Celebrity Leakthrough

August 14, 2013

My exchange with Dr E over intersecting with Amanda Palmer reminded me of a post from a few years back, where I described minor connections with celebrity – living across the road from Norman Wisdom’s Aunty, knowing someone who had his boots stolen by Donovan and so on. Sometimes I get the feeling of a ghostly parallel universe of celebrities, which occasionally leaks through into ours at weak points in the space-time continuum.

Sometimes there are astronomical versions, but it only really works with impressionable postgrads and postdocs. Later on you get jaded and you’ve met everybody anyway. As a spotty astro-yoof, after my first observing run at CTIO, I caught a tourist bus back down the mountain and found myself sitting next to a long haired hippy type who turned out to be Kip Thorne. He hadn’t been observing – theorist and all that – but was just being a tourist with his also-groovy wife, looking at the telescopes. I had been reading Misner Thorne and Wheeler and had assumed that whoever constructed that five inch thick masterpiece must be a god-like alien only temporarily passing through our galaxy. Finding the god on a bus was kinda weird. He probably said all sorts of deep things, but all I remember is that he complained that the CTIO compound had American airbread.  Never seen him again of course and he wouldn’t know me from Adam.

I am sure there is some kind of story about Dr E being ill on the back of a bus full of famous astronomers, but can’t quite reconstruct it.

So if anybody has spilled beer on Fred Hoyle, or has been to the same hairdresser as Martin Rees etc etc, do let us know.


The Information Arms Race

August 11, 2013

This GCHQ / NSA / Snowden thing is confusing. Part of me is shocked and horrified. Another part of me is jadedly unsurprised. (Is “jadedly” a word?) I think I already assumed that they know everything they want to know. As Scott McNealy maybe did or didn’t say “you have no privacy, get used to it”.

Today a tweet from @Orbitingfrog alerted me to more disturbing news ; encrypted email company Lavabit have shut themselves down in protest over a mysterious government investigation that they are even forbidden from talking about; and Silent Circle, founded by Phil Zimmerman – the inventor of Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) – have pre-emptively shut down  their secure email service and deleted content so that they cannot be subject to the same pressure. Some years back Zimmerman was under criminal investigation for offering the PGP code worldwide, which the US government claimed breached laws against the export of munitions. Zimmerman printed the code in a hardback book and exported that instead.

Although the strong-arm stuff is scary, it kinda makes sense. The Lavabit episode seems to confirm that even the NSA cannot crack RSA-grade encrypted material. Instead of quietly snooping and leaving the public docile, they have no choice but to be honest and say “We are the government and we are in charge. Give us that stuff or you are fucked.”

Its more or less inevitable that there is a three-way information arms race between individuals, corporations, and government. Information is power. It is natural for governments to always want more information, more complete information, and more reliable information. Commercial corporations have the same instinct. You don’t have to assume they are evil; just trying to know their market. Consumers get no choice in this. You try buying a train ticket online without “registering”.  Oft and betimes, the consumer/voter just relaxes. Its kinda useful when I go back to GoCompare and they already know everything about me. But on the other hand, we instinctively bristle. They have the all power and we don’t!! The Freedom of Information Act tried to restore the balance, but its feeble.

Before you feel too powerless however, just recall that everything changed in 1976.  This is when Diffie and Helman published the key-exchange method, followed the next year by Rivest, Shamir, and Adelman’s publication of the RSA algorithm implementing the idea. Arranged carefully enough, you can make any communication completely secure. Wouldn’t this make any government terrified? What do you do? Well, partly you sniff as much as you can on the assumption that most traffic is not encrypted, or that you can read the envelope metadata if you can’t read the letter, or that you can intercept at the relay points that the internet relies on. The counter-thrust for the latter is envelope-content splitting.

But at the end of the day, the government can’t win the technology battle; they have to resort to legal restraint. An unsuccessful attempt was the Clipper Chip initiative. The idea was to generously provide to the world obligatory encryption methods which the Government could always decode. They gave up. A successful example is the infamous 1998 Digital Millenium Copyright Act. Entertainment corporations knew they couldn’t develop perfect DRM mechanisms. So they convinced the US government to make it illegal to deploy or develop technologies intended to circumvent DRM mechanisms.

