Archive for September, 2019

University Rankings Again

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on September 18, 2019 by telescoper

Last week saw the publication of the Times Higher World University Rankings which have once again predictably generated a great deal of sound and fury while signifying nothing very important. I can’t be bothered to repeat my previous criticisms of these league tables (though I will point you to a very good rant here) but I will make a couple of comments on the reaction to them here in Ireland.

First let me mention (for what it’s worth) that Maynooth University has risen from the band covering 351st-400th place to that covering 301st to 350th place. That means that Maynooth went up by anything from 1 place to 99 places. That’s two consecutive years of rises for NUIM.

(I’ll add without further comment that I arrived here two years ago…)

The Irish Media have not paid much attention to this (or to the improvement in standing of NUI Galway) but have instead been preoccupied with the fact that the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth near Dublin, known as Trinity College Dublin for short, has fallen by 44 places to 164th place; see, for example, here. Now there’s no question in my mind that Irish universities need an injection of income – especially in science subjects – in order to improve standards of education and research, but I don’t really understand the obsession with Trinity College. It’s a fine institution, of course, but sometimes it’s almost as if the press think that’s the only University in Ireland…

In response to its declining fortunes Trinity College has claimed that Ireland needs a `Rankings Strategy’. No it doesn’t. It needs something far more radical – a higher education strategy. The current government  doesn’t have one

Anyway, given the rate of Maynooth’s rise and Trinity’s fall it is a straightforward undoubtedly scientifically valid extrapolation to predict that in two or three years time, Maynooth will have overtaken Trinity in the World Rankings anyway!

(No, I’m not going to take any bets on that.)

Turning away from the exercise in numerological flummery that is the Times Higher League Tables, let me pass on some numbers that are actually meaningful. The week before term with not everyone yet registered, the number of students taking Mathematical Physics in the first year at Maynooth has increased by 31% since last year and the number on our fast-track Theoretical Physics and Mathematics (TP&M) programme has increased threefold. These increases are very pleasing. Although lectures proper don’t start until next week, I did an introductory session with the TP&M students this morning. It was very nice to be able to welcome them to Maynooth for what I hope will be an enjoyable time at Ireland’s soon-to-be top University!


Operation Market Garden – 75 Years On

Posted in History with tags , , , on September 17, 2019 by telescoper

Seventy-five years ago today, on 17th September 1944, the largest airborne operation in military history began. Operation Market Garden (as it was called) saw about 35,000 Allied troops dropped by parachute or landed in gliders behind German lines in Holland, with the aim of seizing key bridges in order to allow infantry and armoured divisions to advance, eventually into Germany. Of more immediate tactical importance was that capture of the Northernmost bridges over the Rhine at Arnhem would prevent German reinforcements from moving South to confront the advancing troops, tanks and armoured vehicles of XXX Corps whose job was to punch a hole in the German defences and link up with the airborne troops.


Motivated by the belief that German armies in the West were exhausted and on the brink of collapse as well as the desire if possible to finish the war before Christmas, Operation Market Garden was daring and imaginative, but began to unravel right from the outset and ended as a disastrous failure, with the loss of many lives.

I’m not a military historian, so am not competent to add anything significant to the huge amount that has been written about what went wrong, but I will add a personal note. A cousin of my Grandfather flew to Arnhem with the 1st British Airborne division whose job was to take and hold the bridges over the Rhine that would open the door to an invasion of Germany. Sadly, he was one of those many troops who never even made it to their objective. In fact he was dead before he even hit the ground; his unit was dropped virtually on top of heavily armed German forces and had no chance of defending themselves. I had always been told that he had been dropped by parachute, but the records at the cemetery revealed that was wrong; he was on a glider which was badly shot up during its approach and crash-landed with no survivors.

