Archive for the Covid-19 Category

Four Weeks To Go

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on November 23, 2020 by telescoper

As I await another Zoom meeting I remembered this cartoon from last week’s Private Eye, which sums up the prevalent mood amongst academics these days (and no doubt people in other kinds of job too).

At the start of this morning’s Panopto lecture I realised that there are still 4 weeks left of this Semester before the Christmas break. I was a bit surprised by that as this term seems to have lasted a decade already. The time certainly hasn’t zoomed by. Still, at least I’ve more-or-less kept up with my planned schedule of lectures in both of my modules without slipping. I may even be able to finish lectures to my 2nd year Vector Calculus in time to do a bit of revision in the final week.

That’s not to say other things haven’t slipped. The greatly increased time for teaching needed to move everything online hasn’t left much time for research or anything else. I keep meaning to work in the evenings to deal with outstanding things but mostly I find once I’ve done the necessary admin and teaching stuff all I can do is sleep. It seems that I’ll have to work over Christmas to finish off the backlog. Given that I didn’t have a holiday this summer that’s not ideal, but it’s unlikely I’ll be going anywhere over the “festive” season owing to Coronavirus restrictions so I might as well make the best of it.

We don’t have much idea how things will work out next Semester. The politicians seem to be wanting universities to have more on-campus teaching in the New Year. They also want to end the current restrictions to end before Christmas. In fact the current regime is suppose to end on December 2nd, which is next week, and cases are still running around 400 per day. I don’t think they can do both of these and for the Covid-19 situation to remain under any semblance of control. I think the likeliest scenario is that cases surge over the next few weeks and the Christmas break and we have to go back into full restrictions in January or February.

There is however the prospect of a vaccine or vaccines being available fairly early next year so maybe the end of this is in sight. I really hope we can get back to campus normality at some point in 2021. I do feel very sad about the effect all these restrictions has been having on the students. It’s not just having to have remote lectures. I think having a lecturer in the same room is an advantage, but the loss of it is not the worst issue. We encourage our students to work with each other in their learning, and I’m sure students learn at least as much from each other as they do from the lecturer. Peer group learning is more difficult when your peers are sitting in separate locations most of the time.

Earlier today I found myself using the phrase “getting back to normal” in connection with plans for next teaching year. Then I realise that we staff know what we mean by “normal” but our first-year students don’t. I have a feeling that may might find it more difficult to adjust to the old normal than they did to the new one.

And in any case many of our students in all years did not take up accommodation in Maynooth at the start of this year because of the remote teaching. Even if we did on campus lectures or tutorials next term, I suspect many will stay at home anyway to avoid substantial cost of rented accommodation. We will therefore have to continue making material available online whatever happens.

Anyway, what may or may not happen next Semester is to a large extent out of my hands so I won’t be making any firm decisions on what approach I will be taking until much closer to the start of Semester 2 In the meantime the goal is to fight the exhaustion and try get through to the end of term in one piece.

Dreams, Planes and Automobiles

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on November 20, 2020 by telescoper

I’ve blogged before about the strange dreams that I’ve been having during this time of Covid-19 lockdowns, but last night I had a doozy. I’ve recently been doing some examples of Newtonian Mechanics problems for my first-year class: blocks sliding up and down planes attached by pulleys to other blocks by inextensible strings; you know the sort of thing.

Anyway, last night I had a dream in which I was giving a lecture about cars going up and down hills taking particular account of the effects of friction and air resistance. The lecture was in front of a camera and using a portable blackboard and chalk, but all that was set up outside in the middle of a main road with traffic whizzing along either side and in the presence of a strong gusty wind. I had to keep stopping to pick up my notes which had blown away, dodging cars as I went.

