Archive for the Politics Category

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?

A New President

Posted in Biographical, Politics with tags , , , , on November 7, 2020 by telescoper

Well it took a while to get there, but less than an hour ago all the major media networks in the USA “called” the result of the 2020 Presidential Election. It looks as if they were all waiting for Joe Biden’s lead in Pennsylvania to exceed the 0.5% threshold needed to rule out a mandatory recount. Once that happened, they all (CNN, CBS, Associated Press, et al – even Fox News) projected that Joe Biden had won. It had been looking that way for some time, but the press agencies wanted to be sure of their ground. Moments after the Pennsylvania result, AP and others also called Nevada in favour of Biden. The remaining tight race, in Georgia, can still go either way, but Biden now has enough electoral votes to be President Elect.

I’ve never felt happier to have lost a bet.

Congratulations to Joe Biden, and to everyone who helped his campaign. A special vote of thanks is due to Jo Jorgensen, the “Libertarian” candidate who polled considerably more votes in the key Swing States than Biden’s margin of victory…

The result is, among many other things, very good news for Ireland. Joe Biden is an Irish-American and we can be confident that he will not allow the Belfast Agreement to be sabotaged by Johnson & Gove. It’s not so good news for Boris Johnson but at least we’ll have the pleasure of seeing him twist in the wind until he resigns in a few months’ time.

Nobody expects Donald Trump to go quietly, however, and there’s no sign that he is going to concede. I think he’d be quite happy to watch his country burn rather than admit being a loser. Some patriot. I think the USA is now entering a very dangerous period in its history. It’s really a question of whether Trump’s entourage can persuade him to accept reality. I’m not sure they will be able to do that. Instead there’s a real possibility that Trump will try to encourage his followers to violent protest. At the very least we can expect him to issue a string of executive orders intend the sabotage the new President. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m more anxious about the next few weeks than I was about the election.

PS Can this evening’s TV schedule on RTÉ 2 really be a coincidence?

PPS. I watched “The Death of Stalin” last night and thought it was very good!

Calculations, Calculations…

Posted in Biographical, mathematics, Politics on November 6, 2020 by telescoper

So it’s past 1pm GMT on Friday 6th November and the USA is still trying to work out who will be its next President after the elections that took place on Tuesday. The process is taking so long I wonder if Americans might be starting to appreciate the nature of Test Match cricket?

In the meantime I’ve been occupying myself with some simpler calculations for my second-year vector calculus module:

US Election Night and Day

Posted in Bad Statistics, Biographical, Politics on November 4, 2020 by telescoper

Before you ask, no I didn’t stay up all night for the US presidential election results. I went to bed at 11pm and woke up as usual at 7am when my radio came on. I had a good night’s sleep. It’s not that I was confident of the outcome – I didn’t share the optimism of many of my friends that a Democrat landslide was imminent – it’s just that I’ve learnt not to get stressed by things that are out of my control.

On the other hand, my mood on waking to discover that the election was favouring the incumbent Orange Buffoon is accurately summed up by this image:

Regardless of who wins, I find it shocking that so many are prepared to vote for Trump a second time. There might have been an excuse first time around that they didn’t know quite how bad he was. Now they do, and there are still 65 million people (and counting) willing to vote for him. That’s frightening.

As I write (at 4pm on November 3rd) it still isn’t clear who will be the next President, but the odds have shortened dramatically on Joe Biden (currently around 1/5) having been short on Donald Trump when the early results came in; Trump’s odds have now drifted out between 3/1 and 4/1. Biden is now clearly favourite, but favourites don’t always win.

What has changed dramatically during the course of the day has been the enormous impact of mail-in and early voting results in key states. In Wisconsin these votes turned around a losing count for Biden into an almost certain victory by being >70% in his favour. A similar thing looks likely to happen in Michigan too. Assuming he wins Wisconsin, Joe Biden needs just two of Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Georgia to reach the minimum of 270 electoral college votes needed to win the election. He is ahead in two – Michigan and Nevada.

This is by no means certain – the vote in each of these states is very close and they could even all go to Trump. What does seem likely is that Biden will win the popular vote quite comfortably and may even get over 50%. That raises the issue again of why America doesn’t just count the votes and decide on the basis of a simple majority, rather than on the silly electoral college system, but that’s been an open question for years. Trump won on a minority vote last time, against Hillary Clinton, as did Bush in 2000.

