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Monday 19 February 2024

Compromising Men

Nine years ago I wrote a piece entitled Uncompromising Men. It began with a quote from Braveheart :

Uncompromising men are easy to admire. He has courage; so does a dog. But it is exactly the ability to compromise that makes a man noble.

That piece was all about the appeal of the demagogues, the ones who don't care about rationality. That was back in 2015, just before the rise of Trump and Brexit and all the other nonsense we've had to put up with. Don't get me started. The whole thing just makes me unbearably, viscerally angry.

Like, way more angry, righteously angry, than these two butthurt whiny little snowflakes.

But with the resurgence of Labour, I've been thinking about this quote a lot again lately. While last time I looked at it in the general terms of how rational thinking can lead to monstrously irrational, idiotic conclusions, this time I want to consider the quote from a different, much more specific perspective.

In fact I want to sell you something, or rather, someone

I want to sell you Keir Starmer.

Because, as I'll cover, I've been dead wrong about people before, I approach this with the utmost caution. And this will hardly be a conventional, "isn't he just sooooper lovely ?" sales pitch, far from it. There'll be a good deal more subtlety than that.

Prologue : The joy of self-righteous misery porn

It doesn't seem to matter how objectively successful Labour are, the more staunchly left are in a state of perpetual misery. Not legitimate concern, or being (quite rightly) overly-cautious about their thumping lead in the polls, but something quite different : genuine self-loathing. They complain endlessly about how Labour isn't doing enough to address this that and the other, despite the rather obvious fact that Labour are not yet in power and an election hasn't even been called. For Labour to not promise them a vision of paradise is quite literally, for some of them, an unforgiveable sin. In fact doing anything other than actually physically punching random Tories in the face is an act of cowardice that must be opposed.

Winning the election by appealing to the other side ? Hah ! That's for wimps. Only making ludicrously Utopian promises is acceptable, and even that, I think, is marginal, as though they dare not take actual power because to do so would inevitably sully their ideological purity. They enjoy having enemies on the right more than they do actually trying to effect change. They want to be the protest group, not the ones who have to get their hands dirty by cleaning up the mess.

I'll quote myself in response to one such piece :

I am not sure what crazed hell the author is living in, but it makes me want to tear my hair out and scream. Years and years we’ve been promised magical unicorns, fantasies of a no-deal-all-the-deals-Brexit, with or without ways of dealing with Schrodinger’s ethically different immigrant who’s coming over here to steal our jobs and our benefits… but, no. That’s not the problem at all. The author has decided it’s Starmer’s Labour who are the problem, for setting realistic expectations.

The barrel of nonsense is ever bottomless. Good grief.

Large parts of the left seem to have fallen into an ideological purity hole of self-hatred quite unlike anything the right have to deal with. True, a sizeable segment of the right do oppose any and all foreigners as though they were literal vermin, but by and large they possess a good deal of moral flexibility so long as they have the sweet scent of electoral victory. In contrast, for many left-leaning political commentators, sometimes the whole point seems to be in making claims that only a small fraction believe in : not to convince people these ideas are true, but more as a way of finding out who they want to have dealings with and who they'd prefer to spit on in disgust.

This is a form of toxicity I've likened to a horseshoe, with naivety on one side and cynicism on the other. True, criticism is a powerful engine of progress. But if you won't accept anything less than your own view of absolute perfection, if you can't accept that things have gotten better if they don't meet your exact demands, then you'll never be happy. Ever. All you'll accomplish is making both yourself and everyone else perpetually miserable. That's no way to live.

1) My abusive political ex

Full disclaimer : I used to be a Corbynite. It was a brief but real occurrence, because I fell victim myself to the appeal of the uncompromising attitude. Finally someone properly left, who wanted to nationalise things that damn well should be nationalised, who seemed to tick all the obvious morality boxes rather than trying to kowtow to big business and banks. I was prepared to go quite a long way in apologising for some of Corbyn's more (with hindsight) questionable statements, the ones about Hamas being our friends and suchlike. 


My disillusionment came quite suddenly, not completely out of the blue but even so there is a single moment which sealed it for me : his refusal to back down after losing a confidence vote. To me that went manifestly against all principles of common sense. No matter how great the policies are (and I still support many of them), if you can't actually work with your own team, you're politically dead, and no amount of CPR is going to save you at the point. Can't be done. Persisting in the face of this is just dragging everyone down.

"Rise, Corbyn, RISE !"

Had I known at the time about all the anti-Semitism and anti-NATO lunacy, I'd have jumped off the Corbyn bandwagon even sooner. I'm still pleased that at least my Corbynite period was short, a few months or so before I realised this guy really really wasn't the moral messiah he all but claimed to be. He was in fact quite a lot worse than a very naughty boy.

Later, I even compared Corbyn to Trump, painting them as two halves of the same coin. I think that's basically accurate : Corbyn is a raving ideologue whereas Trump is a fascist. Corbyn will go hell for leather after any policy he thinks is correct because his moral ideals dictate it so, even at the cost of actually being able to enact that very same policy. Trump will act without any moral scruples whatever so long as he believes it will further his own interest. They're both just leaders of different bizarre personality cults.

