Thursday, September 30, 2010

Measure IT at NCI

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the Measure IT meeting hosted at the National College of Ireland on behalf of Mulley Communications. I finally got to meet @damienmulley himself, though I had been at one of his presentations before. He was kind - he said he occasionally read my blog.

The event was divided into three parts. First @Rowan_Manahan, who runs Fortify Services a consulting and career management firm, gave an excellent presentation on how to present data. His essential message was to keep things simple, and not to clutter the screen. He showed us how to strip away unnecessary clutter so that data can be presented to your audience in the most effective way. He can also do some cool things with PowerPoint. Either the guy is a genius or a natural - his timing for everything was perfect. One of the best presentations using PowerPoint that I have seen.

Next up was @stephenoleary who is an online media analyst at O'Leary Analytics  - he showed us some clever outputs from marketing campaigns by trawling the web (Twitter, Facebook, etc) for mentions of a particular product, in this case Juan Sheet kitchen paper. Is it really cool what he can do to determine if comments and responses of Internet users indicate a positive or negative reaction to an ad. While Stephen produced a lot of data, I was hooked on the idea of using analytics for measuring marketing impact. Plenty of food for thought about how to use this idea for disciplines other than marketing.

Finally, Damien Mulley gave us a task to establish the best time to post on-line. In our group we mostly talked about Twitter. We didn't suggest a particular time, but did discuss a lot about the effectiveness and context of a post. I found that there are a lot of clever things you can do to get your message across, though the most interesting thing to remember was when one member of the group said that she knows that it is time to go to sleep when Ellen DeGeneres starts tweeting!

Excellent session - I hope Measure IT comes back to the College again.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Psion Organiser - Blast from the Past

I watched with part interest and part astonishment this morning as a guy in the Mace shop in the IFSC was using a Psion Organiser II in the shop. I couldn't resist going over to him and asking him what he was doing. You see I have an old Psion Organiser that I picked up in March 1989 which is still working (photo to the right shows same, and was taken by me with my iPhone in my office today) - this would make the one guy was using at least 20 years old.

In conversation with him, he told me that he and about six other guys in his company use them for stock taking. He says that they work fine - no need for the modern WiFi enabled bar code scanners. He also told me that they are still traded on the Internet - right now, has 10 of them for sale. Prices range from €1.67 to €58.33. There is also one on for $299.00!

There is no USB port or wireless connection for the Psion - you need a RS232 cable to connect to a computer. According to the guy, the original software still works with today's computers. The Psion Organiser II has 16K of RAM - that's 16,250,000 times less processing power than the computer (2GB RAM) on which I am writing this post.

With all the modern technology that is available, it's good to see some vintage gear still working - the Psion Organiser clearly has stood the test of time.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Academics teach just six hours every week - I wish!

Here's a headline I hate - Academics teach just six hours every week. This is an article in last Friday's Irish Independent by Education Correspondent John Walshe. The headline suggests that we are all lazy bastards who have finished our week's work at 3.00pm on a Monday afternoon, and spend the rest of the week doing nothing at the taxpayers expense. However, when you read the article, the first sentence is as follows:

ACADEMICS teach for an average of six hours a week, university presidents admitted yesterday.

Ah - that's a bit clearer, Walshe means just University academics (from the seven universities) and not the rest of us from the other THIRTY SEVEN Higher Education Institutes in Ireland (see full list here). I am currently timetabled for 13 hours per week, which is lower than most of my colleagues in the Institutes of Technology where many are timetabled for 16-18 hours per week. I wish Walshe and all education correspondents would realize that when they write headlines like above, they are painting us all with the same brush. While universities are quite rightly regarded as being at the top of the education tree, they are not alone in the third-level sector. Balance please Mr Walshe.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Book Review: A Social History by Maurice O'Neill

Maurice O'Neill has written a delightful book on his personal memories of times past - "A Social History: Reflections on Changing Times". O'Neill, now in his late 80's, reflects on the many things that were part of his life since he was a small boy. While there is quite a bit of nostalgia, there is no sense that "things were better in the old days". He prefers to look forward, but at the same time remember what went before.

Maurice O'Neill is from near Ballon in Co Carlow, and is well known in this part of Ireland. He and my Father (Joe) were once colleagues on the board of Bunclody Farmer's Co-Op. I bought the book via a circuitous route - my brother Joe got it from his accountant Pat O'Neill (a relative of Maurice), he gave it to my Dad, who then gave it to me to read after he was finished with it. My Dad thoroughly enjoyed the accounts of old times past - he too has a keen memory.

Most of O'Neill's stories are based in the Carlow area. He has a keen memory and a wonderful sense of humour. I'm sure that he would be great entertainment for an evening recounting old stories and accounts of events long gone. He writes about bishops, travelling men, police, pubs, fairs, horses, hard times, match-making, wakes, and much more. If you are a person (like me) who likes to see museums of farm machinery, old houses, or listen to old stories, then you will enjoy this book. I think it is only available in local shops around Ballon.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Student & iPod Drive Teacher Over the Line

EducationTechNews reports a story on how a Student & iPod drive teacher over the line. It is reported that a student had left an iPod behind in class and returned during (and interrupted) the next class to pick it up. The teacher took exception to this and ordered the student out - when he refused and cursed the teacher, the teacher grabbed him by the ear and dragged him out. Not surprisingly, the students mother complained the next day, and the teacher resigned his position rather than face disciplinary charges.

Graphic from
Concord High School Community
The report is also an example of a "non-report" - I clicked on the link to it expecting to find that the use of the iPod had somehow frustrated a teacher into losing his temper. I have written about the use of iPods in the classroom - I had wondered what the student was doing. Clearly the iPod had very little to do with the story - the student could have left a mobile phone, a book, a jacket, or his chewing gum behind. The outcome would probably have been the same.

