Archive for August, 2021

The Irish Population

Posted in Art, History, Politics, Television with tags , , , , on August 31, 2021 by telescoper

Not long ago I did a post about a documentary series called The Hunger which was broadcast on RTÉ just before Christmas. It was, of course, about the Great Irish Famine, which led to the death of one million (mainly poor) Irish people and the emigration of over two million in the subsequent years. It was a shattering episode that altered Ireland for ever. I remarked at the time that “the population of this island still hasn’t recovered to pre-Famine levels”.

Well today saw the announcement of a significant milestone in the trajectory of Ireland’s population. According to the Central Statistics Office, in April 2021 the population of the Republic of Ireland exceeded 5 Million for the first time since 1851. To be precise Ireland’s population was estimated to be 5.01 million in April 2021, which is the first time the population has risen above five million since the 1851 census, when the comparable population was 5.11 million. By “comparable” I mean the population of the 26 Counties that now constitute the Republic of Ireland.

The total population on the island of Ireland in 1851 was 6.6 million. Including the population of Northern Ireland brings the current population on the island of Ireland to about 6.9 million. The population of Ireland (ie the whole island) in 1841 was over eight million.

The following (rather old) graphic shows that catastrophic drop that was an immediate consequence of the Great Hunger but also the long period of decline caused by emigration and poor public health leading to low levels of fertility. The population did not begin to grow significantly until the 1970s.

Although the population is still nowhere near the level it reached in 1841, Ireland is in the grip of a housing shortage that the present Government seems reluctant to do anything about, not surprisingly when you realize that the present Government represents the property-owning classes in whose interests it is to keep housing scarce and rents correspondingly high. Ireland’s housing crisis is not an accident, it’s a matter of policy. Irish landlords oppressing the poorer classes and exploiting them for monetary gain. Some things haven’t changed…

It fascinates me that, with political will, human societies have made enormous changes – including financial interventions, inventing new vaccines and delivering mass vaccination programmes – to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. Poverty and homelessness do not require new inventions – we already know very well how to build houses – only the political will is needed, and that’s just not there.

Back to School….

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth on August 30, 2021 by telescoper

It’s a Bank Holiday in the United Kingdom but not here in Ireland; we had our August Bank Holiday at the start of the month. In fact this week sees school students of various ages returning to the classroom. That reminded me of this, from last year:

On my way back from the shops just now I passed a group of boys who were obviously going home after their first day back at school. Their uniforms look very new and in pristine condition. I bet that won’t last.

Three weeks today, on September 20th, we are supposed to start teaching returning students; first years won’t start until 27th September. I wish I could say I was optimistic about this. With Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations climbing it feels very much like it did at this time last year. Nevertheless the powers that be are insisting that we proceed with full lecture theatres without social distancing, with mask wearing not mandatory and with no vaccine certificates. Students can crowd into lecture theatres and rub shoulders with others for an hour, but to use the Student Union bar they have to show a vaccine certificate. This seems to me to be madness. I hope I’m proved wrong but I give it two weeks maximum until we’re forced to revert to online teaching yet again.

In the Department of Theoretical Physics I have a particular headache to deal with on top of this. One of the three temporary lecturers we have appointed this year was supposed to start on 23rd August but he hasn’t got a visa yet. I have therefore to plan on him not being able to arrive in time for the start of teaching. It’s not unusual at this time of year to be wondering how many students are going to be with us at the start of term, but this year we have the additional worry about how many staff we’re going to have available to teach them.

And on a personal level I am hoping for my belongings to arrive sometime this week, although I am yet to have this confirmed and to be given the precise date and time. If the delivery is postponed doesn’t happen before the end of September it’s going to be very difficult, as I will probably be teaching every day from September 20th until Christmas.

Waiting for things to happen that are outside your control is a major cause of stress, but please don’t tell anyone I’m feeling stressed or I’ll be forced to attend a resilience webinar. I think I’d rather resort to the remedies on offer in the picture…

The Liffey Swim, by Jack B Yeats

Posted in Art with tags , , on August 29, 2021 by telescoper
The Liffey Swim, by Jack B. Yeats (1923, 61cm x 91cm, oil on canvas)

I posted the above painting because I was reminded that today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Jack Butler Yeats, brother of the poet William Butler Yeats. That in turn reminded me that a major exhibition of art by Jack B. Yeats opens at the National Gallery of Ireland on Saturday 4th September. I hope to squeeze in a visit before teaching starts.

