Archive for the Covid-19 Category

Trepidation

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth on September 10, 2021 by telescoper

I spent most of today in various virtual meetings to do with next Semester’s teaching which is due to start on September 20th for returning students (and a week letter for first-years). I’ve also been keeping an eye on the student record system, as the returning students have started to register. We don’t expect most first-years to start enrolling until next week, although I did see a few early acceptances coming through…

One of the meetings I had today was about how to handle the first-year “Omnibus” science course in which some of the modules are taught in large classes which have to be held remotely and others in smaller groups which will be in person. One of the complications is if students have, say, two lectures online, which they can view at home, will they really travel to campus to attend another one in person? And if they have an online lecture immediately before or after an in-person one, where will they view it if they haven’t got time to get between home and campus (or vice versa)?

All this reminded me of similar discussions we had at this time last year. Back then all the plans came to naught anyway because everything went online anyway a few weeks into term as infections rose (see left panel below):

Today 1620 new cases of Covid-19 were reported in Ireland. On this day last year the number was 196 I keep a full record here where you will see that between 10th September 2020 and 10th September 2021 3,378 deaths were recorded, most of them resulting from the big spike that followed Christmas. There is evidence of a dip right now, which is sincerely hope continues, but to me the rate of infections is alarmingly high. If infections start to climb then they’ll be starting from a much higher level than last year.

Of course we now have vaccines and the good news is that it seems that well over 90% of those over the age of 18 in Ireland will have been vaccinated by the start of term but with the Delta variant in circulation will this be enough?

At least we have had a significant change in the wording given to students: masks are now “mandatory” in lecture theatres.

I still think there’s a significant chance we have to revert to online teaching just as we did last year. Looking on the bright side at least we know how to do that now, as we’ve done it before.

But that’s enough worrying for this week. I’m now going to have a glass of wine and cook myself some dinner. Sautéed chicken with Cavolo Nero and Parmesan, in case you were wondering.

Back to School….

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth on August 30, 2021 by telescoper

It’s a Bank Holiday in the United Kingdom but not here in Ireland; we had our August Bank Holiday at the start of the month. In fact this week sees school students of various ages returning to the classroom. That reminded me of this, from last year:

On my way back from the shops just now I passed a group of boys who were obviously going home after their first day back at school. Their uniforms look very new and in pristine condition. I bet that won’t last.

Three weeks today, on September 20th, we are supposed to start teaching returning students; first years won’t start until 27th September. I wish I could say I was optimistic about this. With Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations climbing it feels very much like it did at this time last year. Nevertheless the powers that be are insisting that we proceed with full lecture theatres without social distancing, with mask wearing not mandatory and with no vaccine certificates. Students can crowd into lecture theatres and rub shoulders with others for an hour, but to use the Student Union bar they have to show a vaccine certificate. This seems to me to be madness. I hope I’m proved wrong but I give it two weeks maximum until we’re forced to revert to online teaching yet again.

In the Department of Theoretical Physics I have a particular headache to deal with on top of this. One of the three temporary lecturers we have appointed this year was supposed to start on 23rd August but he hasn’t got a visa yet. I have therefore to plan on him not being able to arrive in time for the start of teaching. It’s not unusual at this time of year to be wondering how many students are going to be with us at the start of term, but this year we have the additional worry about how many staff we’re going to have available to teach them.

And on a personal level I am hoping for my belongings to arrive sometime this week, although I am yet to have this confirmed and to be given the precise date and time. If the delivery is postponed doesn’t happen before the end of September it’s going to be very difficult, as I will probably be teaching every day from September 20th until Christmas.

Waiting for things to happen that are outside your control is a major cause of stress, but please don’t tell anyone I’m feeling stressed or I’ll be forced to attend a resilience webinar. I think I’d rather resort to the remedies on offer in the picture…

A Year at Home

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , on August 26, 2021 by telescoper

I was reminded this morning that it was a year ago yesterday that I received the keys to my house in Maynooth. I didn’t move in straight away as the house was empty and I had paid the rent on the flat I was living in until the end of August, so I moved my things gradually over the course of a week or so. Looking through all the paperwork this morning I found the pictures that the Estate Agent had used to advertise the property. Here are a few of them:

You’ll see that the bookshelves in the sitting room were empty at the time. They mostly still are. I didn’t think this time last year that I’d still be waiting a year later for my belongings to arrive from Cardiff, but at least they are in transit now. Delivery is pencilled in for next week, as a matter of fact; doing the removal on the cheap as a return load meant waiting a few weeks. I am looking forward to filling the shelves with my books (20-odd boxes of them) and putting up my own artwork. I’ve had enough of bare walls.

