Archive for the Biographical Category

Out of the REF

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth with tags , , , , on November 25, 2020 by telescoper

I was talking over Zoom with some former colleagues from the United Kingdom last week, and was surprised to learn that, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2021 Research Excellence Framework is ploughing ahead next year, only slightly delayed. There’s no stopping bureaucratic juggernauts once they get going…

One of the major plusses of being in Ireland is that, outside the UK academic system, there is no REF. One can avoid the enormous workload and stress generated by this exercise in bean-counting My memories of the last REF in 2014 when I was Head of School at Sussex are quite painful, as it went badly for us then. I hope that the long-term investments we made then will pay off, though, and I hope things turn out better for Sussex this time especially for the Department of Physics & Astronomy for which the impact and environment components of the assessment dragged the overall score down.

The census period for the new REF is 1st August 2013 to 31st July 2020. Not being involved personally in the REF this time round I haven’t really paid much attention to the changes that have been adopted since 2014. One I knew about is that the rules make it harder for institutions to leave staff out of their REF return. Some universities played the system in 2014 by being very selective about whom they put in. Only staff with papers considered likely to be rated top-notch were submitted.

Having a quick glance at the documents I see two other significant differences.

One is that in 2014, with very few exceptions, all staff had to submit four research outputs (i.e. papers) to be graded. in 2021 the system is more flexible: the total number of outputs must equal 2.5 times the summed FTE (full-time equivalent) of the unit’s submitted staff, with no individual submitting more than 5 and none fewer than 1 (except in special cases related to Covid-19). Overall, then there will be fewer outputs than before, the multiplier of FTE being 2.5 (2021) instead of 4 (2014). There will still be a lot, of course, so the panels will have a great deal of reading to do. If that’s what they do with the papers. They’ll probably just look up citations…

The other difference relates to staff who have left an institution during the census period. In 2014 the institution to which a researcher moved got all the credit for the publications, while the institution they left got nothing. In 2021, institutions “may return the outputs of staff previously employed as eligible where the output was first made publicly available during the period of eligible employment, within the set number of outputs required.” I suppose this is to prevent the departure of a staff member causing too much damage to the institution they left.

I was wondering about this last point when chatting with friends the other day. I moved institutions twice during the relevant census period, from Sussex to Cardiff and then from Cardiff to Maynooth. In principle, therefore, both former employees could submit my outputs I published while I was there to the 2021 REF. I only published a dozen or so papers while I was at Sussex – the impact of being Head of School on my research productivity was considerable – and none of them are particularly highly cited so I don’t think that Sussex will want to submit any of them, but they could if they wanted to. They don’t have to ask my permission!

I doubt if Cardiff will be worried about my papers. Among other things they have a stack of gravitational wave papers that should all be 4*.

Anyway, thinking about the REF an amusing thought occurred to me about Research Assessment. My idea was to set up a sort of anti-REF (perhaps the Research Inferiority Framework) based not on the best outputs produced by an institutions researchers but on the worst. The institutions producing the highest number of inferior papers could receive financial penalties and get relegated in the league tables for encouraging staff to write too many papers that nobody ever reads or are just plain wrong. My guess is that papers published in Nature might figure even more prominently in this

Four Weeks To Go

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on November 23, 2020 by telescoper

As I await another Zoom meeting I remembered this cartoon from last week’s Private Eye, which sums up the prevalent mood amongst academics these days (and no doubt people in other kinds of job too).

At the start of this morning’s Panopto lecture I realised that there are still 4 weeks left of this Semester before the Christmas break. I was a bit surprised by that as this term seems to have lasted a decade already. The time certainly hasn’t zoomed by. Still, at least I’ve more-or-less kept up with my planned schedule of lectures in both of my modules without slipping. I may even be able to finish lectures to my 2nd year Vector Calculus in time to do a bit of revision in the final week.

That’s not to say other things haven’t slipped. The greatly increased time for teaching needed to move everything online hasn’t left much time for research or anything else. I keep meaning to work in the evenings to deal with outstanding things but mostly I find once I’ve done the necessary admin and teaching stuff all I can do is sleep. It seems that I’ll have to work over Christmas to finish off the backlog. Given that I didn’t have a holiday this summer that’s not ideal, but it’s unlikely I’ll be going anywhere over the “festive” season owing to Coronavirus restrictions so I might as well make the best of it.

