Archive for ireland

Against Hierarchies

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Level Five?

Posted in Covid-19, Maynooth, Politics with tags , , on October 4, 2020 by telescoper

When I saw that 613 new cases of Covid-19 were recorded in Ireland on Saturday (3rd October) it seemed obvious that the situation in Ireland was getting out of control:

Note that on this graph the new cases have been growing in a roughly linear fashion for at least a month. Since the y-axis is logarithmic this means the growth of the pandemic is roughly exponential. The  7-day moving average up to and including Saturday was 448, with no sign of an end to the upward trend.

After a meeting yesterday, the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) reviewed the following statistical developments:

In the light of these it decided to recommend an immediate jump to the highest level of restrictions, Level 5, for the entire country:

Level Five isn’t quite the same as what happened in March, largely because Schools and Colleges are intended to remain open, but it means the same widespread shutdown of the private sector. This escalation is supposed to last at least 4 weeks.

This is of course a recommendation. The imposition of these measures is up to the Government, which has to balance public health measures against economic damage. Presumably will make a decision sometime this week. Will they have the guts to stand up against the hospitality industry?

The problem is that the Government announcing restrictions and people actually abiding by them are not the same thing at all. It only takes a few people to flout the rules for the pandemic to take hold once more, and while many people are behaving sensibly, there is ample evidence of people not doing so.

What this means for us at Maynooth University remains to be seen.

 

UPDATE: The Government this afternoon rejected the advice of NPHET and instead moved the country to Level 3. I hope they know what they’re doing.

Plan B for Teaching

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on September 21, 2020 by telescoper

Yesterday’s Covid-19 figures for Ireland were a bit of a shocker, with 396 new cases (241 of them in Dublin). The latest 7-day average is 283.1 new cases per day. We haven’t seen figures like this since April. Here’s the latest log-linear graph:

Just a reminder: I keep a complete record of the daily figures here.

The surge in cases in Dublin is the the reason for the imposition of additional restrictions. Although we’re not in Dublin, many of our students travel to campus from the areas of West Dublin where the rate of infection is high (such as Tallaght) so Maynooth University has decided to ‘escalate protective measures‘. This means, among other things, that the maximum class size for in-person lectures on campus is 30.

So this morning I’ve been grappling with the implications of this for our teaching plans in the Department of Theoretical Physics. Student registrations are coming in now and though they are not complete we have a much better idea of how many students we will have in each class. The limit of 30 really just makes a difference to second year Mathematical Physics modules where the class size is around 40. We had intended to teach these all together but now they will need to be split into two groups to be taught separately. It will also impact our teaching for Engineering and Product Design, both of which have more than 30 students in class.

The remaining issue is the first year Mechanics & Special Relativity module MP110 which is a much larger class that I’d already decided to split into three groups. The problem would arise if the size of these groups exceeded the capacity constraints. First-year registration has not yet finished but it looks at the moment that we’ll be OK with Plan A. Possibly.

One of the difficulties will be communicating the arrangements to new students in time for the start of lectures on Monday 28th September, a week today. It is important that we don’t have students turning up for sessions to which they have not been assigned. There will be a lot of messages flying around about this for the rest of this week and over the weekend. Even even set up a departmental Twitter feed which you can follow here:

If the situation in Dublin (and nationally) continues to deteriorate we may well be back in the situation in which we found ourselves in March, with everything going online but that isn’t where we are at the moment. The limit of 30 on class sizes is a challenge, but it is our intention that lectures in Theoretical Physics will go ahead on campus starting next Monday.
How long it will take to move to Plan C is anyone’s guess.

A Semester of Covid-19

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, Music with tags , , , , , , , on September 12, 2020 by telescoper

It’s the Twelfth of September so it’s now precisely six months to the day since schools and colleges in Ireland were closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The initial announcement on 12th March was that the closure would be until 29th March. Little did we know then that six months later campus would still be closed to students.

Here is how the pandemic has progressed in Ireland since March:

On 12th March, 70 new cases of Covid-19 were announced in Ireland; yesterday there were 211. The current 7-day average in Ireland is over 180 new cases per day and is climbing steadily. Things are similar, if not worse, elsewhere in Europe. as countries struggle to contain the pandemic while simultaneously attempting to reopen their economies. We are heading towards a very difficult autumn, with a large second peak of infection definitely on the cards. Who knows how this will turn out?