Although it was a style he only started to experiment with around 1920, The Liffey Swim is clearly an Expressionist work – the unusual colour palette and texture of the paint are characteristics of that movement- but it also serves as an interesting bit of social history. The Liffey Swim is a regular event in Dublin (or was, in pre-Covid days) but only began in 1920 so it was fairly new when Yeats painted it. He captures the excited atmosphere surrounding the event by placing the viewer in the middle of a huge crowd struggling to get a good view, with the swimmers only shown in cursory detail. You see far more of the spectators than you do of the race!

There’s another interesting thing about this painting. It won a Silver Medal for Ireland in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. In fact it was Ireland’s first ever Olympic Medal, coming just a couple of years after independence. It may surprise you to learn that art competitions were a part of the Olympic Games from 1912 until 1948, as were competitions in music and literature. The 1924 Gold Medal for painting was won by an artist from Luxembourg called Jean Jacoby who specialised in sporting themes.

The Wasp, by John Kendall (aka Dum-Dum)

Posted in Poetry on August 29, 2021 by telescoper

Of those uncertain creatures
Who take a simple joy
In swelling up one’s features
On purpose to annoy,
Things void of natural sweetness,
Aggressive and inhosp.
(Pardon the incompleteness)
You are the first, O wasp.

There is no place we visit
In England’s pleasant land
(It isn’t your place, is it?)
But you must take a hand;
You set the nerves a-jangle,
You turn the tan to chalk
Of anglers when they angle,
Of walkers when they walk.

In no uncertain manner
You bid the bather flee;
You foil the caravanner
Who merely wants his tea;
You raid the earnest hopper,
You break upon our sports,
And are, I’m told, improper
To river girls in shorts.

We slap at you and swat you;
We fell you as we may
(The rapture when we’ve got you
Is more than words can say);
One may see great deeds daily
When men unused to strife
Brave you, albeit palely,
For screaming child or wife.

And we have learnt to fashion
A lure that cannot fail,
Born of a lasting passion
That you confess for ale;
An artful jar that cozens
You in and, when you’re tight,
Drowns you in drink by dozens,
A most immoral sight.

But when the day is sinking
And you retire to rest
That, to my private thinking,
Is where man comes out best;
Armed with his apparatus
He tracks you to the comb
Whence you come forth to bait us;
Then, when the last wasp’s home,

Bring forth, O man, your funnel;
With oil and poison come;
Take heed lest haply one’ll
Pass down a warning hum;
Insert with care the former;
Pour down the latter thick;
That should have made things warmer;
That will have done the trick.

Thus with discreet defiance
We tackle you, and yet,
For all the arts of science,
You don’t seem much upset;
Alert and undiminished
You still appear to prosp.;
I leave the word unfinished
To rhyme with you, O wasp.

by John Kaye Kendall (aka Dum-Dum)

The Old Man of Killeaney

Posted in History, Maynooth with tags , , , on August 28, 2021 by telescoper

I stumbled across this remarkable little clip completely by accident and thought I would share it here. It is part of an interview, broadcast in 1965, with a retired farmer by the name of Michael Fitzpatrick who was 107 when the interview was recorded. Mr Fitzpatrick was born in County Clare but moved to Killeaney, a townland just a couple of miles north of Maynooth, in 1940.

He would have been in his eighties in 1940 and moved as a result of a Land Commission scheme. I guess he moved with his family who would have run the farm and looked after him in his retirement.

He talks about the infamous Bodyke Evictions, which took place in the late 1880s, and which he witnessed personally. It’s amazing to imagine what those old eyes had seen in his lifetime, not only the cruelty and brutality of the system of land ownership in Ireland through the latter half of the 19th Century, the War of Independence and the Civil War of the 1920s, but also the dramatic changes in farming he mentions. Michael Fitzpatrick passed away a couple of years after this interview, at the age of 109.

I posted this in the local history Facebook page for Maynooth and it seems there are people who remember Michael Fitzpatrick and that his grandson, also named Michael, passed away recently after a long life of his own.

