Archive for the Politics Category

Memories of 9/11

Posted in Biographical, Politics with tags , , on September 11, 2021 by telescoper

Today is 11th September 2021 which means it is exactly twenty years since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon which led to the loss of almost three thousand civilian lives (and many more in the longer term). At the risk of contributing to the deluge of (mainly mawkish) reminiscences about the happenings on this day a decade ago, let me just give a brief account of my recollection. The events of 9/11 are, I suspect, etched on many a memory in much the same way as people remember what they were doing when President Kennedy was assassinated.

For what it’s worth, I was actually at a conference on that day. It was called A New Era in Cosmology, and was hosted in the fine city of Durham; in fact one of the organizers was a certain Tom Shanks, an occasional commenter on this blog. Above you will see part of the conference poster which I took from a recent Facebook post by him where I also found the text below. I was also reminded that 9/11 was the first day of that meeting and that I gave a talk on the first morning, the last before lunch. Such was the effect of the events that unfolded that day that I had completely forgotten about that.

What I do remember is sitting near the back of the lecture theatre after we returned from lunch, listening to one of the afternoon talks – I can’t remember who it was by – when a dear friend of mine, Manuela, came into the auditorium and walked down the aisle, stopped by me. She tugged my arm, mumbled something about the “Twin Towers” and then ran back up the stairs and out of the lecture theatre. Thinking it was something to do with Wembley Stadium, I followed her out and she explained what had happened. We found a TV set, around which a crowd had already formed. The coverage was, not surprisingly, shambolic and it was not until late afternoon that the scale of what had happened became clearer.

There were rumours of more planes likely to be involved in attacks and discussions about whether the military might have to shoot down civilian aircraft. Fortunately that wasn’t the case. I had a friend visiting New York at the time and was unable to contact her by mobile, so was worried, but I don’t think anyone was able to contact anyone in New York by mobile phone in those hours and it turns out she was fine.

Meanwhile the other participants were informed about the events on the other side of the Atlantic. It was an international conference with many US-based attendees who were understandably worried. The preface to the conference proceedings reveals that discussions were held about whether to cancel the meeting:

I think it was the correct decision to proceed with the conference, including the conference dinner and all that. As it happened all passengers flights were grounded for several days anyway, so nobody could get home who didn’t live in the UK.

The rest of the conference was pretty much business as usual as far as possible, although as the text above explains we did stand in silence in memory of the victims on the Thursday morning. When the meeting ended on the Friday quite a few people had to stay on in Durham or elsewhere before being able to fly home. It was this event that led to the heightened security measures at airports that we have been living with since then.

The loss of human life, though awful, turned out to be much less than had been feared and was subsequently dwarfed by the hundreds of thousands killed in the “War on Terror” set in motion by the events of that day. Will the recent withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan lead to further attacks of this sort?

Anyway, my point is not the politics but to invite a bit of audience participation. Would anyone else like to contribute their memories from that fateful day? If so, the comment box awaits your entry…

The Irish Population

Posted in Art, History, Politics, Television with tags , , , , on August 31, 2021 by telescoper

Not long ago I did a post about a documentary series called The Hunger which was broadcast on RTÉ just before Christmas. It was, of course, about the Great Irish Famine, which led to the death of one million (mainly poor) Irish people and the emigration of over two million in the subsequent years. It was a shattering episode that altered Ireland for ever. I remarked at the time that “the population of this island still hasn’t recovered to pre-Famine levels”.

Well today saw the announcement of a significant milestone in the trajectory of Ireland’s population. According to the Central Statistics Office, in April 2021 the population of the Republic of Ireland exceeded 5 Million for the first time since 1851. To be precise Ireland’s population was estimated to be 5.01 million in April 2021, which is the first time the population has risen above five million since the 1851 census, when the comparable population was 5.11 million. By “comparable” I mean the population of the 26 Counties that now constitute the Republic of Ireland.

