Archive for ireland

Hands off the Good Friday Agreement!

Posted in Biographical, Politics with tags , , , , , , on February 22, 2018 by telescoper

 

I’ve been watching with increasing alarm the concerted attempt that certain extremist `Brexiteers’ have been trying to make a case for scrapping the Good Friday Agreement that came about in 1998 after decades of violent conflict in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.  These reckless fools think that derailing the peace process is a price worth paying for their ideological obsession with rejecting anything that involves the EU, in this case the Customs Union that allows an open border between the Republic of Ireland (whose future lies in the vibrant and outward-looking European Union) and Northern Ireland (which will remain shackled to the corpse of the United Kingdom, at least for the time being, until the creation of a united Ireland…). Not surprisingly, Irish politicians and the Irish are incensed about the reckless statements being made by some UK politicians.

Incidentally, the Good Friday Agreement was supported by simultaneous referendums in Northern Ireland (71.1% in favour) and the Republic  of Ireland  (94.4% in favour) ; a majority of the NI electorate also voted against leaving th European Union.  It’s strange how selectively some people are prepared to accept `The Will of the People’…

Anyway, just as a reminder of what is at stake, here are three examples based on my own experiences of what things were like before the GFA, when I lived in London (which I did for about eight years, between 1990 and 1998). During that time I found myself in relatively close proximity to three major bomb explosions, though fortunately I wasn’t close enough to be actually harmed. I also concluded that my proximity to these events was purely coincidental.

The first, in 1993, was the Bishopsgate Bombing. I happened to be looking out of the kitchen window of my flat in Bethnal Green when that bomb went off. I had a clear view across Weavers Fields towards the City of London and saw the explosion happen. I heard it too, several seconds later, loud enough to set off the car alarms in the car park beneath my window.

This picture, from the relevant Wikipedia page, shows the devastation of the area affected by the blast.

The other two came in quick succession. First, a large bomb exploded in London Docklands on Friday February 8th 1996, at around 5pm, when our regular weekly Astronomy seminar was just about to finish at Queen Mary College on the Mile End Road. We were only a couple of miles from the blast, but I don’t remember hearing anything and it was only later that I found out what had happened.

Then, on the evening of Sunday 18th February 1996, I was in a fairly long queue trying to get into a night club in Covent Garden when there was a loud bang followed by a tinkling sound caused by pieces of glass falling to the ground. It sounded very close but I was in a narrow street surrounded by tall buildings and it was hard to figure out from which direction the sound had come from. It turned out that someone had accidentally detonated a bomb on a bus in Aldwych, apparently en route to plant it somewhere else (probably King’s Cross). What I remember most about that evening was that it took me a very long time to get home. Several blocks around the site of the explosion were cordoned off. I lived in the East End, on the wrong side of sealed-off area, so I had to find a way around it before heading home. No buses or taxis were to be found so I had to walk all the way. I arrived home in the early hours of the morning.

 

Does anyone really  want to go back to experiencing this kind of event on a regular basis? If  the UK government is persuaded in its weakness to ditch the Good Friday Agreement then there is a real risk of that happening. And if it does, those calling for it will have blood on their hands.

 

 

 

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University Pension Differences

Posted in Education, Finance, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2018 by telescoper

Following a ballot of members of the University and College Union (UCU), the UK university sector is gearing up for strike action over proposed changes to the USS pension scheme. Unless the dispute is resolved in the meantime (which I think is highly unlikely) the first strike lasting two days will place on 22nd and 23rd February. Thereafter strikes will escalate to cover three days, four days and five days in subsequent weeks.  I’ll actually be in Maynooth for the first 48 hour block so won’t have to worry about crossing a picket line initially, but will have to later if it drags on. It looks set to be a bitter dispute which will not be easily resolved.

When I joined USS (in 1988) it was a simple `Final Salary Scheme’. Both employer and employee contributed and the benefits accrued were an index-linked pension of 1/80 of the final salary for each year of contributions and a (tax-free) lump sum of 3/80 for each year of contributions. I joined at age 25 so I expected to accrue 40 years of pension if I retired at 65, namely a pension of half my final year’s salary and a lump sum of three-halves. It looked a good deal and was a significant factor mitigating the relatively low starting salary for academics in those days.

Over the years it became apparent that this scheme is actuarially unsound because (a) people are living longer, increasing the scheme’s liability and (b) investment growth achieved by the USS fund managers has decreased, with a negative impact on asset growth. Moreover, the USS fund is not underwritten by the government, so if it collapses completely members could be left with no benefits at all.

