Archive for the Biographical Category

The Autumnal Equinox 2021

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on September 22, 2021 by telescoper

So here we are then. The Autumnal Equinox (in the Northern hemisphere) takes place this evening (Wednesday 22nd September)  at 20.21 Irish Time (19.21 UT).

Although  the term `equinox’  refers to a situation in which day and night are of equal length, which implies that it’s a day rather than a specific time, the astronomical equinox is more accurately defined by a specific event, i.e. when the plane defined by Earth’s equator passes through the centre of the Sun’s disk (or, if you prefer, when the centre of the Sun passes through the plane defined by Earth’s equator). Day and night are not necessarily exactly equal on the equinox, but they’re the closest they get. From now on days in the Northern hemisphere will be shorter than nights and they’ll get shorter still until the Winter Solstice.

Many people take the autumnal equinox to be the end of summer. There is a saying around these parts, however, that `Summer is Summer to Michaelmas Day’ (September 29th), which is not until next week. I must say, though,  though it doesn’t feel very summery today.

Anyway, this is Welcome Week in Maynooth and, barring any sudden changes of plan, we’re due to start teaching first year students on Monday 27th September. Returning students commenced on Monday 20th. I gave my first lecture on Vector Calculus yesterday. That was the first in-person lecture I’ve done for over a year. It was strange because I taught the same students online last year, but obviously never actually saw or heard them, as students generally mute their video and sound when attending lectures. Today was an improvement on that but everyone in the class was wearing a mask so I still haven’t really seen them! At lest this means that all the students were observing the necessary protocol, which is a relief, and the masks didn’t interfere with them responding to questions of mine or asking questions of their own.

We are still one lecturer short as the visa office in Dublin has been sitting on the application from our new member of staff since June 23rd. On top of my own things to do I’ve been setting up lectures for him so the students can view them in the lecture hall remotely. I’m not sure how long that will go on for, although it’s out of my hands.

Other than that I’ve spent the last couple of days trying to iron out problems with the timetable – of which there are unfortunately many – as well as preparing my own lectures. I want to record my lectures from the classrooms but unfortunately the University has chosen not to install decent video equipment so I’ve had to improvise. I recorded yesterday’s lecture using a webcam attached to the stand for my tenor saxophone. It seemed to work out reasonably well.

Back to Campus

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on September 20, 2021 by telescoper

Well here we are at last, back to campus. Returning students were back to lectures this morning and although our new students don’t begin their lectures until next Monday (27th September) a sizeable contingent who accepted first-round offers were also here today doing orientation activities.

I didn’t actually have a lecture today as my first-year module doesn’t begin until next week but I did go to the lecture theatre at 11am this morning to chat to students about the module and give them some tips for studying theoretical physics. As it happens, that is Physics Hall which is on the ground floor of the building shown in the picture above. I’ll see the full class next week. My second year module has lectures on Tuesdays so my first real lecture will be tomorrow (afternoon).

We’re still short of one lecturer who still hasn’t obtained his visa yet. He will be doing lectures remotely until such time as he can arrive. I won’t deny that this has caused a lot of stress. We’re short-handed enough anyway without this.

Aside from that I’ve been trying to organize a number of things, including tutorials and course materials, and change some timetable bookings. The latter has proved necessary because we do have significantly more students than we had last year and some of the rooms we have been given are too small.

With another week to go until first-year lectures begin, and second-round CAO offers just going out today, we could still have a few more new students enrolling between now and then. The number of returning students has probably settled down by now, though we might get a few late enrolments.

R.I.P. George Mraz (1944-2021)

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , , , on September 19, 2021 by telescoper

I find myself doing yet another R.I.P. post. The great bassist George Mraz passed away on 16th September at the age of 77. When I heard the news I immediately thought of the famous live sessions he did as a member of Art Pepper’s Quartet at the Village Vanguard in New York in July 1977. The quartet featured Art Pepper (mainly on alto sax but also on clarinet and tenor saxophone), Elvin Jones on drums, George Cables on piano and George Mraz on bass. I think Art Pepper was very close to the peak of his prowess on these albums, having spent large parts of his earlier life in prison for narcotics offences. I had the privilege of seeing him play live on a couple of occasions, and he was great, but sadly he died in 1982 at the age of just 56.