It turns out the teacher had a track record of violence - the headline writer in EducationTechNews should think carefully about what they write. In this case a perfectly "innocent" gadget is deemed to be the cause of the problem, while it is better regarded as an aid to education - not the cause of discipline problems in class. A more accurate headline in my view is this one about the same case:

Monroe, NJ high school gym teacher Allen Rushing sentenced to 90 days for physical confrontation with student.

In searching on-line for a suitable graphic for this post I came across the one above on the Concord High School Community website. This K12 school is located in California. Interestingly, most of the school's home page is covered in rules (rather than education material) - including this one: Keep Cell Phone and MP3 Players Off and Out of Sight 7:10am to 3:10pm

I know schools have to have rules, I hated almost them all - especially the ones about long hair. But preventing students from using their iPods or phones (8 hours as in above example) is just ridiculous. There are signs all over my own College which state (among other things) that mobile phones must be turned off in the classroom. I tell my students to ignore this and that they must turn ON their mobile phones.

Friday, September 24, 2010

My YouTube Channel - New Videos

I stopped posting here some time ago about each new video I upload to YouTube - to date I have 31 videos. I have two series of videos: Problem-solving Techniques, and How To... videos. The viewing numbers are creeping up, and most of the feedback I'm getting (through the comments section in YouTube) is very positive. My channel can be located here - please stop by and have a look, and feel free to pass the link on to friends and colleagues.

Since we moved from Microsoft Office 2003 to version 2010 at work, I have re-recorded some of my older videos in the hope that learners using the 2010 version will have some on-line help. Here is my latest video uploaded today - it shows you how to complete a very simple task in Excel 2010. The task is drawing a Bar Chart using some simple data:

My full list of videos is as follows:

How To...Draw a Simple Bar Chart in Excel 2010
How To...Ungroup Clip Art in PowerPoint 2010
How To...Create a Pareto Chart in Excel 2010
How To...Embed a YouTube Video into a PowerPoint 2010 Presentation
How To...Embed a Graphic Web Link in PowerPoint 2003
How To...Retain Text Format When Copying and Pasting in Word 2003
How To...Use Absolute Cell Reference in Excel 2003
How To...Embed a YouTube Video into PowerPoint 2003
How To...Create a Project Network Diagram in PowerPoint 2003
How To...Create a Basic Gantt Chart in Excel 2003
How To...Embed a YouTube Video into a Moodle Course Page
How To...Create a Windows Media Video Using PowerPoint and Windows Movie Maker
How To...Draw a Polar Diagram in Excel 2003
How To...Calculate Net Present Value (NPV) in Excel 2003
How To...Create a Pareto Chart in Excel 2003
How To...Convert PowerPoint to iPod

Problem Solving Techniques #15: Radar Charts
Problem Solving Techniques #14: SREDIM Process Improvement
Problem Solving Techniques #13: Weighted Scoring Model
Problem Solving Techniques #12: MoSCoW Analysis
Problem Solving Techniques #11: Use Cases
Problem Solving Techniques #10: Project Network Diagrams
Problem Solving Techniques #9: SIPOC Diagrams
Problem Solving Techniques #8: Flow Charts
Problem Solving Techniques #7: Cost-Benefit Analysis
Problem Solving Techniques #6: PEST Analysis
Problem Solving Techniques #5: SWOT Analysis
Problem Solving Techniques #4: Check Sheets
Problem Solving Techniques #3: Cause and Effect Diagrams
Problem Solving Techniques #2: Value Analysis
Problem Solving Techniques #1: Pareto Analysis

Thursday, September 23, 2010

It's a tough time being a Preston North End fan

Preston North End fans have not had much to cheer about this season. Second from bottom of Championship already having lost six out of seven league games - the worst being the 3-4 loss to rivals Burnley having been 3-1 up with minutes to go. This is PNE's worst start to a season in over 80 years. Last night PNE were leading Wigan 1-0 with three (yes three) minutes to go and lost 1-2 in the Carling Cup. 

PNE fan Chann Hardwick has become something of an Internet celebrity after she shed tears at the end of the Burnley match. I was watching this game, and its unbelievable finish, and saw Chann tearing up her programme in a burst of tears at the end. The Lancashire Evening Post reports - "I hope the PNE manager sees my tantrum on the web" and shows the video (which I can't embed here). Click the link and see the video (48 secs) for yourself. Unfortunately for Chann, and the rest of us PNE fans, we can expect more tears before the end of the season in what looks like a long battle against relegation.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Germany opposes Google Street View switch-on

Now here's an interesting story out of Germany - apparently they are not that keen on Google's fantastic Street View tool. In an article from the BBC Technology News website it is reported that Germany opposes Google Street View switch-on. Google Street View is available in most of the USA and Mexico, parts of Canada, South Africa, Japan, New Zealand, most of Australia, and a lot of Western Europe - see here for Google's map of where Street View is available. 

According to Germany's Der Spiegel "several hundred thousand people have opted out of Google's Street View service". No doubt many of these people are motivated to opt-out by genuine concerns over security and privacy. In addition to the normal blurring of faces that is available on all Google street view services, Germans can request that their homes be removed before the service launches. Now I have to ask the question "what does this achieve?". Anyone can walk or drive past your house, they can stop and look for as long as they want, they can take pictures, they can put a photo on Twitter and say "look, I am outside so-and-so's" house. Not much privacy there. Equally - I very much doubt if the people of Ecuador, Greece, India, and lots of other countries will invade your privacy by checking out your street on Google Maps. I genuinely don't know why people would want to block their house from appearing on Google Maps - surely a blotted out house would be more curious to viewers than those that are visible - "Hmmmm, I wonder why that house on Cypress Avenue is blotted out - are they hiding something?"

