Archive for November, 2016

The Great Rewrite: Secularism and Nineteenth-Century Wales

Posted in History, Politics on November 27, 2016 by telescoper

Lengthy but fascinating piece about the rise of secularism in Wales. I’m a member of the National Secular Society, by the way.

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Campaigners pay tribute to Fidel Castro, ‘most iconic post-1945 beard wearer’

Posted in History on November 26, 2016 by telescoper

R.I.P. Fidel Castro. He had his faults, but there’s no denying the cultural significance of his beard..

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Campaigners pay tribute to Fidel Castro, ‘most iconic post-1945 beard wearer’

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The Beard Liberation Front, the informal network of beard wearers, has paid tribute to Fidel Castro, who has died at 90, as the most iconic post-1945 beard wearer.

Castro, like Che Guevara, did not always have facial hair but grew a beard as his politics moved to the left in the 1950s.

Subsequently his beard came to be seen as a symbol, worldwide, of opposition to US foreign policies in the 1960s

A 1975 US Senate Intelligence Committee heard that in the 1960s the CIA believed that if Castro’s beard fell out this would undermine his standing with the Cuban people. Plots were hatched to put thallium salt in Castro’s cigar or his shoes which would have caused his beard hairs to fall out.

The plots were…

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The Neyman-Scott ‘Paradox’

Posted in Bad Statistics, Cute Problems with tags , , , , on November 25, 2016 by telescoper

I just came across this interesting little problem recently and thought I’d share it here. It’s usually called the ‘Neyman-Scott’ paradox. Before going on it’s worth mentioning that Elizabeth Scott (the second half of Neyman-Scott) was an astronomer by background. Her co-author was Jerzy Neyman. As has been the case for many astronomers, she contributed greatly to the development of the field of statistics. Anyway, I think this example provides another good illustration of the superiority of Bayesian methods for estimating parameters, but I’ll let you make your own mind up about what’s going on.

The problem is fairly technical so I’ve done done a quick version in latex that you can download

here, but I’ve also copied into this post so you can read it below:

 

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I look forward to receiving Frequentist Flak or Bayesian Benevolence through the comments box below!

Five – Tony Scott & Bill Evans

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on November 24, 2016 by telescoper

Just this morning finally submitted some documents for a couple of proposals that I’ve been stressing over for the past couple of months, so I thought I’d relax a little bit by posting some music.

Not long ago I shared a track on which Lester Young played clarinet as opposed to his usual tenor saxophone. I got to thinking afterwards that it’s quite interesting how the clarinet has become less prominent in Jazz as the music has evolved. The old `liquorice stick’ is one of the instruments that appears in the front line in `traditional’ New Orleans Jazz (alongside trumpet and trombone) and remained a key part of bands as different styles gradually developed until the Swing Era of the 1930s. Some of the greatest big bands of that period were led by clarinetists such as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Woody Herman to name but three. However, when bebop arrived on the scene in the immediate post-War era the clarinet had been almost totally eclipsed by the saxophone. Perhaps that was because bebop was largely a reaction against swing music and musicians wanted to establish a radically different musical vocabulary. The alto saxophone in particular, championed by Charlie Parker, could – at least in the hands of a virtuoso like Parker – be played at breakneck speed but also had a much edgier sound and was capable of a different range of expression. The same comments apply to the tenor saxophone, as exemplified by John Coltrane. There were exceptions of course, notably Buddy Defranco, but as modern jazz developed the saxophone remained the dominant solo instrument.

Anyway, these thoughts popped into my head the other day when I was listening to Composer of the Week on BBC Radio 3 which featured the great Jazz pianist Bill Evans. One of the tracks played on the programme I listened to featured Evans together with clarinetist Tony Scott taken from the album A Day in New York which was recorded in 1957. A very large proportion of my very favorite recordings derive from the late 1950s, largely because so many new directions were being explored, and this is another track that seems to be looking ahead to something beyond the bebop era. Anyway, this is the track I heard the other day. It’s called Five, and I love the way the Scott constructs his solo from the jagged fragmentary theme, at first cautiously but gradually gathering momentum until it gets fully into its groove.

R.I.P. John M Stewart (1943-2016)

Posted in Biographical, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 23, 2016 by telescoper

john-stewartI was very sad this morning to hear of the death of distinguished mathematical physicist Dr John M. Stewart (left). Apart from a few years in Munich in the 1970s John Stewart spent most of his working life in Cambridge, having studied there as an undergraduate and postgraduate and then returning from his spell at the Max Planck Institute to the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics for forty years.