We don’t have much idea how things will work out next Semester. The politicians seem to be wanting universities to have more on-campus teaching in the New Year. They also want to end the current restrictions to end before Christmas. In fact the current regime is suppose to end on December 2nd, which is next week, and cases are still running around 400 per day. I don’t think they can do both of these and for the Covid-19 situation to remain under any semblance of control. I think the likeliest scenario is that cases surge over the next few weeks and the Christmas break and we have to go back into full restrictions in January or February.

There is however the prospect of a vaccine or vaccines being available fairly early next year so maybe the end of this is in sight. I really hope we can get back to campus normality at some point in 2021. I do feel very sad about the effect all these restrictions has been having on the students. It’s not just having to have remote lectures. I think having a lecturer in the same room is an advantage, but the loss of it is not the worst issue. We encourage our students to work with each other in their learning, and I’m sure students learn at least as much from each other as they do from the lecturer. Peer group learning is more difficult when your peers are sitting in separate locations most of the time.

Earlier today I found myself using the phrase “getting back to normal” in connection with plans for next teaching year. Then I realise that we staff know what we mean by “normal” but our first-year students don’t. I have a feeling that may might find it more difficult to adjust to the old normal than they did to the new one.

And in any case many of our students in all years did not take up accommodation in Maynooth at the start of this year because of the remote teaching. Even if we did on campus lectures or tutorials next term, I suspect many will stay at home anyway to avoid substantial cost of rented accommodation. We will therefore have to continue making material available online whatever happens.

Anyway, what may or may not happen next Semester is to a large extent out of my hands so I won’t be making any firm decisions on what approach I will be taking until much closer to the start of Semester 2 In the meantime the goal is to fight the exhaustion and try get through to the end of term in one piece.

On the GAA

Posted in Biographical, History, Sport with tags , , , , , on November 22, 2020 by telescoper

Since moving to Ireland almost three years ago I have (somewhat unexpectedly) become a fan of GAA and regularly watch both hurling and Gaelic football on the TV, which is quite often.

Ireland is very keen on sports generally, with big followings for both rugby and soccer but, at least in terms of attendances, hurling and Gaelic football are by far the most popular sports in Ireland. That’s quite remarkable because these are entirely amateur games. One of the great things about the GAA is that it’s a real grass roots organization, where even games between local clubs can attract very big crowds. (I’m talking about the pre-Covid era there, obviously.) The players tend to be local and there’s a strong involvement of the community in the local clubs.

Hurling is my favourite GAA sport – the level of skill on display is truly awesome and it’s played at an amazingly fast tempo – but I do watch the football when I can too and am more gradually getting into it. Incidentally, these two sports are played on the same pitches with the same goals and the same number of players on each side (15) and have basically the same rules – with a player’s hurley (stick) in hurling being in one-to-one correspondence as far as the rules are concerned with a player’s foot in Gaelic football. The ball of course is bigger in football; the small one used in hurling is called a sliotar. Scoring is the same in both: 1 point getting the ball between the two posts over the bar as in rugby and a goal (3 points) for getting the ball into the back of the net below the bar.

I took a break in the early afternoon yesterday to watch the All Ireland Quarter Final match in the hurling between Galway and Tipperary, an entertaining match played in fine weather which was won by Galway 3-23 to 2-24. Later on, I settled down to watch the Leinster provincial final between Dublin and Meath live from Croke Park in the evening. Given that this match was on the same day as Bloody Sunday it was preceded by a solemn commemoration of those that died a hundred years ago which I thought was beautifully done. Here’s a video tribute made by the GAA itself, played at the end of the pre-match commemoration along with specially-composed music.

After the match there was a wreath-laying ceremony involving the players which was unfortunately spoiled on the television broadcast by a commentator who talked all the way over it.

The match itself was a very one-sided affair, which was effectively all over by half time (when the score was Dublin 2-12 Meath 0-2). It ended Dublin 3-21 Meath 0-9, which is a margin of 21 points: quite a thrashing for Meath. I’m not an expert, but the Dublin side were far more mobile and inventive than Meath and thoroughly deserved their win.

There wasn’t a crowd of course. I think the commemorative event would have been even more emotional if there had been. Watching the actual match though it struck me that we’re all getting used to watching sport in an empty stadium. It’s probably going to take some getting used to the noise when (if) live audiences eventually return.