The total population on the island of Ireland in 1851 was 6.6 million. Including the population of Northern Ireland brings the current population on the island of Ireland to about 6.9 million. The population of Ireland (ie the whole island) in 1841 was over eight million.

The following (rather old) graphic shows that catastrophic drop that was an immediate consequence of the Great Hunger but also the long period of decline caused by emigration and poor public health leading to low levels of fertility. The population did not begin to grow significantly until the 1970s.

Although the population is still nowhere near the level it reached in 1841, Ireland is in the grip of a housing shortage that the present Government seems reluctant to do anything about, not surprisingly when you realize that the present Government represents the property-owning classes in whose interests it is to keep housing scarce and rents correspondingly high. Ireland’s housing crisis is not an accident, it’s a matter of policy. Irish landlords oppressing the poorer classes and exploiting them for monetary gain. Some things haven’t changed…

It fascinates me that, with political will, human societies have made enormous changes – including financial interventions, inventing new vaccines and delivering mass vaccination programmes – to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. Poverty and homelessness do not require new inventions – we already know very well how to build houses – only the political will is needed, and that’s just not there.

The Joy of Latin

Posted in Biographical, Education, Politics with tags , , , on July 31, 2021 by telescoper

This morning I noticed a story in the Guardian that Latin is to be taught in 40 UK state secondary schools had provoked some rather extreme reactions on social media. I hesitated to comment on this lest it appear that I have any respect or confidence in Gavin Williamson (who is undoubtedly one of the stupidest politicians in living memory) or that I don’t think there may be better things on which to spend £4m, but I have to say that I don’t think this is as stupid an idea as many people seem to think.

For what it’s worth I think that learning Latin (which I did from age 11 to O-level at aged 16, where which it was my best subject. If you’re interested here is the examination paper I took way back in 1979:

I not only enjoyed it enormously but also found it useful for learning other languages as well as helping to understand English grammar. There are many aspects of the English language that I only understood when I learned about them in Latin, and that also helped me with French and German where things like the subjunctive are much more obvious than they are in English and also much more precise, which makes them easier to identify and understand.

Latin has important elements in common with a great many Indo-European languages besides the obvious Italian, Spanish and French, including the Germanic languages (which include English). I did French to O-level too, by the way, but only did one year of German because I wasn’t allowed to do three languages to O-level alongside the full complement of science and mathematics. I have managed to get by during my frequent visits to Italy pretty well without having formally studied any Italian, though I find it easier to read and listen to Italian than to speak it. I have to say, though, that Latin hasn’t helped me much at all in my struggles to learn Irish…

Above all, though, learning Latin taught me that as well as being a tool for communication, language is fascinating in itself. There are strong connections between linguistics and genetics, for example – ideas in genetics on how you can work backwards from common elements in current diverse populations to the “last common ancestor” came from historical linguistics.. Languages evolve through mutation and intermingling in much the same way that populations do.

The relationships between different languages are deep and mysterious but studying their common structures helps bring them to light. That’s how the physical sciences work too…

It has long been an intention of mine to try to re-learn Latin when I retire and have a go at translating some old texts into English. It’s much easier to learn new languages when you are young but hopefully having done it when I was young it might come back reasonably easy. I remember quite a lot actually, but need more practice. Perhaps I’ll get the time before too long.

P. S. I’ve heard it said that, instead of teaching the Latin language in schools, students would be better off learning Latin dance, e.g the tango. My response to that is that “tango” is the first person singular in the present indicative of the Latin verb “tangere” (to touch)…

Take me to your Leader!

Posted in Politics on April 8, 2021 by telescoper

Er… no… on second thoughts don’t bother.

The wide shot is even worse!

Thought for the Day

Posted in Literature, Politics on March 30, 2021 by telescoper

I don’t have time for a full post today but let me just say that I think that the move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony is bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Comments welcome.

