NSF starts slicing

August 17, 2012

Scary times for our US chums. The dreaded NSF Portfolio Review finally did its thing. The news is pretty bad in places, but to be honest I think its less to do with our austere times than it is to do with historic overheating and the “funding wall” problem.

You can find the full report at this web page here . Stein Siggywatsit at Dynamics of Cats has already digested the report and written a nice commentary . Under the harsher but probably realistic “Scenario B”, here are the headlines :

  • ALMA, Gemini, EVLA, Blanco, and grants protected
  • LSST and ATST get a go ahead;
  • GSMT, CCAT will maybe get some peanuts
  • Mayall, KP 21.m, WIYN, GBT, VLBA out

I skimmed the report and found two figures illuminating. The first figure shows the evolution of the NSF Astronomy budget.

Budget scenariosIgnore the impressive temporary spike due to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). The story is not one of massive decline; the real budget will be pretty much the same as 2001, and about 7% less than most of this decade. The Decadal Survey (NWNH) wish list required a large expansion. Well, it was worth trying. So how can there be a problem ? Well, look at this next figure.

Budget squueze

This shows what it costs to just keep all the current commitments running. The boxes labelled LSST, CCAT, GSMT are the likely operating cost contributions, not the construction costs.

So basically what you see is that the US has done such wonderful things in the past, that if we keep them all going – especially the very newest things like ALMA – that uses up all the money forever. You want LSST, ATST, CCAT ? OK. What are you chopping ? Thats it.

The trouble with Big Science is that it is only ever worth doing things that are much better than before. The squeeze is ineluctable.

Tusitala*, Kepler, and Doctor Copernicus

August 5, 2012

If you live in Edinburgh and you like books, there are four altars you must kneel before : Jo Rowling, Ian Rankin, Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. There are of course other demi-gods – Alexander McCall Smith, Ian Banks, Muriel Spark – and we will ignore the poets, and the Weegie pretenders. It seems that JK, The Rankin, Scott and RLS get the great majority of the burnt offerings.

I won’t pontificate about Rowling and Rankin because even though I don’t know them, there is a finite chance of bumping into a friend of a colleague of a friend and somehow it doesn’t feel right. Edinbrr is a small town. Suffice it to say that their fame is richly deserved.

Scott is something else. He used to be so popular that the city built him a huge monument on Princes Street. Its the one that looks like Thunderbird Three.  Even Jakey doesn’t have a monument yet. But now almost nobody reads Scott, and I am one of those nobodies. Somehow I am not even tempted to pick up some Walter Scott. Nobody now is discovering his books and having their lives changed; he is just a kind of strange ghostly Edinburgh resonance, hovering over everything but devoid of substance.

So what of RLS ? Is he just another Edinburgh pet, or a force in literature, and an enduring marvel ? Ripping Yarns or Psychological Master ?  I really can’t decide. I just finished reading “The Master of Ballantrae” and I think it is his best. But I still can’t decide.

This next bit is in danger of sounding pompous, so forgive me because I am just trying to be honest. I do have a distinction in my head between certainly deeply affecting books/authors and other entertaining, possibly important, but not so affecting books. I won’t use the dreaded word “literature” as I don’t want to say that Group A is definitely “better”; just that some books shake me up and some don’t. Mostly the difference, and the intention of the author, is obvious. After reading Milan Kundera, my life had changed; when I read Dan Brown, I pass a very pleasant few hours – and unlike many, I do think that Brown is a very skilled writer. He does exactly what he means to do.

There is whole class of British Novelists who are very famous, and generally classed as “literature” but who just don’t mess with my head – Thomas Hardy, Somerset Maugham, Charles Dickens, Aldous Huxley. I love reading their books but my jaw never drops.  Most days RLS feels like he belongs in this band. But I just don’t know. Jekyll and Hyde speaks to something deep, and by the end of The Master of Ballantrae I wasn’t quite sure who I liked or believed.

I can’t resist a little astro-literature example. (There aren’t many !) I read  The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth  by Stuart Clark, a fictionalised biography of Kepler. Well I thought this was a jolly fine book. An excellent read, real fun, and a good exposition of the historical setting. Then I read Doctor Copernicus by John Banville. At the end of this book I felt utterly drained. There are in fact some similarities with The Master of Ballantrae; a tale of two brothers, the distortions of bitterness, and the use of unreliable narrators. But the insights are more shattering.

Read it.

* Tusitala = Teller of Tales; what the Samoans called RLS during his final days

Assertive Transparency

August 3, 2012

I think I have decided that my new pet hate is the word “clear”. It used to be a very useful word, but over the last year or two (longer ? have I been dozing ?) it has been hi-jacked by politicans as one of those devices for avoiding having to insert any actual meaning into a sentence.

“With respect Minister, is it A or is it B ?”

“Look, this is a very important issue, and I am absolutely clear”

“But is it A or …”

“You can’t keep interrupting, because I am clear, and the public recognises we are very clear”.

The blood is boiling because I just heard RBS supremo Stephen Hester doing it on the Today programme.  He was actually performing quite well, at least by the standards of banker bastards, but when it was suggested he could use plainer language, he suddenly up came with the good old defensive wall of clarity.

There are two striking things about this use of “clear”. The first is that it is usually a person – not a subject or a fact or an issue – that is clear. Not “it is clear” but “I am clear”. The second striking thing is that the clarity is not about anything – its just a kind of state of being. Not “It is clear to me that X” but just “I am clear”. The speaker simply asserts their transparency.

Its really an example of a whole class of emotional tricks. If you state your claim to the moral high ground with suitable passion nobody notices that you are not saying anything. Err.. but yes they do. Everybody hates this stuff. It never ceases to puzzle me how politicians are actually pretty hopeless at the snake charmer bit. Why do they not notice it is counter productive ? BTW, I think this is partly why so many people hate Tony Blair. He WAS good at that stuff – much cleverer. We believed him in 1997 and loved having a politician who could speak plainly. So when you eventually realise whats going on, you feel betrayed.

Well. Anyway. So. I hope thats clear.