The action at Arnhem actually involved two bridges, one a railway bridge at Oosterbeek, and the other a road bridge in Arnhem itself. British paratroopers did manage to capture one end of the road bridge, but never succeeded in securing both ends of the structure. Cut off from the much larger force pinned down near their landing zones they were eventually forced to surrender simply because they had run out of ammunition. The other units that landed near Arnhem never made their objectives and had to dig in and hope for reinforcements that never came. They fought a brave but desperate defensive action until 25th September when some were successfully evacuated across the Rhine. The original battle orders had specified they were to hold their ground for 48 hours until relieved by armour and infantry advancing rapidly from the South, but 30 Corps was heavily delayed by fighting, poor tactical decisions and congestion on the single road.

Some years ago, after attending a conference in Leiden, I took time out to visit Oosterbeek cemetery, where  1437 soldiers lie buried. Such was the chaos at Arnhem that bodies of fallen soldiers are still being discovered in gardens and woods; as there were so many dead that there was only time to bury them in shallow graves where they had fallen. As remains are discovered they are removed and reburied in Oosterbeek. When I visited the cemetery about 25 years ago, there were several brand new graves.

At the time of Market Garden the local people looked on in horror as their potential liberators were cut down. It must have been deeply traumatizing for them. I think it is telling that when, in 1969, the British Army proposed bringing to an end the annual ceremonies in commemoration of these events, local Dutch civilians insisted that they continue.

As I stood by the grave I couldn’t help thinking of how lucky members of my generation are that we have not been called on to make such a sacrifice. Now I fear deeply that the rise of nationalism and xenophobia, not least in Britain, threatens to the peace in Europe that has held for almost 75 years.

The failure of Operation Market Garden had other terrible consequences. The winter of 1944/45 was a terrible time one for Dutch civilians in the part of their country that had not been liberated, with many thousands dying from hunger and the bitter cold.

And of course had the Allies succeeded in penetrating into Germany in 1944, the post-war map of Europe would probably have been very different. This is how the front lines were drawn in mid-September 1944, with the Western Front and Eastern Front roughly equidistant from Berlin.

(By Army Map Service – Document “Atlas of the World Battle Fronts in Semimonthly Phases to August 15th 1945: Supplement to The Biennial report of the Chief of Staff of the United States Army July 1, 1943 to June 30 1945 To the Secretary of War”, Public Domain, Link.)

Had Market Garden been successful would there have been 45 years of Cold War?

Eleven Years a-Blogging

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on September 16, 2019 by telescoper

I received the little graphic above from WordPress yesterday to remind me that today is the 11th Anniversary of my first blog post, on September 16th 2008. If this were a wedding it would be a steel anniversary…

To be precise, the graphic reminded me that that I registered with WordPress on 15th September 2008. I actually wrote my first post on the day I registered but unfortunately I didn’t really know what I was doing on my first day at blogging and I didn’t actually manage to figure out how to publish this earth-shattering piece. It was only after I’d written my second post that I realized that the first one wasn’t actually visible to the general public because I hadn’t pressed the right buttons, so the two appear in the wrong order in my archive. Anyway, that confusion is the reason why I usually take 16th September as this blog’s real anniversary.

I’d like to take this opportunity to send my best wishes, and to thank, everyone who reads this blog, however occasionally. According to the WordPress stats, I’ve got readers from all round the world, including the Vatican!

Lord, Let Me In The Lifeboat

Posted in Jazz, Politics with tags , , , , , , on September 16, 2019 by telescoper

Yesterday I noticed a now-typical outburst of British mean-spirited xenophobia in that people are cancelling their donations to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution on the grounds that it spends a massive 2% of its budget saving lives abroad rather than in the UK. Or at least claim to be cancelling donations. Judging by the kind of people commenting on Twitter I’d bet than none of them has ever donated anything to anyone in their entire crab-faced existence. The face of `Global Britain’ as represented by the Daily Mail gets more umpleasant by the day.

Anyway, as a regular donor to the RNLI I have this morning increased my contribution and will be wearing my RNLI pin badge in support of the brave men and women who regularly risk their lives to save those in distress at sea.

Incidentally, in case you were wondering, the RNLI also serves Ireland: there are 59 lifeboats based in 45 stations in the Republic as well as Northern Ireland.

