Archive for Wales

A Grand Slam Weekend

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Rugby with tags , , , on March 19, 2019 by telescoper

Well, here I am sitting in Cardiff Airport yet again waiting for a flight back to Dublin so I reckon it’s time to break my self-imposed blogging silence.

I had an enjoyable little break, the highlight of which was the rugby on Saturday between Wales and Ireland. I actually managed to get a ticket for the game, though I am not at liberty to divulge how I got it. I was a long way back from the pitch, practically in the rafters of the Principality Stadium, but the view wasn’t bad. Sadly, I forgot to charge my phone up overnight before the match and by the time I made it to my seat the battery had died, so I have no pictures of the event to share.

I had expected Wales to win, but hadn’t expected such a one-side match. After scoring after just over a minute, Wales controlled the game. Instead of the intense atmosphere I’d been anticipating, the mood in the crowd was more like that you might find at a cricket match while the home side is steadily accumulating runs against ineffective bowling. When the Ireland fightback hadn’t materialized by the fourth quarter of the game, the celebrations started and the singing grew louder in the steadily falling rain. At least Ireland got a consolation try at the end, but if truth be told they didn’t really turn up for the match.

I got absolutely drenched walking back to the Cardiff residence, but it was worth it for the privilege of seeing a Grand Slam unfold live. I only caught the second half of the final match of this year’s Six Nations, the Calcutta Cup match between Scotland and England, on the radio. This seems to have been the most exciting of the tournament, ending in a 38-38 draw after England had been 31-0 up! Greatest comeback since Lazarus!

But all credit again to Wales for their Grand Slam, a great achievement by any standards. It’s revenge what happened ten years ago, when I was in Cardiff (though not in the ground) for a Grand Slam decider between Wales and Ireland, a frantic and exciting match which Ireland won. Not so much excitement this time, but a far happier crowd of Welsh supporters!

So that’s the St Patrick’s Bank Holiday Weekend over with and I’m now heading back to Ireland. This week, or what’s left of it, is `Study Week’ which means there are no lectures. We have finished six weeks of teaching this term at Maynooth, and there are six more after Study Week but there is another week off looming for Easter. As it happens, I’m attending a small conference in London on Thursday and Friday (of which more soon) so I’m just back in the office tomorrow before flying off again for two days in the capital of Poundland.

In Cardiff on Match Day

Posted in Cardiff, Rugby with tags , , , , on February 23, 2019 by telescoper

I’m in Cardiff today and have just been for a walk into town and back. It’s a lovely sunny springlike day with a temperature of around 13 degrees. There’s an abundance of daffodils in Bute Park.

Today is of course the occasion for the Wales versus England match in this year’s Six Nations Rugby tournament. This excerpt from a piece by Tom Fordyce on the BBC website is spot on:

Although the match doesn’t start for several hours, all the main roads are already closed so you can stroll around the City without worrying about cars. There’s a lot of people crammed into town, but a very good atmosphere around the place. I haven’t got a ticket for the match and don’t feel like watching in a packed pub either so I’ll just follow it on the radio.

After two impressive performances so far this year, England are probably favourites but you never know! They have also won the last five Six Nations matches between these two teams. But with their home crowd behind them Wales might well bring England’s run to an end.

I’ll make only one prediction: it will be a very physical game.

P. S. On my way home I passed two clearly inebriated England fans trying to find a way into the empty cricket ground at Sophia Gardens. It took quite some time to explain to them that it was not the rugby ground, despite the fact that the Principality Stadium was in clear view about half a mile away…

UPDATE: I was certainly right about it being a physical game! But a strong second-half comeback against a tiring England gave Wales victory by 21 to 13. Diolch, Cymru!

Sosban Fach

Posted in Music, Rugby with tags , , , , on February 2, 2019 by telescoper

Well, this year’s Six Nations competition certainly got off to a great start for Wales last night with a memorable victory against France in Paris. That reminded me to post this, a song often heard at rugby matches in Wales. It’s particularly associated with Llanelli RFC and, more recently, the  Scarlets regional side.

