Archive for April, 2014

Jim Europe’s Society Orchestra

Posted in History, Jazz with tags , , , , on April 30, 2014 by telescoper

More than a few people have commented on the fact that my musical tastes are a little old-fashioned, but here’s a piece that’s a bit old even by my standards. It’s by a band from the immediately pre-Jazz era called Jim Europe’s Society Orchestra. Led by James Reese Europe this band pre-dated the much more famous Paul Whiteman band in popularity, playing at the Carnegie Hall for example long before Whiteman’s ever did which, for a group of black musicians, was quite remarkable at a time of racial segregation in the United States.

When World War 1 started, Jim Europe enlisted in the 369th Infantry Regiment, which fought with immense distinction on the Western Front. The regiment, comprised of African-American and Puerto Rican soldiers, was dubbed the “Men of Bronze” by the French army and as the “Hellfighters” by the German army, on account of their legendary toughness. In the latter stages of the war, Jim Europe formed a military band to which he gave the name “The Harlem Hellfighters”. He died in 1919, after being stabbed in the neck by one of his own musicians.

This particular record was made over a century ago, on December 29 1913. As you might expect, the recording quality is not particularly good (to put it mildly) but it always strikes me as absolutely amazing that we can hear anything at all that was recorded so long ago. The line-up is very unusual by modern standards: two pianos, five banjo mandolins, three violins, clarinet, cornet, and a drummer. That’s on this particular tune. No personnel information is available except that it is certainly Jim Europe himself who delivers the encouraging shouts.

It’s pretty basic stuff from a musical point of view, in that everyone plays in unison and there’s no improvisation or any other development of the tune, but it’s certainly a performance full of energy and fun as well as a valuable piece of Jazz prehistory. The tune is Downhome Rag, which was written sometime in 1913 by Wilbur C Sweatman, is still performed by traditional jazz bands today. But not like this!

Ode to SnarXiv

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on April 30, 2014 by telescoper

So many things pass me by these days that I’m not usually surprised when I have no idea what people around me are talking about. I am however quite surprised that, until yesterday, never heard of the snarXiv. As its author explains:

The snarXiv is a ran­dom high-energy the­ory paper gen­er­a­tor incor­po­rat­ing all the lat­est trends, entropic rea­son­ing, and excit­ing mod­uli spaces. The arXiv is sim­i­lar, but occa­sion­ally less ran­dom.

The snarXiv uses “Context Free Grammar” together with a database of stock words and phrases to generate its content, which is actually just limited to titles and abstracts rather than entire papers. It’s just a matter of time, though. The results are variable, with some making no sense at all even by the standards of theoretical particle physics, but the best are almost good enough to pass off as real abstracts.

Here’s an example in the form of the abstract of a paper called (P,q) Brane Probe Predicted From Conformal Blocks:

Recently, work on new inflation has opened up a perturbative class of braneworld matrix models. We make contact with observables, moreover investigating trivial Beckenstein-Boltzmann equations. Next, using the behavior of a left-right reduction of models of WIMPs, we reformulate instanton liquids at the LHC. After discussing positrons, we check that worldsheet symmetric central charges are equivalent to electric-duality in gravity. Finally, we make contact with a special lagrangian brane, surprisingly obtaining models of inertial fluctuations.

Why not have a go at arXiv versus SnarXiv to see if you can spot the genuine article titles?

I’m tempted, with a nod in the light of the Sokal Affair, to suggest that a similar approach used in the social sciences, but the thing that really struck me is that someone should do a snarXiv for astronomy and astrophysics. Or is someone going to tell me it already exists?

Come to think of it, judging by some of the proposals I’ve read while serving on the Astronomy Grants Panel over the years, a similar generator may already exist for writing grant applications…

Ship Ahoy!

Posted in Brighton with tags , , on April 29, 2014 by telescoper

When I was on the way home yesterday evening I was a bit surprised to see a warship, apparently belonging to the Royal Navy, seemingly  at anchor off Brighton beach:


Sorry it’s not a very high resolution picture, but the vessel was some way off and I had to zoom on my phone camera to get anything at all. When I was at school I was in the Navy Section of the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) and could identify all types of Royal Navy vessels from their silhouettes. But that was a long time ago and my eyesight isn’t what it was. Neither is the Royal Navy for that matter; the fleet is not only much smaller now but also comprises very different types of ship. Gone are the Type 21 & 22 frigates and the Type 42 destroyers I would have had no problem picking out!

Judging by the size I thought it might be a frigate of some sort, but the shape didn’t fit any I could identify. Then the tall mast amidships made me think it was a Type 45 Destroyer, but it looked a bit small. Or had I judged the distance incorrectly? But no, there didn’t seem to be enough superstructure to the aft of the mast so it couldn’t be a Type 45.

Turning to Twitter for help, it was quickly identified as a River Class Patrol Vessel. What she was doing there, or indeed which ship it was, remains a mystery. Perhaps someone from the blogosphere can enlighten me?


Promoting Women in Physics at Sussex

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on April 28, 2014 by telescoper

At the end of a very busy day of meetings I suddenly remembered that I forgot to pass on a nice bit of news about the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex.

It doesn’t seem very long ago at all that I announced the promotion of its first ever female Professor of Physics in the Department, Prof. Antonella de Santo. In fact it was in July last year. Well, just before the Easter break I was delighted at the promotion panel’s decision  to appoint the second female Professor in the Department. The successful candidate this time was Clauda Eberlein, who has been promoted to a Chair in Theoretical Physics with immediate effect.