The unifying factor of these weird bedfellows is an incapability of rational, critical thinking. Neither of them ever stop to consider if their policies are sensible, optimal, or even workable. The one is so convinced of it that questioning them is like asking the old, "do owls exist ?" or "are there hats ?", while to the other, the correctness of their ideas is utterly besides the point. Neither are the least bit able to compromise, with Trump's inability to form a coherent sentence (let alone an actual policy that can't be expressed in three words or less) being little more than the random firing of whatever passes for neurons in the soup-like ectoplasm that substitutes for his brain. Being inconsistent is not at all the same as reappraising and re-evaluating one's position.

2) My new crush

Which brings me to this guy :

Be still my beating heart !

I thought about subtitling this post, "Why I Want To Marry Keir Starmer And Have His Babies", but I resisted. Not least because I've made such mistakes before (though I do at least try and record them publicly), but also because it would totally belittle my own point. Starmer is not a white knight, and so, paradoxically, this is precisely why I I think he's absolutely fucking amazing : he isn't trying to be one. He's not even trying to portray himself so. Rather the reverse : he's making it as clear as day that he's not a political saviour about to turn the tide of political omnishambles and lead us back to whatever rose-tinted view of the past one happens to have. He's just going to do as much as he can.

This, I have to say, is bloody genius. A would-be hero living in the real world can hardly help but fail against the onslaught of the cynics and brute reality. In fantasy, the plucky hero gets to slay the evil dragon. A more realistic version would be that the hero fights the dragon, gets badly wounded, but manages to negotiate with the dragon so that it has to stay in its cave most of the day and only venture out to eat a few sheep instead of the local maidens. The end result is actually pretty decent for all concerned, but the hero looks like a colossal tit for making absurd promises and everyone wanders off feeling disillusioned as fuck.

Starmer isn't doing this. He is, in effect, promising to negotiate with the dragon from the outset. You don't have to like this approach, but you can't exactly accuse him of attempting to promise things like, oh, I don't know, a feckin' bridge to Scotland over a munitions dump.

And the dragon analogy breaks down here because he's not really promising anything that I would say is anywhere near such gross appeasement. The hard left will see any appeal to Brexit-voters (or favourable comparisons with Thatcher) as unforgiveable, but that's because any mention of such things causes them to fly into a blind, chuck-the-toys-out-of-the-pram temper tantrum. And when you go back from the headlines and read what was actually said, all too often the headlines are deeply misleading. Especially the Thatcher thing, in which nothing he said actually praised Thatcher herself or even her methods : "sought to unlock Britian's potential" just speaks to her believing she was doing the right thing. There's nothing controversial about that.

Look, I hate Thatcher and would cheerfully spit on her grave if I wasn't afraid this would cause a ghastly zombie Thatcher to rise up and throttle me. She was detestable. But unlike the latest incumbents of the highest office in the land, at least she did genuinely believe she was acting in the interests of the country.

Or, preferably, several pieces.

And these supposed u-turns... hang on a minute, are they in power ? Has an election even been called ? No and no. So it's anyway a bit of a stretch to call merely "changing one's mind" a u-turn. And if you genuinely realise that either (a) a policy wouldn't be a good idea or (b) a policy wouldn't actually work, then the only responsible thing to do is to pull it. Carrying on regardless... that's the Rwanda madness. 

Incidentally, I don't have any problem with Starmer not labelling the Rwanda scheme for what is is : horrendously vile and utterly reprehensible. If not using the sort of chest-thumping language I'd agree with is the price to be paid for not getting the scheme enacted, then I am absolutely fine with that.

I'm not going to go through each of the supposed u-turns, but I will just pick up on the most prominent : a climb-down on the £28 billion climate investment. For a climbdown is what it is, not a u-turn. Nowhere have Labour said they no longer support green investment or any of the rest of the policy : quite the opposite. Now it's perfectly possible that not being able to invest that specific amount is the wrong economic choice; I'm not an economist but my instinct is that that is the case, that investing this money would be a good idea. But that's all I've got to go on, gut instinct. So I'm perfectly prepared to believe that it's also just not possible right now. And as I set out here, this change is pretty much bang-on the conditions I stated for the ideal u-turn a whole three years previously.

The ironic thing is that if anything this makes me trust them more, not less. Being able to say, "we considered this idea, found it wouldn't work, had to scale things back a bit here and cancel a few things there"... that's rational. That's sensible. Seeking actual workable solutions is far better – far better ! – than clinging madly to rabid ideological puritanism. I respect people who change their mind when they can justify why they've done so, especially when they've not used the delusional hyperbole that was the hallmark of the Johnson misadministration. At no point has Starmer given the impression of getting uncontrollable boners at the thought of green energy or whatnot, so having to tone things down a bit seems perfectly fair and reasonable in my view.

And of course they get extra credit for doing this ahead of time. Now is precisely the time to work out a coherent set of policies, which necessarily means ditching some. Doing this when in government would be a different story... for that, look to the current "government".

3) The rebound guy ?

I'm very much conscious that I could be making the same kind of apologies for Starmer as I did for Corbyn. And I'm not entirely sure that I'm not doing this, at least to some extent. That is of course the problem with the compromising man : one has to deal with their changes of stance and then decide whether they were correct or not. With the uncompromising men one always knows what their stance is, but they're usually right only by chance.

