Archive for December, 2018

Messiah in Dublin

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, Music with tags , , , , on December 14, 2018 by telescoper

On 10th December last year I posted a review of a performance of Handel’s Messiah in Cardiff. At the end of that item I wondered where I would be listening to Messiah in 2018. Well, the answer to that question turned out to be at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, the city where Messiah received its premiere way back in 1742.

Messiah was initially performed at Easter (on 13th April 1742) and it’s by no means clear (to me) why it ended up almost universally regarded as a Christmas work. The work actually spans the entire biblical story of the Messiah, from Old Testament prophecy to the Nativity (Part 1), the Passion of Christ (Part II), culminating in the Hallelujah Chorus, and the Resurrection of the Dead (Part III). The Nativity only features (briefly) in Part I, which is why it’s a little curious that Messiah is so strongly associated with Christmas.

The printed programme for last night (cover shown above) included the first advertisement for the first performance of Messiah:

For the relief of the prisoners in the several Gaols and for the Support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen’s Street and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inn’s Quay, on Monday 12th April will be performed at the Musick Hall in Fishamble Street, Mr Handel’s new Grand Oratorio MESSIAH…

The venue was designed to hold 600 people (less than half the capacity of the National Concert Hall) but 700 people crammed in. Ladies had been asked not to wear hoops in their dresses and gentlemen were asked not to bring their swords to help squeeze in the extra hundred. The concert raised the huge sum of £400 and Messiah was an immediate hit in Ireland.

It wasn’t the same story when Messiah was first performed in England the following year. It failed again in England when performed in 1745 but after some rewriting Handel put it on again in 1749 and it proved an enormous success. It has remained popular ever since. But it is still exceptionally popular in Dublin. There are umpteen performances of Messiah at this time of year, and the one I attended last night was one of three in the same week at the same venue, all more-or-less sold out. The Dubliners I chatted to in the bar before the concert were extremely proud that their city is so strongly associated with this remarkable work.

I don’t mind admitting that Messiah is a piece that’s redolent with nostalgia for me – some of the texts remind me a lot of Sunday School and singing in a church choir when I was little and then, a bit later, listening to the whole thing at Christmas time at the City Hall in Newcastle. I loved it then, and still do now, well over 40 years later. I know it’s possible to take nostalgia too far – nobody can afford to spend too much time living in the past – but I think it’s good to stay in contact with your memories and the things that shaped you when you were young.

Last night’s performance was by Our Lady’s Choral Society with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. Soloists were Sarah Brady (soprano), Patricia Bardon (mezzo), Andrew Gavin (tenor) and Padraic Rowan (bass), the latter really coming into his own in the second half with a wonderfully woody sonority to his voice, especially in No. 40:

Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing?

Topical, or what?

Our Lady’s Choral Society is an amateur outfit and, while it might not sound as slick and polished as some professional choirs, there was an honesty about its performance last night that I found very engaging. It actually sounded like people singing, which professional choirs sometimes do not. The orchestra played very well too, and weren’t forced to use the dreaded `period instruments’. There was a harpsichord, but fortunately it was barely audible. Anyway, I enjoyed the concert very much and so did the packed house. I couldn’t stay for all the applause as I had dash off to get the last train back to Maynooth, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate the music.

Incidentally, among the bass section of Our Lady’s Choral Society last night was my colleague Brian Dolan. On Monday next I’m going to another Concert at the National Concert Hall, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Among the choir for that performance is another of my colleagues, Jonivar Skullerud. Obviously, choral singing is the in-thing for theoretical physicists in this part of the world!


Voting for Beard of the Year 2018

Posted in Beards, Biographical on December 13, 2018 by telescoper

Having made it onto the shortlist, I seem to be ahead in the polling for this Year’s Beard of the Year (for the time being at least – it’s very early days).

I know some people would consider it inappropriate for me to use the medium of this blog to tout for votes. All I can say to such people is VOTE FOR ME!

Kmflett's Blog

Beard Liberation Front

Media Release 11th December

Contact Keith Flett 07803 16726

Voting for the Beard of the Year 2018

The Beard Liberation Front the informal network of beard wearers, has said that voting is open for the Beard of the Year 2018. The vote closes at midnight on 24th December with the winner declared on 28th December.

Names can be added by write-ins at the bottom of the poll. 1% of the overall vote is needed for someone to join the poll.

The BLF say that the shortlist comprises those whose beard has had a positive impact in the public eye during the year rather than the style or the length of the beard or the views of the beard wearer.

BLF Organiser Keith Flett said, competition for Beard of the Year is bristling

For the first time this year the result will be determined by a…

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On Probability and Cosmology

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on December 12, 2018 by telescoper

I just noticed a potentially interesting paper by Martin Sahlén on the arXiv. I haven’t actually read it yet, so don’t know if I agree with it, but thought I’d point it out here for those interested in cosmology and things Bayesian.