The Art Pepper Quartet played on three consecutive nights and recordings were released on LP as Thursday Night at the Village Vanguard, Friday Night at the Village Vanguard and Saturday Night at the Village Vanguard; the latter being the source of this track. I bought all three albums and it’s worth quoting Art Pepper’s comment on Side 1 Track 1 of that album, the ballad You Go To My Head, on the sleeve of the LP

This is something I call a New York ballad. We played it a little faster that I usually play a ballad. Playing with George Mraz was great. When you play with a rhythm section, especially for the first time, sometimes everybody has their own ideas about the tune: the changes, the groove. But with George there’s a communication, he listens, and I can really feel what he’s doing.

Art Pepper, Sleeve Note for Saturday Night at the Village Vanguard

This is an object lesson for a bass player on how to provide a rich and swinging accompaniment at a relatively slow tempo:

Rest in peace, George Mraz (1944-2021).

R.I.P. Clive Sinclair (1940-2021)

Posted in Biographical, History with tags , , , , , on September 17, 2021 by telescoper
Clive Sinclair, with the Sinclair C5

I heard last night of the death at the age of 81 of (Sir) Clive Sinclair. The news brought back a flood of memories.

I am of a generation that began secondary school (a grammar school in my case) before pocket calculators were generally available, so my first two years of secondary mathematics education including learning how to logarithms for multiplying and dividing numbers. After that, from the third year onwards, slide rules were in use but by the time I got I got into the 3rd form these had been phased out and replaced with electronic calculators. The first commercially available such device was produced by Sinclair. I didn’t like the Sinclair calculator, however, which had a reputation for unreliability so my first simple calculator was a Casio machine which, if I recall correctly was also cheaper. Later on when I wanted a more advanced calculator I went for the wonderful Hewlett Packard HP32E, complete with Reverse Polish Notation.

I got interested in computing at school too. The machines we had available were Commodore PET machines running BASIC. The first computer I ever had at home was the very simple Acorn System 1 which had just 1K of RAM, a hexadecimal keypad and LED display and was programmed in 6502 Assembly language. Curiously, although I have great difficulty remembering my own phone number, I can still remember quite a lot of the hexadecimal opcodes in the 6502 instruction set!

The Acorn System 1 went into production in 1979 but just a year later Sinclair introduced the ZX80. Although very limited by today’s standards, it was really much more advanced than the machine I had. It did, however, have a reputation for unreliability and it was actually quite difficult to get hold of one due to supply issues. A friend at school bought one, but it seemed to me flimsy and awkward to use, so I never bought one. Nor did I buy the successor the ZX81.

Because I had experience using machines based on the 6502 processor I thought I would buy a BBC micro when they came out as I used to enjoy bypassing the BASIC interpreter on the Commodore PET and running my own machine code. In 1982, however, Sinclair released the ZX Spectrum. This again was very limited by today’s standards but was a significant improvement on its predecessors, so I bought one. I took it with me to Cambridge when I began as a student there in 1982.

I remember also buying various peripherals for it, including a dreadful printer that required rolls of special paper.

The ZX Spectrum was a great success but soon other companies took over the market. It seemed to be in Sinclair’s character to invent things and then lose interest and he subsequently switched his attention to other inventions, many of which flopped, such as the ridiculously impractical Sinclair C5 which launched in 1985 and sank shortly afterwards. He never seemed to let such failures bother him too much, though, which is to his credit, and he didn’t seem to mind being ribbed about them either. Here he is on Clive Anderson Talks Back:

Despite his failures it seems very clear to me that Clive Sinclair was a pioneer in the technological revolution who played a major role in shaping the digital landscape in which we find ourselves today, forty years after the first home computers. My washing machine has much more CPU power than any of the 1980s home computers, but you have to start somewhere.

Rest in Peace, Clive Sinclair (1940-2021).

Thirteen Years in The Dark!

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags on September 15, 2021 by telescoper

When I logged onto WordPress today I received a message that it was the 13th anniversary of my registration with them as a blogger, which is when I took my first step into the blogosphere; that was way back 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 – no change there, then – 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.

If you’re interested in statistics then, as of 12.49 Irish Summer Time Today today, I have published 5634 blog posts posts and have received about 4.6M hits altogether. This varies in a very erratic fashion from day to day, but there has been a bit of a downward trend over the last few years, presumably because I’m getting older and more boring. The largest number of hits I have received in a single day is 8,864 (at the peak of the BICEP2 controversy).

There have been 37,465 comments published on here and 2,795,394 rejected by the spam filters. The vast majority of the rejected comments were from bots, but a small number have been removed for various violations, usually for abuse of some kind. And, yes, I do get to decide what is published: it is my blog!

