Archive for the Biographical Category

In the Name of the Fada

Posted in Biographical, Television with tags , , on March 13, 2021 by telescoper

As we head into next week’s study break in the middle of which is the St Patrick Day Bank Holiday, I thought I’d share this video. It’s the first episode of a series in which comedian Des Bishop, who missed out on Irish language lessons at school, moves to Conamara for 9 months to learn Irish. In the Name of the Fada is not to be confused with famous film, the “Fada” of the title referrring to the síneadh fada, the only diacritic mark in modern Irish. I wrote about it here.

This programme actually covers quite a lot of the vocabulary I’ve learned in the last six weeks or so. The rest of the episodes can easily be found on Youtube too.

Bíodh deireadh seachtaine agus sos deas agaibh!

Beard of Ireland 2021 poll sees competition bristling

Posted in Beards, Biographical on March 5, 2021 by telescoper

And so it begins….

Kmflett's Blog

Beard Liberation Front

Press release 5th March

Contact Keith Flett 07803 167266

BEARD OF IRELAND 2021 POLL SEES COMPETITION BRISTLING

The Beard Liberation Front, the informal network of beard wearers, has said that competition for the Irish Beard of the Year 2021 is officially open

The 2017 winner was politician Colum Eastwood who bearded broadcaster William Crawley for the annual Award.

In 2018 the DUP’s Lee Reynolds shaved writer Dominic O’Reilly for the honour with Colum Eastwood in a steady third place.

In 2019 Lee Reynolds retained the title

The 2020 winner was Maynooth academic Peter Coles

The BLF says that while traditionally a land of predominantly clean-shaven cultures, Ireland has in recent times become something of a centre for stylish and trendy beards.

Contenders for the title in 2021 include a diverse range of the hirsute- a golfer, political activists, journalists, an academic as well as the two Health…

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Seachtain na Gaeilge

Posted in Biographical with tags , on March 4, 2021 by telescoper

Thursdays are very busy days for me this Semester not least because I have to squeeze in my Irish language class at lunchtime in between lectures meetings and an afternoon computational physics lab.

Although learning a new language is challenging I am enjoying it very much and slowly getting the hang of it. I find the pronunciation rather difficult. Today we encountered the difference between the broad “c” and the slender “c” which I found indistinguishable at first hearing, but figured it out well enough to get all the questions correct on the listening test. It’s basically a slight difference in the position of the back of your tongue against the palate.

Another thing in Irish that takes some getting used to is that many words contain a string of vowels, not all of which are pronounced. At least part of the reason for that is that vowels next to consonants are often only there in order to tell you how to pronounce the consonant rather than being voiced themselves.

In today’s class we also learned how to ask such questions as Cé as tú? (which means “where are you from?”) and during the course of that we learned the Irish form of some names of countries. Interestingly some countries, such as France (An Fhrainc), have an article in front whereas others, such as England (Sasana) do not. I also learned that the Irish word for Wales is An Bhreatain Bheag which translates literally as “Little Britain”. I’m not sure the Welsh will be best pleased to learn that…

Anyway, from now until St Patrick’s Day is Seachtain na Gaeilge an annual festival of the Irish language and culture during which we are all encouraged to use our Irish language skills, however limited.

Here is the President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins introducing this year’s Seachtain na Gaeilge.

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R.I.P. Chris Barber (1930-2021)

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , , on March 3, 2021 by telescoper

I just saw the news that British trombonist and bandleader Chris Barber passed away yesterday at the age of 90. Chris Barber was one of the leading lights of the traditional jazz boom of the 1950s and 60s, during which he led a very fine band including trumpeter Pat Halcox and clarinetist Monty Sunshine among others.

I was fortunate to meet Chris Barber on a couple of occasions at Jazz festivals and he struck me as a really nice man as well as an excellent musician: very friendly and cooperative even with a young student wanting to do an interview for a college magazine. An interesting factoid about him is that he was a very fluent speaker of German and his band toured Germany frequently, even performing in East Berlin in 1965; you can see a recording of that concert here.

I was trying to think of a track to put up as tribute and decided on this one because it allows me to answer a question I asked on this blog a couple of years ago. When I was at school I used to listen to Sounds of Jazz a BBC2 Radio 2 programme presented on Sunday evenings by Peter Clayton. I always used to switch over from John Peel when Sounds of Jazz started and would always listen all the way through. It always ended with this track, a lovely version of an old blues tune called Snag It which I think was written by King Oliver.

