Archive for the Biographical Category

Memories of Italia 90

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , , , , , on July 5, 2020 by telescoper

Twitter reminded me that 30 years ago yesterday (4th July 1990) was the date of the semi final between England and Germany in the 1990 World Cup, an event remembered by most people for Gazza’s tears. Paul Gascoigne cried before England lost (on penalties) because he picked up a yellow card which meant he wouldn’t play in the final even if England got through. As it happened, England lost so none of the England players played in the World Cup Final.

My memories of Italia 90 have somewhat different focus. I travelled to Italy on 1st July 1990 to attend a cosmology conference/workshop in a place called Sesto Pusteria in the region known as Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol (South Tyrol). Sesto is a village, set in the Italian Dolomites, primarily a ski resort in the winter but used for conferences in the summer when there is no snow.

I think it was only my second trip to Italy and I had been learning some Italian on the flight. My plane was supposed to land in Venice whence a bus would take conference guests up to Sesto. Unfortunately my flight was diverted to land at Treviso. I missed the bus and decided to stay overnight in a hotel and travel under my own steam the next day.

I found a hotel in Treviso and that night I watched the quarter final between Cameroon and England on my own on the television in my room.

I got up early the next morning and with the aid of the railway timetable supplied by the hotel reception, I set out on a long journey by train. There might have been a quicker way by bus but I was more comfortable doing it by train and was actually looking forward to a bit of exploration.

The route involved four different trains: Treviso to Mestre, then Mestre to Verona, then Verona to Bolzano, then a local (very slow) train from Bolzano up into the mountains to San Candido. The last leg was a little bus from San Candido to Sesto Pusteria. It took me most of the day to get there but I made it without any real difficulty.

I did notice however that on the way there the style of buildings I could see changed from very Italian to very Austrian.

Anyway I arrived in Sesto Pusteria (which is a small place) and found the name of the hotel I was booked in which was Bellavista. I wandered about looking for it – there was no Google Maps in those days – but failed. I did however find the conference centre where the meeting was located. I went in and asked in broken Italian Prego, Dov’è l’hotel Bellavista?

The answer came back in perfect English with a hint of a German accent. It’s down the road on the right, about 50 metres. It’s easy to find because the outside is all white. I was puzzled because I must have walked right past it. Anyway I walked back to down the road and found a hotel with a white exterior. The sign said Hotel Schönblick…

It turned out that my meagre Italian was of no use at all because the locals all spoke German. The South Tyrol has historically been part of Austria. It was annexed by Italy at the end of the First World War and the present border is just a few km from Sesto Pusteria. Attempts to assign Italian names to things however have been only partly successful.

So I made it to the conference, a day late. There weren’t any mobile phones in those days so I’d been unable to contact the organisers so they were quite relieved when I eventually showed up.

And so I saw both semi finals of Italia 90 at the conference: Italy lost theirs against Argentina and England lost on penalties.

After the workshop I travelled with a colleague by car to Trieste to work on a collaboration. During that I remember watching the 3rd/4th playoff (‘Piccolo Finale’) on a big screen from a bar in a public square in Trieste. Italy won that (deservedly). I think I watched the final too, but can remember little about it.

And so to Phase Three..

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education with tags , , , , on June 29, 2020 by telescoper

Well, Phase Three of the Great Reopening happened has started on schedule. As I walked to campus this morning I saw long queues in the street outside every barber’s shop in Maynooth. I decided to wait a few days before trying to get my long overdue haircut. It’s been over three months now.

Maynooth has quite a lot of barber’s shops for a town of its size. It also has quite a lot of nice restaurants. I noticed this evening that quite a few will be opening this week for sit-down meals rather than takeaway. I wish them well, but I think I’ll be sticking with the takeaways for a while longer.

When I got into the office to start work on the risk assessment I’m supposed to complete so staff can return to work, there was quite a lot of activity in the Science Building, including signs of various kinds being put up.

Some of the signs are bisexual bilingual:

All this reminded me of some lines from the Leonard Cohen song Anthem:

We asked for signs. The signs were sent


Signs for all to see.

The arrows will be put on the floor at regular intervals to enforce a one-way system around the building to allow people to circulate without bumping into each other.