The title Sosban Fach means (`Little Saucepan’) and I decided to post this version by Cerys Matthews in particular because of the beautiful clarity of her Welsh diction that makes it very easy to follow the lyrics (even for a foreigner like me).

Here are the words in Welsh:

Mae bys Meri-Ann wedi brifo,
A Dafydd y gwas ddim yn iach.
Mae’r baban yn y crud yn crio,
A’r gath wedi sgramo Joni bach.

Sosban fach yn berwi ar y tân
Sosban fawr yn berwi ar y llawr,
A’r gath wedi sgramo Joni bach.

Dai bach y sowldiwr,
Dai bach y sowldiwr,
Dai bach y sowldiwr,
A chwt ei grys e mas.

Mae bys Meri-Ann wedi gwella,
A Dafydd y gwas yn ei fedd;
Mae’r baban yn y crud wedi tyfu,
A’r gath wedi huno yn ei hedd.

Sosban fach yn berwi ar y tân
Sosban fawr yn berwi ar y llawr
A’r gath wedi sgramo Joni bach.

Shwd grys oedd ganddo?
Shwd grys oedd ganddo?
Shwd grys oedd ganddo?
Un wen â streipen las.

A’r gath wedi sgramo Joni bach.

O hwp e mewn, Dai,
O hwp e mewn, Dai,
O hwp e mewn, Dai,
Mae’n gas ei weld o mas.

Now feel free to sing along!

 

 

On Barry John

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Rugby with tags , , on January 30, 2019 by telescoper

I was browsing a few rugby sites yesterday evening, ahead of this year’s Six Nations competition (which starts on Saturday) when I stumbled across this little clip featuring legendary Welsh standoff Barry John.

The opening part of this clip really caught my attention because it was filmed near the bus stop just outside The Halfway, a pub on Cathedral Road just a few yards from my house in Cardiff; in the background you can see Llandaff Fields.

I’ve often wondered what became of Barry John. He’s 74 now and no longer the slim young prodigy who was quite simply the best rugby player I ever saw. Since he played in a great Welsh side that included Gareth Edwards, J.P.R. Williams, Gerald Davies et al, that really says something. As a sort of rugby equivalent of George Best, he was incredibly famous during his career. Budding rugby players – even those not born in Wales – all wanted to play like Barry John. But suddenly, at the age of just 27, after playing just 25 internationals, he turned his back on all the publicity and adulation and retired from rugby. He found the pressure of being such a star in the amateur era too difficult to cope with.

Anyway, was Barry John really that good? Absolutely yes, he was. Slight of build but with superb balance, he had an extraordinary, almost magical, ability to find his way through a crowd of potential tacklers as if they weren’t there at all. In the memorable words of that great commentator Bill McLaren “he flits like a little phantom”. But you don’t need to take my word for it. Just look at him – and some other giants of the time – in these highlights of the classic Scotland-Wales tie in the Five Nations of 1971. Watch about 30 seconds in, where he wrong-foots half the Scottish three-quarter line before ghosting through three more before releasing the ball to his forwards. Will there ever be another Barry John? I doubt it..

I doubt if Barry John will ever get to read this, but I’m sure there are many of us who remember the excitement of watching him play and feel enriched by what he gave us.

Polls Apart

Posted in Bad Statistics, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on May 9, 2017 by telescoper

Time for some random thoughts about political opinion polls, the light of Sunday’s French Presidential Election result.

We all know that Emmanuel Macron beat Marine Le Pen in the second round ballot: he won 66.1% of the votes cast to Le Pen’s 33.9%. That doesn’t count the very large number of spoilt ballots or abstentions (25.8% in total). The turnout was down on previous elections, but at 74.2% it’s still a lot higher than we can expect in the UK at the forthcoming General Election.

The French opinion polls were very accurate in predicting the first round results, getting the percentage results for the four top candidates within a percentage or two which is as good as it gets for typical survey sizes.