It’s also notable that this election has once again seeing the pollsters confounded. Most were predicted a comfortable Biden victory. Part of the problem is the national polls lack sufficient numbers in the swing states to be useful, but even the overall voting tally seems set to be much closer than the ~8% margin in many polls.

Obviously there is a systematic problem of some sort. Perhaps it’s to do with sample selection. Perhaps it’s because Trump supporters are less likely to answer opinion poll questions honestly. Perhaps its due to systematic suppression of the vote in pro-Democrat areas. There are potentially many more explanations, but the main point is that when polls have a systematic bias like this, you can’t treat the polling error statistically as a quantity that varies from positive to negative independently from one state to another, as some of the pundits do, because it is replicated across all States.

As I mentioned in a post last week, I placed a comfort bet on Trump of €50 at 9/5. He might still win but if he doesn’t this is one occasion on which I’d be happy to lose money.

P.S. The US elections often make me think about how many of the States I have actually visited. The answer is (mostly not for very long): Kansas, South Dakota, Colorado, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, California, Arizona, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and Pennsylvania. That’s way less than a majority. I’ve also been to Washington DC but that’s not a State..

Domestic Post

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, Politics with tags , , , on November 1, 2020 by telescoper

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being.
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing.

Those lines from Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley came to my mind this morning not only because it’s blowing a gale outside but also because it is just after Halloween Samhain which was a noisy night because of all the fireworks, but at least I wasn’t disturbed by trick-or-treaters. I guess none of them made it past the barbed wire and electric fence…

Anyway, being confined to quarters for the day has allowed me to catch up on some domestic matters, including dealing with my first ever demand for payment of Local Property Tax (LPT) which arrived on Friday: before I bought my own home, my landlord paid the LPT on the flat I was living in. Coincidentally, along with the bill for the Local Property Tax came a letter from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection (DEASP) confirming that they had changed my address on their records. I told them two months ago.

The Local Property Tax plays a similar role in Ireland to that of the Council Tax in the United Kingdom, and is also based on some notional estimate of the value of your home, but it’s quite a lot lower than in the UK. Although my house in Maynooth is worth considerably more than my Pontcanna residence the property tax is less than a third here than it is in Cardiff. You might think that’s a good thing, but the consequence is that there is a much poorer provision of local services here. In fact Local Government as a whole is a much lesser thing here than it is on the other side of the Irish Sea. Although there are elections to the local councils (in my case Kildare County Council) as there are in the UK, the ability of the councils to do anything useful is very limited.

One particular aspect of this is that householders in Ireland have to arrange their own refuse collection via a private company; in Cardiff the refuse collection service was provided by the Council. When I took over the house I asked the previous owner about refuse collections and, since I had no experience of any of the companies listed as offering this service, I simply carried on with the company she had used.

And so it came to pass that my weekly refuse and recycling collection is carried out by Bord na Móna (literally “The Turf Board”), a company set up in 1946 to supply peat as a form of fuel. Although you can still buy peat around these parts to burn on the fire, it is a very dirty fuel and harvesting it causes damage to the peat bogs in the Irish Midlands that provide a unique habitat for wildlife and plants of various kinds. Bord na Móna has therefore been diversifying into more sustainable lines of business with the intention of withdrawing entirely from peat production in the next decade or so. Among these new activities are renewable energy generation and recycling, the latter being relevant to this post.

The refuse collection, carried out through a subsidiary called AES, is quite a sophisticated operation. I have four wheelie bins (one for recycling, one for organic & food waste, one for glass, and one for general waste). Each of these bins is microchipped and the amount of general waste collected recorded at each collection. I am of frugal habits and don’t usually produce very much waste, especially general waste, though I have had a number of things delivered to the house since I moved in which always requires disposal of a considerable amount of packaging. Happily they also send a free SMS reminder of what bin to put out when.

Anyway to return to the opening theme of this post, I’ve discovered a “feature” of my new house. Being situated at the end of a row of similar properties with a wall to one side to mark the end of the row, it seems that leaves which have been blown along the road collect in great heaps on the path leading to my front door. I have to go out quite regularly with a shovel to clear them away. At present I put them in the organic refuse bin, but I’m thinking of getting a compost bin for the garden. It seems I am becoming quite domesticated in my old age.