It would undoubtedly make for much more exciting lectures if I recorded them in such a situation, but I think I’d be contravening traffic regulations by setting up in the middle of the Straffan Road. On the other hand, I could buy myself a green screen and add all that digitally in post-production…

An Image for Autumn 2020

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19 on November 17, 2020 by telescoper

If there’s an image that sums up Autumn 2020 for me, this is it:

I can hardly go anywhere these days without seeing the disagreeable sight of a discarded face mask at some point. I wish people would take more care when disposing of these things!

Covid Questions for Ireland

Posted in Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , on November 15, 2020 by telescoper

I’ve just done my daily update of Covid-19 numbers here and thought I’d show the latest figure:

There are now 262 data points on these graphs. When I started doing the updates I thought it might carry on for two or three months -i t’s now been almost nine and there’s no end in sight.

As you can see the 7-day average of new cases has been falling steadily since entered the period of Level 5 restrictions that is now about half-way through. That, of course, is good news. The problem is that the rate of decrease is really quite slow. The number of new cases on each day for the last week (including today) were: 270, 270, 362, 395, 482, 456, and 378 (today). That is fairly flat, the steep downward trend of the previous week apparently faltering. As a rough guess I’d say that by the time we come out of the current period of restrictions (at the beginning of December) we’ll probably still be having over a hundred new cases per day.

I think that level is far too high for comfort, but the current government is probably going to find it difficult to resist the political pressure to exit the lockdown in time for Christmas. If that does happen, I can see another lockdown looming in January. My superiors at Maynooth University are talking about having on-campus teaching again next Semester, but I think that’s highly unlikely in the circumstances.

Things are even worse in Northern Ireland where the number of new cases announced today was 478. Daily cases have been running higher there than in the Republic for some time, despite the fact that the six counties of Northern Ireland have a population of just 1.9 million compared to the 4.9 million of the 26 counties  in the Republic.

That brings me to the issue of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine that everyone is getting excited about. Assuming that it passes the various tests needed for it to be approved, Ireland would get about 2 million doses from the stock procured by the European Union.  The population of Ireland is about 4.9 million, and each person would require two doses, which means that supply will only enable about 20% of the population to be vaccinated.

(Actually I don’t know whether the 2 million refers to people that can be vaccinated or individual doses, but even if it’s the former that still accounts for only 40% of the population.)

The question then is who should be prioritized? I think we’d all agree that all health care workers should be vaccinated ASAP but that’s only about 25,000 people (source). Who should get the other doses? Most people seem to be assuming that those at highest risk of mortality should be vaccinated, but there’s also a case to be argued that  it should it should be those groups within which the virus is most likely to spread that should get it, which is presumably the otherwise healthy population.

I don’t know the answer, but it will be interesting to see how this all develops. In any case as far as I can see it there’s very little prospect of high levels of population immunity being reached by this time next year. And that’s even if the vaccine is available soon, which is by no means clear will be the case. As a matter of fact I wouldn’t bet against me still having to do daily updates on Covid-19 statistics for most of next year.

 

Dare we hope?

Posted in Covid-19, Poetry, Politics with tags , , , , , on November 9, 2020 by telescoper

A short passage from Seamus Heaney’s verse play The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes has been much quoted recently. It even ended the RTÉ News last night:

The passage begins

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.

Well, there’s an additional reason for hope this morning, in the announcement of good progress in the search for a vaccine against Covid-19. The two pharmaceutical companies involved are Pfizer (USA) and BioNTech SE (Germany). The reported efficacy of the vaccine tested so far is over 90%, which is far higher than experts have predicted. Now these are preliminary results, not yet properly reviewed, based on a sample of only 94 subjects, and I’m not sure what motivated the press release so early in the process. I’m given to understand that the type of vaccine concerned here would also be challenging to manufacture and distribute, but we’re due for some good news on the Coronavirus front so let’s be (cautiously) optimistic.

On top of that it seems that Ireland at least is turning the tide against the second wave, with new cases falling every day for over a week:

Dare we hope?

