Monday, June 30, 2008

The horn of loss

Last night a few of us went to the football stadium in Hannover, outside which they'd erected a big screen, to watch the Euro2008 final between Germany and Spain. There was a pretty big crowd of people there (you could hear the general crowd hum from several hundred metres away), a lot of German flags being waved and also painted on peoples faces, and a reasonable, but not that excessive, amount of noise being made. For the first half of the match the crowd were fairly subdued, with one or two groups of people occasionally trying half-heartedly to start a chant of "Super, super Deutchland". In terms of the football the German's got off to a fast paced start in the first 10 minutes, but that was about it from them as Spain took over the match and scored towards the end of the half. The crowd picked up a bit in the second half (maybe created by the DJ during half time trying to gee the fans up a bit with some tunes) despite being a goal down. There was a bit more of a buzz in the air, and hope that Germany could pull it back. However it didn't translate to the match as Spain continued to dominate and quickly closed down any German plays when they were on the ball. Spain were the deserved winners in the end, but surprisingly it didn't put that much of a dampener on the German fan's spirits around Hannover. In fact they seemed more animated and rowdy now that the game was over and they'd lost. On the streets every car was going by with people leaning out the window's waving German flags and beeping their horns. It's quite different to how a similar event (if we ever make a final that is) would be back in England, which would have involved a properly ludicrous level of chanting, singing, shouts of support/abuse/derision during the match, but then a very sober silence when we lost as everyone headed home faces held in hands.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Stretching the skins

One of the selling points for me coming out to Hannover for the summer was that our former Corpse Full of Bees/Look Up for Danger guitarist was here and we planned to start up a band again. However this did mean that I needed some drums. So this week I bought myself an actual real-life drumkit on ebay, unlike the electronic kit that I already own. After a bit of searching on ebay I found a German seller (o-trading-company) who offered various instruments, generally pictured being held by naked women, at very reasonable prices. The kit I bought was dirt cheap at a whole £115(!), so as you can imagine it's not the highest quality (the single snare I bought last year cost around the same amount) and could well have been put together by small children in a Chinese sweat-shop. That said after putting the drums together yesterday and having a bit of a play I've been pleasantly surprised with their sound quality. The different drums seem to make the sounds that they're supposed to - you know, a kind of "boom boom" sound of various pitch depending on the drum size. The main problem, and an unsurprising one given the price I paid, is that the cymbals (a high-hat and small crash) aren't all that great - they're fairly thin and after just the one practice I've put some major dents in them. Now that I have the kit, and we have a room to practice in (next to the Atlas computer cluster that the AEI have just put together), I'll just have to get good at playing.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

It was a dark and windswept night

This article's a few days old (seen via BA), but I think it deserves some more recognition in honour of it containing the best picture ever! (You could read the article, but it will only make you feel slightly sullied as it is from the Mail.)

But what could have spooked that helicopter so much (despite the notoriously jumpy sheep seeming as relaxed as ever)? Apparently it was some lanterns.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A game of four quarters

You may have noticed a lack of posts from me about Euro2008 (other than the initial one from just before the tournament started) and assumed that this was down me being completely disinterested by the whole thing because England aren't in it. Well if you did assume that then you'd be wrong as I've been avidly watching as many games as possible (probably about 85% of games so far.) It's been quite relaxing to not have to worry about when England were going to let me down, so I've been getting quite a lot of enjoyment out of just watching games for the football's sake.

So far the tournament's been pretty good, although the quarter finals have shown how variable in quality the games can be. The Portugal vs. Germany game started off the quarters quite well with an open game, a good number of goals and an exciting finish, but Portugal definitely weren't the team they'd been in the group stages and Germany's full backs were still as motionless and drab as before. The Croatia vs. Turkey games was a dull, uninspiring affair for a good 115 mins of regular and then extra time. It was only saved by the shear craziness and excitement of the last few minutes, with Croatia looking all but through with their late goal and then conceding an equiliser with literally the final kick of the game. This produced the lottery (yeah it's a cliché, but what you gonna do) of a penalty shoot-out, with Turkey coming out victorious. This now lines up what will hopefully be a tasty encounter between Germany and Turkey, which should be rather interesting to watch here in Hannover with its large Turkish community.

