Archive for the Biographical Category

Why Do England Always Lose on Penalties?

Posted in Biographical, Football with tags , , , on July 12, 2021 by telescoper

I’m reblogging this post from a few years ago. It remains topical.

I thought I’d add my own (very limited) experience of taking penalties. In the period from 1988-90 or thereabouts I played for a team called the University Associates in the Sussex Sunday League (2nd Division). The League also had a cup competition, and one day we played a game that ended in a draw after extra time, so went to penalties. I used to play in midfield for that team, rather than as a striker and I scored only 2-3 goals a season. I wasn’t one of the five nominated penalty takers but after those it was 2-2 so it went to sudden death and my turn came up at 3-3 after one round. It was the only penalty I’ve ever taken (not counting 5-a-side). I wasn’t at all confident but my biggest fear was the ribbing I would undoubtedly get if I didn’t even hit the target, so I decided to hit it as hard as I could straight at the goal. I thought my natural level of inaccuracy might take the ball to one side or the other of the goalie.

So I paused, took a deep breath, ran up and blammed it as hard as I could. It went quite hard straight at the goalie. If he’d stayed where he was standing it would have hit him at chest level. Fortunately for me he dived out of the way and I scored. 4-3! So I have a 100% success rate at scoring penalties (based on a sample of one).

The story didn’t end entirely happily though. My opposite number scored to make it 4-4 and we ended up losing 5-4.

IB Maths Resources from Intermathematics

penalties2

Statistics to win penalty shoot-outs

With the World Cup nearly upon us we can look forward to another heroic defeat on penalties by England. England are in fact the worst country of any of the major footballing nations at taking penalties, having won only 1 out of 7 shoot-outs at the Euros and World Cup. In fact of the 35 penalties taken in shoot-outs England have missed 12 – which is a miss rate of over 30%. Germany by comparison have won 5 out of 7 – and have a miss rate of only 15%.

With the stakes in penalty shoot-outs so high there have been a number of studies to look at optimum strategies for players.

Shoot left when ahead

One study published in Psychological Science looked at all the penalties taken in penalty shoot-outs in the World Cup since 1982. What they found was pretty incredible – goalkeepers…

View original post 1,070 more words

The Morning After…

Posted in Biographical, Football with tags , , , , on July 12, 2021 by telescoper
Gareth Southgate consoles Bukayo Saka who missed the last penalty in the shootout against Italy

Well that’s that, last year’s European Championship is over. Italy beat England in the final last night on penalties. England lost in the semi-final of the, World Cup in 2018. Many people suggested they would go a step further this time, and they did: they lost in a final.

It wasn’t a great game. Finals seldom are – there’s too much at stake for the players to play with any freedom. But it was tense and dramatic and in the end, for England fans and players, heartbreaking. Italy have been the most consistently impressive team in the tournament, and had a far more difficult draw than England (who, in my opinion were very lucky to beat Denmark in the semi-final thanks to a very dodgy penalty) and didn’t have home advantage.

Overall I think Italy deserved to win the tournament and happy for them, though sad a bit for Gareth Southgate who has proved himself the most gentlemanly of managers. The manner of this loss – on penalties yet again – must hurt him, but he will be gracious in defeat. I wish the same could be said of some of the England supporters.

People have been critical of Southgate’s rather defensive tactics for last night’s match. For what it’s worth I think his cautious approach was dictated by his awareness of the weaknesses in his side. He had good attacking players but lacked strength in midfield. Italy were much more tenacious and comfortable in possession. For large parts of last night’s match England were just unable to get the ball; the official possession stats were 65:35 in Italy’s favour. A playmaker in the centre of the park would make a huge difference to England’s chances of landing a major trophy.

The great thing about this young England football team is how it has managed to provide so many positive role models, through its dignified response to racism and embrace of inclusivity, while at the same time respecting the time-honoured English tradition of losing on penalties. They will no doubt be feeling awful right now but they have a lot to build on for the World Cup next year if they can pick themselves up, though they might not get such a favourable draw.

I have enjoyed the tournament. I didn’t watch all the games because I was too busy, but I watched most of the 8pm matches and found them a welcome distraction. As an émigré I no longer feel any obligation to support England, but I don’t feel any need to despise them either so I was able just to enjoy the football. As I said above, I think Italy performed most consistently at a high level throughout the competition but I also enjoyed watching Spain (who would be world-beating if they had a decent striker) and Belgium, either of whom would have been worthy finalists had the draw. I feel a bit sorry for Denmark given what happened in their first match. They can be very proud of the way they rallied to reach the semi-finals without their star player Christian Eriksen.

