Archive for October, 2012

Monster Mash-up

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , , on October 31, 2012 by telescoper

It’s Hallowe’en again, and although I feel I should concoct something appropriate, I really don’t have time. I’ve decided therefore to recycle a couple of items I’ve previously posted on this lamentable occasion.

We never had Halloween when I was a kid. I mean it existed. People mentioned it. There were programmes on the telly. But we never celebrated it. At least not in my house, when I was a kid. It just wasn’t thought of as a big occasion. Or, worse, it was “American” (meaning that it was tacky, synthetic and commercialised).  Cue this seasonable clip from Fry & Laurie

So there were no Halloween parties, no costumes, no horror masks, no pumpkins and definitely no trick-or-treat when I was a lad.

Having never done trick-or-treat myself as a child, I never really had any clue what it was about until relatively recently. I’d always assumed “Trick or Treat?” was a rhetorical question or merely a greeting like “How do you do?”.

In fact my first direct experience of this perculiar custom  didn’t happen until I was in my mid-thirties and had moved to a suburban house in Beeston, just outside Nottingham. I was sitting at home one October 31st, watching the TV and – probably, though I can’t remember for sure – drinking a glass of wine, when the front door bell rang. I didn’t really want to, but I got up and answered it.

When I opened the door, I saw in front of me two small girls in witches’ costumes. Behind them, near my front gate, was an adult guardian, presumably a parent, keeping a watchful eye on them.

“Trick or Treat?” the two girls shouted. Trying my best to get into the spirit but not knowing what I was actually supposed to do, I answered “Great! I’d like a treat please”.

They stared at me as if I was mad, turned round and retreated towards their minder who was clearly making a mental note to avoid this house in future. Off they went and I, embarrassed at being exposed as a social inadequate, retired to my house in shame.

Ever since then I’ve tried to ensure that I never again have to endure such Halloween horrors. Every October 31st, when nightfall comes, I switch off the TV, radio and lights and sit soundlessly in the dark so the trick-or-treaters think there’s nobody home.

That way I can be sure I won’t be made to feel uncomfortable.

Anyway, despite my own  reservations about Hallowe’en, I’ve decided to resurrect the following little video which seems to be appropriate for the occasion. It’s made of bits of old horror B-movies but the music – by Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt-kickers is actually the second single I ever bought, way back in 1973. I wonder if you can guess what the first one was?

A Sense of Proportion – Postscript

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on October 30, 2012 by telescoper

It took all day to do so, evidently because I’m old and slow, but this morning’s post eventually got round to reminding me of this cartoon, the context of which is described here. Was that really in 1992? That was twenty years ago!

The Total Perspective Vortex

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on October 30, 2012 by telescoper

Vortices are swirling around in my mind these days. Not only because of Hurricane Sandy, but also because I’ve got to prepare a couple of lectures about vorticity in fluid mechanics to give next week. Anyway, all that reminded me of this classic sequence from the original radio series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by the late great Douglas Adams. I particularly agree with the conclusion “that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion”.

Gravity Waves Detected!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on October 29, 2012 by telescoper

At last, for all you sceptics out there, Hurricane Sandy has finally provided definitive proof of the existence of gravity waves, clearly visible to the South West of the storm…

Apologies if you thought I meant gravitational waves. The confusion was entirely intentional.

Out of the Cool

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on October 28, 2012 by telescoper

I’ve been taking it easy today, attempting to recover from a bout of sickness by loafing about and listening to old records. I don’t know why I haven’t listened to Out of the Cool by the Gil Evans Orchestra for a while, but at least that meant I came back to it relatively fresh.

Gil Evans was one of the few composer/arrangers in Jazz to have successfully blended his own orchestral textures with solo improvisations in such a way that both complement each other; the scored passages he devised are complex and beautiful, but never so rigid that they inhibit the soloist’s imagination. He directed a number of albums that incorporated Jazz solos in classically-inspired orchestral settings, including Sketches of Spain and Porgy and Bess (with Miles Davis). This one is less famous than those, but in my opinion at least as good.

