Archive for August, 2013

Mid-term Break

Posted in Poetry with tags , on August 31, 2013 by telescoper

I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At two o’clock our neighbors drove me home.

In the porch I met my father crying–
He had always taken funerals in his stride–
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand

And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble,’
Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand

In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At ten o’clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four foot box, a foot for every year.

by Seamus Heaney (1939–2013)

Good Morning Swindon

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics with tags , , on August 28, 2013 by telescoper

So here I am again, in the picturesque town of Swindon (Wilts) for the three-day festival of fun and frivolity that is the Astronomy Grants Panel. I probably won’t get much time to blog, so I thought I’d post a photograph of the idyllic view from my hotel window, in case any of you think I’m here enjoying myself…


GCSE and A level results: Three steps to make things better

Posted in Education on August 27, 2013 by telescoper

Too busy for a proper post today so I’m going to reblog this interesting reflection on recent examination results from Protons for Breakfast. I had a croissant myself.


Protons for Breakfast Blog

As my own children approach the year in which they will sit GCSE and A level exams, the annual brouhaha  over exam results feels a bit more personal. And my anger over the betrayal of students and the governments abnegation of responsibility in this field grows more intense.

“It wasn’t like this when I were a lad ..”. No really: it wasn’t. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, the results were always the same: for example the top 7.5% (I think that was the number) received an A, the next n% received a B and so on. This approach served to discriminate amongst the candidates. But it didn’t register whether students knew more or less than in previous years.

Then exams were changed in many ways simultaneously. Syllabuses were reduced, continuous assessment introduced, exam boards became wholly-owned by book publishers, and ‘absolute’ marking became the norm. The result…

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HS2 or H2O?

Posted in Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on August 26, 2013 by telescoper

Since it’s a Bank Holiday – and a fine and sunny one at that – I’ll restrict myself to a brief post today so I can return to the outside part of the Universe and get a bit of sun while it lasts.

I saw an article in the Observer yesterday about the proposed High Speed 2 rail link (`HS2′) between London and the Midlands. The budget for this project has risen to a whopping £42.6 billion pounds. Another article in today’s Grauniad argues that HS2 is `certainly not for northerners’ benefit’, which is clearly the case because according to current plans it only goes as far as Leeds, which as everyone knows, is in the Midlands.  But  the real point is that I find it extraordinary that  we are  even considering investing such a staggering sum in a new railway with few obvious benefits to anyone other than the lucky company that gets the contract to build it. In the mean time our existing railways will continue to be poorly maintained, shockingly unreliable and of course excruciatingly expensive.

Thinking about the cost of HS2, which had earlier been estimated at a mere £30 billion, reminded me of an old post about renewable energy, and specifically the proposed Severn Barrage, which has an estimated cost somewhere between £10 billion and £35 billlion, but which could generate 2GW average power from tidal energy extracted from plain old H2O,  which is about 6% of the UK’s average demand. Of course there are important environmental issues to be dealt with – no form of electricity generation is free from such concerns – and the power generated by a Severn Barrage would be variable, with peaks not necessarily coinciding with peak demand. At least the variation is predictable, though, which is more than can be said for wind power…

Anyway, let’s suppose for the sake of argument that the price tags on these two projects are both £30 billion. I’d be interested in knowing how many people think, as I do, that £30 billion invested in tidal energy generation would be a far better use of funds than a fast train from London to nowhere interesting.

Bird’s Nest

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , on August 25, 2013 by telescoper

I know it’s a Bank Holiday weekend, but I’ve got so many things to do that I don’t have time for anything but a brief post today. I heard this track on BBC Radio 3 last night and it brought back a lot of memories for me so I thought I’d post it here with some brief comments. When I was at school most of my friends seemed to be into heavy metal, which I found completely tedious, so while they were out buying LPs by Hawkwind or Iron Maiden I was acquiring a secret collection of classic jazz records. Among my most prized purchases was a boxed set of six vinyl discs entitled The Legendary Dial Masters; they’re now available on CD, of course. I listened to these records over and over again and can easily understand why they’re regarded as some of the greatest musical performances of the twentieth century, not only in Jazz but in all music.