Anyway, well played Italy! I have quite a few Italian friends and colleagues and I know they’re all delighted. Il Calcio sta tornando a casa…

The Killing of Samuel Luiz: why do you straight men do this?

Posted in Biographical, Brighton, LGBT with tags , , on July 10, 2021 by telescoper

This is a picture of Samuel Luiz, a young gay man who was kicked and punched to death outside a nightclub in A Coruña, Galicia, Spain, on Saturday 3rd July 2021. At least 12 men were involved in the vicious assault and they were shouting the word maricón as they beat him. The word is a derogatory term in Spanish for a gay man, roughly equivalent to “faggot” in English. At least four men (all between the ages of 20 and 25) have been arrested for this murder. Let’s hope some justice is served. Demonstrations were held across Spain to protest Samuel’s killing.

This attack came just a few days after the end of Pride Month and if nothing else shows how far we still have to go. People sometimes ask why we still need Pride, after all we now have gay marriage? Well, Spain has gay marriage, but mobs still murder gay men. Anti-gay hate crime is reportedly on the increase in Spain and probably elsewhere. The Government of Hungary has enacted specifically homophobic legislation

There’s nothing new about this kind of homophobic violence. Queer-bashing was endemic in Brighton when I lived there in the 1980s. I know. I was on the receiving end of a beating myself. There were only four assailants in my case, and of course I didn’t die. My physical injuries were relatively superficial, but it was a life-changing experience and not in a good way. The word that was ringing in my eyes as I lapsed into unconsciousness then was “faggot”, so reading about Samuel Luiz brought it back. Sometimes things like this make me want to go and live off-grid somewhere far away from people to avoid such thoughts intruding again.

Anyway, that experience on Brighton sea front left me convinced that however much attitudes and laws change there will always be men – presumably straight – who for some reason despise gay men so much that they want to inflict violence on us. I can’t rid myself of the belief a very large number of straight men would behave in that way if they thought they would get away with it. It takes me a very long time to trust a heterosexual man enough to call him a friend.

I wish I could understand what causes so much hate. Believe me, if thought about it a lot and for a very long time and it remains incomprehensible to me. Perhaps it expresses some kind of need to assert dominance, much as misogynistic transphobic, and racist violence does? Or perhaps just a form of tribalism like football violence? The one firm conclusion I have reached is that the people who do this sort of thing are utter cowards. Why else would they need a gang to beat up one person? And the people who just look on and don’t intervene are cowards too.

In a piece a while ago I wrote about my experience in Brighton:

I have to say that for quite a long time in this period my general presumption was that a majority of heterosexual people were actively hostile to LGBT+ people, and that would always remain the case. There were quite a few gay people in Brighton who felt the same and their reaction was to become separatists. The logic was that straight people were always going to be horrible, so to hell with them. You could drink in gay bars, eat in gay restaurants, live in a gay part of the town, etc, and thereby minimize interaction with the hostile majority. This seemed an attractive lifestyle to me for some time, but I gradually began to feel that if there was ever going to be a chance of things changing for the better, LGBT+ people had to engage and form alliances. That strategy seems to have worked for the wider community, and I applaud the many straight people who have become allies.

It’s easy to say you’re an ally but are you willing to stand up and be counted?

A comment below objects to the “you” in the title of this post. I thought very carefully before including it. The response “not all straight men are like that” is unhelpful for lots of reasons.

First, I know that. All gay people do. We already know not every straight man is a murderer, or otherwise violent. We don’t need you to tell us. Second, it’s defensive. When people are defensive, they aren’t listening to the other person; they’re busy thinking of ways to defend themselves. It’s a classic social media response. Third, people saying it aren’t furthering the conversation, they’re sidetracking it. The discussion isn’t about the men who aren’t a problem. Fourth – and this the most important point – nobody can really know which straight men are “like that” and which aren’t until it’s too late.

I would genuinely love to live in a society without prejudice on the grounds of identity but we’re not there yet. I don’t think it does any harm to hold a mirror up to the kind of stereotyping that many groups have to deal with on an everyday basis. You may not like being included in a generalisation but at least you’re not put in mortal danger because of your identity. It’s not you who is a target.

Interaction in Lectures

Posted in Biographical, Education on July 6, 2021 by telescoper

There’s been dismay among many students at the University of Manchester at the news that said institution is planning to keep lectures online next year. If the reason for that decision were that campuses are likely to be closed again by September then I would consider it wise, but it seems this is to be a permanent thing; see the following excerpt.