The Intoxication of Power

Posted in Literature, Politics with tags , , , on March 14, 2021 by telescoper

The above in part of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 which will be voted on in Parliament tomorrow (15th March). As you can see, it is deliberately worded so vaguely that it can and will be used to removes the right to peaceful protest from citizens of the United Kingdom. No doubt what currently passes for a Parliament will wave this Bill through without even reading it.

This comes just after the Metropolitan Police’s brutal suppression of a peaceful candlelit vigil on Clapham Common, the scene of the abduction and subsequent murder of Sarah Everard a crime for which a serving officer of the Metropolitan Police has been charged.

Here’s a view of the Police making social distancing impossible by kettling the participants:

Britain’s transformation into a Police State is proceeding even more rapidly than I feared, though the direction of travel has been apparent ever since the Brexit campaign 5 years ago. A far-right coup is taking place and it is succeeding against a spineless and ineffective opposition, its ringleader delighting in wiping out what remains of civil liberties and turning the media, especially the BBC, into a propaganda machine.

The future of Britain looks very much the one George Orwell foresaw in 1984:

There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always— do not forget this, Winston— always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless.
If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face— forever

Still, blue passports eh?

A Year of Covid-19 in Ireland

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

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

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

Anyway, here are today’s plots:

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Return to Schools in Ireland – The Facts

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Politics on February 20, 2021 by telescoper

There is some confusion going around about precisely when schools will reopen in the Republic of Ireland. In order to provide a service to the community I therefore thought I would summarize the main points here as clearly, concisely and coherently as possible.

At Primary schools, Junior infants or perhaps Junior and Senior infants and perhaps also including First and Second Class will return either separately or together on either 1st March or possibly 8th March. All other pupils will definitely return on 15th March or possibly a week or two weeks later but definitely by three weeks later than that unless there’s a change of plan.

At Secondary schools, the Junior Cycle will continue as normal apart from not actually happening: the Junior Certificate will be replaced by a voucher to spend on computer games. The Senior Cycle will return at the same time as Primary Schools, or at some different time depending on the circumstances, or perhaps just for the day before the Leaving Certificate examinations. Pupils will be able to choose either to take the examination or to receive a grade based on all the coursework they haven’t done because the schools have been closed or to receive a grade based on how much their parents can afford to pay. Leaving Certificate examinations will take place according to the published timetable unless they’re cancelled at the last minute.

Transition Year students have been completely forgotten but no doubt somebody will think of something when they remember.

I hope this clarifies the situation.

Norma Foley is 51.

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Delivery Notes

Posted in Biographical, Politics with tags , , on January 22, 2021 by telescoper

I was a bit surprised to see the latest issue of Private Eye was delivered this morning. The Eye is published every fortnight on a Wednesday but, until recently, it normally took about a week to arrive in Ireland. Since the New Year however it has been taking much less time to get here. In fact this one arrived on the nominal issue date (22nd January):

I’m not sure why it’s suddenly got much faster, but I wonder if it might be related to a reduction in other items being sent to Ireland from the UK because of difficulties that kicked in as a result of Boris Johnson’s Trade Reduction Treaty on January 1st? (Perhaps not, though, because my 1st January Physics World still hasn’t arrived and that presumably comes via a similar route…)

Anyway, I’ve been reading quite a lot of stories about the changes that have occurred in receiving goods from the UK: long delays, vastly increased delivery charges, VAT and customs payments due on arrival, and sometimes orders cancelled entirely. I think items only worth a few euro are exempt from these new charges but I know of a few people who have been handed large bills when goods they have ordered over the internet have been delivered. I think it’s going to be very important in future that firms advertising in Ireland make it clear if the goods they are selling are going to be delivered from the UK.

These developments have at least provided some possible explanations of the reasons why so many people voted for Brexit. One might be that they enjoy filling in forms and wrestling with other kinds of red tape. Another, more likely, is “sovereignty” which I interpret as meaning “not having to deal with nasty foreigners”.