Here is the abstract:

Modern scientific cosmology pushes the boundaries of knowledge and the knowable. This is prompting questions on the nature of scientific knowledge. A central issue is what defines a ‘good’ model. When addressing global properties of the Universe or its initial state this becomes a particularly pressing issue. How to assess the probability of the Universe as a whole is empirically ambiguous, since we can examine only part of a single realisation of the system under investigation: at some point, data will run out. We review the basics of applying Bayesian statistical explanation to the Universe as a whole. We argue that a conventional Bayesian approach to model inference generally fails in such circumstances, and cannot resolve, e.g., the so-called ‘measure problem’ in inflationary cosmology. Implicit and non-empirical valuations inevitably enter model assessment in these cases. This undermines the possibility to perform Bayesian model comparison. One must therefore either stay silent, or pursue a more general form of systematic and rational model assessment. We outline a generalised axiological Bayesian model inference framework, based on mathematical lattices. This extends inference based on empirical data (evidence) to additionally consider the properties of model structure (elegance) and model possibility space (beneficence). We propose this as a natural and theoretically well-motivated framework for introducing an explicit, rational approach to theoretical model prejudice and inference beyond data.

You can download a PDF of the paper here.

As usual, comments are welcome below. I’ll add my thoughts later, after I’ve had the chance to read the article!


The Irish Accent

Posted in History, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2018 by telescoper

It’s been a very busy day, as Tuesdays tend to be this term, so I thought I’d wind down with a little blog post.

Some time ago I got an email from Maynooth University about Irish language classes. Still feeling a bit ashamed about not having learned Welsh in all my time in Cardiff, I thought I’d sign up for the Beginners class and fill in a Doodle Poll to help the organizers schedule it. Unfortunately, when the result was announced it was at a time that I couldn’t make owing to teaching, so sadly I’m not learning Irish properly yet.

I have picked up a few things about the language, however, which it might be worth passing on here. Although Irish and Welsh are both Celtic languages they are from two distinct groups: the Goidelic group that comprises Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic; and the Brythonic group that comprises Welsh, Cornish and Breton. These are sometimes referred to as q-Celtic and p-Celtic, respectively, although not everyone agrees that is a useful categorization. Incidentally, Scottish Gaelic is not the language spoken by the Celtic people who lived in Scotland at the time of the Romans, the Picts, which is lost. Scottish Gaelic is actually descended from Middle Irish. Also incidentally, Breton was taken to Brittany by a mass migration of people from South-West Britain which peaked somewhere around 500 AD. I guess that was the first Brexodus.

Welsh and Irish don’t sound at all similar to me, which is not surprising really. It is thought that the Brythonic languages evolved from a language  brought to Britain by people from somewhere in Gaul (probably Northern France), whereas the people whose language led to the Goidelic tongues were probably from somewhere in the Iberia (modern-day Spain or Portugal). There are nevertheless some similarities. For example, `Merry Christmas’ is Nadolig Llawen in Welsh and Nollaig Shona in Irish..

Anyway, back to the topic of this post, there is only one accent in Irish (in the sense of a diacritic mark), which is the síneadh fada (`long accent’), sometimes called the fada for short, which looks the same as the acute accent in, e.g., French. There’s actually one in síneadh if you look hard enough. It just means the vowel is pronounced long (i.e. the first syllable of síneadh is pronounced SHEEN).

One does find quite a few texts (especially online) where the fada is carelessly omitted, but it really is quite important. For example Cáca is the Irish word for `cake’, while the unaccented Caca means `excrement’…

I took the above text in Irish and English from the front cover of an old examination paper. You can see the accents as well as another feature of Irish which is slightly similar to Welsh, the mysterious lower-case h in front of Éireann. This is a consequence of an initial mutation, in which the initial character of word changes in various situations according to syntax or morphology (i.e. following certain words changing the case of a noun or following certain sounds). This specific case is an an example of h-prothesis (of an initial vowel).

In Welsh, mutations involve the substitution of one character for another. For example, `Wales’ is Cymru but if you cross the border into Wales you may see a sign saying Croeso i Gymru, the `C’ having mutated. The Irish language is a bit friendlier to the learner than Welsh, however, as the mutated character (h in the example above) is inserted in front of the unmutated character. Seeing both the mutated and unmutated character helps a person with limited vocabulary (such as myself) figure out what’s going on.

Mutations of consonants also occur in Irish. These can involve lenition (literally `weakening’, also known as aspiration) or eclipsis (nasalisation). In the case of eclipsis the unmutated consonant is preceded by another denoting the actual sound, e.g. b becomes m in terms of pronunciation, but what is written is mb. On the other hand, lenition is denoted by an following the unmutated consonant.

In older forms of Irish the overdot (ponc séimhithe) -another diacritic – was used to denote lenition. Had this practice continued into the modern era there would be two Irish accents, but nowadays there is only one.