Anyway, I don’t want to let all this get anyone down so I’m sharing this piece of music which sprang to mind. Lord Let Me In The Lifeboat was recorded in 1945 for the Blue Note label by a band led by Sidney Bechet and Bunk Johnson. The latter had just come out of retirement courtesy of Sidney Bechet’s brother Leonard, a dentist, who furnished trumpeter Johnson with a new set of false teeth to allow him to resume playing. Not a lot of people know that.

Understandably, Bunk Johnson’s chops were not in great shape on this session but Bechet’s certainly were! When I was a lad I used to spend a bit of time transcribing clarinet solos from old records, and I remember doing this one by Sidney Bechet. The notes in themselves are not hard to play, but few people could generate that heavy vibrato and rich tone!

UPDATE: Oh look! I found it. If you want to play along at home, here you are. It’s in B♭ Major, and comes with a best guess as to the chords:


Update: Great News

Reasons to stay alive

Posted in Biographical, Mental Health with tags , , , , on September 15, 2019 by telescoper

I saw this message from author Matt Haig on Twitter last weekend and it affected me so much I couldn’t write about it at the time.

Twenty years ago, when he was in his twenties, Matt tried to take his own life. He didn’t succeed, but the attempt left him severely ill as he summarises in that tweet. He wrote about his crisis in his book Reasons To Stay Alive, from which I have borrowed the title of this post.

Why did this message affect me so much? It’s largely because the words he uses to describe his condition also exactly describe what I was like seven years ago when I was admitted to an acute ward in a psychiatric hospital. I wasn’t exactly suicidal, just so exhausted that I didn’t really care what happened next. I was however put on a kind of `suicide watch’, the reason for this being that, apparently, even while sedated, I kept trying to pull the tube out of my arm. I was being fed via a drip because I was ‘Nil by Mouth’ by virtue of uncontrollable vomiting. I guess the doctors thought I was trying to sabotage myself, but I wasn’t. Not consciously anyway. I think it was probably just irritating me. In fact I don’t remember doing it at all, but that period is very much a blur altogether. Anyway, I then found myself in physical restraints so I couldn’t move my arms to stop me doing that.

Eventually I was deemed well enough to move to a general ward and shortly after that I was discharged (with follow-up counselling and medication).

Experiences like that – which I sincerely hope none of you reading this ever have to go through – make you feel very isolated because you are lost inside your own head and body. Knowing that other people go through similar things, and not only survive but prosper, helps a lot. You feel a bit less of an outlier. Of course I’ll never appear on stage at the National Theatre, but although the intervening years haven’t exactly been plain sailing, the last seven have brought far more positives than negatives.

It’s hard to explain why Matt’s message had such a resonance. His experience was clearly far worse than mine, but when I was discharged from hospital the doctors made it very clear just how ill I had been, and that if there was any recurrence I should get help as soon as possible. As well as writing about it on this blog, I did a piece for Time to Change Wales, encouraging people to ask for help if they need it.

Anyway, this brings me to the point of this sermon. Yesterday I received this by email:

It’s from Niteline, an organisation whose volunteers offer students free confidential counselling, and it came with a suggestion (which I will follow) that I should share it with students before and after my lectures. I’m not sure how many students will read this blog, but I thought I would share it here too. If it encourages just one person who is struggling to find someone to talk to then it’s worth it.

The Radio, The Universities and The Culture in Ireland

Posted in Maynooth, Music with tags , on September 14, 2019 by telescoper

Yesterday at the end of a busy week I finally got round to booking a ticket for next Friday’s Culture Night performance at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. That will be my first concert of the new season and I’m looking forward to it. Among other things, it gives me the chance to persevere with Brahms…

However, later on in the evening yesterday I heard via one of the presenters of RTÉ lyric fm, the radio station on which next week’s concert will be broadcast, that there are plans afoot to close down the channel because of funding difficulties.

