Archive for September, 2013

Unchained Melody

Posted in Film, Music with tags , , , , on September 30, 2013 by telescoper

You pick up a lot of interesting snippets listening to BBC Radio 3. Last night I was listening to a programme about  Alex North, a prolific composer of music scores, including one of my favourite films A Streetcar Named Desire.  Alex North also wrote a complete soundtrack for Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and must have been mortified when he turned up for the Premiere and found that not a single note of the music he’d written was used in the final version. Anyway, one thing I learnt that I didn’t know before was that Alex North also wrote the tune Unchained Melody for a relatively unknown prison movie called, appropriately enough, Unchained. The song was a massive hit in the 60s for the Righteous Brothers, and gained popularity again as a consequence of the 1990 film Ghost.  It’s also been murdered by countless karaoke singers since then…

Anyway, here is the original version of Unchained Melody as it appears in the 1955 film. Knowing the background to the song (i.e. that the enforced separation of the singer and his sweetheart is because the former is in prison) makes it all the more poignant, and Todd Duncan (whose style clearly owes a debt to Paul Robeson) gives it a bluesy feel present in none of the cover versions I’ve heard…

A Cranefly in September

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on September 29, 2013 by telescoper

She is struggling through grass-mesh – not flying,
Her wide-winged, stiff, weightless basket-work of limbs
Rocking, like an antique wain, a top-heavy ceremonial cart
Across mountain summits
(Not planing over water, dipping her tail)
But blundering with long strides, long reachings, reelings
And ginger-glistening wings
From collision to collision.
Aimless in no particular direction,
Just exerting her last to escape out of the overwhelming
Of whatever it is, legs, grass,
The garden, the county, the country, the world –

Sometimes she rests long minutes in the grass forest
Like a fairytale hero, only a marvel can help her.
She cannot fathom the mystery of this forest
In which, for instance, this giant watches –
The giant who knows she cannot be helped in any way.

Her jointed bamboo fuselage,
Her lobster shoulders, and her face
Like a pinhead dragon, with its tender moustache,
And the simple colourless church windows of her wings
Will come to an end, in mid-search, quite soon.
Everything about her, every perfected vestment
Is already superfluous.
The monstrous excess of her legs and curly feet
Are a problem beyond her.
The calculus of glucose and chitin inadequate
To plot her through the infinities of the stems.

The frayed apple leaves, the grunting raven, the defunct tractor
Sunk in nettles, wait with their multiplications
Like other galaxies.
The sky’s Northward September procession, the vast
soft armistice,
Like an Empire on the move,
Abandons her, tinily embattled
With her cumbering limbs and cumbered brain.

by Ted Hughes (1930-1998)

Better learning means less assessment and more feedback

Posted in Education with tags , , on September 28, 2013 by telescoper

Yesterday I took part in a meeting that discussed, among other things, how to improve the feedback on student assessments in order to help them learn better. It was an interesting meeting, involving academics, administrative staff and a representative of the Students Union, that generated quite a few ideas which I hope will be implemented pretty soon.

Positive though the discussion was, it didn’t do anything to dissuade me from a long-held view that the entire education system holds back the students’ ability to learn by assessing them far too much. The combination of the introduction of modular programmes and the increase of continuously assessed coursework has led to a cycle of partial digestion and regurgitation that involves little in the way of real learning.

I’m not going to argue for turning the clock back entirely, but for the record my undergraduate degree involved no continuous assessment at all (apart from a theory project I opted for in my final year. Having my entire degree result based on the results of six three-hour unseen examinations in the space of three days is not an arrangement I can defend, but note that despite the lack of continuous assessment I still spent less time in the examination hall than present-day students.

That’s not to say I didn’t have coursework. I did, but it was formative rather than summative; in other words it was for the student to learn about the subject, rather for the staff to learn about the student. I handed in my stuff every week, it was marked and annotated by a supervisor, then returned and discussed at a supervision.

People often tell me that if a piece of coursework “doesn’t count” then the students won’t do it. There is an element of truth in that, of course. But I had it drummed into me that the only way really to learn my subject (Physics) was by doing it. I did all the coursework I was given because I wanted to learn and I knew that was the only way to do it.

The very fact that coursework didn’t count for assessment made the feedback written on it all the more useful when it came back because if I’d done badly I could learn from my mistakes without losing marks. This also encouraged me to experiment a little, such as using a method different from that suggested in the question. That’s a dangerous strategy nowadays, but surely we should be encouraging students to exercise their creativity rather than simply follow the instructions? The other side of this is that more challenging assignments can be set, without worrying about what the average mark will be or what specific learning outcome they address.

