Archive for July, 2012

More Maths, or Better Maths?

Posted in Education with tags , , on July 25, 2012 by telescoper

Interesting view from a Biosciences perspective about the recent recommendations to increase the number of students taking Mathematics at A-level.

I’ve always had a problem with the way Statistics is taught at A-level, which is largely as a collection of recipes without much understanding of the underlying principles; would more emphasis on probability theory be a better way to go?

Biomaths Education Network

The introduction of post-16 maths is in the news again with a report from the House of Lords committee on Higher Education in STEM and many of the headlines from the Guardian, Independent and Times Higher  have picked up on the recommendations regarding maths study post-16.

I have written a few thoughts here on my first impressions but would very much welcome comments.

Though I was pleased to see that some of my work showing that only GCSE maths is required for undergraduate biosciences was cited, the conclusion from this was that more students should take maths A level and this is a little worrying.

The lack, or low level, of maths requirements for admission to HEIs, particularly for programmes in STEM subjects, acts as a disincentive for students to take maths and high level maths at A level. We urge HEIs to introduce more demanding maths  requirements…

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In darkness let me dwell

Posted in Music, Poetry with tags , , on July 25, 2012 by telescoper

In darkness let me dwell; the ground shall sorrow be,
The roof despair, to bar all cheerful light from me;
The walls of marble black, that moist’ned still shall weep;
My music, hellish jarring sounds, to banish friendly sleep.
Thus, wedded to my woes, and bedded in my tomb,
O let me dying live, till death doth come, till death doth come.

My dainties grief shall be, and tears my poison’d wine,
My sighs the air, through which my panting heart shall pine:
My robes my mind shall suit exceeding blackest night,
My study shall be tragic thoughts, sad fancy to delight.
Pale ghosts and frightful shades shall my acquaintance be:
O thus, my hapless joy, I haste to thee, I haste to thee.

by John Dowland (1563-1620). Here sung by the wonderful counter-tenor Andreas Scholl…

Astronomy Look-alikes, No. 78

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes with tags , , on July 24, 2012 by telescoper

Not a lot of people know that the inspiration for Gary Fuller, Homer’s neighbour in the popular cartoon animation series The Simpsons,  was provided by Manchester University astronomer Ned Flanders. (Is this right? Ed.)

Time Lapse

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on July 24, 2012 by telescoper

This has been doing the rounds for a week or so, but I’ve only just found it. It’s a time-lapse video made from still photographs taken by the crew of the International Space Station. I thought I’d share it here because it’s wonderful…


A Walk after Dark

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on July 23, 2012 by telescoper

A cloudless night like this
Can set the spirit soaring:
After a tiring day
The clockwork spectacle is
Impressive in a slightly boring
Eighteenth-century way.

It soothed adolescence a lot
To meet so shameless a stare;
The things I did could not
Be so shocking as they said
If that would still be there
After the shocked were dead.

Now, unready to die
But already at the stage
When one starts to resent the young,
I am glad those points in the sky
May also be counted among
The creatures of Middle-age.

It’s cosier thinking of night
As more an Old People’s Home
Than a shed for a faultless machine,
That the red pre-Cambrian light
Is gone like Imperial Rome
Or myself at seventeen.

Yet however much we may like
The stoic manner in which
The classical authors wrote,
Only the young and the rich
Have the nerve or the figure to strike
The lacrimae rerum note.

For the present stalks abroad
Like the past and its wronged again
Whimper and are ignored,
And the truth cannot be hid;
Somebody chose their pain,
What needn’t have happened did.

Occurring this very night
By no established rule,
Some event may already have hurled
Its first little No at the right
Of the laws we accept to school
Our post-diluvian world:

But the stars burn on overhead,
Unconscious of final ends,
As I walk home to bed,
Asking what judgement waits
My person, all my friends,
And these United States.

Written in 1948 by by W. H. Auden (1907-1973)

A Cut Below

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , , on July 23, 2012 by telescoper

This morning, sitting in the garden catching up on the weekend’s newspapers, I found an opinion piece in yesterday’s Observer about male circumcision. This of course stems from a story that broke a few weeks ago about a court in Germany ruling that the circumcision of male children constitutes “bodily harm” and is consequently in breach of their human rights.  Since this procedure is traditional practice in some religious groups, including Jews and Muslims, there has been a predictable outcry that the court ruling violates their right to religious freedom.

At the risk of causing discomfort among (especially male) readers of this blog I thought I’d comment on this issue from a personal perspective. I’m not going to go into the ethical question, actually. I can certainly see the argument that an infant is unable to give consent and there must be limits to what parents can do to their children in the name of religion.

I will however, state parenthetically that one thing that does puzzle me is the court’s statement that being circumcised as an infant interferes with a person’s right to determine their religion later in life. Huh? That’s a non sequitur because there’s nothing to stop a circumcized man becoming a Christian. Is there?

Anyway, in the modern world female genital mutilation is rightly regarded as abhorrent, so why should male circumcision be any different?

