Dust, by Phyllis King

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on May 19, 2015 by telescoper

I do not know what dust is.
I do not know where it comes from.
I only know that it settles on things.
I cannot see it in the air or watch it fall.
Sometimes I’m home all day
But I never see it sliding about looking for a place to rest when my back is turned.
Does it wait ’til I go out?
Or does it happen in the night when I go to sleep?
Dust is not fussy about the places it chooses
Though it seems to prefer still objects.
Sometimes, out of kindness, I let it lie for weeks.
On some places it will lie forever
However, dust holds no grudges and once removed
It will always return in a friendly way.

by Phyllis April King

Groovin’ High

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on May 18, 2015 by telescoper

I stumbled across this on Youtube and just had to share it. I’ve got this track on an old vinyl LP of Charlie Parker performances recorded live at Birdland, the famous New York jazz club named in his (Bird’s) honour. I don’t think any of the tracks on that album have ever been reissued on CD or for download so I was both surprised and delighted to find this. It was recorded live in 1953, so it’s a bit lo-fi, but what’s particularly interesting is the unusual collection of instruments. Bird is alto sax as usual, but the rest of the band consists of Cornelius Thomas on drums, Bernie McKay on guitar and Milt Buckner on the Hammand Organ. That’s very far from a typical bebop band. Milt Buckner’s organ accompaniment is perhaps an acquired taste but Charlie Parker clearly enjoyed this setting. He plays beautifully throughout, especially during the exciting chase sequence with the drummer near the end. The tune was written by Parker’s old sparring partner Dizzy Gillespie and is based on the chords of Whispering, an old ballad written in 1920. I’m not sure why Dizzy Gillespie decided to hang his tune on that particular harmonic progression, but it’s a thrill to hear Bird racing through the changes in such exhilarating style.

A scientific paper with 5000 authors is absurd, but does science need “papers” at all?

Posted in History, Open Access, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2015 by telescoper

Nature News has reported on what appears to be the paper with the longest author list on record. This article has so many authors – 5,154 altogether – that 24 pages (out of a total of 33 in the paper) are devoted just to listing them, and only 9 to the actual science. Not, surprisingly the field concerned is experimental particle physics and the paper emanates from the Large Hadron Collider; it involves combining data from the CMS and ATLAS detectors to estimate the mass of the Higgs Boson. In my own fields of astronomy and cosmology, large consortia such as the Planck collaboration are becoming the exception rather than the rule for observational work. Large ollaborations  have achieved great things not only in physics and astronomy but also in other fields. A for  paper in genomics with over a thousand authors has recently been published and the trend for ever-increasing size of collaboration seems set to continue.

I’ve got nothing at all against large collaborative projects. Quite the opposite, in fact. They’re enormously valuable not only because frontier research can often only be done that way, but also because of the wider message they send out about the benefits of international cooperation.

Having said that, one thing these large collaborations do is expose the absurdity of the current system of scientific publishing. The existence of a paper with 5000 authors is a reductio ad absurdum proof  that the system is broken. Papers simply do not have 5000  “authors”. In fact, I would bet that no more than a handful of the “authors” listed on the record-breaking paper have even read the article, never mind written any of it. Despite this, scientists continue insisting that constributions to scientific research can only be measured by co-authorship of  a paper. The LHC collaboration that kicked off this piece includes all kinds of scientists: technicians, engineers, physicists, programmers at all kinds of levels, from PhD students to full Professors. Why should we insist that the huge range of contributions can only be recognized by shoe-horning the individuals concerned into the author list? The idea of a 100-author paper is palpably absurd, never mind one with fifty times that number.

So how can we assign credit to individuals who belong to large teams of researchers working in collaboration?

For the time being let us assume that we are stuck with authorship as the means of indicating a contribution to the project. Significant issues then arise about how to apportion credit in bibliometric analyses, e.g. through citations. Here is an example of one of the difficulties: (i) if paper A is cited 100 times and has 100 authors should each author get the same credit? and (ii) if paper B is also cited 100 times but only has one author, should this author get the same credit as each of the authors of paper A?