Trumpeter Johnny Coles (no relation) is particularly inspired by the imaginative surroundings constructed by Gil Evans on this album, and he responds by inventing beautiful solo lines on several tracks on this album. But the tonal spectrum he encompasses, his use of dynamics, and his distinctive play with inflection are best illustrated by his feature piece, Sunken Treasure, a mysterious, almost evanescent creation which he fashions out of Evans’ floating harmonies. I think this is the best track off a great album.

Crossed Words

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , , on October 28, 2012 by telescoper

I’m still a bit fragile after a sudden bout of illness. Judging by my symptoms – and the fact that the worst of it seems to have passed in about 24 hours – I think it must have been this (i.e. the dreaded “Winter Vomiting Bug”). You’ll be relieved that I don’t intend to go into the details on here.

Anyway, being out of action all day yesterday has put me behind on a number of important things, including the weekend’s crosswords which also reminded me that it’s been a while since I posted anything in that particular file on here.  I did manage to get out to buy yesterday’s Independent, but haven’t started the puzzle yet. Incidentally, I should mention that I recently won the Independent Crossword Prize for the NINTH time. That means I’ve accumulated nine copies of the Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus in little over a year. I keep getting envious comments from people who’ve been entering this competition for years and have never won, but I seem to win it regularly every few weeks.  I have one copy of the Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus at home, one in my office at work. I gave one to my mum and the rest I’ve distributed to colleagues at work. I’ve even started a waiting list, although I may move on from Cardiff before I can fulfil all the requests…

Anyway, I was cheered this morning when I discovered that I’d won a VHC (“Very Highly Commended”) in the Observer’s Azed Crossword Puzzle No. 2105. This puzzle was a “special” with the theme “Collisions”, introduced with the following rubric:

Down clues are normal. Each across entry consists of two answers which ‘collide’,  i.e. they overlap by one or more letters, the overlapping letters always appearing in  their correct order. Across clues consist of definitions of each of the full overlapping  answers and subsidiary indications of each minus the overlapping letters. Definition and subsidiary indication for one answer precede those for the other, but either  may come first. Numbers in brackets indicate the lengths of complete entries. One  across answer consists of two words. Competitors should submit with their entries  a clue in the style of the other acrosses to the unclued ‘collision’ at 1 Across, which  must be deduced.

I’m always very wary of unclued lights, but in this case it was quite easy to deduce TITANIC/ICEBERG was the combination that went with the overall theme as well as fitting with the other clues. I didn’t think that, for a “special”, the puzzle was all that difficult to solve but I did find it a mighty struggle to come up with a clue in which the join between the two separate parts was reasonably well disguised and which had a reasonable surface reading. My attempt was

Showing sex appeal in leather, very large bird knocked back cold fish

I’ll leave it to the reader to parse the clue and see how it fits with the instructions.

Anyway, with that I’m up to 10th place in the Annual Honours Table, but with only 3 out of 13 puzzles completed there’s plenty of time to fall back to my usual position!

Now, time to see if I can eat something without unwanted special effects….

Posted in The Universe and Stuff on October 27, 2012 by telescoper

I’m a bit poorly today and just have time to crawl out of my sick bed to reblog this nice takedown of a rather silly article in the Guardian Science Blog…

The Renaissance Mathematicus

The latest Guardian science blog by Stuart Clark contains a piece of history of science stupidity that can only be explained by assuming that he hit the Kool Aid before putting finger to keyboard.

Like many science bloggers Dr Clark has decided to add his voice to the mighty chorus crying shame over the more than somewhat bizarre court judgement in the Italian earthquake case. Also like several of his Internet colleagues he has chosen to draw parallels with the equally notorious case of Galileo Galilei from 1633. This is in my opinion an unwise move. In general trying to draw comparisons across centuries of history is not usually a very good idea. Put simply circumstances change. The social and political contexts of the two cases are completely different. Just to take some simple points; the one case is in a democratic country in a civil court in the twenty-first…

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Ode to the West Wind

Posted in Poetry with tags , on October 26, 2012 by telescoper


O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odors plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh, hear!


