Archive for the Biographical Category

Winging IT

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , on April 2, 2020 by telescoper

The current restrictions resulting from the Covid-19 outbreak have forced many of us academics to adapt to using IT in ways we hadn’t even imagined just a month ago. It’s not only remote teaching via virtual learning environments with live and/or prerecorded video lectures, but also meetings held by videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

Few of us have had much training in the use of these things, so when it comes to Information Technology we’re all winging it. Still, necessity is the mother of invention and we just have to get on with it.

I’m gradually getting used to Microsoft Teams, for example. I’ve even got proper kit to wear.

Incidentally, yesterday I learned that the expression ‘to wing it’ actually comes from the Theatre, where it alludes to an actor studying their lines in the wings (at the side of the stage) because they haven’t had time to learn their part before the performance (usually because they are replacing another actor at short notice).

Nowadays ‘winging it’ means generally improvising or making it up as you go along. I’m finding winging it to be rather hard work but quite fun, actually. While we’ve been trying to flatten the Covid-19 curve the learning curve has definitely been getting steeper.

The 2km Limit

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , on April 2, 2020 by telescoper

Under the Covid-19 restrictions currently in force in Ireland we’re not supposed to journey further than 2km from home.

The other day I went to the shops near me and decided to try out a helpful app that draws the 2km limit on a map.

Here’s what I got:

So it seems I can go anywhere in Maynooth without breaking the rules. Alarmingly, however, I see that if I’m not careful I could end up crossing the border from County Kildare into County Meath!

Towards the South is the famous Junction 7 on the M4 which in normal times features on the traffic news on the radio with alarming frequency because of one snarl up or another. I don’t suppose there will be much more of that for a while.

One of the pleasant side effects of the lockdown is a drastic reduction in vehicle traffic. That in turn means that I wake up to the sound of birdsong rather than car engines. That’s one part of this I’ll enjoy while it lasts.

On Boredom

Posted in Biographical, Television with tags , , on April 1, 2020 by telescoper

During this time of isolation and social distancing I’ve noticed how many people are posting messages on social media about being bored.

Conscious that I am in danger once again of being excluded from a popular cultural phenomenon I have been trying recently to join in this craze. Unfortunately whenever I try to experience a bit of boredom I find there is far too much to distract me.

There’s working from home, of course: lecture recordings to make, notes to prepare, assignments to correct, virtual meetings to attend, papers to write, and so on

But outside of work it’s just as difficult. Whenever I try to interrupt my day with a bit of boredom I find that there’s so much music to listen to, so many books and newspapers to read, so many crossword puzzles to solve so many other things to do, that I always get distracted and fail dismally.

Perhaps it is the fact that I don’t have a television set that makes me such a failure? It seems that there may be a strong correlation between possession of a TV and being susceptible to boredom. Perhaps if I bought one I could be more like normal people?

Anyway, never let it be said that I don’t know when I’m beaten. That is why I am asking readers of this blog for help. Could anyone who is expert in being bored please send tips on how to achieve it? I’d be quite interested in your suggestions.

Your advice through the comments box would be greatly appreciated as I fear that without it I may always remain a social outcast.

P. S. Before anyone says it: if you are yourself struggling to get bored you could try reading through the back catalogue of posts on this blog!

Health and Safety

Posted in Biographical with tags , on March 28, 2020 by telescoper

Among the additional measures introduced last night to combat the spread of Coronavirus in Ireland was the cancellation of all non-essential medical appointments.

Looking at my diary I realise that I was due to have a checkup on my knees next Friday. That won’t be happening now I suppose.

It’s about three months since I had steroid injections in both knees to halt the arthritis therein. The jabs were quite painful but worked very well and I have been able to dispense with the use of a walking stick since I had them.

The effect of these injections only lasts a few months so I was due an inspection to see if I might further ones in the near future. I think I’m doing OK, however, and I’m sure the hospitals have more important things to be dealing with right now, so I don’t mind the deferral at all.

Although I haven’t really needed my walking stick recently I think I might start carrying it again on the rare occasions I go out during the ‘lockdown’ – so I can hit people with it if they get closer than 2m from me.

The Appliance of Science

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , on March 25, 2020 by telescoper

Well, today is another beautiful sunny and surprisingly warm day in Maynooth. It’s just a pity that owing to the additional measures announced yesterday people aren’t really able to get out and about to enjoy it.

I know some people are experiencing a lot of anxiety over this disruption to normal life. I have experienced severe anxiety and panic attacks in the past, but they have almost always been triggered by the presence of large crowds of people around me. There’s not much chance of that happening these days! I do wish I could sleep a bit better though. I don’t want to be dealing with insomnia again on top of everything else.

I did however have some anxiety yesterday. Rather irritatingly, the washing machine in my flat chose to conk out a few days ago. I didn’t fancy the idea of being able to do my laundry for the best part of a month so was thinking of getting a new one. I suddenly thought yesterday that the shops I might buy one might be closed so dashed around to a little store just around the corner from me. The guy in charge got a reasonably priced model for me ready last night and today came around and plumbed it in and took the old one away for recycling. Emergency over, almost before it started.