Street view is a cool tool - just check out the following view of Times Square in New York to see what I mean:

I bet that Estate Agents will make use of Street View - nice to be able to check out the neighborhood on-line before you actually go and see a potential new purchase. Or see what your holiday destination looks like. Or find your way to a hotel or restaurant. I just think that it is a fantastic idea, and it's a tool that I love. I don't get people wanting to block views of their house on-line, when anybody can walk by and see your gaff for themselves. What next - screens to block passers-by from viewing your house? Why not blot your street out from not just Google maps, but all other maps as well?

Google Street View is not perfect, and Google have probably had to spend a lot more on lawyers that they might have expected as they negotiate their way around the various different privacy laws. One of the problems with the Google systems is that cameras can only pick up what they see. Take for instance the following view from Deepdale Road outside Preston North End's (my fav team) football ground:

A container is blocking the view of a statue of Preston's most famous son - Sir Tom Finney. Click on the map and use your mouse to view "around" the container, and you will eventually see the statue. 

The future is more open, and the sooner we realize this - the better for us all. We are fighting a losing battle if we want to block views of our property in a world where Google wants to show everything that it can, and where there are CCTV cameras on many street corners. It is going to get more difficult for legislators to plan for openness and privacy.

There's one final thing to keep in mind: Unless you are a celebrity, no one will be bothered to look up your house in Berlin on Google Maps. Your privacy is protected more by safety in numbers than anything Google will do.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Revamped Pearse Museum

Photo from Wikipedia.
I visited the revamped Pearse Museum in Rathfarnham today. It has been closed for over two years for new building work, so this was my first visit to see the new facilities. A modern new entrance greets you on entry - from the outside it looks very new and out of place beside such a historic building. Inside, access is improved, there is a new elevator and stairs, which do make getting around much easier.

The main part of the museum is similar to what it was before - lots of material from the St Enda's School. Best for me was the Study Room where Patrick Pearse has his main desk - imagine him working at this desk before he hopped on his bicycle during Easter 1916 to revolution and death.The big hall is now open - I had not seen this or the adjoining chapel before. I'm sure it was a hive of activity when the school had plenty of pupils before it closed in 1935.

Photo from Encyclopaedia Britannica.
As an educator, Patrick Pearse was perhaps ahead of his time and a bit too idealistic. Setting up a school was no doubt a huge gamble - the museum has much evidence to show that the school was in a shaky financial position from the start. He has to be admired for trying to build an education system where corporal punishment was rare, and the boys were encouraged in all types of activities from sports, to drama, to science, and of course Irish. Little wonder that many of the past pupils and teachers stood beside Pearse in the GPO during the Easter Rising in 1916.

The update to the museum is a fitting tribute to a true Irish patriot. I have tremendous admiration for what he did in his short life (he was just 37 when he was shot in Kilmainham Gaol on 3rd May, 1916). He is not tainted by Civil War politics, and when you pass through the corridors and rooms of St Enda's School, you get an appreciation of what he tried to do to make Ireland more Irish. He possibly would be regarded as being on the lunatic fringe today, but though his idealism and patriotism ultimately led him to his death - he remains an icon of Irish history today. I would love to have met him, and had a discussion about education. Yes - we would have talked about the 1916 Rising, but I think most of our conversation would have been about learning and teaching.

Congrats to the OPW for keeping this museum alive - it helps us all think a bit more about where as a nation we came from. Pearse would not have been happy with the state of the nation today - perhaps we need a bit more of his type of idealism, and put Ireland before any personal gain.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Philip Walton makes complaint about Brian Cowen

Philip Walton with
Ryder Cup. Photo
from ForeIreland Blog.
Much ado about nothing is my take on Philip Walton's "anger" at being impersonated by Taoiseach Brian Cowen last Monday evening. Walton released a statement to Reuters, and not surprisingly it made the news all over the world, eg Reuters Canada! Cowen has since apologized - unnecessarily in my view. Walton's statement shows that he is also concerned about what was actually said about him - he writes: "As a result, we felt the best thing at this point was to write to An Taoiseach (the prime minister) ourselves to get more details and the exact context of the various stories". He also expresses "concern to myself, my wife and also my children".

Brian Cowen on Connemara
Golf Course. Photo from
Irish Independent.
Twenty Major has a hard hitting "Exclusive audio of the complaint", while Rule Hibernia, though a little more sympathetic to Walton, actually calls him a "cry baby". I think he should have stayed quiet and not got into a snot about this - clearly he is not a fan of the Taoiseach, and who knows what his motives are for sending the statement to Reuters. However, as Rule Hibernia puts it - Walton "could have wounded Cowen even further if he wanted to".

Brian Cowen is apparently (I've never heard him) noted for his ability to impersonate other people - reports after Tuesday morning's fiasco for Cowen on RTÉ radio suggest he also impersonated Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh. There are no reports of Mícheal seeking an apology - the man has a sense of humour, and no doubt does not want to get involved in a controversy in the week leading up to his last All-Ireland commentary. 

Brian Cowen is parodied mercilessly and savagely by impersonators like Nob Nation - see this video for a particularly hard-hitting example. I have never heard him seeking an apology from anyone impersonating him - nor should he. I, along with most other people, see him as fair game for all comedians. While I do think that some of the skits on Cowen are over-the-top, for the most part they are intended as comedy and satire - not  personal attack. Wouldn't life be boring without impersonators? Who hasn't laughed at Dermot Morgan's impersonation of Charles Haughey, Mike Yarwood's impression of Prince Charles, or Niall Tóibín doing Brendan Behan? Robin Williams is brilliant doing Michael Jackson, while one of the funniest I've seen is a YouTube video of US Past President George W. Bush taking the piss out of himself in a double act with comedian/impersonator Steve Bridges - watch it and laugh (please note that if you are offended by impersonations that you should not watch this video).