But there is an angle to this story that most commenters have ignored, and that is that not all male circumcisions are carried out because of religious or other traditions. You’ll probably all think this is too much information to write on a blog, but I myself was circumcised, not as an infant, but as a young boy of seven or eight. I’m neither Jewish nor Muslim nor anything else in particular when it comes to religious belief. I won’t go into the reasons I had it done, but they were entirely medical. Anyway, I’m not in the slightest bit embarrassed to be a Roundhead rather than a Cavalier. In fact, I like my willy just like it is.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to show you a picture.

Being gay, and therefore having more than a passing interest in such issues, I’d also say that a “cut” penis is arguably more attractive and certainly more hygienic compared to the “uncut” variety. I guess my aesthetic judgement is influenced by the fact that that’s what my todger is like, but I know plenty of other men and women who prefer their partners that way too. At any rate the operation certainly doesn’t impair sexual function in any way, and possibly even improves it. At least in that respect it’s very different from female circumcision.

Of course I’m not going to argue that such preferences constitute good reasons for the involuntary circumcision of young boys. My point is that virtually all the rhetoric on this issue implies that to be  circumcised is to is to be incomplete. Mutilated. Damaged.  Inferior. I don’t think of it that way at all. Indeed, it bothers me to think of the effect this language could have on younger guys just coming to terms with their adulthood. Do you really want anyone to feel ashamed or embarrassed because they have been circumcized?

What I’m saying is that it’s not circumcision that’s bad, but the circumstances in which it is sometimes carried out. So by all means let’s debate the deep ethical conflict that this issue highlights between religious observance and the prevention of bodily harm to infants, but let’s also have a bit more respect for those of us who are, and are happy to be, a cut above the rest.

P.S. I was going to relate the famous schoolboy exam howler about how Sir Francis Drake circumcised the globe using a 60ft clipper, but decided not to.

No worst, there is none

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on July 23, 2012 by telescoper

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing –
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
-ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief’.

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

by Gerald Manley Hopkins (1844-89).

Parks and Prizes

Posted in Bute Park on July 22, 2012 by telescoper

It being a nice day I took myself off for a stroll through Bute Park this afternoon. It was actually a bit warmer than I’d expected so I confined myself to the shady tree-lined bits. It was nice to see so many people enjoying the open air, sitting on the grass, picnicking, playing sports and even just strolling around like me. Walking along by the river bank I saw this guy practising a tightrope walk.

That’s something you don’t see every day. Well done, that man.

Anyway, when I got home I checked my email and found an angry message complaining about Cardiff City Council’s ongoing campaign to win itself an award for what is known as the Bute Park Restoration Project. The link invites people to “vote” for the project, but gives no option to vote against it. One wonders how many Cardiff City Council employees have been busy hitting the vote button over the last few weeks.

I’ve added a few comments to the page, pointing out that the Bute Park Restoration Project has not involved restoration as much as over-development and exploitation. The loveliest parts of the Park, those I wandered around today, haven’t been touched by the Restoration and are all the better for it. What has happened elsewhere are new buildings and roads that are both unnecessary and damaging. I accept that the restoration of the animal wall is a positive move, but the damage to the rest of the park, especially Coopers’ Fields, caused by excessive deployment of heavy vehicles and temporary buildings far outweighs the benefit.

For much of the summer large parts of the park have been inaccessible to the general public, and the paths overrun with heavy vehicles:

Bute Park is beautiful, but it’s beautiful despite the Restoration Project and not because of it. It will be scandalous if it wins an award.

Still, at least it’s not as bad as London. A couple of weeks ago I travelled to London to participate in an event at the Royal Society. It was a nice day so I decided to walk from Paddington, an easy route through Hyde Park and down past Buckingham Palace. Unfortunately, I found Hyde Park almost entirely blocked by temporary buildings and maximum security fences owing to something to do with the Olympics. Later on, after negotiating a way through the resulting maze, I discovered that The Mall was also closed off to make way – believe it or not – for the beach volleyball. Whatever that is. Finding a route around all that added almost an hour to my journey. I wonder how long it will take them to reopen everything after the Olympics?

I wonder if next year the Hyde Park Restoration Project will be in line for an award?

Summer Time

Posted in Jazz with tags , on July 22, 2012 by telescoper

Well, summer seems to have made it to Cardiff – and elsewhere in the UK judging by the news – so what better excuse to post this solo version of George Gershwin’s classic Summertime by the great Sidney Bechet. This isn’t the classic Blue Note recording of 1939 I have posted already but a live version which I think is even better. Enjoy that unmistakeably gorgeous tone on the soprano saxophone…


Posted in Biographical on July 21, 2012 by telescoper

I’ve been spending some time over the last few days indulging in a bit of nostalgia therapy, scanning and uploading old photographs onto Facebook (and sometimes trying to remember when and where they were taken). The good thing about doing this is you get the chance to choose the ones which are flattering (i.e. misleading). So here are a few (obviously very old) pictures of me when I was young and svelte – appropriately enough, in black and white…