In any case it seems there in an exemption from the special measures for businesses deemed essential because they involve selling “products necessary to maintain the safety and sanitation of residences and businesses”. I presume a washing machine counts under that!

Anyway, apart from that little flurry of excitement, we’ve been busily trying to conduct online teaching sessions as best we can. It has become apparent that the mathematical work we do in the Department of Theoretical Physics really requires drawing tablets and pens so we’ve had to purchase a few of those for tutors who didn’t have them already. Apart from that it seems the staff at least are adapting to the new regime, and perhaps even enjoying the novelty of all this technology. They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and maybe when (if) this is all over we’ll carry on using some of the new gadgets and software in the future.

Now that we’re rolling with the teaching, though, we have to give some thought to how we’re going to do the end-of-term examinations. I have a cunning plan..

Shopping Mad

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , , , on March 22, 2020 by telescoper

Empty shelves in Asda, Swansea

I don’t know how widespread scenes like that pictured above actually are, but there seems to be a lot of panic buying and/or stockpiling going on.

Worse still are scenes like this:

Social distancing doesn’t seem to be a priority among these people.

It all seems a bit ironic to see this demonstrable lack of public-spiritedness alongside the usual rhetoric about the “Dunkirk Spirit”. With the latter in mind I’ve updated Winston Churchill’s famous wartime peroration from 1940 in a manner more suitable for the 2020s:

We shall fight in Tesco, we shall fight in Aldi and Asda, we shall fight with growing panic and growing stupidity in the aisles, we shall defend our toilet rolls, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight for the pasta, we shall fight for the hand-wash…(continued, page 94)

Anyway for what it’s worth I still haven’t noticed any shortages of food or household goods where I’m living. It may be different elsewhere of course but Maynooth is doing fine in that regard.

This is not to say I haven’t changed my shopping habits at all. I’ve never been in the habit of doing big shopping trips. I live alone, don’t have a freezer and my fridge is quite small. I tend therefore to buy bits and pieces as I need them. I prefer fresh food and, usually eating lunch in the College when I’m at work, I don’t need a main meal in the evening.

Now I’m having lunch at home every day I need to buy a bit more, which is one change. Mindful that a stricter lock down might be coming soon, I have also begun buying a few things I wouldn’t normally buy. To my usual shopping I’ve added the odd item of tinned food but never more than a can or two at a time. I also bought some powdered milk in case fresh milk becomes unavailable.

I haven’t eaten any of the tinned goods I’ve bought yet: I am still eating fresh things as they seem to be readily available. Who knows when or if that will change.

I realise my personal situation makes coping with this social distancing malarkey rather easier than most but I think certain individuals are making it even more difficult for the others with their selfish behaviour. I suppose there will always be some.

Anyway, do feel free to share your own experiences of shortages or lack thereof through the comments box.

A Note from Maynooth

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on March 18, 2020 by telescoper

I’m indebted to colleagues from Maynooth University Special Collections & Archives for sending out the following bit of history.

It is now over 100 years ago the 1918 “Spanish ‘flu” influenza pandemic came to Maynooth College. It was officially closed from 8th November until 7th January and 60 students remained in the infirmaries. Over 500 students went home and sadly 11 of these did not survive the pandemic. More details below.

One difference between 1918 and 2020 is that the Spanish flu mainly affected the young. Covid-19 is remarkably different, as these grim mortality statistics from Italy demonstrate:

Nobody at all under the age of 30 has died (so far) of Covid-19 in Italy. It’s the mortality rate for those over 70 that is terrifying. This is just the rate so far. Many of those currently in intensive care won’t make it, so these figures will probably change significantly.

Last night the Taioseach Leo Varadkar gave an unusual address to the nation, which pointed out the gravity of the situation facing Ireland and indeed the world in genderal, which is even more serious that a century ago. In particular he stressed that the COVID-19 emergency would probably last well into the summer.

I don’t agree with Varadkar on many political issues but I think his speech last night was very good. He praised Ireland’s front line medical staff, but also found time to mention the teachers and lecturers who trying their best to deliver remote teaching. Above all, though, he was honest.

I feel very lucky right now, not only to be so far unaffected by Coronavirus but also to be living and working in a small University town in Ireland right now.

There are no obvious shortages of anything and my local (small) supermarket has put out hand wash and wipes for people to use on baskets and trolleys.

We’re also in a Study Week that has at least given us some time to figure out how to move to online teaching by next Monday when we are supposed to start again.

We are probably going to be in this for months rather than weeks but aat least we academics are in no imminent danger of losing our jobs. The same is not true for the folk working in local shops, restaurants and other businesses. We owe it to them to do what we can to support the local community and its economy as much as possible.

In particular, I’ve often remarked that we are lucky in a small town like Maynooth to have quite a few nice cafés and restaurants. Some of these have switched to takeaway or delivery mode during the emergency. I wouldn’t normally use a takeaway service but I will do now, and I suggest my colleagues and friends in Maynooth might do likewise. If we don’t support these establishments now we might lose them for good.

That goes for other local businesses too!