Archive for Private Eye

Four Weeks To Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eye on Burlington House

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on October 27, 2020 by telescoper

Having been forewarned of this story as soon as my copy of Private Eye arrived (this morning, owing to the Bank Holiday weekend) I headed straight to this:

It sounds rather alarming for the Royal Astronomical Society, which is currently accommodated in Burlington House in Piccadilly, but I do remember something similar being in the air not too long ago when I was a Member of RAS Council. The Government of the time threatened to increased rents and everyone involved with the RAS, including its Fellows, was a bit worried but an agreement was struck. Presumably now the leases are up for negotiation again?

It’s worth pointing out a few inaccuracies in the Eye piece.

  1.  “..the six Learned Societies complacently assumed they would continue to pay a peppercorn rent forever”. This is untrue as the rents have been renegotiated before (see above).
  2.  “The Royal Academy is still relatively flush….but the other five are effectively broke”. I don’t know anything about the others but I’d be very surprised if the Royal Society of Chemistry is “effectively broke” given the income from its academic publishing wing. It also has sizeable industrial income, as does the Geological Society. The Royal Astronomical Society has sizeable reserves in the form of a portfolio of long-term investments built up over the 200 years of its existence but it tends not to use them to fund expenditure; its main cash flow is provided again by academic publishing, especially Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. This year – the bicentenary of its foundation – is a bit of an exception because it has dipped into reserves to fund a series of celebratory outreach activities.
  3. The description of “vast clubbable tearooms” is inaccurate too. The RAS occupies rather cramped accommodation in one corner of Burlington house. There is a Fellows’ Room but it is rather small. There are staff offices, a (small) lecture theatre and an important historical library. There are also the President’s Apartments (which I have of course never seen).

I wouldn’t put it past this particular Government to kick out the Learned Societies and outsource Burlington House to Serco but even if this does happen, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.  In my view the RAS needs to shake off the fusty image that its current accommodation in what looks like an old museum tends to perpetuate.  It has always been the case that most of the regulars at the monthly Open Meetings in Burlington House are based in or near London, which means many Fellows don’t get the chance to be involved. Would it really be all that bad for the Royal Astronomical Society had to move? They may have to overhaul their finances anyway if their publishing revenues dry up…

Why not use the opportunity to move the Society out of London altogether to a place with a strong astronomical connection, Bath for example, although that would admittedly make it difficult to get to the Athenaeum in time for dinner…

And if “commercial rates” are going to be the thing for Government-owned buildings, shouldn’t the occupant of 10 Downing Street be charged for his accommodation?



Eye Solved Cyclops

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , , on August 21, 2020 by telescoper

I am a long-term subscriber to Private Eye but since I have moved to Ireland the issues occasionally get lost. This morning I found No. 1527, published on 31st July. It’s too late to send in the crossword for the £100 prize, but I did the puzzle anyway.

I remember a while ago staying with a friend of mine – also an Eye subscriber, but not a crossword fan – and with his permission I did the puzzle in the copy he had lying around. When I showed him the solution he said that even with the answers he didn’t understand it. I think this is not an uncommon reaction from people who don’t attempt cryptic crossword puzzles regularly, so I thought it might be fun to post my solution to this one along with the clues so perhaps you can see how they work. I don’t think the Eye puzzle is really all that difficult, as cryptic crosswords go, although there are some in-jokes and there is quite a lot of fairly coarse humour!

If anyone wants any of the answers explained then please let me know through the comments box.

Incidentally, the person who sets the crosswords for Private Eye under the pseudonym Cyclops is called Eddie James and he also sets crosswords for the Guardian under the pseudonym Brummie. Presumably he’s from the Midlands.

An Eye for Bumfodder

Posted in History, Literature with tags , , on March 23, 2020 by telescoper

Deliveries of my subscription copy of Private Eye have been a bit unpredictable recently but the latest edition arrived today, with the following hilarious cover:

That reminded me of a thing I wrote recently on the issue of toilet tissue. As far as I am aware, paper in a form specifically designed for the use of wiping one’s bits clean after defecation wasn’t introduced until the middle of the 19th century, but waste paper was commonly used for that purpose much earlier. In the 18th century it was apparently commonplace to tear pages out of cheap books to use as lavatory tissue, and it appears some people would buy books both to read when on the job and for cleaning up afterwards.

This practice gave rise to the word bumfodder, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as:

  1. Toilet paper. Also occasionally: a piece of this.

  2. attributive and allusively. Worthless or inferior literature; any written or printed material that is perceived as useless, tedious, or unnecessary.