This morning our weekly Faculty Executive meetings resumed, the main topic of discussion – as it was this time last year – being the plans to return to on-campus teaching next month. I thought it would be interesting to show a comparison between the Covid-19 figures in Ireland on August 25th 2020 and August 25th 2021:

You will see that the daily case numbers in Ireland are currently about a factor 20 higher than they were this time last year: yesterday we had 2051 new Covid-19 cases in Ireland; a year ago there were 92. That is significant because the effect of vaccines in suppressing serious illness is at most 95%. Since the number of cases is up by a factor of 20, in some sense the risk level if everyone in the population were vaccinated would be about the same now as it was this time last year. And of course not everyone actually is vaccinated, and not everyone will be by the time teaching starts again on 20th September.

Last year the case numbers increased substantially between August and September meaning that we went back into lockdown in October. We don’t know whether or not case numbers will increase again this year, of course, but from the point of view of resuming teaching we’re really in no better shape now than we were at this time last year. Our optimism then was misplaced and that may well be true now too. This is why so many people in the University system are nervous about the edicts we have been given to return to full lecture theatres with no social distancing, no mandatory masks, and no vaccination certificates. This seems like asking for trouble.

On a personal note, I am pleased to report that the mild symptoms I mentioned on Monday have completely disappeared and, to no surprise at all, my PCR test came back negative. It may or may not be relevant that the weather has improved greatly over the last two or three days. I have now come to the conclusion that what I had was some form of seasonal allergy, possibly connected with crop harvesting in the area spreading pollen or fungal spores. The latter are more prevalent in damp or humid weather, which might be the reason for reduction in effect now. Or it could just be that a nearby farmer has stopped doing whatever he was doing. I don’t know enough about field theory to be certain.

Anyway, all of this means I can now stop self-isolating and start returning to campus again. To be honest, though, it was rather nice self-isolating at home as I spent most of the time working in the garden…

Vaccination for Lectures?

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on August 20, 2021 by telescoper

The full guidelines on the return to on-campus teaching in September that I referred to on Monday have now been distributed to all staff, not without comment.

Basically the new advice is that in-person teaching will return in September (in fact a month from today in Maynooth) for all forms of class except lectures containing over 250 people, which will be online. Lecture halls and labs will be at full capacity, i.e. with no social distancing requirement. Students will be “asked” to wear face coverings, but we are told not to attempt to enforce this. Importantly, there will be no requirement for students to have been vaccinated in order to attend lectures.

In Ireland there is a vaccination passport system so that those who wish to dine indoors at a bar or restaurant have to show vaccination status. Perhaps someone can explain to me how it makes sense for this to be a requirement in a restaurant while it is not a requirement for a student having to sit for an hour in close proximity to up to 249 others with no social distancing and no mandatory face coverings.

This conundrum is taken to another level of absurdity when you consider that a student wishing to get lunch indoors on campus will presumably have to show their vaccine passport?

There is an article here that argues that a safe return in the presence of the delta-variant requires 90% of the student population to have been vaccinated.

A more acceptable plan would have students show their vaccination status when enrolling on the course. Those who are unvaccinated but willing to have a vaccination shot could be vaccinated there and then and be allowed to attend lectures when the vaccine takes effect. Or I should say “could have been” because the facilities required to do on-campus vaccinations have not been set up and now there probably isn’t time. Those that refuse to have a vaccine should attend lectures online on a permanent basis.