The clear assumption here is that large lectures never involve interaction. I can think of many colleagues besides myself who would object to that most strongly. Even in a big lecture hall interaction is key to the learning experience. The thing the above statement misses entirely is the extent to which the presence of an audience actually helps the lecturer to improve the learning experience for the students. It’s astonishing to me that the person quoted above seems to think interaction only happens in one direction! On the contrary, a lecture is – or should be – a shared experience between lecturer and students.

If you think about it is a very strange situation when someone stands up in front of a bunch of students and lectures at them for an hour or more. I frequently have the best part of a 100 people watching, and occasionally listening to, me drone on about something or other. What’s strange is that all those people see basically the same thing, whereas the lecturer gets to see all their different facial expressions, at least the lecturer can when the lecture is in person not online with everyone’s video muted.

I’m one of those people who finds it very difficult to give a lecture without looking at the audience, which is why I’ve found the transition to online teaching so difficult. It’s partly to try to establish some kind of rapport with them, notably in order to encourage them to answer when I ask a question or to offer questions of their own, but also to try to figure out whether anyone at all is following what I’m saying. Not all students are helpful in this regard, but some have very responsive mannerisms, nodding when they understand and frowning when they don’t. When I’m teaching a class for the first time I usually look around a lot in an attempt to identify those students who are likely to help me gauge how well things are going. Usually,  there are only a few barometers like this but I would be lost without them. Fortunately most students seem to sit in the same place in the theatre for each lecture so you can usually locate the useful ones fairly easily, with a discreet look around before you  start.

Most other students seem to have a default lecture face.  The expressions range from a perpetual scowl to a vacant smile (each of which is in its own way a bit scary). There’s the “wish I wasn’t here” face of pure boredom,  not to mention those who are fast asleep; I don’t mind them as long as they don’t snore. There’s the Bookface of someone who’s not listening but messing around on Facebook, and the inscrutable ones whose faces are masks, even when not literally wearing a mask, yielding no clues as to what, if anything, is going on behind. The brightest students often seem to belong to the last group, although I haven’t done a statistical study of this so that must be taken as purely anecdotal.

Anyway, by way of a bit of audience participation if you can be bothered, here’s a poll. If you don’t know what your own lecture face is, then you could always ask, that is if you’re one of the lucky folks who’s actually been in a lecture at all as opposed to sitting in your room watching a recording.

Reasons for Optimism

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education with tags , , , , , , on July 6, 2021 by telescoper

After an interruption of almost two months because of a Cyberattack on the Health Service Executive’s computer system, daily updates of Ireland’s vaccination statistics have at last resumed, including via the Covid-19 app (which has been moribund since 11th May).

You might think it strange but I find the restoration of daily updates reassuring. I suppose it’s because I work in a quantitative discipline but I like having things expressed in figures, though I am of course aware of their uncertainties and other problems involved in interpreting them.

The latest figures above show that about 70% of the adult population has received at least one dose while about 50% have had two doses; the latter are regarded as “fully” vaccinated as are the smaller number who have received the one-shot Janssen vaccine produced by Johnson & Johnson. Although the Government missed by some margin its target of giving one dose to 82% of the adult population by the end of June, I find myself much more optimistic than in past few weeks about how things are going.

Two developments in particular have helped.

First the Government is set to purchase about a million doses of Pfizer/BioNTech from Romania. That would be enough to fully vaccinated about 10% of the population. These doses have become available because take-up in Romania is very poor and the shots would go to waste if not disposed of elsewhere. What’s bad news for Romania is, however, good news for Ireland.

The second change is that the Government has decided to allow the AstraZeneca and Janssen vaccines to be used on adults in the age range 18-34 and that vaccinations of this group are now being carried out by pharmacists. Previously these vaccines were only to be given to persons aged 50 and over. Indications are that there is some reluctance among the younger cohort, which is hardly surprising since it was only a few weeks ago that they were being told these vaccines were too risky, but I suspect this change will go a long way towards fully vaccinating the adult population, which may be possible by the end of August.

I regard the immunization of students next year’s intake to third level education institutions as a necessary condition for opening up campuses to something like “normal” teaching. Just a couple of months ago I didn’t think this would be possible, but now it might be. It’s still possible that there will be disruptions in supply but it’s looking reasonably good at the moment based on the arithmetic of how many doses are available.

The fly in the ointment is of course the so-called Delta Variant, which has already gained a foothold in Ireland and is set to cause case numbers to rise substantially. We will soon see whether this causes an increase in hospitalizations and deaths. The most vulnerable should be protected so the probability of a case turning into serious illness or death should be much lower, but we don’t know by how much. Unfortunately the statistics of Covid-19 are still not being reported publicly. Some people seem to think this means they’re not happening. It doesn’t. It just means the system for reporting them is not working. I expect the forthcoming announcement of the backlog will cause some alarm.