The word ‘semester’ is derived from the Latin for ‘six months’ but the term now applies almost exclusively to half a university teaching year, usually more like four months.

I’m looking ahead to the next teaching semester at Maynooth University, which starts in two weeks. The last time I gave a face-to-face lecture was on the morning of March 12th (a Thursday). Going home that evening I was engulfed by morbid thoughts and wondered if I would ever see the students again. Now we’re making plans for their return to (limited) on-campus teaching. Outline teaching plans have now been published, so returning students will have an idea how things will go. These will be refined as we get a better idea of student numbers. Given the continued increase in Covid-19 cases there is a significant chance of another campus closure at some point which will necessitate going online again but, at least to begin with, our students in Theoretical Physics will be getting 50% or more of the in-person teaching they would have got in a normal year.

Yesterday third-level institutions made their first round of CAO offers. Maynooth’s can be found here. Our offer for MH206 Theoretical Physics & Mathematics is, like many courses around the country, up a bit at 510 points reflecting the increase in high grades in this year’s Leaving Certificate.

We won’t know the final numbers for at another week or more but based on the traffic on Twitter yesterday Maynooth in general seems to be very popular:

Outline teaching plans are available for new students but these will not be finalised until Orientation Week is over and students have registered for their modules, which will not be until Thursday 24th September, just a few days before teaching starts. The weekend of 26th/27th looks like being a very busy one!

Returning to the original theme of the post I have to admit that I haven’t set foot outside Maynooth once in the last six months. I haven’t minded that too much, actually, but one thing I have missed is my weekly trip to the National Concert Hall in Dublin. Last night saw the start of a new season of concerts by the RTE National Symphony Orchestra at the NCH. There is no live audience for these so it’s not the same as being there in person, but watching and listening on the live stream is the next best thing.

Last night’s programme was a very nice one, of music by Mendelssohn Mozart and Beethoven, that not only provided a welcome tonic to the end of a busy week but also provided a great example of how to adapt. I’m glad they’re back and am looking forward to the rest of the season.

Thoughts on Mortality

Posted in Covid-19 with tags , , , on September 2, 2020 by telescoper

I was updating my Covid-19 statistics page yesterday after the daily announcement and I noticed that it has now been ten consecutive days since the last Covid-19 related death in Ireland. As of yesterday there were only 40 people with Covid-19 in hospitals in the Republic, six of whom were in intensive care.

These low numbers are of course very good news indeed, but it got me wondering why. As you can see from the above graph, new cases started to increase about two months ago. In the first wave the mortality figures started to grow with a much shorter lag, although it is difficult to be too precise about it because of delays in testing and reporting that shifted the blue curve to the right.

With new cases in the Republic now appearing at an average rate of around 100 per day and assuming a mortality rate of a few percent, one might have expected to see the mortality figures rising, but this has not happened. It must be said though that the current level of new cases is much lower than the initial peak, as this linear plot (also smoothed on a 7-day window) makes clear:

An even more remarkable case is that of France (data from here):

The blue curve is a 7-day moving average. You can see that the level of new cases in France is about the same as it was in late March. The daily mortality figure however looks like this:

So the mortality rate among recent cases is much lower in France than in Ireland.

I’m not going to discuss mortality data in the United Kingdom as these are being fiddled by the Government who have arbitrarily decided not to count anyone who dies more than 4 weeks after testing positive for Covid-19 in the figures. It’s a blatant con intended to make people think that the situation in the UK is better than it actually is.

I suppose the main factor for this is that the more recent cases are not happening in hospitals or care homes and they are affecting mainly younger people who have no underlying health conditions; over 70% of the recent cases in Ireland are people under the age of 45. It may also be that the treatment of patients is more effective now that it was in March and April.

Some people are arguing on social media are saying that data such as these prove that the Coronavirus has lost its potency and is no longer a threat. In order to provide evidence in support of such a claim one would have to take account of the differences in demographic and health history of new cases versus older ones, and I have not seen such a study.

Update: I had a terrible feeling that this would happen, but the same day I wrote this a further Covid-19 related death was reported. This was however a late notification of a death that occurred in June. For the latest figures see here.