R.I.P. Chris Barber (1930-2021).

The Joy of Rollmops

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , on March 2, 2021 by telescoper

The other day I had a bit of a craving for pickled herring which, in the form of rollmops, is something I’ve liked since I was a kid but rediscovered on a trip to Denmark many years ago where sild on lovely rugbrød with a peberrod sauce became one of my favourite light meals. Pickled herring doesn’t seem to be so popular in Ireland but fortunately it is popular with folk from countries around the Baltic Sea, including Poland, and in Maynooth there is a very nice little Polish mini-market where I found a wide variety of pickled herrings with different kinds of marinade.

In the course of this discovered what the Polish word for rollmops is:

For some reason I had always assumed that “rollmops” was an English word but in fact it is of German origin and Rollmops is actually singular (the plural is Rollmöpse).

In the shop I also bought some rye bread and horseradish to go with the fish. In fact the little shop is full of lovely produce and, although yesterday was the first time I’ve been inside, I’m sure to be a regular visitor in future.

I know some people don’t like pickled herring at all but I love it. In fact I think it’s tanginess makes it an ideal starter and I’ve often served it as such when I’ve had guests for dinner. The bonus is you don’t need to cook it!

A Year of Covid-19 in Ireland

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth, Politics with tags , , on February 28, 2021 by telescoper

Last night I was updating my Covid-19 statistics and plotting new graphs (which I do every day – the results are here) when I noticed that I now have 365 data points. The first officially recorded case of Covid-19 in Ireland was dated 29th February 2020 (although there is evidence of cases in Ireland before that, including one of community transmission). I can’t actually mark the anniversary of that date exactly – for obvious reasons – but it seems a good point to look at what has happened. I didn’t actually start doing a daily update until 22nd March when we were all in the first lockdown but there were relatively few cases in the intervening time and it was possible quite easily to fill in the earlier data.

Little did I know that I would be doing an update every day for a year!

Anyway, here are today’s plots:

 

On a linear y-axis the cases look like this:

 

The numbers for deaths on a linear scale look like this:

 

The recent trend is for a slow decline in new cases, hospitalizations, ICU referrals and testing positivity rates which is all good news. The rate of vaccination- severely limited by supply issues – is starting to increase and from April to June is expected to reach a million a month and then two million a month thereafter. There is therefore some grounds for optimism that a significant fraction of the population will be immunized by the end of the summer, assuming the supply ramps up as expected and there are no more dirty tricks from certain pharmaceutical companies.

Comparing with the situations elsewhere I’d say that Ireland has in broad terms handled the pandemic quite well: worse than some (especially Scandinavian countries) but better than many. It does seem to me that there have been three serious errors:

  1. There has never been – and still isn’t – any sensible plan for imposing quarantine on arrivals into Ireland. A year on one is being put in place but it is simply ridiculous that an island like Ireland failed to do this earlier.
  2. Those lockdown measures that have been imposed have been very weakly enforced, and have often been accompanied by confused messaging from the Government, with the result that a significant minority of people have simply ignored the restrictions. The majority of the population has complied but the others that haven’t have kept the virus in circulation at a high level: the current daily rate of new cases is 650-700, which is far too high, and is declining only slowly.
  3. Finally, and probably the biggest mistake of all, was to relax restriction for the Christmas holiday. The huge spike in infections and deaths in January and February is a direct result of this catastrophic decision for which the Government is entirely culpable.

The situation in the United Kingdom with regard to 3 was even worse:

The excess mortality from January is a direct consequence of Boris Johnson “saving Christmas”. The difference in area under the two curves tells you precisely how many people he killed. I hope politicians on both sides of the Irish Sea are one day held to account for their negligence.

As for myself, I am reasonably optimistic for the future, and not just because Spring appears to have arrived. I have found the Covid-19 restrictions very irksome but I am fortunate to be in a position to cope with them reasonably well, especially now that I have my own house with a garden in a nice quiet neighbourhood.

It has been very hard work doing everything online, and it’s essential to take a break from the screen from time to time, but the upside of that is that by keeping busy you avoid becoming bored and frustrated. One thing that does annoy me though is the number of people who thinking that “working from home” means “not working at all”. I’m sure there are many others, especially in the education sector, who will agree with me!

Although I have coped reasonably well in a personal sense I still very much want to get back to campus to resume face-to-face teaching. I like talking to students and find teaching much more rewarding when there is a response. Moreover, since we’re now going to be off campus until the end of this academic year, that means that a second cohort of students will complete their degrees and graduate this summer without their lecturers being there to congratulate them in person and give them a proper sendoff into the big wide world. I find that very sad.