The USS Final Salary scheme was closed to new entrants some years ago and replaced by a less generous defined benefit scheme. A couple of years ago it was closed to existing members too, though the benefits accrued are retained; I will now only be able to get 28/80 of my final salary from that scheme when I actually retire. The scheme was replaced by a hybrid of an even less generous defined benefit scheme and a defined contribution scheme (where the pension benefit is dependent on the fund valuation at retirement, as most private pensions). Now the proposal is to remove the defined benefit component entirely. The loss of pension benefits will be substantial.

I don’t see any easy settlement of this dispute so I’m glad that it won’t affect me very much. I’ll be leaving the UK Higher Education system this summer and relocating to Ireland. Quite a few people have asked me how the pension scheme works here so I thought I’d point out the differences.

The first thing to say is as a professor in the National University of Ireland at Maynooth I am treated as a public servant so my future pension benefits here are covered by the Single Public Service Pension scheme. This resembles the final salary scheme that USS used to be, but with the important difference is that it is integrated with the State Pension to which everyone is entitled if they pay social insurance contributions. This – called the SPC – is similar to the old State Earnings-Related Pension Scheme (SERPS). Since public employees benefit from this as well as the public service pension scheme, the accrual rate in the latter is lower than the old USS scheme – just 0.58% per year – on salaries up to €45,000. For salaries above this figure the amount above the  limit generates an accrual rate 0f 1/80, just as the USS version. There is also a lump sum which accrues at 3.75% per annum, the same as the USS scheme.

In summary, then, the big difference is that in Ireland the public service pension is integrated with the state pension, whereas in the UK the latter is entirely separate. It’s also the case that in Ireland the pension is guaranteed by the government (which, of course, can change the rules…)

In my opinion the pension scheme for University staff in Ireland is significantly better value than the diminishing returns provided by the USS scheme, yet another reason why I made the decision to move here.

 

Maynooth joins the Euclid Community

Posted in Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 10, 2018 by telescoper

There’s a nice webpage showing all the institutions around the world who belong to the consortium behind the European Space Agency’s Euclid Mission. Here’s a screen grab that shows all the logos of all the institutions involved in this very large Consortium:

There are so many that it’s hard to see them all, but if you look very closely about half way down, among the Ms, you will see Maynooth University among them. This is the first institution in Ireland to have joined the Euclid Consortium and it has just been officially added thanks to yours truly moving there later this year. Ireland is a member state of the European Space Agency, by the way.

Why I’m moving to Ireland

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2017 by telescoper

Over the past few weeks quite a number of people have asked me why I decided to move to Ireland, so thought I’d write a post about it in case anyone out there is interested.

The simple answer that I was offered a full-time permanent and rather well paid job at Maynooth University. I’m currently on a part-time fixed term contract at Cardiff University.  The salary wasn’t the main factor, but the low value of the £ relative to the € means that I will do quite well financially out of the move. On top of that I will be joining a final salary pension scheme which has far more favourable terms that the scheme that applies to UK academic staff. Oh, and there’s neither a Research Excellence Framework nor a Teaching Excellence Framework nor a Knowledge Exchange Framework nor punitive levels of student tuition fees nor any of the many other  idiocies that have been inflicted on UK universities in recent years. It will be a relief to be able to teach and do research in environment which, at least for the time being, regards these as things of value in themselves rather than as means of serving the empty cycle of production and consumption that defines the modern neoliberal state. Above all, it’s a good old-fashioned professorship. You know, teaching and research?

That’s the simple answer, but there’s a bit more to it than that. I left Sussex in 2016 with the intention of taking early retirement as soon as I could do so. My short exposure to  a role in senior management, as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex, convinced me that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life  in a system that I felt had lost all sight of what universities are and what they are for. I was (and still am) deeply grateful to Cardiff University for throwing me a lifeline that enabled me to escape from what I increasingly saw as a dead-end job, and giving me an interesting job to do to tide me over until next year, when I am 55 and therefore eligible for early retirement.

I think I have done everything that was asked of me in my current position at Cardiff, on a half-time salary but often up against very short timescales. The two MSc courses I was brought in to set up are both now running and looking to expand. On top of that we also managed to secure funding for a Centre for Doctoral Training. I only played a small part in doing that, but I think it has put the Data Innovation Research Institute on the map.  When both of these successes had been secured earlier this year, I felt that there was no way that leaving now would have a negative effect either on the Data Innovation Institute or the School of Physics & Astronomy. By about April this year I had firmly decided to retire completely from academia in mid-2018.