Postscript: no sooner did I finish this post than all the power went off in the house.

Postscript to the postscript. It came on again after about 2½ hours in my area, but as I write it is still off in parts of Maynooth.

Odds on Trump

Posted in Politics with tags , , , on October 29, 2020 by telescoper

I’ve been busy all day on a secret mission (from the safety of my own home) which left me no time to do a proper post, so I’ll just do a quickie to mention the state of play as the US presidential election approaches.

Although Joe Biden seems to be comfortably ahead in terms of the popular vote, the vagaries of the American voting system do not easily translate into the probability of a win. After all, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016, and look what good that did her!

I looked at odds checker just now and saw the best Bookies odds are Biden 11/20 on and Trump 15/8 against. That’s uncomfortably close given what an appallingly terrible man the incumbent is, but at least 40% of the American electoral don’t seem to mind having a such an item for a president so there’s a significant chance that he’ll win, especially since his campaign has been deploying extensive spoiling tactics to tilt the vote in his favour.

Yesterday I decided that I would follow my usual betting practice and place a wager on the outcome that I don’t want to happen. I did this in 2016. Then Hunting the best odds I could find were 18-5 against Donald Trump. I put a monkey* on, and walked away with £2300 (being £1800 plus my stake) when Trump won.

I followed the same strategy on the Brexit Referendum Day as I felt it in my bones that Vote Leave was going to win. I ended up depressed but compensated to the tune of £1000.

I’m afraid to say I feel the same way now about the likelihood of a Trump victory. Not very scientific, I know, but there you go. This year the odds are a lot shorter and I think I’ll bet a bit less, but I’ll still go for the compensation strategy.

I have never paid much attention to American politics in the past. It is as incomprehensible to me as British politics must be to them. Gore Vidal summed it up for me:

There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt — until recently … and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.

Although both parties still represent the moneyed classes more than anyone else, but this time the Republican contender is a corrupt narcissist who has already done untold damage to his country. Americans are free to vote for whomever they wish, of course. I don’t have a say, as I’m a foreigner.

Although I find it deeply depressing that this race is even close, I won’t lose any sleep over the election night. I’ll do what I did on the day of the EU referendum: drink some wine, listen to music and then go to sleep. There’s no point in worrying about things that are out of your hands.

(*monkey = £500)

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.

 

 

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.

Against Hierarchies

Posted in Education, Politics, Television with tags , , , , on October 13, 2020 by telescoper

Being too tired to do anything else, last night I had a rare look at the television and found an interesting programme on RTÉ One called The Confessors which I watched to the end. The theme of the show was the tradition of the confession box in the Irish Catholic Church. As someone brought up in the Anglican tradition, the confessional has always been a bit of a mystery to me, which is one reason I found it interesting. It also touched on a number of wider issues (including the possible role of the seminary at Maynooth in establishing Ireland as an outpost of Jansenism. Some of the priests contributing to the programme also talked very frankly about the systematic sexual abuse of children by priests and the way it was covered up by the Church.

I was very interested to hear several of the contributors complaining that this problem was exacerbated by the power structure of the Catholic Church which made it easy for complaints to be stifled.

That discussion reminded me of thoughts I’ve had previously about harassment and abuse in other contexts (not of children) and the way they are suppressed by official hierarchies. This problem extends to universities, whose management structures often resemble those of church hierarchies, even down to the terminology (e.g. Deans) they have inherited from their origins as theological institutions.

This sort of structure creates a problem that is extremely deeply rooted in the culture of many science departments and research teams across the world. These tend to be very hierarchical, with power and influence concentrated in the hands of relatively few, usually male, individuals. A complaint about (especially sexual) harassment generally has to go up through the management structure and therefore risks being blocked at a number of stages for a number of reasons. This sort of structure reinforces the idea that students and postdocs are at the bottom of the heap and discourages them from even attempting to pursue a case against someone at the top.

These unhealthy power structures will not be easy to dismantle entirely, but there are simple things that can be done to make a start. “Flatter”, more democratic, structures not only mitigate this problem but are also probably more efficient by, for example, eliminating the single-point failures that plague hierarchical organisational arrangements. Having more roles filled on a rotating basis by members of academic staff rather than professional managers would help. On the other hand, the existing arrangements clearly suit those who benefit from them. If things are to change at all, however, we’ll have to start by recognizing that there is a structural problem.

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.