Archive for the Covid-19 Category

Culture Night 2020

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, Music on September 19, 2020 by telescoper

Yesterday evening was Culture Night 2020. I’m afraid the only event I was able to enjoy was the concert from the National Concert Hall by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Gavin Maloney that consisted of:

Bartok: Romanian Folk Dances, BB 76

Mozart: Clarinet Concerto K.622 in A Major
John Finucane (clarinet)

Mendelssohn: Symphony No.4 Op.90 in A Major (Italian)

Here is the concert as it appeared on the live stream.

The bright and breezy Italian Symphony by Mendelssohn was a welcome tonic at the end of yet another exhausting and stressful week.

On Culture Night last year I was actually in the National Concert Hall after spending a very enjoyable afternoon wandering around Dublin. Yesterday however it was announced that after a surge in Covid-19 cases in the capital additional restrictions would be imposed there. What a difference a year makes! On Culture Night 2019 nobody had even heard of Covid-19.

Because many of our students come from the West Dublin area it has been decided to ‘escalate protective measures‘ at Maynooth University. This means, among other things, that the maximum class size for in-person lectures is 30. That means we have to revise our teaching plans yet again with just a week to go before the students arrive on campus, though I think for Theoretical Physics it really only changes the second-year modules. That is unless there are further restrictions, which is not unlikely.

Another exhausting and stressful week beckons!

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Moving Over

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , on September 18, 2020 by telescoper

Although I moved into my new house in Maynooth nearly three weeks ago, it was only today that my former landlord came to collect the keys to the flat I was formerly living in. I am quite pleased that I no longer have the keys because having them made me feel some sort of responsibility for the place even though there is nothing of mine there. Handing over the keys is a form of closure, I suppose.

The fact that the landlord wasn’t in a hurry to complete the formalities gave me a bit of extra time to finish a couple of tasks that took longer than I’d expected.

The first was to close the electricity account for which task I needed a final reading from the electricity meter. One of the awkward things about the flat I was in was that the electricity meter isn’t in the flat but in a cupboard in the hallway along with the meters for the other three flats in the building. The cupboard belongs to the management company and they have the only keys. Whenever I needed a meter reading I therefore have to ask them to take one. I contacted them before moving out to do this, but they only sent me the reading this Monday so I only just got the account closed this week. I was a bit irritated that it took so long, but pleased in the end because the reading was substantially less than the `estimated’ reading used by the electricity company in the absence of any readings during the lockdown so I got a nice farewell refund.

Incidentally, the level of sloth of managing agents is by no means unusual in my experience. They always seem to manage to do as little as possible.

The other thing was the washing machine. The appliance supplied with the flat broke down at the start of the lockdown so I bought a new one just in time before all the stores closed and, with the landlord’s permission, I scrapped the old one. I always had the intention of taking the new one with me when I moved out. When the time came however it proved more difficult than I’d imagined.

In order to detach a washing machine from the water supply it is necessary to close a valve, otherwise there will be a flood. Unfortunately the valve was jammed and I could budge it. No worry, I thought, I’ll just turn off the cold water at the stopcock. Mostly this is found under the kitchen sink but when I looked for it I realized that whoever had installed the unit under the sink had boarded up the stopcock so it was inaccessible. I therefore had to take the back panel off the unit to get at the stopcock. When I had done that I found the stopcock wouldn’t budge. Not at first anyway. Eventually, with the application of a bit of elbow grease, I got it to turn. And so it came to pass that the washing machine was detached.

I then had to cart it to my new house. The only hard bit of that was lifting the thing onto the trolley I’d borrowed for the purpose. Washing machines are rather heavy, you see. After some struggling I managed to get going and trundled quite happily down the road to my new house and got it attached to the water there without any problem.

After having a cup of tea and a bit of a rest I thought it would be a good idea to go back to the flat and leave a note to explain that the cold water was turned off at the main and that it would be inadvisable to turn it on without sealing up the inlet pipe with a blank (or indeed another washing machine).

These tasks completed, and the keys returned, one part of the process of moving is now over. Phase Two will involve transporting the rest of my belongings from Cardiff, but that won’t be possible for a while as it looks like both Ireland and the UK are heading for more restrictions on movement due to Covid-19.

The one thing that has really struck me since moving is how much quieter my new neighbourhood is. The flat was on a main road so – apart from the full lockdown period in the spring – there was constant traffic noise. Although I got used to it, it did make it very hard to record video lectures etc. The new place is sufficiently far from large roads that the background noise is negligible, and it’s a detached house so there’s no noise from the neighbours either!

