Archive for March, 2019

Singular Shenanigans

Posted in Pedantry with tags , , , , , on March 31, 2019 by telescoper

I used the word `shenanigans’ in a recent post, after which I wondered to myself whether there’s such a thing as a single `Shenanigan’. The Oxford English Dictionary says yes, defining it thusly:

I was a little surprised by this as I’ve only ever heard this word in the plural, shenanigans, but there we are. Another thing that surprised me is the `Origin obscure’; even the One True Chambers says `Origin unknown’. I’d always assumed that this was a word of Irish origin like, e.g., `slogan’. The oldest uses given in the OED are all American, from the mid-19th Century which does not refute the possibility that it is based on an Irish word because of the huge Irish diaspora in the United States, especially after the Great Famine of the 1840s, but I’m surprised the main English dictionaries have been unable to locate the connection.

The best I’ve been able to do using Google is the Irish word sionnachulghim,meaning `to play tricks, to be foxy’ (from sionnach, `fox’). That seems to me to be a plausible idea, but not it’s conclusive. If anyone has any further thoughts on the origin of shenanigans I’d be very interested to hear them through the comments box below.

To return to my original thought that shenanigans was a noun that that only exists in the plural, if it were so it would belong to the class of Plurale Tantum (which I blogged about a long time ago, here in the context about whether `data’ is singular or plural). Other examples of English nouns that exist in the `plural only’ include: suds, entrails, outskirts, odds, tropics, riches, surroundings, thanks, heroics, faeces and genitalia.

To my mind you should treat your data the same way you treat your genitalia. Grammatically speaking, I mean.


160 Years of the Irish Times

Posted in Biographical, Crosswords, Politics with tags , , on March 30, 2019 by telescoper

With all the shenanigans surrounding yesterday’s non-Brexit Day I quite missed the news that March 29th 2019 was an important for my newspaper of choice, The Irish Times, which was first published on March 29th 1859, the front page of which is reproduced above. Initially The Irish Times was only published on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays but it became a daily paper a few months after its launch, in June 1859.

The first edition promised to

make a first-rate Irish newspaper, complete in its details, sagacious and consistent in its policy and faithfully reflecting the opinions of the most independent, intelligent and truly progressive portion of Irish society.

That pretty much applies to it now, I’d say. Interestingly, though, it started out as a staunchly Unionist paper and every one of its editors until 1986 was a Protestant.

I don’t buy a paper every day but I do always get the Weekend Edition, which is full of excellent writing (even if often disagree with its take on various things).

It’s interesting to note that the front page of the first edition was dominated by goings-on in the House of Commons in Westminster, as is today’s edition. Plus ça change..

The only real drawback to the Irish Times is that it doesn’t have a very good cryptic crossword. Fortunately, the UK papers give theirs away for free so I now do the Financial Times, Guardian and Observer Prize Crosswords without buying them.

A Change of Units

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on March 29, 2019 by telescoper

To round off a very strange week I’ve just been to an interesting talk by Dr Bajram Zeqiri of the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington (UK) about imminent changes to the International System of Units (usually known as SI units). In a nutshell, what is to happen is that the current seven base units are to be redefined in terms of fundamental constants. In effect this means that the these constants will fix the standard units rather than the other way round. For more details, see here. The change is due to come into effect on 20th May 2019.

Our speaker Dr Zeqiri is nearing the end of a short tour of Ireland speaking about these changes. Before giving the third talk on this subject talk today, 29th March 2019, thought to be the date on which the United Kingdom would leave the European Union, he wondered whether he might be able to claim political asylum in Ireland. Fortunately, today is not Brexit Day and following today’s events in Westminster it is by no means certain when that might be or indeed whether Brexit will even happen at all…

Machine Learning in the Physical Sciences

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on March 29, 2019 by telescoper

If, like me, you feel a bit left behind by goings-on in the field of Machine Learning and how it impacts on physics then there’s now a very comprehensive review by Carleo et al on the arXiv.

Here is a picture from the paper, which I have included so that this post has a picture in it:

The abstract reads:

Machine learning encompasses a broad range of algorithms and modeling tools used for a vast array of data processing tasks, which has entered most scientific disciplines in recent years. We review in a selective way the recent research on the interface between machine learning and physical sciences.This includes conceptual developments in machine learning (ML) motivated by physical insights, applications of machine learning techniques to several domains in physics, and cross-fertilization between the two fields. After giving basic notion of machine learning methods and principles, we describe examples of how statistical physics is used to understand methods in ML. We then move to describe applications of ML methods in particle physics and cosmology, quantum many body physics, quantum computing, and chemical and material physics. We also highlight research and development into novel computing architectures aimed at accelerating ML. In each of the sections we describe recent successes as well as domain-specific methodology and challenges.

The next step after Machine Learning will of course be Machine Teaching…

BICEP2: Is the Signal Cosmological?