I’m also expecting to be issued with tape to be used to mark some of the machines in our computer laboratory out of use, to keep users from sitting too close. I was going to remove the chairs but I don’t have anywhere to out them and we’ll probably – hopefully – need them back sometime!

I started work on the risk assessment but didn’t get it finished. I should be able to complete it tomorrow. Then it needs to be approved. Only after that will staff be able to begin routinely working in the Department. Until then, working from home continues.

Before Phase Three..

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , on June 28, 2020 by telescoper

Tomorrow (on Monday 29th June) Ireland will enter Phase Three of its (accelerated) Roadmap for Reopening after the Covid-19 restrictions.

The Coronavirus situation here remains relatively stable, with new cases steady at a low level:

This is not the case for the rest of the world, however. Yesterday two grim milestones were passed: 10,000,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 worldwide and 500,000 deaths:

Much of the recent numerical growth of the pandemic is associated with North and South America. Brazil is particularly badly affected as are some of the United States. I don’t need to comment on the quality of the political leadership involved.

I am very nervous about the situation in the United Kingdom too, where I feel the reopening is being rushed. Poor leadership is partly responsible for the continuing high levels of infection there too.

Anyway, back to Phase Three in Ireland. Yesterday I bought a copy of the Irish Times and found this booklet inside:

The emphasis is on the fact that despite the low levels in Ireland Covid-19 has not gone away and we all have to be prepared to take special precautions for the foreseeable future. I would be amazed if there wasn’t another flare-up here at some point, actually, it’s just a question of when. And those optimistic about the delivery of a vaccine in the near future, I’ll remind you that there isn’t yet a vaccine for any form of Coronavirus let alone the novel form responsible for Covid-19 (SARS-CoV-2).

Anyway, on Friday I attended a virtual Question and Answer session with the President of Maynooth University, Professor Philip Nolan, about the plans for reopening campus over the Summer and into the new academic year. It is clear that lots will have to be done before staff can return fully and even then it won’t be anything like “normal”.

Incidentally the issue of face masks came up and there was some discussion about their effectiveness. Not being a medical expert I don’t really know about that, but I think one of the important things about masks in a work environment is that their visibility means that they work as a signal to remind people to be aware of Covid-19. I have discarded my home-made face masks and bought a box of proper ones and I intend to wear them whenever I am in a work setting in which anyone else is present.

On Friday evening I finally received (relatively) detailed instructions on how the return to work process will work. The Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University is still basically in Phase 1 while the university working group has been assembling this guidance. It will probably be several more weeks before we can get people back to work because there are many things still to be done: including the installation of hand sanitizers, one-way systems, screens, and new signage.

Another thing that came up during the President’s Q&A was the question of vacations for staff. Fortunately I had muted both my audio and video feeds for this as I laughed out loud. What with organising the return to work, overseeing repeat exams, recruiting a sabbatical replacement, planning teaching for next year, rewriting my own lectures for the “new normal”, etc etc, and (hopefully) moving into a new house, I can’t see any prospect of any summer holiday this year at all!

The Trouble with a J-1 Visa..

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on June 24, 2020 by telescoper

With the news going around about Donald Trump’s decision extend restrictions on travel to the USA, including banning the J-1 visa, I thought you might be interested to hear what happened to me when I tried to apply for a J-1 visa about 15 years ago. The following account is taken from an old post published in 2008.


When I was working at the University of Nottingham, I was given a sabbatical for one semester for the Autumn of 2005. I had already received an informal invitation from George Smoot at the University of California at Berkeley to visit, specifically from 1st August to 10th December that year. I had visited him the previous year while I was on holiday in California and enjoyed it very much, especially the good food and stupid jokes.

All I had to do was to get my visa and travel arrangements sorted out. The period of the visit was longer than the 90 days for which visa-free travel was allowed, and also the restrictions brought in after 9/11 involved stricter monitoring of scientific visitors. It was therefore necessary to apply for a J-1 visa.

For a J-1 visa for the USA you need first of all a form called a DS-2109 which, in the case of visiting scholars like me, is a kind of formal invitation issued by the host institution. I applied for this using a special form on March 10th 2005. My first problem was that Berkeley did not send the papers back to me until 12th July 2005. However, once I had it I was in a position to get the visa.

