Archive for Ukraine

Notes on Eurovision

Posted in Biographical, Music, Politics with tags , , , , on May 15, 2022 by telescoper

To nobody’s surprise Ukraine won last night’s Eurovision song contest after collecting a huge dollop of the televotes. After the jury votes, the United Kingdom’s entry was in the lead which surprised me because I thought it wasn’t much of a song at all. I’ve never been very good at picking the tunes that do well though. I didn’t like Ukraine’s entry – Stefania by the Kalush Orchestra – much either, but obviously there are special circumstances this year and I’m not at all sorry that they won.

In fact I thought the best song – and the best singer – by a long way was the Lithuanian entry sung by Monika Liu, who held the stage brilliantly by standing there and singing, without any fancy staging. She finished a disappointing 14th.

Monika Liu

Other entries I enjoyed were: Spain, catchy dance number with excellent choreography that finished 3rd; Moldova, an energetic performance full of humour (7th); and Norway, whose entry Give that Wolf a Banana was enjoyably deranged (10th). The less said about the other entries the better. I’m still as baffled by how Sam Ryder’s entry for the UK, Space Man, did so well in the jury votes as I am that Lithuania did so badly there, but there you go. What do I know?

I’ll state without comment that the Ukrainian jury gave a maximum douze points to the United Kingdom, but in return the UK jury gave Ukraine nil points

Anyway, three things struck me as I sipped my wine and watched the show:

  1. Ironically the Opera on the radio last night was Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg which is about a sixteenth century song contest that resembles the Eurovision versiononly in the length of time it goes on for. Perhaps someone should write a modern music drama called Die Meistersinger von Eurovision?
  2. I think the Research Excellence Framework would be much more fun if it were done like the Eurovision Song Contest. Each University regardless of size could be given the same distribution of scores to allocate to the others (but not itself). I can see interesting patterns emerging during that!
  3. When I was formally presented with my DPhil in the summer of 1989, the graduation ceremony took place on the same stage (at the Brighton Centre) on which Abba won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 with their song Waterloo.

Accommodation Not Wanted

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , on April 6, 2022 by telescoper

A month ago I posted an item about the fact that I had offered the spare room in my house as accommodation for a refugee from the War in Ukraine. Over 20,000 refugees have now arrived in Ireland but I have just been told that the accommodation I offered is not suitable. That’s mainly because the greatest need is for homes suitable for families with children rather than single persons; I only have one room and it doesn’t have en suite facilities. Also most of the refugees are female and the assessors would probably be nervous about placing a woman in a house with a strange man like me.

I feel slightly less bad about this than I might have done before reading that only about 40-50% of the accommodation pledged to the Irish Red Cross has been assessed as suitable.

I also note that a number of host families are finding the job of providing accommodation to often traumatized people very difficult and many refugees have been returned to processing centres because the hosts are unable to cope. I might well have ended up feeling the same.

Anyway, at least I offered. I would have felt bad if I hadn’t. Now I’ll just have to try to find some other way to help…

Blues Yesterday – Art Hodes

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on March 22, 2022 by telescoper

I’ve long been a fan of Art Hodes, a brilliant jazz and blues pianist, whose self-taught style reminds me quite a lot of Thelonious Monk, although Monk was a modernist and Hodes a traditionalist. It was only tonight however that I was reminded that he was actually born in Mykolaiv (Ukraine), in 1904, although he moved to America when he was only a few months old. He’s probably best remembered for some of the great early records of the Blue Note label, including some with Sidney Bechet, made in New York in the late 30s and early 40s, but he spent much of his later life playing and recording and living in and around Chicago. He died in 1993.

Anyway, here’s a record that wasn’t released until 1994, after his death, which is typical of his relaxed yet slightly quirky take on the blues and which I couldn’t resist sharing today because of the Ukrainian connection.

