Archive for July, 2014

From Brighton Pride to Sussex Pride

Posted in Biographical, Brighton, LGBT with tags , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2014 by telescoper

Brighton Pride is coming up this weekend. I heard some people on the train the other day saying that they didn’t think such events were needed any more because “gays have everything they need, especially in Brighton”. Although I was tempted, I didn’t interrupt, though I did disagree. Things have indeed changed a lot over the last twenty years, but they could easily change back if we get complacent and Brighton has its fair share of intolerance and bigotry still.

I was myself beaten up on Brighton’s seafront many years ago, during my previous existence at the University of Sussex as a PhD student and a postdoctoral researcher. There was no doubt why I was attacked: the four young men who surrounded me and punched and kicked me to the ground were shouting just one word over and over again, “faggot”. It’s still a word I hate to hear used, even if purportedly in jest. That event left me with deep psychological scars that contributed to a breakdown I had as recently as two years ago.

Thirty or so years after my encounter with the queerbashers, attitudes have definitely changed, and so has the law. Certain types of criminal offence are now officially recognized as hate crimes: the list treats sexual orientation as equivalent to race, gender, religious belief and disability in such matters. The Police are now obliged to treat these with due seriousness, and penalties for those found guilty of crimes exacerbated by homophobia are consequently more severe. All Police forces now have special units for dealing with them; here is an example.

These changes are mirrored in other aspects of life too. For example, employment law relating to discrimination or harassment in the workplace now puts sexual orientation on the same footing as race, gender, disability and religious belief. In many universities in the UK, staff have been required to attend training in Equality and Diversity matters not only to raise awareness of the legal framework under which we all have to work, but also to promote a sensitivity to these issues in order to improve the working environment for both staff and students. Now we have equal marriage too.

This training isn’t about over-zealous busybodies. Under the law, employers have a vicarious liability for the conduct of their staff with regard to harassment and discrimination. This means that a University can be sued if, for example, one of its employees commits harassment, and it can be shown that it did not make appropriate efforts to ensure its staff did not engage in such activities.

Of course not everyone approves of these changes. Some staff  have refused point-blank to attend Equality and Diversity training, even though it’s compulsory. Others attend grudgingly, muttering about “political correctness gone mad”. You may think all this is a bit heavy handed, but I can tell you it makes a real difference to the lives of people who, without this legal protection, would be victimised, harassed or discriminated against.  It is, also, the law.

I think the efforts that have been made to improve the legal situation have been (at least partly) responsible for the changes in society’s attitudes over the last twenty years, which have been extremely positive. I’m old enough to remember very different times. That’s not to say that there’s no bigotry any more. Even in this day and age, violent crimes against gay men are still disturbingly common and police attitudes not always helpful even though many police forces do now have Lesbian and Gay teams, something that was just unthinkable 25 years ago.

Although relatively few universities appear in the list of gay-friendly employers compiled by the campaigning organisation Stonewall,  my experience generally, having worked in a number of UK universities (Sussex, Queen Mary, Nottingham and Cardiff), is that they are  generally friendly and comfortable places for an openly gay person to work. So much so, in fact, that there’s no real need to make a big deal of one’s sexual identity. It doesn’t really have much to do with the way you do your work – certainly not if it’s astrophysics – and work-related social events are, as a rule, very inclusive.

However, even in the supposedly enlightened environment of a University there do remain islands of bigotry, and not just about gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender staff.  Sexism is a major problem, at least in science subjects, and will probably remain so until the gender balance improves, which it slowly doing, despite the actions of certain professors who actively block attempts to encourage more female applicants to permanent positions. Universities still do not seem to me to treat sexual orientation with the same seriousness as, say, race or gender discrimination. I’ve had plenty of experiences to back that up.