In case you didn’t know, this is also the origin of the word bumf, which the OED gives as

  1. slang (originally in British public schools). Paper (of any kind). Now rare.

  2. Toilet paper. Now somewhat archaic.

  3. orig. Military slang. Written or printed material that is perceived as useless, tedious, or unnecessary, as bureaucratic paperwork, advertising, etc. Also occasionally: worthless or inferior literature.

I have to admit I’ve used the word `bumf’ in the third sense on a number of occasions without realizing quite how indelicate is its origin.

The first instances of `bumfodder’ quoted in the OED date from the mid-17th Century, which surprises me a little because I was under the impression that paper was an expensive commodity then. By the 18th century, however, it was obviously much cheaper, presumably because of mass production, and so consequently books and newspapers were much less expensive. Waste paper was then used quite frequently not only as toilet paper but also for wrapping groceries and other goods. I should mention, however, that paper was used at toilet tissue in China as far back as the 6th Century AD, so Europe was obviously a bit behind on the matter.

Anyone who has read any 18th Century literature – the humour in which is often rather coarse – will not be surprised by the number of scatalogical jokes about bumfodder going around. Obviously I couldn’t repeat any here.

P.S. Now wash your hands please.

A Question for Prospective Physics Students

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on January 28, 2020 by telescoper

I saw this in the latest Private Eye…

Hondootedly John Cole…

Posted in Biographical, Politics with tags , , , on May 30, 2019 by telescoper

I mentioned that Pat Kenny mistakenly called me `John Cole’ at the start of my interview on NewsTalk Radio a couple of days ago. He admitted that he was thinking of the late and much lamented BBC Political Editor of that name. John Cole was born in Belfast and his voice was frequently heard in pieces to camera as he talked about the great issues of the day. This sparked Private Eye to run a piece in almost every issue, mocking his strong Ulster accent, entitled John Cole writes. Here’s an example, from Issue No. 641:

This one is fairly topical as it is on the subject of the 1986 Divorce Referendum in Ireland which was on whether to remove the constitutional ban on divorce. That vote failed, but the vote held on Friday went completely in the other direction with 82% in favour of removing the ban.



Private Eye on Physics Graduation

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on July 19, 2016 by telescoper

Given the occasion I thought I’d just post this rather excellent cartoon I saw last year  Private Eye

Physics Graduation

Academic Cruciverbalism

Posted in Biographical, Crosswords, Literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2016 by telescoper

The other day I came across something I’ve never seen before: an academic paper about cryptic crosswords. It’s in an open access journal so feel free to clock – it’s not behind a paywall. Anyway, the abstract reads:

This paper presents a relatively unexplored area of expertise research which focuses on the solving of British-style cryptic crossword puzzles. Unlike its American “straight-definition” counterparts, which are primarily semantically-cued retrieval tasks, the British cryptic crossword is an exercise in code-cracking detection work. Solvers learn to ignore the superficial “surface reading” of the clue, which is phrased to be deliberately misleading, and look instead for a grammatical set of coded instructions which, if executed precisely, will lead to the correct (and only) answer. Sample clues are set out to illustrate the task requirements and demands. Hypothesized aptitudes for the field might include high fluid intelligence, skill at quasi-algebraic puzzles, pattern matching, visuospatial manipulation, divergent thinking and breaking frame abilities. These skills are additional to the crystallized knowledge and word-retrieval demands which are also a feature of American crossword puzzles. The authors present results from an exploratory survey intended to identify the characteristics of the cryptic crossword solving population, and outline the impact of these results on the direction of their subsequent research. Survey results were strongly supportive of a number of hypothesized skill-sets and guided the selection of appropriate test content and research paradigms which formed the basis of an extensive research program to be reported elsewhere. The paper concludes by arguing the case for a more grounded approach to expertise studies, termed the Grounded Expertise Components Approach. In this, the design and scope of the empirical program flows from a detailed and objectively-based characterization of the research population at the very onset of the program.

I still spend quite a lot of my spare time solving these “British-style” cryptic crossword puzzles. In fact I simply can’t put a crossword down until I’ve solved all the clues, behaviour which I admit is bordering on the pathological. Still, I think of it as a kind of mental jogging, forcing your brain to work in unaccustomed ways is probably good to develop mental fitness for other more useful things. I won’t claim to have a “high fluid intelligence” or any other of the attributes described in the abstract, however. As a matter of fact I think in many ways cryptic crosswords are easier than the straight “American-style” definition puzzle. I’ll explain why shortly. I can’t remember when I first started doing cyptic crossword puzzles, or even how I learned to do them. But then people can learn languages simply by picking them up as they go along so that’s probably how I learned to do crosswords. Most people I know who don’t do cryptic crosswords tend to think of them like some sort of occult practice, although I’ve never actually been thrown off a plane for doing one!