"There is only one thing worse than being talked about,
and that is not being talked about
" (Oscar Wilde).

Friday, September 17, 2010

Why Do Voters Believe Obvious Lies?

Photo nicked from the Huffington Post.
Lee Dye of ABC News writes a very interesting article in yesterday's Technology News. He asks the question: Why Do Voters Believe Obvious Lies, Like That Barack Obama Is Muslim or That John McCain is Senile?. He suggests that while we regard ourselves as the "smartest animals on the planet", scientists are asking why we also "believe in nonsense", and that "lies and smears can spread at warp speed". A key piece in the article for me about American politics is as follows:

It's curious that we elect those who must guide our collective destinies not on the basis of who we like, or who we trust, but who we dislike the least. No wonder smear campaigns often work, because so many are so willing to believe the worst about someone, even in the total absence of evidence. It's a daunting challenge for any scientist to explain why.

The old saying of "throw enough mud at the wall, some of it will stick" applies to politics worldwide. Of course, many politicians invite this upon themselves. Negative campaigning is popular in America, not so much in Europe - but it is never far away. With Fine Gael and Labour publicly announcing that they are on Election footing recently, I feel that the inevitable upcoming election could be the dirtiest one we've ever had (on all sides - though still mild compared to America). Certainly these two parties, independents, and others will do well on the "dislike the least" principle. It should make for good sport, but any taint of association with bankers, builders, or developers by politicians will mean certain loss their seats. It should not be big challenge for FG or Labour to paint a negative picture of Fiann Fail and the Greens - expect a lot of this in the election (and vice versa no doubt). I love general elections and the next one should make for a good spectator sport. The ABC News article should be a "must read" for all political parties here.

Get this - in the ABC News article above, Dye reports on four experiments at the University of Arizona - three before the last presidential election, and one after. The experiments found that "voters are more likely to believe an obvious falsehood about a candidate if that candidate is perceived as different from themselves". Unsurprisingly, voters were much more likely to believe lies if they are supporting a different candidate. Negative information on a candidate had far more impact on voters than positive information, according to the study.

I feel an Election coming within six months (with my tiny voice I have already called for one this week) - I can't wait for the fun to begin!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

New Portrait Photo - Ego Moment

I had my photo taken yesterday so that my picture can hang in the Boardroom of the National College of Ireland along with all the other members of the NCI Governing Body. It's a tradition in the College that this is done, so the excellent Bonnie shot me in the Atrium of the College - to the right is the result that we settled on. I like the photo so much that I decided to use it as my new profile picture for Moodle, LinkedIn, and Twitter (@eoloughlin). Not since my wedding in September 1986 have I posed formally like this for a professional photographer, so it was almost a new experience. 

In this photo, I think I look a lot like my Dad when he was a bit younger. He's 79 now, so looks a bit older than me - all I've got to do is look at him to see what I will look like in 28 years time!

Getting your photo taken is a a very common experience for us all, but is also unusual. I take a lot of photos myself, but very often my "victims" are uncomfortable,  and often don't really want their photo to be taken. Nevertheless, when we do get our picture taken we all want to look our best - hence the clean shirt, tie, and jacket above, I even trimmed my beard! One of the big advantages of the digital age is of course the ability to immediately delete the photos we don't want, or are not happy with. The above picture is destined to hang in NCI for may years - perhaps only being removed when wall space becomes a problem (or people get fed up looking at my mugshot!).

A big THANK YOU to BC for her professionalism in taking the above, and putting me at ease despite the fact the the photo was taken in the busiest part of the College with colleagues and students passing by.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Junior Cert 2010

Today, thousands of Junior Certificate students all over Ireland received their results. I can say that in our house we were thrilled and very proud with the results achieved by my daughter Vicki - she did wonderfully well, and is out celebrating as I write this (very proud Daddy!).

Katherine Donnelly, writing in today's Irish Independent, reports that the Junior Cert Results spark new fears over standard of maths and that failure rates were high in Maths. The standard of Maths has been a worry for educators for a long time now, we continue to worry about it - but not actually do a lot to effect real change. I see the consequences of poor standards in Maths on entry to third-level every year. At NCI we put a huge effort into Maths support from a dedicated team - it's needed.

Interestingly, I also note that Donnelly writes that "Only 85pc of Junior Cert candidates sat Irish this year, down from 88pc five years ago and it compares with 99pc for English and maths, 91pc for geography, 90pc for history and 88pc for science". This is an interesting observation - I have long been an advocate for removing the compulsory nature of Irish in school, and using the (wasted) money somewhere else instead. Why should the State pump millions of euro into supporting a dead language when there are hospitals that need funding and families that need food to eat? The Irish language will survive - there are a dedicated group of people who will ensure this. We have to ask ourselves if it is worth spending our precious taxpayer's money propping up Irish? Me - I think not. The above trend will continue, I predict that in 10-15 years that the figure above will decrease from 85% to about 50%. Cue míle murder from the Gaelgoirs!

It's been 35 years (1975) since I did the then Intermediate Certificate exam. I remember very little about it - I got two B's (History and Geography), four C's (French, Science, English, and Latin), and two D's (Irish and Maths). I do recall the Maths exam - if I'm not mistaken 1975 was the first occasion that calculators were allowed in the Inter and Leaving Cert exams. Of course, very few people had them then and I felt very deprived and disadvantaged when the boy next to me in the exam hall had a calculator, while I (and almost every one else) didn't. As I remember, they were banned from state exams for the next few years (they were not allowed when I did the Leaving Cert in 1977). Calculators are now allowed of course - but has anything else changed?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Project Management and Alcohol

I had an interesting conversation with students in my Project Management class today. I asked them at the start of class how they, as Project Managers, would deal with a team member who was smelling of alcohol during work. The question provoked several different reactions from "sack the person" to "they have a problem". We also discussed the effects of alcohol on a person's ability to do their job.