A Semester of Covid-19

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, Music with tags , , , , , , , on September 12, 2020 by telescoper

It’s the Twelfth of September so it’s now precisely six months to the day since schools and colleges in Ireland were closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The initial announcement on 12th March was that the closure would be until 29th March. Little did we know then that six months later campus would still be closed to students.

Here is how the pandemic has progressed in Ireland since March:

On 12th March, 70 new cases of Covid-19 were announced in Ireland; yesterday there were 211. The current 7-day average in Ireland is over 180 new cases per day and is climbing steadily. Things are similar, if not worse, elsewhere in Europe. as countries struggle to contain the pandemic while simultaneously attempting to reopen their economies. We are heading towards a very difficult autumn, with a large second peak of infection definitely on the cards. Who knows how this will turn out?

The word ‘semester’ is derived from the Latin for ‘six months’ but the term now applies almost exclusively to half a university teaching year, usually more like four months.

I’m looking ahead to the next teaching semester at Maynooth University, which starts in two weeks. The last time I gave a face-to-face lecture was on the morning of March 12th (a Thursday). Going home that evening I was engulfed by morbid thoughts and wondered if I would ever see the students again. Now we’re making plans for their return to (limited) on-campus teaching. Outline teaching plans have now been published, so returning students will have an idea how things will go. These will be refined as we get a better idea of student numbers. Given the continued increase in Covid-19 cases there is a significant chance of another campus closure at some point which will necessitate going online again but, at least to begin with, our students in Theoretical Physics will be getting 50% or more of the in-person teaching they would have got in a normal year.

Yesterday third-level institutions made their first round of CAO offers. Maynooth’s can be found here. Our offer for MH206 Theoretical Physics & Mathematics is, like many courses around the country, up a bit at 510 points reflecting the increase in high grades in this year’s Leaving Certificate.

We won’t know the final numbers for at another week or more but based on the traffic on Twitter yesterday Maynooth in general seems to be very popular:

Outline teaching plans are available for new students but these will not be finalised until Orientation Week is over and students have registered for their modules, which will not be until Thursday 24th September, just a few days before teaching starts. The weekend of 26th/27th looks like being a very busy one!

Returning to the original theme of the post I have to admit that I haven’t set foot outside Maynooth once in the last six months. I haven’t minded that too much, actually, but one thing I have missed is my weekly trip to the National Concert Hall in Dublin. Last night saw the start of a new season of concerts by the RTE National Symphony Orchestra at the NCH. There is no live audience for these so it’s not the same as being there in person, but watching and listening on the live stream is the next best thing.

Last night’s programme was a very nice one, of music by Mendelssohn Mozart and Beethoven, that not only provided a welcome tonic to the end of a busy week but also provided a great example of how to adapt. I’m glad they’re back and am looking forward to the rest of the season.

Leaving Out

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on September 7, 2020 by telescoper

This morning students across Ireland have been receiving their Leaving Certificate grades. First of all let me congratulate the 2020 Leaving Certificate Class for their success in what has been a very difficult year!

The release of Leaving Certificate results will trigger even more of a scramble than usual for university places through the CAO process. This year things are likely to be very different from previous years as (a) the process is much shorter in duration (students who get into university will be having their first lectures just three weeks from today) and (b) the distribution of grades is unlike previous years because they are based on “calculated grades” rather than examination results. This has led to an increase in top grades across many subjects. Here is a useful summary from the Irish Times:

(I know it looks small but you can click on it to make it legible…)

Note the number of top grades in Mathematics, Applied Mathematics and Physics has gone up because of the general grade inflation and because the number of students taking them has gone up. This is potentially good news for our recruitment here in Maynooth but it’s probably not so simple. For example, it may be that bigger departments elsewhere try to offset the lack of international students this year by recruiting more home students. We’ll just have to wait and see. By the start of next week the picture will probably be clearer.

At any rate, a certain local celebrity is looking forward to welcoming the new students onto campus shortly…

The Year Ahead

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on September 6, 2020 by telescoper

Tomorrow sees the release of the 2020 Leaving Certificate results which this year are based on “calculated grades” rather than examination results. It seems that for about 79% of students these grades will be the same as the teacher’s assessment, about 17% will be lower than the teacher assessment and in about 4% of cases it will be higher. It remains to be seen whether the results will create the sort of stir that this year’s A-level results did.

That seems to imply that CAO points will be a bit higher on average than previous years so more students will make the grade for their first choice of course, which may have a significant impact on recruitment.