Standing Up for Online Lectures

Posted in Covid-19, Education, mathematics, Maynooth with tags , , , , on November 3, 2020 by telescoper

I have a break of an hour between my last lecture on Vector Calculus (during which I introduced and did some applications of Green’s Theorem) and my next one on Mechanics & Special Relativity (during which I’m doing projectile motion), so I thought I’d share a couple of thoughts about online teaching.

I started the term by doing my lectures in the form of webcasts live from lecture theatres but since we returned from the Study Break on Monday I’ve been doing them remotely from the comfort of my office at home, which is equipped with a blackboard (installed, I might add, at my own expense….)

I still do these teaching sessions “live”, though, rather than recording them all offline. I toyed with the idea of doing the latter but decided that the former works better for me. Not surprisingly I don’t get full attendance at the live sessions, but I do get around half the registered students. The others can watch the recordings at their own convenience. Perhaps those who do take the live webcasts appreciate the structure that a regular time gives to their study. Even if that’s not the reason for them, I certainly prefer working around a stable framework of teaching sessions.

“Why am I still using a blackboard?” I hear you ask. It’s not just because I’m an old fogey (although I am that). It’s because I’m used to pacing myself that way, using the physical effort of writing on the blackboard to slow myself down. I know some lecturers are delivering material on slides using, e.g., Powerpoint, but I have never felt comfortable using that medium for mathematical work. Aside from the temptation to go too fast, I think it encourages students to see the subject as a finished thing to be memorized rather than a process happening in front of them.

I did acquire some drawing tablets for staff to enable them to write mathematical work out, which is useful for short things like tutorial questions, but frankly they aren’t very good and I wouldn’t want to use them to give an hour long lecture.

In addition to these considerations, my decision to record videos in front of a blackboard was informed by something I’ve learnt about myself, namely that I find I am much more comfortable talking in this way when I’m standing up than sitting down. In particular, I find it far easier to communicate enthusiasm, make gestures, and generally produce a reasonable performance if I’m standing up. I know several colleagues who do theirs sitting down talking to a laptop camera, but I find that very difficult. Maybe I’m just weird. Who else prefers to do it standing up?

Track and Trace & Ligatures

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

I was interested to see (on Twitter) the above example of track-and-trace from 1665, at the height of the Great Plague of London. I’m not sure how effective this notice was…

Other than its historical context, looking at this piece of text reveals some interesting things about how it was printed.

Note the liberal use of the symbol “ſ’”, for example. This character is sometimes called the “long s”*. There’s a full Wikipedia article on this and I have posted about it before which means there’s no point in repeating here, but I will just mention that the long s was used widely in manuscripts after the distinction arose better upper case and lower-case letters (which was around about the end of the 8th Century) wherein the lower-case form, the “short s” (i.e. s),  was used exclusively at the end of words or before an elision, and the long s everywhere else. It survived into the era of printing, not just in English but also in other languages including German. In fact “ſ” forms the left-hand element of the ligature “Eszett”, written  “ß”, of which the other part is “z”.

Note the use of a ligature that looks like the Eszett at the end of the word “Sickness”. This is not actually an Eszett but is instead a ligature formed from the long s and the short s. I haven’t seen many examples of this in old printed books but I’m by no means an expert in 17th Century orthography but I’m given to  understand this was used in fonts based on the Antiqua class of typefaces, typically used for printing Latin text. I suppose the piece above was produced by a printer used to that form of material. That doesn’t narrow it down much, though, as many scholarly works were published in Latin at that time.

The number of esses (both long and short, as well as capital “S” in “Sickness” and “Swelling”) is quite considerable given its brevity. The last sentence contains quite a tongue-twister too: “said sign shall”!

There is another ligature “ct” in the word “infected” in the heading. This is quite common in old printed works, especially in Latin.  Here is an example from Newton’s Principia; see the word “rectam” in the statement of the Second Law of Motion:

The combination “ct” is quite common in Latin, as is “ss”, as are many other digraphs, including “et” (the ligature for which gives the symbol &; “et” means “and” in Latin).

