## Death and Other Inconveniences

Posted in Biographical, Brighton with tags , , , on April 7, 2014 by telescoper

It would be an exaggeration to say that this has been a good day. It started in Cardiff when I got to the Central Station and discovered that my train was late. It was only 12 minutes late, in fact, which isn’t at all unsurprising for Late Western. Nevertheless I was a bit annoyed that the 12 minutes turned into 20 minutes and that the Train Manager never once offered an explanation or apology on the entire journey into Paddington.

I did eventually find out the reason for the initial delay via Twitter. Earlier there had been a “person hit by a train”. My irritation turned to deep sadness, at hearing yet again that coded message indicating a death by suicide.

Sitting on the train I remembered seeing fallen cherry blossom in Bute Park. The morning rain had brought it down. That would provide a much more poetic excuse for late running than the usual “leaves on the line”, a poignant reminder of our mortality and all that. I didn’t realize how apt that would turn out to be.

After arriving into Paddington I took the tube to Victoria and had only a short wait for a train to Brighton. All went well until we reached Gatwick Airport at which point we were held at a signal for some time. The train manager then announced that the train would be diverted via Lewes and would therefore be late. The reason? Unbelievably, another “person hit by a train”, this time near Hassocks. Two in one day. Grim.

The train reached Lewes but didn’t stop at a platform but up a branch line some distance from the station. The driver changed ends and we went through Lewes station again without stopping, this time on the branch line to Brighton. We then passed Falmer (my intended destination) without stopping too.

Soon we arrived in Brighton, and I had to get another, stopping, train back to Falmer. I got on the next one, which sat for 20 minutes without moving. Diversion of all the mainline trains onto the Lewes line was causing congestion. As time ticked away I was starting to worry I would miss my 5pm lecture. I decided to give up on the train, left the station and proceeded to take the Number 25 bus to Falmer from the nearest stop.

That turned out not to be a wise move. The bus managed to travel a few hundred yards only before the driver announced that the Lewes Road had been closed by the Police owing to an “incident” at the gyratory system beside Sainsbury’s. We sat on the bus for a while just south of the area that had been cordoned off and then the driver told us the inevitable news that the bus was terminating and we all had to get off.

The main bus garage lies on the Lewes Road just north of the gyratory system, so I thought there was a chance some buses might be operating the other side of the blockage. I went to investigate.

As I skirted round the police cordon I counted at least ten police cars scattered about, along with two large vans. Armed officers were swarming around, and some were on the top of the Sainsbury’s building. There was also a uniformed officer with a loud hailer. Apparently someone, apparently armed, was inside one of the nearby flats. I didn’t hang about to find out more.

There were no buses northbound that I could see, and by now it was pouring with rain. I couldn’t see any possibility of getting to campus with my luggage, so decided to give up and go to my flat. By now my phone battery was nearly flat so all I could so was leave quick messages on Twitter and Facebook, before it croaked, to say
I was cancelling my lecture.

As I write the incident at Lewes road appears to be continuing, but at least nobody seems to have been seriously hurt.

I’m of course very disappointed at having had to miss a lecture, and some other things I wanted to do this afternoon but the three events that impinged on my journey are of far greater consequence for the people affected than my own inconvenience. It’s no doubt been a rougher day than I can possibly imagine for a great many people today.

## Countdown to Equal Marriage

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, Politics with tags , , on March 28, 2014 by telescoper

So, from midnight tonight, same-sex couples have the right to marry in England & Wales. Not surprisingly, one of the first gay weddings in the UK will be in Brighton: Andrew Wale and Neil Allard (below) will marry just a few minutes after midnight:

Nice beards! I’d like to take this opportunity to send my very best wishes to Andrew and Neil and indeed to everyone (straight or gay) taking the plunge this weekend.

I find the fact that this has become reality absolutely amazing. When I came to the University of Sussex as a graduate student in 1985, Brighton was one of the most gay-friendly cities in the UK, if not the world. However, the veneer of tolerance was really very thin. Homophobic prejudice was still commonplace, and it was by no means uncommon for that to turn into violence, as I know to my own cost. The Local Government Act of 1988 included Section 28, which enshrined anti-gay attitudes in law. I would never have imagined at that time that, just 25 years later, a law would be passed allowing people of the same sex to marry. It still seems barely comprehensible that attitudes can have changed so much in the second half of my lifetime. Equality in marriage doesn’t mean equality in everything, of course, and prejudice obviously hasn’t vanished entirely, but it’s a start.

