Restart Miscellany

March 26, 2014

Some chums complained I have written no blog posts for about eight million years. I blame teaching. Anyway. Lets see. How do you do this thing? Scrapes off rust. Here are a few bits.

(1) At last the STFC Programmatic Review emerges!!! Get it here. I have tried to wade through it, but it looks like all the interesting bits are [redacted]. I encountered one or two cynics who claimed most of it was about the process rather than the results. Unfair. I would say its no more than 40%. About another 40% is generic RCUK Boilerplate.

(2) Research Fish. Don’t even start me.

(3) George Fraser died. This was a real shock and a terrible loss to X-ray astronomy. But he has the most astonishing swan song. Here is his incredibly careful and potentially crucial paper which claims a detection of the signal of solar axions interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field.

(4) The other reason I have been a tad busy is that I have been writing and filming a MOOC with me old mate Catherine H. It’s almost ready for show time : April 28th. You can tell your Auntie to sign up here.

(5) Seeing yourself on film, especially as the free bus pass approaches, is a tad disconcerting. I seem to be perfecting the scrawny old lizard look, whereas I am expecting myself to look vaguely like Charles Manson.  Sorry, off on a 1970s nostalgia kick, as a result of watching this documentary about Mike Oldfield and the making of Tubular Bells. This made it pretty clear (if it wasn’t already) that he was inspired by Terry Riley. Rainbow in Curved Air still amazes me. Here is a yewtoob version with groovy astropix. I think the gaudy artist’s quasar at 5mins in is from an ESO press release I was involved in. Enjoy.


Deadlines. We love ‘em

January 5, 2014

Happy New Year all. Virtual Handshake.

Just discovered a groovy new web comic called Toothpaste for Dinner thanks to Tweeter @Mariancall via @CatherineQ . Well, its new to me anyway. This one is The Creative Process and will cause both giggles and nods from anybody who does anything creative which involves a deadline. This includes writing a paper or submitting a proposal…

We all love deadlines. The usual joke is “I love the whooshing noise as they go past me” which is tres amusant, but the real problem is that we tend to meet them by the skin of our teeth and let them destroy our sanity. As in aforelinked cartoon. (NB WordPress confirms my creativity. In the edit box every neologism is underlined in red. Bizarrely, this is true of “WordPress”. Anyway. Yes. Where was I?)

I have noticed a consistent pattern, especially coming up to observing runs.

  1. Start work nice and early, in a relaxed manner.
  2. Two weeks somehow drifts by.
  3. Make a plan, organise work into sections.
  4. This isn’t really working and time is passing. Getting somewhat nervous. Realise what you need is a priority list of tasks. Start working down from the top in a firm manner.
  5. The first task is half done and there is a few days to go. Getting distinctly twitchy. Miss coffee break and grab sandwich lunch but still hard to concentrate.
  6. Your flight is day after tomorrow. Feeling of desperation building. Suddenly realise got this list thing wrong. Start working up from the bottom crossing off things that aren’t essential.
  7. Flight is tomorrow. Half list crossed off from bottom. Panic starting. Go back to top and fiercely ask of each item – right, will it be a disaster if I don’t do this?
  8. Six pm in your office. Standing in middle of room unable to move because pulled in multiple directions, and muttering “not physically possible … not physically possible..”
  9. Midnight. Suddenly think “screw it, thats good enough”. Immense feeling of relief washes over you and you to go to bed.
  10. Catch flight, have perfectly good observing run etc. Possibly a few things have to be improvised.

Of course, that last minute improvising thing is a bit tricky when making ESO style Observing Blocks. For the benefit of any ESO staff that may be reading this blog I should of course clarify that I always make OBs in a calm, efficient and timely manner, with no errors. Hem.


Book fever

December 13, 2013

I am terribly excited because my book just came out. Three years in gestation, but finally got there. Its called “Astronomical Measurement – a Concise Guide”, its published by Springer, and it even has a Kindle version. I am not expecting you all to rush out and buy it, because like most textbooks it is horribly expensive – 26p a page as Mike Watson pointed out. You will appreciate that the price was not chosen by me…

Career-wise, I think maybe finishing a book ranks third after finishing a thesis (btw, well done Jack!) and seeing my first research paper come out, but pretty groovy nonetheless. I was expecting a warm glow for a day or two. But what took me pleasantly by surprise was the very positive reactions from many friends, colleagues, and distant rellies. I guess I was expecting that most people would just think “err yeah ok, thats what academics do isn’t it, write textbooks? I expect you give some lectures too.” Or perhaps the younger ones would be thinking “oh, a book, how quaint, do people still do those?”.

Through most of my life books were very important to people. Its not just the stories. Its the physical presence. A book-lined room was what we dreamed of. The smell of a new book is wonderful. I love picking up an old book in a dusty second hand bookshop and finding it signed “To Eric, Christmas 1938″. A new friend walks into your room and goes straight to your shelves to see what kind of person you are, and a conversation starts.