My guess is that we will soon hear of plans in both the UK and the USA to make non-Government use of the RSA algorithm a criminal offence, or more generally to make it an offence to send communications that cannot in principle be decoded by appropriate authorities.

Before you accuse me of being a paranoid old hippy, let me just say that I am not even sure where my sympathies lie. I have a bristly rebel side and a  pragmatic patrician side. Viewed from above, its a fascinating struggle.


Creepy Covers

August 4, 2013

Cover versions of songs are fascinating. Maybe we should do cover versions of scientific papers. Well … maybe I could name a few that look like this already, but that might be considered provocative.

So there  I was listening to  Amanda Palmer Performs The Popular Hits Of Radiohead On Her Magical Ukulele .  I know this sounds like a dumb jokey idea but actually the result is scarily beautiful. AFP is fucking brilliant. Up in my premier league of modern female divas with Judith Shimer, Holly Brewer, and Aoife O’Donovan. Her version of Creep is however rather more tongue in cheek than the other songs. Well, I thought, it is such a personal song about Thom Yorke’s angst, his peculiar brand of insecurity and arrogance, that, if you are not Thom Yorke, it must be hard to do anything other than make something  quirky out of it.

Seems the world disagrees with me. Over at YouTube I  found that Creep seems to be one of the most covered songs ever – there are just dozens and dozens of versions. I guess it touches a nerve. Almost everybody either has a core of insecurity, or wants to give the appearance of one. (Love me! I’m vulnerable!). But I found most of these versions unsettling. The performers were mostly beautiful people, or brashly confident performers – more like the object of Yorke’s song than its subject. Very few have any sense of angst, or irony, or anger with the world, or the cruelties of biology. Somehow they have just picked up that the song is emotional and about “love”. Did they actually listen to the words? I realise that I am getting a bit can-white-mens-sing-the-blues-ish, but it felt all wrong. Even more bizarrely, there are versions by safe-as-milk choirs. The ambiguity of genuine admiration and bitter sarcasm disappears completely.  Sigh.

I can’t possibly show you them all, but here are a few. Its a bit of a long haul, so feel free to try a few seconds of each. You’ll get the idea.

First, the original :

Here is Carrie Manalakos. A very good singer; but she is perfect. I cannot see her being awkward in front a boy. Sorry Carrie, but you are not a creep.

Here is the Pretenders version. Very emotional in some generic sense, but for goodness sake, Chrissie Hynde is a confident and powerful woman.

Here is a live Amanda Palmer version. Its turned into a different song, but at least she knows. Also, although Amanda now has legions of adoring fans, it easy to imagine her as a  teenager frightening away the handsome square-jawed football jocks. Fun and funny.

Next up, the Seattle Ladies Choir. Really. Mangles the tune as well as the meaning.

Here is Jim Carrey. Its pretty grim. Skip this one if you like.

Now the Macy Gray jazzy version. Nice song, nice performance until you remember what it is supposed to be.

Here is the only one that works for me. Homeless Daniel Mustard.

If you are still up for it, search out the Kermit version, and the Damien Rice version, which are good in their way. There are also endless bedroom singer versions, which are at least genuinely vulnerable.

Bottom line – although I love music, I think I realise more and more that for me rock music is a kind of theatre. If you just sing a song, you ain’t gettin it.


Science, Money, and Derring Do

July 11, 2013

Lots of readers for NAM and the Knife Edge, but only one comment. Maybe its a summer thing. The other Professor L expressed his surprise that I didn’t get whingeing about the Edinburgh footie victory.

Meanwhile, over in US-land, less than flat cash for the NSF is being hailed as a major victory. Typical government cuts are 5%, but NSF has “only” 2.1%. Thats before inflation folks. It includes $232M for Astronomy in FY2013, as we can see here. This is probably stage 7B in the 11 stage horse trading process or something. US politics and bureaucracy is very hard to follow. Anyhoo. I am crossing fingers for the LSST kick-off.

Back in the realm of her Brittanic Majesty, if you really want to see how research funding works, the NAO (isn’t that the Nautical Almanac Office? – Ed.) has released a very informative report which you can find here. I think the bottom line is that our R&D per unit GDP is slightly better than Kazakhstan or something like that. This perfectly simple flow diagram explains everything.