The Fifth Battle of Kharkiv

Posted in History with tags , , , on March 8, 2022 by telescoper
The ruins of the Regional Administration Building on Freedom Square, Kharkiv

When a speaker at yesterday’s vigil mentioned that his family were from Kharkiv, the scene of great destruction and heavily civilian casualties as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I was reminded that this location was the scene of no fewer than four huge and bloody battles during the Second World War.

Kharkiv fell to German forces after the First Battle of Kharkiv took place in October 1941. The first attempt by the Soviets to take it back led to the Second Battle of Kharkiv, which took place in May 1942, and was a catastrophic defeat for the Red Army. Among other things this fiasco revealed Stalin to be a military leader of legendary incompetence. He had a huge numerical advantage in men, tanks, artillery and but most of his troops were poorly trained conscripts who were sent into a position from which they were easily outflanked, then encircled and finally destroyed. The losses were appalling: almost 300,000 casualties and the destruction of over a thousand tanks. This defeat left the way open for German forces to advance on Stalingrad (now Volgograd), where they were finally halted in 1943.

The Third Battle of Kharkiv of January 1943 was another German victory but resulted in a salient which was successfully attacked during the Battle of Kursk leading to a massive German defeat. Kharkiv was finally recaptured by the Soviets in August 1943 after a fourth major battle.

It seems in the Fifth Battle of Kharkiv, Putin is following Stalin’s policy of sacrificing the resource he values least – the lives of his young conscripts – but the big difference between then and now is that it is the Russian army is attacking a predominantly Russian-speaking part of Ukraine; Kharkiv is only 25km from the Russian border. If Putin’s army is prepared to behave so abominably to people he claims are his own, one can barely imagine the horrors he will inflict on the Ukrainian-speakers elsewhere in Ukraine. This isn’t just a war, it’s a genocide.

Calamity Again

Posted in Art, History, Maynooth, Poetry, Politics with tags , , on March 7, 2022 by telescoper

This lunchtime I attended a public vigil for Ukraine on Maynooth University campus. It was a moving experience, not least because of the presence of a Ukrainian PhD student, Oleg Chupryna, who addressed the gathering. Although he has lived in Ireland for over 20 years many members of his family are still in Ukraine. They were in Kharkiv when the invasion happened, having refused to leave because they didn’t think the Russians would actually invade, but then found themselves under relentless shelling by Russian artillery. His family managed to flee Kharkiv for the countryside a couple of days ago, but are still trapped in Ukraine, apart from one family member who has arrived safely in Dublin and who read the following poem (in Ukrainian) by Taras Shevchenko, followed by the English translation. you see below.

Shevchenko (who was a painter and illustrator as well as a poet) was born a serf, so the use of the word slavery is not metaphorical. Sales of artwork enabled him to be  bought out of his serfdom in 1838, but he spent a great deal of time imprisoned by the Russian authorities. He died in St Petersburg in 1861 at the age of 47.

The poem Calamity Again  was written in 1854, in the middle of the Crimean War, at which time Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire. The poem was written at Novopetrovsk Fortress, depicted in the above painting by Shevchenko himself.

Dear God, calamity again! …
It was so peaceful, so serene;
We but began to break the chains
That bind our folk in slavery …
When halt! … Again the people’s blood
Is streaming! Like rapacious dogs
About a bone, the royal thugs
Are at each other’s throat again.


Offering Refuge

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, Maynooth, Politics with tags , , on March 6, 2022 by telescoper

As the humanitarian consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine unfold, Ireland expects something like 20,000 refugees to arrive many of whom will require accommodation. Around 1300 have arrived in Ireland so far, but these have mainly been taken in by Ukrainian family members and friends already in Ireland.

(The number of Ukrainian refugees so far accepted into the UK is just 50.)

We had a Department Meeting on Friday which began with a minute’s silence for the dead, the bereaved and all those suffering in ways we can’t even begin to imagine as a result of Russia’s heinous crimes in Ukraine. As I stood in silence I felt frustration at the smallness of the gesture; that feeling wasn’t at all assuaged by making a donation to the Irish Red Cross appeal later that evening.