So do I want to actually celebrate these changes of opinion, rather than merely defending them ? No. Not because I don't agree with them, but because I want to avoid making political heroes out of my, ahem, political heroes. I think we'd all be a lot better off accepting imperfect-but-basically-honest leaders for what they are : as flawed as the rest of us. But surely seeing them in this way, accepting their faults with our eyes open, is an awful lot better than deifying them. Surely having someone who never promises paradise is better than someone who pretends everything is practically perfect already. I would love to have someone who would promise to nationalise all essential services and fund everything by a wealth tax on the richest, but even more than this, I'd love to have someone who can make real, tangible gains, even if they're not as brilliant as I might like.

This may seem like a strange sales pitch, but that's the point. Starmer has learned the lessons of Blair, especially that leadership means saying no to your own side. Not all the time, obviously, or they wouldn't be your own side. But sometimes, you mustn't promise people things they want but can't have even if they would work. There's no virtue in being uncompromising about the impossible : that's Brexiteer logic. 

My sales pitch then, is that not acting like a standard snake-oil salesman may lack the classical type of emotional appeal but it it's absolutely what we need right now. We need to wake up from the farce of austerity and Brexit fantasies with a good splash of cold water.

4) Limits

But when is compromise a virtue ? Not when it becomes appeasement. Not when you start acting against your moral principles. Saying, "we need more coal and oil" would be a step too far, as would "we need to support the Rwanda bill", and certainly, unforgivably, would be, "we need to help the rich more than we need to help the poor". Those sorts of policies would be the point where I would agree that Labour are no better than the Tories. But simply not investing as much in green energy as originally planned, not being afraid to help businesses (while protecting worker's rights), not being able to create certain schemes because of actual lack of resources to do so... nah, give me a break. Any driver knows that slowing down is not a u-turn !

And anyway, sometimes u-turns are a damn good idea...

I find this lack of perfectionism inspirational, in its own bizarre way. Here is something to believe in because it's achievable, not because it's utopian. To actually get back to really, really boring politics after years and years of increasing rabid, incoherent rhetorical nonsense... it's like a warm balm for the soul. I want things to be as utterly bland and dull as possible, much like Mark Drakeford in Wales (though for an excellent, detailed analysis, see this Wales Online piece).

I think I got sick of the exciting politics quite a lot sooner than everyone else, but it seems at last that most other people are finally seeing the virtues of not having to pay constant attention to Westminster as though it were a mandatory-viewing HBO drama. That actually, not having to worry about whatever crisis the idiots in government will bring today would be really quite enjoyable in its own way, even without suddenly giving everyone a puppy and a solid gold house. That slow but steady progress might be better than chaotic, unworkable revolutions, and that actually, while magical fantasies of puppies and gold houses for all might sound good in theory, perhaps in practise that's not really what we need.


Here, then, is the case for the ability to compromise as a form of nobility. To respond according to the evidence, at least to respond consistently within your own world view, that is noble. Evidence doesn't suggest anything by itself, but coupled with your own models about how things are, it definitely does. And when the evidence and your ideas conflict, it has to be the evidence that wins every time. If you think that the tax breaks for the rich should make everyone wealthier, okay... but when you find that they don't, then you change your damn mind. You don't double down and say you hadn't given them enough tax breaks or other bullshit.

And it has to be constrained in that it can't be counter to one's moral principles. You can't go around proclaiming that you want to help the poorest only to help the richest instead... but it's perfectly fine to do things for them as well. It may feel fantastic to tell people what you really think of them, but if you actually want to make progress, if you actually want to get things done rather than wishing for them... maybe it's better not to rub their noses in it. You don't have to tell the racists they're right. But you have to know when to fight and when not to fight. You have to know the difference between a casually-racist old granny in a country village and a hate-monger who'd willingly drown migrants at sea. One can be reasoned with, the other must be fought.

Far better to have honesty about what can be done and then actually deliver on it than inspirational but ultimately empty and disappointing rhetoric. Better to climb slowly and successfully than soar and crash.

Calm down, Icarus.

The final point is that people are still claiming Labour haven't said very much and don't stand for anything. This is garbage, perpetuated by a media determined to insist that this is still the case presumably because Labour's actual policies (of which there are many) are so boringly practical that they can't be bothered to discuss them. True, they had nothing much at all a couple of years ago, but it hasn't been this way for a good 18 months or so. What they stand for is green energy (the exact amount of investment being a total red herring on that point), stronger local government (I call it radical decentricism, I've read their 155-page report on this and it really is as radical as anything from the hard left), constitutional reform (true, you might not get what you want with Labour on this one, but you certainly won't with the Tories), stronger worker's rights, greater economic alignment with Europe, and above all, pragmatism. 

All of these appeal to boring, actually successful policies instead of trying to placate the fantasies of the racists. And that is more than enough for me. Sometimes the simplest gifts are the best ones.

Wednesday 25 October 2023

Bologna and Beyond

Last week saw the annual ALMA "All Hands" meeting near Modena in the north of Italy. I don't often describe the stuff I do as part of the Czech ARC node, which quite honestly isn't as much as it should be, but I think that's about to change.

ALMA is of course the Atacama Large Millimetre Array, the world's largest radio telescope array located in – you've guessed it – Atacama in Chile. The ALMA Regional Centres are a European effort to provide user support to various local catchment areas, of which the Czech node supports eastern Europe. People do all kinds of activities for this, and mine is mainly the bog-standard stuff of answering user questions and testing the occasional procedure and software tool.