Nowadays nobody is issued a US visa without an “interview” at a US Embassy consular division. You are not allowed to book an interview until you have your DS-2109. I called the Embassy visa line (cost £1.30 per minute) and made an appointment. Unbelievably, the first available appointment was a month later, on 11th August 2005, 10 days after my sabbatical visit was supposed to start. Worse still, the instructions I received indicated a minimum of a further 5 working days should be allowed after the interview for the return of the passport with the visa.

You also have to surrender your passport at the interview with no promise of when it will be returned. They don’t even guarantee 5 days. As a matter of fact they don’t guarantee anything at all, as we shall see.

The next thing you have to do is to pay a fee called a SEVIS fee. In my case that was $100. You can do this online, so it was no problem. I paid the fee by credit card and printed out the receipt as instructed. There are then several forms to be filled in. DS-156 is the basic application form. I also needed to fill in a DS-157 and DS-158, which contain detailed information about my work history, qualifications and family circumstances. I was also told I would need to take with me to the interview evidence of my employment, bank statements, mortgage statements, and so on, presumably to prove I was not planning to gain entry to the US to work there; obviously everyone in Britain, even a University professor, really wants to leave their home and work as a waiter in America.

Finally you have to go to a bank and pay the visa application fee (£60) and get a formal receipt. Oh, and you need a photograph. Armed with all this paperwork, and my passport, I went to the Embassy in London on the morning of 11th August 2005. My appointment was scheduled at 12.45, but it’s a two-hour train journey from Nottingham to London. Incidentally, that cost me £94. I got there in good time, and actually entered the Embassy through its extensive security checks around 12.15.

The Embassy operates a take-a-ticket-and-wait system like the deli counter at a supermarket. I took a number and waited. After about an hour, my number was called. I went to a window and a lady who could hardly speak English asked for my documents. I passed them through the window. I then had my fingerprints scanned. And that was that. Except it turns out that is only Stage 1. I returned to my seat and waited for Stage 2, the interview

Three hours later I was finally called for my interview. The consular official was quite polite. He asked me some questions about my job, and work. I thought it was all going fine. It took about 15 minutes. Then he picked up my passport. It was a perfectly valid passport that I had used for a trip to Belgium a few weeks previously without any problems and it still had about two years left to run before a new one was required. He turned to the back page where the photograph was. He picked up a paper knife and stuffed it into the edge of back cover of the passport, between the plastic covering the photograph and the actual back cover, and started to waggle the knife about. He did this so violently that the photograph came loose, which it was not when I entered the Embassy.

Oh dear”, he said. “Looks like someone has tampered with your passport.” He showed me the damaged page through the glass.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. “ just did.”

Oh, anyone could have done that”, was the response. “Someone could replace your photograph with theirs, so I can’t accept this.”

I was actually shaking with anger and confusion at this point. He continued to the effect that he couldn’t issue a visa until I got a new passport. He gave me a form for the re-application and instructions on how to send everything back to the Embassy by courier. He told me if I did re-apply it would take at least 5 working days to process, but I wouldn’t need to pay another fee or have another interview. Finally, as an added bonus he stamped my ruined passport to indicate a visa had been refused.

Have a nice day”. He actually said that as I left.

Walking back from the Embassy to St Pancras station to get the train back to Nottingham my head was spinning. Had this really happened? Does the US Embassy actually think it has the right to destroy someone’s passport?

I came back to Nottingham that evening half-convinced I had dreamt the whole thing. Why would anyone do that? The passport was fairly old, but had another year or two to run. It was also a machine-readable passport, as is now required. It did not have a digital photograph printed directly on the information page, but the regulations did not actually require that to be the case. My passport was perfectly valid when I entered the Embassy, but it was now useless.

I can only guess that Consular staff had been issued with instructions not to accept passports with old-fashioned photographs in them, even if they were otherwise acceptable. However, rather than print updated guidelines the individual in charge of my application chose to mutilate my passport in order to give him an “official” reason for rejecting it.

