Archive for ireland

Thoughts on Lá Bealtaine

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on May 1, 2021 by telescoper

Today, 1st May, Beltane (Bealtaine in Irish) is an old Celtic festival that marks the mid-point between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice. It’s one of the so-called Cross-Quarter Days that lie exactly halfway between the equinoxes and solstices. These ancient festivals have been moved so that they take place earlier in the modern calendar than the astronomical events that represent their origin: the halfway point between the Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice is actually next week.

Anyway, any excuse is good for a Bank Holiday long weekend, so let me offer a hearty Lá Bealtaine sona daoibh!

While not excessively warm, the weather is at least pleasant enough for me to have had my breakfast outside in the garden. As I was sipping my coffee I thought how much nicer it is to be in my own home during all this. The one really big positive about last year was that I managed to buy a house and move in during a few-month window when that was possible.

I put up a post last year on May Day that was dominated by Covid-19. I didn’t really imagine that we would still be under restrictions a whole year later, but I didn’t imagine that vaccines would be available so quickly either. Now it seems I will have the chance to register for my shot(s) next week with the view to getting a first dose sometime in June. Possibly.

The precise timing of my vaccination shot isn’t particularly important to me at this point, as it looks like I’ll be stuck at work all summer with no possibility of a holiday (as was the case last year). On the bright side, my three-year term as Head of Department ends after next academic year so there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

Despite the slow progress with vaccination – currently only about 28.5% of the adult population have received a first dose – and the very high case numbers – about 450 per day on average, and not decreasing – Ireland is now entering a phase of modest relaxation. I think this is far too early and that there’s a real risk of another surge here before any kind of herd immunity is achieved. I hope I’m proved wrong. At least it doesn’t look likely to get as bad as India, where the pandemic is truly out of control.

Workwise we have just completed the penultimate teaching week of Semester 2. Monday is a Bank Holiday so we have four days of teaching left, before a Study Week and the start of examinations. The last week will be busy with assessments and other things, though I imagine most lecturers will be doing revision rather than presenting a lot of new material. In the last few classes. That’s what I plan to do anyway.

Examinations Online Timed Assessment start on 14th May. I have three to supervise and then mark so much of the rest of May will be taken up with that, which has to be done before the Examination Boards in June. After that I suppose we’ll find out what our Lords and Masters have in mind for the start of next academic year…

On Vaccination in Ireland

Posted in Covid-19 with tags , , , on March 31, 2021 by telescoper

Following from my weekend post about issues with Covid19 vaccination, which seems to have ruffled a few feathers, I thought I’d just mention a couple of recent developments.

The first is that on Tuesday (yesterday) the Irish Government decided to change the way it vaccinates the rest of the population. The previous plan was rather complicated with a number of groups to be vaccinated in order of priority:

That plan has now been scrapped and after the current groups 1-3 are completed it will revert to a simpler scheme with priority determined only by age. As an oldie I will benefit from this, moving up several steps in the pecking order as a consequence of the decision.

Frontline workers such as teachers and Gardaí are dismayed by this decision. On the news just now various folk were trying to argue that the change is for health policy reasons, stating that the prime factor in risk for Covid-19 is age. Actually, it isn’t. The prime factor is exposure to the virus.

What I mean is that the probability of dying from Covid-19 if you haven’t been infected is zero: 100% of those suffering death or serious illness from Covid-19 have been in contact with the virus. Someone who is 60 years old but able to work effectively at home at far lower risk of exposure than a 35 year old schoolteacher.

The real reason for the change is that Ireland does not possess a system that can be used identify groups by occupation in an efficient way. Doing it by age is far simpler and would lead to a much more rapid rise in the fraction of the population immunized. Sometimes decisions have to be made for such practical reasons, but I do wish certain people were more honest.

The slow rollout of the vaccine in Ireland should have provided the Government to work out how to implement their original strategy. Obviously they decided that they couldn’t.

Anyway, for myself, I am pleased that it now looks quite likely that I’ll get at least one jab by May. Assuming the vaccine supply holds up, of course.