(How such a scheme would be policed is a difficult question: we don’t usually have people on the doors of lecture theatres checking student IDs or anything and there is a far greater rate of traffic at the start of a lecture than you would have at a restaurant…)

There will of course be some students who are at very high risk and should not be attending lectures anyway even if vaccinated. For them we should be providing lecture recordings. Unfortunately I don’t think we have good enough facilities to record live lectures from theatres as there has been inadequate investment in cameras etc. If we’re told we have to provide lecture recordings, for many of us that means doing the lectures twice. And so our workload increases.

On the other hand it seems increasingly likely to me that all this will be irrelevant. New case numbers are running at about 1800 per day, a level that the HSE admits to being “unsustainable”. When the first colleges return in September, a substantial surge can be expected and everything will be back online anyway.

It’s like déjà vu all over again…

A period of readjustment..

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth on August 15, 2021 by telescoper

It’s been a rather busy weekend as I’ve tried to complete the grading my repeat examinations. I’m almost done but I have six more scripts to do, which I will finish tomorrow morning. Once again I’ve set a bad example by being later than everyone else, but at least I’m not going to miss the deadline. We have our Examination Board on Friday and they’ll all be done and dusted by then.

Friday is 20th August, which means it’s exactly a month from then until the start of teaching in Semester 1 of the new academic year. We have now received draft instructions on how this is planned to start. They are not in final form yet, having been circulated to Heads of Department for comments. I’ll refrain from saying more in public until they are published but in a nutshell we are anticipating more-or-less a full return to on-campus teaching with no reduced capacity in lecture theatres but with slightly shorter lectures and staggered start and end times.

That is if everything is under control in a month. The latest Covid-19 figures are not reassuring. The latest 7-day rolling average is about 1800 new cases to day, which is as high as it was in January. Hospitalizations are increasing, though at a lower level than before presumably because of the vaccination effect. Mortality rates are unclear (to me) because of the continuing disruption to reporting caused by the HSE computer problem. I’m very conscious that all our plans were changed at the last minute at the start of last academic year, so we’ll just have to wait and see. Hopefully the incidence rate will stop rising over the next few weeks.

On Friday I took a prospective PhD student and his family for a walk around campus, mainly to introduce them to the famous Library Cat (who is fine, by the way, but bothered by wasps getting into his dish when I fed him). Most staff and research students in the Department are still working from home, but there were one or two people around to say hello. When I entered my office I saw I hadn’t changed the date on my calendar since June 15th, two months ago. By the look of the sports fields at the back of the college they haven’t been mown for much longer than that: at the moment they look more like hayfields!

I have been fairly content working from home over the summer (with two interruptions for travelling to Cardiff and back), but I really have to get into the habit of going to the office if we’re going to welcome students in person. I think when I’ve finished my marking tomorrow morning I’ll start trying to get back into the routine. For one thing quite a few things we moved before lockdown need to be moved back to their proper places. When I was waiting for the train from Cardiff on Thursday I saw railway workers removing the social distancing signs from the platform. I guess we’ll be doing that too.

I do hope all this isn’t premature, but I have a nagging feeling…

Thoughts of Return

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth on August 4, 2021 by telescoper

So here I am sitting at home supervising my first online repeat examination supplemental assessment. I’ve only had a couple of minor queries so I’ve been able to get on with other things, among which I noticed that according to the news Universities and Colleges in Ireland have announced that

The rapid progress in the Covid vaccination programme has injected a new level of confidence about maximising the return to higher education, and preparations are at an advanced stage.

That’s great. Presumably at some point the University authorities will communicate these preparations which are at an advanced stage to the staff who will have to implement them. I would have thought we might get to hear about them before they are presented to the media, but perhaps the details for Maynooth haven’t been worked out yet. In which case they’re not really advanced. Or perhaps the plan will be what it has been throughout the pandemic: leave everything to Heads of Department to sort out.

The press release is here by the way. What it contains is rather vague but it does contain some specific things about staggered start and end times for lectures and contraflow into and out of buildings, so if we’re going to do that we’ll have to know what it involves. I am mindful however of the debacle last year when we made elaborate plans that then had to be ditched when the Covid-19 situation deteriorated. After getting my fingers burned that way last year I’m going to wait until the last possible moment before making concrete plans.

