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Monday 29 March 2021

Niall Deacon: Twenty Worlds

Niall Deacon:
Twenty Worlds: The Extraordinary Story of Planets Around Other Stars (1*, but possibly 5* for some)
I have a backlog of books to write up. 
Twenty Worlds is a clear account of difficult concepts explained by means of well-chosen analogies to make them accessible to non-specialists. Enthusiasts of the undoubtedly brilliant scientific reasoning behind astronomical discovery might well give it five stars (there is, after all, no shortage in the universe) but I couldn’t finish it. Unjustly, under my system, that scores only one.

It is a personal starring system, as personal as the giving and receiving of books. You express how much you like a particular book – namely Andrew Cohen and Brian Cox’s The Planets, reviewed previously in November – and receive others perceived to be similar. This isn’t. My expression should have been more specific. What it does is to select twenty planets orbiting distant stars and explain the methods by which they were discovered, and what they tell us. They have names like 51 Peg b. There is little about what these worlds might be like.

There are some interesting ideas. For example, how can we know there are planets around distant stars if our telescopes cannot see them? It turns out, in a sense, that when a planet orbits a star, the star also orbits the planet. It is a bit like a seesaw with you or me on one end and an elephant on the other. It would balance, but the balance point would be very close to the elephant. Strictly, Jupiter does not orbit the sun, it orbits a balance point just above the sun’s surface. The sun orbits the same balance point. Viewed from a distance, Jupiter’s orbit makes the sun appear to wobble towards and away, and from side to side. The earth makes it wobble too, but almost undetectably because the earth is much smaller and lighter than Jupiter. The earth-sun balance point is inside the sun close to its centre. This phenomenon reveals only huge, heavy planets.

But how do we know a star wobbles when we cannot even see that? Another analogy explains it: the Doppler Effect, i.e. the way the sound of a fire engine changes from a higher to a lower pitch as it passes by. This happens because, when the fire engine is moving towards you, the sound waves are closer together than when it is moving away (the waves still travel at the same speed but are emitted from increasingly closer points and then increasingly distant points). The same happens with light. So, if the orbit of a planet causes a distant star to wobble repeatedly towards and away from us, the frequency of the light keeps changing. The spectrum of light from a star contains dark lines where some frequencies have been filtered out by local conditions, and these dark lines will oscillate towards one end and then the other end of the spectrum. That is what we are able to detect.

It gets cleverer, such as detecting planets by variations in the brightness of stars as planets move in front of them, and analysing the spectrum of light emitted by a planet to determine the constituents of its atmosphere. It is even possible to photograph some of these planets: the book includes a picture of four white spots around star number HR 8799 and discusses the imaging techniques that make this possible. 
And so it continues. In essence, this is astrophysics without the mathematics. I gave up. Lazy, I know, but just like in a neutron star, electron degeneracy pressure was unable to stop my brain from collapsing in upon itself and pulsing out radio waves.

If you find this fascinating, this may be the book for you.

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Wednesday 24 March 2021

Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath:
The Bell Jar (5*)

Another classic not read until now, prompted by the recent news story that permission has been granted for a devotee of the author to be buried near her in the same churchyard at Heptonstall, Yorkshire. Despite living two hundred miles away, the 44 year-old woman has long admired Plath’s writing and had felt “profoundly spiritual” during a visit to the church. It illustrates the strength of attachment some still feel for Sylvia Plath and her stories and poetry.

Published in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, and not under her own name until posthumously in 1967, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is a Roman à clef novel giving a fictionalised account of events from her life.

Esther Greenwood, a clever young woman who sails through school, wins scholarships and writes brilliantly, secures an internship with a prominent New York women’s magazine. Initially, she muddles through, despite being socially out of her depth and unimpressed by the glamorous lifestyle of the magazine and its editor, Jay Cee. This first half of the story amuses and entertains, rather like The Catcher In The Rye, but better, with a likeable female story teller.

The imagery is rich and abundant. She sees her life spread out before her like the branches of a fig tree, with wonderful futures like fat purple figs beckoning and winking at the tip of every branch, but:

“I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” (Chapter 7)
The signs that all is not well are there from the start in the way she dwells upon things, such as her ex-boyfriend, virginity, the subservience of women, death, medical specimens of dead foetuses in bell jars and the execution of the Rosenbergs – the American couple convicted of spying for the Russians.
“I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick … I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive along your nerves” (Chapter 1)
It is a portent of what is to happen to Esther. She descends into mental illness and is treated by a psychiatrist who administers electroconvulsive shock therapy (ECT) in a brutal way, after which she refuses further treatment. As her mental state worsens, she contemplates various means of suicide. This is a difficult and disturbing part of the book to read.
“I saw the years of my life spaced along a road in the form of telephone poles, threaded together by wires. I counted one, two, three...nineteen telephone poles, and then the wires dangled into space, and try as I would, I couldn’t see a single pole beyond the nineteenth.” (Chapter 10)

Eventually, she hides in the cellar and overdoses on sleeping pills, but survives. With the support of the benefactress who had funded her scholarship, she is treated at an upmarket psychiatric hospital where she receives insulin therapy and further ECT, and begins to recover her sanity. The story ends in a degree of hope and optimism, and is by no means as depressing as it might sound.

