto right to anonymity there. However, with the increasing levels of surveillance and state intrusion into people’s lives, that is changing. The  issue generated by the story above, however, is how the right to anonymity extends into the blogosphere (or the internet generally) rather than how it applies in real life.

Some blogs I know are anonymous but I happen also to know who writes them. I presume the authors have reasons for wishing to conceal their identities so I wouldn’t dream of revealing them myself. However, these are all sites run by reasonably civilised people and it’s very unlikely that any of them would use their anonymity to engage in abusive or defamatory activities. If one of them did, I wouldn’t have any qualms at all about exposing their identity, but I’m not sure whether that would be a legally acceptable course of action.

But anonymity still makes me a  bit uncomfortable. In academic life we come across it in the context of refereeing grant applications and papers submitted to journals for consideration. Usually the default is for referees to remain anonymous is such situations. Most referees are conscientious and if they have criticisms they are usually presented politely and constructively. There are, however, some exceptions. Fortunately these are few and far between, but there are some individuals who take the opportunity provided by anonymity to be downright abusive. Us old hands have sufficiently thick skins to brush such attacks off, but vitriolic comments made on papers written by inexperienced scientists (perhaps even research students) are completely out of order. This probably wouldn’t happen if referees didn’t have the right to remain anonymous. On the other hand, having your identity known might make it difficult for some  to write critically of, say, the work of more senior scientists. Perhaps the answer is to retain anonymity but for the journal editor, for instance, to monitor the reports produced by referees and reprimand any who transgress.

Going back to the original subject of blogs, provides me with an opportunity to describe some of the behind-the-scenes issues with running this blog. In the beginning I decided to have an open comment policy so that anyone and everyone could comment without any form of intervention. That turned out to be a disaster because of the numbers of automatically generated  SPAM comments that clogged up the boxes. I therefore switched on a SPAM filter so it could veto obvious garbage, but otherwise kept an open policy. The alternatives offered by WordPress include one that requires all comments to be from people registered at the site (which I thought would probably be a deterrent to people only wanting to comment on the odd post). Another option is to maintain a blacklist which treats all messages from persons on the list as SPAM. It’s also possible to block all comments entirely, of course, but I enjoy reading most of them so I think it would be a shame to do that just because of a few breaches of netiquette.

All went fairly well and I only had to ban a couple of individuals for abuse. However, over the course of the year I have received a steadily increasing number of crudely abusive comments (of a personal nature) from various anonymous sources. These are mostly depressingly puerile and they don’t affect me much but I find it very disconcerting to think that there are people sitting out there with nothing better to do.

Since WordPress notifies me every time a  comment is posted, it is quite easy to remove this junk but I found it very tiresome (when there were several per day) and eventually decided to change my policy and automatically block comments from all anonymous sources. Since this requires a manual check into whether the identity information given with the comment is bona fide, comments from people who haven’t commented on this blog before may take a little while to get approved.

There are still comments on here which appear anonymous (or with a pseudonym), but these are from people who have identified themselves to me with a proper email address or who the software has identified through their IP address or information revealed by their web browser (which is probably more than you think…). I’m happy for people to comment without requiring they release their name to the world, and will do my best to ensure their confidentiality, but I’m not happy to publish comments from people whose identity I don’t know.

If you’re interested, as of today this blog has received 4105 comments in total, but only 1747 have been published. The rest were either SPAM or abuse. UPDATE: as of today, 19th February 2012, 11880 comments have been published and 86703 rejected

Am I denying freedom of speech by rejecting anonymous comments? I don’t think so. If you want freedom of speech that much, you can write your own blog (anonymous or otherwise). And if every sight of this blog makes you want to write abusive comments, perhaps you should exercise your freedom not to read it.

I’d be interested to know from any fellow bloggers if they have the same problems with abusive comments. If not, perhaps I should start taking it personally!

More generally, I will not accept anonymous comments on the subject of the anonymity of comments, but any other contributions are welcome via the box.

Unless you’re banned.

Men at Forty

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on February 18, 2012 by telescoper

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.

At rest on a stair landing,
They feel it moving
Beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
Though the swell is gentle.

And deep in mirrors
They rediscover
The face of the boy as he practises tying
His father’s tie there in secret

And the face of the father,
Still warm with the mystery of lather.
They are more fathers than sons themselves now.
Something is filling them, something

That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
Behind their mortgaged houses.

by Donald Justice (1925-2004).

Offa’s Irrelevance

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , on February 18, 2012 by telescoper

There is leader column in today’s Grauniad about the University entrance system which, it rightly says, is “in a mess”. It’s good to have discussion of this subject in the press but the problem is that, in the typical fashion of a Guardian editorial, this piece is worthy in sentiment but misses the basic point entirely.

The reason for visiting the theme of student access to Higher Education at this point is the kerfuffle surrounding the appointment of the next boss of Offa – the Office For Fair Access – a quango set up by the previous New Labour Administration to ensure that universities do everything possible to encourage students from diverse backgrounds to go to University. A laudable aim, but doomed to failure at the outset. The reason for this is that the system of post-16 education is fundamentally flawed (as it clearly is), then no “Access Czar”, however powerful, can hope to accomplish the vast amount of reverse-engineering required to ensure that universities can cope with failures earlier in the system. Just look at how useless Ofgen has been at regulating energy prices, for example, another case of a flawed system impervious to a quango’s attempts to improve it.