I am a successful.

Posted in Biographical with tags , on August 27, 2021 by telescoper

The other day a friend of mine pointed out the existence of a website called CelebsAgeWiki.Com which has a page about me. I’m not sure why they considered me worthy of inclusion, although I suspect they just use some sort of bot to trawl through pages on Wikipedia (and I happen to have one of those, although I know not who created it nor who keeps updating it). If that is the case then whoever wrote the software is obviously incompetent.

Anyway you can see from the above grab I took on my phone that my page is full of information about me. For one thing they know that I am a successful. For another they know that I am from. They also know that my “net worth” grew considerably from 2020 to 2021, which is news to me. I won’t comment on their estimate of my “net worth” except to say that I was briefly a millionaire some years ago, but then Italy abolished the Lira.

At least they got my age right.

P.S. I am slightly alarmed that my salary for last year is “under review”. I hope my employer doesn’t expect me to pay it back….

A Year at Home

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , on August 26, 2021 by telescoper

I was reminded this morning that it was a year ago yesterday that I received the keys to my house in Maynooth. I didn’t move in straight away as the house was empty and I had paid the rent on the flat I was living in until the end of August, so I moved my things gradually over the course of a week or so. Looking through all the paperwork this morning I found the pictures that the Estate Agent had used to advertise the property. Here are a few of them:

You’ll see that the bookshelves in the sitting room were empty at the time. They mostly still are. I didn’t think this time last year that I’d still be waiting a year later for my belongings to arrive from Cardiff, but at least they are in transit now. Delivery is pencilled in for next week, as a matter of fact; doing the removal on the cheap as a return load meant waiting a few weeks. I am looking forward to filling the shelves with my books (20-odd boxes of them) and putting up my own artwork. I’ve had enough of bare walls.

This morning our weekly Faculty Executive meetings resumed, the main topic of discussion – as it was this time last year – being the plans to return to on-campus teaching next month. I thought it would be interesting to show a comparison between the Covid-19 figures in Ireland on August 25th 2020 and August 25th 2021:

You will see that the daily case numbers in Ireland are currently about a factor 20 higher than they were this time last year: yesterday we had 2051 new Covid-19 cases in Ireland; a year ago there were 92. That is significant because the effect of vaccines in suppressing serious illness is at most 95%. Since the number of cases is up by a factor of 20, in some sense the risk level if everyone in the population were vaccinated would be about the same now as it was this time last year. And of course not everyone actually is vaccinated, and not everyone will be by the time teaching starts again on 20th September.

Last year the case numbers increased substantially between August and September meaning that we went back into lockdown in October. We don’t know whether or not case numbers will increase again this year, of course, but from the point of view of resuming teaching we’re really in no better shape now than we were at this time last year. Our optimism then was misplaced and that may well be true now too. This is why so many people in the University system are nervous about the edicts we have been given to return to full lecture theatres with no social distancing, no mandatory masks, and no vaccination certificates. This seems like asking for trouble.

On a personal note, I am pleased to report that the mild symptoms I mentioned on Monday have completely disappeared and, to no surprise at all, my PCR test came back negative. It may or may not be relevant that the weather has improved greatly over the last two or three days. I have now come to the conclusion that what I had was some form of seasonal allergy, possibly connected with crop harvesting in the area spreading pollen or fungal spores. The latter are more prevalent in damp or humid weather, which might be the reason for reduction in effect now. Or it could just be that a nearby farmer has stopped doing whatever he was doing. I don’t know enough about field theory to be certain.

Anyway, all of this means I can now stop self-isolating and start returning to campus again. To be honest, though, it was rather nice self-isolating at home as I spent most of the time working in the garden…

Preprints in Applications – a plea to the ARC!

Posted in Open Access, Science Politics with tags , on August 25, 2021 by telescoper

I was astonished to discover (via this article) that the Australian Research Council has placed a ban on preprints veing cited in funding applications, and that many applicants have had applications rejected solely on the basis that they referred to preprints in them.

It beggars belief that anyone who actually understands modern scientific practice could come up with such a stupid idea. I can only surmise that the people who run the Australian Research Council are so out of touch with actual research that they don’t understand not only the silliness of this rule but also the damage being caused by it.