Plath’s own early life followed a similar course: born Boston, Massachusetts, academic brilliance, a spell at Mademoiselle magazine, mental illness, a suicide attempt, psychiatric treatment and recovery. She began to write poetry and short stories, and won a Fulbright Scholarship to Cambridge University, England. She married fellow poet Ted Hughes, a later Poet Laureate, and had two children, but separated when she discovered he was having an affair. In the following months she wrote many of her most acclaimed poems, but then began to sink back into depression. She took her own life a month after The Bell Jar was first published, aged 30. Many hold Hughes responsible.

Some of us will have experienced bleak periods in our own lives – I once had persistent thoughts of jumping down a seven-storey stair well at work – but hopefully nothing like this. Mine have always been due to situations and circumstances rather than from within: reactive rather than endogenous. What an intense and troubled soul she was:  

The video link to her reading of her poem Ariel (in which she becomes, among other things, the horse she rides) if you cannot see it:  

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Tuesday 16 March 2021

Facial Animation

Back in December, I posted a piece about the automatic colourisation of black and white photographs. One of the web sites I mentioned, MyHeritage, has now added a new feature called Deep Nostalgia which animates faces. “Animate the faces in your family photographs”, it says. “Experience your family history like never before”.

It gives me an excuse to re-post this wonderful picture, taken before a boat trip from the Yorkshire seaside resort of Bridlington in 1929.

First, let’s look at what face animation does to our Prime Minister’s official photograph. The result may not be suitable for those of a nervous disposition. 

Where photographs have multiple faces, the tool crops out and animates one at a time.

I animated five of the faces from the automatically colourised version of the 1929 photograph, and put them together in the following video. They are (1) my grandad on the right, (2) my dad standing behind him, (3) the Somerset Maugham lookalike in the hat on the left (there is a crease in the original photograph), (4) the woman behind him, and (5) the wiry-haired man behind her:

I don’t know why some video segments are longer than others. I think the woman comes out best but it doesn’t really endear them to you. I certainly didn’t “spend the evening balled up in tears” as the following news report implies. It also touches upon the dangers of these tools.

The MyHeritage site only allows you to animate five faces before asking for money. However, my experiments were carried out in collaboration with my very good friends Mickey Mouse, Billy Liar and Seán ÓEigeartaigh. Between us, we were able to do it without paying. Their assistance was greatly appreciated. 

 Video links if you can’t see them:

Wednesday 10 March 2021


Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but having your writing and research stolen most definitely is not. That’s abuse. It recently happened here. This is what I managed to do about it.

Left: screen grabs from parts of my own page. Right: screen grab from part of the offending page. 

At the beginning of January, I planned a different New Month Old Post from the one I used. It was about a guitar teacher called Eric Kershaw who taught an evening class at Leeds College of Music in the early nineteen-seventies. He had been one of Britain’s top ‘swing era’ guitarists of the nineteen-thirties and -forties, playing in leading bands and West End shows, with his own programme on national radio. His 1946 book, Dance Band Chords for the Guitar, sold an amazing seven and a half million copies. He later became a lecturer in jazz guitar at Leeds College of Music. My post recalled what his class was like and how much I enjoyed it. Much of this was down to Eric’s eccentric brilliance.  

I first posted it on the 1st August 2015, and, in considering re-posting, I looked around to see if any more recent information had come to light. I discovered a page on a WordPress site which, astonishingly, apart from minor re-sequencing, contained over 1,300 verbatim words and two original images from my own post. That goes well beyond “fair use”. I was extremely annoyed. My original piece had taken considerable time and research.

The only contact channel on the site seems to be through comments on an ‘About’ page, so I left a complaint. That was on the 4th January. Comments are moderated, and my comment was not approved. A later comment by someone else on the 8th January was approved, which makes it likely that my comment was seen. I therefore gave fourteen days notice requesting acknowledgement of my material and a link to my page, with a warning that I would otherwise file a copyright claim with WordPress which could result in the whole of the site being shut down.

When this was also ignored, I demanded my material be removed immediately. This is the comment I made on the 22nd January 2021.
You have not responded to my earlier request. You cannot simply steal other people's original content and post it as if it is your own. My piece was published online in August 2015 at   My email address is   I now require that you remove all my content from your WordPress web site immediately.

WordPress regards breaches of its terms and conditions as a serious issue. They provide a page explaining how to report content that is spam, unsuitable or abusive (, and for breaches of copyright they make it easy to submit a Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) Notice:

If your copyrighted material has been used without your permission and in violation of the law, please submit a formal DMCA notice by following the instructions found here:

I completed the form giving details of my site, the offending site, and the material involved:

The copyrighted work is a blog page recalling the copyright holder’s personal memories of a musician called Eric Kershaw. The offending site reproduces this material from Paragraph 6 on the offending page, beginning “In the autumn of 1974  …” Practically the whole of the remainder of the page is a verbatim copy of material which begins at Paragraph 5 of the copyright holder’s page, comprising approximately 1,300 words and 2 original images of music. 