Whatever the reason, my passport was ruined and if I was to go anywhere at all I would need a new one. I went to the Post Office the very next day, on Friday 12th August, and applied for a replacement passport. I received a shiny new one (with a digital photograph in it) the following week. As a bonus, the Passports office had noted the fact that my previous one had two years left to run so had given me a passport that wouldn’t expire until 2017.

Now I had to decide what to do. Partly because I had invested so much time and money already, and partly because I was worried about the fact that the immigration records for the US would contain information that I had been refused a visa, I decided to continue with the re-application. After all, if my record showed a refused visa it would be very unlikely I could travel to the USA without extreme difficulty at any time in the future. So I filled in all the forms again, got another photograph, got some more copies of bank statements and all the rest. I rang the Courier (SMS) and arranged for them to pick up the re-application (together with new passport) on 25th August. I paid for the return trip of my documents too. Total cost £19. The courier came and picked up the package to take to the Embassy as arranged.

Fine, I thought. Only 5 days and it will all be sorted. What a fool I was. By September 9th I still hadn’t received anything back. Without my passport I wasn’t able to travel abroad at all. I called the embassy to demand the immediate return of my passport whether it had a visa or not. I no longer cared about visiting the USA. I just wanted my papers back. The Embassy staff said that I would have to wait until it had been processed and, if I read the conditions of application, the five day processing time was never guaranteed.

I contacted the Member of Parliament for my constituency, Nick Palmer, who informed me that I should lodge a formal complaint to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office about the damage to my passport. Since UK passports remain Crown Property at all times, this is the appropriate channel for such matters. I even asked the Foreign Office to attempt the retrieval of my passport from the Embassy.

I was in such a rage I sent a few emails out to friends and colleagues who I thought might be interested in the story, some of whom forward them on. I got a number of nice replies from people all around the world with their own stories. I realized that although I was angry and frustrated, at least I wasn’t having my life torn apart, which is exactly what this kind of petty officialdom can do in different circumstances.

I don’t know which, if any, of these routes actually achieved anything but a few days later my passport arrived back by Courier. It even had a J-1 Visa in it.

Finally! Success!

But wait, there was a covering letter included with my documents. It said that although I had been given a J-1 visa , it wouldn’t be sufficient to achieve entry to the United States. I would have to take with me to the airport all the documents I had taken to the Embassy for my interview. Helpfully, they also pointed out that my DS-2109 had now expired because I should have entered the states on August 1st 2005 and it was now the middle of September. before I travelled I would therefore need to acquire a new DS-2109. Effectively I was back at square one.

Given how long it had taken to get this in the first place, I gave up. I abandoned all hope of ever taking my sabbatical in Berkeley or indeed anywhere in the USA. I had lost six weeks of my allotted time in any case.

I had to find a plan B. I contacted Dick Bond at the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics in Toronto and asked if I could go there instead. I didn’t expect him to agree because it was very short notice, but he said yes. Next day I received a formal letter of invitation by FedEx and I booked my ticket to Canada. No visa needed.

I arrived in Toronto at the end of September and spent about three months there. It was an extremely enjoyable time, during which I managed to finish my book From Cosmos to Chaos, as well as a few other things. Of course the climate was a bit different from what I would have experience at Berkeley. It got quite cold in Toronto towards Christmas, but I didn’t mind at all. My only regret is that I wasted so much time and money before deciding to go there when I could have had another six weeks in Toronto without the hassle.

Nothing ever came of any of the formal protests. I’m not surprised about that. The chap who wrecked my passport has diplomatic immunity so can’t be prosecuted. I doubt that the British Government ever even approached the US Ambassador with this matter. Given the collusion of the British in the illegal rendition and torture of prisoners by US agents, it seems unlikely that they give a toss about international law anyway.

I passed the details onto Berkeley who contacted the US Visa Department in Washington, but I never heard anything back from them either. Even less surprising.

So I now have a passport with a J-1 visa in it, but no US entry stamp. I sometimes wonder what would happen if I turned up in the States and showed it to an immigration officer, but then I doubt if I’ll be going to the USA in the foreseeable future. I’ve also been asked about this unusual state of affairs a few times on entering other countries, which gives me the chance to tell the story I’ve just posted or at leas the gyst of it. The best response was from a Canadian Immigration Officer, when I arrived in Toronto in Autumn 2005.