While I am on the subject of comments, I’ll just repeat here the policy stated on the home page of this blog:

Feel free to comment on any of the posts on this blog but comments may be moderated; anonymous comments and any considered by me to be abusive will not be accepted. I do not necessarily endorse, support, sanction, encourage, verify or agree with the opinions or statements of any information or other content in the comments on this site and do not in any way guarantee their accuracy or reliability.

It does mean a lot to me to know that there are people who find my ramblings on this `shitty wordpress blog’ interesting enough to look at, or even read, and sometimes even to come back for more, so I’d like to take this opportunity to send my best wishes to all those who follow this blog!

The last twelve years have been eventful, to say the least, both personally and professionally. I started blogging not long after I’d moved into my house in Pontcanna, Cardiff. Since then I moved to Sussex, then back to Cardiff, and now to Ireland. More importantly we’ve seen the discovery of the Higgs Boson and gravitational waves, both of which resulted in Nobel Prizes, as did the studies of high-redshift supernovae. The Planck mission mission was launched, did its stuff, and came to a conclusion in this time too. Science has moved forward, even if there are many things in this world that still seem to be going backwards.

The Self on the Shelf

Posted in Biographical, Books with tags , on September 12, 2021 by telescoper
Financial Times Weekend Edition

In this Weekend’s Financial Times there is an article (above) about why some of us find it hard to throw away old books. This range home to me because the work involved in packing and shipping my possessions to Ireland recently would have been considerably reduced had I thrown away my books, all 25 boxes of them. The removers who did the packing mentioned that they dislike packing books because it takes so long. You have to use small boxes otherwise they are too heavy to shift but mainly it’s because books aren’t all the same size so it can be awkward to pack them efficiently.

Anyway, it would have been a lot easier not to have bothered moving them and , but I just find it very difficult throw books away. So there they are on my shelves (or part of them).

They’re arranged somewhat randomly because I just put them wherever they would fit. This is the packing problem in reverse: it’s hard to organize books by theme or author when they can differ so much in dimension that they don’t fit. For this reason I tend to arrange books by height but I can usually remember the size and cover colour so I can find them quite quickly.

The various gaps are because some books are currently on loan friends while another is on my bedside cabinet (as I realized when I was unpacking that I hadn’t read it yet and am now doing so).

My house in Maynooth came equipped with a large selection of bookshelves. Above you see half the shelves in my sitting room. The hallway is also lined with built-in bookcases; the spare room has a set of similar shelves and my study has four standalone bookcases (of the ‘Billy’ variety, for those of you familiar with Ikea). I also have a small bookcase unit in the kitchen in which I keep cookery and gardening books. All of these are full (or nearly full). That amounts to well over a thousand books altogether – and no, they’re not mainly dictionaries.

So why do I have so many books?

The FT article hits on some of the reasons. There are definitely some that I consult regularly, for different reasons. Reference books such as dictionaries are obvious examples. I also have quite a few old maths and physics textbooks which I keep because they’re useful sources of homework problems and exam questions. I dip into poetry books quite regularly too as one can read a couple of poems at a time; I have a habit of putting a volume of poetry in my pocket when I travel on the bus or train. Quite a few of these and other books have scribbles in the margins, another habit of mine.

Other books I keep because they remind me of the experience of reading them. Just as you might keep a souvenir of a visit to a foreign land, a book is a memento of a journey of the mind. That doesn’t explain however why I tend to keep books I’ve read but didn’t enjoy!

Among the other ideas suggested in the FT article is that a library of books is that they are statement of identity or even a form of bragging: you display them to impress visitors to your house with your intellect and erudition. I don’t think that works for me, though, as I don’t have many visitors and didn’t even before the pandemic. In any case I think most people aren’t likely to be “impressed” by stacks of books – they’re more likely to think you’re a weirdo.

But there’s another reason missed by the analysis in the Financial Times and that is that books actually look quite nice on shelves. Covering a wall in that way saves you the bother of having to paint it!

Memories of 9/11

Posted in Biographical, Politics with tags , , on September 11, 2021 by telescoper

Today is 11th September 2021 which means it is exactly twenty years since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon which led to the loss of almost three thousand civilian lives (and many more in the longer term). At the risk of contributing to the deluge of (mainly mawkish) reminiscences about the happenings on this day a decade ago, let me just give a brief account of my recollection. The events of 9/11 are, I suspect, etched on many a memory in much the same way as people remember what they were doing when President Kennedy was assassinated.

For what it’s worth, I was actually at a conference on that day. It was called A New Era in Cosmology, and was hosted in the fine city of Durham; in fact one of the organizers was a certain Tom Shanks, an occasional commenter on this blog. Above you will see part of the conference poster which I took from a recent Facebook post by him where I also found the text below. I was also reminded that 9/11 was the first day of that meeting and that I gave a talk on the first morning, the last before lunch. Such was the effect of the events that unfolded that day that I had completely forgotten about that.