I thought I’d end with a thought following on from my earlier post. Some people will ask whether I would have the AstraZeneca vaccine given my views about the company’s behaviour and the lower efficacy of the vaccine as compared to others available.

I think there are two motivations for getting vaccinated. One is self-preservation. I want to protect myself as much as possible. If I had the choice of vaccine for this reason I would pick Moderna or Pfizer-BioNtech but would accept AZ if that was the only one available. As things stand, over 75% of doses administered in Ireland have been Pfizer-BioNtech,

The other motivation is to help reduce the transmission of the disease. For that even a low efficacy vaccine would play a part. If the only shot available offered just 50% protection I would still take it, as if everyone did so the population dynamics would still be significantly slowed.

It’s a similar thing with face masks, actually. Their role is only partly to protect the wearer. The other part is to protect everyone else.

So on both grounds, yes I would take the AZ vaccine if that was the only one on offer, but if I had the choice I would pick a better one. I feel the same way about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which will start to become available in Ireland very soon.

Per Ardua ad AstraZeneca

Posted in Covid-19 with tags , , on March 28, 2021 by telescoper

The extent to which AstraZeneca’s dishonesty concerning its purchasing agreement with the EU is becoming clearer, and the company is increasingly engulfed by a PR disaster resulting from this and misleading claims about the efficacy of its Covid-19 vaccine (see here, here, here, etc). Perhaps they will now get their finger out and actually honour their contract?

Here in Ireland there is expected to be a delivery of “large volume” of doses of the Astra Zeneca vaccine next week, though I doubt it will be as large as their contractual obligations specify. We’ll see what actually happens. There isn’t much confidence in AstraZeneca around these parts I can tell you.

This morning the Covid-19 tracker app for Ireland was updated with the latest vaccination figures for Ireland (25th March) which are as follows:

  • First doses: 548,945
  • Second doses: 211,223
  • Total: 760,168

That is definitely speeding up, which is welcome. Not as fast as the UK, of course, who have been the beneficiaries of 21 million doses exported by the EU. That’s about 2/3 of the total shots administered there. The number exported from the UK to the EU is zero. Nada. Zilch. The same is true of the USA. There’s no doubt in my mind who the bad guys are.

Anyway, not to dwell on that issue I was wondering when I might get around to having a jab myself. I am not particularly high in the pecking order, but from April onwards Ireland is supposed to receive about a million doses per month. Assuming that this actually happens, and AstraZeneca doesn’t crap out yet again, I estimate they should get to me in May (2021).

Another question that occurred to me, given that under-18s are not given the current vaccines – is how many doses are needed to vaccinate the adult population of Ireland. The total population of Ireland is about 5 million but that includes quite a large number of children. Looking at the 2016 census I see that the number of people living in Ireland who are under the age of 18 is about 1.25 million. That means to fully vaccinate the entire adult population will take about 7.5 million doses. Currently about 14.6% of the adult population have received one dose, and about 5.6% have received two. We probably won’t get to anything like full vaccination of the adult population until the autumn.

Let me just correct yet another misunderstanding often presented in the UK press concerning unused vaccines. The number of doses imported to Ireland currently exceeds the number administered by over 100,000, but that does not mean that these vaccines have been refused or wasted. Because the vaccination programme here follows the manufacturers’ guidelines, and because the supplies have been unreliable (especially from AstraZeneca), there is a buffer to ensure that a second dose will always be available on the necessary timescale for anyone who has been given the first. That means that at any time there will always be some doses in storage. It wouldn’t be necessary to do this if we could trust the delivery schedule, but there you go.