When I learnt that the Irish Red Cross has launched an appeal for emergency accommodation I saw the chance to do something practical. I have a spare room, which I decided to register as potential accommodation for a refugee. It’s quite a small bedroom but can be made available very quickly once I’ve moved a few things out and given it a clean. At least the bed is quite comfortable: I know because I slept in it for several weeks before my new bed arrived. Of course if anyone comes they can have the run of the rest of the house.

Pledging accommodation in this way is not a trivial process. The property and the host have to be vetted to check that nothing nefarious is going on. I expect I’ll be contacted next week for this purpose and if my pledge is accepted and an appropriate individual found, a case officer will be assigned to ensure everything is going OK. There’s no guarantee my offer will be accepted, though. I’ll just have to wait and see.

As a single adult it would obviously be more appropriate to host another single adult. It crossed my mind that an offer of accommodation in a university town such as Maynooth might enable a student or academic from Ukraine to continue their studies in some way, but I’m not going to limit the range of possible people to that. I can offer an LGBT+ friendly environment too if that is important to anyone.

I’ve lived alone for quite a long time now so it is not without apprehension that I registered this pledge. I can see that there may be many difficulties, but they would be as nothing compared to the difficulties facing the Ukrainian people right now. I feel it’s the least I could do.

I am glad that, within the European Union, Ireland is playing its part in the response to the Ukraine crisis. When I look across the Irish Sea at the United Kingdom’s callous indifference to refugees alongside its half-hearted implementation of sanctions on Putin’s evil regime, I am once more glad I no longer live in a country with such a corrupt and mean-spirited Government.

Making a Statement about Ukraine

Posted in Maynooth, Politics with tags , , , , , , on March 2, 2022 by telescoper

A Ukrainian student here in Maynooth gave out some ribbons for staff and students to show support by making a visible statement of solidarity. I’m proud to be wearing one:

Public statements made by institutions such as universities and research organizations aren’t going to end the war in Ukraine, but they can at least offer solidarity with the victims of war and sometimes even offer practical support.

I was very pleased to see on Friday, dust a day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, that my own University, Maynooth, issued a statement on the conflict:

Maynooth University condemns the invasion of Ukraine and we extend our deepest sympathy at this dark hour to all our Ukrainian colleagues, students and graduates as they anxiously await word from friends and family fleeing their homes.

Also in our thoughts are members of the MU community from the entire region, whose families, lives and livelihoods are affected by the escalating tension and violence.

Maynooth University stands in solidarity with those who cherish democracy and peace, and we will undertake a process of engagement with colleagues from this region to discuss and explore ways to activate our support.  

It doesn’t say much, but it was at least timely and thoughtful. Far better than remaining silent.

The Royal Irish Academy issued a statement on Monday:

The Royal Irish Academy, as Ireland’s national academy for science, the humanities, and social sciences, is shocked and deeply concerned at the military invasion by Russia of Ukraine. The Academy notes with grave concern the damage this represents to educational and scientific institutions, academics, and international research collaboration, and to the social, economic and cultural foundations of Ukraine. The Academy expresses support and solidarity with the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. The Academy also wishes to salute the courageous position taken by many members of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who associated their signature with that of several hundred researchers and scientific journalists from their country in an open letter denouncing the aggression against Ukraine by the Russian Federation and calling for its immediate end.

In my own field, I saw a statement issued by various learned societies and organizations in the field of astronomy. It’s not as strong but at least does offer some practical supports for Ukrainian academics fleeing the war:

The European Astronomical Society (EAS), the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the American Astronomical Society (AAS), and African Astronomical Society (AfAS), the Astronomical Society of Australia (ASA), and the Korean Astronomical Society (KAS) have been observing with great concern the events unfolding in Ukraine and fear the adverse consequences for the scientific community, our colleagues, and their families. We have been receiving reports of the dire circumstances they are experiencing: their freedom, safety and even their lives are under threat.

The mission of our societies is to promote and safeguard the science of astronomy in all its aspects, including research, communication, education and development through international cooperation. We believe in free expression and free exchange of scientific ideas and in peaceful collaboration at a global level. The current events jeopardise the scientific cooperation within our European community and with the rest of the world.