And what’s this tripe about same-sex marriage “threatening” of “devaluing” traditional marriage? Is the function of marriage simply to make married people feel superior to those who aren’t allowed to be married? That’s what that argument sounds like to me. If that’s what it’s for I think the state should withdraw legal recognition from all forms of marriage and let us all be treated equally by the law, as individuals.

For those who don’t approve of the change in the law, it’s all actually very simple. If you don’t approve of same-sex marriage, don’t marry someone of the same sex.

It’s all come a bit too late for me to get married. I think I’m destined to remain forever an ineligible bachelor. I will however be spending this weekend wandering around Brighton randomly asking men if they’ll marry me. This isn’t because of the change in the law. It’s what I do anyway…

I hope at least I’ll get invited to quite a few weddings in the near future. I think there’s going to be quite a lot of catching up going on…

## From Real Time to Imaginary Time

Posted in Brighton, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2014 by telescoper

Yesterday, after yet another Sunday afternoon in my office on the University of Sussex campus, I once again encountered the baffling nature of the “real time boards” at the bus-stop at Falmer Station (just over the road from the University). These boards are meant to show the expected arrival times of buses; an example can be seen on the left of the picture below, taken at Churchill Square (in the City Centre).

The real-time board system works pretty well in central Brighton, but it’s a very different story at Falmer, especially for the Number 23 which is my preferred bus home. Yesterday provided a typical illustration of the problem: the time of the first bus on the list, a No. 23, was shown as “1 min” when I arrived at the stop. It then quickly moved to “due” (a word which I’ll comment about later). It then moved back to “2 mins” for about 5 minutes and then back to “due” again. It stayed like that for over 10 minutes at which point the bus that was second on the list (a No. 28 from Lewes) appeared. Rather than risk waiting any longer for the 23 I got on the 28 and had a slightly longer walk home from the stop at the other end. Just as well I did because the 23 vanished entirely from the screen as soon as I boarded the other bus. This apparent time-travel isn’t unusual at Falmer, although I’ve never really understood why.

By sheer coincidence when I got to the bus stop to catch a bus to campus this morning there was a chap from Brighton and Hove buses there. He was explaining what sometimes goes wrong with the real time boards to a lady, so I joined in the conversation and asked him if he knew why Falmer is so unreliable. He was happy to oblige. It turns out that the way the real-time boards work depends on each bus having a GPS system that communicates to a central computer via a radio link. If the radio link drops out for some reason – as it apparently does quite often up at Falmer (mobile phone connectivity is poor here also) – the system looks up the expected time of the bus after the one that it has lost contact with. Thus it is that a bus can apparently be “due” and then apparently go back in time. Also, if a bus has to divert from the route programmed into the GPS tracker then it is also removed from the real-time boards.

However, there is another system in operation alongside the GPS tracker. When a bus actually stops at a stop and opens its doors the onboard computer communicates this to the central system at the same time as the location signs inside the bus are updated. At this point the real-time boards are reset.

The unreliability I’ve observed at Falmer is in fact caused by two problems: (i) the patchy radio coverage as the bus wanders around the hilly environs of Falmer campus; and (ii) the No. 23 is on a new route around the back of campus which means that it vanishes from the system entirely when it wanders off the old route, as would happen if the bus were to break down.

Mystery solved then, in a sense, but it means there’s a systematic problem that isn’t going to be fixed in the short-term. Would it be better to switch off the boards than have them show inaccurate information? Perhaps, but only if it were always wrong. In fact the boards seem to work OK for the more frequent bus, the No. 25. My strategy is therefore never to rely on the information provided concerning the No. 23 and just get the first bus that comes. It’s not a problem anyway during the week because there’s a bus every few minutes, but on a Sunday evening it is quite irksome to see apparently random times on the screens.

All this talk about real-time boards reminds me of a question I was asked in a lecture last week. I was starting a new section of my Theoretical Physics module for 2nd Year students on Complex Analysis: the Cauchy-Riemann equations, Conformal Transformations, Contour Integrals and all that Jazz. To start the section I went on a bit of a ramble about the ubiquity of complex numbers in physics and whether this means that imaginary numbers are, in some sense, real. You can find an enjoyable polemic on this subject, given the answer “no” to the question here.