But since the pandemic started my main scientific project has been to recode FRELLED, my all-singing, all-dancing 3D FITS file viewer for Blender. I originally guestimated this would be a six month effort; it has been, ahh, a little bit longer than that. I ended up not only rewriting the entire thing but also doubling the length of the code and giving it a whole bunch of new capabilities, of which more later. And of course, this includes turning it into something ALMA-capable.

The Conferencing

First, the conference. After a flight in which the only thing of note was the obsessive sales pitch by the Ryanair steward who seemed to want to list every single item in the in-flight catalogue, in an oily, used-car-salesman voice (he also looked a lot like Doctor Who's Matt Smith), a short shuttle bus took us to a very nice though totally isolated hotel. This is the usual approach at these meetings. They'll keep you in comfort, but you have no chance of wandering off. It's a good way to focus.

The hotel was lovely but the surroundings were a nondescript highway that could have been in any country in the world.

I'm not being selfish by not describing much of the rest of the conference. In fact "conference" is not really the right word for these events, of which only "meeting" seems to satisfactorily describe the mixture of management, planning, and technical talks that they consist of. I need not bore you with the details which are only relevant if you're actually involved with this, though there were a few more public-noteworthy talks this year. 

First there was a prototype of some very fancy machine-learning code that can search the ALMA data archives for objects that are similar to ones the user specified. To me this seems invaluable well beyond the ALMA context; whenever you find a weird object, conventional searches of the literature to find similar features are extremely difficult. Another was the ALMA Software Repository, an effort I'm involved with to have a more centralised location for ALMA-useful software and contacts for user support. And there was a very nice one about a dedicated (not yet public) website describing ALMA's observations of the galactic centre – many of which are honestly spectacular – and again keeping everything tightly organised and well-presented. By being focused on a relatively small area, this gives a really detailed insight into a specific region with lots and lots of lovely images.

These events are also explicitly social as a way to ensure everyone keeps in touch. The trip to the Ferrari museum was for me every bit as bemusing as I expected : oh look, a car... oh look, there's another one. Oh, that's a blue one, how interesting ! I wonder if the next one will also have four wheels ? Good lord, it does ! How remarkable. And so on.

The most memorable part of this was for me the extremely Italian, extremely enthusiastic tour guide, who repeated everything at least five times. He had a demeanour of an odd mix of enthusiasm and worry, like he normally deals with large groups of very old people who he enjoys working with but is constantly expecting to fall over dead.

Brrmm brmmm.

Anyway, the wine tasting and dinner that evening was much more my thing. A generous tasting which was almost a full glass per serving ! And the food... look, some stereotypes are just true. This is pasta country and with good reason, because it's very, very good pasta. I'm not sure it's possible to manage an entire day here without at least one pasta dish; probably if you try that someone will burst out of a hedgerow at you and ensure you don't go without your daily allowance. Couple that with the the loooong periods of sitting still and literally feeling my legs atrophying... I'm really not sure how I didn't explode.

I don't remember the name of the venue but the interior was on a much more industrial-scale than I was expecting, and not at all like its country-villa exterior.

The Sciencening

Now I will indulge myself as briefly as I can with an ego-stroking. You must forgive me this because this is something I've worked on in one form or another for over a decade and the user base remains tiny. And by tiny I mean probably less than the number of years in development. I wasn't really sure if this was the right venue to present it, especially as I didn't have time to construct any more ALMA-specific demos and had to use good old-fashioned HI data sets instead. But from conversations beforehand, it became clear that people were very curious about this, which helped a lot.

In old version of FRELLED, which I published back in 2014, Blender's Python could not really include external modules. This meant I had to re-write a lot of basics, like transforming pixels into so-called "world coordinates" (that is, position on the sky) the hard way, something I do not enjoy doing at all. Consequently much of it had to be hard-coded that shouldn't have been, making it useful for HI data but anything else got quite hacky. Blender also had a lot of idiosyncrasies that were constantly troublesome to overcome.

All of these problems changed with more recent versions of Blender. This I put off using because the internal Python syntax between Blender 2.49 and 2.50* was completely replaced to the point of being a totally different language. Recoding this was not a straightforward exercise to say the least. But the advantages are manifold : FRELLED can now support any spectral line data cube (in principle any 3D FITS file at all though with some limitations); the new GUI system makes it far easier to add new buttons without having to recode everything else; it can display data volumetrically with far higher performance than the previous version and with more flexibility; it supports isosurfaces, 2D images and height maps; it can export to Blender 2.90 for a VR display; it can make figures and animations with annotations... and a whole lot more besides. And the code this time has designed to be far easier to both maintain and migrate to later versions of Blender, which haven't undergone anything like the complete Python change that happened with version 2.5.

* That's when the change happened, but the new FRELLED uses 2.79. When I started, the internal render capabilities were not good enough in 2.8 prototypes for what I needed, though that's subsequently been fixed.

I gave two demo videos and some still images of the major capabilities, and I could not have been happier with the audience response. When I explained that yes, I really had been working on this for ten years or more, people nodded and sincerely declared "I can believe that". "I want to use this and have my students use it !" said another. "That was impressive. Like, really impressive", said someone else. And my favourite, which I shall keep strictly anonymous, was, "I'm not excited by [much larger popular ALMA tool]. I'm excited by your software."

I was practically glowing.