I wouldn’t be too worried about the slowish pace of vaccination were it not for the fact that new Covid-19 cases in the Republic are on the way up again:

The demographic for these new cases is quite young (a median age of 32 yesterday) and the increase almost certainly arises from lax adherence to the restrictions by a subset of the population. The relatively young age distribution and the fact that those at greatest risk of death or serious illness are being vaccinated should mean that the mortality figures remain low even as cases rise. Although the increase in new cases is worrying it is nowhere near as bad in Ireland as on the Continent of Europe and elsewhere around the world (especially Brazil). More worrying still is the likelihood of vaccine-resistant strains arising through mutation. Indeed there is already some evidence that the AstraZeneca vaccine is not as effective against the B.1.351 South African variant, although this has been disputed. Let’s hope that all the AstraZeneca doses administered so far don’t turn out to be useless.

It seems to me that it’s very likely that in order to deal with variants we’ll be having regular (perhaps annual) updated vaccine shots for the foreseeable future, as the only way to stop mutations happening is to immunize a large fraction of the world’s population and that will take a considerable time.

Six Nations Super Saturday

Posted in Rugby with tags , , , , , , on March 21, 2021 by telescoper

Study week is over and next week we return for the second half of Spring Semester. At least we do for about a fortnight, after which there is the Easter break (Good Friday plus the following week). I’ve just about caught up with what I should have done before the Study break started so I spent a big chunk of yesterday watching the Six Nations Rugby. Super Saturday would normally be the last day, with three matches determining the Championship, but that’s not quite how it worked out as France’s game against Scotland was postponed for Covid-related reasons.

The day started off with a 52-10 victory for Scotland over hapless Italy at Murrayfield. The visitors started well enough but soon melted away as Scotland got into gear, eventually scoring eight tries. A lot of people are asking what is going to happen about Italy. Although they have won the odd game in the Six Nations over the years they have never really been contenders and this year they have been consistently woeful. Despite millions being poured into Italian rugby from the competition they have got worse, not better.

One possibility would be to have a second division of the tournament, with promotion and relegation. One problem is finding teams to make up the other places, the European Championship includes such teams as Russia, Portugal, Spain, Romania, Germany and Belgium. One could add Georgia into that mix too. The greater problem is whether there would be enough of an audience to make this financially viable.

Anyway, the second match of the day was Ireland versus England in Dublin. I have to say that I thought England were strong favourites to win that match but what the heck do I know? Ireland put in their best performance of the tournament and ran out relatively comfortable winners against a lacklustre England by 32 points to 18. England, whom many thought would win the tournament, finish in fifth place out of six.

The final stages of that game were marred by atrocious violent conduct by England prop Ellis Genge which was not spotted by the referee at the time but which will be reviewed and should lead to a lengthy ban.

And then the pièce de résistance, France versus Wales. Wales were looking for a victory that would give them a Grand Slam, an outcome that looked very unlikely at the start of the competition. The game started at a frenetic pace with two tries each in the first 20 minutes or so. If they had kept up that rate of scoring the match could have ended 56-56!, but at half-time the score was 17-17.

Wales gradually exerted their dominance and stretched their lead to 20-30. With Paul Willemse for sent off for France sticking his hand in an opponent’s eye with just 12 minutes to go the game looked over. The French disagreed and brought out some of their best attacking rugby against a tiring Welsh side who resorted to persistent infringement at the breakdown. A succession of penalties and two yellow cards ensued. France took full advantage, scoring a converted try to make it 27-30. Wales were still in front, and in possession of the ball in a good attacking position, with less than two minutes to go but then conceded a penalty. France kept the ball alive from the resulting lineout then used their extra player to score wide on the left wing with no time left to play. It finished 32-30.

The winning try, scored by Brice Dullin

Heartbreak for Wales, but a brilliant comeback by France. What a game of rugby!

Apart from everything else I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game of rugby with so many potential tries prevented by defensive players holding the ball up to prevent grounding in the in-goal area. I counted at least six, each of them just inches away from being a try.

At the risk of incurring the wrath of my Welsh friends I think France just deserved to win that game. Wales had the benefit of most of the marginal refereeing decisions and Wales should have had even more yellow cards near the end for persistent infringement. Above all, they deserved it for refusing to give up when all seemed lost. Magnifique!