While I’m very happy about the prospect of returning to campus I’ve suddenly realized my positive feelings are tempered with a strange and unfamiliar sense of anxiety. The first teaching sessions of next academic year are in the week beginning September 20th. At that point it will have been 18 months since I last stood up in front of a full lecture theatre. It will be a strange experience after such a long period during which I’ve been doing my teaching by talking into a camera. Will I be able to remember how to do it? I think I’ll be quite nervous, actually. I don’t normally get nervous when giving lectures but already feel it. Perhaps it will pass.

Another thing that occurred to me is that as well as the brand new intake I will have students in my second year whose faces I’ve never seen!

Anyway, all that’s for next month. For the time being it’s back to the repeat examinations. While I’ve been typing this, two have been submitted….

Quinquennial Reflection

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Covid-19, Maynooth on July 29, 2021 by telescoper

One of the consequences of having written a blog for quite some time is that the back catalogue of posts provides reminders of significant anniversaries, and the opportunity to reflect on them. In this vein I noted that five years ago today, 29th July 2016 (a Friday), was my last day in office as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Sussex University, a position I had held for three and a half years.

All I really remember of that last day was doing some packing and saying goodbye to some of the people I’d worked with there. I also broke down in tears twice. It’s not easy admitting defeat. Fortunately, it being summer, there were only a few people around to witness the waterworks.

I didn’t tell many people at Sussex of the main reason for my departure. There were work-related reasons – largely intense frustration with certain decisions made by Senior Management – but the main reason was that my Mam had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and her decline weighed too heavily on my mind for me to be able to function in that position. Although I think quite a few folk there feel I let them down by leaving before the end of my term, I still think it was the right decision. In fact I don’t think I really had any choice.

Incidentally, in summer 2016 there was a handover at the top of Sussex University. Michael Farthing had been V-chancellor when I arrived and he was replaced by Adam Tickell whom I met only once and only briefly before I departed. Now it seems he is stepping down after his 5-year term to become Vice-Chancellor at Birmingham University. There’ll no doubt be a new VC in post soon.

The first I knew about her final illness was at the end of 2015 when I visited Newcastle for Christmas and noticed how much her memory and behavior had changed. Shortly after that came the official diagnosis. Her condition deteriorated rapidly thereafter as dementia cruelly took hold and in 2018, being virtually completely incapacitated, she had to move into a care home. Fortunately she seemed relatively happy there. In the end it was pneumonia that took her, but at least she slipped away gently towards the end of 2019.

By leaving Sussex to go take up a part-time position, I had a notion that I might be able to help look after Mam, but I found the whole situation too painful and other things got in the way. In other words, I made excuses for myself. I wasn’t strong enough to contribute anything significant and the burden fell almost exclusively on the shoulders of others. I know I’ll never be able to put that right.

Having moved back to Cardiff it seemed my future was settled. I had a part-time position for a fixed term of three years. There was no guarantee (or indeed likelihood) of employment beyond that so I’d reconciled myself to taking early retirement in summer 2019 and disappearing into well-deserved obscurity. I fancied I might try my hand at setting crosswords to while away the time.

Then in 2017 I heard about a job opportunity at Maynooth, applied for it, and much to my surprise was offered it. I decided to accept it for reasons outlined here. I started here in December 2017, initial part-time alongside my part-time position at Cardiff. I resigned entirely from Cardiff in 2018 at which point my job here in Maynooth became full-time.

It seems no sooner I had I settled in as a full-time member of staff than I was made Head of Department of Theoretical Physics and no sooner had that happened than the Covid-19 pandemic struck. That not only increased my workload a lot (as it did for every member of staff) but made the logistics of buying a house and moving my possessions exceedingly difficult. If I’d known there was some urgency I might have been able to do it all in 2019 before the pandemic, but that didn’t happen. I did manage to buy a house in 2020 but my remaining belongings won’t be joining me from Cardiff until next month.

Despite the complications – and workload issues – I don’t regret the move to Maynooth. Whether the University feels the same is another question.

I often think the University would have been better off appointing a more junior Lecturer than a senior Professor given that so much of the workload in my current position involves teaching relatively introductory material and there is consequently very little time for research. Even less than I had at Sussex, actually. I have only published a few bits and pieces since 2017.