But enough of this. Most of the last year has been spent debugging; very few known bugs remain, but without doubt more will be found with unexpected use cases. I still need to test with different sorts of FITS files, finish the documentation, and write a new paper on it. And the only fly in the ointment is that lots of people want to use it on a Mac, which isn't yet functional. Expect more on all this in due course.

The Travelling

Afterwards I had a few days to see the local sights. I stayed in a very basic but absolutely functional guest house in the centre of Bologna, a complete change from the luxury of the hotel but completely suited to my needs. Clean and comfortable, I'd happily recommend it for any Bologna budget travellers.

The place can be summarised best, I think, by the single English book that was in the desk shelves. There's a certain kind of place where you can find books from 1968 on Scottish clan tartans and that says all you need to know about it, really.

The first day consisted of wandering around the centre, eating gelato (seriously good) and visiting the cavernous cathedral. Even more so than most gothic cathedrals, the interior felt truly voluminous.

There's another even worse variety of near-tentacle porn in the statues which I shall not show : on each corner of a plinth, a woman of sizeable breasts holds them prominently in an attempt to distract the viewer from noticing her not one but three scaly fish tales. Artistic nudes ? I think not.

The next day a couple of us went to Florence. This took more effort than expected because the half-hour train arrived, everyone got on... and then it was delayed by a full hour. By the end, with little information forthcoming, I was really on the verge of giving up. But at the last minute, off we went.

Of course we headed straight for the star attraction, the cathedral. When you first glimpse this from the street it's an arresting sight. And close-up it doesn't disappoint. After so long in Prague it's good to see a totally different style of architecture, and the high-contrast colour scheme accentuates all the details marvellously. We couldn't go in the dome, which was fully booked, but we got tickets for the bell tower*. I regret nothing.

* The main interior of the cathedral is free but the line is very long. Perhaps on an early weekday morning it would be feasible.

As you go up level by level, Florence is transformed. I have to say I was a little disappointed by Florence as a street city (for that, Prague is still the clear winner for me); wandering around on ground level it's not really anything special. But from above it's far more interesting, much more like my expectations. It seems deliberately designed for epic jigsaw puzzles, and the dramatic sky certainly didn't let the side down either. 

We got largely lucky with the weather, only caught out briefly in the rain.

The annoying metal cage around the top of the bell tower, I'm guessing, is a Faraday cage to prevent lightning from killing the visitors. No such cage is present around the cupola, but there the visitors are much further down from the spire on the top. Here you're right next to it.

Afterwards we went into a museum included as part of the ticket, which was not bad, but I wish we'd queued for the luggage retrieval first. By this point I was already thirsty. By the time we were out of the museum I was sweating buckets (it was warm but not hot) and feeling like I had a hangover. This I attribute to a lack of my morning tea or other fluid; I'd had just one small glass of orange juice all day. Well, lesson learned.

I can't avoid thinking of this guy as the Big Bishop of Bologna even though this is in Florence.

Fortunately getting back to Bologna was incident-free, and after I had plenty to drink I collapsed in my hotel room at about 7pm and didn't wake up until 10. Then, feeling very much better but now wide awake, I got on with some science blogging for a few hours and feel asleep again around 2am. I personally am not a fan of "total tourism" that some people practise. I want some break time from sightseeing and a few hours each day of doing normal things, otherwise I just feel shattered and can't enjoy it. From this perspective, solo travelling for me has some big advantages, even if it does start to feel overly-solitary after more than a few days.

The next day I did more wandering around Bologna. My trip up the tallest of the city's many watchtowers was cancelled due to sudden maintenance, so I went in a different, slightly shorter one instead. Again I regretted nothing, the weather was fantastic and the view was brilliant. Bologna too undergoes a transformation with altitude, though not quite so dramatically as Florence.

From the Torre Prendiparte. Unlike the taller tower you don't have to book ahead of time. Queue was 20 minutes.

Actually I have to say I prefer Bologna as a city, at least from my brief visits. Bologna is a real studentsville and clearly a place to live first, visit second. It's busy but with residents. And its streets are just that bit architecturally nicer, more distinct, more medieval in feeling. If Bologna is bustling, Florence by contrast is a truly heaving tourist trap, undeniably spectacular (awe-inspiring, even !) in places but mediocre in others. 

Finally, after a good long break back in my hotel, I walked the 4 km up the hill to the Sanctuary of St Luca, a wonderfully-situated, surprisingly large churchy thing at the end of a walk which is entirely covered by stone porticos (they have these everywhere and I love them) the whole way up the hill. This time I had plenty to drink and felt absolutely fine apart from, inevitably, my feet, but sod them they don't get to tell me what to do.

There were also good views of Bologna itself, but the Tuscan hillsides in the other directions were better.

I arrived in the middle of a Catholic ceremony which I have to say felt very Kubrick. I mean, it's just daft to paint all forms of religion with the same cultish brush, but this one... no, this one definitely did feel like the sort of affair in which O Fortuna would suddenly start playing I'd find myself the surprise victim of the molestations of an overactive and sexually deprived Tom Cruise.

Urrgh, there's a thought.

The final day I went around the Bologna archaeological museum. Excellent place with an unexpected Egyptian collection and a fascinating, enormous Etruscan section, though a bit hit-and-miss on the English text (perfect translations, just variable in their availability, with some rooms translating every description of every artifact and others having none at all).