Anyway, I got the class to suggest examples of the use of complex numbers in physics. The things you’d expect came up such as circuit theory, wave propagation etc. Then somebody mentioned that somewhere they had heard of imaginary time. The context had probably been provided Stephen Hawking who mentioned this in his book A Brief History of Time. In fact the trick of introducing imaginary time is called a Wick Rotation and the basic idea is simple. In special relativity we deal with four-dimensional space-time intervals of the form

$ds^2 = -c^2dt^2 + dx^2 + dy^2 +dz^2$,

i.e. the metric describing Minkowski space. The minus sign in front of the time bit is essential to the causal structure of space-time but it causes quite a few mathematical difficulties. However if we make the substitution

$\tau \rightarrow i c t$

then the metric becomes

$ds^2 = d\tau^2 + dx^2 + dy^2 +dz^2$,

which corresponds to a four-dimensional Euclidean space which is in many situations much easier to handle mathematically.

Complex variables and complex functions provide the theoretical physicist with a host of extremely elegant techniques for solving tricky problems. But does that mean they are somehow “built in” to nature? I don’t think so. I don’t think the Brighton & Hove Bus company uses imaginary time on its display boards either, although it does sometimes seem that way.

POSTSCRIPT. I forgot to include my planned rant about the use of the word “due”. The boards displaying train times at railway stations usually give the destination and planned departure time of the train, e.g. “Brighton 11.15″. If things are running to schedule this information is supplemented by the phrase “On Time”. If not, which is sadly a more likely contingency in the UK, this changes to “due 11.37″ or some such. This really annoys me.: the train is due at 11.15. If it doesn’t come until after then, it’s overdue or, in other words, late.

## The Royal Observatory Bomb and the Rise of Unreason

Posted in History, Literature, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2014 by telescoper

I missed the anniversary by a day but I thought I’d pass on a fascinating but very sad little bit of history. One hundred and twenty years ago yesterday, on February 15th 1894, a 26-year old Frenchman by the name of Martial Bourdin blew himself up near the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. His death seems to have been an accident caused by the bomb he was carrying going off prematurely. It is not really known either whether the bomb was meant for the Royal Observatory or somewhere else. Anarchist attacks involving bombs were not uncommon in the 1890s and the range of targets was very wide.

Bourdin was found alive, though very seriously injured, by people who heard the blast. Though able to speak he did not offer any explanation for what had happened. He died about half an hour later.

This sad and perplexing story inspired Joseph Conrad‘s famous novel The Secret Agent. Conrad added an “Author’s Note” to the manuscript of his book:

The attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory: a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that is is impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought. For perverse unreason has its own logical processes. But that outrage could not be laid hold of mentally in any sort of way, so that one remained faced by the fact of a man blown to pieces for nothing even most remotely resembling an idea, anarchistic or other. As to the outer wall of the Observatory, it did not show as much as the faintest crack.

We’ll never know what Bourdin’s motivations were; perhaps he didn’t really know himself. He is usually described as an “anarchist” although that term describes such a wide spectrum of political beliefs that it doesn’t really explain Bourdin’s actions; not all anarchists embrace violence and aggression, for example, although some – such as the members of Class War – clearly do. At one end of the anarchist spectrum there are the violent thugs who are nothing more than the mirror image of fascism and at the other there are reasonable intelligent people who simply don’t believe in hierarchical structures.

Brighton has its share of anarchists and the thing that’s most noticeable about them to an outsider like me is their conformity; the dress code is apparently very strictly enforced. The obvious irony aside, this suggests to me that much of the attraction of being an anarchist is not really the existence of a compelling political philosophy, but simply to fulfill the need to belong to something.

The main thing that occurred to me yesterday while I was reading about the Greenwich Observatory bomb plot concerns the implications of the location. If the Royal Observatory was the intended target then why was it so? The simple answer is that a core belief for most varieties of anarchist is their opposition to “the State”. A powerful symbol of the British state in 1894 was the Royal Navy; it was Britain’s maritime traditions that led to the founding of the Royal Observatory in the first place and most of the work carried out there involved accurate positional measurements designed to help with navigation. Or maybe it was to do with the role of the Observatory in defining the time? Insofar as acts like this make any sense at all, these seem reasonable interpretations.

I’m tempted to suggest that the adoption of Greenwich as the Prime Meridian in 1884 may have given a young Frenchman additional grounds for resentment..