UPDATE: Tipperary beat Cork in Munster final this afternoon to win it for the first time in 85 years. The team were wearing replica jerseys of those worn by the Tipperary team that played Dublin in 1920.

After all the provincial finals, including a surprise win for Cavan over Donegal in Ulster, the four teams in the semi-finals of the All Ireland Senior Football Championship in 2020 is exactly the same as it was in 1920. The final, between Dublin and Tipperary, was not played until 1922.

(The match played on Bloody Sunday was a Challenge Match not part of the Championship.

Dreams, Planes and Automobiles

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on November 20, 2020 by telescoper

I’ve blogged before about the strange dreams that I’ve been having during this time of Covid-19 lockdowns, but last night I had a doozy. I’ve recently been doing some examples of Newtonian Mechanics problems for my first-year class: blocks sliding up and down planes attached by pulleys to other blocks by inextensible strings; you know the sort of thing.

Anyway, last night I had a dream in which I was giving a lecture about cars going up and down hills taking particular account of the effects of friction and air resistance. The lecture was in front of a camera and using a portable blackboard and chalk, but all that was set up outside in the middle of a main road with traffic whizzing along either side and in the presence of a strong gusty wind. I had to keep stopping to pick up my notes which had blown away, dodging cars as I went.

It would undoubtedly make for much more exciting lectures if I recorded them in such a situation, but I think I’d be contravening traffic regulations by setting up in the middle of the Straffan Road. On the other hand, I could buy myself a green screen and add all that digitally in post-production…

An Image for Autumn 2020

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19 on November 17, 2020 by telescoper

If there’s an image that sums up Autumn 2020 for me, this is it:

I can hardly go anywhere these days without seeing the disagreeable sight of a discarded face mask at some point. I wish people would take more care when disposing of these things!

Diversity in Physics – LGBTQ+ STEMDay

Posted in Biographical, Books, Talks and Reviews, Cardiff, LGBT with tags , , , , on November 14, 2020 by telescoper

The nice people involved with Physics at Cardiff University, Prism Exeter and the GW4 group generally have organized a (virtual) event to celebrate Diversity and Inclusion for LGBTQ+ STEM Day 2020 which is to take place on November 18th (that’s next Wednesday). I’m very honoured to have been invited to give a keynote talk at this event, the poster for which is below, and am looking forward to it.

There’s a blog post here that gives more information about the event, including how to register in order to receive the Zoom connection.

I won’t be able to stay for the whole event as I am teaching later that day. I’d have been particularly interested in the session on Open Science…

A Prima Ballerina

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , on November 10, 2020 by telescoper

It’s just over a year since my Mam passed away after several years of struggle with dementia. It seems like a century since I flew back to Newcastle to attend her funeral, so much has happened in the world since then. I got through the sad anniversary reasonably well until this morning I came across this video, which had me in pieces. It’s of a lady by the name of Marta C Gonzalez, a former ballet dancer, who passed away last year; the film was made at her care home in Valencia. A care worker plays her music from Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake and briefly she is a prima ballerina once more; the film is intercut with footage of herself dancing on stage in New York in the 1960s. It’s unbearably moving, bringing together the awful tragedy of dementia with the power of music if not to heal but at least to provide some measure of respite. Even when almost all is gone, music seems to remain in the deepest part of our being alongside our most cherished memories which it can bring back to life, if only briefly, before the darkness comes.

A New President

Posted in Biographical, Politics with tags , , , , on November 7, 2020 by telescoper

Well it took a while to get there, but less than an hour ago all the major media networks in the USA “called” the result of the 2020 Presidential Election. It looks as if they were all waiting for Joe Biden’s lead in Pennsylvania to exceed the 0.5% threshold needed to rule out a mandatory recount. Once that happened, they all (CNN, CBS, Associated Press, et al – even Fox News) projected that Joe Biden had won. It had been looking that way for some time, but the press agencies wanted to be sure of their ground. Moments after the Pennsylvania result, AP and others also called Nevada in favour of Biden. The remaining tight race, in Georgia, can still go either way, but Biden now has enough electoral votes to be President Elect.

I’ve never felt happier to have lost a bet.

Congratulations to Joe Biden, and to everyone who helped his campaign. A special vote of thanks is due to Jo Jorgensen, the “Libertarian” candidate who polled considerably more votes in the key Swing States than Biden’s margin of victory…

The result is, among many other things, very good news for Ireland. Joe Biden is an Irish-American and we can be confident that he will not allow the Belfast Agreement to be sabotaged by Johnson & Gove. It’s not so good news for Boris Johnson but at least we’ll have the pleasure of seeing him twist in the wind until he resigns in a few months’ time.