We are deeply concerned for the Ukrainian community as well as for the entire region. Triggered by the life-threatening situation in which our Ukrainian colleagues find themselves, we wish to encourage members to help wherever possible in this difficult time for Ukraine. Ukrainian astronomers seeking support should contact the Institute of International Education (IIE) scholar rescue fund, which supports refugee scholars and is activating an Ukraine-specific student emergency fund.

Notice that the Royal Astronomical Society is absent from the list of signatories. Indeed it has not made any public statement whatsoever about the invasion of Ukraine. Their silence is deafening. From where I sit, as a Fellow, their policy of ignoring the conflict just looks spineless and contemptible.

UPDATE: The Royal Astronomical Society has now posted a statement (dated 2nd March):

The Royal Astronomical Society deeply regrets the illegal military invasion of Ukraine, a sovereign democratic nation, by Russia. Our thoughts and hopes go out to our fellow scientists and all the citizens of Ukraine for their safety and well-being. We will be exploring avenues for supporting our fellow scientists who are fleeing the war zone with government agencies and our sister societies.

There are a number of non-governmental organisations working to provide humanitarian relief in Ukraine itself and in neighbouring countries, including the following, who welcome donations:

British Red Cross

United Help Ukraine

Sunflower of Peace

Voices of Children

As far I know the Institute of Physics has so far refused to address the Ukraine crisis.

The Institute of Physics has also now issued a (brief) statement (dated 3rd March):

The Institute of Physics condemns Russia’s actions against Ukraine which are a violation of one of the most fundamental norms of international law that prohibits the use or threat of force by one state against another. As a member of the European Physical Society we support the statement of the Executive Committee.

Physics is a global endeavour, and we continue to support academic freedom of scientists everywhere.

We hope for a quick resolution of the crisis to bring an end to its devastating impacts on the people of Ukraine.

My regard for both these organizations has fallen considerably in the last week, to the point that I now seriously doubt whether I wish to remain a Fellow of either. If there are good reason why I should change my mind, or if either organization has made public statements that I’ve missed, I’d love to hear them, either through the comments box or privately.

P.S. The Royal Society of London is also yet to make a statement on Ukraine. I find this regrettable. Obviously, though, I am not a Fellow of that organization so am not able to resign.

UPDATE: The Royal Society has now joined with the National Academies of all the G7 Nations in making a strong statement against the Russian invasion of Ukraine:

I don’t know why it took a full week to get there, but I am pleased at last that the RAS, IOP and Royal Society have now at least said something. Every little helps.

Holding your ground

Posted in Biographical, Brighton, Finance with tags , , , on February 26, 2022 by telescoper

Thinking about the brave defenders of Ukraine, especially in Kyiv, who include numerous civilians I suddenly remembered an old post about a friend I met in Brighton many years ago, a Jewish man of Austrian extraction who went by the name of Solly. He had been sent by his parents to live in England a few years before the start of World War 2 when he was still a teenager.

To cut a long story short, in 1940 Solly ended up joining the Local Defence Volunteers (the Home Guard) in Brighton. This is something he told me reminiscing abut those times. over dinner many years ago.

On 7th September 1940 the War Office issued the following communique:

Message to all UK units: codeword CROMWELL. Home Defence forces to highest degree of readiness. Invasion of mainland UK expected at any time.

After being informed of this signal Solly and his comrades turned up to be issued with the equipment with which they were expected to stop the imminent invasion. In his case it was an ancient pre-WW1 rifle, three rounds of ammunition, and two improvised grenades. With these meagre supplies, they were supposed to hold their positions until reinforced, possibly for up to 7 days.

As they walked to their posts, all the volunteers were certain that they had no chance and that none of them would survive the night. In such a grim situation they were understandably quiet, but what talk there was exclusively concerned the need to make all their shots count. If each of them could kill at least one invader before he himself was killed then the invasion might be thwarted.