In the other half of the draw we started off with an interesting and good watch in the Netherlands vs. Russia game. The Dutch never seemed to really get going into a flowing style and the Russian's just outplayed them with pace and tenacity. I think that the young (he's only 21 you know, as the German commentators were very fond of pointing out) Russian Arshavin (and yes I had the same thoughts about his name as Andrew Collins) will be snapped up by some big side during the summer. In contrast to that game we had a very lacklustre show for Spain vs. Italy. Neither team seemed to want to go at the game and win it, with lots of slow, dull build ups leading to nothing. To be fair Italy hadn't shown signs of wanting to play in the previous games, but I'd expected more from Spain. In the end a penalty shoot-out was probably the best option, as neither team deserved to win from what they'd shown in the previous, tedious, 120 mins, and it at least gave us viewers some tension and excitement.

One major disappointment about the quarter finals is that they've not been kind on my fantasy football team. I had no Russian or Turkish players, as I'd stuck with the more conventional teams. Now I just have to decide whether to go all out crazy and compose my team of players from the two teams that I think are going to win the semis, or have a general selection from the 4 teams left.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

World music

Hannover was abuzz with music yesterday as they were hosting a Fête de la Musique. This involved putting up a load of stages at various places around the centre of the city, each having bands with a certain musical style e.g. there was a pop stage, a jazz stage, a rock stage, etc. On wandering through the city with jakeybob for a bit of a look around we saw various of these stages. We didn't stay in any one place very long and didn't hear anything particularly great, but there was a generally happy atmosphere about the place which was nice - it was a really nice day to, so that might have added to the feeling of pleasantness. Other than the music festival our best discovery was that at the reservoir in the town (the Maschsee) you can hire sail boats, row boats, or pedalos. This has now been put at high priority on the things to do while here list.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Een nieuwe start

Unsurprisingly Steve McClaren's had to move away from England for his next football management job (he's gone to FC Twente, a Dutch top flight team, with a prospect of qualifying for the Champions League.) Also, unsurprisingly a large proportion of his new team's fans aren't best pleased - "Ninety per cent of fans think why him? But he is used to working with top players," said club chairman Joop Munsterman!

Changing priorities

A while back I briefly posted about the release of STFC's programmatic review in which it ranked the priorities of varies particle physics and astronomy research projects (much, much more can be found all over the internet e.g. here and here.) The programmatic review was based on the advice of the Physics, Astronomy & Nuclear Physics Science Committee (PPAN) which was made up of a relatively small group of physicists and astronomers. This process was highly criticised by the wider UK physics and astronomy community for not being informed by a much broader consultation of experts. So for the last few months the priorities have been reassessed by a variety of ad hoc panels with the aim of giving a more truthful representation of where the community believes the UK's priorities should lie (although even this process has not been entirely well received, due to it's untimely and hurried nature.) Obviously it would be nice, and most profitable scientifically, to see everything being given a high priority, but with the current climate some hard choices have to be made. For the projects receiving high to medium priorities I think things should be reasonably safe funding-wise at least until the government's next comprehensive spending review, however it does leaves the projects with the lowest priority facing the very harsh reality of having funding completely pulled. The reason I'm writing this post is that yesterday the reports from these ad hoc consultation panels were released. I've not read all of them, but from this BBC article it's seems that things are in pretty similar shape priority-wise to how they were after the programmatic review. However, various things like eMerlin and some solar projects seem to have been slightly bumped up the list (although I think it's mainly a result of another tier being added to the bottom of the priority scale and they've been moved off the bottom one.) The one report I have looked at is that for Astro-particle physics, in which gravitational wave research lives, and it seems to have been kept at the highest level of prioritisation. According to the report there had been some grumbling from the wider community that there were too many high-to-medium priority gravitational wave projects in the list, but I think the report answers the that criticism well. For the relatively small level of funding that we (the UK) put into gravitational wave research (a few million pounds) we get a disproportionately large amount back i.e. we have access to all the data from the current GEO600, LIGO (a billion dollar scale project!) and Virgo detectors, as well as that which will come from the next generation of detectors. Also the potential reward for being the gravitational wave game is very high. People may well disagree and cite the fact that nothing's been detected yet, but I think these are very valid reasons to keep up the funding of these projects. Of course I would say this as it's my field of research. These reports aren't yet the final outcome though and we'll have to wait until 8th July until the final version of the programmatic review is published.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Not the 9 o'clock news

