Archive for the Politics Category

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?

Beard Wearers who stormed Capitol building condemned for bringing hirsute into disrepute

Posted in Beards, Politics with tags , , , on January 7, 2021 by telescoper

Here is an important perspective on yesterday’s shocking scenes in Washington DC. There’s no question that if Abraham Lincoln were alive today he’d be turning in his grave.

But seriously though, how come the Police presence was so thin that this rabble managed to get into the Capitol buuldings more-or-less unchallenged? Surely they knew what was going to happen?

Kmflett's Blog

Beard Liberation Front

7th January

Beard Wearers who stormed US Capitol building condemned for bringing hirsute into disrepute

The Beard Liberation Front, the informal network of beard wearers, has condemned beard wearers who stormed the Capitol building in Washington on 6th January for bringing the hirsute into disrepute.

The campaigners, who promote positive images of the hirsute, say that while beard wearers were a minority amongst those trying to disrupt a legislative session confirming Joe Biden as the next President, they were a significant minority.

Two alt-right to fascist groups in particular appear to have been involved. The crazed conspiracy theorist group QAnon is not particularly associated with beards.

However the all-male Proud Boys are frequently to be seen with beards. Founder Gavin McInnes who was born in Hitchin but resides in the US is a noted beard wearer.

The BLF says that the Proud Boys have worked…

View original post 98 more words

Funding ‘Blue Skies’ Research in Ireland

Posted in Maynooth, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on January 4, 2021 by telescoper

Before Christmas, Ireland’s new Department for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science embarked on a consultation about its strategy for 2021-23. Like most other departments, the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth made a collective submission to this consultation and we await further developments. This blog post is not that submission. What follows here is my own rant personal view and not that of my colleagues. And before you accuse me of some kind of sour grapes I’ll point out that the Department of Theoretical Physics is actually doing very well in securing grant funding despite the difficult environment.

It has been very clear to me since arriving in Ireland that funding for basic or fundamental research – especially in the sciences – is extremely poor. This is not a new thing, but the current situation is largely the result of a high-level report published in 2012. This identified 14 priority areas of research that are most likely to give demonstrable economic and societal return, and where Ireland should focus the majority of competitive funding. Four criteria were used in selecting the 14 priority areas for future, competitively-awarded investment for economic objectives:

  1. the area is associated with a large global market or markets in which Irish-based enterprises already compete or can realistically compete;
  2. publicly performed R&D in Ireland is required to exploit the area and will complement private sector research and innovation in Ireland;
  3. Ireland has built or is building (objectively measured) strengths in research disciplines relevant to the area; and,
  4. the area represents an appropriate approach to a recognized national challenge and/or a global challenge to which Ireland should respond.

The `vast majority’ of SFI’s funding is directed towards the 14 areas so defined, leaving virtually nothing for anything else, an outcome which has dire implications for `blue skies’ research.

I think this is a deeply misguided short-term policy, which will have a strongly negative effect on science in Ireland in the medium to long term, especially because Ireland spends so little of its GDP on research in the first place. On top of that it will mean that Ireland will miss out on a golden opportunity to capitalise on Brexit, by encouraging European scientists disaffected by the hostile environment that has been created in Britain by its government’s xenophobic policies to relocate to Ireland. There’s simply no point in trying to persuade world-leading researchers to come to Ireland if insufficient funds are available to enable them to establish here; the politicians’ welcoming platitudes will never be enough.

I hope the Irish government can be persuaded to reverse this situation by investing more in basic research.
In the meantime I thought I’d re-iterate the argument I made a while ago, in response to a funding crisis in the UK, about using taxpayer’s money to fund research in universities:

For what it’s worth I’ll repeat my own view that “commercially useful” research should not be funded by the taxpayer through research grants. If it’s going to pay off in the short term it should be funded by private investors, venture capitalists of some sort or perhaps through some form of National Investment Bank. When the public purse is so heavily constrained, it should only be asked to fund those things that can’t in practice be funded any other way. That means long-term, speculative, curiosity driven research.

This is pretty much the opposite of what Irish government thinks. It wants to concentrate public funds in projects that can demonstrate immediate commercial potential. Taxpayer’s money used in this way ends up in the pockets of entrepreneurs if the research succeeds and, if it doesn’t, the grant has not fulfilled its stated objectives and the funding has therefore, by its own standards, been wasted.

My proposal, therefore, is to phase out research grants for groups that want to concentrate on commercially motivated research and replace them with research loans. If the claims they make to secure the advance are justified, they should have no problem repaying the funds from the profits they make from patent income or other forms of exploitation. If not, then they will have to pay back the loan from their own funds (as well as being exposed as bullshit merchants). In the current economic situation the loans could be made at very low interest rates and still save a huge amount of the current research budget for higher education. I suggest these loans should be repayable in 3-5 years, so in the long term this scheme would be self-financing. I think a large fraction of research in the applied sciences and engineering should be funded in this way.