I recently took part in an interesting meeting involving various staff from the University of Sussex with a representative of Stonewall. The topic was how we could work with Stonewall to make it more gay-friendly. If I remember correctly, there are 78 UK Universities currently taking part in Stonewall’s programmes. It is a matter of some  embarrassment to me that the University of Sussex is not among them. Perhaps the attitude is that because there is such a large and visible gay population in Brighton it’s not necessary for the University of Sussex to take any steps in this direction. I disagree, and am absolutely convinced that there are many Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender members of the University of Sussex staff who would love to see some action taken to make their workplace just a little bit friendlier and more inclusive, even if that just amounts to acknowledging their existence.  There is a visible and active LBGT student society on campus, but no such entity exists for staff – an absence that is truly glaring. I don’t even think the University has any idea what fraction of its staff identify themselves as LGBT.

No doubt there’ll be many members of the University of Sussex staff on the Pride Parade on Saturday and at the various parties being held around Brighton afterwards. Perhaps it’s time to start some sort of network so that for staff at the University of Sussex, Pride doesn’t just come once a year…?

If you’re interested in this idea please let me know, either through the comments box or by email.

Jimmy Anderson & Moeen split hairs in England cricket team Beard Index

Posted in Beards, Cricket with tags , , on July 30, 2014 by telescoper

Important poll on the Beard Index for England’s cricketers..

My own vote went to Jimmy Anderson, a remark on whose performance yesterday by me on Twitter also led to me featuring on the BBC Sports Website:


Today is the 4th Day and England have just declared on 205-4, leaving India to score 445 to win in approximately 132 overs…

..and India close on 112-4. The ball is starting to turn and with another 331 to win off 90 overs (3.67 an over) the odds are firmly on England’s side.

UPDATE: And so it came to pass that England took India’s last 6 wickets for 66 runs in the first session of the final day to win by 266 runs.

Kmflett's Blog

Beard Liberation Front
Press release 29th July contact Keith Flett 07803 167266

Jimmy Anderson & Moeen split hairs in England Cricket Team Beard Index

The Beard Liberation Front, the informal network of beard wearers, has issued an update to its England cricket Beard Index which shows Moeen Ali and Jimmy Anderson tied with Ian Bell and Alastair Cook moving up the rankings

Hirsute England players have only recently been a significant factor in the team’s performance but the campaigners say that facial hair on the pitch can have several, sometimes combined, impacts:

1] Beards can add gravitas and presence. Moeen is known as ‘the beard that’s feared’
2] Beards can influence aerodynamics both with bat and ball as a movement of the facial hair can cause subtle changes to air currents

Beard Index [combining factors 1 & 2] out of 10

Moeen 9
Anderson 9
Bell 6
Cook 6

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Politics, Polls and Insignificance

Posted in Bad Statistics, Politics with tags , , , , , on July 29, 2014 by telescoper

In between various tasks I had a look at the news and saw a story about opinion polls that encouraged me to make another quick contribution to my bad statistics folder.

The piece concerned (in the Independent) includes the following statement:

A ComRes survey for The Independent shows that the Conservatives have dropped to 27 per cent, their lowest in a poll for this newspaper since the 2010 election. The party is down three points on last month, while Labour, now on 33 per cent, is up one point. Ukip is down one point to 17 per cent, with the Liberal Democrats up one point to eight per cent and the Green Party up two points to seven per cent.

The link added to ComRes is mine; the full survey can be found here. Unfortunately, the report, as is sadly almost always the case in surveys of this kind, neglects any mention of the statistical uncertainty in the poll. In fact the last point is based on a telephone poll of a sample of just 1001 respondents. Suppose the fraction of the population having the intention to vote for a particular party is p. For a sample of size n with x respondents indicating that they hen one can straightforwardly estimate p \simeq x/n. So far so good, as long as there is no bias induced by the form of the question asked nor in the selection of the sample, which for a telephone poll is doubtful.

A  little bit of mathematics involving the binomial distribution yields an answer for the uncertainty in this estimate of p in terms of the sampling error:

\sigma = \sqrt{\frac{p(1-p)}{n}}

For the sample size given, and a value p \simeq 0.33 this amounts to a standard error of about 1.5%. About 95% of samples drawn from a population in which the true fraction is p will yield an estimate within p \pm 2\sigma, i.e. within about 3% of the true figure. In other words the typical variation between two samples drawn from the same underlying population is about 3%.

If you don’t believe my calculation then you could use ComRes’ own “margin of error calculator“. The UK electorate as of 2012 numbered 46,353,900 and a sample size of 1001 returns a margin of error of 3.1%. This figure is not quoted in the report however.