Finally it was time to head home. The only point I will say here is that Bologna airport has a very fast and efficient security section but beyond that it's honestly horrible : it's crowded to the point of being comparable to a music venue, and really no fun at all. For a brief moment I misread my flight delay as being 2 hours and my heart sank; how everyone else around me seemed perfectly comfortable with the highly limited seating, noisy and overheated environment I really don't know. Fortunately it was actually only a 20 minute delay and so my urge to burst into tears immediately receded.

And that's my second science trip this year. It was a only a week but felt like a month. That's enough conferences for now, methinks; time to get back to science proper. After I recover from this stinking little cold, which I'm blaming on the airport.

Tuesday 18 July 2023

Singing, Summer, Scones, Speeches, Sounds and... Science !

Home is for holidays, but every once in a while it's possible to go for research as well. I don't often go to the UK's National Astronomy Meetings (the last one I attended was in Hertfordshire in 2009 !), but this year it was in Cardiff so I basically had to go. It'd be silly not to.

This time it wasn't practical to take the dogs so it was just me, by plane, but going to Cardiff airport instead of pesky Bristol or London. Even though this involves a 2 hour layover in Amsterdam (an airport which is nice but far, far too large), not having to commute on landing is somehow about ten thousand times more convenient. If only there was a budget airline flying this route ! Oh well, one day.

Getting home before midnight meant I didn't feel absolutely shattered the next day, which was technically the first day of the conference. I began with a nice dog walk followed by a visit to a friends, and then in the evening the welcome reception was in Cardiff Bay.

With an actual male voice choir, which is about as Welsh as Welsh can be.

I learned later that afterwards some people jumped on the conference drinking bandwagon very early, ending up in an axe-throwing bar (those are thing now, apparently) somewhere late that very evening. As it turned out, I think I'm glad I missed that one.

Monday began the conference proper in the shiny new "Centre for Student Life", I guess because calling it the "Student's Union" is too socialist or something. While I quite like the exterior, which is modern but in keeping with the very much older, grander building across the road, I've always wondered why it's so damn big. As it turns out this is very simple : because it's not just a student drinking bar but a whole series of lecture theatres. The largest one, which hosted the biggest sessions, holds 550 people.

The only thing I don't like is the weird layout of the stairs, which don't form a continuous sequence - you have to walk between stairwells on most floors.

The Science Bit

The Conference

Rather than do a day-by-day account of how things went, it's probably better if I just pick out the highlights and other notable points. Overall, this was a frankly ludicrously well-organised conference (and I'm not just trying to sing Cardiff's praises, after all we've got professional choirs to do that). Talks were almost always within 5 minutes of their scheduled time, hardly any problems occurred with the projectors and the like, and there were no major clashes between sessions. 

Where it really stood out, though, was with the catering, which was the best conference catering I've ever had. Coffee and tea were permanently available (unlike in JanFest, where for some godforsaken reason the bastards kept taking everything away during the talks), with a flow system that was second to none, and during the official morning and afternoon sessions were stocked with biscuits, Welsh cakes, slices of Victoria sponge and lemon drizzle cake which were constantly refilled. Lunch was an all-you-can-eat buffet and, surprisingly, the quality of all of this was actually not half bad - I would even dare to say it was outright good, and think some of my more judgemental colleagues must have been a little... spoiled. Given the standard of the local physics department canteen this was an unexpected but welcome change of pace.

If I have a criticism of the conference itself it's that the invited talks probably should have been called "review talks". This sounds minor, and it is. But "invited" suggests to me the speaker is very prestigious and has some exciting new results to present, whereas a review talk is just a summary of everyone else' research : absolutely fine, but a bit weird if you're sat there waiting for something else. 

Solid science

On to the science itself. One thing I was surprised at is that the talks about the epoch of reionisation, when the first stars and other bright sources first lit up and ionised all the gas throughout the entire universe, have changed very little in the intervening 14 years (!)* from when I was last at NAM. But I think perhaps in that respect I've timed this badly : JWST has only just come online, and we may need only another year or two to get some really interesting results here. It looks like those first, stupendously powerful stars are indeed beginning to be found, but we don't have enough information to say anything interesting about them yet.

* Multiple people guessed my age this week, with estimates ranging from 26 to "33, at most". I'm feeling pretty good about that.

On a related front, the recent storm of controversies about whether JWST has found more massive galaxies too soon after the Big Bang appears to be more-or-less over : it hasn't. There was exactly one talk saying we should keep an open mind about whether any of the new results pose fundamental difficulties for the Standard Model but all the rest were pretty clear that this isn't tenable. 

To be fair, it does seem that JWST has found an unexpected number of early disc galaxies, as well as galaxies which have already finished forming stars in the early Universe. But these are rather problems of detail, as several speakers explained at some length on just how many uncertainties still remain in the models - there's more than enough scope in the error bars to solve this without throwing out the basic models at all. 

Problems with the mass, which would have been much more fundamental and interesting, have been resolved with spectroscopic confirmation of the true redshift (effectively, distance). As we all suspected, the photometric redshifts (and I confess I didn't quite realise how sophisticated this technique can be) just aren't good enough, even when multiple fitting models give the same answer. Spectroscopy has definitively but disappointingly shown that the suspected very early, massive galaxies are actually a lot smaller and closer. They're still interesting, but they're not "oh shit I just wet my pants" level of interesting any more. Oh well*.

* As per another talk, however, the "tensions" between the different Hubble constant values obtained by different methods might yet prove to be something more interesting. I hope so, but I'd bet against it.