The money saved by replacing grants to commercially driven research groups with loans could be re-invested in those areas where public investment is really needed, such as purely curiosity-driven science. Here grants are needed because the motivation for the research is different. Much of it does, in fact, lead to commercial spin-offs, and when that happens it is a very good thing, but these are likely to appear only in the very long term. But just because this research does not have an immediate commercial benefit does not mean that it has no benefit. For one thing, it is subjects like Astronomy and Particle Physics that inspire young people to get interested in science in the first place. That such fields are apparently held in so low regard by the Government can only encourage Ireland’s brightest young minds to pursue careers abroad.

Erasmus Minus

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Politics with tags , , on December 27, 2020 by telescoper

The news that the UK is to leave the Erasmus+ scheme for student exchanges shouldn’t have come as a surprise. After all, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson explicitly promised in the House of Commons in January 2020 that it wouldn’t happen and what he says is virtually guaranteed to be the opposite of the truth.

I quote:

There is no threat to the Erasmus scheme. We will continue to participate. UK students will continue to be able to enjoy the benefits of exchanges with our European friends and partners, just as they will continue to be able to come to this country.

In a similar vein, the stated reason for this decision (“financial considerations”) is also untrue. (Contrary to popular myth the United Kingdom is not the most popular destination for Erasmus students; that is Spain.) The cost of participating in Erasmus is modest and the benefits huge for both incoming and outgoing students and indeed the relevant home and host institutions. The real reason for this act of vandalism is demonstrated by the announcement of a new £100 million Turing scheme that is one-way only. Evidently the UK doesn’t want any nasty foreign students coming here. Equally evidently the UK Government believes that other countries will gleefully accept thousands of UK students in their universities while not having the mutual benefit of an exchange programme. Above all, most young people in the United Kingdom did not vote for Brexit in the referendum and remain strongly pro-EU. To the Brexit Government that means they must be punished. Come to think of it, the Erasmus slogan (“Enriching Lives, Opening Minds”) is pretty much the antithesis of the UK Government’s isolationist stance.

It’s “interesting” (and, to me, sickening) that the name of Alan Turing has been appropriated for this new programme. Turing, I’ll remind you, was a man whose life was destroyed by the British authorities despite everything he did for the United Kingdom during World War 2. The (perhaps unintentional) symbolism is obvious. If any of the institutions to which participating students are sent via this scheme are in countries where homosexuality is still illegal, the irony will be complete.

According to the UK Government’s own numbers, the £100 million cost of the Turing scheme will support 35,000 students to study or work internationally. That works out at less than £3000 per student. How much will that pay for? In the absence of a mutual fee waiver (which is how Erasmus+ works) it seems it will cover only a small fraction of the cost of a year abroad. Not to mention the need to acquire a visa which was not the case for movement within the EU. Still, that probably doesn’t matter, as it is only the rich who are meant to benefit.

There are a number of interesting points about UK participation in Erasmus+ which may not have been fully thought through by the Johnson government. I know it’s astonishing to think that a Cabinet full of such stellar intellects might have missed something important, but in fact Higher Education is a devolved responsibility in the United Kingdom. What the Government says about Education policy therefore only really applies to England. Scotland and Wales could in principle decide to continue as members. Moreover, if the Turing scheme is administered through the Department of Education, appropriate funding should be passed to the devolved nations by the Barnett formula which they can spend on continuing Erasmus+ participation if they wish. There’ll be legal arguments of course, but on the face of it that seems to be the situation.

Students in Northern Ireland won’t have to worry, however, as the Republic has already offered to fund the participation of NI students, a decision as generous and politically astute as the English decision is petty and mean-spirited.

The decision to withdraw from Erasmus+ will make life very difficult for many UK Higher Education institutions as many run degree programmes that include a year abroad facilitated by the scheme. As of January 1st 2021 they will no longer be able to offer these programme. I know from my own past experience how long it takes to set exchange programmes, how much work is involved in keeping it going, but how rewarding the participating students find it. Tragically, all that will disappear in the New Year.

But there may be silver lining for Ireland. Students from the EU wishing to study in an English-speaking country are likely to be looking at Irish universities in increasing numbers. We already have quite a few at Maynooth (though not this year because of Covid-19 travel restrictions); for information see here. I think there’s a strong case to exploit the British mistake and boost the involvement in Erasmus+ across the Republic.