A different answer from the suggestion that it was an anti-establishment gesture stems from  the conflict between anarchism and the nature of scientific knowledge. Anarchists usually express their beliefs in terms of the desire to make society more “equal” and “democratic”, so that decisions should be made collectively for the common good. I’m happy with that line of argument, and agree that we should all enjoy equal rights versus the government and other institutions, and in relation to one another. However, having equal rights does not mean having equal knowledge and it doesn’t mean that any person’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s. What I mean is that there are scientific experts, and the knowledge they possess has demonstrable value.

The approach of some to this challenge is simply to deny the value of scientific knowledge, and assert instead that it’s just a social construct like anything else. I am aware of a number of so-called social scientists at the University of Sussex and elsewhere who hold this view; my usual response is to ask them whether they regard witchcraft or crystal healing as equal to orthodox medicine.

CLARIFICATION: Please note I do not mean to imply that all social scientists hold the opinions described above. I’m fully aware that they are fringe views. The phrase “so-called social scientists” does not refer to all social scientists, just the fringe in much the same way I’d use “so-called geographers” to describe the Flat Earth Society.

I’m not trying to suggest that members of the Department of Sociology are plotting to blow up the Astronomy Centre! What I do think that while we should always strive to be as democratic as possible there are always limits, not just because of what is practically possible but also what is socially desirable. Any organization in which everyone votes about every decision that has to be made would struggle to function at all. We have to find ways of working that make best use of the different skills and knowledge we all possess.

A constructive approach is to argue that if we are to build  a more democratic society it is first necessary to greatly increase the level of scientific literacy in the population, so that more people can make informed decisions about the big issues facing the future, such as how we fulfill our energy requirements for the next 30 years and how we cope with global warming. That will not be an easy thing to do given the dearth of scientists in Parliament and in the media, but that’s not an argument for not trying.

Symptomatic of the widespread rejection of science among the politically disaffected is the lamentable state of Green politics in the United Kingdom. In my opinion there is huge potential for a scientifically-informed political movement focussed on environmental issues. Unfortunately the current Green Party is anti-science to the core, which would doom it to perpetual marginalization even without the loss of credibility stemming from the childish antics of the only Green MP, Caroline Lucas. I know that many will argue with me about whether the Green Party should be included in “The Left”, but since both Labour and Conservative parties now belong to the Centre-Right it seems a sensible classification to me.

It hasn’t always been like this. As Alice Rose Bell pointed out in a Guardian piece some time ago, there have been examples of constructive engagement between science and left-wing politics. This seems to me to have largely evaporated. I don’t think that’s so much because scientists have rejected the left. It’s more that the left has rejected science.

## Brighton after another storm…

Posted in Biographical, Brighton with tags , , , on February 15, 2014 by telescoper

I got back from London a bit later than expected yesterday. I left the Athenaeum in good time to get the 10.06 from London Victoria back to Brighton. It was a bit breezy but not raining so I walked to the station, past Buckingham Palace. When I got there the 10.06 was marked as “delayed” on the screen. It stayed that way until about 10.15 at which point it became “cancelled”. The next train was the 10.36 which until then was apparently “on time” but in no time that was “cancelled” too. Faced with the prospect of waiting until 11.06 for the next chance of seeing a train cancelled, I got on a slow train to Bognor Regis via Hove; the connection to Brighton from there was late and I arrived about a quarter past midnight.

The weather didn’t seem particularly bad and there wasn’t a word of explanation for the cancellations. There was no sign of flooding en route and although it was a bit windy there was nothing extreme. Not impressed with Southern Rail I can tell you…

UPDATE: it appears that the problem was caused by flooding very close to Brighton, in fact at Preston Park. Ground water levels were so high that they flooded the signals equipment, a story repeated elsewhere on the network. Not that they bothered to tell any passengers this.

Something more like a storm hit Brighton in the early hours of the morning, and it did cause some damage along the seafront. This afternoon I took a stroll along and took a few snaps. The poor old West Pier, which has been left to rot since it was closed in the 1970s, is now on its last legs. Part of it collapsed a few weeks ago in another storm, and it can’t be long before the entire Pavilion section collapses into the sea:

I wasn’t on campus yesterday as I was in London, but it seems there has been a bit of damage here too. This tree must have just fallen:

It’s been a rough winter so far – not cold but lots of gales and rain. Still, at least there are signs that spring is not too far off: the crocuses have started to appear…

## Sunset over Falmer Campus

Posted in Brighton, Poetry with tags , , , on November 15, 2013 by telescoper

Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.