Ligatures were introduced in handwriting, partly to embellish the script and partly to save time. Joining two letters together is a way of eliminating a duplicate stroke of the pen and avoiding having to lift it from the paper. When printing presses were introduced, ligatures were found to make typesetting with movable type easier because one block would replace frequent combinations of letters. It also allows the compositor to reduce the spacing between the characters, saving paper and also making the text easier to read.

*Incidentally, for the mathematically inclined, the long s is also the original form of the integral sign, introduced to mathematics by Leibniz to stand for “summa” (sum), which he wrote “ſumma”.

 

 

Stormy Samhain Super Saturday

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth, Rugby with tags , , on October 31, 2020 by telescoper

So we have arrived at October 31st, Hallowe’en or, in pagan terms, Samhain. This, a cross-quarter day – roughly halfway between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice represents the start of winter (“the dark half of the year“) in the Celtic calendar.

Incidentally, Samhain is pronounced something like “sawin”. The h after the m denotes lenition of the consonant (which in older forms of Irish would have been denoted by a dot on top of the m) so when followed by a broad vowel the m is pronounced like the English “w”; when followed by a slender vowel or none “mh” is pronounced “v” or in other words like the German “w” (which makes it easier to remember). I only mention this because I hope to be starting Irish language lessons soon, something I always wish I’d done with Welsh when I lived in Cardiff.

Anyway, it’s a wild blustery day with the wind howling down the chimney of my house in Maynooth sounding like a ghost. At least thanks to the present Level 5 restrictions I won’t have to endure trick-or-treaters this evening. Or will I? Should I sit quietly at home with the lights off again?

Today’s schedule will revolve around the final round of matches in this year’s Six Nations championship. The settled order of nature having been disturbed by Covid-19 back in March it has only just become possible to finish the competition with three games today. Ireland travel to France for the last game this evening, after England play Italy and Wales play Scotland. Ireland currently head the table, but they have a difficult task in Paris: they need not only to win to secure the Championship but to do so by a bonus point because England will almost certainly get a bonus point against a poor Italian side. The Irish press are talking up the national team’s chances of winning handsomely, but it seems to me rather unlikely especially because France too have a chance of the title if they beat Ireland and get a bonus point. Both sides clearly have to attack, which should make for a good contest.

For what it’s worth, my predictions are: Wales to beat Scotland, England to beat Italy (with a bonus point) and France to beat Ireland (but no bonus point). That combination would make England the champions, with France second and Ireland third.

Update: 16.05. Wales 10 Scotland 14. My predictions are not off to a good start. Scrappy, error-strewn game with Scotland’s try from a maul that shredded the Welsh defence the highlight of the game. Bad result for Wales but it is good to see Scotland back as a force to be reckoned with.

Update: 18.45. England improved dramatically after a poor first half, and eventually ran out winners by 34 points to 5. That means their points difference is +44 compared to Ireland’s +38. Ireland need a win by 7 or more points (or with a bonus point) to win the Championship.

Update: 21.00. Half-time France 17 Ireland 13. France leading without having played particularly well, thanks to two big Irish errors. Ireland need to score 10 points more than France in the 2nd half.

Update 22.00. Final score France 35 Ireland 27. France won with a bonus point but not by a sufficient margin to win the Championship, which goes to England, with France second and Ireland third. It didn’t go exactly as I predicted but I wasn’t far off!

Lá Saoire i mí Dheireadh Fómhair

Posted in Beards, Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags on October 26, 2020 by telescoper

Today being the last Monday of October, it’s a Bank Holiday here in Ireland so I’m having the day off (well, at least the morning: I have a telecon this afternoon). This week is Study Week too so there are no lectures or tutorials – real or virtual – until next Monday. Now that I have a broadband connection at home I’ll be working from here much more as the Level 5 restrictions require me to. It won’t be ideal because a lot of my work stuff is still in the office on campus, but at least I’ll be more comfortable than first time round, when I was in the flat.