I would very much like to do this in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University. Though a small Department, we are in a good position to develop more international partnerships because of our collaborative networks. Indeed, although it is the Christmas break, I today received two emails from colleagues abroad wondering if we would be interested in replacing UK institutions. I think we could offer a very nice option for students from Spain and Italy. The problem is that to balance the books we really need to encourage more of our own students to venture abroad. That is difficult because, in Ireland (as in the UK), only a small number of students studying Physics at third level institutions have proficiency in a European language (other than Irish). That may not effect the teaching too much, as many European universities do teach science courses in English, but for life in general it is more difficult if you can’t speak the local language to any real extent. For this reason, it may be better for us to target postgraduate rather than undergraduate students for such an arrangement.

That’s another job to add to my list for the New Year!

Brexit Fisheries Update

Posted in Politics with tags , , on December 23, 2020 by telescoper

It seems that the talks between the United Kingdom and the European Union on a future trading relationship remain deadlocked, the sole remaining issue being that of fisheries, more specifically on the allocation of fish quotas – a topic known in France as the Poisson Distribution. The British angle is that they expect a net reduction in access by EU fisherman, if you catch my drift.

I’m not really a dab hand at fishing and wouldn’t bream of pretending to be an expert, so this isn’t really the plaice to go into detail. The following is just a quick summary obtained by trawling about online. Obviously the talks themselves are behind closed dories and are all very huss-huss.

A ray of hope emerged yesterday when a rumour circulated that the British side had offered concessions, but this turned out to be a load of pollocks and the British are still insisting that in these negotiations they hold all the cods. I suspect those involved are now pouting angrily at each other. It’s undoubtedly a tench situation.

Although it would be brill if a deal were reached, it still looks more likely that the talks will flounder. With time running out, it seems the whiting is on the wall. If they are going to make an agreement they’ll certainly have to get their skates on.

My own view is that by flexing their mussels like this the British are behaving in a rather shellfish manner. From what I’m herring, some people think they are doing this just for the halibut and they want to have their hake and eat it.

Now I’m off to get a haircut. If I don’t do it before the post-Christmas lockdown I’m in danger of ending up with a mullet.

Emmanuel Mackerel is 43.

Mutatis Mutandis

Posted in Covid-19, Politics with tags , on December 21, 2020 by telescoper

So here I am, first full day of Christmas vacation and, boy, am I pleased I didn’t try to take a trip to the UK for the festive season. Had I tried to do so I’d either have got stuck there for an indefinite period or be still here frantically doing some food shopping for a solitary Christmas. Having settled for a solitary Christmas some time ago I’ve actually got – without getting the least bit frantic – most of what I need not only to survive Christmas here in Maynooth but also to have a massively self-indulgent time. I’m looking forward to cooking myself special dinners on Christmas Eve (Sea Bass), Christmas Day (Confit of Duck) and Boxing Day (Lamb Shank) together with carefully chosen wines.

The cause of the sudden isolation of the United Kingdom is, allegedly, the appearance of a new “mutant” variant of the SARS-COV-2 virus. I say “allegedly” because it isn’t clear to me that this is any different from the thousand-plus other variant forms of this particular Coronavirus. One thing viruses do rather well is mutate.

It seems perfectly possible to me that this mutation has been seized on by the Johnson administration as an excuse for a changing a policy that they should have changed ages ago but didn’t want to lose face. They did, after all, know about this variant way back in September. They may not have known then that this strain might be more infectious, but their response to Covid-19 generally has been careless and inept even without this new development. As it has been on other matters too, on top of their laziness and corruption. Am I being too cynical? Perhaps, but the Tories have shown themselves time and time again to be pathological liars so I hope you’ll forgive me for not believing a word.

What seems to have happened is that Johnson hyped up the threat from this new variant for a domestic audience but it put the wind up Macron and other leaders. Assuming Johnson was telling the truth they closed their borders.

There’s quite a strong chance that there will be some disruption to food supplies here in Ireland as a consequence of the land route from the continent being closed so I will try to get the last of my “essentials” today. It will be worse in the UK, though, and I feel very sorry for all my friends there who will be effectively cut off for the holiday season. I hope they can console themselves with the fact that Christmas isn’t cancelled this year, it is just Australia-style…

Message from President Michael D. Higgins to Third-Level Students

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Politics with tags , on December 11, 2020 by telescoper

I saw this yesterday and thought I’d share it here, partly because it contains lots of thoughtful comments* for students – especially first-year students – currently in third-level education, and partly because it is a reminder that it is possible for the President of a country to be an intelligent, kind and empathic person…

*I’m proud to say that many of his comments echo those I used to make at induction events for new students long before the Covid-10 pandemic!

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!