WordPress agreed and it did the trick. This is what the Eric Kershaw page looks like now.

WordPress will have notified the site owner giving the opportunity to challenge the removal. This has not happened to date. I keep checking that my material has not reappeared on the site. If it does, Wordpress would probably remove the site completely. 

Blogger provides a similar way to report offending content at:

I have added a copyright notice to my blog using the Attribution gadget in the Layout section. For what good it does, the following now appears at the bottom of every screen:

Original text and images © Tasker Dunham. Copyright will be vigorously defended.

Monday 1 March 2021

New Month Old Post - Votre Billet Monsieur?

(First posted 27th August, 2014)

“Billet?” “Votre billet, Monsier?” I will never forget the French word “billet” for as long as I live.

I had been staying with a Belgian family on a school exchange visit. They had put me on the right train at Charleroi and I had waved goodbye with feelings of relief and sadness: relief at no longer having to struggle in French and sadness because I had had a great time and would miss them. Having been there on my own for two and a half weeks, I was looking forward to being with English speakers again.

My French had improved enormously, although not enough to be entirely aware of what was going on. Sometimes things just happened without forewarning, such as going out sightseeing, or into town, or to the cinema, or to visit someone. You rarely knew what each moment would bring. At the age of fifteen it seemed simplest to cultivate an attitude of passive acceptance. It served me well that morning.

I was to join the rest of my school party at Bruxelles-Midi. After less than thirty miles, or should I say forty five kilometres because it was a Belgian train, the train reached Brussels and started to slow down. It came to a stop. I peered out anxiously to read the station name. “No, not this one,” I decided. It was Brussel-Zuid. Everyone else got out. I sat watching the bustling foreign platform, quietly waiting for the train to move on. It was a big mistake.

The problem is that Belgium is a two-nation country. There are the Walloons who speak French and live mainly to the south of Brussels where I had been staying, and the Flemish or Belgian-Dutch speakers who live to the north. The two nations are suspicious of each other, and, where they intersect, as in Brussels, signs are written in both languages to help minimise the antipathy. The station name, Brussel-Zuid, appeared to be Flemish for Brussels South. I wanted Bruxelles-Midi, which I decided must mean Brussels Central. I should have known better. Just rudimentary knowledge of French is sufficient to realise how very wrong this is. I must have left my French back in Charleroi in my eagerness to get home.

I knew something was not right as soon as the train started to move. The names on the station totems flashed alternately in Flemish and French, Flemish and French, Brussel-Zuid and Bruxelles-Midi, Brussel-Zuid and Bruxelles-Midi. With helpless horror, I realised they were the same station. The names switched in time with the clickety-click of the wheels as the train picked up speed. Not only do the two kinds of Belgians disagree about which language they speak, they cannot even decide what this particular station should be called.

‘Midi’ is of course French for ‘mid-day’. It is one of the first words you learn, as in après-midi, meaning afternoon. Because the sun is in the south at noon, the French-speaking Belgians in their wisdom call the southern station Bruxelles-Midi (Brussels Mid-Day). Where else would you find such logic? How come they were allowed to keep such eccentricities when we had to give up our shillings, pence, pounds, ounces, pints, gallons, feet and inches? They used to be perfect for bamboozling the French and Germans.

I was on the express train going north to Antwerp. Not only that, but all the other passengers now seemed to be Flemish speakers who might be unhelpful towards someone attempting to speak in French. I caught the attention of a smartly dressed but kindly-looking young woman sitting opposite me. With an awkward and badly modulated “Excusez-moi, Madamoiselle”, which stopped the conversation throughout the whole carriage, I asked anxiously in French whether the station we had just left was Bruxelles-Midi. Fortunately, she answered in a French accent I was able to follow. As the train shot through another station without stopping she confirmed that it was.

“Ce que je vais faire maintenant?” (What am I going to do now?), I asked with resignation.

“Descend ici” (Get off here) she said. It was a considerable relief to be told there was another stop before Antwerp, at Brussel-Noord (Bruxelles-Nord or Brussels North).

I left the train. This was a much quieter station. I sat with my luggage on the deserted platform. Before too long a train came in the opposite direction. I got on, sat down, and fiddled sweaty-handed with the ticket inside my trouser pocket. It quickly became an illegible, misshapen pulp. For all I knew, the train could have been going anywhere. I just hoped it was going back to Bruxelles-Midi and not straight to somewhere in Germany or France. As I said, if you were fifteen, on your own in Belgium in 1965, unable to understand much of what was going on, the only thing you could do was to adopt a position of passive acceptance. Psychologists call it ‘learned helplessness’. 

Inevitably, a ticket inspector came. He was dressed in a smart dark uniform which gave him an intimidating authority that made me think of the Gestapo. I handed him the lump of papier-mâché that had once been my ticket. He screwed up his eyes as he examined it, then looked back at me, then back at the ticket, and then at me again, and with an air of complete disbelief said “Votre billet, Monsieur?” “Votre billet?”

“Billet” – it’s the French word for ticket.

I was lucky. He concluded he was dealing with an anxious young English idiot and let me get off at Bruxelles-Midi.