Normally, most students go home for some or all of Study Week and return to campus the following week. This year I suppose most will stay where they are, although some might go home and stay there until the end of term since virtually all their teaching is online this term. They won’t even have to come back for the examinations after Christmas as these will be online too. It’s anyone’s guess whether we will have teaching on campus next Semester.

Coincidentally, the first campus closure started just before a Bank Holiday too. That was St Patrick’s Day. It seems like an eternity ago. The news of my award of the St Patrick’s Day Beard of Ireland would surely have made front pages across the Republic had it not been for the Covid-19 Pandemic. I think I’ll refrain from trimming my beard for the duration of the new restrictions like I did during the original lockdown.

Incidentally, the Irish word for beard is Féasóg. Also incidentally, I’ve signed up to have Irish language lessons this term; they start in November.

As I’ve mentioned before, this Bank Holiday (as others of its type in Ireland) has a sort of astronomical connection. In the Northern hemisphere, from an astronomical point of view, the solar year is defined by the two solstices (summer, around June 21st, and winter around December 21st) and the equinoxes (spring, around March 21st, and Autumn, around September 21st). These four events divide the year into four roughly equal parts each of about 13 week. If you divide each of these intervals in two you divide the year into eight pieces of six and a bit weeks each. The dates midway between the astronomical events mentioned above are (roughly) :

1st February: Imbolc (Candlemas)
1st May: Beltane (Mayday)
1st August: Lughnasadh (Lammas)
1st November: Samhain (All Saints Day)

The names I’ve added are taken from the Celtic/neo-Pagan (and Christian) terms for these cross-quarter days. These timings are rough because the dates of the equinoxes and solstices vary from year to year. Imbolc is often taken to be the 2nd of February (Groundhog Day) and Samhain is sometimes taken to be October 31st, Halloween.
Another name for the present Bank Holiday is Lá Saoire Oíche Shamhna (Halloween Holiday), although Halloween itself does not occur until next Saturday. Bank Holidays are always on Mondays here so they’re often a few days away from the dates above.

Level 5 Holiday Weekend

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19 with tags , , on October 24, 2020 by telescoper

The last Monday of October (Lá Saoire i mí Dheireadh Fómhair), aka the Halloween Holiday (Lá Saoire Oíche Shamhna), is a national holiday in Ireland so I’m currently in Bank Holiday weekend mode.

Tougher (Level 5) Covid-19 restrictions came into play at Midnight on Thursday so I guess I’ll be spending most of this weekend time at home, but that’s OK. It will be a chance to recharge the old batteries.

I’ll also have time to read the big booklet that arrived in yesterday’s mail.

This new regime is not at all like the first lockdown in March but my main worry is about compliance. The vast majority of people have behaved sensibly throughout the pandemic but enough haven’t to create a very worrying situation. I’m concerned that those people who flouted the Level Three restrictions will flout Level Five too, but we’ll see.

Last night we resumed the “virtual pub” night on Zoom with former colleagues from Cardiff, which went into abeyance when actual pubs reopened there. Wales has now gone into a stricter lockdown too, for at least 17 days. I think England will probably follow soon.

Anyway today’s tasks are: (i) to activate my home internet and (ii) to avoid reading work emails using it.

I arranged to have the router box etc delivered yesterday. The courier texted me in the morning to say they would deliver between 2pm and 4pm. I had a lecture scheduled from 12 to 1 so I went on campus, did the webcast from my office, and returned home by about 1.30. I waited there until almost 6pm and then gave up and went to buy beer and pizza.

When was coming back with the goods my next door neighbour saw me and came around with the package. The courier had arrived at my house at 11am and discovering that I was not in, had left it with her. No note at my house. No text or phone call to my mobile to say they’d been.

Nightline is the name of the courier company. They wasted a whole afternoon of my time. The driver also forged my signature in the process, surely a criminal offence?