After an agonizing wait, and several false alarms, dawn broke. The Germans never came.

Solly clearly found this recollection difficult. Few of us are ever faced with such a stark prospect of death. But I remember one thing he did say, which at the time I didn’t really understand, which is that it was in a way quite liberating – accepting that you are certain to die means that you no longer feel afraid. He had previously worried that he might lack the courage to fight if called upon to do so, but that doubt disappeared on 7th September 1940.

I think we’re already seeing this attitude in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has emerged as a heroic figure . He must know that he is a marked man, and that his days are probably numbered, but he has refused offers to get him out to safety. The contrast between his courage and another so-called leader, who ran away from reporters to hid in a fridge, could not be greater.

Anyway, as the Russians enter the city of Kyiv, many civilians will be trying to summon up their courage right now. Received wisdom is that in urban fighting, the attacking force needs a numerical advantage of at least five to one and even more if the attackers are poorly trained conscripts, as seems to be the case in some parts of Ukraine. The defenders hold many cards, not least that it’s their land on which they’re fighting.

I fear that there is a bloodbath coming, but it seems to me very likely that the Russians will suffer worse. Not that Putin will be bothered. To him, his soldiers are mere cannon fodder.

The Little Things

Posted in Biographical, Politics with tags , , , , on February 25, 2022 by telescoper

Yesterday morning I heard the news about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine via the radio as soon as it woke me up at 7am. It took me a while to summon up the energy to get out of bed and get ready for my 9am lecture. The routine things of life seem so trivial and futile compared to wars and other disasters over which one has no influence. But it does not help Ukraine (nor anyone else, including yourself) to be overwhelmed by despair. So I got up and did my lecture, as I did this morning with a 9am tutorial.

Somehow, it feels like a duty to persevere. I think that’s partly because the tyrants of this world want people to feel powerless. By persisting with the little things you are, in a very small way, defying those who want you to be terrified. The image of Vladimir Putin as some sort mastermind, a Karla-like bogeyman with strategic superpowers, has hypnotized too many. He’s just a sad old relic of the Cold War.

I try to resist looking at the news too often, my desire to stay informed tempered by a wish to remain sane. I’d like to believe that the Ukrainians can hold out, but they’re massively outnumbered and outgunned so the odds are heavily against them. But they’re fighting on their home soil for a just cause against an invader. That should count for something. The longer they can hold out wear down the Russian army the more chance there is that the tide will turn against Putin at home.

I doubt that sanctions from the West will have any impact on Putin’s murderous intentions, at least not in the short term. In any case they look weak to me. Russian teams are still playing in UEFA tournaments, and Russia will still be in Eurovision. Why is this tolerated?

I spent an hour yesterday on a zoom call related to the European Space Agency’s Euclid mission, which is due to be launched on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in 2023. The latest batch of sanctions may lead to a delay in Euclid or even its cancellation. That would be a major problem for many scientists around the world. It’s a big thing for us, but it gets smaller when you compare it with what’s happening in the world. I bet a majority of us working in cosmology would prefer to see Euclid scrapped altogether than see further death and destruction unfold. I know I would.

It wouldn’t work that way, of course, but the question we have to ask ourselves is who are we happy to do business with? How could you sleep at night after giving money to or taking money from the Kremlin or its proxies? Maybe Putin will succeed only in giving the West a renewed sense of moral certainty.

For years the West has been corrupted by dirty money from Russia’s gangster oligarchs. Now Ukraine is paying the price. We’ve been far too slow to understand the true nature of who and what we’ve been dealing with. Now it’s time to get serious. “Business as usual” no longer applies, at least not with Russia…

A Dark Day #IStandWithUkraine

Posted in Politics with tags , on February 24, 2022 by telescoper

Just a reminder that Johnson’s UK Government has a huge majority in the House of Commons and could easily pass emergency laws to impose sanctions on Putin and his oligarch pals after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, if it wanted to. It won’t, because the Conservative Party is awash with dirty Russian money and is fatally compromised.