Archive for January, 2019

A Problem of Sons

Posted in Cute Problems with tags , , on January 31, 2019 by telescoper

I’m posting this in the Cute Problems folder, but I’m mainly putting it up here as a sort of experiment. This little puzzle was posted on Twitter by someone I follow and it got a huge number of responses (>25,000). I was fascinated by the replies, and I’m really interested to see whether the distribution of responses from readers of this blog is different.

Anyway, here it is, exactly as posted on Twitter:

Assume there is a 50:50 chance of any child being male or female.

Now assume four generations, all other things being equal.

What are the odds of a son being a son of a son of a son?

Please choose an answer from those below:


UPDATE: The answer is below:


Continue reading

On Barry John

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Rugby with tags , , on January 30, 2019 by telescoper

I was browsing a few rugby sites yesterday evening, ahead of this year’s Six Nations competition (which starts on Saturday) when I stumbled across this little clip featuring legendary Welsh standoff Barry John.

The opening part of this clip really caught my attention because it was filmed near the bus stop just outside The Halfway, a pub on Cathedral Road just a few yards from my house in Cardiff; in the background you can see Llandaff Fields.

I’ve often wondered what became of Barry John. He’s 74 now and no longer the slim young prodigy who was quite simply the best rugby player I ever saw. Since he played in a great Welsh side that included Gareth Edwards, J.P.R. Williams, Gerald Davies et al, that really says something. As a sort of rugby equivalent of George Best, he was incredibly famous during his career. Budding rugby players – even those not born in Wales – all wanted to play like Barry John. But suddenly, at the age of just 27, after playing just 25 internationals, he turned his back on all the publicity and adulation and retired from rugby. He found the pressure of being such a star in the amateur era too difficult to cope with.

Anyway, was Barry John really that good? Absolutely yes, he was. Slight of build but with superb balance, he had an extraordinary, almost magical, ability to find his way through a crowd of potential tacklers as if they weren’t there at all. In the memorable words of that great commentator Bill McLaren “he flits like a little phantom”. But you don’t need to take my word for it. Just look at him – and some other giants of the time – in these highlights of the classic Scotland-Wales tie in the Five Nations of 1971. Watch about 30 seconds in, where he wrong-foots half the Scottish three-quarter line before ghosting through three more before releasing the ball to his forwards. Will there ever be another Barry John? I doubt it..

I doubt if Barry John will ever get to read this, but I’m sure there are many of us who remember the excitement of watching him play and feel enriched by what he gave us.

New Publication at the Open Journal of Astrophysics!

Posted in Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on January 29, 2019 by telescoper

Well, it’s time at last to announce the first paper to be published by the new incarnation of the Open Journal of Astrophysics, which we just published this morning. Here it is!

It’s by Syksy Räsänen of the University of Helsinki. You can find the full article on the arXiv here.

This is the first published paper to have been submitted to the Open Journal of Astrophysics since its re-launch last October; the others on the OJA site were published on the old platform and imported into the new site after publication. This new paper has gone all the way through submission, refereeing, revision and publication on the new platform.

It’s been quite exciting for the last couple of months, as various papers have been working their way through the Editorial pipeline, to see which would win the race and get published first. Some submissions have been slowed down by folk reluctant to accept reviewing requests, presumably because the journal is not so well known and some are suspicious that it might not be bona fide. Hopefully that will pass with time. Moreover, after internal discussions, the Editorial Board have decided to ask for two referees for each paper by default and that has probably also slowed us down a bit.

We have a few other papers coming up for publication soon, and some have been sent back to authors for revise and resubmit. I think I know which one will be published next, but I’ll keep that to myself for now!

Sad about Everyman

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , , , on January 28, 2019 by telescoper

As if the world weren’t crazy enough, yesterday the Observer served up this as its Everyman Crossword puzzle No. 3772:

The Everyman crossword boasts a long tradition of good cryptic puzzles, going back as far as 1945. It has been set by various people over the years, including none other than the great D.S. MacNutt whose book The Art of the Crossword is a must-read for all cruciverbalists.

Most recently the setter of the Everyman Crossword has been Colin Gumbrell whose puzzles have been consistently enjoyable and well-constructed. They’re not as challenging as Azed, but I always like to tackle the Everyman puzzle as a sort of warm-up exercise before doing that one. Sadly I hear that Colin has been forced by ill health to stop composing crossword puzzles. I’m told that the 20th January puzzle (No. 3771) is to be his last. I send my very best wishes to Colin Gumbrell at this time, as I’m sure do crossword enthusiasts everywhere.