Anyway, tomorrow we start week 5 of the Semester, which means 4 weeks have passed. That means there are two weeks before the Study Break, the halfway point of teaching term, and we are one-third of the way through the semester. Life goes on.

The Reason I’m Alive

Posted in Biographical, LGBT with tags , , , on February 27, 2021 by telescoper

For a variety of reasons I’ve always considered myself to have been exceptionally lucky, but last week I got news that increased still further the extent of this sense of good fortune. I hesitated before putting anything about this on here because it is rather personal and there are details I’m going to leave out about how I came by the information.

Over a month ago I posted some thoughts about the TV series It’s A Sin based on my own experiences back in the 1980s. That post ended with this:

… a question that often troubles me returned once again to my mind: why am I still alive, when so many people I knew back then are not?

In response to this a former colleague of mine suggested I get my DNA sequenced to see if I had any innate resistance to HIV infection. I wasn’t sure how to go about doing this but one of the advantages of having worked in several different universities is that I know people in several bioscience and biomedical departments, including people who work on the data science aspects of genetics. After emailing around for advice I eventually ended up talking to a very distinguished scientist in that field to whom I explained the situation.

Since I didn’t really want to have a copy of my entire genome sequence – that’s a lot of data most of which I wouldn’t understand – but just wanted to know the answer to one question it seemed a waste of money to have this done commercially (although at around €1000 it’s not enormously expensive). Instead a plan emerged in which I would offer my (suitably anonymized) DNA as part of a scientific study in return for the small piece of information I wanted.

After a few days I received a kit for taking oral swabs, a medical questionnaire and quite a lot of paperwork to do with ethical considerations and data protection. I sent everything back by return post. Last week the results came back. There was some general info about my genetic make-up – which shows a considerable dollop of Scandinavian ancestry – alongside the answer the question I had asked.

The full DNA sequence of my genome reveals that I have the CCR5-Δ32 genetic mutation. Not just that. I have it twice (i.e. it’s homozygous), which means that I inherited it from both parents.

Of order 1% of the European population has this mutation, which is thought to have arisen in a single Scandinavian individual at some stage during the Viking era and subsequently propagated through mainly Northern Europe where about 10% have one copy, and about 1% have two.

Here is a map of the geographical distribution in Europe (from this paper) :

It’s nowhere near as prevalent in Asia or African populations.

So what does this mean?

Heterozygotic CCR5-Δ32 (i.e. one mutated gene) confers some protection against HIV infection but the homozygotic CCR5-Δ32 mutation involving both copies confers virtually total immunity. I was terrified of AIDS in the 1980s but it turns out I was immune all the time without knowing it. This explains why to my great surprise the HIV test I took in the 1980s came back negative despite my sexual history and behaviour.

As a friend told me when I passed this news on: “you’re a f**king lucky bugger”. Indeed I am. I already considered myself to have been very lucky but this absolutely takes the biscuit.

P.S. My immediate “reward” for having this genetic peculiarity is to take part in further scientific study on it, which I am of course very happy to do.

Údarás na Gaeltachta

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , on February 25, 2021 by telescoper

In today’s lunchtime Irish Language lesson we learned a bit about the Gaeltacht, i.e. Irish speaking areas in Ireland. Here is a little video:

You will see that most of the Gaeltacht is in the Western extremes of the country because these are the regions that largely escaped the English encroachment and suppression of the Irish language. One thing I wasn’t aware of before today however is that there is a part quite near Maynooth in the form of the town of Ráth Chairn (English: Rathcairn) about 40km away in County Meath. The people who live there were originally from Connemara so they speak the Gaeilge Chonnacht. This is where our teacher comes from, actually, so if I ever develop any ability to speak the language I’ll probably have do so with a Connacht accent!

A Year of Covid-19 in Maynooth

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , on February 22, 2021 by telescoper

One useful thing about having a blog is that I can look through my back catalogue of posts quite easily to remind me exactly when things happened. Doing that over the weeked I discovered that it was exactly a year ago today that I travelled from Maynooth into Dublin to see a production of Fidelio. That was a few weeks before Covid-19 related travel restrictions were introduced. I was planning to fly to Cardiff in March but couldn’t do so because of the collapse of FlyBe.

And so it came to pass that I now haven’t left Maynooth for an entire year. I have of course moved house, but only by a few hundred yards. I have spent 12 months entirely within a 5km radius.