On the other hand, I am pleased at the steady progress being made by the Open Journal of Astrophysics and hope to have some further news on this front next month.

In summary, then, it has been a very strange five years altogether. Nothing has really gone the way I anticipated. Best laid plans and all that. The strangest thing, though, is that July 29th 2016 seems in the incredibly distant past. Perhaps that is because so many strange things have happened?

Having learnt a lesson from the last five years I’m not going to make predictions for the next five, nor even the next one! I hope we get through the pandemic sooner rather than later, and I hope the restructuring of Physics at Maynooth enables it to grow and prosper.

The vaccine effect

Posted in Covid-19 with tags , , , on July 28, 2021 by telescoper

I saw this nifty graphic from the Financial Times floating around on social media and thought I would share it here. It’s a nice demonstration of the way the use of vaccines has impacted mortality rates from Covid-19. Basically the vaccines reduce the probability of a death by a factor greater than 10 (i.e. are more than 90% effective in doing this). On the logarithmic plot this appears as a downward shift in the “risk of death” that is more or less independent of age.

This behaviour is generally consistent with the observation that while infections in the UK are quite high the mortality rate is still rather low. Low is not zero, however, and there will still be some deaths if infection levels are high: a small fraction of a large number can still be significant.

Incidentally, about 70% of the adult population of Ireland has now been vaccinated with about 80% having received partial vaccination. The fraction of the total population fully vaccinated is about 54%. On this measure Spain has just overtaken the UK in vaccinations; Ireland is well above average for the EU. The USA and Israel have both flattened out considerably.

When I got back from my break I tried my best to update the statistics relating to Ireland here. Doing so reminded me that when I first decided to plot the data on a log y-axis I got a slew of comments on Twitter complaining that I was “manipulating the data”! The backlash against anything even simple mathematics is quite extraordinary sometimes.

Anyway, the latest logarithmic plot looks like this:

The death figures are unreliable because of the lingering effects on the ransomware attack on the Health Service Executive IT system but do seem to be much lower relative to infections than they were at earlier stages of the pandemic, even allowing for the fact that the first peak in the case curve should be higher as testing was not so extensive at this early stage. The 7-day average of new cases is currently around 1200-1300 per day.

It still fascinates me how the case numbers managed to stay roughly constant for such a long time at such a high level earlier this year…

New Term Ahead!

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on July 28, 2021 by telescoper

I know that there are quite a few people out there who think the summer is one long holiday for academic staff. Well, it may still be July but after my 10 days away that’s the holidays over as far as I’m concerned. Still, ten days’ summer holiday is ten days more holiday than I got last summer.

Next week the Repeat Examination period begins; it lasts from 4th August to 14th August. Once again these examinations are online and once again they have to be supervised by a member of academic staff. I have five paper scheduled and have to be at the screen for all of them. Then there’s the marking, checking, collation and uploading of the marks which must be done by 18th August. After that there’s an Examination Board before the final submission of all the repeat exams by August 23rd.

Incidentally, I was just checking over my Semester 1 repeat examinations and it seems like decades since I taught those modules last Autumn! The pandemic has played havoc with the perception of time!

After the Repeat Examinations are done, I have the unenviable task of preparing teaching for the next academic year. Although I’m stepping down as Head of Department of Theoretical Physics at the end of September I am still in that position until then so that task falls to me. Quite apart from the continuing uncertainty about what the Covid-19 situation will be like at the start of term (20th September), I have to deal with the fact that three out of our six full-time permanent lecturers are not available for next year. One is retiring this summer, one is departing for a position in Germany and another is on sabbatical.

The appointment of a temporary lecturer to provide sabbatical cover is normal, but the two other departures have not been replaced with permanent staff but by two one-year temporary lecturers. None of these new staff will be in post until 1st September but will have to teach a full complement of modules from 20th September onwards. Half our modules will therefore have to be reassigned, which means that the organization of teaching for the new academic year is not just the usual slight rearrangement of the previous year’s assignments but a major overhaul.

Losing two of our permanent staff to be replaced by temporary staff will of course have a negative impact on our research but that doesn’t seem to be important.