How R&D funding works in the UK

How R&D funding works in the UK

Because science funding is so depressing, I have been retreating into entertainment. Rather than my usual habit of finding old records, I went out and found some old books. I just read a 1930 copy of the 1916 book Greenmantle, the Ripping Yarn that John Buchan wrote after The Thirty Nine Steps. Its a spy story set in the middle of the First World War, climaxing at the battle of Erzerum. Interesting and confusing. I kind of expected an Edwardian book to be written in turgid and complicated sentences, kinda like Dickens or Scott I suppose, but in fact its in short punchy very lively style. It really rattles along. I also expected it to be jingo-istic and full of racist stereotypes. Well it is. But it is also full of surprising insights and sympathies for ordinary Germans, and for Islam. A very interesting post was written on this topic by Jeremy Calder at the Liberal England blog. I can’t say it better, so visit that if you are interested. It seems really surprising that Greenmantle has never been a movie.


Glory of Love Variety Box

June 22, 2013

Telescoping Peter just cheered up my Saturday (don’t ask) by posting a lovely Humphrey Lyttelton version of the Glory of Love from 1955.  It’s a well covered song, and I find it fascinating how different the many versions are. Inspired by Peter, here is a wee collection of my favourites.  (Sorry in advance about the ads … fact of life on Yew Toob these days)

(1) The version that I think was first, by Benny Goodman in 1936

(2) Next up, the bluesman version – good old Big Bill Broonzy from nineteen forty something. Love this.

(3) Now, the jazz fan collectors item : Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee. On the same TV screen. At the same time.

(4) Next, the soul version : Otis Redding 1967

(5) Now, the hippy hero version : John Martyn, 1974

(6) Kool Dude version : Keb Mo 1997

(7) Paul McCartney, 2012. A bit on the corny side, but you can’t not have Macca.

There’s more, but mostly a tad on the soupy side and not to my taste. There is also a rather dull song with the same name by ex-Chicago chappy Peter Cetera. Don’t bother.

For my money, its Big Bill number 1 by head and shoulders; then Goodman, then Martyn, then probably the Humpty Dumpty version.


Cosmo Guessr?

May 31, 2013

I got hooked on GeoGuessr over the last few days. Apparently its the latest Internet Craze so I don’t feel so special, but I do feel a bit of a junkie. Its hard to stop. The idea is v.simple. They show you a Google Streetview image of some random place in the world. You can roam around somewhat with the usual arrows, looking at the vegetation, hunting for street signs, etc. Then you guess where you are by plonking a pin on the world map. The closer you get the more points you score.

The closest I’ve been is 62km, somewhere in Poland. Generally on a five-go game I am averaging about ten thousand points, corresponding to about 2000km out on average. I usually get the right continent… I do NOT search for things on the real Google. I decided that is cheating, although my kidz don’t agree. Sigh… the look-it-up generation.

My main conclusion is most of the world is scrub, and the rest looks vaguely like Kazakhstan.

So who is up for making CosmoGuessr? It would be easy to knock up using the Google API. Or perhaps Jonathan Fay could add it to World Wide Telescope. Actually this is likely to be the most boring game ever, because of the Cosmological Principle. Everywhere looks the same on average. Bunch of random galaxies. You would at least spot when you were at low galactic latitude I suppose, by seeing all those pesky stars. In fact maybe to work it has to be GalactoGuessr, confined to the Milky Way. Even then, could be a bit dull. If you happen to land bang on the Eagle Nebula or whatever you’d be in there, but otherwise… It would basically boil down to estimating (l, b) from star density. Or am I wrong?

Meanwhile, you can play with billion stars on our zoomable Milky Way from UKIDSS and VISTA data. Still an unofficial feature of our archives at the moment, but I am sure we will realise it sometime… While I am plugging (relatively) new stuff, check out the UKIDSS coverage maps. You can browse them in Aladin. Many thanks to our CDS chums for pushing this through the IVOA. (Hope you like the new look web pages btw). Anyway, enough VO-ish meanderings.