An interesting suggestion over on the e-astronomer a while ago addressed the first question by suggesting that authors be assigned weights depending on their position in the author list. If there are N authors the lead author gets weight N, the next N-1, and so on to the last author who gets a weight 1. If there are 4 authors, the lead gets 4 times as much weight as the last one.

This proposal has some merit but it does not take account of the possibility that the author list is merely alphabetical which actually was the case in all the Planck publications, for example. Still, it’s less draconian than another suggestion I have heard which is that the first author gets all the credit and the rest get nothing. At the other extreme there’s the suggestion of using normalized citations, i.e. just dividing the citations equally among the authors and giving them a fraction 1/N each. I think I prefer this last one, in fact, as it seems more democratic and also more rational. I don’t have many publications with large numbers of authors so it doesn’t make that much difference to me which you measure happen to pick. I come out as mediocre on all of them.

No suggestion is ever going to be perfect, however, because the attempt to compress all information about the different contributions and roles within a large collaboration into a single number, which clearly can’t be done algorithmically. For example, the way things work in astronomy is that instrument builders – essential to all observational work and all work based on analysing observations – usually get appended onto the author lists even if they play no role in analysing the final data. This is one of the reasons the resulting papers have such long author lists and why the bibliometric issues are so complex in the first place.

Having thousands of authors who didn’t write a single word of the paper seems absurd, but it’s the only way our current system can acknowledge the contributions made by instrumentalists, technical assistants and all the rest. Without doing this, what can such people have on their CV that shows the value of the work they have done?

What is really needed is a system of credits more like that used in the television or film. Writer credits are assigned quite separately from those given to the “director” (of the project, who may or may not have written the final papers), as are those to the people who got the funding together and helped with the logistics (production credits). Sundry smaller but still vital technical roles could also be credited, such as special effects (i.e. simulations) or lighting (photometic calibration). There might even be a best boy. Many theoretical papers would be classified as “shorts” so they would often be written and directed by one person and with no technical credits.

The point I’m trying to make is that we seem to want to use citations to measure everything all at once but often we want different things. If you want to use citations to judge the suitability of an applicant for a position as a research leader you want someone with lots of directorial credits. If you want a good postdoc you want someone with a proven track-record of technical credits. But I don’t think it makes sense to appoint a research leader on the grounds that they reduced the data for umpteen large surveys. Imagine what would happen if you made someone director of a Hollywood blockbuster on the grounds that they had made the crew’s tea for over a hundred other films.

Another question I’d like to raise is one that has been bothering me for some time. When did it happen that everyone participating in an observational programme expected to be an author of a paper? It certainly hasn’t always been like that.

For example, go back about 90 years to one of the most famous astronomical studies of all time, Eddington‘s measurement of the bending of light by the gravitational field of the Sun. The paper that came out from this was this one

A Determination of the Deflection of Light by the Sun’s Gravitational Field, from Observations made at the Total Eclipse of May 29, 1919.

Sir F.W. Dyson, F.R.S, Astronomer Royal, Prof. A.S. Eddington, F.R.S., and Mr C. Davidson.

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series A., Volume 220, pp. 291-333, 1920.

This particular result didn’t involve a collaboration on the same scale as many of today’s but it did entail two expeditions (one to Sobral, in Brazil, and another to the Island of Principe, off the West African coast). Over a dozen people took part in the planning,  in the preparation of of calibration plates, taking the eclipse measurements themselves, and so on.  And that’s not counting all the people who helped locally in Sobral and Principe.

But notice that the final paper – one of the most important scientific papers of all time – has only 3 authors: Dyson did a great deal of background work getting the funds and organizing the show, but didn’t go on either expedition; Eddington led the Principe expedition and was central to much of the analysis;  Davidson was one of the observers at Sobral. Andrew Crommelin, something of an eclipse expert who played a big part in the Sobral measurements received no credit and neither did Eddington’s main assistant at Principe.

I don’t know if there was a lot of conflict behind the scenes at arriving at this authorship policy but, as far as I know, it was normal policy at the time to do things this way. It’s an interesting socio-historical question why and when it changed.

