Archive for March, 2012

Web Life

Posted in Biographical, Books, Talks and Reviews with tags , , on March 31, 2012 by telescoper

Pure vanity drove me to post this screenshot of a nice write-up of this blog that appears in this month’s Physics World. You can read the whole edition online here if you have a subscription, but if you click on the image it’s more-or-less legible. They’ve written very nice things about In the Dark,  so hope I don’t get into trouble with their copyright enforcers by posting this…

Cement Mixer

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on March 31, 2012 by telescoper

Well, term is over and, inevitably, there are signs that the weather is on the turn. Time, I think, for a bit of inspired silliness by the great Slim Gaillard. I’ve posted about Slim before, but for completeness Slim Gaillard was a truly remarkable character who led a remarkable life, as his wikipedia page makes clear. He was a superbly talented musician in his own right, but also a wonderful comedian and storyteller. He’s most famous for the novelty jazz acts he formed with musicians such as Slam Stewart and, later, Bam Brown; their stream-of-consciousness vocals ranged far afield from the original lyrics along with wild interpolations of nonsense syllables such as MacVoutie and O-reeney; one such performance figures in the 1957 novel On the Road by Jack Kerouac.

In later life Slim Gaillard travelled a lot in Europe – he could speak 8 languages in addition to English – and spent long periods living in London. He died there, in fact, in 1991, aged 75. I saw him a few times myself when I used to go regularly to Ronnie Scott’s Club. A tall, gangly man with a straggly white beard and wonderful gleam in his eye, he cut an unmistakeable figure in the bars and streets of Soho. He rarely had to buy himself a drink as he was so well known and such an entertaining fellow that a group always formed around him, just in order to enjoy his company,  whenever he went into a pub or club. You never quite knew what he was going to do next, in fact. I once saw him sit down and play a piano with his palms facing upwards, striking the notes with the backs of his fingers as he does in this clip, wherein he interpolates an upside-down but nevertheless very accurate version of the opening passages of Debussy’s Claire de Lune.  I’m posting this primarily because it’s such a hoot, but I think it also demonstrates what a marvellous musician he was both on piano – check out the size of his hands! – and on guitar, playing a medley of his hit Cement Mixer to accompany his own gloriously daft vocal.

Other random things worth mentioning are that Slim Gaillard’s daughter was married to Marvin Gaye and it is generally accepted that the word “groovy” was coined by him (Slim). I know it’s a cliché, but he really was a larger-than-life character and a truly remarkable human being. As one of the commenters on Youtube aptly put it “To Slim Gaillard, the whole world was just one big O-roonie”. Enjoy!

End of Term

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , on March 30, 2012 by telescoper

So here we are, then. The last day of term has finally arrived.  Many of our students will be out partying tonight before they start a three-week break with little to disturb their relaxation but project reports, assignments and examination revision. Probably not all that relaxing at all then, especially for the final-year students.

For various reasons I’ve found this term very heavy going and am  looking forward to spending some time away over the next couple of weeks.  More about that in due course, assuming I have internet access…

The curious thing about the academic year is that since most UK universities switched to a semester system we’ve had to cope with the fact that Easter isn’t on a fixed calendar date. Last year, Easter was rather late so we managed to squeeze in a full 11 weeks teaching in before the vacation started. This year we’ve only got time for 9 weeks, so we resume teaching in three weeks’ time for another two weeks, followed by a revision week and the examination period. I think most students probably agree with me that this hiatus is extremely annoying.

This year Good Friday is on 6th April (a week today) and Easter Monday on 9th April; both are statutory (“bank”) holidays in the UK. Most universities have felt obliged to move their recess so that these two holidays occur outside term-time.

If I had my way we would have fixed semester dates so this nonsense of a 9+2 week teaching semester wouldn’t happen. Last year’s 11-week uninterrupted run was a slog, but I much prefer it over the stop-start affair we’re having this year.

I was a visiting professor at an American university over one Easter period many years ago. Given the fact that the Christian lobby is far more powerful over there than it is here I was quite surprised by the fact that there’s no real interruption for Easter. Lectures were held on Good Friday and there’s no Easter Monday holiday. Easter Sunday was definitely observed, but that had no effect on teaching.