The problem with this plan had been apparent since 2016: Brexit.  I think it’s still quite possible that the Brexit project will fail under the weight of its own contradictions, but that no longer matters. The damage has already been done. The referendum campaign, followed by the callous and contemptuous attitude of the current UK Government towards EU nationals living in Britain, unleashed a sickening level of xenophobia that has made me feel like a stranger in my own country. Not everyone who voted `Leave’ is a bigot, of course, but every bigot voted for Brexit and the bigots are now calling all the shots. There are many on the far right of UK politics who won’t be satisfied until we have ethnic cleansing. Even if Brexit is stopped the genie of intolerance is out of the bottle and I don’t think it well ever be put back. Brexit will also doom the National Health Service and the UK university system, and clear the way for the destruction of workers’ rights and environmental protection. The poor and the sick will suffer, while only the rich swindlers who bought the referendum result will prosper. The country in which I was born, and in which I have lived for the best part of 54 years, is no longer something of which I want to be a part.

So, having spent most of my working life in the UK higher education system and decided that my heart was no longer in that, I then had to face that my heart was no longer in this country at all. Could I face years of retirement in mean-spirited down-market Brexit Britain? What was I to do?

I’ve mentioned many times on this blog how lucky I have been that opportunities have come along at exactly the right time. In May, a friend pointed out the advertisement for a job in Maynooth with an application deadline just a few days away. Cosmology was specifically mentioned as one of the possible areas. I felt that they would probably be looking for someone younger, and my research output over the last few years has been patchy given my other commitments, but at the last minute I sent off an application.

Ireland has a particularly strong attraction for me because I have Irish ancestry through which I am eligible for citizenship without having to go through the naturalisation process (which takes 5 years, still less than many EU countries). Together with an Irish EU passport comes a continuation of the rights – especially freedom of movement – that UK citizens will shortly lose. It seemed like outrageously good luck that this post came up just at the right time, but the end of July came and went without any news. I assumed I hadn’t been shortlisted, so forgot about the idea.

Then, in September I received a letter inviting me for interview just a couple of weeks later. I’m not sure why the process was  so delayed, but was overjoyed to find out there was still a chance. The date clashed with a prior commitment, so I had to do the interview via Skype (over a flaky internet connection from a hotel room) rather than in person.  I thought it went very badly, but I ended up being offered the job. I visited Maynooth University shortly after being informed of this, to discuss terms.

The people at Maynooth were keen to have me start there as soon as possible, but given the lateness of the interview date I had already committed to teaching in Cardiff this forthcoming Semester and I wasn’t going to leave my current colleagues and students in the lurch. There was an obvious solution, however. I am employed here at 50% FTE so I could start in Maynooth at up to 50% without having to resign. We quickly agreed this transitional arrangement was workable, and I started there on 1st December.  The period from February to April will be very busy, as I will be working either side of the Irish Sea, but it’s only for a relatively short time. Next summer I plan to relocate completely to Ireland.

You probably think I’m a bit old to be starting a new life in another country, even one that’s relatively nearby, but I reckon I have time for this one last adventure before I retire. In the words of Tennyson’s Ulysses, `It is not too late to seek a newer world’.  I have worked in British universities since 1988. That’s almost 30 years. I reckon I can still contribute something in the last 10 I have before I pull down the shutters for good. Who knows, maybe I’ll even experience the joy of living in a United Ireland before long?

The press have covered a number of stories of EU nationals who have been living in Britain and who have decided to leave because of Brexit. Surprisingly little attention has been paid to those, like myself, who are also EU nationals but who happen have been born in Britain. I know more than a few academics who are weighing up their options, as well as those born abroad I know who have already departed.  The Brexodus has already begun and its pace seems likely to accelerate very quickly indeed. Other have personal situations that are more complicated than mine, such as partners and children, so not everyone will find it easy to follow a similar path to the one I’ve chosen, but I those that can get out will do so.

Because I’ve lived here all my life I thought I would find it difficult to leave Britain. I was quite traumatised by the Brexit referendum, as one would be by the death of a close relative, but it made me reexamine my life. There is a time when you have to move on, and that’s what I’m doing. I’m done here.

 

 

Trees, Graphs and the Leaving Certificate

Posted in Biographical, mathematics, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on December 15, 2017 by telescoper

I’m starting to get the hang of some of the differences between things here in Ireland and the United Kingdom, both domestically and in the world of work.