Since I first arrived in Ireland nearly two years ago, I searched through the available radio stations for one that I could listen to and it didn’t take me long to settle on RTÉ lyric fm, which has been a regular source of edification, relaxation and stress relief for me. I fear its loss tremendously. I’m not the only one. If you’re on Twitter, take a look at the hashtag #savelyricfm.

I listen to the jovial Marty Whelan in the morning before work, and when I get home in the evenings I enjoy John Kelly’s Mystery Train followed by Bernard Clarke’s The Blue of the Night on weekdays and Ellen Cranitch’s The Purple Vespertine at the weekends. All these programmes have intriguingly eclectic playlists, from classical to jazz and beyond, and presenters who clearly know and love the music. It’s not just a music channel, of course. RTÉ lyric fm covers culture and the arts generally, and is the only channel run by RTÉ – which is meant to be a public service broadcaster – that has this area as its province. It would be a crying shame as well as an abdication of its cultural responsibility if all this were lost to save the paltry amount of money required to keep the station going. I’ll do anything I can to save RTÉ lyric fm. For me it really is one of the very best things about Ireland.

I might add that I stopped watching television many years ago and don’t have a TV set. I’m even less inclined to get one now that I’m in Ireland as the schedules are dominated by the kind of crappy programmes I didn’t watch when I lived in Britain and have even less reason to watch now. The radio, on the other hand, in something I enjoy a lot.

Another item that was doing the rounds last week was the publication of the annual Times Higher Education World Rankings. I’ll save a proper rant about the stupidity and dishonesty of these league tables for another occasion, but one thing that has preoccupied the media here about the results is that Irish universities have done rather badly: Trinity College, for example, has fallen 44 places since last year. While I don’t trust these tables much, together with Ireland’s very poor showing in the recent ERC grant round, they do paint a consistent picture of a higher education system that is struggling with with the consequences of years of chronic underfunding.

(I’ll add that Maynooth University bucked the trend a bit, rising from the band covering 351st-400th place to that covering 301st to 350th place. That means that Maynooth went up by anything from 1 place to 99 places. There can be little doubt who is responsible for this…)

For me these stories are both consequences of the prevailing political culture in Ireland, which is a form of neoliberalism that deems neither culture nor public service nor education to be things of value in themselves and therefore just leaves them to dwindle through lack of care. The only think that matters is the cycle of production and consumption. Culture is irrelevant.

While the Irish economy is booming – at least in terms of GDP growth – the proceeds of this growth go to a relatively small number of rich individuals and multinational corporations while most people don’t see any benefit at all, either in their own salaries, or in investment in the public services. Austerity for everyone except the rich has been the policy for the last decade in Ireland as it has in the United Kingdom and the consequences are plain for all to see, in the arts, in the universities and in the lives of ordinary people.

The Open Journal of Astrophysics: Scholastica Webinar and Plan S

Posted in Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on September 13, 2019 by telescoper

Just a quick post to advertise the fact that I’ve been invited by Scholastica to do a webinar (whatever that is) about the Open Journal of Astrophysics, which will involved a short presentation delivered over the interwebs jointly by myself and Fiona Morley (Head of Digital Programmes and Information Systems at Maynooth University Library), followed by a question and answer session. The session will be conducted via Zoom (which is the pretty neat platform we use, e.g., for Euclid teleconference meetings).

Here is the advert:

You can sign up here.

While I’m on the subject(s) of Scholastica and the Open Journal of Astrophysics, I thought I’d add a bit of news about Plan S. Scholastica has been working hard behind the scenes to develop a roadmap that will enable its journals to become compliant with Plan S. The roadmap is here. Three important landmarks on it are:

  • Core machine-readable XML metadata in the JATS standard for all articles
  • Automated Digital Object Identifier (DOI) registration through Crossref
  • Automated metadata, including funding sources, deposited into major indexes and archives including DOAJ and Portico

Currently we do some of these manually for each article, and it’s nice to see that Scholastica is intending to provide these services automatically which will save us (i.e. me) a considerable amount of fiddling about!