Archive for the Maynooth Category

Life at Level Five

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, Politics with tags , , , on October 20, 2020 by telescoper

After refusing to do so two weeks ago, last night the Government decided to move all Ireland onto Level 5, the highest level of Covid-19 restrictions, for six weeks (although with some tweaks, e.g. the number of people allowed to weddings):

I think the previous refusal to implement tougher restrictions was a big mistake and has cost two weeks of exponential growth in new cases for no obvious benefit. I thought at the time that moving to Level 5 was inevitable giving the steep growth in numbers:

Here, for information is the latest plot of confirmed cases (as of last night):

The 7-day average of new cases is higher than it was at April’s peak, though thankfully the number of deaths is lower. Hospital (and specifically ICU admissions) are however, rising steadily.

We don’t know yet of any specific implications for teaching here at Maynooth University, though it will certainly mean even more teaching moves online. I think my own lectures will continue as Panopto webcasts in much the same way as before, except from my office rather than from a lecture theatre and without the handful of students who have so far been attending them in person. Next week (beginning 26th October) is our Study Week break which offers a bit of time to rearrange things. My first-year module has lectures on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Because the new restrictions kick in at midnight on Wednesday, that lecture will be the last one I do in a lecture theatre for a while. At least I got the best part of four weeks’ worth of lectures in that way.

More generally workers are required to work from home if they can with an exception for “essential services”. The general guidance given here includes:

11. The following services relating to professional, scientific and technical activities:

(a) the provision of engineering, technical testing activities and analysis (including the performance of physical, chemical and other analytical testing of materials and products);

(b) the provision of scientific research and development services;

(c) regulation, inspection and certification services, in accordance with law, of a particular sector by a body created by statute for that purpose.

and

16. The following services relating to education activities:

(a) primary and post primary school;

(b) higher and further education, insofar as onsite presence is required and such education activities cannot be held remotely.

This implies that the campus will not be closed like it was in March, so that this is not going to be a complete lockdown for either research or teaching. Moreover 16(b) does suggest that even laboratory-based teaching may carry on, but we await confirmation on that.

 

 

Going Dutch: a new approach to Research Funding?

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

My attention was recently drawn to a proposal for a radical overhaul of the research funding system in the Netherlands by the Dutch Academy of Sciences.

The document I linked to above is in Dutch but the principles are easily understood. To prevent academics having to waste so much time writing proposals that have a very limited chance of success, it is proposed to introduce “rolling grants” for which no application is needed.

Every new Assistant Professor (equivalent to Lecturer) would be given €250K working capital to be used to fund research as the person sees fit. This would rise to €375K on promotion to Associate Professor (equivalent to Senior Lecturer/Reader), and €500K for a full Professor.

This system would have the advantage of giving all new staff the chance to establish their research without having to go through the lottery of a responsive-mode grant system while also ensuring that academics would have the freedom to choose their own priorities without having to follow an agenda imposed by external bodies (which is often influenced politically in such a way as to stifle original research in fields deemed not to be of immediate economic benefit, which is particularly true here in Ireland).

The creation of such a scheme guaranteeing a baseline of research funding for all academic staff would cost money beyond the savings made by reducing the wasted effort associated with the writing and reviewing of lengthy applications. That is the main reason it will not be implemented in Ireland where the Government sees University funding as a very low priority. I cite the almost complete neglect of the Third Level sector in last week’s budget, apart from the €250 given to each student in the hope that it will stop them complaining about having most of their teaching switched online…

It does seem to me to be a completely crazy system that employs people on the basis of their research experience but gives them no resources to carry out their research. For myself I’m not complaining so much about lack of funding – as a theorist my research is very cheap – but of lack of that most precious resource of all, time.

Covid-19: Out of Control

Posted in Covid-19, Maynooth, Politics with tags , , on October 16, 2020 by telescoper

The latest Covid-19 figures for Ireland make grim reading. Yesterday the number of new cases was the highest it has ever been since the start of the pandemic in March (though part of this is due to increased testing). The 7-day average is climbing relentlessly. It’s not the incidence rate itself which is the cause of alarm, it’s the fact that it is on an exponential trajectory again (with a doubling time only just over a week):

Yesterday evening the National Public Health Emergency Team advised that the entire country should immediately move to Level 5 for a period of six weeks.

 

Will the Government agree to this escalation? NPHET advised such a move less than a fortnight ago, but to no avail. Since then the situation has deteriorated more quickly than anyone predicted. It’s easy to be wise after the event but I think that decision was a very bad mistake. Even if they agree now, precious time will have been lost. There are now so many cases that contact tracing is effectively impossible, and hospitals are already feeling the strain. Unless something drastic is done now, by next month the health system will be overloaded. In my opinion it will be a scandal if there is no immediate move to Level 5.