John’s research mostly concerned relativistic fluid dynamics. Indeed, he was one of the pioneers of numerical relativity in the United Kingdom, and he applied his knowledge to a number of problems in early Universe cosmology and structure formation. I think it is fair to say that he wasn’t the most prolific researcher in terms of publications, which is perhaps why he only got promoted to Senior Lecturer in 2000 and never made it to a Chair, retiring as Reader in Gravitational Physics in 2010. However, his work was always of a very high technical standard and presented with great clarity and he was held in a very high regard by those who knew him and worked with him.

The tributes paid to John Stewart by King’s College (of which he was a Life Fellow) here and his colleagues in the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology here give a detailed account of his research achievements, so I refer you to them for more information about that aspect of his career.

I just wanted to add a personal note not about John Stewart’s research, but about something else mentioned in the obituaries linked to above: his teaching. I was fortunate enough to have him as a lecturer when I was studying Natural Sciences at Cambridge during the early 1980s. In the second year (Part IB) I specialised in Physics and Mathematics, and John taught part of the Mathematics syllabus. He was an absolutely superb teacher. For a start he was superbly well organized and had clearly thought very deeply about how best to present some quite difficult material. But it wasn’t just that. He projected a very engaging personality, with nice touches of humour, that made him easy to listen. His lectures were also very well paced for taking notes. In fact he was one of the few lecturers I had whose material I didn’t have to transcribe into a neat form from rough notes.

I have kept all the notes from that course for over thirty years. Here are a couple of pages as an example:

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Anyone who has ever seen my handwriting will know that this is about as neat as I ever get!

When I was called upon to teach similar material at Cardiff and Sussex I drew on them heavily, so anyone who has learned anything from me about complex analysis, contour integration, Green’s functions and a host of other things actually owes a huge debt to John Stewart. Anything they didn’t understand was of course my fault, not his..

I also remember that John came to Queen Mary to give a seminar when I worked there in the early 90s as a postdoc. I was still a bit in awe of him because of my experience of him in Cambridge. His talk was about a method for handling the evolution of cosmological matter perturbations based on an approach based on the Hamilton-Jacobi formalism. His visit was timely, as I’d been struggling to understand the papers that had been coming out at the time on this topic. In the bar after his talk I plucked up the courage to explain to him what it was that I was struggling to understand. He saw immediately where I was going wrong and put me right on my misconceptions straight away, plucking a simple illustrative example apparently out of thin air. I was deeply impressed, not only by his ability to identify the issue but also with his friendly and helpful demeanour.

Rest in Peace, Dr John M. Stewart (1943-2016).

Bullying and Sexual Harassment at CSIRO

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on November 22, 2016 by telescoper

No sooner has the deluge of emails I’ve been receiving about the Case of Bode versus Mundell started to dry up when I hear about another alarming story revolving around sexual harassment in Astronomy.

This time the revelations concern the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), the federal government agency for scientific research in Australia, and specifically relate the organization’s handling of  numerous instances of  sexual harassment and bullying that have driven several female astronomers out of the organization’s Division of Astronomy and Space Science (CASS). You can listen here listen to a radio programme about this that was broadcast last Sunday on the Australian station ABC. It’s not an easy thing to listen to, but I urge you to make the effort.

Once again one of the key issues raised by this is that of confidentiality. As outlined by the official response from CASS, there are indeed very good reasons for respecting confidentiality:

To make details of our individual investigations public, we could prevent people from coming forward in the future or we could lead to situations of trial by the public or media without full information or a proper process.

Fair enough, but confidentiality cuts both ways. Once again I quote the official response:

Around 200 people on average work in the astronomy and space science business unit. In the past 8 years we have had 16 formal allegations of inappropriate behaviour within this business unit. The cases varied in their degree of seriousness and all of the allegations were investigated. Three of the allegations were of a sexual nature, with two of these three allegations upheld.

Two cases of alleged inappropriate behaviour per year for eight years seems rather a lot for a unit of this size. Granted that isn’t known how many of those are genuine, but in my view even one case is one case too many. However, what is really worrying is that two of the allegations that were “of a sexual nature” were upheld but the outcomes of these investigations were not made known to staff in CASS. I’m all for confidentiality and due process, but if one thing is going to stop people “coming forward in the future” it’s the perception that nothing will be done if they do. There just has to be a better way of dealing with misconduct allegations than what CSIRO (and all organizations) I’ve worked in do now. I hope we’re past the stage of denying that there is a problem. The question is how to make things better.