By way of introduction I showed the students my class photo from 1977 in which I am standing beside Brian Cowan, who was in the news today for all the wrong reasons. You can now see where I was coming from by mentioning this in class. Can you do your job and drink at the same time? What if a project is having problems staying within budget and being on-time due to a team member's drinking problem. I think the consensus was that even though it would be a difficult issue to approach - something would have to be done.

Brian Cowan was slaughtered in the media today. I heard his interview on RTE radio this morning. All I can say is that if Cowan heard this interview, he would agree with most of the nation that he sounded as if he was suffering from the effects of a late night. Not good. I have been out with Brian Cowan (plus about 10 other CCR past pupils) and have seen first hand his wit, humour, banter, and good company. He had very little to drink (I'd say two pints) - it was one of the most enjoyable evenings I have had.

I have always voted Fianna Fail - and I expect to do so again in the next election (as long as Mary Hanafin stands). I expect you would call me one of their "core voters". I have been a supporter of Brian Cowan for a long time, not just because we were in the same school, but because I have always thought that he was a very capable person, and that he was as they say - a "safe pair of hands". This opinion of him has not changed, even though he was clearly not at his best this morning.

Can I say this - "He/she who is without sin, cast the first stone". You know what I mean.

Be honest - have you ever turned up for work after a long night? Have you ever had a few jars in the evening, and were perhaps not at your best the next morning? If you are expecting perfection from Brian Cowan, you are expecting too much. Today there will be dozens of arrests nationwide of people who will sit behind the wheel of a car drunk. There will even be many people who will turn up for work drunk. There will be many people who did not hear Brian Cowan on the radio because there were sleeping off a hangover at the time (8.50am).

Now this does not forgive Brian Cowan, but let's get some perspective here. If you don't drink, or have never been hungover at work - well you have a right to be critical. If you have, well.... Glass houses come to mind.

BUT - I'm not happy. I now wish to announce that I am joining the ranks of people who want a General Election. I know that Fianna Fail will lose - perhaps badly. There is an appetite for revenge in the electorate - people can't wait to not vote for Fianna Fáil. Our Government is not stable, and is tethering on collapse. A new mandate, for whoever wins the election, is needed. But, will anything change? I can't wait to hear Eamonn Gilmore stand up in the Dáil and announce bed closures in hospitals, announce that social welfare is costing too much, that teachers should be glad of their jobs, work more, and earn less - all due to budgetary contraints. The shoe will be on the other foot. Right now, the only thing that Labour and Fine Gael have going for them is that they are not Fianna Fail.

Of this I am certain - had Fianna Fail lost the last election in 2007, many people would now be calling on Brian Cowan to "save the country". Fate has dealt him a bad hand, which he has not played very well.

Brian - you have been Taoiseach for two years, the pinnacle of politics in Ireland. But it is time to step aside - you have done your bit.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Jerpoint Abbey

Photo from Herve's Gallery.
Yesterday I was in Waterford Institute of Technology (where I am an External Examiner), and loved the new road which is now motorway all the way from Dublin to Waterford. Congrats to the NRA on a job well done, and I hope that they can somehow get the money to complete the N11/M11 on which I travel most. As I was going to Co Wexford later I cut across country through Kilkenny and Carlow. I stopped at Jerpoint Abbey for a quick look as it is so long since I last stopped there that I hardly remember it. 

Photo from Wikipedia.
For €3 you can wander around the abbey which was founded by Cistercian monks and dates back to the 12th century. It's astonishing to me that many parts of this building are more than 800 years old - and still standing. There are many Norman carvings on the walls and you can't but be in awe of this construction built to the glory of God. Any Irish peasants looking at this in the 12th and later centuries would probably not have ever seen anything man-made as big as this, and would have accepted without question that God existed (see my previous post about the existence of God).

The OPW look after the abbey and are currently engaged in some restoration. I asked what they were doing and they are working on a meeting room to improve their lecture series to include presentation equipment and multi-media gear. What would the Cistercian monks think?

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Is there a God? What Stephen Hawking says...

ABC News in a report Stephen Hawking: 'Science Makes God Unnecessary' (by Nick Watt) explores the debate about the existence or not of God. According to Hawking, "One can't prove that God doesn't exist....but science makes God unnecessary". He goes on to say "The laws of physics can explain the universe without the need for a creator".

When I was in school, we talked about God in Religion class, not in Physics class! According to Hawking, something can be created from nothing and he believes our universe was created from nothing. Of course, he can express any opinion he wants, like the rest of us - he can't prove that God exists or not, or if He was created by humans to explain gaps in knowledge (as Hawking has said in the past).

I don't know whether there is a God or not, but I've always assumed that there is "something". I do use expressions like "Please God" and "Thank God" a lot. I go to Mass (occasionally), and when at funerals I do believe that the person who has died has gone to another place, and I pray that their soul rests in peace. But there is also a certain denial - what if there is no God or Afterlife? Am I just convincing myself that there is "something" out there just in case? Is it all, as the late Mick Lally put it - "all a load of codswallop"?

I once spoke with a priest at a wedding reception several years ago, and discussed the existence of God and the Afterlife. While he obviously had strong faith (he's still a priest), he didn't know either whether God existed or not. When I asked him "Do you think your life will have been a waste if you had proof that there was no God?" - he said "Yes".