I suppose what I’m saying is that the idea of Learning for Learning’s Sake, which is what in my view defines what a university should strive for, is getting lost in a wilderness of modules, metrics, percentages and degree classifications. We’re focussing too much on those few aspects of the educational experience that can be measured, ignoring the immeasurable benefit (and pleasure) that exists for all humans in exploring new ways to think about the world around us.

The Amplituhedron and Other Excellently Silly Words

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on September 27, 2013 by telescoper

No time for a proper post between meetings, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to reblog one of many interesting posts I’ve seen recently about the Amplituhedron. “The what?” I hear you say. Well, read on. And, better still, perhaps you can pass an opinion on whether it is more than hype…

4 gravitons

Nima Arkani-Hamed recently gave a talk at the Simons Center on the topic of what he and Jaroslav Trnka are calling the Amplituhedron.

There’s an article on it in Quanta Magazine. The article starts out a bit hype-y for my taste (too much language of importance, essentially), but it has several very solid descriptions of the history of the situation. I particularly like how the author concisely describes the Feynman diagram picture in the space of a single paragraph, and I would recommend reading that part even if you don’t have time to read the whole article. In general it’s worth it to get a picture of what’s going on.

That said, I obviously think I can clear a few things up, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about it, so here I go!

“The” Amplituhedron

Nima’s new construction, the Amplituhedron, encodes amplitudes (building blocks of probabilities in particle…

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Ignorance + Fear = Prejudice

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on September 26, 2013 by telescoper


The charming costume displayed above was advertised by Asda as part of their Halloween “Fancy Dress” range, along with this explanatory text:

Every one (sic) will be running away from you in fear in this mental patient fancy dress costume.

In fact in response to a deluge of critical comments, Asda has now withdrawn the offensive article but one still wonders who could have thought this was a good idea in the first place.

Years ago when I lived in London I served on the Governing Body of a residential home in Hackney for people with a range of mental health issues. Doing this opened my eyes to the level of prejudice that exists about mental health. I remember one example very vividly. After months of training to try to help one of the residents live a little more independently, she finally plucked up courage to take a trip on the bus. She bought her ticket and sat upstairs. Unfortunately, she got a bit confused and missed her stop. She then started to panic and burst into tears. The reaction of the people on the bus was at first to ignore her distress and then when got worse to forcible restrain her. The bus was stopped and eventually the police were called. She was eventually found by staff from the home in a police cell in a state of complete disarray. Months of good work had been undone.

So why had the other passengers behaved in such a way? I think the answer to that is that many people are very frightened by mental illness because they don’t understand it. Fear is often born of ignorance in other situations too, but it’s particularly striking in public settings, such as on a bus or train. In modern life we have to cope with complete strangers in many places and I think we rely on behavioural conventions to deal with the proximity of other individuals that we might otherwise suppose to be hostile. When people start violating these conventions – as one may do if suffering a mental illness – then we often respond in a way that reflects our prejudice that they might be dangerous, even though that is extremely unlikely. It’s the sane that we have to fear most.

That was way back in the 1980s. We like to think that times have changed in so many respects, but the appearance of that Asda `Mental Patient’ demonstrates that our attitudes towards mental illness are firmly rooted in the days when thousands were kept at a safe distance by being incarcerated in lunatic asylums. The stereotypical straitjacket `costume’ panders to ignorance, promotes fear, and encourages prejudice. It is truly offensive. It is Time to Change our attitudes.

For the record, here’s a picture of me taken late last summer in my own Mental Patient Costume:


The Argus Intrigues…

Posted in Brighton with tags on September 25, 2013 by telescoper


Another Indian Summer

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

I posted this a couple of years ago in response to a discussion concerning the origin of the phrase Indian Summer (which, contrary to popular belief, has nothing to do with India). Looking back over my five years of blog entries for this time of year it’s quite surprising how often I’ve mentioned a late September heatwave. Now we’re having another one. In Welsh, such a period of warm weather at the end of September is known as Haf Bach Mihangel or “Michael’s Little Summer”, as it occurs around Michaelmas Day ( 29th of September).

Anyway, I’m not sure our little summer will last until Sunday 29th September so I’ll take the opprtunity to have a cup of tea outside in the sunshine and post this lovely old recording by the late great Sidney Bechet. So since we’re currently experiencing an Indian Summer, why not bask in its glow?

“You gotta be in the Sun to feel the Sun” – Sidney Bechet.