Home in Ireland

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , , on August 26, 2020 by telescoper

Just after 5pm yesterday I got a phone call from my solicitor telling me that all the formalities relating to my purchase of a house had been completed and the keys had been released. That gave me just enough time to finish what I was doing and head to the Estate Agent before they closed to get the keys. When I got there I found that a card and a bottle of wine were included, which was nice.

So now I own a house in Ireland, a rather lovely bungalow to be precise. It’s rather empty at the moment but I’ll be moving things in gradually over the next few days from my flat which I have until the end of the month. It will still be rather empty after I’ve done that because a lot of my stuff is still in Wales. I’ll have to figure out a plan to get over there and arrange to have it moved here to Ireland, though the timing of  that is rather dependent on Covid-19 restrictions…

I have bought and sold properties in England (and Wales) a few times. The process here in Ireland as many similarities but also some differences. One big difference is the auction process. Estate agents here in Ireland are generally called auctioneers, actually. In order to register to bid you have to first show that you have the necessary funds and then you can place a bid online and then there’s a genuine auction, with bid and counter-bid. It’s easy in an auction to get drawn in so far that you end up spending more than you wanted to, so I decided on an absolutely upper limit on how high I would go. Fortunately on the house I ended up buying the bidding stopped well below that.

There are a few other differences. One is that stamp duty is just 1% in Ireland (for properties up to €1M) whereas in England it is much more complicated but for a property  in England of similar value to mine it would be 5%. Incidentally there is also a Local Property Tax (LPT) based on the value of your home – similar to the old system of rates in the UK. The amount payable however is much lower, which is why local councils have so little money in Ireland and many services are privately run. You have to pay a private refuse and recycling company to deal with your garbage, for example. Which reminds me that I have to organize that.

I have to say I found the business of getting a mortgage a bit painful. Banks in Ireland are still saddled with bad mortgage debt from the time of the Credit Crunch about a decade ago so they are extremely cautious. I had to supply a huge amount of paperwork – about my income, savings, previous residences, etc  – before the bank agreed to lend me money. Then the Covid-19 lockdown intervened and by the time we got moving again, in June, I had to supply all that information again because the documents were then out of date.

You also have to take out mortgage protection insurance, a form of life insurance policy. For that I had to have a full medical examination – the second such I’ve had in three years. (The previous one was when I joined the staff here at Maynooth). There’s also buildings insurance. If I have one word of advice for anyone thinking of buying a house in Ireland it is to do with the insurance policies. Banks and other lenders tend to be tied agents of certain insurance companies so if you ask your mortgage lender to arrange the insurance they will go with one company. When I did that I found the policies were at least 50% more expensive than the market rate. Fortunately I was able to get some local advice and got mine sorted independently at a very much more reasonable cost than those offered by the bank itself.

Other than that the business of mortgages and valuations and surveys and Land Registry is all tediously familiar.

One of the good things about having lived in Maynooth for a while before buying a house is that I know people who can give local recommendations. The solicitor who did the conveyancing was very efficient and competent, though it was very strange doing everything by Zoom, including witnessing the signing of documents!

Once I’d had my offer accepted, the process of actually taking possession of the house took about two months. I’m told that is exceptionally fast as these things go in Ireland, but the vendor and I both wanted to move quickly – I really wanted to get everything sorted before the start of term – and we were both prepared to nag the various people involved to make it happen.

Now all I have to is to arrange with the various utilities companies to have accounts switched to my name, notify various changes of address, buy some bits and bobs, and finish the moving of my gear. Lots to do, but it’s a nice feeling to have my own place once again.

P.S. I bought a piano from the vendor, but it badly needs tuning!

 

 

 

Covid-19 in Ireland: No End in Sight

Posted in Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , , on August 19, 2020 by telescoper

Yesterday the Irish Government put the brakes on the relaxation of the restrictions imposed because of the Covid-19 pandemic and tightened up some existing rules. The reason for this move is obvious when you look at the data:

After dropping to very low numbers of new cases a couple of months ago, the curve has been steadily rising. On Saturday 200 new cases were reported and yesterday the figure was 190. The average number of cases per day over the last 7 days is now over a hundred. The last time it was that high was in early May.

So what has gone wrong?