Nobody expects Donald Trump to go quietly, however, and there’s no sign that he is going to concede. I think he’d be quite happy to watch his country burn rather than admit being a loser. Some patriot. I think the USA is now entering a very dangerous period in its history. It’s really a question of whether Trump’s entourage can persuade him to accept reality. I’m not sure they will be able to do that. Instead there’s a real possibility that Trump will try to encourage his followers to violent protest. At the very least we can expect him to issue a string of executive orders intend the sabotage the new President. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m more anxious about the next few weeks than I was about the election.

PS Can this evening’s TV schedule on RTÉ 2 really be a coincidence?

PPS. I watched “The Death of Stalin” last night and thought it was very good!

Calculations, Calculations…

Posted in Biographical, mathematics, Politics on November 6, 2020 by telescoper

So it’s past 1pm GMT on Friday 6th November and the USA is still trying to work out who will be its next President after the elections that took place on Tuesday. The process is taking so long I wonder if Americans might be starting to appreciate the nature of Test Match cricket?

In the meantime I’ve been occupying myself with some simpler calculations for my second-year vector calculus module:

US Election Night and Day

Posted in Bad Statistics, Biographical, Politics on November 4, 2020 by telescoper

Before you ask, no I didn’t stay up all night for the US presidential election results. I went to bed at 11pm and woke up as usual at 7am when my radio came on. I had a good night’s sleep. It’s not that I was confident of the outcome – I didn’t share the optimism of many of my friends that a Democrat landslide was imminent – it’s just that I’ve learnt not to get stressed by things that are out of my control.

On the other hand, my mood on waking to discover that the election was favouring the incumbent Orange Buffoon is accurately summed up by this image:

Regardless of who wins, I find it shocking that so many are prepared to vote for Trump a second time. There might have been an excuse first time around that they didn’t know quite how bad he was. Now they do, and there are still 65 million people (and counting) willing to vote for him. That’s frightening.

As I write (at 4pm on November 3rd) it still isn’t clear who will be the next President, but the odds have shortened dramatically on Joe Biden (currently around 1/5) having been short on Donald Trump when the early results came in; Trump’s odds have now drifted out between 3/1 and 4/1. Biden is now clearly favourite, but favourites don’t always win.

What has changed dramatically during the course of the day has been the enormous impact of mail-in and early voting results in key states. In Wisconsin these votes turned around a losing count for Biden into an almost certain victory by being >70% in his favour. A similar thing looks likely to happen in Michigan too. Assuming he wins Wisconsin, Joe Biden needs just two of Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Georgia to reach the minimum of 270 electoral college votes needed to win the election. He is ahead in two – Michigan and Nevada.

This is by no means certain – the vote in each of these states is very close and they could even all go to Trump. What does seem likely is that Biden will win the popular vote quite comfortably and may even get over 50%. That raises the issue again of why America doesn’t just count the votes and decide on the basis of a simple majority, rather than on the silly electoral college system, but that’s been an open question for years. Trump won on a minority vote last time, against Hillary Clinton, as did Bush in 2000.

It’s also notable that this election has once again seeing the pollsters confounded. Most were predicted a comfortable Biden victory. Part of the problem is the national polls lack sufficient numbers in the swing states to be useful, but even the overall voting tally seems set to be much closer than the ~8% margin in many polls.

Obviously there is a systematic problem of some sort. Perhaps it’s to do with sample selection. Perhaps it’s because Trump supporters are less likely to answer opinion poll questions honestly. Perhaps its due to systematic suppression of the vote in pro-Democrat areas. There are potentially many more explanations, but the main point is that when polls have a systematic bias like this, you can’t treat the polling error statistically as a quantity that varies from positive to negative independently from one state to another, as some of the pundits do, because it is replicated across all States.

As I mentioned in a post last week, I placed a comfort bet on Trump of €50 at 9/5. He might still win but if he doesn’t this is one occasion on which I’d be happy to lose money.

P.S. The US elections often make me think about how many of the States I have actually visited. The answer is (mostly not for very long): Kansas, South Dakota, Colorado, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, California, Arizona, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and Pennsylvania. That’s way less than a majority. I’ve also been to Washington DC but that’s not a State..