That’s America for you. But you’re in a civilized country now.”

I am sorry I didn’t get the chance to visit George Smoot, though I did manage to meet up with him a year later in Sweden. But that’s another story...


Becoming a Culchie…

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , on June 23, 2020 by telescoper

Among all the other things going at the moment, most of them to do with Covid-19, I am in the process of trying to buy a house. I did toy with the idea of moving to Dublin but property prices there are ridiculously high and I wanted to avoid having to commute, so I decided to stay local, not that houses are very much cheaper here in Maynooth…

Another factor has been my arthritis. It’s not at all bad at the moment, but a while ago I was viewing a property which was very nice but had very steep and narrow stairs and I suddenly struck me that in a few years’ time they would probably be quite difficult to manage. Eventually I found a lovely bungalow near Maynooth and last week had my offer on it accepted. There’s a lot that can go wrong from here but all the paperwork, survey, valuation and other stuff is proceeding and I am hoping to move into the new house towards the end of the summer. Fingers crossed. I know that a lot can go wrong in the house-buying business so I’m taking nothing for granted.

There are many similarities in the house buying saga here in Ireland compared to the United Kingdom (where I have bought and sold several properties over the years), but one big difference is the auction process. Estate agents here in Ireland are generally called auctioneers, actually. In order to register to bid you have to first show that you have the necessary funds and then you can place a bid online. It’s easy in an auction to get drawn in so far that you end up spending more than you wanted to, so I decided on an absolutely upper limit on how high I would go. Fortunately the bidding stopped well below that.

There are a few other differences between the UK and Ireland. One is that if you buy a new house here you have to pay VAT on it, which is a considerable increase in cost. Another is that stamp duty is just 1% in Ireland, whereas for a property of similar price in England it would be 5%. Other than that the business of mortgages and valuations and surveys and Land Registry is all tediously familiar.

When I told a friend what I was buying and where he described my putative new house as a “Culchie Bungalow”.
I’d heard the word Culchie before but decided to look it up. The original meaning was a person from rural Ireland, but nowadays it refers more-or-less to anybody who lives outside Dublin. I was quite surprised however to see that Maynooth is specifically mentioned as a place where culchies live on the wikipedia page

Anyway, I don’t mind being called a culchie. I’ve been called a lot worse over the years!

Scrambled Phases

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , , on June 22, 2020 by telescoper

A couple of weeks ago I posted about the imminent start of Phase 2 of the Irish Government’s Roadmap for Reopening after the closures enforced because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Since then the Irish Government has decided that there will only be four phases instead of five, and many elements of the programme will be moved forward. For example, all travel restrictions within the Republic will be lifted from next Monday (29th June), which is when Phase 3 is due to commence. It has also been announced that hairdressers, barbers, nail and brow salons, beauty salons, spas, make-up application services, tanning, tattooing and piercing services will re-open. I find that surprising, as I find it hard to see how such services can be provided at low risk of transmitting Covid-19.

In fact I find the whole idea of accelerating the Roadmap rather worrying. I hope I’m proved wrong, but it seems to me that the Government is rushing this. There are worrying signs in Germany that the R-number is increasing significantly and undue haste in opening business may lead to a similar rise. It must be stressed that the number of cases involved in Germany  is rather small and most are confined in local outbreaks that can be contained. Nevertheless, this remains a concern.

At the moment the situation looks stable, with new cases at a very low level:

I do worry however that, since only a very small fraction of the population (at most a few percent) have been infected with Covid-19, there will be very little resistance if Covid-19 starts to spread again.

As for my own work situation here at Maynooth University, what happens in Phases Three and Four is all a bit hypothetical, because we’re still stuck in Phase One! The University management is being extremely cautious about allowing anyone back to work at all until various protocols are agreed, risk assessments carried out, and staff training delivered. It seems likely therefore that we will reach Monday’s scheduled start of Phase 3 before we are even ready for Phase 2. In practice, therefore, the various phases of the Roadmap are no longer relevant in this particular setting. I think I’ll remain the only person coming in to the Department for quite some time!