Incidentally, Colin Gumbrell also sets the Antico puzzle in The Oldie, a very enjoyable thematic puzzle that I do every month. I’ve won the prize for that one  a couple of times, though not recently. The Oldie has two crosswords, of differing levels of difficulty, labelled `Genius’ and `Moron’, respectively.

It seems the Observer had to find a crossword setter at short notice, which is some kind of excuse for the offering above, but it’s still the worst crossword puzzle I’ve ever seen in a supposedly quality newspaper.


As an example of the duff clues, take a look at 1 Across:

Loses hope as spa dries. (8)

The answer is DESPAIRS (defined by `loses hope’) and an anagram of SPA DRIES. But where is the anagram indicator?

Now look at 1 Down:

Adorn a device for measuring up to 11 yards? (10)

The answer to this is DECAMETRE (defined by `11 yards’) and clearly intended to be a soundalike (homophone) for DECK A METER (Adorn a device for measuring…). But where is the corresponding homophone indicator?

The clue to 14 down is

Foreign Miss by design or inadvertently (9)

The solution is SIGNORINA (`Foreign Miss’) and a hidden word, but no indicator thereof.

I could go on. The whole puzzle is littered with such deficiencies. D.S. MacNutt – who was a stickler for fairness and precision in his clues – must be turning in his grave.

And who puts a full stop at the end of a crossword clue? I’ve never seen that before!

If this is the way the Everyman puzzle is going to be from now on, I won’t be wasting any more time on it.


BBC Broadcaster John Humphrys: Ireland Should Join With The UK Outside The EU

Posted in Uncategorized on January 27, 2019 by telescoper

There’s been a lot of comment about this performance from John Humphrys. Let’s just say that I’ve got nothing against his family but I think he should retire and spend more time with them.

UPDATE: I think Mr Humphrys has got the message!


The British journalist John Humphrys has a reputation for occasionally allowing his right-wing instincts to filter into his broadcasting but never has this been truer than in this fact-free interview with a remarkably patient Helen McEntee, our own Minister of State for European Affairs, when the BBC Today presenter puts forward the claim that there is an argument for Ireland to leave the European Union and “throw in their lot” with the United Kingdom.

View original post

Slugs for Salt!

Posted in Uncategorized on January 26, 2019 by telescoper

This little cartoon has been doing the rounds on social media recently. It appears to have caused some controversy, so naturally I decided to share it here.

I’m posting it without further comment, though of course any persons wishing to identify as slugs are free to do so.

Travels and Travails

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff with tags , , , on January 25, 2019 by telescoper

This morning I headed back to Cardiff for a few days. It’s my last opportunity to sort out a few things here before teaching starts.

I’m not having much luck with travelling this week. This morning there was a last-minute change of gate at Dublin Airport, then a delay boarding due to ‘technical issues with the aircraft’, then a lengthy queue of other planes on the way to the runway.

Then, just as it seemed to be our turn to take off, we started to taxi back in the direction we had come from. The pilot muttered something about ‘a discrepancy with the paperwork’. I really though we were going back to the Terminal and would all have to disembark.

Fortunately that didn’t happen. We parked in a remote part of the airfield while the alleged discrepancy was resolved. We eventually took off about an hour late.

When we got to Cardiff we were delayed still further by having to get a bus from the plane to the Arrivals area, although the usual gates within walking distance were unoccupied.

Finally I was surprised to see full passport control in place inside the Terminal. Normally there are no passport checks on passengers flying from Dublin to the UK because of the Common Travel Area. I suppose that arrangement will be yet another casualty of Brexit.

On the other hand perhaps all these curious incidents with paperwork, passport checks, etc were related? A suspicious individual on the plane perhaps?

A large contingent of rugby fans were on the plane for tomorrow’s match between Cardiff Blues and Connacht at Cardiff Arms Park, but they were a friendly crowd and unlikely to be the cause of security concerns.

Anyway, I got back to Pontcanna a full 90 minutes late and not entirely gruntled.

Here’s another picture of Maynooth University Library Cat from earlier this week. I wonder what he would have made of today’s shenanigans?