As regular readers of this blog will know I voted Remain and now live in the EU as a nasty foreigner. I do however think we nasty foreigners should accept the reality of this situation and respect British sovereignty.

Indeed I have seen many interviews with British business leaders who voted for Brexit complaining about all the difficulties that now exist to trade with nasty foreigners. I think there’s only one way for decent folk to react to this and that is to help these people in their hour of need by saving them the effort of form-filling, the extra expense of delivery, along with all the other headaches, and at the same time fully respecting their sovereignty, by simply not buying goods from them any more. It’s the honorable thing to do.

Fortunately it is increasingly possible for people in Ireland to do what Brexiters want by avoiding buying British goods. There are now 30 weekly sailings from Ireland to France, operated by 4 different companies. From tomorrow there will also be a new route from Dublin to Cherbourg by Stena Line.

But now I’m in a quandary. Am I disrespecting British sovereignty by continuing to subscribe to Private Eye?

Covid-19 in Ireland: where it all went wrong

Posted in Covid-19, Politics with tags , , on January 10, 2021 by telescoper

I don’t buy a daily paper, but I am a regular reader of the Irish Times Weekend edition. The reporting, especially on international news, is generally good and although it is basically an Establishment newspaper it is fairly balanced. That can’t be said for the opinion pieces however, which are frequently execrable. A particularly shitty example is provided by a column by Political Editor Pat Leahy in this Weekend’s edition.

It’s bad enough that he writes as if the most important thing about the pandemic is not that people are dying but that there might be implications for Ireland’s political establishment. And that he takes the opportunity to take churlish swipes like “Many public servants have, of course, been working furiously hard. Some haven’t.” As a public servant who has put in countless hours of unpaid overtime over the past year that snide comment really got my goat, coming as it does from a Political Editor who trots out lazy evidence-free rubbish for a living.

This is the trajectory of the Covid-19 pandemic in Ireland.

Restrictions were lifted on 1st December. New cases started to climb steeply almost immediately, doubling roughly every 7 days. It was obvious then – by simple extrapolation of the exponential curve – that there would be around 1000 new cases per day by Christmas and about 2000 by New Year.

The only reason we didn’t have 2000 cases per day by 31st December was that the system couldn’t cope with so many positive test results and a backlog developed. Today, 10th January, 6888 cases were reported. Hospitalizations, ICU admissions and, sadly, deaths are now tracking upwards after the inevitable delay.

Loosening the restrictions with new cases at hundreds per day always looked to me to be very wrong-headed. I’m not happy to have been proven right.

Against this backdrop Pat Leahy says this:

What?

This is simply untrue. It is true that there was a general expectation that the growth curve would not be so steep, with perhaps 500 cases by Christmas. That was wrong by about a factor two but given the doubling time and no interventions 1000 would have been reached a week later. As someone who argued for relaxation in December, Mr Leahy is rather obviously trying to rewrite history to make him appear less culpable.

In my view the reason why the residual restrictions in December did not slow the increase in Covid-19 cases was that the messaging from the Government was too complicated, had too many exceptions, and gave the appearance that it was arbitrary and without clear justification. This, together with persistent lobbying by vested interests in the hospitality sector, encouraged enough people to ignore even the weakened restrictions in the run-up to Christmas and through the holiday period. In short, the Government has lost the room. Worryingly, I don’t think that it understands this even now.

Even now with a dire health emergency in clear view, I still see people circulating in groups without face coverings. What went wrong, in my opinion, is that the Government was too weak to stick to the advice given to it from the National Public Health Emergency Team and instead started tinkering about trying to satisfy various lobby groups.

But back to Mr Leahy. The statement that “nobody suggested the price for Christmas would be so severe” is plainly untrue: plenty of people knew exactly what was coming and said so loudly and publicly. Neither he nor the politicians listened. If there’s any justice the “political fallout” from this catastrophic weakness will be severe.

Anyway, after being angered by that dreadful Opinion column I’m seriously thinking of switching to a different paper. Any suggestions?