I fully understand and support the careful approach adopted  by the University, of course, and the delay doesn’t matter that much as our teaching semester is now finished and, being theorists, we can all work from  home reasonably effectively. It must be more of a challenge for laboratory-based researchers. My main concern is  I’d be very surprised if all the other organizations and businesses due to open next Monday are as cautious. The last thing we need for people to cut corners and send us all back to square one.


Psychological Time

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education with tags , , , on June 21, 2020 by telescoper

So, the Summer Solstice for 2020 is now in the past. It’s all downhill from here!

As the Solstice approached last night I was thinking back to the Vernal Equinox which had happened this year on March 20th, exactly three months before. That was at the end of Study Week in the Spring Semester but the students did not return the following week and we switched to remote teaching. I find it astonishing to think that was just three months ago. It seems like ancient history. Not only that but several major events took place during that period that I find it hard place in chronological order without looking at written records (including this blog).

I am not an expert on such matters but it seems to me that the isolation, disruption of social interaction, and the loss of familiar routines imposed by work are among the things responsible distorting perception of the passage of time. I have tried to impose a regular pattern on my day during this time but only with limited success. I suspect it’s not only me who has felt like this over the past weeks and months!

It’s not just the disruption to routine of course. There was also a genuine fear of becoming infected. My last in-person lecture was on 12th March, the Thursday before Study Week. From time to time I wondered if I would ever see those students again. I also made arrangements to write a will. For a time it looked likely that intensive care facilities in Ireland might be overwhelmed so I felt it important to make contingencies of that sort. Fortunately they weren’t needed. As far as I know the Coronavirus hasn’t reached me. I certainly haven’t had any symptoms, though I haven’t actually been tested.

Overall I found the lockdown very difficult at first but I think adjusted reasonably well despite (or perhaps because of?) having very peculiar dreams.

Now that the Covid-19 restrictions are gradually being wound down hopefully some measure of routine will resume and the sense of disorientation will fade. Time will tell.

From May to September

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , on May 28, 2020 by telescoper

So here we are, then. The final pair of examinations online timed assessments for students in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University have just started and the students’ submissions will come in later this afternoon. By a curious coincidence the last two comprise a 3rd Year module on Special Relativity and a 4th year module on General Relativity, both of which happen at the same time (in the reference frame of the students).

I don’t want to jinx this afternoon’s proceedings but the switch to online assessments has gone much more smoothly than I imagined it would. I’ve been keeping an eye on all of them and there have been very few problems, and those that did arise were sorted out relatively easily. I’m immensely relieved by this, as I think I’ve been more nervous during these examinations than most of the students!

After this afternoon we will have to knuckle down and get these assessments marked in time for the round of Exam Board meetings. We have been allowed an extra week to do this because grading will be a slower process than usual, especially for the kind of mathematical work we do in the Department of Theoretical Physics. We’ll have to see how it goes but I’m confident we can get the results ready by 18th June, which is the date of our (virtual) Exam Board.

After the Exam Boards we would normally be thinking of relaxing a bit for the summer, and doing a bit of research, but there’s no sign of that being possible this year.

Among the urgent things to deal with are managing the `return to work’ of staff during the various phases of the Irish Government’s Roadmap. This document does not give much detail and there are serious issues to be solved before we can even start Phase 2 (due to commence June 8th) never mind finish Phase 5 and return to some semblance of normal working.

Iontas Lecture Theatre, Maynooth University

Slightly further off, but no less urgent is the matter of how to deal with the start of the next academic year, assuming the progress of the pandemic allows this to happen at all. One of the big uncertainties is how many potential students will defer their university study until next year, which makes it difficult to predict how many students we will have to cater for.

I have to say I’m very annoyed by recent reporting of this issue in the Irish Times, which includes this:

The fact that most lectures will take place online, along with changed economic conditions facing families and inability of students to secure summer work, may make it less attractive for many students to go to college in the coming year.

The second word fact (my emphasis) is the problem, as it describes something that is not a fact at all. A lot can happen between May and September, but we are currently planning on the basis that most of our lectures in Theoretical Physics will go ahead pretty much as normal. That may in the end turn out to be impossible, e.g. if there is a second wave of infection, but at the moment it is a reasonable scenario. And even if we do have to move some or all lectures online we will still have face-to-face teaching in the form of tutorials, exercise classes and computer laboratories.