## Stormy Morning

Posted in Brighton with tags , on October 28, 2013 by telescoper

As expected, it was a stormy night last night, and it has been a stormy morning so far too. I was woken up a couple of times in the night by the sound of the wind and rain, but still managed to get a decent kip. When the radio alarm came on at the usual time, 6am, it was clear that I still had electricity so whatever had happened overnight couldn’t have been as bad as the storm of 1987!

I saw a tweet before I left for work this morning advising folk to avoid Brighton seafront during the storm. That’s a bit difficult when you live on the seafront. Anyway, I did decide to take a short walk along the promenade before returning to my usual route to the bus stop. I managed to take this picture with my Blackberry, the view being eastwards towards Brighton Marina. It was quite difficult to get a picture directly into the sun, but it gives you an idea of the size of the waves crashing against the breakwater.

And another, with less sun and more waves…

I was pretty relieved when I got up to the Sussex University campus to find just a few small branches down. Very different from 1987! The wind is still strong, and blowing a lot of leaves about, but I think it’s going to be business as usual today. That’s a relief, because I’ve got rather a lot to do!

## The Gathering Storm

Posted in Biographical, History with tags , , , on October 27, 2013 by telescoper

Twenty-six years ago I was living in Brighton as a graduate student at the University of Sussex. On October 16th 1987 (a Friday) I woke up to find the electricity had been cut off. Without breakfast, I left the house come up to campus, only t to find the street lined with fallen trees, smashed cars and houses with broken windows. This was the Great Storm of 1987 which, according to weather forecaster Michael Fish, was “not a hurricane” and I had slept through the whole thing…

I didn’t make it up to campus that Friday. The trains weren’t running because there was no electricity, power lines having been brought down by the storm, and even if there had been electricity the trains couldn’t have run because the tracks were blocked by fallen trees. When I did make it up to campus several days later the trees on the hills either side of the campus had been combed flat. It took years for them to recover. I hope they don’t suffer the same fate this time.

Here’s the infamous weather forecast broadcast on the Thursday evening

Another storm is forecast to arrive tomorrow; here is the Shipping Forecast for sea area Wight which, includes the town of Brighton and areas to the West.

The adjacent sea area, Dover, to the East is just as bad. Evidently it’s not a good day to be messing about in boats. This lunchtime I took a walk along the beach at Brighton to see how bad it was. The wind direction was  from the southwest and I estimated it was about force 7, based on the fact that it nearly blew me over when I turned into it. Not quite a gale, but getting there. A violent storm force 11 is bad enough, but there is a chance of hurricane force 12. That could cause damage on the scale of 1987. I’m now looking very nervously at the scaffolding covering several buildings in my street..

Here are some pictures I took with my phone looking towards the Marina.

And here, in the opposite direction,  is Brighton Pier. There was so much salt spray from the breaking waves that I found hard to keep the lens clear, but the Pier was still open for the usual amusements…

These are just the preliminaries, though. The bulk of the storm is yet to hit us. Something tells me we’re in for a stormy night!

## Brighton Bondage Brides

Posted in Brighton with tags , on September 4, 2013 by telescoper

I saw this on the way into work this morning, and just couldn’t resist. For those of you interested in the actual story, you can find it here.

## Brighton Council pay dispute

Posted in Politics with tags , , , on June 10, 2013 by telescoper

Here’s another blog about the Brighton refuse collection dispute (by an author whose twitter handle is @socialistgreen), also asking for explanations of the mysterious “allowances”…

Originally posted on socialistgreen:

The current pay dispute at Brighton & Hove Council highlights all that is wrong about so many trade unions, who instead of looking at the bigger picture, concentrate on the needs of a small number of people, usually men.

As I understand it, the Council’s current plans to equalise pay will see many women earning more, but a small number of workers, mainly men, will be worse off. Why aren’t the unions scandalised that all those women have been underpaid for so many years, (and at least 4 years since most other councils sorted out ‘single status’), and why aren’t they seeking  compensation for all that pay that those women missed out on? Now that would be a good campaign!

Brighton Council are offering compensation to workers who will lose out, and maybe that could be raised or paid over a couple of years while they adjust to the change…

View original 93 more words