Holiday Harper

May 6, 2013

Just over a year back i wrote a post glue-ing together video-music clips from four ages of Joni Mitchell. There is a strange feeling of resolution tracing the history of creative artists – musicians, actors, writers – whose lives have paralleled your own, maybe ten years ahead. Because I can’t quite work out whether I am on holiday or not, I will start the morning with another hippy music arc-of-life trip. Here is another singer-songwriter who has intrigued, moved, and baffled me in almost equal measure over four decades : Roy Harper. Many will know him as that bloke what Zeppelin wrote a song for, or the geezer what sang on that Pink Floyd number. A smaller number of dedicated fans see him as one of the key hippy bards of the sixties. At that time I still preferred childish pursuits like cricket in the park. I turned onto him in the early seventies in my undergraduate days. My copy of Stormcock is worn paper thin.

Here is the brash young man, on a mystery recording that may or may not have in Sweden in 1969, singing Hells Angels. He looks scarily like I did in 1973 when I first heard him – long fair hair, scruffy beard, friendly but sarcastic. (Free speech ! One each !)

In 1971 Harper produced something quite unique on Stormcock – four extended and meandering pieces with striking but baffling lyrics. (I never know what time of day it is, on my battlefield of ideas.) At the same time he is still writing simpler but beautiful songs, soaked in memory and vibrations of lost opportunity. Here he is in 1974, a smooth and mature performer on the safe-as-milk Beeb Two show The Old Grey Whistle Test, singing Commune :

Through the later seventies and eighties Harper split into two halves, writing rock songs, but also even more songs awash with nostalgia and the passage of time, like When An Old Cricketer Leases The Crease. Meanwhile, he is still performing the extra-ordinary work from Stormcock. Here is the middle aged artist on an Australian TV show in 1986, performing One Man Rock and Roll Band on semi-electric guitar. It has evolved into something somehow fluid and phantasmagorical :

Finally here is Roy in his seventies, playing on Later with Jools Holland in 2011. I have chosen his performance of Another Day, a famous song from the the 1970 album Flat Baroque and Berserk. (Younger folk will know the cover version by This Mortal Coil). I think of this song as the hippy version of To His Coy Mistress. (Oh really my dear / I can’t see what we fear / Sat here with ourselves in between us.) It is very moving to hear an old man singing such a song from his youth. What was, and what could have been.

I am aware that all the songs I have chosen were written in a short window of time, given Roy’s five decade writing career. But they were the nicest video clips, and show the man evolving if not the songs.

Hats Off To Harper.


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.


George, God, and the Grapefruit : Ten Things I Learned

March 21, 2013

Been watching the ESA Planck live press junket George show thingy. Well, everybody and his hairdresser will be writing up their well considered Planck thoughts over the next hour and a half, so I thought I would just summarise some personal lessons. The follow-on press release is here. Apparently there will be more serious stuff about lunchtime, and here in Embra our very own Andrew Liddle will give a seminar this afternoon. Actual science papers on ArXiv tomorrow. Meanwhile, lets keep it light.

The title is ruthlessly stolen from a a Tweet by Professor R.Ivison.

(1) George’s taste in ties continues to improve.

(2) George would give his children away for the Planck map. According to their Mum, they didn’t hear this because they are in school.

(3) The Universe is a bit like a grapefruit. Roundish, mostly very smooth, but with tinnsy-winnsy dimples

(4) When a Twitter hashtag starts trending, it becomes cloggged up with porno-tweets. This is annoying. Well, unless thats what you are after of course. (Am I missing some kind of filter?)

(5) You can’t mention God, unless you mention that you are not mentioning Him. Her. It.

(6) The Universe is EVEN MORE BORING than WMAP told us. Perfect fit to simple inflation.

(7) EXCEPT … for (a) the ten degree dip, and (b) the preferred direction, aka the axis of evil

(8) The axis of evil lines up with the ecliptic plane. Woahh !  But as ex-Edinbuggerer Tom Kitching said to me, that sounds like zodiacal dust… so maybe when that correction is improved the UNIVERSE IS EVEN MORE BORING

(9) The Hubble constant is exactly what Michael Rowan-Robinson told us years ago (67) without the aid of extreme coolants

(10) Talking of which, ESA say they created the coldest place in space, at 0.1K. Now that is definitely quite cute.