We’ll find out all about that next week when the details come in. Teaching term starts on Monday 28th September so there’s very little time to get things organised for the new cohort, especially on the Omnibus Science course on which students have a wide range of alternatives from which to pick their first-year subjects.

Next week at Maynooth University we also have our repeat Examination Board (a week later than usual). After that we will have a good idea of how many students will be returning for Years 2, 3 and 4 and how many will not progress.

So soon we will have enough information to fine-tune our teaching plans. These are challenging this year because of the reduced capacity of the rooms we use for lectures and tutorials due to physical distancing. Some rooms are affected more than others – it’s far worse for large lecture theatres than for tutorial rooms – so we have to look at each module separately.

We had a (virtual) meeting of teaching staff in the Department of Theoretical Physics to coordinate the approaches to different modules. Among other things, that showed how very sensitive everything is to numbers of students taking. If a room can take N students then if the actual number taking the class is less than or equal to N then the class can proceed as usual but if it exceeds N, even by just one, then we have to split the class somehow.

Having detailed numbers is essential to sorting all this out but students can change modules during the first few weeks of teaching, we’re likely to be reorganising as we go along.

All this causes multiple headaches but, despite the extra complications this year, I’m looking forward to seeing the students on campus again. I haven’t given a ‘proper’ lecture since March 12th.

I was so busy last week, grappling with these and other matters, that I missed the fact that I took over as Head of Department on 1st September 2019, a year ago last Tuesday. Little did I know what I was letting myself in for…

The Virtue of Signalling

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, Politics with tags , , on September 3, 2020 by telescoper
I was in a supermarket in Maynooth yesterday morning when a bloke was refused entry for not wearing a mask. That’s the first time I’ve seen that happen, though I’ve heard various people mentioning similar stories elsewhere. There is a big sign near the entrance to the store saying that face masks are mandatory, which they have been for some time in Ireland, so he could not make the excuse that he didn’t know. I rather think he was trying to make a point.
The person concerned didn’t get violent, but was extremely loud and abusive to the staff, who shouldn’t have to put up with that sort of behaviour. He stood there for a while shouting expletive in between which his message was that he didn’t care whether he got Covid-19 as it was “just the flu”. I did wonder whether someone might call that Gardaí but after a few minutes, afer which he either felt he had done what he wanted to do or that he was wasting his time, he left.
I have to admit I completely fail to see why certain people find wearing a face mask such an ordeal. It’s really nothing. I understand that some people, with e.g. asthma, might have good reasons for finding it difficult but I’m talking here about people without such reasons who seem to think they’re being asked to bear some intolerable burden, rather than just wearing a piece of light material over their nose and mouth. I’ve got quite used to it and think nothing of it. As winter comes on I even think wearing a mask might help keep my face warm and, more importantly, protect my beard from inclement weather.
The only thing that bothers me slightly is that I have very boring face masks when others seem to have invested in colourful stylish affairs. It makes me feel a bit drab. Perhaps I should invest in some more glamorous masks.
But back to our friend in the supermarket. He of course may not care whether or not he gets Covid-19, but that’s not the main point of wearing a mask. Face masks are far more effective at protecting other people from your germs than protect you from other people’s germs. I suspect, however, that trying to explain this to the person concerned would simply make matters worse. To be happy wearing a face mask you have to be the sort of person who cares about what happens to other people and there are some – regrettably many these days – who just don’t. I’m sure that extreme selfishness translates into their political attitudes too.
When we return to on-campus teaching at the end of this month, students will be asked to wear face coverings in lectures. I’m not sure how that will work out. In particular I don’t know who is supposed to police it. Supermarkets have people on the door to turn away the unmasked. Are we to have that at the entrance to lecture theatres?
Lecturing with a face mask on will be difficult, but in a big theatre the lecturer is sufficiently far from the front of the audience that won’t be necessary.
I’m not sure how effective face masks will be at slowing the spread of Covid-19 – we’ll have to wait and see – but my attitude is that they are just a part of a bundle of measures, including frequent washing of hands, wiping surfaces regularly, maintaining social distancing, etc that all contribute. The great value of a face mask in all this is that it is visible. Wearing a mask is a signal to others that they should remember the danger of the situation and act accordingly. It’s a way of showing leadership.
It has become fashionable (at least among those who possess no virtues) to use the phrase virtue signalling as pejorative term for doing or saying something good in a way that is conspicuous. To the person ejected from the supermarket, the wearing of a face mask is probably an example of virtue signalling. I think it is too, literally, and I’m all in favour of it.