Thou on whose stream, ‘mid the steep sky’s commotion,
Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,

Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine aery surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith’s height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge

Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might

Of vapors, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh, hear!


Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams,

Beside a pumice isle in Baiae’s bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave’s intenser day,

All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic’s level powers

Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know

Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: oh, hear!


If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne’er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.


Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822).

Posted on the occasion of my garden umbrella being blown into next door’s garden and smashing a pane of glass in their greenhouse and causing me to have to pay for the repairs and nearly being late for work.

Rubbishing the Viva

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

There’s a strange article today in the Times Higher that claims that the UK’s system of examining PhD students is “a scandal” and that it is “way behind the rest of the world”. These comments are from a chap called Ron Barnett (an emeritus professor at the Institute for Education, who explains

“Students can spend five years doing their PhD, present their thesis and come up against the maverick view of an independent examiner and in effect be rubbished,” he commented.

“I’ve seen it happen far too many times,” he told a Westminster Higher Education Forum seminar on the future of postgraduate education, held in London on 17 October.

I have to say I find it hard to reconcile such remarks with the business of examining PhDs as I’ve observed it, in Physics and Astronomy. And I’ve done quite a few over the years; see, e.g., here. For a start, it’s extremely rare for a student to spend five years doing a PhD in my field – the Research Councils put extremely strong pressure on departments to ensure that students submit within four years, and most research students take less time than this to produce their thesis.

But it’s the idea that a maverick external examiner can sabotage a PhD that I find hardest to recognize. If that looks like happening the internal examiner should stand up for the candidate. In fact, here in Cardiff we have an additional safeguard against this sort of eventuality: each viva has a Chair as well as the two examiners. The Chair is just there to ensure fair play and that proper procedure is followed, but is rarely (if ever) called upon to intervene in practice.

I can’t speak for other fields, of course, and it may indeed be more of a problem in other disciplines. Curiously, Prof. Barnett says that he has seen it happen “far too many times”. I wonder how? As internal examiner? In which case he should have stepped in to stop it? If not as internal then in what capacity was he privy to the conduct of a PhD viva? I’m confused.

Anyway, in a couple of weeks I’ll be participating in a PhD examination in another country (Denmark). There the defence is public, and it involves two external “opponents”, but I don’t know whether it is easier or harder for the candidate than the British system so I won’t comment on whether it’s fairer or more rigorous than what we have in the UK. I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it works, actually.

In my opinion, if there is a “scandal” in the system of UK PhD examinations, at least in science disciplines, it’s not the one Prof. Barnett describes. It’s that we produce far too many low-quality PhDs based on dull, incremental research and that, if anything, externals are not tough enough.

There, I’ve said it. No doubt you’ll have a go at me through the comments box!

In a Sentimental Mood

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , , on October 24, 2012 by telescoper

A late post this evening, as I’m just back from a short visit to Brighton. I travelled down there yesterday evening and stayed with an old friend in a house I lived in for a time about 25 years ago. I spent most of today meeting some of my future colleagues at the University of Sussex, who made me feel very welcome, and also catching up on some important things to be dealt with when I take over there in the new year. It’s all part of a gradual process of acclimatisation which I’ll need to do so I don’t take ages getting up to speed when I officially start. I didn’t get much time to wander about the town, but many Brighton memories have flooded back over the last couple of days. Cue an old favourite track that I listened to this evening on the train on the way home. It’s from a lovely album recorded by the unlikely combination of John Coltrane and Duke Ellington. They were men of different musical generations, but they admired each other enormously. It’s clear from the relaxed nature of this collaboration that neither felt he had any points to prove; each adapts his style to suit the other, with gorgeous results.