On top of al this the University is pressing ahead with a complete reorganization in the form of a merger of the Departments of Theoretical Physics and Experimental Physics which it intends to force through by 1st October 2021…

While glad that we may at last be emerging from the pandemic I’m dreading the next two months, not only because of the huge amount that has to be done by the end of September, but also because I think that period is going to set the scene for the longer-term future. I know I’m not the only academic who fears the massively increased workload dumped on us during the pandemic is going to become, to use a hackneyed phrase, “the new normal”.

Back to Civilisation

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Covid-19, Cricket, GAA, Maynooth with tags , , , on July 24, 2021 by telescoper

So last night I returned safely from Cardiff to Ireland via Birmingham. Travel both ways was relatively uneventful. There can’t have been more than 30 people on the flight in either direction. I did however almost screw up the return flight by omitting to fill in the obligatory Covid-19 passenger locator form which I hadn’t realised is now online-only. I only found out that I had to do it before they would let me on the plane, resulting in a mad scramble with a poor phone connection to get it done. After a few goes and quite a bit of stress I succeeded and was allowed to board, conspicuously the last passenger to do so. We still managed to leave early though, and the short flight to Dublin – passing directly over Ynys Môn was relaxing and arrived on schedule; the immigration officer scanned my new-fangled Covid-19 vaccination certificate but wasn’t interested in the passenger locator form that caused me so much stress on departure.

I returned to Cardiff to take a bit of a break, to check up on my house and also prepare to move the rest of my belongings to Ireland. I was relieved when I got there last week that everything was basically in order, although there were lots of cobwebs and a very musty smell, which was hardly surprising since I hadn’t been there for 15 months. The inside of the fridge wasn’t a pretty sight either.

One night last week after meeting some friends for a beer in Cardiff I walked back via Pontcanna Fields and saw, much to my surprise, Camogie practice in progress in the twilight:

Camogie Practice, Pontcanna Fields, Cardiff.

The logistics of my planned removal proved a bit more complicated than I expected but eventually I cracked it and all the arrangements are now in place. I should receive delivery here in Maynooth next month. I’m doing it on the cheap as a part-load, which is why it will take a bit longer than usual.

Cleaning and packing was very hard work owing to the intense heat over the last week or so – it was regularly over 30° C – during the day, so I took quite a few siestas. My neighbours tell me it’s been much the same here in Maynooth, although it is a bit cooler today, around 20° with a very pleasant breeze.

Despite the hard work it was nice to have a change of scenery for a bit and also to meet up with some old friends from Cardiff days. Everyone has been in a state of limbo for the last 18 months or so, and although we’re not out of the woods yet there are signs of things coming back to life. When I went to Bubs in Cardiff for a drink last week it was the first time I’d been inside a pub since February 2020!

Incidentally, most people I saw observed social distancing, wore masks, etc. The rules in Wales are still fairly strict. Although open for indoor service, bars and restaurants seem to have few customers. Some people on trains to and from Birmingham didn’t wear masks. One group of unmasked and obnoxious English passengers on my return journey were loudly boasting how backwards Wales was compared to England, where the rules have relaxed despite a huge surge in cases. I moved to another carriage.

The only other thing I managed to do was attend a Royal London One-Day Cup match at Sophia Gardens between Glamorgan and Warwickshire in the baking heat of Sophia Gardens. It turned out to be a good tight game, with Glamorgan winning by 2 wickets courtesy of two consecutive boundaries. Most of the time I was sitting there in the shade I was thinking how glad I was not to be fielding in such conditions.

One thing that was very noticeable during my stay in Wales was that it was very hard to get fresh salad vegetables and the like. That may be partly due to weather-related demand or it may be due to a shortage of lorry drivers or other staff owing to Covid-19 isolation requirements and may be a consequence of Brexit. Who knows? I’ll just say that there’s been hot weather in Ireland, where the Covid-19 pandemic is also happening but there are no reports of shortages of fresh food here. I’m very much looking forward to having a nice salad with my dinner this evening.

Anyway, I suppose that’s enough rambling. At some point I’ll have to open up my email box to see what horrors lurk therein. Still can’t be worse than the fridge I opened last week. Can it?