Thoughts on Mortality

Posted in Covid-19 with tags , , , on September 2, 2020 by telescoper

I was updating my Covid-19 statistics page yesterday after the daily announcement and I noticed that it has now been ten consecutive days since the last Covid-19 related death in Ireland. As of yesterday there were only 40 people with Covid-19 in hospitals in the Republic, six of whom were in intensive care.

These low numbers are of course very good news indeed, but it got me wondering why. As you can see from the above graph, new cases started to increase about two months ago. In the first wave the mortality figures started to grow with a much shorter lag, although it is difficult to be too precise about it because of delays in testing and reporting that shifted the blue curve to the right.

With new cases in the Republic now appearing at an average rate of around 100 per day and assuming a mortality rate of a few percent, one might have expected to see the mortality figures rising, but this has not happened. It must be said though that the current level of new cases is much lower than the initial peak, as this linear plot (also smoothed on a 7-day window) makes clear:

An even more remarkable case is that of France (data from here):

The blue curve is a 7-day moving average. You can see that the level of new cases in France is about the same as it was in late March. The daily mortality figure however looks like this:

So the mortality rate among recent cases is much lower in France than in Ireland.

I’m not going to discuss mortality data in the United Kingdom as these are being fiddled by the Government who have arbitrarily decided not to count anyone who dies more than 4 weeks after testing positive for Covid-19 in the figures. It’s a blatant con intended to make people think that the situation in the UK is better than it actually is.

I suppose the main factor for this is that the more recent cases are not happening in hospitals or care homes and they are affecting mainly younger people who have no underlying health conditions; over 70% of the recent cases in Ireland are people under the age of 45. It may also be that the treatment of patients is more effective now that it was in March and April.

Some people are arguing on social media are saying that data such as these prove that the Coronavirus has lost its potency and is no longer a threat. In order to provide evidence in support of such a claim one would have to take account of the differences in demographic and health history of new cases versus older ones, and I have not seen such a study.

Update: I had a terrible feeling that this would happen, but the same day I wrote this a further Covid-19 related death was reported. This was however a late notification of a death that occurred in June. For the latest figures see here.

Back to Returning to Campus Again

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on September 1, 2020 by telescoper

Three weeks ago I was writing about our plans for returning to campus at Maynooth University only to be rudely interrupted the very next day by new restrictions that forced us to put those plans on ice. Now we have about four weeks to get everything in place so we have to crack on.

Today the University wrote to all students outlining the general approach we are taking at Maynooth, but the details vary enormously from subject to subject. That is because the capacity of lecture theatres and laboratories and seminar rooms is reduced considerably to maintain the proper distancing between students. Classes will inevitably be smaller but we haven’t got any more rooms, so the number of face-to-face sessions will have to decrease. This affects every subject but hits very large courses much harder than smaller ones.

I will be in at the deep end on September 28th as I am teaching our first-year Mathematical Physics module, MP110. That is in Physical Hall, which has a normal capacity of 90 reduced to 27 by physical distancing requirements. Last year I had about 85 students in the class so it was full every time. This term I can fit only about one-third of that number in any session. There are three lectures per week in that module which means that if I have up to 81 students then each will be able to attend one lecture. Those unable to attend a lecture will be able to view recordings. Over the summer the University has been installing Panopto, a lecture-capture system we used to have when I was in Cardiff, so recordings of each session can be made. I also intend to record offline supplementary material for the class.

In addition to lectures each student on MP110 previously had a weekly tutorial. For the tutorials the students were split into 4 groups, but this year the reduced room capacities will probably require us to have more, smaller groups or to move to bi-weekly tutorials.

All of this is very sensitive to numbers, and we won’t know those until very close to the start of term. If we get more students than last year we will to revise the plans. The start of term is likely require quite a lot of last-minute adjustment.

For returning students on more specialist modules the classes are smaller and the impact less severe. I will also be teaching a second-year module MP201 Vector Calculus and Fourier Series next term. Not everyone who does Mathematical Physics in Year 1 continues with it to the second year so we expect roughly 50 on MP201. With that number we may be able to run lectures as normal (which means two a week) but may have to switch to bi-weekly tutorials. We expect third and fourth year classes to run quite close to normal. At least we will know the numbers of returning students fairly soon and can lock those plans in, leaving the 1st year to be dealt with last.

On top of all this we do have to have contingency plans in case the local or national Covid-19 situation deteriorates so far that we have to close the campus again. We will be in a better position to deal with that than we were back in March, as we have learned a lot very quickly and now have better equipment.