Well now of course the future of the physical book is unclear, along with the physical music album and perhaps the physical lecture course. (I am halfway through filming a MOOC …) But its not even clear that eBooks will survive. What I mean is, when all the material you need is dispersed through many web pages, all indexable and searchable, why do you need to package material into 300 page chunks? Shouldn’t content diffuse and spread and mingle? Part of the appeal of a book has always been the heft. Never mind the quality, feel the width. But once that is gone, why do you need so many dumb consecutive words, as opposed to a complex hyperlinked reality?


Call Off Christmas

May 20, 2013

Some interesting “MOOCs will change everything” stuff on the webby-media today. Although I blogged about this a short while ago, I am tempted to have another go. But while I think about this, here is something much sillier.

The Royal Institution have decided to trademark the phrase “Christmas Lectures”. No really. If you give a lecture at Christmas, and advertise it as a Christmas Lecture, you may be breaking the law. Here is their official statement, and here is a blog post by Ian Gent explaining why it is a very bad idea, as well as an unjustified one. Those of who follow Mike Merrifield on Twitter will know that he is particularly miffed, being already booked to give a series of Christmas Lectures this year… The official statement includes an email address if you’d like to discuss this with the RI…

Well. We understand why they are doing it I suppose. But yea verily, it is an silly idea. Here is Alan Rickman in his classic impersonation of a stressed out RI Director :


End of the University Part II/III : online education

May 1, 2013

Oh dear. Everybody knows you should never write Paper I unless you really are going to do Papers II, III etc. Posterity looks unkindly on failed pomposity. Back in November I wrote End of the University : Part I which was about the Browne report and a naive approach to “student choice”. I think perhaps I can count The Big REF Gamble as Part II – lots of us are investing for success, hiring new staff before the REF, but we can’t all win. These are both examples of market disruption, which may force a re-structuring. You may have various opinions on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

So what about good old disruptive technology? The music business got turned upside down by the internet and file sharing, and the book business is likewise in turmoil. The disruptive technology here is the ease of copying. The reaction of entrenched commercial interests was the development of digital restrictions management. Whatever you think of that, the market structures are re-forming, and we need to get used to the idea that we don’t own works of art, we rent them – or if you like, we pay for performances. Of course the logic that follows is that payment for performance should go straight to the artist – who needs the middleman?

So can the same thing happen to education? They key thing here is not ease of copying but economy of scale. Hundreds of years ago we invented lectures so we could teach 150 students at a time instead of 5. Now we can do thousands at a time. My own university has started its own experimentation with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). My colleague Charles Cockell ran a five week course in Astrobiology. Forty-one thousand students registered, and five thousand survived the whole course. I am toying with another course idea myself, along with the boundlessly energetic Dr H. Well this is very exciting of course, but you start to wonder why anybody would pay nine thousand sponduliks for a university degree from the University of West Somerset when they can sit on their sofa and take courses from Harvard…

One answer is assessment and another is feedback, and the whole business of giving credit. Marking exams has not gotten any more efficient, and likewise the provision of individual feedback. Multiple Choice Quizzes are good, but not enough. If somebody can solve this problem, things will really change. This recent Guardian article reports the debate in California about whether MOOCs will allow private providers to move into education.

Meanwhile, it could well be that content delivery and assessment will decouple. Oh what interesting times.


Pippa Plugging (and a bit of Chas)

April 25, 2013

Had a rather jolly evening last night. I went to a book launch. I’d never been to one before and didn’t quite know what to expect – lots of air kissing and long fingernails I guess. In fact it was full of nice normal looking peoples, who divided into three tribes – aspiring writers, civil servants, and astronomers. The common link you see is that they were all friends of Pippa Goldschmidt, who just published her first novel, The Falling Sky. Some of you will know that Pippa used to be an astronomer in Edinburgh and Imperial, then moved into government, and has now re-invented herself again as a writer. You can buy the book from Amazon, or, if you prefer to support the UK tax system, from Freight Books. The novel is about a young female astronomer who makes an unexpected discovery which at first is very exciting but which throws her career into confusion and hostility, at the same time as her personal life is unravelling. Thats enough given away. I just finished reading it, and its really v.good indeed. I hope a lot of astronomers will read it, and half of them will think they know who the characters are. Here is a picture of a happy Pippa at the launch, with her PhD supervisor Lance Miller. Who is DEFINITELY not The Deathstar.

The Internut is a wondrous thing, as we daily re-discover. I found myself thinking how intriguing it is to finally see someone portray the real life of a scientist so accurately. There are books and movies and plays about famous scientists like Galileo and so forth, and of course squilliards of entertainments featuring nutty or mad scientists, but how often do you see real ordinary scientists? So I Googled “Scientists in Fiction” and found that there is an entire web magazine devoted to this subject – the rather marvelous LabLit.com. It has a long list of books I now want to read. Thats me sorted for about thirty more birthdays. (He said optimistically).