The two Bank Holidays are a bit of a problem, of course, especially because they are followed by two more in May. However, when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge, we had lectures as normal on bank holidays.  I’m not sure whether that practice was restricted to Oxbridge colleges – where term dates are different to elsewhere anyway – or some other Universities did the same. I don’t even know if Oxbridge still carries on over bank holidays today…

A better solution would be to distribute the statutory holidays more evenly through the year so they weren’t concentrated so inconveniently in Spring. There would be  nothing to stop Christians taking a day’s leave in order to observe Good Friday, of course.

But since only a minority of British people are practising Christians, why are the rest of us forced to arrange our calendars according to archaic and irrelevant rituals?  Far better, in my opinion,  to give us all a day off for the start of the cricket season…

Grumble over, it just remains for me to wish my loyal readers (Sid and Doris Bonkers) all the best for the recess, and I hope it’s a good night at the Student Ball tonight!

Is this the “Squeezed Middle”?

Posted in Education, Finance with tags , , on March 29, 2012 by telescoper

As reported in the Times Higher , the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has announced its allocations to English Higher Education Institutions for 2012/13. As expected, many universities are receiving substantial cuts next year. Here is a table of the biggest losers:

The Times Higher article describes this as the “Squeezed Middle”. It looks more like the “Squeezed Bottom” to me, but then I suppose that would have made an inappropriate headline.

Is there really a University of Sunderland?

Anyways, this allows me the chance to congratulate the former Director of Learning and Teaching in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University on his move to the University of Central Lancashire, currently riding high at Number 7 in the above table…


Behind the Scenes at the School Management Group

Posted in Uncategorized on March 29, 2012 by telescoper

At a Staff Meeting yesterday it was officially announced that I’ve been “promoted” to Deputy Head of School, with responsibility for Teaching and Learning. Actually,  it’s not so much a promotion as a battlefield commission, as the current holder of this prestigious position is shortly moving to pastures new. People have asking me if anything is going to be re-organized in the new regime. I’m going to suggest quite a few things, in fact, but the main idea I’ve come up with is to separate the administration of the “Teaching” part entirely from that of the “Learning” in order to reflect the fact that there’s absolutely no connection between the two activities. If we then appoint a Director of Teaching and a Director of Learning, I can leave them to do everything while I go down the pub.

As Deputy Head of School, I will be joining the all-powerful Management Group, the School’s elite Politburo which has only four members. One of my aims is to make this organization less secretive and more open. In this spirit, I can reveal this exclusive behind-the-scenes footage taken at the last Management Group meeting. I’m sure the members of the School will sleep more easily in their offices knowing that they’re managed by four such capable individuals.

A Walk in Bute Park

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on March 28, 2012 by telescoper

Yesterday evening as I walked home through Bute Park I thought I’d take a few pictures with my phone to remind myself at a future date what beautiful weather we’re having and how splendid the trees and flowers are looking. It’s great to see so many people enjoying this beautiful park these days; fortunately the Council seems to have suspended the regular traffic of heavy vehicles along the paths, at least for the time being.

Unfortunately at around the time I took these pictures, something much less pleasant was happening a few hundred yards away near Cardiff Station. I’ve no idea what went on, but thankfully it looks like nobody received life-threatening injuries…

Anyway, neither Cherry nor May Blossom lasts very long – the Magnolias are already dropping their flowers – so let’s make the most of them while we can!

Cardiff Castle behind the trees

Even the Weeping Willow looks happy...although it's a bit of a concern that the water level in the Taff is so low...

Now here’s a question. Is it just me, or is the May Blossom appearing earlier nowadays than it used to? It’s definitely out now and it’s not even April yet…

Joy Spring

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on March 28, 2012 by telescoper

Having an early morning cup of tea in the garden just now, as the fine weather continues, I suddenly remembered this classic from 1954. Fortunately someone has put it on Youtube so I can share it right away. This piece will forever be associated with the late great  Clifford Brown who plays trumpet and leads the band, but the real star of the show for me is the arranger, Jack Montrose, who wove a rich  texture around the melody of Joy Spring, with more than a hint of the West Coast “Cool”  that was to dominate the US jazz scene  in later years.