There’s a curious story about the Dial sessions, in that they took place in Hollywood California as part of an “exclusive” one-year contract (signed in 1946) between Dial records and Charlie Parker, who just happened to have signed another exclusive contract with the Savoy label based in New York.   By this time in his life, Parker was already seriously addicted to heroin and this example of duplicity is consistent with other aspects of his behaviour: he regularly cheated and scrounged off friends and strangers in  order to feed his habit and probably gave relatively little thought to the consequences of being found out. In this case, the clear breach of contract was pretty quickly rumbled, which could have led to a lawsuit, but it seems to have been settled amicably by the record labels, who agreed that both sets of recordings could be made commercially available.

It would take scores of blog posts to do justice to these great tracks, so I’ll just make a few comments now. First thing to mention is that the LPs forming the boxed set don’t just include the final versions as released, but usually a number of incomplete or discarded takes. At the session in question, recorded on February 19th 1947, there are 13 takes in all for just four tunes. It’s fascinating listening to these alternative versions (which are often, in my view, just as good if not better than the “final” version), not least because they demonstrate the wonderful spontaneity of Charlie Parker’s playing. They also have an experimental feel to them. The track I heard last night, Bird’s Nest, is, on one level, yet another bebop composition based on the chord changes of the George Gershwin standard “I got rhythm”, but what’s very special about it is just how free his improvisation is, both rhythmically and harmonically. It is, of course, well known that Charlie Parker’s nickname was “Bird” (originally Yardbird), and this track in particularly demonstrates that his playing really was very like birdsong – agile, quirky and above all intensely beautiful. The main difference is that most birdsong is actually atonal, which Bird’s music was not.

Another thing worth mentioning about this track is the identity of the piano player. When I heard it last night it triggered a vague memory that Errol Garner made some records with Charlie Parker. Was this one of them? I honestly couldn’t remember, but became increasingly convinced when I heard the piano solo. Later on, a quick search through my discography revealed that I was right. It is indeed a young Errol Garner. Although he doesn’t play badly, he doesn’t sound to me either comfortable or convincing playing bebop. Nevertheless, this session gives an important glimpse into the musical development of a major artist. You could say the same thing about the other tracks made around the same time by Bird and the young Miles Davis.

But that’s enough words. The whole point about music is that it says something that can’t be said with words. Birds manage perfectly well without them too.

Against Anonymity

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , on August 24, 2013 by telescoper

There’s been quite a lot of reaction on the interwebs about a recent decision by the Huffington Post to block anonymous comments in an attempt to prevent abusive behaviour, which is a serious problem on many websites. Many argue that this won’t stop trolls from trolling, which is of course true. What it might do is make some people think twice before they post a comment. It might also allow appropriate (possibly legal) action to follow up more extreme examples.

My own feelings about this are quite complicated actually. I don’t really care about randomly abusive comments from anonymous lowlife. I’ve learned to ignore such things, except when the abuse appears that it might come from, say, someone in your workplace. Some time ago something like that happened to me and I found it so distressing to think that a colleague or student might be behind it. That’s even worse than when somebody does such things brazenly under their own identity.

The Huffington Post’s policy is just one illustration of a wide issue,, 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 Huffington Post, however, is how the right to anonymity extends into the blogosphere (or the internet generally) rather than how it applies in other spheres of 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 fairly 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 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 number 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. I did for a time receive a stream of crudely abusive comments (of a personal nature) from various anonymous sources. These were mostly depressingly puerile and they didn’t affect me much but I did 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 may appear to a reader anonymous (or with a pseudonym) on here, 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 approximately 17500 comments have been published on this blog. The number rejected as SPAM or abuse is about 350,000 (many of them from a Mrs Trellis of North Wales). That means that only about one comment in twenty is accepted.

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.

Quantum Information and Quantum Computing

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on August 23, 2013 by telescoper

Having a very late and very short lunch break today because I was involved in a series of meetings this morning all of which overran. That, together with the heat, has put me in a bit of a fluster. Anyway, while I drink my sandwich and eat a cup of tea, I thought I’d post this very cute video that I stumbled across via Twitter. It’s by Jorge Cham, the creator of Piled Higher and Deeper (known to the world as PhDcomics); you can find his blog post about these videos here.