The Irish Government recently decided to pause the gradual reopening of the economy to allow vaccinations to proceed further. There is still a race between the Delta variant and the vaccination programme. The number of people vaccinated increases approximately linearly with time, while the number of Covid-19 cases grows exponentially in the growth phase of the pandemic. I think the pause was sensible.

Across the Irish Sea there is a different situation. The English Government has decided to abandon all attempts to control the spread of Covid-19 at precisely the point when the pandemic is in another exponential phase. The number of cases is now likely to increase dramatically. The number of resulting deaths may be fewer than in previous waves but won’t be zero. Perhaps more importantly, allowing a huge pool of virus to develop increases the chance of yet another variant evolving, perhaps one that can evade the defences afforded by vaccination even more effectively than the Delta variant. I shudder to think of the consequences if that does happen. Perhaps it already has.

Stepping Down

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on July 3, 2021 by telescoper

I was planning to be on leave now; I intended to make up for the fact that I didn’t get a summer holiday last year by taking most of July off. Unfortunately that was not to be and I have to stay at work for at least another week to participate in an interview panel. I may still get a couple of weeks after that but if I do it will be taken up with organizing the move of the rest of my belongings from Cardiff to Maynooth, rather than being an actual holiday.

Over the last few days, in an exhausted and demoralized state, I have been looking back over the best part of two years I have been Head of the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University – most of which has coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic. Frankly, I have found the burden of administration on top of the heavy teaching load required of me to be unmanageable. Because we are a very small Department teaching a full degree course, all of us have to teach many more modules than is reasonable for for staff who are expected to do research as well. I had to teach five modules* last academic year; that would have been bad enough even without having to do everything online and without the additional and frequently onerous duties associated with the Head of Department. There is no prospect of that burden decreasing for the foreseeable future.

I was appointed as Head of Department for three years, but last week I asked the University to let me step down from my role as Head of Department of Theoretical Physics from the end of September 2021, a year early. I’ll carry on as a Professor, hopefully with some time to do research, although my teaching duties will undoubtedly remain heavy.

At least now, if I do get some holiday this summer I’ll be spared some of the dread of what I’ll have to return to afterwards…

*For those who are wondering, two of those modules are 36 lectures (3 per week for a 12-week semester), two are 24 lectures (two per week for a semester) and one is computer-based (1 lecture + a 2hr lab session per week for a semester). That load is about average for full-time staff in the Department; if I did less someone else would have to do more.

UPDATE: 6th July. The University has agreed to my request. “Freedom Day” for me is October 1st 2021.

The State of the Universe Video

Posted in Biographical, Talks and Reviews, The Universe and Stuff, YouTube on June 29, 2021 by telescoper

And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Here is a recording of the Invited Colloquium at the International School Daniel Chalonge – Hector de Vega I gave via Zoom on 23rd June 2021, introduced by Prof. Norma Sanchez.

In the talk I give a general review of the current state of cosmology, discussing the standard model of cosmology and some of the possible ways in which it might be revised or extended. It’s not a very technical talk but does assume some knowledge of cosmology. I hope a general audience will get something out of it.

I’m sorry if the recording is a bit choppy but that’s an occupational hazard with Zoom recordings and rather limited broadband!

This is an edited version of the session which in total lasted well over three hours including lengthy discussions and a trip down memory lane at the end. I cut out the introduction but kept a few of the questions and answers at the end, so it’s still rather long despite the rather brutal edits.

A video of the full event can be found here (1.6GB) and a PDF file of the slides can be found here. The slides are also available to be viewed here.

An Article about Pride

Posted in Biographical, Film, LGBT with tags , , on June 28, 2021 by telescoper

Today is 28th June which means that it’s the anniversary – the 52nd anniversary to be precise – of the Stonewall Riots.

I was only 6 in 1969 so wasn’t aware of this event at the time but it (and Pride Month generally) always reminds me of how far we’ve come, though many LGBT+ people still face hostility and discrimination. Nowadays though my own celebration of Pride is very subdued as it tends to makes me feel old and irrelevant as well as worried that we might be headed back right to the bigotry and intolerance of the past. The rights we have won could so easily be taken away. Although I am no longer young, I find I have become very protective towards younger LGBT+ people. I don’t want anyone to have to put up with the crap that I did when I was their age.

Despite these reservations I do find some of the manifestations of Pride quite pleasing. An Post have issued special stamps this year, as you can see above.

I haven’t bought any because I haven’t got any letters to send but I think it’s nice. 18 year old me in the middle of his A-level exams in 1981 could not have imagined such a gesture from a public body. Bród is the Irish word for Pride.