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Euro 2012 Qualifier: Ireland 3 - Andorra 1

Last evening was my first trip to the new Aviva Stadium to see the Euro 2012 Qualifier - Ireland vs Andorra. Having beaten Armenia away in the first game of the group, Ireland were looking for an easy win and a six points out of six start to the qualifying campaign. A 3-1 win was achieved without much difficulty with goals from Kilbane, Doyle, and Keane. 

There was a lot wrong with the Irish performance, with the far from disgraced Andorra actually looking good at times. Aiden McGeady ran rings around their defence, though also over-ran the ball a lot. Robbie Keane looked off the pace at times, and should have scored more than just one goal. Doyle was the best Irish player (and got MoTM), and took his goal well. Martinez scored the best goal of the night for Andorra just before half-time to banish any thoughts of a rout.

Overall, not a bad evening's entertainment - though for €50 a ticket, I thought this was a it pricey for a game against one of the lowest ranking sides in the world.

The best thing about the evening was seeing the new stadium for the first time. I was in the second last row at the back of the South Stand, and the photo to the left (taken with my iPhone) is the view from my seat. (the green and red dots are the players!). Curiously, this was the best seat I could get on TicketMaster, but there were a lot of empty seats closer to the action in the upper tier, and loads of (more expensive) seats in the lower tier that TM did not allow me to purchase a few weeks ago. There were 40,000 people at the game, with about 10,000 empty seats. This is a clear message to the FAI - there's a recession on, you need to lower your prices to fill the ground.

The view is excellent, though from where I was the far end of the pitch is a long way off. No complaints with access and comfort - congratulations to the genius who thought of the tunnel idea under the railway at Lansdowne Road Station. No more waiting at the barriers.

A final thrill for me was shaking Niall Quinn's hand after the match - I bumped into him on the way out. 

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Education spending trails OECD - The Irish Times

In today's Irish Times, Charlie Taylor in a report "Education spending trails OECD" writes (citing OECD statistics) that "Ireland remains close to the bottom of the international league table on education spending relative to the country's economic wealth" and that "Ireland invests about 4.7 per cent of its GDP on education compared to an OECD average of 5.7 per cent". Looking at the following chart (taken from the Education at a Glance OECD report), one would be forgiven for thinking that we are lagging badly behind other OECD countries:

I'm not a statistician, but there are a few things you need to take into account before judging these figures:
  • The figures quoted only cover up to 2007
  • Ireland has doubled the spend on education between 1995 and 2007
  • Ireland's GDP grew very fast up to 2007, and is proportionately higher than the spend on education as a result
The good news is that we have the "seventh-highest graduation rate among industrialised countries, placing it ahead of the UK and the US".

How useful is this report? It's quoting data that is at least three years old, and our GDP has been hit very badly since 2007. In 2007 we were a rich country, now we are a poorer country - no doubt the GDP to Education spending proportion will be different now.

It is interesting to note that the amount spent on education as a proportion of GDP varies widely (7.8% in Iceland - much good it did them, and 3.9% in Slovakia). Surely this is something that all OECD countries could agree on? Of course this will not be possible as long as there are defense budgets (think US vs Iceland) - the amount of money available will vary in each country. 

In order for Ireland to spend a higher proportion of GDP more on education, less has to be spent somewhere else (OK - cut politician's expense I hear you say, but that won't be enough). We can't afford to spend more on anything.....

.....Ochón, ochón, ochón, agus ochón, ó.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Advice to Eugene on entering College, October 1978

Today is the first day of registration for new students coming to the National College of Ireland. For most, it is their first experience of College - no doubt there will be mixed emotions: excitement, anticipation, meeting new people, bewilderment at the registration process, perhaps even some fear of what lies ahead, or even terror at the prospect of further studies.

Last year I posted a piece on "Climbing a mountain - reflections on Croagh Patrick and going to College" where I compared going to College to my experience of ascending and descending Croagh Patrick mountain in Co Mayo. I think the piece is as valid for me today as it was last year, and might be worthwhile reading again.

As the new academic year starts the thought has struck me about what is was like for me back in October 1978 when I first went to Trinity for registration. I had practically no advice and walked into Trinity on the first day with absolutely no idea about what to expect. I remember being very nervous, a country boy in a big city, and having the feeling that I was the only student in the place who had no idea what was going on. Everybody else seemed to know where they were going, and it looked to me as if they had all made instant friends. 

With the benefit of 32 years of hindsight - what advice would I give myself? On registration I would have got a new student ID card - this alone was something new for me. We had to surrender ID cards when re-registering in 2nd year, so I do not have my original 1978 ID card. I also don't think I have any photos of myself  from 1978 - so I've uploaded the nearest I have which is a scan of my ID card from 1982 (which I have kept all these years) when I was starting 4th year instead. Here are some thoughts about what I would say to myself if I had the chance.

They say that going to College will be the best days of your life - so get ready!

College is everything that you have heard about it and more. There are two main things that you will do while in College - study, and live.

First - the study bit. You have arrived in Trinity to study Natural Sciences, but you really have no real idea what it is - all you know is that you liked science in school. You have a choice of subjects - choose them carefully. You are thinking about doing Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Maths/Stats - I think you should choose Geography instead of Physics. You got an honours C in Geography, but only a pass C in Physics in your Leaving Cert - don't you think that you are making the wrong choice? But you want to do Biochemistry  - do you know what this is? Find out - it's harder than you think, you will fail Physics in 2nd year (which I did and had to repeat).