In my apartment in Hannover I have access to a variety of TV channels (I don't know if it's satellite or just plain digital TV) in which I have two English language news networks: CNN and Sky News. In the past I've occasionally flicked past Sky News, but I've never really watched it for an extended period. Until now. It really is bad, despite proclaiming itself "News Channel of the Year". It's like the Sun, but on TV - even having right-wing pundit, Sun columnist and talk radio host Jon "Gaunty" Gaunt doing its newspaper review. This probably isn't surprising given it's ownership by Rupert Murdoch's News International, but it is slightly disappointing (I at least want BBC World and even that's pretty shit.) It's only saving grace is that it has that nice Eamonn Holmes presenting its breakfast show.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Germary, Germany over all!

So long UK, guten tag Deutschland. In a work-motivated move I have come out to the Albert Einstein Institute in Hannover to experience how working life is out here and hopefully get lots of important stuff done (a paper here, an analysis there, etc.) This is going to be an extended visit lasting until late September (when a trip to Munich for a certain event know as Octoberfest might be happening.) I arrived today, after a being delayed a day due to a plane cancellation, and since then things have gone smoothly - that's your typical German efficiency in action. With the help of a couple of ex-Glasgow colleagues I was escorted from the train station, taken to lunch, shown were my apartment was, and given a tour of the institute. I've taken up residence in a office and been given a key and security entrance key-fob thing. Now all that remains for the day is to sample some beer and sausage.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

C'est trop cher

One of the things you notice when staying in central Paris is how expensive it is to buy drinks. I think this is especially the case in the more touristy areas, in one of which my hotel happens to be. Now drinks in London are generally considered to be pricey by UK standards, but they're nothing compared to the cost over here. For example last night I paid €8.50 for a half litre of Heineken - at current exchange rates that's £6.72, and it's not even quite a whole pint!

Your goose is cooked

After the other days culinary adventures I had another first last night. I ate some, most likely inhumanely (or ingoosely) produced, foie gras. It was very nice and I would recommend force-feeding grain to a goose and eating its distended liver to anyone.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

When in France... eat weird shit

Just to give a context I am at the moment in Paris (at the Universite Paris-Sud) at a collaboration meeting. Last night going out for dinner allowed me to try a couple of dishes that I'd normally wouldn't expect to eat (and no, it wasn't frogs legs and snails - don't stereotype.) A friend of mine ordered Os a moelle not knowing what it actually was (well none of us really had an idea until it arrived and we remembered what the word os meant - bone. It was a plate of bone marrow served from some nice bits of femur by the look of it - it looked like something you might put on the floor for a dog to gnaw on. I ventured to try a bit of marrow (which I suggested might have been better off being used to cure a poor calf with leukemia) and have to say it wasn't bad - it's pretty slimy, but is fairly tasteless and just kind of like eating fat (which I'm not averse to.) The other dish I tried was again sampled from another friend order, which was Steak tartare. This was essentially a quarter pound of raw beef patty. It was also quite good and nicely seasoned with herbs, but you couldn't get over the fact that you were eat raw meat. These are both things I'm glad I tried, but I'm also glad I didn't order them myself and had more conventional food choices. Maybe I'll have the snails and frogs legs tonight!

[Update: I actually did have a frog's leg on my last night in Paris. It was tasty, but lacking in quantity of meat.]