I’ve thought a lot about this since I blogged about the Bode versus Mundell case (here and here). We should all agree that we need to strive to create working environments wherein harassment and bullying simply do not happen, but sadly they do and until that changes we need to find ways of dealing with the perpetrators fairly but firmly and promptly.

I have two concrete suggestions to make.

The first is that organizations of a sufficient size to bear the cost should have independent misconduct investigators rather than relying on staff from the same workplace. This role could even be fulfilled by someone from a different organization altogether. Universities, for example, could set up a shared resource to deal with this kind of thing. Such a move would avoid any perceived conflict of interest but, more importantly, a dedicated investigator could carry out the work much more quickly than a senior academic who is busy with many other things.

The other suggestion is that confidentiality agreements covering disciplinary should become void if an employee leaves the institution, whether that is as a result of dismissal or because they leave before investigations are completed. That would put an end to the game of “pass the harasser”.

There are probably serious problems with both these suggestions and I’d be happy to take criticism through the comments box below.

Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 21, 2016 by telescoper

I was indisposed over the weekend so I wasn’t able to do a write-up of the concert I attended at St David’s Hall on Friday evening, featuring the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy in a programme of all-Russian music. Ashkenazy is of course best known as a pianist, but he has in recent years increasingly appeared in public performances as a conductor, apparently preferring to confine his piano playing to the recording studio. I’d never seen him in the flesh before and was surprised when this rather diminutive man bounded onto the stage and, hardly pausing for breath, started the concert. He’s obviously not one for hanging about.

First item on the menu was the Overture to the Opera Prince Igor by Alexander Borodin. At least the piece is attributed to Borodin, but no trace of the original score has ever been found; the piece as performed nowadays was entirely reconstructed from memory by Alexander Glazunov. It’s a rather conventional overture for the time, consisting of a sort of fast-forward of some of the outstanding themes and musical motifs that occur in the Opera.

In case you didn’t know Borodin was only a part-time composer. His day job was as a Professor of Organic Chemistry. He also died quite young – at the age of 53 – suffering a heart attack at a fancy dress ball.
Given is relatively short life and his occupation with other matters, Borodin didn’t write all that much music, but what survives is of generally very high quality, and this piece is no exception. A very nice warm-up for the larger works to come.

(Yes, I say Borodin was “quite young” at the age of 53 because that’s how old I am…)

Next up was one of the most familiar concert pieces of the entire classical repertoire, the  Piano Concerto No. 1 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Certainly the spectacular opening, with its fanfare-like introduction followed by a dramatic string theme supported by huge chords from the piano, must be one of the best-known introductions to a classical work. It’s curious though that the theme that gives it such an imposing start is not heard anywhere else in the concerto, though what follows is hugely absorbing and entertaining, if a bit theatrical for some tastes. It’s not too theatrical for me, I hasten to add. I love it.

(Coincidentally, Tchaikovsky also died at the age of 53.)

The soloist for the performance was Alice Sara Ott who played with great verve and virtuosity. It’s a piece that calls for some muscular playing, and despite her slender build, Alice Sara Ott was up tot the task. She practically lifted herself up off the stool on a number of occasions to generate enough downward force on the keys.

After the interval we had Symphony Number 1 in D Minor by Sergei Rachmaninov. The first performance of this work in 1897, conducted by Glazunov with the composer in the audience, was a complete disaster and the piece was so badly received that Rachmaninov refused to allow it to be published (and even destroyed the score). It wasn’t until 1945 that the orchestral parts were found and the symphony reconstructed that it was performed again. I think it’s a very satisfying symphonic work. Although ostensibly in D Minor it spends most of the time in major keys (F major in the second movement, B♭ major in the third, and D major in the finale).  Like all great symphonies it takes the listener on a journey through a very varied soundscape – and times wistful and  and at others exuberant. I particularly enjoyed the lengthy coda at the end of the 4th movement.

I really don’t know why this work was so savaged by the critics when it was first performed, although Rachmaninov laid the blame firmly at  the conductor’s feet. I think he would have appreciated last night’s concert a lot more than

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