What I do remember is sitting near the back of the lecture theatre after we returned from lunch, listening to one of the afternoon talks – I can’t remember who it was by – when a dear friend of mine, Manuela, came into the auditorium and walked down the aisle, stopped by me. She tugged my arm, mumbled something about the “Twin Towers” and then ran back up the stairs and out of the lecture theatre. Thinking it was something to do with Wembley Stadium, I followed her out and she explained what had happened. We found a TV set, around which a crowd had already formed. The coverage was, not surprisingly, shambolic and it was not until late afternoon that the scale of what had happened became clearer.

There were rumours of more planes likely to be involved in attacks and discussions about whether the military might have to shoot down civilian aircraft. Fortunately that wasn’t the case. I had a friend visiting New York at the time and was unable to contact her by mobile, so was worried, but I don’t think anyone was able to contact anyone in New York by mobile phone in those hours and it turns out she was fine.

Meanwhile the other participants were informed about the events on the other side of the Atlantic. It was an international conference with many US-based attendees who were understandably worried. The preface to the conference proceedings reveals that discussions were held about whether to cancel the meeting:

I think it was the correct decision to proceed with the conference, including the conference dinner and all that. As it happened all passengers flights were grounded for several days anyway, so nobody could get home who didn’t live in the UK.

The rest of the conference was pretty much business as usual as far as possible, although as the text above explains we did stand in silence in memory of the victims on the Thursday morning. When the meeting ended on the Friday quite a few people had to stay on in Durham or elsewhere before being able to fly home. It was this event that led to the heightened security measures at airports that we have been living with since then.

The loss of human life, though awful, turned out to be much less than had been feared and was subsequently dwarfed by the hundreds of thousands killed in the “War on Terror” set in motion by the events of that day. Will the recent withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan lead to further attacks of this sort?

Anyway, my point is not the politics but to invite a bit of audience participation. Would anyone else like to contribute their memories from that fateful day? If so, the comment box awaits your entry…


Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth on September 10, 2021 by telescoper

I spent most of today in various virtual meetings to do with next Semester’s teaching which is due to start on September 20th for returning students (and a week letter for first-years). I’ve also been keeping an eye on the student record system, as the returning students have started to register. We don’t expect most first-years to start enrolling until next week, although I did see a few early acceptances coming through…

One of the meetings I had today was about how to handle the first-year “Omnibus” science course in which some of the modules are taught in large classes which have to be held remotely and others in smaller groups which will be in person. One of the complications is if students have, say, two lectures online, which they can view at home, will they really travel to campus to attend another one in person? And if they have an online lecture immediately before or after an in-person one, where will they view it if they haven’t got time to get between home and campus (or vice versa)?

All this reminded me of similar discussions we had at this time last year. Back then all the plans came to naught anyway because everything went online anyway a few weeks into term as infections rose (see left panel below):

Today 1620 new cases of Covid-19 were reported in Ireland. On this day last year the number was 196 I keep a full record here where you will see that between 10th September 2020 and 10th September 2021 3,378 deaths were recorded, most of them resulting from the big spike that followed Christmas. There is evidence of a dip right now, which is sincerely hope continues, but to me the rate of infections is alarmingly high. If infections start to climb then they’ll be starting from a much higher level than last year.

Of course we now have vaccines and the good news is that it seems that well over 90% of those over the age of 18 in Ireland will have been vaccinated by the start of term but with the Delta variant in circulation will this be enough?

At least we have had a significant change in the wording given to students: masks are now “mandatory” in lecture theatres.

I still think there’s a significant chance we have to revert to online teaching just as we did last year. Looking on the bright side at least we know how to do that now, as we’ve done it before.

But that’s enough worrying for this week. I’m now going to have a glass of wine and cook myself some dinner. Sautéed chicken with Cavolo Nero and Parmesan, in case you were wondering.

Back to the Veggie Box

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth on September 9, 2021 by telescoper

Still life with vegetables

Since I’ve now been reunited with my kitchenware, cooking utensils and whatnot I thought I’d try to sort out a routine that enables me to eat a bit more adventurously and healthily. I’ve been a bit lazy in that regard over the last few years.