I’ve already posted about how the proportion of female undergraduates studying physics as been stuck at around the 20% mark for a decade despite strenuous efforts to widen participation. A recent (2012) study by the Institute of Physics contains a wealth of statistical information about staff in Physics departments, which I encourage people to read if they’re interested in the overall issue with equality and diversity in physics. Here I’ll just pull out the figure (based on a 2010 survey) that out of a total of 650 Professors of Physics (and/or Astronomy) in the UK, just 5.5% were female. At that date about 20 physics departments had no female professors at all; that would have included Sussex, of course.

The first ever female Professor of Physics in the United Kingdom was Daphne Jackson, a nuclear physicist, who took up her Chair at the University of Surrey way back in 1971. It’s interesting to note that when Daphne Jackson studied physics as an undergraduate at Imperial College she was one of only two women among the 88 undergraduates in her year.

Congratulations to Claudia on her promotion, but the news doesn’t end there. Claudia will actually be taking over as Head of the Department of Physics & Astronomy in January 2015. She is currently Director of Teaching and Learning for the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences and will take up her new role when the current Head of Physics & Astronomy, Philip Harris, stands down, having served his term in admirable fashion. Anyway, when Claudia takes up her post as Head of Department she will join an elite band of female physicists to have been appointed to such a role. Does anyone out there know how many other women have headed a Physics department?





The Wolverines

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on April 27, 2014 by telescoper

Well, after a busy afternoon trying to get some work done in the office at the same time as worrying about whether there would be serious violence at today’s “March for England” I don’t have the energy to post anything other than a bit of music which I’ve been saving up for an occasion where a small pick-me-up was needed.

This lovely old record was made on June 10, 1927. It was issued by the Victor label with the title Wolverine Blues, by which name it’s been known ever since, but in fact it’s  a tune called The Wolverines which was written way back in 1906 by Jelly Roll Morton, who plays the piano on this track.  Anyway, it starts off as if it’s going to be a solo performance by Jelly Roll Morton on piano but then he’s joined by Johnny Dodds and his brother Warren “Baby” Dodds on clarinet and drums respectively. At first, Jelly Roll Morton just comps along quietly behind Johnny Dodds but he was never one to stay in the background for long and at about 1m 58s he springs into life to joyous effect. Listen out too for the absolutely superb work by drummer Baby Dodds who, despite having the crudest kit imaginable, lays down a carpet of infectious rhythms. Deep joy.



The Trouble With Brighton’s Roads..

Posted in Biographical, Brighton, Politics with tags , , , , on April 26, 2014 by telescoper

I travelled back to Brighton yesterday after taking a short break in Wales over Easter. To occupy myself on the train journey back I was, as usual, messing about on Twitter as a result of which I discovered that the main road along Brighton’s seafront had been closed. The reason for this – and the ensuing traffic chaos in the City Centre – was that the main A259 had partially collapsed. My heart sank at the thought of the problems I might have getting home from the station, but in fact by the time I got there – just after seven in the evening – the worst of the congestion seemed to have cleared and I got a bus home without any difficulty or delay.

When I walked past the spot earlier today I found that it wasn’t as dramatic as I’d been led to believe:


There isn’t actually a hole as such, just a couple of very wonky pavements either side of a section of road that’s in a very poor state of repair. In that respect it’s no different from most of Brighton’s streets.

If you don’t know the area concerned, just at the bottom of West Street, you won’t know that this section of the A259 (King’s Road) runs above the a series of arched underground structures occupied by various shops and pubs. In fact the collapse happened inside a pub called the Fortune of War, when some workmen discovered several tons of rubble had fallen down from the roof above. Fortunately, no-one was hurt.

This is the view at beach level; the King’s Road runs above the pub, behind the iron railings at the top of the picture.

The Fortune of War Pub (Credit: BBC)

The Fortune of War Pub (Credit: BBC)

One lane of the A259 is currently closed and a contraflow is in operation. Given that it is at the best of times a very busy road this, and the diversions that have been placed elsewhere to ease traffic on it, is set to cause congestion for some time to come, probably several weeks.

The problem is obviously that the structures underneath the road were never designed to carry the weight of traffic that they are now expected to support. Brighton and Hove Council have been spending money on extensive roadworks elsewhere in the City but seem to have been reluctant to perform reinforcing work on this crucial route. There’s already a political row brewing about this.

Here’s another picture of the seafront:


The barricades you see are nothing to do with with subsidence, but are there for tomorrow’s “March for England”, the annual attempt by the gang of Neo-Nazi thugs called the EDL to stir up trouble in Brighton. Presumably the fences are intended to separate the EDL from human beings. The collapsed road was to have been part of the route, but presumably alternative arrangements have been made. I would have preferred the road closure to have been used as an excuse to cancel the march altogether actually. I’d rather have no road at all than one filled with such creatures.

I’m very worried about tomorrow. I despise the EDL, but I strongly believe that the best way to deal with people like that is to make sure you don’t give them what they want. They’re clearly coming to Brighton for a fight, so the best approach is to exercise restraint. Unfortunately, there are extremists on the other side of the political spectrum who want a fight just as much as the EDL do. It’s all rather pathetic, if you ask me. Anyway, I’ll be avoiding any aggro by heading up to campus in the morning and catching up on some of the things I’ve missed while I’ve been away over the last week or so…



Because I Liked You..

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on April 25, 2014 by telescoper

Because I liked you better
     Than suits a man to say,
It irked you, and I promised
     To throw the thought away.
To put the world between us
     We parted, stiff and dry;
‘Good-bye,’ said you, ‘forget me.’
     ‘I will, no fear’, said I.
If here, where clover whitens
     The dead man’s knoll, you pass,
And no tall flower to meet you
     Starts in the trefoiled grass,
Halt by the headstone naming
     The heart no longer stirred,
And say the lad that loved you
     Was one that kept his word.
by A.E. Housman (1859-1936)