The point which is missing – and which our political masters and the educational establishment alike refuse to acknowledge – is that GCE Advanced Levels are neither an adequate preparation for University study nor a reliable way to select applications on their suitability for a given course. People who actually work in Higher Education know that this is true, but the Power That Be won’t recognize it and instead maintain that A-levels constitute a “Gold Standard”. The fact is that in the hands of Examination Boards that compete for business by lowering their standards, A-levels have become nothing other more than base metal, and tarnished to boot.

If I had my way we wouldn’t use A-levels at all to determine whether a student gets a place at their chosen University. I’ve seen so many examples of absolutely brilliant students who entered Cardiff University with modest A-levels – often having not got into their first choice institution and coming to us through the clearing system – that I’m sure there are many excellent potential students out there who didn’t get into university at all. The other side of the coin is that many students who get top A-level grades across the board don’t flourish at university at all. It’s my experience that A-levels are no guide at all to a student’s ability to do well on a course.

If you don’t believe this, then ask yourself the following question. If Cambridge only takes students with grade A* at A-level, why don’t all their students end up with First Class Degrees?

Any attempt to fix the severe problems that beset the student entrance system must begin with a recognition that this is where the fault lies.

So what’s the solution? I think it is to scrap A-levels entirely, and give the system of pre-university qualifications over to the people who actually know what students need to know to cope with their courses, i.e. the universities. There should be a single national system of University Entrance Examinations, set and moderated by an Examination Board constituted by university teachers. This will provide the level playing field that we need. No system can ever be perfect of course, but this is the best way I can think of to solve the biggest problem with the current one. Not that it will ever happen. There are just too many vested interests happy with the status quo despite the fact that it is failing so many of our young people.

Good luck to whoever it is that takes over at Offa, but it won’t make any difference who’s on the bridge because the ship is already on the rocks.

Myself in Pictures

Posted in Biographical on February 17, 2012 by telescoper

A lot of these “occupation” pictures are going around on facebook, so I thought it would be fun to post those that encapsulate myself most accurately…

I’m not really an astronomer, but this is as close as I could get…

A few obvious inaccuracies in the next one but still pretty close to the truth!

The last one isn’t entirely accurate in my case – I’m more of a Port and Stilton type of chap…

And here’s one for the students…

Innovations

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on February 16, 2012 by telescoper

Moaning about science politics, especially with regard to funding, is one of the recurring themes on this blog. The UK government administers science policy through the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (better known as BIS). Unfortunately I can’t think of that name without harking back to the good old days of the Innovations Catalogue (shown left). I was shocked to discover that this met its demise as long ago as 2003 but in its time it was comedy gold. Packed full of palpably useless gadgets – who could possibly forget the vibrating fur-lined golf club cover? – it was all the more hysterical for  that fact that it was clearly deadly serious. When I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue tried to lampoon the Innovations Catalogue,  the results struggled to be as funny as the real thing, although I do remember Willie Rushton’s combined cigarette lighter and nasal hair remover…

It seems that the Innovations people made one big mistake that cost them their business: the stuff they sold was dirt cheap. Subsequent experience has taught us that if you want to persuade people to buy useless gadgets, you have to make them expensive. No tat sells like expensive tat…

Anyway, having thus established the theme of Innovation, let me now explore a variation. Websites.

Over the past few weeks I’ve noticed a number of changes to websites I use. Last week I noticed that Twitter had been revamped. The first impression I got was that all my tweets were on the right hand side of the screen instead of the left. Not a drastic alteration, though as a man who is fully in touch with his inner Luddite I find even that level of change hard to cope with. More perturbingly I later saw that the button for searching for mentions of your username (for those of you who aren’t twits twats twerps tweeters, this was marked “@” because all twitter names begin with that character) is no longer labelled “mentions” but “connect”. Huh? Connect with what or whom? Likewise the “activity” tag is now called “discover”. Why it was decided to change the names from something descriptive to something non-descriptive is beyond me, but it’s probably what passes as “innovative” in the world of web designers.

I’ve got nothing against web designers in general, and I think some websites are absolutely wonderful in both content and style. This one, for example. However, there are some who seem to have been put together by people on a mission to the make the design so impenetrable that it’s impossible for anyone to find any content at all.

A major leap in this direction has recently been made by the BBC. A while ago they introduced a new home page, which has virtually no information on it, but lots of graphics. After vociferously negative responses from users of the BBC Website, i.e. the public, the person in charge responded by saying that the changes were needed in order to make the site more distinctive. I freely admit that it is distinctive, but its main distinction is that it is poor.

Now I’ll grant that page layout and style is a matter for personal taste so there will be others out there who like the new BBC Webshite. That’s fine. What’s less forgivable is that the quality of service has also deteriorated and that is an objective fact. Here’s an example.

On the old BBC website you could set your location, with the result that the homepage would give access to local news, local TV and radio listings, and so on. You also automatically got weather information for your chosen location. Now you can still set your location on the homepage, but if you click on the new “weather” page your location is automatically set to London. Every time you log on, and want to check the weather, you have to type in your location by hand. Unless you live in London, of course, which is presumably why the web hacks didn’t worry about this.

I’m no expert, but it shouldn’t have been beyond the wit of even the most lowly web designer to pass information about location from one page to another within the same site. But who cares about whether the service is better for the user, as long as it’s distinctive….

I suppose the point of this post – if there is one – is that we shouldn’t be too respectful towards innovation for innovation’s sake. Not all innovation is good.

You might think that adage applies also to what goes on in BIS, but I couldn’t possibly comment.

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