I have been on grants panels in the UK many times, and have reviewed many applications for other agencies too, and I can’t think of any that didn’t refer to preprints. It can take a year or more for a paper to appear in a traditional journal and in many fields research moves so quickly that citing results ahead of (formal) publication is the only way to present a true picture of ongoing research. Any author who doesn’t cite other authors’ preprints is either out of touch with ongoing research or presented an unbalanced view of the literature. I would further argue that, at least in astrophysics, any applicant who doesn’t have a clutch of preprints on the topic of the application can’t be sufficiently active to justify grant funding.

Results made available in preprints may not have been refereed but that is no reason to ban them altogether. Any experienced reviewer will know how to treat them. And don’t forget there are plenty of wrong results in the refereed literature too. I’d prefer a policy that banned applicants whose papers were not published in an Open Access form…

There is a petition here urging the Australian Research Council to revise its preprint policies. I urge you to sign it (as I have done). Be quick, though, as the deadline is 31st August 2021.

And in case you think this is a matter for Australians only, I disagree. Science is collaborative and many of the collaborations span many different countries. It is in all our interests to ensure that our Australian cousins don’t get held back by inane policies like this.

UPDATE: Nature has now covered this story.

R.I.P. Charlie Watts (1941-2021)

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on August 24, 2021 by telescoper

I’ve just seen the sad news of the death at the age of 80 of the Rolling Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts. Tributes are justifiably pouring in, mainly concentrating on his career as a rock drummer. I’ll just say that while I’ve never seen the Rolling Stones play live, I did go and see Charlie Watts play at Ronnie Scott’s club in London with a jazz group. I thought they were pretty good actually, with Watts on drums not at all trying to hog the show but instead playing very unobtrusively thought still clearly enjoying himself in the more intimate surroundings of a Jazz club rather than a huge rock venue.

In fact Charlie Watts began as a jazz drummer and although he earned his fame and made a fortune after switching to rock and roll, he always kept an interest in jazz. Indeed he recorded an album of performances of Charlie Parker tunes from which I picked the track below. My Dad – himself a Jazz drummer who was never effusive in his praise of other drummers – rated Charlie Watts as technically sound rather than flashy which was the opposite to most rock drummers. At any rate he passed the test of holding the sticks “properly” (i.e. using the trad grip).

Anyway, by way of my own little tribute to an excellent musician and somewhat eccentric gentleman, here is Charlie Watts with his Quintet playing the Charlie Parker composition Bluebird.

Rest in Peace, Charlie Watts (1941-2021).


Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on August 23, 2021 by telescoper

This time last week I started trying to readjust to working from my office in Maynooth University but I’ve already had to put that on pause (hopefully temporarily).

Over the last several days I’ve been experiencing bouts of sneezing, a frequent runny nose, some sinus pressyre, and uncomfortably dry eyes. These seem to me symptoms of hay-fever (though it is a bit late in the year for that) or some other allergy, rather than Covid-19, but based on what I’ve read about the so-called Delta variant I phoned my GP.

I don’t have the more usual symptoms of Covid-19 (neither cough nor sore throat nor fever) – in fact I don’t really fall unwell at all apart from the sporadic sneezing – so my GP said he thought it was very unlikely to be the Coronavirus. I’m also fully vaccinated, though that doesn’t mean I can be infected. Nevertheless he recommended I self-isolate as a precaution for a few days to see what, if anything, develops. So that is what I am doing.

I’m supposed to be recording video material for orientation week, which I can do just as easily at home. To counter the sneezing I’ll just record everything in small chunks.

As for the symptoms, my money is on some kind of allergy, but I wonder what? I’ve never experienced hay-fever in late August before!

Anyway, I’m glad this has happened before the start of teaching: as we’re supposed to do lectures and tutorials in person from next month, a person who is self-isolating won’t be able to teach and we have so few staff it will be difficult to find cover…

Update: the likeliest explanation seems to be a fungal spore allergy, as the release of fungal spores is triggered by crop harvesting. Maynooth is in an agricultural area and August is harvest time. Allergens of this sort also thrive in humid weather which we certainly have had recently.