A large fraction of the cases appearing in the latest outbreaks is associated with either meat (or other food) processing plants and with direct provision centres. These are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks because of the difficulty of maintaining social distancing. Most of the people involved however are under the age of 40, so these outbreaks are not (yet) associated with a significant increase in mortality. Until recently it was hoped these localised `events’ could be contained by testing, contact-tracing and isolation.

Unfortunately these outbreaks are happening at a time when public adherence to Covid-19 restrictions has also been declining. I have noticed over the past few weeks that many people in Maynooth are congregating outside, especially in Courthouse Square, without any attempt at social distancing and with nobody wearing a face masks. Pubs in the area are serving drinks to take away and people are just taking them outside and treating the public areas as a big beer garden. The law it seems can do nothing about this, and pub landlords are doing nothing to discourage it.

The problem in this respect started back in June when the (then) Taoiseach Leo Varadkar decided to accelerate the stages of the Roadmap. I didn’t understand this at the time. The plan was carefully thought out and was working. Why change it? The answer is of course intensive lobbying from vested interests worried about the impact on their own finances.

Anyway, the effect of this change was immediately noticeable in that a sizeable contingent of the public clearly thought it was a signal that the Covid-19 outbreak was over and became complacent about the continuing risk of community transmission.

I think of the outbreaks in factories and direct provision centres as sparks that can hopefully be snuffed out quickly. The real risk to the public however is from these sparks spreading the conflagration into the general population. Social distancing acts like a sort of fire break – that’s what the new restrictions are trying to achieve.

What this means for the next month or so I can’t say, but I wouldn’t rule out a full lockdown being imposed again.I hope that doesn’t happen because I am looking forward to getting back to teaching, but it’s looking touch-and-go at the moment.

 

The U-turn and After …

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , on August 18, 2020 by telescoper

One of the many things that Winston Churchill never said (referring to Americans) is that they “…will always do the right thing – after exhausting all the alternatives”. Yesterday the UK Government performed a U-turn on its approach to A-level results but only after extensive protests and after causing immense stress to a great many students. All of this could have been avoided had the Secretary of State for Education bothered to look at the results of the downgrading algorithm. This morning he said that he “wasn’t aware” of what the outcomes would be and tried to put the blame on OfQual. Well, it’s actually his job to be aware of these things and that statement shows he’s not doing his job.

While many students will be mighty relieved that their official A-level grades will go up, that won’t be the end of this fiasco. Many students will find that their places have been already been filled through last week’s clearing process. The Government has lifted the number cap on places in imposed earlier this year, but that won’t help many departments, especially those in the sciences, who have severe constraints on, e.g., laboratory capacity (more so with social distancing in place).

I feel very sorry for friends and former colleagues in UK universities having to deal with this shambles. The Government will be quite happy that it has managed to throw this particularly hot potato into the hands of admissions tutors across the land. Ministers will be hoping that whatever blame now accrues will be attributed to universities being “inflexible” when it is entirely down to incompetence elsewhere. As always it’s the front-line staff who will have to deal with it, as if their job was not stressful enough having to deal with Covid-19.

Meanwhile, here in Ireland, the Government’s plan for “standardisation” of this year’s Leaving Certificate results looks alarmingly similar to the failed approach tried – and subsequently abandoned – in the United Kingdom. Minister for Education Norma Foley has been making statements about the accuracy and reliability of her Department’s plans that sound eerily similar to those issued by officials across the Irish Sea. I hope that I’m wrong about this – and that there’s some frantic activity going on behind the scenes to change the approach ahead of the release of this year’s Leaving Certificate grades (due on September 7th) – but I have a feeling that we’re going to see yet another slow-motion car crash. It wouldn’t be the first time that, having observed something truly shambolic happening in the UK Education system, an Irish Government then proceeds to do exactly the same thing…

Phase Four Postponed

Posted in Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , on August 5, 2020 by telescoper

Yesterday the Irish government decided to postpone the last phase of its (already revised) Roadmap for Reopening and also make mandatory the wearing of face masks in shops. Phase Four was supposed to start on August 10th and was to include, among other things, the opening of pubs.

The reason for not proceeding with Phase Four is obvious when you look at yesterday’s  new cases graph:

(I keep updating the data here.