I’ve rambled off a bit so I’ll return to the point that I was trying to get to, which is that in my view the real problem is not so much the question of authorship but the idea of the paper itself. It seems quite clear to me that the academic journal is an anachronism. Digital technology enables us to communicate ideas far more rapidly than in the past and allows much greater levels of interaction between researchers. I agree with Daniel Shanahan that the future for many fields will be defined not in terms of “papers” which purport to represent “final” research outcomes, but by living documents continuously updated in response to open scrutiny by the community of researchers. I’ve long argued that the modern academic publishing industry is not facilitating but hindering the communication of research. The arXiv has already made academic journals virtually redundant in many of branches of  physics and astronomy; other disciplines will inevitably follow. The age of the academic journal is drawing to a close. Now to rethink the concept of “the paper”…

‘Beards, shorts & sandals’ 2015 season declared officially open

Posted in Uncategorized on May 16, 2015 by telescoper

telescoper:

The season has arrived and weather here in Brighton is just about right. This morning I bought woolly socks to wear with my sandals and tomorrow will venture forth appropriately clad..

Originally posted on Kmflett's Blog:

Beard Liberation Front

PRESS RELEASE 16th May

Contact Keith Flett 07803 167266

‘BEARDS, SHORTS & SANDALS’ 2015 SEASON DECLARED OFFICIALLY OPEN

sandals

The Beard Liberation Front, the informal network of beard wearers, has said that Saturday May 16th marks the official start of the 2015 Beards, Shorts and Sandals  seasons with broadly warmer weather forecast for the coming period

The BLF has updated guidelines for the 2015 Season:

1] Shorts and sandals may be worn after midday until 8pm at the discretion of the wearer.

2] Where sandals are worn the wearing of socks is discouraged but not forbidden

3] If socks are not worn toenails must be neat, trimmed, clean and fungus free

4] Shorts should ideally be no longer than knee length to provide a balanced image with the beard

5] Shorts should be of conservative design and colour. Wearing of bright red, yellow or floral patterned shorts…

View original 132 more words

Benjamin Appl and James Baillieu

Posted in History, Music, Poetry with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 16, 2015 by telescoper

Yesterday evening I crossed the border from Brighton into the Labour stronghold of Hove (actually), All Saints Church to be precise. The purpose of my mission was to attend a recital of songs by German baritone Benjamin Appl accompanied at the piano by James Baillieu. This was my fourth Brighton Festival event in as many days, but the shows I have attended have been very different so I have no regrets about booking this particular sequence.

This recital was performed in the nave of All Saints Church in a sideways configuration so the musicians were on one side rather than at the end towards the altar. I have never been to this venue before but it’s quite a regular one for musical events. I suppose they use this arrangement for the more intimate kind of music-making, such as the singing of Lieder, so the performers can be as close as possible to the audience.

The programme consisted of songs either from or inspired by Eastern Europe. The concert began with three fairly well known songs by Franz Liszt based on poems by Heinrich Heine but then continued with six Heine settings by Anton Rubinstein (his Op. 32) which I’d never heard before. These songs are direct and uncluttered and I found them rather charming. The first half closed with The Biblical Songs by Antonín Dvořák, his Opus 99. Based on extracts from the Book of Psalms these very touching works were written when the composer heard his father was gravely ill.

After a short interval and a quick glass of overpriced Pinot Grigio, we continued with Six Songs Op. 90 by Robert Schumann, who also provided the finale with his intensely moving Requiem which was written later but subsequently added to the Opus 90 collection. In between these works by Schumann we heard a selection of songs from Terezin (German name Theresienstadt) the site of a concentration camp. These pieces are much lighter than the art songs surrounding them in the programme, but are invested with a deep sense of tragedy by the circumstances in which they were composed and also performed. The song Wiegala, for example, is a lullabye written by Ilse Weber, a Jewish lady who worked for some time as a nurse in Terezin. She sang it for countless children destined for the gas chambers, and when the time came for her and her son to be murdered she sang it for him too as they walked together to their deaths.

As an aside here I thought I would plug a CD of music from Terezin I bought a while ago that features Anne Sofie von Otter singing some of the heartbreaking songs written by the inhabitants of Terezin. It’s highly recommended, though I have to admit I find it hard to listen to it without bursting into tears.