A slightly less misleading article can be found in the same newspaper here.

A couple of weeks ago, Cambridge University announced that there would be no face-to-face lectures at all next academic year. I was amused to hear a representative of that institution on the radio sounding as if he was saying that “at Cambridge, lectures have very little to do with teaching”. I think what he meant was that tutorials and other teaching sessions would still go ahead so the loss of in-person lectures was not as important as it sounded. That may very well be true of Arts and Humanities subjects, but I was an undergraduate in Natural Sciences at Cambridge (many years ago) and I can tell you the vast majority of my tuition there was in the lecture theatre.

Neither is it the case that Oxford and Cambridge are the only UK universities to have tutorials or small group tuition, but I digress…

My point is that, while I can’t promise that it will be business as usual from September 2020, it’s quite wrong to give potential students the impression that it would be a waste of their time starting this academic year. I can assure any students reading this of the fact that we’re doing everything we can to give them as good an experience as possible.

You shouldn’t believe everything you read in the newspapers!

Anti-Malarial Memories

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19 with tags , , , , , on May 20, 2020 by telescoper

All this business about Donald Trump recommending the drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19 reminded me of my first trip to India in the 1990s. I hadn’t travelled very much outside Europe before that and was quite nervous, so I bought a couple of books about travelling in India. Among other things, they both recommended taking precautions against Malaria.

I made an appointment with my GP, who asked exactly where I was going and, after consulting a book, he wrote out two prescriptions, for the drugs paludrine and chloroquine. I was to start taking them a week before travelling and continue for two weekd after returning. The paludrine came in small tablets to be taken every day; chloroquine was in a much bigger tablet taken once a week. The brand name for the latter was Avloclor. I have good reason to remember it.

The paludrine was no trouble but the chloroquine was horrible. For one thing it tasted so foul that even with a huge amount of water it was difficult to prevent unpleasant sensations as it went down. Worse, it has a long list of side effects, the mildest of which include nausea, loss of appetite, diarrhoea, upset stomach, stomach pain, rash, itching, and hair loss. More serious symptoms include heart problems, blurred vision, and suicidal thoughts. The list of warnings that came with the tablets was so long that I started to wonder how bad Malaria can be…

I’m told that anti-Malarial drugs are notoriously unpleasant, especially those given to soldiers stationed in theme tropics who presumably get the cheapest sort.

I didn’t experience any of the more serious issues, thank goodness, but I had a selection from the former list, plus a sprinkling of mouth ulcers. I knew these were caused by the chloroquine as I always got them the day after I took the tablet: they went away after a day or two but came back when I took the next week’s dose. Presumably I just couldn’t down the tablet quickly enough to avoid some of it affecting my mouth.

I was in India for about six weeks and was plagued by this for the whole time. I really enjoyed the spicy food while I was there, but found it quite difficult for a couple of days each week.

Now although chloroquine is related to hydroxychloroquine it isn’t quite the same thing. I gather, however, it does have similar side effects. As far as I’m aware there is no evidence that either of these drugs is effective against Covid-19 so in my opinion you would have to be crackers to run the risk of seriously unpleasant or even worse consequences for no therapeutic gain.

Phase 1 Commences

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19 on May 18, 2020 by telescoper

So here we are then. Phase One of the relaxation of Ireland’s Covid-19 restrictions begins today. The focus will be on the extent to which people continue to follow the rules while the modest loosening of restrictions takes place.

Here is the most recent log plot summarising the Covid-19 epidemic in Ireland. I’m keeping track of the numbers here.

Yesterday only 64 new cases were reported, the lowest since mid-March, along with 10 deaths.

Here is a plot of new cases on a linear scale so you can see the decline more easily.

And the mortality figures look like this:

Data and explanatory notes can be found here.

The signs are thus optimistic but I think its very sensible to take this in slow stages. It remains perfectly possible for infection to spread again if the remaining precautions are not taken seriously. By and large, though, people have been sensible so far and I’m hopeful.

I shall shortly be attempting to remember where my office is so I can go in and deal with some online assessments.

I suppose it won’t be long until we start getting instructions on how to prepare for Phase 2.

Update: I made it into the Department where I noticed the evidence of the last time I was there!