Posted in Astrohype, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on March 28, 2019 by telescoper

An article in Physics Today just reminded me just now that I have missed the fifth anniversary of the BICEP2 announcement of `the detection of primordial gravitational waves’. I know I’m a week but I thought I’d reblog the post I wrote on March 19th 2014.You will see that I was sceptical…

..and it subsequently turned out that I was right to be so.

In the Dark

I have a short gap in my schedule today so I thought I would use it to post a short note about the BICEP2 results announced to great excitement on Monday.

There has been a great deal of coverage in the popular media about a “Spectacular Cosmic Discovery” and this is mirrored by excitement at a more technical level about the theoretical implications of the BICEP2 results. Having taken a bit of time out last night to go through the discovery paper, I think I should say that I think all this excitement is very premature. In that respect I agree with the result of my straw poll.

First of all let me make it clear that the BICEP2 experiment is absolutely superb. It was designed and built by top-class scientists and has clearly functioned brilliantly to improve its sensitivity so much that it has gone so…

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Brexit: What’s the Indicative Mood?

Posted in Pedantry, Politics with tags , , , , , on March 27, 2019 by telescoper

If you are confused about today’s `Indicative Votes’ in Parliament on Brexit let me provide some helpful information about the indicative mood, and how it relates to Brexit.

The English word “exit” is derived from the third person singular of the present tense in the indicative mood in the active voice of the Latin verb “exire” (“to go out”) i.e. it means “he/she/it leaves”, though the noun form it usually has in English derives from the supine form “exitus”. I feel it is important that we all get used to the grammar of Brexit, so here is a fairly complete list of the parts of the verb `Brexire’ in the active voice of the indicative mood, some or all of which may be relevant in the forthcoming debates, complete with accents to assist punctuation. At least these may prove useful in following any contributions from Jacob Rees-Mogg.

First let’s start with the basics:

Infinitive: Brexīre
Present participle: Brexiēns; Brexiéntis
Future participle: Brexītúrus
Gerund: Brexeúndum
Gerundive: Brexeúndus

And now here are representative examples of the conjugation of the verb Brexire in various tenses of the Indicative Mood in the order: first, second and third person singular followed by first, second and third person plural:



Past Imperfect


Past Perfect




Future Simple


Future Perfect


The last tense here is not really relevant, but I’ve included it anyway.

No doubt when the Indicative votes are over, the House of Commons will proceed to the Subjunctive Mood – or even directly to the Imperative – but I shall leave these to a future post.

Changing Time

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 27, 2019 by telescoper

Among the many sensible decisions made yesterday by the European Parliament was to approve a directive that will abolish `Daylight Saving Time’. I’ve long felt that the annual ritual of putting the clocks forward in the Spring and back again in the Autumn was a waste of time effort, so I’ll be glad when this silly practice is terminated.
It would be better in my view to stick with a single Mean Time throughout the year. I’m only disappointed that this won’t happen until 2021 as EU countries have to enact the necessary legislation according to their constitutional processes.

The marvellous poster above is from 1916, when British Summer Time was introduced. I was surprised to learn recently that the practice of changing clocks backwards and forwards is only about a hundred years old. in the United Kingdom. To be honest I’m also surprised that the practice persists to this day, as I can’t see any real advantage in it. Any institution or organisation that really wants to change its working hours in summer can easily do so, but the world of work is far more flexible nowadays than it was a hundred years ago and I think few would feel the need.

Anyway, while I am on about Mean Time, here is a another poster from 1916.

Until October 1916, clocks in Ireland were set to Dublin Mean Time, as defined at Dunsink Observatory rather than at Greenwich. The adoption of GMT in Ireland was driven largely by the fact that the British authorities found that the time difference between Dublin and London had confused telegraphic communications during the Easter Rising earlier in 1916. Its imposition was therefore, at least in part, intended to bring Ireland under closer control and this did not go down well with Irish nationalists.

Ireland had not moved to Summer Time with Britain in May 1916 because of the Easter Rising. Dublin Mean Time was 25 minutes 21 seconds behind GMT but the change was introduced at the same time as BST ended in the UK, hence the alteration by one hour minus 25 minutes 21 seconds, ie 34 minutes and 39 seconds as in the poster.

Britain will probably not scrap British Summer Time immediately as it will be out of the European Union by then. British xenophobia will resist this change on the grounds that anything to do with the EU must be bad. What happens to Northern Ireland when Ireland scraps Daylight Saving Time is yet to be seen.

Moreover the desire expressed by more than one Brexiter to return to the 18th Century may be behind the postponement of the Brexit deadline from 29th March to 12th April may be the result of an attempt to repeal the new-fangled Gregorian calendar (introduced in continental Europe in 1582 but not adopted by Britain until 1750). It’s not quite right though: 29th March in the Gregorian calendar would be 11th April in the Gregorian calendar…