Plan S Briefing Presentations

Posted in Maynooth, Open Access with tags , , , , , , on January 24, 2019 by telescoper

I thought it might be useful for the research community in Ireland and beyond to share the slides for the presentations used on Tuesday’s Briefing on Plan S for Open Access

Here are the five main presentations (shared here with permission from the Royal Irish Academy):




Don’t forget that the deadline for submission of feedback on the Plan S proposals is February 8th 2019!

Not to Belfast and Back

Posted in Biographical, Talks and Reviews with tags , , , on January 23, 2019 by telescoper

Well, today I was supposed to give a seminar at the Astrophysics Research Centre at Queen’s University Belfast.

I was actually quite looking forward to visiting Belfast and to my first go on the Enterprise train service between Dublin Connolly and Belfast.

Unfortunately, although the train left Dublin on schedule at 9.30am (due into Belfast at 11.45), after about half an hour we came to a stop near Balbriggan and remained motionless for over an hour owing to a `mechanical fault’. The train eventually limped into Drogheda station after 2 hours and 15 minutes. Passengers were then obliged to get off at board the following service (departing Connolly at 11.20) which was due to arrive at Belfast station at 13.32. Since my talk was due to start at 1pm and finish at 2pm I asked the organizers what to do and, following their advice, am now on the 12.08 service from Drogheda to Dublin.

The defective train was shunted out of the way, but by the time I left the 11.20 from Connolly due into Drogheda at 11.56 had not arrived, so the onward train would also have been late.

Queen’s University Belfast, which I didn’t visit today.

Mechanical faults do happen, of course, but was reprehensible was the complete lack of communication between the crew and passengers. The decision to terminate the train at Drogheda was announced on Twitter over an hour before the train manager bothered to tell the passengers.

Apologies to everyone at QUB for having to cancel, but I really had no choice. I’ll try to reschedule it, and next time I’ll take the bus.

Plan S Open Access Briefing

Posted in Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on January 22, 2019 by telescoper

This morning I found myself in the centre of Dublin to attend an event at the Royal Irish Academy, in Dawson Street. Coincidentally this is just a few yards from the Mansion House, scene of the meeting of the First Dáil on 21st January 1919 (which I blogged about here) and also scene of the commemorations of its centenary yesterday. I’m guessing that the removals van was taking away some of the paraphernalia used for yesterday’s event.

Anyway, the event at the Royal Irish Academy organized by the National Open Research Forum (NORF) was intended to disseminate information about Plan S – a European initiative for Open Access publishing.

I have blogged about Plan S and some of the reactions to it before (e.g. here and here).

The main point is that comprehensive technical guidance on how to comply with Plan S and you can also submit feedback on the guidance here until the deadline of February 8th 2019. Full implementation is expected by January 2020. Things are moving relatively quickly, which is a very good thing. Some people thing this deadline is unrealistic, but I think it was a smart move to make it close so as to galvanize researchers into action.

I learnt a particularly interesting fact during the talk by Maynooth’s own Cathal McCauley, namely that the global revenues of the academic publishing industry amount to about, €22 billion per annum. This exceeds the global revenues of the recorded music industry. Profit margins for these publishers are much larger (up to 45%) than Apple, Google and BMW. The research community is being fleeced, and the worst offenders are the `Big Four’: Elsevier, Springer, Wiley and Taylor & Francis.

One of the main concerns expressed in the discussion session was the extent that move away from traditional journals might have a negative effect on early career researchers, as those responsible for hiring postdocs and new faculty members often concentrate on the journal in which their work is published rather than the work itself. The obvious way to address this problem to use article-level information rather than journal-level metrics, which is entirely feasible to do, but it is true that we need a change of culture across the board to make this work for the benefit of science as whole. I am optimistic about this, largely because I recall very well how rapidly the culture in astrophysics adapted to the existence of the arXiv. With regard to open access publishing the way forward is to disrupt the existing Academic Journal Racket by developing alternative modes publication which demonstrate benefits in cost, reach and simplicity, combined with pressure from funding agencies imposing mandates on publications arising from their grants.

There is no question in my mind that in just a few years, when Open Access is the overwhelmingly dominant mode of publication, researchers will look back and wonder why we ever put up with the absurd system we have at present.

As a final comment I’ll mention that the Open Journal of Astrophysics got a few mentions during the session. I’m hoping to make some exciting announcements about this journal very soon indeed. Before that, however, I have to go to Belfast to give a talk…