I watched the 2014 film Pride on TV the other day. I’d seen it before but enjoyed the second viewing a lot, although it did make me feel a bit ashamed that I didn’t get involved in the events of 1984 at all. I was too much of a coward.

Anyway just to change tack I thought I’d mention that the “An” in “An Post” is a definite article, which is a bit confusing to English speakers for whom “an” is a form of the indefinite article. There are no indefinite articles in Irish.

Other European languages (including Latin) don’t have any articles at all. Russian doesn’t either. It’s always fun writing a paper with Russian collaborators because articles are so alien to them. It’s not so easy to explain when to use the definite or indefinite article or no article at all to someone used to a language in which articles don’t exist.

Thank-You Notes

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on June 26, 2021 by telescoper

I’ve just finished my presentation about Theoretical Physics at today’s Open Day in Maynooth and now have a short break before the online Question-and-Answer session so I thought I’d use the time to do a quick post.

Yesterday our students got their marks and as a consequence I had quite a few emails from students about their results. Happily the vast majority were absolutely lovely. Here are two excerpts of emails from graduating students (I’ve removed bits to ensure anonymity):

Thanks a million for all your support throughout the 3 years. I enjoyed every minute of this course, largely due to yourself and the other lecturers..

Thank you and everyone in the TP department for everything, I am indebted to you all and am incredibly gratefully for all your support, help and advice.

And another:

I want to express my gratitude to yourself and the rest of the department. I had a great experience in Maynooth and having personable and helpful professors helped a lot.

Such nice comments mean a very great deal, especially since these students – and others too numerous to mention – have been taught remotely for the last three semesters. They’re not just about me, of course; they refer to all the staff in the Department. I’m sure the gratitude expressed goes both ways too. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all our students for putting up with everything that’s been thrown at them over the last year and a half and for being so determined and cooperative.

I really do hope it will be possible to offer congratulations in person to our graduating class at a formal Conferring Ceremony due to take place in September, but that I suppose is dependent on the progress of the Covid-19 pandemic, vaccination, and so on. It’s out of my hands.

I’ve said before on this blog that I always feel a curious sense of loss at the end of an academic year. After three or four years in the Department you’re only just starting to get to know students and then suddenly they’re finished. This year in particular it would be very sad if they just disappeared without a proper goodbye. As one of my correspondents said:

I am really looking forward to attending the conferring ceremony. As you said, it’s been far too long since we’ve talked to anyone in the department in person.

Of course this little tinge of sadness is more than made up by the success of these students which is hard won and thoroughly well deserved. I’m very pleased for them all. They now have the opportunity to follow a career of their choice. It must be very exciting for them, as a degree in Theoretical Physics opens a great many doors!

End of Term Hiatus

Posted in Biographical, Education, Football, Maynooth on June 24, 2021 by telescoper

Yesterday was quite a busy day because, as well as my talk in the afternoon, we had the main University Examination Board in the morning. Because many students in Maynooth are taking courses that spread across more than one Department, this is an opportunity to raise any issues arising when marks are combined. The full results for each student are presented on “Broadsheets” which I suspect in days gone by would have been broad sheets of paper, but which nowadays are hefty PDF files, one for each faculty. Science & Engineering was the first session, kicking off at 9.15 via Teams but because we all had access to the Broadsheets since last Friday we had time to identify any relevant matters and the meeting itself went quite smoothly.

Now there’s a short hiatus because the formal results will not be communicated to students until tomorrow (Friday 25th). Next Tuesday (29th June) is Consultation Day, on which students can discuss their results and any matters arising with staff. Obviously we can’t do this in person this year because of Covid-19 restrictions but, because the examination scripts were scanned and uploaded electronically this year the students will actually have the originals, discussing any issues of marking shouldn’t be too difficult.

Some students will need to take repeat examinations before they can progress. These are in the period 4th-14th August in Maynooth so I’ll have to be around for those. I was hoping to try to get some summer holiday this year – which I didn’t last summer – starting on 5th July, but that has already been pushed back because something important has arisen that means I have to be working on 7th July. I hope nothing else eats into my leave entitlement. It says in my contract how many weeks holiday I should have per year so I will not accept another year of not being able to take it.

Although we have a short break in the examination process that doesn’t mean everything stops. I have to work this Saturday (26th June) at the Summer Open Day here at Maynooth, recruiting the September intake…

The sense of hiatus is amplified by the fact that there are no matches today or tomorrow in the European Championship, the final group games being last night and the first in the Round of 16 being on Saturday. I’ve got quite used to watching the 8pm matches over the last couple of weeks!