One of the most important points of variation that concerns academic life is the school system students go through before going to University. In the system operating in England and Wales the standard qualification for entry is the GCE A-level. Most students take A-levels in three subjects, which gives them a relatively narrow focus although the range of subjects to choose from is rather large. In Ireland the standard qualification is the Leaving Certificate, which comprises a minimum of six subjects, giving students a broader range of knowledge at the sacrifice (perhaps) of a certain amount of depth; it has been decreed for entry into this system that an Irish Leaving Certificate counts as about 2/3 of an A-level for admissions purposes, so Irish students do the equivalent of at least four A-levels, and many do more than this.

There’s a lot to be said for the increased breadth of subjects undertaken for the leaving certificate, but I have no direct experience of teaching first-year university students here yet so I can’t comment on their level of preparedness.

Coincidentally, though, one of the first emails I received this week referred to a consultation about proposed changes to the Leaving Certificate in Applied Mathematics. Not knowing much about the old syllabus, I didn’t feel there was much I could add but I had a look at the new one and was surprised to see a whole `Strand’, on Mathematical Modelling with netwworks and graphs.

The introductory blurb reads:

In this strand students learn about networks or graphs as mathematical models which can be used to investigate a wide range of real-world problems. They learn about graphs and adjacency matrices and how useful these are in solving problems. They are given further opportunity to consolidate their understanding that mathematical ideas can be represented in multiple ways. They are introduced to dynamic programming as a quantitative analysis technique used to solve large, complex problems that involve the need to make a sequence of decisions. As they progress in their understanding they will explore and appreciate the use of algorithms in problem solving as well as considering some of the wider issues involved with the use of such techniques.

 

Among the specific topics listed you will find:

  • Minimal Spanning trees applied to problems involving optimising networks and algorithms associated with finding these (Kruskal, Prim);  
  • Bellman’s Optimality Principal to find the shortest paths in a weighted directed network, and to be able to formulate the process algebraically;
  •  Dijkstra’s algorithm to find shortest paths in a weighted directed network; etc.

 

For the record I should say that I’ve actually used Minimal Spanning Trees in a research context (see, e.g., this paper) and have read (and still have) a number of books on graph theory, which I find a truly fascinating subject. It seems to me that the topics all listed above  are all interesting and they’re all useful in a range of contexts, but they do seem rather advanced topics to me for a pre-university student and will be unfamiliar to a great many potential teachers of Applied Mathematics too. It may turn out, therefore, that the students will end up getting a very superficial knowledge of this very trendy subject, when they would actually be better off getting a more solid basis in more traditional mathematical methods  so I wonder what the reaction will be to this proposal!

 

 

 

The Days of the Double Bind

Posted in Biographical, Literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on December 5, 2017 by telescoper

The last few days I’ve been trying to deal with the sort of apparently insoluble problem usually called a double bind, similar to the logical paradox which provided the central plot device of Joseph Heller’s classic novel Catch-22. I’ve seen this particular double bind happen to so many colleagues from abroad wanting to work in the United Kingdom that in a sense it’s quite reassuring that the same thing happens in much the same way in other countries too, specifically Ireland.

The problem facing me is that I need to find somewhere to rent temporarily in Maynooth until I can find longer-term accommodation (i.e. by buying a house). As convenient as St Patrick’s College is as a short-term residence, it’s not somewhere I would want to live for weeks and months. The trouble is that in order to secure private rented accommodation you need to prove that you are able to pay the rent, which generally means having a bank account. On the other hand, in order to open a bank account you need to have proof of an address. No address, no bank account and no bank account, no address.

This is not exactly the same as Heller’s Catch-22 (which is basically that an airman can’t be discharged from military service on grounds of being insane because his wanting to be discharged from military service means that he can’t actually be insane), but it belongs to the same broad class of logical quandaries where there appears to be no solution.

Although it’s quite intimidating to be put in a seemingly impossible position, Robert M. Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance offers a way out: you just need to `unask the question’, and proceed in a way that denies the (binary) premises on which the conundrum is based. Engaging in a bit of lateral thinking, calling on the assistance of influential bodies, and employing a bit of gentle persuasion you often find that what look initially like hard rules turn out to have a surprising degree of flexibility.  Anyway, to cut a long story short, and with fingers crossed, I should have my bank account and place of residence both sorted out before I return to Cardiff on Thursday.

For me of course this isn’t anything like a life-or-death situation. I have been around long enough not to let bureaucracy get to me. Things like this seem very serious at the time, but there’s always a way to resolve the, usually because there are still some reasonable people in the world. And I am lucky. I can cope with the uncertainty and frustration of being in a double bind as I have resources to fall back on if there are problems. It would no doubt have been more difficult had I just arrived in the country as a recent graduate with no savings. I’ve seen many others at all kinds of stages in their career go through a similar impasse and, though it’s troublesome, such things invariably sort themselves out in time. Still, it’s nice to get such things settled sooner rather than later.