The Six Nations is not yet over; there’s still France versus Scotland to come on Friday night (26th March). If France win that game heavily and get a bonus point they could still finish as Champions. France need to overturn a 20-point points difference though so they’ll have to win by 21 points or more and score four tries. I think that’s unlikely, but they’ll definitely go for it!

Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh go léir

Posted in History, Literature, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on March 17, 2021 by telescoper

Well, it’s St Patrick’s Day, which means I’m actually taking a day off and attempting not to read work emails or do work-related things for the day. It’s a lower-key St Paddy’s Day than usual but it’s nice to take a break.

Not many facts are known about the life of St Patrick, but it seems he was born in Britain, probably in the late 4th Century AD, probably somewhere around the Severn Estuary and probably in Wales. It also appears that he didn’t know any Latin. When a young man, it seems he was captured by Celtic marauders coming up the River Severn and taken as a slave to Ireland. He eventually escaped back to Britain, but returned to Ireland as a missionary and succeeded somehow in converting the Irish people to Christianity.

Or did he? This interesting piece suggests his role was of lesser importance than many think.

However it happened, Ireland was the first country to be converted to Christianity that had never been part of the Roman Empire. That made a big difference to the form of the early Church here. The local Celtic culture was very loose and decentralized. There were no cities, large buildings, roads or other infrastructure. Life revolved around small settlements and farms. When wars were fought they were generally over livestock or grazing land. The early Irish Church that grew in this environment was quite different from that of continental Europe. It was not centralized, revolved around small churches and monasteries, and lacked the hierarchical structure of the Roman Church. Despite these differences, Ireland was quite well connected with the rest of the Christian world.

Irish monks – and the wonderful illuminated manuscripts they created – spread across the continent, starting with Scotland and Britain. Thanks to the attentions of the Vikings few of these works survive but the wonderful Lindisfarne Gospels, dating from somewhere in the 8th Century were almost certainly created by Irish monks. The Book of Kells was probably created in Scotland by Irish Monks.

The traffic wasn’t entirely one-way however. A few weeks ago I saw a fascinating documentary about the Fadden More Psalter. This is a leather-bound book of Psalms found in a peat bog in 2006, which is of similar age to the Lindisfarne Gospels. It took years of painstaking restoration work to recover at least part of the text (much of which was badly degraded), but the leather binding turned out to hold a particularly fascinating secret: it was lined with papyrus. The only other books from the same period with the same structure that are known are from the Coptic Church in Egypt.

That doesn’t mean that whoever owned the Fadden More Psalter had actually been to Egypt, of course. It is much more this book made its way to Ireland via a sort of relay race. On the other hand, it does demonstrate that international connections were probably more extensive than you might have thought.

Anyway, back to St Patrick’s Day.

Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated on March 17th, the reputed date of his death in 461 AD. Nobody really knows where St Patrick was born, though, so it would be surprising if the when were any better known.

In any case, it wasn’t until the 17th Century that Saint Patrick’s feast day was placed on the universal liturgical calendar in the Catholic Church. Indeed, St Patrick has never been formally canonized. In the thousand years that passed any memory of the actual date of his birth was probably lost, so the choice of date was probably influenced by other factors, specifically the proximity of the Spring Equinox (which is this year on Saturday March 20th).

The early Christian church in Ireland incorporated many pre-Christian traditions that survived until roughly the 12th century, including the ancient festival of Ēostre (or Ostara), the goddess of spring associated with the spring equinox after whom Easter is named. During this festival, eggs were used a symbol of rebirth and the beginning of new life and a hare or rabbit was the symbol of the goddess and fertility. In turn the Celtic people of Ireland probably adapted their own beliefs to absorb much older influences dating back to the stone age. St Patrick’s Day and Easter therefore probably both have their roots in prehistoric traditions around the Spring Equinox, although the direct connection has long been lost.

The traditional St Patrick’s Day parades etc will not take place this year because of Covid-19 restrictions, but that doesn’t mean everyone is ignoring the day. Indeed here’s a picture of the spire of St Patrick’s College lit up in celebration:

Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh go léir!

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.