Nate Silver Harry Enten has written a post on Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight site claiming that the French opinion polls for the second round “runoff” were inaccurate. He bases this on the observation that the “average poll” in between the two rounds of voting gave Macron a lead of about 22% (61%-39%). That’s true, but it assumes that opinions did not shift in the latter stages of the campaign. In particular it ignores Marine Le Pen’s terrible performance in the one-on-one TV debate against Macron on 4th May. Polls conducted after that show (especially a big one with a sample of 5331 by IPSOS) gave a figure more like 63-37, i.e. a 26 point lead.

In any case it can be a bit misleading to focus on the difference between the two vote shares. In a two-horse race, if you’re off by +3 for one candidate you will be off by -3 for the other. In other words, underestimating Macron’s vote automatically means over-estimating Le Pen’s. A ‘normal’ sampling error looks twice as bad if you frame it in terms of differences like this.  The last polls giving Macron at 63% are only off by 3%, which is a normal sampling error…

The polls were off by more than they have been in previous years (where they have typically predicted the spread within 4%. There’s also the question of how the big gap between the two candidates may have influenced voter behaviour,  increasing the number of no-shows.

So I don’t think the French opinion polls did as badly as all that. What still worries me, though, is the different polls consistently gave results that agreed with the others to within 1% or so, when there really should be sampling fluctuations. Fishy.

By way of a contrast, consider a couple of recent opinion polls conducted by YouGov in Wales. The first, conducted in April, gave the following breakdown of likely votes:

Poll

The apparent ten-point lead for the Conservatives over Labour (which is traditionally dominant in Wales) created a lot of noise in the media as it showed the Tories up 12% on the previous such poll taken in January (and Labour down 3%); much of the Conservative increase was due to a collapse in the UKIP share. Here’s the long-term picture from YouGov:

Wales-01

As an aside I’ll mention that ‘barometer’ surveys like this are sometimes influenced by changes in weightings and other methodological factors that can artificially produce different outcomes. I don’t know if anything changed in this regard between January 2017 and May 2017 that might have contributed to the large swing to the Tories, so let’s just assume that it’s “real”.

This “sensational” result gave various  pundits (e.g. Cardiff’s own Roger Scully) the opportunity to construct various narratives about the various implications for the forthcoming General Election.

Note, however, the sample sample size (1029), which implies an uncertainty of ±3% or so in the result. It came as no surprise to me, then, to see that the next poll by YouGov was a bit different: Conservatives on 41% (+1), but Labour on 35% (+5). That’s still grim for Labour, of course, but not quite as grim as being 10 points behind.

So what happened in the two weeks between these two polls? Well, one thing is that many places had local elections which resulted in lots of campaigning. In my ward, at least, that made a big difference: Labour increased its share of the vote compared to the 2012 elections (on a 45% turnout, which is high for local elections). Maybe then it’s true that Labour has been “fighting back” since the end of April.

Alternatively, and to my mind more probably, what we’re seeing is just the consequence of very large sampling errors. I think it’s likely that the Conservatives are in the lead, but by an extremely uncertain margin.

But why didn’t we see fluctuations of this magnitude in the French opinion polls of similar size?

Answers on a postcard, or through the comments box, please.

The Welsh University Funding Debacle Continues…

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics with tags , , , on February 24, 2015 by telescoper

Although I no longer work in Wales, I still try to keep up with developments in the Welsh Higher Education sector as they might affect friends and former colleagues who do. I noticed yet another news item on the BBC a week or so ago as a kind of update to another one published a few years ago about the effect of the Welsh Government’s policy of giving Welsh students bursaries to study at English universities. The gist of the argument is that:

For every Welsh student that goes to university across the border the fee subsidy costs the Welsh government around £4,500.

It means this year’s 7,370 first-year students from Wales who study in other parts of the UK could take more than £33m with them. Including last year’s students, the total figure is over £50m.

According to the latest news story on this, the initial estimate of £50M estimate grew first to £77M and is now put at a figure closer to £90M.