If you’ve never done one of these puzzles before, you probably won’t understand the clues at all even if you know the answer and I can’t possibly explain them in a single post. In a nutshell, however, they involve clues that usually give two routes to the word to be entered in the crossword grid. One is a definition of the solution word and the other is a subsidiary cryptic allusion to it. Usually the main problem to be solved involves the identification of the primary definition and secondary cryptic part, which are usually heavily disguised. The reason why I think cryptic puzzles are in some ways easier than the “straight-definition” variety is that they provide two different routes to the solution rather than one definition. The difficulty is just learning to parse the clue and decide what each component means.

The secondary clue can be of many different types. The most straightforward just exploits multiple meanings. For example, take

Fleeces, things often ordered by men of rank [6]

The answer to this is RIFLES which is defined by “fleeces” in one sense, but “men of rank” (soldiers) also order their arms hence giving a different meaning. Other types include puns, riddles, anagrams, hidden words, and so on. Many of these involve an operative word or phrase instructing the solver to do something with the letters in the clue, e.g.

Port’s apt to make you steer it erratically [7]

has the solution TRIESTE, which is an anagram of STEER+IT, port being the definition.

Most compilers agree however that the very best type of clue is of the style known as “&lit” (short for “and literally what it says”). Such clues are very difficult to construct and are really beautiful when they work because both the definition and cryptic parts comprise the same words read in different ways. Here’s a simple example

The ultimate of turpitide in Lent [5]

which is FEAST. Here we have “e” as the last letter of turpitude in “fast” (lent) giving “feast” but a feast is exactly what the clue says too. Nice.

Some clues involve more than one element of this type and some defy further explanation altogether, but I hope this at least gives you a clue as to what is involved.

Cryptic crosswords like the ones you find in British newspapers were definitely invented in the United Kingdom, although the crossword itself was probably born in the USA. The first great compiler of the cryptic type used the pseudonym Torquemada in the Observer. During the 1930s such puzzles became increasingly popular with many newspapers, including famously The Times, developing their own distinctive style. People tend to assume that The Times crossword is the most difficult, but I’m not sure. I don’t actually buy that paper but whenever I’ve found one lying around I’ve never found the crossword particularly hard or, more importantly, particularly interesting.

With the demise of the Independent, source of many prize dictionaries, I have now returned to the Guardian and Observer puzzles at the weekend as well as the interesting mixture of cryptic and literary clues of the puzzle in the weekly Times Literary Supplement and the “Genius” puzzle in The Oldie. I’ve won both of these a few times, actually, including the TLS prize just last week (£40 cash).

I also like to do the bi-weekly crossword set by Cyclops in Private Eye which has clues which are not only clever but also laced with a liberal helping of lavatorial humour and topical commentary which is right up my street. Many of the answers (“lights” in crossword parlance) are quite rude, such as

Local energy source of stress for Bush [5]

which is PUBES (“pub” from “local”+ E for energy +S for “source of stress”; Bush is the definition).

I send off the answers to the Eye crossword every time but have never won it yet. That one has a cash prize of £100.

Anyway, Torquemada, who I mentioned above, was eventually followed as the Observer’s crossword compiler by the great Ximenes (real name D.S. Macnutt) who wrote a brilliant book called the Art of the Crossword which I heartily recommend if you want to learn more about the subject. One of the nice stories in his book concerns the fact that crossword puzzles of the cryptic type were actually used to select recruits for British Intelligence during the Second World War, but this had a flip side. In late May 1944 the chief crossword setter for the Daily Telegraph was paid a visit by some heavies from MI5. It turned out that in a recent puzzle he had used the words MULBERRY, PLUTO, NEPTUNE and OVERLORD all of which were highly confidential code words to be used for the forthcoming D-Day invasion. The full background to this curious story is given here.


Physics Graduation, according to Private Eye

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on August 11, 2015 by telescoper

Very busy day today, what with one thing and another (and another, and another…) so in lieu of a proper post I thought I’d just post this rather excellent cartoon I saw in last week’s Private Eye

Physics Graduation

What makes a perfect cartoon?

Posted in Art with tags , on June 18, 2014 by telescoper

I don’t know the answer to that question, but in my opinion this example from last week’s Private Eye comes pretty close. It made me laugh out loud anyway! 🙂