Go to your classes, and keep up with your labs. Don't be afraid to ask the Lab Assistants a question or get them to show you how to do the experiments - because it is likely that you will not know what's going on. Nobody prepares you for each lab - you have to do the work yourself. The Biology you will like, but Organic Chemistry awaits and it will be confusing to you. Don't just assume that it will all make sense later - you need to work it out. Studying Science means a lot of classes and labs - pay attention instead of dreaming about Elizabeth and Fiona who will be near you in the labs.

Take notes, and learn to get good at it. Computers, iPads, and iPhones will not be around for 30 years, so you will have to take your own notes. The best thing to do is write down everything the Lecturer says - and I mean everything. You will not get any printouts, so everything you will learn will come from your notes. You need to get good at this because studies show that you retain only 5% of what you hear in a lecture - this will not be enough to pass your exams.

Secondly - you will live! You will spend your first year in digs in Terenure, you have no choice in this (watch out for the gay landlord!). But you can enjoy yourself. You will join the Gaelic Football club - that's good, but what about a club that has more women? Or a Society? Don't just join and not go to anything. Fresher's Week is exciting, and all the stalls in Front Square begging you to join the different clubs and societies will make it seem that College is about having fun and nothing more. SCUBA diving would be good to do, as well as join some of the societies. This is the best way I know for a first year to get involved in College - the societies welcome new members like you. So have a good look at all the stalls and make an effort to participate.

There are women in College. You don't know this now, but you will meet your beautiful future wife at the end of first year. You also don't know now that you will not go to the pub with your classmates until the end of first term, and that you will not go to parties because you think that they are for more sophisticated people than you. I'm not advising you to be a party animal, but you have to let loose and overcome your shyness. Oh - and join the Film Society instead of going to the cinema all the time on your own. Films are free, good fun (you might see some adult content!), and you might also meet people too.

First year is the toughest - there are only two people (Dorothy S. and Mark R.) from your class in school who will be in Trinity, so you are going to have to make friends by yourself. You don't know this now, but you will graduate from Trinity in 1988 with a PhD - but the road ahead will be a tough one, especially first and second year, which you will find very hard going.

The biggest thing that you must overcome are the thoughts that will go through your mind. You will think that everybody is having a better time than you, they are - unless you front up! You will think that Science is easy - it's not. You will think that you don't have to do much work throughout the year - this is not so. You will think that you will pass your exams no problem because you haven't failed any up until now - how wrong you will be. You will think that nobody else is doing any work, so why should you? Ignore the tossers who say that they haven't done any work - they'll be in Germany in the summer working on the buildings earning loads of marks, while you will be studying for repeats. You will think that every bloke has a girlfriend and that every girl has a boyfriend, and that you are the only one who doesn't - get real. You will think that you are the only virgin in your class - you are not (oops - didn't mean to have that confession in here!). You will think that everyone is doing drugs and having lots of sex - they are not. You will think that all your classmates are going to parties every night - they are not. You will think that as you are a first year that you are a lowlife - you most certainly are not. You will think that you are uncool - you will be if you think all of the above.

Finally and most definitely, ignore the academic (Dr S) who will tell you at the end of 1st year that you should leave College and that you are unsuited to Science (I had passed the repeat exams by compensation). He will tell you that the advice from all of your examiners (and him) is that you should give up College, and try something else. He will tell you that you will never graduate and that you are wasting your time as well as Trinity's. In short - he will tell you that you are a failure, you must not agree with him.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

The "wrong" James Burns

I had posted last month about My Great-Grandfather - James Burns, believing that I had found a Mt Jerome death and grave record in the Public Library in Pearse Street. The record is signed my his widow Margaret Burns. The dates and names match my family records, but I did express some doubt in my post because his age was given as 69 at death - my GGF should have been 51 at death. Also, the address given of his widow (29 Rathmines Terrace) did not ring any bells when I mentioned finding the record with my Mum.

I thought a bit more about this and a rather obvious check that I should have done was to look up the 1911 Census records for the residents of 29 Rathmines Terrace. Sure enough, a Burns family lived there with the head of the house James Burns then aged 55 (in 1925 he would have been 69 at death). His wife was Margaret Burns, and the family were Presbyterian.

This James and Margaret Burns can therefore not be my great-grandparents - I'll be a little more careful about this in future. Apologies to anyone in my family, particularly on the Burns (Byrne) side, and to the family of the above James Burns, for this error.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Book Review: Helmet for my Pillow by Robert Leckie

Helmet for my Pillow is an account of the Second World War in the Pacific written by marine Robert Leckie. Leckie was a central character in the HBO mini-series "The Pacific" played by James Badge Dale. However, in the book "The Pacific" by Hugh Ambrose, Leckie is almost left out of the story by Ambrose - he gets just a short mention. So to get a fuller picture of the story of the Pacific - I decided to read Leckie's own account. The HBO series is largely faithful to Leckie's own account - his experiences were harrowing, violent, exciting, honest, patriotic, and brutal.

Leckie's book was first first published in 1957 and doesn't contain one word of bad language. Leckie writes (p17) that he was originally shocked by the widespread use of "the word....that four-letter ugly sound that men in uniform have expanded into the single substance of the linguistic world. It was a handle, a hyphen, a hyperbole; verb, noun, modifier. He also writes that it "stood for everything and meant nothing" and that it was used by everyone from "chaplains and captains". Fuck - what a way to describe the "F" word without actually writing it. 

A lot of the writing appears to me to be old-fashioned, and that Leckie would be at the mercy of modern Editors who would surely have prevented the almost poetic complicated and verbose staccato style, and liberal use of semi-colons. See what I mean from the following extract (p51):

Nothing was permitted to last. All had to be fluid; we wanted not actuality, but possibility. We could not be still; always movement, everything changing. We were like shadows fleeing, ever fleeing; the disembodied phantoms of the motion picture screen; condemned men; souls in hell.

Powerful stuff, but slightly tedious to read. 