The only time I’ve (accidentally) broken the rules was when, during a walk up the Moyglare Road, I accidentally strayed into County Meath. Travel across county boundaries is verboten, you see. The County boundary is shown on the map, to the North of the town, and is closer than I had thought.

Anyway, it looks as I’m going to have a 5km horizon for some time to come. The state of play with Covid-19 as of yesterday isn’t particularly promising. Case numbers and hospitalizations are falling, but very slowly.

The reduction in new cases is only around 15 per day on average and at the current level of around 800 that’s far too high to be even thinking about opening up again.

Why is this reduction so slow? The answer to that question is fairly obvious: far too many people are flouting the existing rules. I have hardly been outside the house since Christmas, mainly to follow the health advice, but also partly because it annoys me to see so many people out and about ignoring social distancing, face coverings, and the rest. The sad thing is that by not taking responsibility now, these people are ensuring that this wretched pandemic lasts even longer.

Ireland’s vaccination programme is going steadily with over 100,000 fully vaccinated and twice that number having received one dose.

Note the considerable variation in vaccination progress across the different countries*. Denmark is top of the heap, probably because it has a fully computerised nationwide health system. Things would obviously be going faster had one of the major suppliers not decided to renege on its contract with the EU but, despite the sharp practice from AstraZeneca, there is expected to be a big increase in vaccines available from April onwards, with about three million doses available between April and June.

*The UK has adopted a different strategy from most others, by giving one dose to as many as possible as quickly as possible by delaying the second dose. This may turn out to be an effective approach. I’m not sufficiently expert to comment.

Today is the start of week 4 of Semester Two of the academic year at Maynooth University. That means we have three weeks to go until the mid-term study break (which was when the first lockdown began last year). Halfway to halfway through the Semester, in other words.

The way things are going I think I’ll be remaining within the 5km horizon until June at the earliest, and probably until September, assuming I’m not carted off to an institution before then.

Memories of the Aldwych Bus Bombing

Posted in Biographical, History, LGBT with tags , , , , on February 18, 2021 by telescoper

Twitter just reminded that today is the 25th anniversary of the Aldwych Bus Bombing, which happened while I was living in London. In fact, as it happens, in the late evening of Sunday 18th February 1996, when the bomb went off I was scarily close to it. The bomb went off in Aldwych, near The Strand, while I was standing in a fairly long queue trying to get into a night club near Covent Garden. The explosion was no more than 200 yards away from me.

The reason I was there was a one-nighter called Queer Nation which was on every Sunday in the 90s. I went there quite regularly and provided very nice music and provided an environment that attracted a very interesting crowd of people. Anyway I preferred it to the very big clubs of the more commercial London gay scene of the time, largely because it wasn’t such a big venue as many of the others and you could actually talk to people there without having to shout.

The queue to get in wasn’t too long and I had only been waiting a few minutes when there was a loud bang followed by a tinkling sound caused by pieces of glass falling to the ground. Everyone in the queue including myself instinctively dropped to the ground. The blast sounded very close but we were in a narrow street surrounded by tall buildings and it was hard to figure out from which direction the sound had come from. Shortly afterwards the air was filled with the sound of sirens from police cars and other emergency vehicles. According to Wikipedia the bomb went off at 22:38.

It turned out that an IRA operative had accidentally detonated a bomb on a bus, apparently while en route to plant it somewhere else (probably King’s Cross). The bomb consisted of 2kg of Semtex, which is rather a large amount, hence the enormous blast. The explosion happened on the upper deck of the bus and the only person killed was the person carrying the bomb.

After the people outside the nighclub had stood up and dusted ourselves down, we talked briefly about what to do next. Everyone was rattled. I didn’t feel like going clubbing after what had clearly been a terrorist attack so I said goodnight and left for home.

Getting home turned out to be rather difficult, however. The police quickly threw a cordon around the site of the blast so that several blocks either side were inaccessible. Aldwych is in the West End, but I lived in the East End, on the wrong side of sealed-off area, so I had to find a way around it before heading home. No buses or taxis were to be found so I had to walk all the way. I ended up having to go as far North as the Angel before walking along the City Road towards the East End. I didn’t arrive him until about three o’clock in the morning (though I did stop off for a Bagel in Spitalfields on the way).

So that was 25 years ago. Fortunately since then we’ve had the Good Friday Agreement and such events have virtually disappeared. But how long will that peace last?