Many years ago when I lived in Nottingham I decided on a plan to increase the quantity and quality of the vegetables I was eating by ordering a weekly box  from an organic supplier. The one I picked there was called River Nene who provided very good stuff all year around. When I moved to Cardiff I had to cancel the arrangement, and I remained predominantly inorganic while I was renting a flat there. When I finally managed to buy a new house and move in, though, I looked to reestablish the regular deliveries. I was pleased to find a company called River Ford, which is kind of affiliated to River Nene, and which undertook deliveries of organic produce in the Cardiff area. I kept that up until I moved to Sussex. I did resume for a while when I returned to Cardiff in 2016 but the company changed the delivery arrangements suddenly and without telling me and I couldn’t use them anymore.

Anyway, I found a company called HarvestDay that provides a similar service here in Ireland that delivers fresh, seasonal organic vegetables direct from the farm to the customer. I decided to place a trial order to check them out before placing a regular order. The first box came this morning, delivered by a nice young man called Josh, and I am very pleased with it. Among other things there was a squash, Calabrese broccoli, spring onions and Cavolo Nero as shown in the picture.

There are several reasons why I choose to get my vegetables delivered this way.

First and foremost, organically grown vegetables fresh from the farm definitely taste far nicer than the bland varieties carried by most mainstream suppliers, including both supermarkets and local greengrocers. Once you’ve tasted how ‘carrotty’ a carrot should be you’ll never want to eat one of those supermarket ones that look too orange to be true and have no flavour at all.  This applies not just to carrots but to most vegetables: fresh organic ones are so much better.

Some supermarkets do carry organic ranges but the prices are usually astronomical, and they are often shipped in from all around the world. That brings me to the second point which is that all (or virtually all) the vegetables I get in my weekly box are grown locally. They’re correspondingly fresh and the environmental impact of bulk transportation is also lessened.

Third, the nature of the scheme is that all the vegetables are seasonal. I think it’s quite sad that people have largely lost respect for the seasons by virtue of the fact that you can get strawberries all year around in supermarkets. I think it’s good to celebrate the natural cycle of things by eating  the correct food when it happens to be ready. You wouldn’t want to have Xmas dinner every day, so why not be prepared to wait until October to eat fresh sweetcorn?  To every thing there is a season. There’s always something yummy to eat if you’re prepared to be imaginative with your cooking.

And that’s the final point.. If you place a standing order for a small box of vegetables every week, the composition varies from week to week and with the time of year. The company does email and post on its website the contents of the following week’s boxes, but I generally don’t look at it. When this sort of box arrives, it’s usually a mixture of staples plus things that are not so familiar, and often something I’ve never cooked before.  If it hadn’t been for the veggie box, I would probably never have found out about how to cook chard, romanesco, jerusalem artichokes and celeriac. I look forward to these surprises. Not knowing exactly what’s coming forces me to cook new things, and if I don’t know how to cook them there’s always google. That’s why I get vegetables this way rather than going to a shop. It forces me to be a bit less lazy.

Of course, the summer salads and lighter things have now finished and, with winter coming on, there will be more root vegetables. I think the heavier vegetables tend to put some people off a bit, but there’s enough variety to keep it fun. My practice is to eat the more perishable things first, then move onto the rest. If it looks like things are going to go off or be unused I usually chuck them into a vegetable curry, which can be frozen or eaten over several days. Spicy dishes improve with time.

Each box looks like a lot of food, but I always manage to eat most of it. I have to admit that not all my culinary experiments are successful, but more often than not I am pleasantly surprised. I tried curried beetroot a few years ago, with more than a little trepidation. It turned out to be absolutely delicious, even if I did have to ad-lib a bit with some of the ingredients. The only drawback was an unexpectedly colourful trip to the lavatory the next morning…

Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8, arranged for Wind Quintet

Posted in Biographical, Music, Uncategorized with tags , , , on September 7, 2021 by telescoper

One of the treasured items in my CD collection recently moved from Cardiff is a boxed set of the Shostakovich String Quartets by the Fitzwilliam String Quartet:

When I took it out of the packing case last night it suddenly reminded of the following video I saw a few weeks ago. I think the String Quartets contain some of Shostakovich’s finest music, and the 8th (Opus 110, in C Minor) – written in just three days after the composer saw the aftermath of the bombing of Dresden – is especially intense. I don’t usually like rearrangements of string quartets for other instruments – there’s something very special about the texture produced by string instruments which is difficult to improve upon – but this is really interesting. It’s arranged by David Walter for five wind instruments (clarinet, French horn, cor anglais, flute and bassoon) and played by the Aquillos Wind Quintet, an unusual combination that provides a very fresh take on this piece while maintaining its dark expressiveness and brooding atmosphere.

P.S. Regular readers of this blog might recognize the clarinet player…