If you don’t approve of same-sex marriage, don’t marry someone of the same sex

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on March 27, 2012 by telescoper

I found this image while reading an interesting piece about same-sex marriages in the early Christian era. Here’s an excerpt:

In the famous St. Catherine’s monastery on Mount Sinai, there is an icon which shows two robed Christian saints getting married. Their ‘pronubus’ (official witness, or “best man”) is none other than Jesus Christ.

The happy couple are 4th Century Christian martyrs, Saint Serge and Saint Bacchus — both men.

Severus of Antioch in the sixth century explained that “we should not separate in speech [Serge and Bacchus] who were joined in life.” More bluntly, in the definitive 10th century Greek account of their lives, Saint Serge is described as the “sweet companion and lover (erastai)” of St. Bacchus.

It’s interesting how religious conservatives keep going on about how legal recognition of same-sex relationships would destroy the “traditional” view of marriage. What tradition would that be, then? The tradition that gave us the Spanish Inquisition? Clearly not the tradition of the early Christian church.

I’m not a Christian and wouldn’t dream of telling Christians what they should think about same-sex marriage. I actually don’t mind if heterosexual people – Christian or otherwise – disapprove. They’re welcome to, in fact. They don’t have to marry a person of the same sex if they don’t want to. That’s not the same as allowing them to deny that right to others who feel differently.

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.

Last Week of Term

Posted in Biographical, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on March 26, 2012 by telescoper

So the glorious weather continues. Unfortunately, unlike most UK universities, we’re not finished for Easter yet; at Cardiff University we only get three weeks for the Easter recess instead of the four that colleagues over the border seem to enjoy.

One of the consequences of this is that the annual National Astronomy Meeting (NAM) often falls in Cardiff term time. This year NAM is taking place in the fine city of Manchester (which, for those of you unfamiliar with British geography, is in the Midlands). Many colleagues in the School of Physics & Astronomy are attending NAM, and most of my research group are either there already or travelling up today. I particularly wish Jo and Ian well when they give their talks; one of the excellent things about NAM is the opportunity it offers for younger researchers to talk about their work to a large audience. Nerve-wracking, no doubt, but invaluable experience.

I’m not going to NAM this year because I have too much to do back here at the ranch, including filling in a few lectures for staff who are away.  I’m always reluctant to cancel lectures during term-time, but in the current spell of good weather I doubt if any students would complain too much! I did a cosmology lecture this morning – only the second I’ve done here – and it the room was uncomfortably stuffy. A few of the students failed to fall asleep, however, so I regard that as a major success.

It’s strange how often good weather coincides with times of great stress for students. I recall that most of my undergraduate examinations took place in glorious sunshine, which seemed to have been laid on by some malevolent being to make us suffer. This week our students have project reports and presentations to worry about and other coursework to finish before term ends, as well as revision for the exams that take place in May; being couped up inside is no fun on days like this and I’m sure they’d prefer it to be raining outside so as not to distract them from the tasks in hand…

It’s so quiet around here today that it occurred to me now would be a good time to stage a Coup d’Etat. Come to thank of it, there’s a Staff Meeting  been called on Wednesday which may well amount to something pretty similar…

Anyway, those of us around today have a nice event this evening to look forward to, a lecture by Lord Rees followed by a nice dinner in Aberdare Hall. Here’s the invitation:

You’ll see that this is organized “in association with The Learned Society for Wales“, which I only just learned about when I saw it on the invitation!

Anyway, the prospect of a slap-up dinner persuaded me to just have a sandwich for lunch. Now that’s eaten methinks I’ll get back to work!

UPDATE: It was indeed a very interesting and entertaining lecture by Lord Rees; here he is, in action, watched by Prof. Disney…

In Memoriam Jocky Wilson

Posted in Sport with tags , on March 25, 2012 by telescoper

So. Farewell then
Jocky Wilson.

You finished
On Sixty-Two.

I would have gone
Triple Ten
Double Sixteen.

But it would be
More like you
To opt for

by P. Coles (aged 48¾)