Looking at the figures quoted in the report will tell you that all of the changes reported since last month’s poll are within the sampling uncertainty and are therefore consistent with no change at all in underlying voting intentions over this period.

A summary of the report posted elsewhere states:

A ComRes survey for the Independent shows that Labour have jumped one point to 33 per cent in opinion ratings, with the Conservatives dropping to 27 per cent – their lowest support since the 2010 election.

No! There’s no evidence of support for Labour having “jumped one point”, even if you could describe such a marginal change as a “jump” in the first place.

Statistical illiteracy is as widespread amongst politicians as it is amongst journalists, but the fact that silly reports like this are commonplace doesn’t make them any less annoying. After all, the idea of sampling uncertainty isn’t all that difficult to understand. Is it?

And with so many more important things going on in the world that deserve better press coverage than they are getting, why does a “quality” newspaper waste its valuable column inches on this sort of twaddle?

In Thunder, Lightning and in Rain..

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , , on July 28, 2014 by telescoper

A while before 6am this morning I was woken up by the sound of fairly distant thunder to the West of my flat. I left the windows open – they’ve been open all the time in this hot weather – and dozed while rumblings continued. Just after six there was a terrifically bright flash and an instantaneous bang that set car alarms off in my street; lightning must have struck a building very close. Then the rain arrived. I got up to close the windows against the torrential downpour, at which point I noticed that water was coming in through the ceiling. A further inspection revealed another leak in the cupboard where the boiler lives and another which had water dripping from a light fitting. A frantic half hour with buckets and mops followed, but I had to leave to get to work so I just left buckets under the drips and off I went into the deluge to get soaked.

Here is the map of UK rain at 07:45 am, with Brighton in the thick of it:


I made it up to campus (wet and late); it’s still raining but hopefully will settle down soon. This is certainly turning into a summer of extremes!

Demolition at Didcot

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on July 27, 2014 by telescoper

As someone who has spent his fair share of time traveling backwards and forwards on the First Great Western railway line between Cardiff (or Swindon) and London, it seems appropriate to note that the environs of Didcot Parkway station (which lies on the main line) will look rather different next time I do that journey. In the early hours of this morning, three of the six enormous cooling towers came tumbling down:

I gather the other three are also scheduled for demolition, although I doubt I’ll be able to attend that event in person either!

Night hath no wings

Posted in Poetry on July 27, 2014 by telescoper

Night hath no wings to him that cannot sleep;
And Time seems then not for to fly, but creep;
Slowly her chariot drives, as if that she
Had broke her wheel, or crack’d her axletree.
Just so it is with me, who list’ning, pray
The winds to blow the tedious night away,
That I might see the cheerful peeping day.
Sick is my heart; O Saviour! do Thou please
To make my bed soft in my sicknesses;
Lighten my candle, so that I beneath
Sleep not for ever in the vaults of death;
Let me thy voice betimes i’ th’ morning hear;
Call, and I’ll come; say Thou the when and where:
Draw me but first, and after Thee I’ll run,
And make no one stop till my race be done.

by Robert Herrick (1591-1674)


What is science and why should we care? — Part III

Posted in Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on July 26, 2014 by telescoper

Interesting post, one of a series about the Philosophy of science by Alan Sokal (of the famous hoax). The other posts in the series are well worth reading, too…

Scientia Salon

iraq_8-years1by Alan Sokal

In all the examples discussed so far I have been at pains to distinguish clearly between factual matters and ethical or aesthetic matters, because the epistemological issues they raise are so different. And I have restricted my discussion almost entirely to factual matters, simply because of the limitations of my own competence.

But if I am preoccupied by the relation between belief and evidence, it is not solely for intellectual reasons — not solely because I’m a “grumpy old fart who aspire[s] to the sullen joy of having it known that [I] don’t suffer fools gladly” [18] (to borrow the words of my friend and fellow gadfly Norm Levitt, who died suddenly four years ago at the young age of 66). Rather, my concern that public debate be grounded in the best available evidence is, above all else, ethical.

To illustrate the connection I have in mind…

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