Failing to move to Level 5 earlier this month was the second big mistake this Government has made. The first was the decision taken in June to wind down restrictions starting from 20th July, earlier than the original ‘Roadmap’ indicated. That was a mistake because it sent out a message that the pandemic was almost over. The change in behaviour among certain sectors of the public was immediate. Complacency set in, and the second wave started. It seems to me that the Roadmap was working so there was no need to change it.

Most European countries are experiencing a `second wave’ of Covid-19, in many cases worse than the first, so I’m not saying that adhering to the original Roadmap would have prevented a similar phenomenon in Ireland. I am saying that it could have been slowed considerably. By loosening the constraints too quickly and then not applying them again quickly enough, in both cases bowing to pressure from vested interests, the Government has made a difficult situation far worse than it need have been. They’ve let the situation get out of control and now nobody knows how it is going to end.

 

Thought for the Day

Posted in mathematics, Maynooth on October 15, 2020 by telescoper

Maynooth from the Air

Posted in Maynooth with tags , , , on October 12, 2020 by telescoper

I came across this video of drone footage of Maynooth and surroundings and thought I’d share it here. There are plenty of shots of the St Patrick’s College and parts of Maynooth University as well as the town itself and  Carton House. Judging by the state of progress of the new University building and the colour of the Virginia creeper I’d say this was filmed very recently. Enjoy!

 

 

Who will be the next President?

Posted in Maynooth with tags , , on October 11, 2020 by telescoper

The question on everyone’s lips here at Maynooth University is who will take over from Professor Philip Nolan when his ten-year term as President of the University comes to an end in August next year.

Over the last few months the current President has had to combine the duties of his office with those as Chair of the Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group within the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET).

Whoever gets the job will face tough challenges even if the Covid-19 has improved by next summer because the University’s finances will have been seriously affected by the pandemic, as will those of many other institutions. That said, it is still a great opportunity in a lovely part of the world.

To quote from the advert

Following impressive growth over the past 10 years under the leadership of Professor Philip Nolan, the Governing Authority is now seeking to appoint a new President to lead this outstanding University and to build on its strategic role at regional, national and international levels. Coming at a time of great change and challenge, the new President will be expected to create, articulate and deliver, in a collegial manner, a shared vision for the future to drive the continued development of Maynooth University.

If you’re interested in applying you can find the details here.

Garden Variety

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , , on October 10, 2020 by telescoper

The modest investment I made in bird feeders when I moved into my new house in Maynooth has paid a considerable dividend in terms of entertainment. As well as a number of starlings and sparrows, I have quite a variety of more exotic species. The other morning, while I was drinking my coffee while looking into the garden before leaving for work, I saw a robin, a great tit, a blue tit, a chaffinch, and (I think) a hedge warbler*. And that was all just in the space of 10 minutes or so.

The show was then brought to a sudden end by the arrival of two jackdaws who scared everything else off and then tried to wreck the nut feeder.

I went outside and chased them away. I have nothing against the jackdaws – they’re actually rather amusing – but I won’t have vandalism in my garden.

The hedge warbler (or dunnock or hedge sparrow, although it’s not a sparrow) is not particularly rare in Ireland but is extremely shy and never gives you a long time to look at it. I’m pretty sure the bird I saw was one, though it was gone in a flash.

The local robin, by contrast, is not shy. I see him very frequently. I think it’s male because of the very bright red of his chest colour; females of the species tend to have colours that look slightly washed out. Male or female this one is very well nourished. In fact it’s so plump as to be almost spherical.

Anyway, all these birds (including the jackdaws) are passerine species, defined by the shape of their feet: they all have three toes pointing forward and one pointing backwards. The order Passeriformes includes perching birds of all kinds, from sparrows and finches to crows and a lot more besides. In fact over half the known bird species belong to this order.

Lecture Streaming

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on October 7, 2020 by telescoper

When we were told, at the start of this term, to move all our teaching online my initial intention was to record most of the lectures in my office for the students to watch at their leisure rather than streaming them live.
The system we’re using, Panopto, allows for both webcast (i.e. live streaming) and pre-recorded (offline) videos. I thought that only very few students would want to watch the broadcast version. I have however changed my mind about this and am now streaming all my lectures (as well as recording them for later viewing). It also meant that I could record the lectures in advance at my without being constrained by the timetable.

Last week my office wasn’t usable for recording videos because of noise from building work so I had to find somewhere else to record the videos so I decided to go to the lecture theatre at the scheduled time primarily because I knew the room would be available at that time. When I started the first lecture I thought I might as well webcast it as well, thinking only a few students would tune in. In fact, out of my class of 45 or so second-year students, about 39 were online while I did the lecture. Since then I’ve done all the lectures live and plan to do so until further notice.