Thinking about this as I listened to the radio this morning, I was struck by another, much larger, more important, and slightly more complex, paradox. That is the inability of the UK government to find a solution to the Irish border problem in the Brexit negotiations. In essence, the nature of this pickle is that the EU insists (as it always said it would) that there should be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. That is possible if the UK leaves the EU but seems to require that Northern Ireland  remains in  the Single Market and Customs Union in some form. However, the PM has insisted that the United Kingdom must leave the Single Market and Customs Union. Moreover, the Democratic Unionist Party, which is propping up the Conservative government, insists (as it always said it would) that Northern Ireland should not be treated differently from the rest of the UK. If cast in these terms, there seems to be no solution to the problem.

Incidentally, and I now digress, here is a map showing the Four Provinces of Ireland, together with the current border:

These are historical divisions and nowadays have no political or administrative role, but I think the map is interesting because it shows, if you didn’t know it before, that: (a) the current Irish border does not coincide with the boundary of Ulster; and (b) the most northerly point of the island of Ireland (Malin Head  on the Inishowen Peninsula, in County Donegal)  is in the Irish Republic, not in Northern Ireland. Maynooth, incidentally, is in Leinster.

Anyway, I think the current stalemate over the Irish Border is the inevitable outcome of one of Theresa May’s `red lines’ which seem to me to make a negotiated settlement impossible a priori. The only option for the Prime Minister seems to me to be to frame the problem another way. One way of making progress would be to abandon the red line on SM and CU membership. I don’t think that will happen as it would look too much like an admission of failure. Another way to do it would be to use gentle persuasion to get the DUP to shift its position. That is more likely, but will prove costly in both political and financial terms.  The best way to unask this particular question is, of course, to abandon the Brexit project altogether. I’m not going to quote odds, but the possibility of the United Kingdom remaining in the European Union is increasing by the day. That won’t affect me directly very much, as I’ll be remaining in the EU come what may.

Switching Allegiances

Posted in Biographical, Education, Football, Rugby with tags , , , , , on February 3, 2013 by telescoper

So here I am, then, in the office on a Sunday afternoon,which I suspect is going to be a pretty regular occurrence for the foreseeable future. I mainly came in to sort out papers for tomorrow’s Senior Management Group meeting, which will be the first such meeting I’ll be attending in my new capacity. I have managed to prepare for it in fine style by losing my diary, which isn’t a very good start to my career as any kind of manager.

Yesterday was taken up with flat-hunting which, if all turns out well this time, was successful. I also had time to watch a bit of the opening match of the Six Nations Rugby between Wales and Ireland. For the last five years or so I’ve always been in Cardiff for Wales’ first home game of the competition, although I’ve never actually managed to get a ticket for the match. It felt a bit strange not being there anyway. It has to be said that Wales were pretty chronic in the first half, going into the break at 30-3 down, but they recovered in the second half and it was quite an absorbing match all considered. Ireland’s excellent defence held off a spirited Welsh comeback and Ireland won 30-22.

Although I’ve lived in Wales for a while, and have enjoyed the match-day atmosphere in Cardiff, I’ve never switched allegiance from England as far as rugby is concerned. Later on yesterday England beat Scotland in their opening match of the Six Nations, showing quite a bit of flair in doing so but also making quite a lot of mistakes. The 38-18 scoreline flattered England, I felt, and they’ll have to up their game a lot if they’re going to match Wales’ Grand Slam last season.

Football is another matter in which allegiances are difficult to change. Many’s the time I’ve thought of giving up being a Newcastle United supporter but I’ve never managed it. I disapprove of people who think they have an option concerning which team to support, actually. I was born in Newcastle therefore I support Newcastle United. That’s the end of it. We all have our cross to bear. Anyway, yesterday brought an unexpected ray of sunshine into a gloomy season for the Toon with a 3-2 victory over Chelsea. Following a first away win of the season against Aston Villa last week it may even be possible that they’ll avoid relegation. Perhaps.

Switching allegiances between universities is almost as difficult. In today’s academic world we’re supposed to think of higher education as a marketplace in which different institutions compete for funding for both teaching and research. I’ve never felt comfortable with the idea that opening up higher education to “market forces” is in anyone’s interests. Certainly on the research side, there are so many collaborations between groups in different universities that cooperation is more the rule than competition although, as with any rule, there are exceptions. Friendly rivalry is as good a thing in higher education as it is in football, but anything more serious than that can only be justified in the case of Sunderland.