For the rest, I'll briefly summarise some of my personal favourites :

  • Amélie Saintonge gave a great review talk about star formation in molecular clouds. This interests me in how it relates to star formation on larger scales : can we relate global conditions to local activity ? It seems that we can at least in part. Self gravity seems to be important only in high-pressure environments, and only the densest part of each cloud actually forms stars - there may not be a simple global threshold at which star formation happens. 
  • Timothy Davis also looked at molecular gas but this time in galaxies experiencing gas loss. Oddly, galaxies in the Fornax cluster have less molecular gas than expected, while those in the more massive, more gas-lossy Virgo cluster have more normal molecular contents ! There seems to be a consensus rapidly emerging that as the thinner atomic gas is lost, initially part of it can be compressed and form molecules. So during the active stripping phase, galaxies have a bit less atomic gas than normal, but can even have more molecular gas than they usually do.
  • An honourable mention to Elizabeth Watkins for making a catalogue of gas bubbles and doing it correctly : by eye, without any boring algorithms. I'm a big fan of this approach and I think it would do everyone the world of good to acknowledge that we can't be purely objective all the time.
  • Ben Thompson showed that ram pressure stripping, which we normally associate with galaxies moving at the highest speeds in the densest parts of galaxy clusters, can also happen the the edges of galaxies voids. Here the densities and speeds are very much lower so this is not what one would naively expect. It seems that while ram pressure here is never going to be as damaging as it is in clusters, it might still be enough to strip the outer reservoirs of gas, slowly quenching star formation rather than bringing it to a sudden halt.
  • Ethan Taylor (no relation) gave a cool talk on the overlap between dwarf galaxies and globular clusters. This series of simulations is to try and find tests to probe the nature of dark matter : globular clusters and dwarf galaxies can have similar stellar masses, but the former don't have any dark matter whereas the latter have lots. His simulations look for objects in between the two. I asked if this could relate to Ultra Diffuse Galaxies (which are awash with such controversies) but alas it seems not, as those are much more extended objects.
  • A dis(?)honourable mention to Mac McMullon who had all the best quotes, including, "Dwarf galaxies, woooo !", "I had more fun fonts but Micosoft ate them", and of course, "I've got a badass hangover." Back atcha, Mac, but just wait until you give your presentation in the afternoon and can still complain about your hangover - then we'll talk.
  • Finally, David O'Ryan for introducing a code I want to try which seems to be a very sophisticated way of finding the initial conditions of interacting galaxies. It's not yet public but I can imagine this being a godsend for understanding crazy systems like Leo.
  • Oh, wait... me ! I gave a crazy-fast distillation of 17 years of research in 10 minutes, summarising the major candidate dark galaxies we've found and how plausible they are. Everyone laughed at the right points, so I guess I wasn't going too much at breakneck speed. Though, while I do like to play the hahah-all-you-chumps-are-interested-in-star-formation angle (whereas I'm looking at gas clouds that don't do anything), I do think there's a serious point people are overlooking here : what keeps some objects dark while others which are apparently otherwise very similar are optically bright ?


There was also some great stuff here about not science itself but the process of how we do science : diversity, outreach, and the overlap between science and the arts. There was also a modicum of some truly awful stuff. Now I'm probably going to annoy absolutely everyone when I say the conference was very, very woke, because I mean this in two senses : it had an aspect which is unconditionally, unequivocally and unarguably a Good Thing (everyone of any race, creed, cast, colour, faith or sexual orientation should be able to become a scientist; if you don't believe this, you need to rethink your life choices), but also in the more colloquial pejorative sense. That is, a sort of militant, beatings-will-continue-until-morale-improves approach, you WILL pro-actively embrace all forms of diversity and tolerance or else you'll be taken outside and shot. 

Two particular comments stand out regarding the latter. First, a throwaway comment on one of the talks about how science is "colonialising", which I think is utter rubbish. Academia ? Maybe. But science itself ? Simply nope, this is a hideously weird thing to say. Secondly, a suggestion that if countries which unfairly discriminate against LBGTQ/etc., we should boycott those countries. The problem here is that I vehemently despise the current UK "government"'s policies and rhetoric regarding refugees, asylum seekers and the poor. Should I therefore have boycotted NAM ? I don't think so. If I did that, I'd probably have to boycott every country.

I retain the anonymity also of one additional speaker who presented a piece of outreach which has been very successful but, on seeing it, I have to say I personally hated it. I don't hate the goal of inclusivity, obviously. No, I hate the "let's ram this down everyone's throat* and forget to tell them any actual science" approach. Yes, damnit, include as many characters of different ethnicities, ages and backgrounds as you want : the more the merrier. But treat those characters with genuine respect. Show them enjoying research, yes, but show them having difficulties too, just like everyone else. "Happy People Doing Science", encountering no kind of difficulties whatsoever - not so much as an angry bee - is something that is monumentally boring and unbelievably cringe-worthy.

* In other words, "We need MOOAR EXPOSITION about racism ! MOOOOAR !". Come on, this is not an information deficit problem any more. I thought a much better approach was described in another talk : educating teachers and students together, en masse and repeatedly : that's how you beat implicit bias, not by constantly telling everyone "racism is bad" because everyone already knows this. As in Damon Centola's Change, implicit bias happens because of culture, not conscious choices where anyone sits down and thinks, "hmm, how can I fuck the libtards today ?". The only way to tackle this is to change entire groups, not by educating individuals.