What struck me most about this recital is that the greatest Lieder are often very simple and often very brief. Some of the greatest songs by, for example, Schubert areas simple that only a genius could have written them
I think it’s the focus that gives each its power and the variety within each collection means there’s always something to hold the listener even in a long programme. Yesterday I complained about the limitations of a programme featuring only one voice, yet this one also featured only one voice but was an unqualified success. The difference, I think, is that these songs were meant to be performed the way we heard them last night…

I really enjoyed this concert. Benjamin Appl has a wonderful baritone voice, and very few vocal mannerisms or affectations. He just lets the music do its stuff. It was an amazingly mature performance for such a young man.I shouldn’t forget the flawless accompaniment provided by James Baillieu either.

Apparently Benjamin Appl was the last private pupil of the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. That provides me with an excuse to include this version of the song Morgen! (Tomorrow!) Opus 27(4) by Richard Strauss, which was performed last night as an upbeat encore to an evening of intensely emotional music.

Und morgen wird die Sonne wieder scheinen
und auf dem Wege, den ich gehen werde,
wird uns, die Glücklichen sie wieder einen
inmitten dieser sonnenatmenden Erde…
und zu dem Strand, dem weiten, wogenblauen,
werden wir still und langsam niedersteigen,
stumm werden wir uns in die Augen schauen,
und auf uns sinkt des Glückes stumme Schweigen..

The first line translates as “And tomorrow the Sun will shine again…” Here is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing it:

 

A Problems Class in Complex Analysis

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on May 15, 2015 by telescoper

My theoretical physics examination is coming up on Monday and the students are hard at working revising for it (or at least they should be) so I thought I’d lend a hand by deploying some digital technology in the form of the following online interactive video-based learning resource on Complex Analysis:

Being Both

Posted in Music, Opera with tags , , , , on May 15, 2015 by telescoper

My third consecutive Brighton Festival event of the week was Being Both, which featured mezzo soprano Alice Coote along with the English Concert under the direction of Harry Bicket (at the dreaded harpsichord). The music for the evening was all provided by George Frideric Handel in the form of a wide selection of arias from his operas and oratorios. It wasn’t just a concert, though. Alice Coote acted as well as sang, and various props and visual references supplemented her performance. There were also few extras who spent most of the show painting a slogan on a screen behind the orchestra: “You who are more than one thing, You who exceed expectations”. I added the comma myself.

When Handel was writing operas it was pretty typical for the heroic male lead to be played by a castrato, so these parts were scored for rather high voices. It was only much later in the history of opera that these roles became associated with tenor voices. The register in which a castrato would naturally sing is somewhere around that of a female contralto or mezzo soprano or a male counter-tenor. Modern stagings of Handel’s operas therefore tend to cast the leading make character either as a counter-tenor (male), as a “trouser role” for a female singer, or simply as a female character with no attempt to disguise the singer’s gender. The latter option can be extremely interesting as it allows the production to cast an interesting light on the way gender influences our preconceptions about character. In Being Both we saw Alice Coote singing some roles that were intended to be sung by male artists and others by female artists; since it was the person singing and “being” both it successfully blurred the distinction between these roles as well as poking a bit of fun at the dated attitudes represented in the texts.

The best part of the performance was Alice Coote. She has a gorgeous voice and commanded the stage in superb style. As for the English Concert, I was alarmed by some truly awful horn playing in the opening number, but the brass section wasn’t used at all after that and the remainder of the orchestra (mainly strings) played pretty well. It’s the “semi-staging” that troubled me most. The use of props was unsubtle and gimmicky and the overall feel of the production rather pretentious. I found the slow painting of the slogan behind the orchestra a distraction both from Alice Coote’s performance and for the music. It seemed to me to be saying “if you’re not enjoying the show why not watch some paint dry as an alternative?”

Wonderful artist though Alice Coote is, I did find myself wishing for a bit more variety in the vocal parts. Handel’s operas involve an enormous range of contrasts in different combinations of different voices. Hearing a series of excerpts all performed in the same register by the same artist robs the works of the dramatic interplay that makes Handel’s operas and oratiorios so special. I suppose that just tells you that I find an proper Opera a much more interesting experience than a string of arias performed out of context.

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