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Weekend break

After heading out to kayak on Loch Lomond a couple of weeks back last weekend I got out on a river for the second time. About a dozen of us from the canoe club went for a weekend of camping and kayaking on the Etive (near Glencoe.) We drove upon Friday night, with me again taking the wheel of the minibus (a different one than the previous week) - there were still quite a few stalls, but in general my driving got more confident over the weekend and I managed to get by without any crashes or scrapes and I am now reasonably proficient at performing three-point turns on country roads. We camped on some ground behind the Kings House hotel, which is semi-officially a campsite - at least it seems to be quite well used. The campsite sits near the head of the Etive and from looking at the level of that, and due to it having been pretty dry during the week, we knew that the water levels for our kayaking were going to be pretty low. Heading out to the river the next day confirmed this, with our main view of the river being stone dry rocks. However, we headed to a section called triple falls (a series of three small waterfalls unsurprisingly) where there was enough water to go down. Despite the falls looking quite daunting from above, especially for a relative beginner like me, they were reasonably tame to go off. Later on we headed to another waterfall called Right Angle, which was quite a bit higher than any of the drops at triple (about 20 feet.) As I'd been down the earlier falls I decided to give this one a go as well. Even quite a few of the experienced guys going over the falls were capsising at the bottom (although they were all able to roll themselves back up.) The three times I went off I also capsised, almost managing to roll on the first time, but then having to swim. The following day we again went to triple falls and right angle and also attempted to kayak between the to. This mainly involved scraping the bottom of our boats over rocks, but there were a couple of other good falls along the way. Overall the trip was really good and great experience for a beginner like me. I'm pretty eager to get out again, but will have to wait for Autumn when the university starts back up. Hopefully next time I'm out they'll be a bit more water and fewer midges.

Saturday, June 07, 2008


Tomorrow (or today as it's past midnight) the European Championships start. This fact would be slightly more exciting if a home nations team were in it [I would have been supporting Scotland if they'd got through and England hadn't cos I'm above petty national rivalries ;)], but I'll have to cope without a local team to cheer on - at least there won't be the huge disappointment, frustration and pain of watching England fuck things up. During the competition I am mainly going to be in countries with teams involved as I'm in France next week and will be heading to Germany the following week. This could add to the excitement, although I'll have to deal with foreign commentators (at least that means I'll avoid Motty.) Other than that I'll have to add to the excitement by hoping my work sweepstake (there's a huge prize of £16 up for stake) team of the Netherlands (I know they're in the group of death and they notoriously managed to implode with internal squabbles during major tournaments, but its not the worse draw - I could have got one of the hosts!) and my fantasy football team do well. I may comment more on the tournament as it progresses.

Eyes to the right

After a bit of a boozing session last night I suffered today, not from the regular hangover experience of a headache and general lethargy, but rather from an eye related disorder. I've had this problem before in that a night on the piss leaves me with degraded eyesight the next day, but from last night it was more acute - my right eye just couldn't focus at all. This lasted a good 10 hours from when I got up, initially starting with my right eye being all but useless as an optical device, to earlier this evening when it was just giving me a bit of double vision. I'd prefer a regular hangover than this style of alcohol infliction, but maybe it was just what I was drinking that caused the problem - for the time being I'll lay off the £1-a-can Red Stripes.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Budgetary constraints

Way back at the end of 2006 I wrote about a project I'd been working on about searching for gravitational waves from the Crab pulsar (see that post here for more links and details) and how that work had lead to an exciting new result i.e. that we beat pre-existing limits on the amount of energy that could be released via gravitational radiation from the Crab pulsar as it's rotation slows down. Since then we've added more to the search and firmed up the result and I (and others) have presented it at several meetings (e.g. at the AAS) , but we now finally have the paper submitted to the pre-print arXiv (you won't be able to see it until Sunday evening unless you have the secret password.) In my previous post I wasn't able to say what the result was (we'd embargoed the exact numbers until our collaborations internal review process was finished), but now I can reveal them. The main result is that we can say that less than 4% of the energy available from the slowing down of the Crab pulsar is radiated away via gravitational waves. This is a result that it's not currently possible to get via methods other than direct gravitational wave observations, because electromagnetic observations and models of the Crab pulsar and it's surrounding nebula (which is powered by the pulsar's slow-down) are full of too many uncertainties and assumptions that they can't give a good constraint on the energy budget i.e. you can't accurately add up all the possible mechanisms which could contribute to the Crab pulsar slowing down. There should be a press release about this on Monday, so keep your eyes peeled.

[Update: The University of Glasgow's press release can be found here.]

[More updates: The paper has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, which is pretty prestigious :)]