Winter Garden, by Patrick Kavanagh

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on December 11, 2018 by telescoper

No flowers are here
No middle-class vanities –
Only the decapitated shanks
Of cabbages
And prostrate
On a miserable ridge

by Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967)


Bill Bonnor on Cosmology with Negative Mass

Posted in mathematics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on December 10, 2018 by telescoper

My post from Friday about negative mass in cosmology reminded me of my days at Queen Mary and discussions I had at that time with Bill Bonnor, who retired in 1985 but was a regular visitor to the weekly Relativity Seminars. I was sad to discover just now that Bill actually passed away in 2015 (at the age of 94) so I thought I would post a little note as a short tribute.

Bill Bonnor was an old-school mathematical relativist, which I definitely am not, but I recall talking to him quite a lot in the coffee room because we had a shared interest in gambling games. He had a liking for the fixed-odds competition in the football pools, which he played with considerable success.

Anyway, Bill Bonnor published a paper in 1989 about Negative Mass in General Relativity. It’s not all about cosmological implications of negative mass, but I’ve just typed up a quick summary. In fact I used some of this in a university examination question many moons ago!

Before reading this, you might wish to look up active the terms gravitational mass, passive gravitational mass, inertial mass and equivalence principle, which you can find discussed here (for example).

Azed and Ireland

Posted in Crosswords, Maynooth with tags , , , on December 9, 2018 by telescoper

I had a nice surprise when I opened today’s Observer to the crossword page to find I had won a prize!

The solution to Azed 2423 printed in the paper is not, however, as I remember it.

Obviously there have been a few gremlins at the Observer.

Although I’ve been doing the Azed Crossword for the best part of twenty years this is actually the first time I’ve won the regular crossword prize, in which solvers just have to send in a completed puzzle and the winners’ names are drawn out of a hat, as opposed to the Competition puzzle (which occurs roughly every 4 weeks), in which solvers also have to supply a clue for one of the answers in the grid. It’s also worth saying that this is the first crossword prize I’ve won from Ireland. I have won a couple of other prizes (Everyman and the Times Literary Supplement) in the the past year, but I gave my address in Wales on both occasions as I was spending half time there and half in Maynooth for much of the past year.

Anyway, the prize is not a dictionary but £25 in book tokens, which should be enough to buy a dictionary should I feel the need. I think I may choose something else, however, assuming the tokens ever make it across to Ireland! I’ve not been impressed with the efficiency of the postal service to and from the UK so far…

According to the &lit archive I’ve been sending in entries for about 18 years. Since 3/4 of the Azed puzzles are of the regular type that means that if I’d done every puzzle correctly for that period I would have about 18 × 52 ×¾ ≈ 700 chances to win, which gives a crude estimate of the number of correct entries that must be sent in each week. In fact I’ve missed quite a few and probably made some mistakes. Nevertheless, a weekly entry of several hundred seems a reasonable order-of-magnitude guess. The number that enter the monthly competition is somewhat lower (around 200 usually). I don’t need to guess that – Azed himself supplies the numbers via the Azed Slip.

I’ve got a mediocre record in the Azed clue-setting Competition – I think I’m much better as a solver than a setter! – but have at least scored some successes and finished 15th (equal) in 2010/11. That turns out to have been my high-water mark, as I stopped doing the Azed puzzle regularly when I moved to Sussex in 2013, at which time I started doing the Beelzebub puzzle in the Independent on Sunday. I only re-started buying the Observer when the Independent stopped producing a print edition in March 2016.

So far I’ve struggled with the clue-writing, but I’ll soldier on with it and hopefully will hit some form at some point. Three puzzles into the latest season I’ve scored three HCs, which is at least consistent. Officially `HC’ means Highly Commended’ but I translate it as `Hard Cheese’. One needs to get a VHC (`Very Highly Commended’) at least to score points so I’m still just an `Also Ran’ this year. I got one VHC last year and hopefully can improve on that this time round, with ten puzzles still to go.

Incidentally, looking at the latest Azed Slip I notice that there are several solvers in Ireland. I’ve never noticed that before. I wonder how many have moved recently, like me?

Finally I think I’ll mention the winning clue in the last Azed Competition. The word to be clued was SPASMODICAL and the winning clue was:

À la PM’s disco dancing?

The word `dancing’ here is an anagram indicator, and the previous letters (A+LA+PMS+DISCO) form an anagram of the target word. A different wording of the clue acts as the definition, suggesting that Theresa May’s dancing at the Tory Party Conference was spasmodical. This type of clue is described as `anag. &lit’ (meaning `anagram’ and literally what it says). Undoubtedly, &lit clues are very difficult to construct, and the anagram in the above clue is extremely clever. Whether you think the &lit constitutes a fair definition of SPASMODICAL is a matter of taste. It’s perhaps a bit borderline, but probably saved by the `?’ at the end which traditionally implies some sort of funny business with the definition. In any case, this one is far less controversial than some of the others I’ve seen. For example, here it a prize-winning clue for SUBORDINATELY:

As in ‘B-role’ duty possibly

Here `possibly’ is the anagram indicator, which is fair enough, but for me the surface reading barely makes sense. Azed is the only judge, however, and he generally does seem to cut people quite a bit of slack when they attempt this type of clue.