Note that the graph is logarithmic on the y-axes so the number of new cases is not large (currently averaging about 45 per day), but the trend is concerning; last week’s average was about 18. Most of the new cases are aged under 45 which perhaps accounts at least partly for the fact that the death curve is not rising: younger people are at lower risk of developing serious problems. The pattern of increasing infections but decreasing mortality figures is quite widespread across Europe, actually.

The recent cases in Ireland are occurring in clusters in particular locations. Of the 45 cases reported yesterday, for example, 33 were in County Kildare most of them at a single factory in Kildare itself (which has now been shut).

There has also been an increase in community transmission, though, which is perhaps even more dangerous than individual outbreaks.

It seems to me that pausing the planned relaxation of restrictions is a sensible thing to do at this stage. To open pubs now – which many continue to argue for – would in my view be extremely foolhardy.

I’m not sure what all this means for the new academic year which is due to start in September nor even the repeat examination period which are due to start next week but if cases continue to increase at their current rate it will severely impact our ability to return to on-campus activities.

 

 

Trustan with Usolde

Posted in Literature, Opera with tags , , , , , , , , on August 1, 2020 by telescoper

It is, I think, fairly well known that physicist Murray Gell-Mann was inspired to pick the name quark for the name of a type of subatomic particle by a passage from Finnegans Wake by James Joyce:

— Three quarks for Muster Mark!
Sure he hasn’t got much of a bark
And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.

What is perhaps less well known is the identity of “Muster Mark” in that quote. In fact it is King Mark of Cornwall, husband of Queen Iseult in the legend of Tristan and Iseult. The Iseult in that legend is Irish. She has has an affair with Tristan, nephew of King Mark, with tragic consequences. This legend appears in many literary forms including, most famously, Richard Wagner’s Opera Tristan und Isolde. It also comes up frequently in Finnegans Wake including this passage on the same page (in the edition I have) as the Muster Mark quote above:

That song sang seaswans.
The winging ones. Seahawk, seagull, curlew and plover, kestrel
and capercallzie. All the birds of the sea they trolled out rightbold
when they smacked the big kuss of Trustan with Usolde.

See how Joyce plays with the substitution of “u” for “i” here as in “Muster”. Either that or the “I” key on his typewriter didn’t work properly. Or he had fat fingers and kept hitting the wrong key; U and I are next door on the keyboard.

Incidentally there is a small village in Dublin called Chapelizod which is where a church was built dedicated to Queen Iseult. Whether there is any real connection between this place and the historical Iseult is very doubtful.

Now, where was I. Oh yes. Back to Opera.

Years ago, when I lived in Nottingham, on a warm summer evening I decided to listen to some of the live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 of a performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde from Glyndebourne. I made myself a cocktail and took the radio out into the garden with the intention of listening to a bit of it before going out for the evening. This was back in the days when I actually used to go out on the town on Saturday nights; now I’m too old for that sort of thing.

Anyway, I was hooked right from the Prelude. Act I came and went and I decided to make some dinner in the interval, opened a bottle of wine, and returned to listen to the rest of it. The glorious music washed over me in the sultry twilight. Darkness fell, a second bottle of wine was opened, and still I listened – no doubt to the consternation of my neighbours. The final Liebestod was so beautiful I almost cried. Eventually I retreated to the house having experienced my first all-out Wagner trip.

My enjoyment of that occasion was of course helped by the fact I could get up and walk around occasionally, as well as by the liberal intake of fine wine. Nevertheless I do think Tristan and Isolde works very well on the radio – nothing very much happens on stage anyway (especially in Act II) so you can just let the music work it’s magic.

The reason for all this rambling is that there is a special broadcast of Tristan und Isolde on RTÉ Lyric FM. This performance, recorded in 2012, features as Isolde the celebrated dramatic soprano Miriam Murphy who very sadly passed away suddenly a few weeks ago. Tonight’s programme is a tribute to her memory. I believe Miriam Murphy is the only Irish soprano to have sung the role of Isolde. I’ve heard a few clips from it and her voice sounds amazing.

The Opera is preceded on the radio by a documentary about the production, the first in Ireland for 50 years and the first by a brand new company based in Ireland. I think James Joyce would have approved.

So that’s my Saturday evening sorted out!

Update: I listened to the broadcast and it is an astonishingly wonderful performance by Miriam Murphy.