This afternoon the President of Maynooth University, Professor Philip Nolan, sent a message to all students that included the following:

Most of the large modules will use streaming of lectures so that you will receive some of the lectures on-line, and will be invited to attend less frequently than usual. Tutorials and practicals will also have reduced capacity, and in some cases the frequency will be reduced. The content of each module will remain largely unchanged, so you will be introduced to the same ideas, concepts and challenges. What will change is the format of delivery, and you will learn through a combination of live classes and on-screen material. We will publish more information, and details of the contact time in sample modules on the COVID page of the university website.

This reduced time on campus will mean that you will need to take more responsibility for your own learning, and ensure that you keep up with both the on-campus and on-line teaching.

Some of you are wondering if you need to attend at all, and whether you could complete your studies remotely. We are not a distance teaching university, and most of our courses are designed for on-campus delivery. So there will be times when you need to be on campus, and you will need to make sure that you can get to the campus when you need to.

I’ve seen some of the draft plans for other departments and it seems that the Department of Theoretical Physics is probably going to be one of the departments whose students will spend the most time on campus, with about 50% of the normal contact time. That’s primarily because we are small(ish) so can be a little more flexible. I also think that mathematical physics is a subject that needs students to take responsibility for their own learning anyway because much of it is problem-based. You can do physics problems at home or on the bus just as well as sitting in a room on campus.

I know some students are questioning the need to come on campus at all if they have so few contact hours and material is made available via recordings anyway. I can only speak for my own Department when I say that we think there is a huge value attached to in-person teaching, which is why we are trying so hard to maximize the on-campus experience for our students. It won’t quite be business as usual but will be the very best we can do under the constraints we have imposed on us. We’re doing the best we can but we do need students to play their part too!

P.S. I note that, for example, Waterford Institute of Technology is taking a quite different approach, with all lectures and tutorials going online for the whole academic year 2020/21.

Kildare Unlocked!

Posted in Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , on August 31, 2020 by telescoper

I just heard that the powers that be have decided to lift the restrictions on County Kildare that have been in place since August 8th. That means we can get on with the business of planning for return to campus at the end of September. I’m not sure how much of today’s decision has to do with the actual Covid-19 situation and how much to with the pressure from Kildare businesses, or the fact that many people were ignoring the restrictions anyway, but at least there’s now clarity. With just a month to go before we return to teaching, this is welcome news.

The latest national data on new cases do indeed show a bit of a decline. This graph shows a 7-day moving average

The downturn looks very small but is significant – from 115.3 to 101.9 since yesterday – but the more important thing for Kildare is that cases in the county are no longer many times above the national average. You can find the complete daily record of deaths and new cases here.

It seems strange to me the way that some people from County Kildare interpreted the local restrictions as some sort of punishment rather than as an attempt to prevent outbreaks spreading into the community. Anyway, if we’re no longer in lockdown does that mean we’re now locked up?

Back to School

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on August 26, 2020 by telescoper

News that primary and secondary schools in Ireland are re-opening this week reminded me of this picture I saw a year ago:

I suppose the items on display there provide one way of dealing with the stress of worrying whether re-opening will result in a large increase in Covid-19 cases!

Meanwhile the Third Level sector is also preparing to re-open. Although we have another month to go before teaching is supposed to restart at Maynooth University, I’m already getting quite a few emails from students asking what things are going to be like when it resumes in September. All I can answer is what our plans are, but whether or not we can put those plans into practice depends crucially on things outside my control, including local factors (such as the number of students taking each module) and national factors (especially the restrictions intended to prevent the spread of Covid-19).

On the first matter we’ll have to wait until students register which, for first years will be very late in the day because of the delayed leaving certificate results this year. We will know a bit sooner about returning students, but even for them it will be a couple of weeks or so.

The national picture is even more uncertain. As of yesterday, the average number of new Covid-19 cases per day over the last 7 days was an uncomfortably high 103.6:

Over the next month will the local lockdown in Kildare carry on? What will be the impact of schools’ reopening? Will the national Covid-19 picture improve or deteriorate? Although at this stage we plan to resume (partly) campus-based teaching on September 28th, but we have to accept that if things take a turn for the worse we might not be able to do that and will instead have to go online. We’ll just have to wait and see.

That doesn’t help students, of course, because they have to make decisions about accommodation and travel. It’s a very awkward and stressful situation for them but I think the only way to approach the queries I’m getting is to tell the truth. Sometimes “I don’t know” is the only honest answer.

At least my own preparations are proceeding. I’ve just had my own tensor barrier put in. This is intended to deter people from wandering into my office and spreading their germs. I don’t think the installation is finished yet, however, as it doesn’t seem to be connected to the mains electricity.