A handful of students even turn up in person to the lectures. I see no problem with this. The restrictions are designed to minimize as far as possible the number of students coming to campus, but if they are here anyway because of labs (which can’t be done virtually) then why shouldn’t they come to the lectures? (Provided, of course, that they follow the public health guidance, wear masks, wash their hands, practice social distancing, etc). I find their presence very helpful, actually. Talking to an audience is far easier than talking only to a camera. You do have to remember to look at the camera though!

It is possible to edit the webcast recording before sharing it with the students. That way you can get rid of all the mistakes, hesitations and other defective bits. Starting with a 50 minute lecture that usually means you end up with about 10 minutes of good material.

Having settled on this approach I was dismayed on Monday to find the Panopto system wasn’t working in either webcast or offline recording mode. I assumed at first that I was doing something wrong but it turns out it was a major outage affecting all of Europe that went on all day. Twitter was full of comments from academics complaining about! Panopto uses cloud storage with very little being held locally so when the connectivity fails the user is helpless. I did the lecture by Teams instead, but had lost some time faffing around trying to get Panopto to work.

Yesterday morning Panopto was back working and my office was quiet so I reran the lecture using the blackboard in my office and recorded it as an offline video. That way the students now have the lecture in the right space on the Moodle page. After that I did two more lectures as webcasts using Moodle – Tuesday is a busy teaching day this term – and everything worked fine.

I think there are two morals to be drawn from this. The first is not to assume that you know what students will find useful. The second is wherever possible to have a backup plan. Putting all your eggs in the basket marked Panopto is risky.

Lost and Found!

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth on October 5, 2020 by telescoper

Here’s another post that demonstrates that I’m getting even more absent-minded in my old age.

On Friday I lost my phone. I was pretty sure I had it with me when I went to work but couldn’t find it when I was getting ready to leave for home. I hadn’t actually used it while I was at work on Friday so I convinced myself that I’d left it at home. I was wrong.

I was a bit worried that the delivery people on Saturday might assume I wasn’t in when they couldn’t contact me by the number I gave them, but they did turn up and all was well.

As soon as I got back to work this morning, I tried to retrace all the steps I’d taken on Friday in the hope of finding the missing item, but without joy. Just before leaving the office to give my lecture at 11am, increasingly worried, I emailed security to ask if anyone had handed in a phone. It was I thought a last resort.

When I got back to the office I found to my great relief an emailed reply saying that a phone matching the description I’d given had indeed been handed into them. It had been found by a cleaner in the John Hume Building (in which I gave a lecture on Friday).

I went straight over to the security lodge and proved that it was my phone, which was easy because it has fingerprint recognition. When I’d done that I was asked to sign for it and was reunited with my phone (which was undamaged). As I turned to leave I asked where it had been found. The answer left me a bit. shocked. It was found in the lecture theatre I’d been teaching in… in the waste bin!

I gave a lecture on Friday in the John Hume building but can’t really understand how my phone ended up in the bin. I remember seeing a bin near the desk at the front, so I guess I must have accidentally knocked it off the bench while trying to set up the camera.

Above all though I realised just how lucky I had been. I reckon 99 times out of 100 the cleaner would have just emptied the bin without further thought. This time, though, perhaps because there was nothing else in the in it (as the lecture theatres are largely empty these days), the cleaner spotted it and did the right thing. Had the bin been full of other rubbish it would probably not have been seen.

Losing my phone would have been hugely inconvenient on top of all the other causes of stress these days so I’m very glad I’ve got it back.

All’s well that ends well.

To Level Five?

Posted in Covid-19, Maynooth, Politics with tags , , on October 4, 2020 by telescoper

When I saw that 613 new cases of Covid-19 were recorded in Ireland on Saturday (3rd October) it seemed obvious that the situation in Ireland was getting out of control:

Note that on this graph the new cases have been growing in a roughly linear fashion for at least a month. Since the y-axis is logarithmic this means the growth of the pandemic is roughly exponential. The  7-day moving average up to and including Saturday was 448, with no sign of an end to the upward trend.

After a meeting yesterday, the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) reviewed the following statistical developments:

In the light of these it decided to recommend an immediate jump to the highest level of restrictions, Level 5, for the entire country:

Level Five isn’t quite the same as what happened in March, largely because Schools and Colleges are intended to remain open, but it means the same widespread shutdown of the private sector. This escalation is supposed to last at least 4 weeks.

This is of course a recommendation. The imposition of these measures is up to the Government, which has to balance public health measures against economic damage. Presumably will make a decision sometime this week. Will they have the guts to stand up against the hospitality industry?

The problem is that the Government announcing restrictions and people actually abiding by them are not the same thing at all. It only takes a few people to flout the rules for the pandemic to take hold once more, and while many people are behaving sensibly, there is ample evidence of people not doing so.

What this means for us at Maynooth University remains to be seen.

 

UPDATE: The Government this afternoon rejected the advice of NPHET and instead moved the country to Level 3. I hope they know what they’re doing.