A much better message was in a talk of Peter Coles. He gave two outstanding quotes. First, "If you're upset about pronouns, wait till you find out about adjectives", and secondly, "do the best you can to make your work environment the best it can be for people who are not like you." So far as lifestyle choices go, I thoroughly agree (I found it interesting from another speaker that in other countries it's common to end a science talk with a Bible quote, which might not go down well elsewhere !), though I might have some qualms about Flat Earthers. As usual, the question, "where do you draw the line ?" is a legitimate one which can and should actually be answered, and is not merely rhetorical.  

But I'm not in a mood for an extended rant about this, so I'll move on to what was for me the stand-out talk of the whole conference : a presentation about Gavin Starks and Andy Newsam's soniverse. This gloriously insane idea began with the simple enough process of sonifying data cubes, turning radio spectra into audio. This seems to work better than I would expect it to; I'd love to incorporate this into FRELLED somehow... but they've gone much further. They're developing a theory of the universe (just purely for shits and giggles I think) in which photons are replaced with sound, so that dark matter becomes silent matter, a batshit crazy resurrection of the aether.

Utterly bonkers. I absolutely love it.

The Social Bit

The non-conferency bits attached to the conference were numerous. We began with an opening address by First Minister Mark Drakeford. Remarkably... he was genuinely funny. Now I quite like the guy but I do normally think of him as the world's most boring hamster. No more. The previous speaker was the vice chancellor, who expressed some skepticism about claims of Roman astronomy in Wales. Drakeford said he wouldn't normally presume to correct him, but went on to list numerous examples, which he described in some detail, of pre-Roman astronomical alignments in ancient Welsh megaliths. It was a well-researched, highly sympathetic speech that in terms of the old golden rule "know your audience" had it utterly nailed. And he was indeed funny, noting, "from the financial crisis to the austerity crisis, the Brexit crisis to the COVID crisis and the cost of living crisis, we move, seamlessly, from one damn thing to another"; and "politics is more akin to astrology than astronomy." Which was delivered with impeccable comic timing that perfectly matched his delivery. It was hardly stand-up, but it bordered on Yes Minister territory.

The line on the whiteboard is from one of the few presentations where things went awry and the speaker was forced to draw a missing graph.

Monday evening featured the usual NAM 5-a-side, but I was infinitely more impressed by Mike Edmund's one man Tuesday play, "Sir Isaac Remembers". Mike is now President of the Royal Astronomical Society no less, but a long time back he was my undergraduate academic tutor. Had the X-rays been available on time, my Masters project would have been studying the Antikythera mechanism rather than running galaxy simulations. Oh, the road not taken... Anyway, the play is Mike in character as Sir Isaac narrating a random assortment of his letters and writings, which is both hilarious and educational (genuine edutainment !). It has to be experienced, not described, so I won't try.

After this we had a quiz. We came third, which is not bad at all considering there was certainly well over 100 people participating. Actually this was reportedly the largest NAM ever, with ~650 attendees, although no-one is quite sure why.

Wednesday was the conference dinner at the Millennium Stadium*. Excellent food, plentiful wine, and for £40 it wasn't cheap but I would honestly say it was good value. The one downside was the endless bloody awards, which meant that it was hard to have a conversation with anyone because if nothing else everyone had to stop every two minutes to give a round of applause to someone they'd never heard of winning an award they'd never heard of for research they weren't interested in. However, then we all went out and got very, very drunk, so that was alright in the end.

* Why no, I won't call it the Principality Stadium, you twerps.

Thursday evening had nothing much scheduled, but a surprising number of people went out again and everyone was complaining the next day except me because I went home and had a lovely night's sleep. Mwhahah, bitches.

The Holiday Bit

This was wise, because the conference ended midway through Friday afternoon, whereupon I proceeded down to the bay for the annual Food Festival, and afterwards proceeded to get very drunk again.

The rest of the week was divided between walking the dog...

I am horrified to discover that the local dogging spot appears to have been taken over by some sort of death cult. Also, while it was mostly dry, there were times when it rained a lot. Which it's supposed to, because it's Wales.

... buying and reading books and enjoying other local delicacies (the first set are not mine, I just think the juxtaposition in the bookshop is... interesting) :

I always want to put the jam and cream the other way around on one scone just to annoy the internet. But come on, the jam is sticky so it goes on the bottom. Trying to spread jam on top of the cream is just asking for trouble.

... continuing to drink until silly o'clock and also exploring Penarth :

This toilet foyer in an an otherwise perfectly nice seaside restaurant/bar is the single chaviest thing I've seen in my life. There are more horses' heads elsewhere, positioned so that they look like they're following you around the room.

And then finally it was time to come home.

About the flights there isn't much to say. Everything went as smoothly as possible, we even took off and arrived either slightly early or dead on time for all flights. I should also mention that Cardiff airport is only marginally larger than I remember it (I went through it back in 2008 for a flight to NAM which that year was in Belfast). It was practically deserted, with only four flights on the whole board, but it could probably comfortably accommodate and feed ten times as many people as were actually present.

Anyway, it was a lovely couple of weeks. As well as catching up with all the most important people, I also ran into people I haven't seen in a good ten years. Whether that's enough to persuade me to go to next year's NAM in Hull, however, is another matter.