Its been a good month for astronomically related authors. Old RGO chum Chas Parker has just published his fourth – no hang on – his fifth – book about motor racing. His Amazon page is here. Somewhere in deepest Sussex, Chas still has my beard in a tin, but I can’t explain why without breaching the Official Secrets Act.


Korean controversy posturing

April 15, 2013

Emerging from a spot of lurgi so maybe just a  postette.

I just watched the controversial Korean undercover documentary. Given the fuss, I was surprised to see there was no mention of students whatsoever. They just said they were on a tour. If the LSE hadn’t made a fuss, no-one would have had any idea that students were involved. Now … it may or not be that the film makers dealt fairly or safely with the students. Thats between the BBC and the students concerned. How has it got anything to do with the LSE? As far as I have been able to tell, it wasn’t an official LSE trip, an LSE-organised trip, or an LSE-branded trip. They just happened to be students from an LSE student society. The LSE do not own these students. They are adults. As said very nicely in this piece by Robin Lustig it just sounds like “nobody told us” harrumphing.

But depressingly, Universities UK and even the Royal Society are  taking a line supporting the LSE, saying that it threatens the ability of UK universities to be trusted abroad. Pardon my French, but absolute bollocks. Pompous posturing. And also quite shocking to be blustering about such a thing when the people of Korea are starving and its leaders may launch an international war.

Again, let me stress that I cannot tell whether the BBC was sensible in their dealings with students – I think they probably were, but the public evidence so far is contradictory. But it has nothing to do with UK Universities in a corporate sense or the Royal Society.

How depressing.


Tieless in Gaza

February 7, 2013

Party at Professor P’s house last night. We were celebrating our three new appointments and bonding and stuff. Three? Well, our REF gamble is going to work, don’t you know. Of course one of those three is what our American chums call “Faculty shuffle” – or perhaps electron-hole jumping in a a semiconductor is a better analogy. Professor H went orff to Imperial; Prof L left Sussex to come here; Professor C left Cardiff to fill the hole in Sussex. Professor WT had already left Cardiff City for Preston North End, so things might get exciting in Wales.

I was a bit late because I had been gulping vino at government expense at the Scottish Parliament, where there was a reception attached to an exhibition about the Large Hadron Collider. (You can see the exhibition on Parliament TV ! Check out the “Partical Physicist”) Earlier in the day, Wommers had I understand been giving the Science and Technology Committee a pitch on how good this stuff is for the Scottish Economy. He also gave a wee speech at the reception of course, but was correctly upstaged by the (late) appearance of Peter Higgs. Yesterday I referred to Peter as being “quarter house trained” but really should have explained that Peter has  got it just right. He allows himself to be paraded around and lionised wherever this is good for science, but never loses his shyness, modesty and general nice guyness. In his speech he basically told us to be proud of the engineers who built the LHC. He did also apologise for all the work that “we theoreticians” had put them too. Wommers picked up on this but added that he wasn’t so sure about “who-ever invented supersymmetry”.

More than one person raised an eyebrow at my lack of tie at this august gathering. OK, couldn’t resist the title. Never read Milton, but a big Aldous Huxley fan. Not that I am suggesting that at the reception I was in chains and pulled down the temple and all that. Just got a few sniffy looks.  Later at Professor P’s party, Dr F said that I shouldn’t go thinking of myself as a dangerous radical, otherwise I would have worn a skirt.


The Big REF gamble

February 6, 2013

Three days in a row? Crumbs. Better do some real work soon.

Interesting but perhaps not surprising that the reactions to yesterdays Tricky Dicky post were all about University PR and Corporatism. Universities are in a tricky situation; its quite right that they should be more business-like, but not that they should be run as businesses. Education is not simply a commercial transaction; but we do have to balance the books, attract students, maintain a brand, and so on.

The public worry tends to concentrate on what the evolution of student fees is doing to the university infrastructure. (Or at least the English infrastructure; Scotland is a kind of giant experimental control…) Everybody is obsessed with bums on seats, and with the ghastly Key Information Sets etc (see this post). Market forces will mean that some thrive and some sink.

But thats only half of it. The other half of our income comes from research funding, and most of that still comes through HEFCE, SFC etc. This is why we are all panicking about the upcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF). The money we get will depend in an unknown but certainly highly non-linear way on our gradings. Universities are being very entrepreneurial about this : there has been a burst of academic recruitments, getting fresh young stars in just in time to count their papers.

If this works, you are in the money; if however your grading comes out low, you are stuffed. Stuck with a salary bill you can’t pay.

Maybe, like RBS, when some big universities fail, the government will buy 80% of them.


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