I did in fact make exactly the same point about five years ago on this blog, when former Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews announced that students domiciled in Wales would be protected from then (then) impending tuition fee rises by a new system of grants. In effect the Welsh Assembly Government would pick up the tab for Welsh students; they would still have to pay the existing fee level of £3290 per annum, but the WAG would pay the extra £6K. I wrote in May 2010:

This is good news for the students of course, but the grants will be available to Welsh students not just for Welsh universities but wherever they choose to study. Since about 16,000 Welsh students are currently at university in England, this means that the WAG is handing over a great big chunk (at least 16,000 × £3000 = £48 million) of its hard-earned budget straight back to England. It’s a very strange thing to do when the WAG is constantly complaining that the Barnett formula doesn’t give them enough money in the first place.

What’s more, the Welsh Assembly grants for Welsh students will be paid for by top-slicing the teaching grants that HECFW makes to Welsh universities. So further funding cuts for universities in Wales are going to be imposed precisely in order to subsidise English universities. This is hardly in the spirit of devolution either!

English students wanting to study in Wales will have to pay full whack, but will be paying to attend universities whose overall level of state funding is even lower than in England (at least for STEM subjects whose subsidy is protected in England). Currently about 25,000 English students study in Wales compared with the 16,000 Welsh students who study in England. If the new measures go ahead I can see fewer English students coming to Wales, and more Welsh students going to England. This will have deeply damaging consequences for the Welsh Higher Education system.

It’s very surprising that the Welsh Nationalists, Plaid Cymru, who form part of the governing coalition in the Welsh Assembly, have gone along with this strange move. It’s good for Welsh students, but not good for Welsh universities. I would have thought that the best plan for Welsh students would be to keep up the bursaries but apply them only for study in Wales. That way both students and institutions will benefit and the Welsh Assembly’s budget will actually be spent in Wales, which is surely what is supposed to happen…

Well, the changes did go ahead, and now the consequences are becoming clearer. The Chief Executive of Welsh university funding agency HEFCW, Dr David Blaney, is quoted as saying

“…in England, English students have to get a loan, so the top universities there have £9,000 coming from each student and also funding from the funding council.

In Wales, a lot of the funding council funding is now spent on the tuition fee grant and that means there’s less money available to invest in the Welsh sector than is the case in England,” he told BBC Wales in an exclusive interview.”

This also mirrors a concern I’ve also discussed in a blog post, which is that the Welsh Government policy might actually increase the number of Welsh students deciding to study in England, while also decreasing the number of other students deciding to study in Wales. Why would this happen? Well, it’s because, at least in STEM subjects, the tuition fee paid in England attracts additional central funding from HEFCE. This additional resource is nowhere near as much as it should be, but is still better than in Wales. Indeed it was precisely by cutting the central teaching grant that the Welsh Government was able to fund its bursaries in the first place. So why should an English student decide to forego additional government support by choosing to study in Wales, and why should a Welsh student decide to do likewise by not going to England?

I really hope the Welsh Government decides to change its policy, though whether an imminent General Election makes that more or less likely is hard to say.

Scotland Should Decide…

Posted in Bad Statistics, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2014 by telescoper

There being less than two weeks to go before the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence, a subject on which I have so far refrained from commenting, I thought I would write something on it from the point of view of an English academic. I was finally persuaded to take the plunge because of incoming traffic to this blog from  pro-independence pieces here and here and a piece in Nature News on similar matters.

I’ll say at the outset that this is an issue for the Scots themselves to decide. I’m a believer in democracy and think that the wishes of the Scottish people as expressed through a referendum should be respected. I’m not qualified to express an opinion on the wider financial and political implications so I’ll just comment on the implications for science research, which is directly relevant to at least some of the readers of this blog. What would happen to UK research if Scotland were to vote yes?

Before going on I’ll just point out that the latest opinion poll by Yougov puts the “Yes” (i.e. pro-independence) vote ahead of “No” at 51%-49%. As the sample size for this survey was only just over a thousand, it has a margin of error of ±3%. On that basis I’d call the race neck-and-neck to within the resolution of the survey statistics. It does annoy me that pollsters never bother to state their margin of error in press released. Nevertheless, the current picture is a lot closer than it looked just a month ago, which is interesting in itself, as it is not clear to me as an outsider why it has changed so dramatically and so quickly.

Anyway, according to a Guardian piece not long ago.

Scientists and academics in Scotland would lose access to billions of pounds in grants and the UK’s world-leading research programmes if it became independent, the Westminster government has warned.

David Willetts, the UK science minister, said Scottish universities were “thriving” because of the UK’s generous and highly integrated system for funding scientific research, winning far more funding per head than the UK average.

Unveiling a new UK government paper on the impact of independence on scientific research, Willetts said that despite its size the UK was second only to the United States for the quality of its research.

“We do great things as a single, integrated system and a single integrated brings with it great strengths,” he said.

Overall spending on scientific research and development in Scottish universities from government, charitable and industry sources was more than £950m in 2011, giving a per capita spend of £180 compared to just £112 per head across the UK as a whole.

It is indeed notable that Scottish universities outperform those in the rest of the United Kingdom when it comes to research, but it always struck me that using this as an argument against independence is difficult to sustain. In fact it’s rather similar to the argument that the UK does well out of European funding schemes so that is a good argument for remaining in the European Union. The point is that, whether or not a given country benefits from the funding system, it still has to do so by following an agenda that isn’t necessarily its own. Scotland benefits from UK Research Council funding, but their priorities are set by the Westminster government, just as the European Research Council sets (sometimes rather bizarre) policies for its schemes. Who’s to say that Scotland wouldn’t do even better than it does currently by taking control of its own research funding rather than forcing its institutions to pander to Whitehall?

It’s also interesting to look at the flipside of this argument. If Scotland were to become independent, would the “billions” of research funding it would lose (according to the statement by Willetts, who is no longer the Minister in charge) benefit science in what’s left of the United Kingdom? There are many in England and Wales who think the existing research budget is already spread far too thinly and who would welcome an increase south of the border. If this did happen you could argue that, from a very narrow perspective, Scottish independence would be good for science in the rest of what is now the United Kingdom, but that depends on how much the Westminster government sets the science budget.

This all depends on how research funding would be redistributed if and when Scotland secedes from the Union, which could be done in various ways. The simplest would be for Scotland to withdraw from RCUK entirely. Because of the greater effectiveness of Scottish universities at winning funding compared to the rest of the UK, Scotland would have to spend more per capita to maintain its current level of resource, which is why many Scottish academics will be voting “no”. On the other hand, it has been suggested (by the “yes” campaign) that Scotland could buy back from its own revenue into RCUK at the current effective per capita rate  and thus maintain its present infrastructure and research expenditure at no extra cost. This, to me, sounds like wanting to have your cake and eat it,  and it’s by no means obvious that Westminster could or should agree to such a deal. All the soundings I have taken suggest that an independent Scotland should expect no such generosity, and will get actually zilch from the RCUK.

If full separation is the way head, science in Scotland would be heading into uncharted waters. Among the questions that would need to be answered are:

  •  what will happen to RCUK funded facilities and staff currently situated in Scotland, such as those at the UKATC?
  •  would Scottish researchers lose access to facilities located in England, Wales or Northern Ireland?
  •  would Scotland have to pay its own subscriptions to CERN, ESA and ESO?

These are complicated issues to resolve and there’s no question that a lengthy process of negotiation would be needed to resolved them. In the meantime, why should RCUK risk investing further funds in programmes and facilities that may end up outside the UK (or what remains of it)? This is a recipe for planning blight on an enormous scale.

And then there’s the issue of EU membership. Would Scotland be allowed to join the EU immediately on independence? If not, what would happen to EU funded research?

I’m not saying these things will necessarily work out badly in the long run for Scotland, but they are certainly questions I’d want to have answered before I were convinced to vote “yes”. I don’t have a vote so my opinion shouldn’t count for very much, but I wonder if there are any readers of this blog from across the Border who feel like expressing an opinion?