There is no doubt that Leckie's willingness to risk his life in the cause of freedom , and his patriotism, shines through the book. He lost many friends and comrades - sacrifice was part of daily life in the battles of Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, and Peleliu. There is even grudging admiration for the "Japs", but the hatred was also certain - a necessary emotion for a machine gunner.  While the book is undoubtedly a glorification of the Marine Corps and the bravery of the individual marines, it can also be regarded as an anti-war message showing the brutality and ultimate futility of war.

Leckie died in 2001 aged 81, having suffered from Alzheimer's disease. I wonder what he would have made of modern America and Japan. At the end of the book he writes (p303) that he had "sinned" but that he also "rejoiced" at having survived the war.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Blog Post #401 - Why I blog

I noticed that my post yesterday about the possible demise of the printed version of the OED was my 400th post. Since I like numerical landmarks I thought I'd mark the occasion with my 401st post and write about why I blog.

My first post was nearly four years ago on November 13th, 2006, when I simply wrote that I was setting up a blog and that I hoped to "publish some thoughts, articles, reports, short stories, and other publications". I'm glad to think that I have mostly adhered to that hope. I really only got going on blogging a year later in November 2008, and since then I have been blogging on a reasonably regular basis. Since November 2008 I have averaged 11.5 posts a month on a wide range of topics. The most posts in any one month was 22 in March this year - I had been nominated the previous month for the Irish Blog Awards and I guess I was trying (unsuccessfully) to impress the judges with volume. The graph below summarizes the number of posts per month since I started blogging.

One thing I don't know is how many people read this blog. I know it is just a handful, but I sometimes get a surprise when someone I meet comments on the blog or mentions to me that they had read a post. To those of you who do take the time to read this blog - many thanks for dropping by.

I wish blogging was around when I was younger. With the exception of the year 2000 (when I got a present of a Whoseday Book - on 3rd September 2000 we went to the Botanic Gardens with the kids!) I have never kept a diary. I'd love to be able to look back and see what I was thinking on a particular day - for example, what was I doing on September 3rd 1975? Even though my blog is less than four years old, I do like to occasionally look back on posts over the past few years. 

Susan Gunelius of gives the "Top 10 Reasons to Start a Blog" as follows:
  1. To Express Your Thoughts and Opinions
  2. To Market or Promote Something
  3. To Help People
  4. To Establish Yourself as an Expert
  5. To Connect with People Like You
  6. To Make a Difference
  7. To Stay Active or Knowledgeable in a Field or Topic
  8. To Stay Connected with Friends and Family
  9. To Make Money
  10. To Have Fun and Be Creative

#1, #7, #8, and #10 are the only ones listed that I feel are reasons why I blog. I love the freedom of it, I get a thrill when someone mentions they read something on my blog, I teach about blogs in class, I can write/say what I like, I can comment on anything, there are no limits, and even if my comments are trivial or of no interest to anyone but me - I want to blog anyway. 

You can get addicted to blogging - David Wallace writing in the SearchRank website lists "10 Signs That You May Be a Blog Addict". Among the signs: "You get inspiration for new blog posts at the strangest times – in the Jacuzzi, sitting on the toilet, during marital activities (cough, cough)… you get the picture".

So - here's to the next 400 posts!

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Internet Age Casualties: Printed Dictionary Next on the List? - ABC News

ABC News reported yesterday that the Oxford English Dictionary might be the next casualty of the Internet Age. Nigel Portwood, the chief executive of the Oxford University press, told the U.K.'s The Sunday Times that "he didn't think the newest edition will be printed when it comes out in 2020". He also states that the "print dictionary market is just disappearing. It is falling away by tens of percent a year".

To give an idea as to why this might happen - the on-line version ($295/year) is receiving 2,000,000 hits a month, while the printed version has sold only about 30,000 sets since it was last published in 1989. I have to say that I do not use a paper dictionary at all, and haven't done so for several years. I prefer to use the free version of on my computer, and WordWeb on my iPhone if I need to look up a word. Spell checkers have also removed the need to look up the dictionary to spell a word that I don't know. I also have Spanish and French dictionaries on my iPhone for travel.

It is inevitable that there will be less paper books used in classes - check out the following experiment in the University of Notre Dame who have launched an eReader study and have created the first paperless course using iPads:

The University of Michigan recently announced that it had "launched a new ebook rental program for more than 250 of its scholarly titles, allowing students or faculty to rent digital copies of the books at a discount for a month or six months". There should be more of this in Universities/Colleges, and even in secondary and primary schools. Some would say "What about workbooks?" but iPads can be used write notes and annotate pages in a workbook without the need for paper.

Next - what's the future for libraries?

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Mick Lally - RIP

Sad news yesterday of the death at the age of just 64 of actor Mick Lally. He was an icon of the Irish stage and screen, best known to people of my age for his role as Miley Byrne in RTÉ's Glenroe series. As the ficticious village of Glenroe (actually Kilcoole) was set in Co Wicklow, I remember initially feeling embarrassed at his portrayal of a Wicklow man. Some people wondered if we all went around saying "Holy God!" all the time! However, I got very fond of Glenroe and watched it many times in its early days.

I only saw Mick Lally on stage once - this was in the Olympia many years ago when he played the role of Sanbatch Daly in M.J. Molloy's The Wood of the Whispering. He was by far the highlight of the play, and it was a joy to be part of the audience.

I think my most favourite memories of Mick Lally will be his voice - it was so distinctive, strong, and very Irish. He voiced many advertisements on radio and TV - "Kilmeaden - the fillet of cheddar" being among his best. I got a pleasant surprise many years ago when Roma and I visited the Foxford Woollen Mills in Co Mayo. Part of the tour around the old mill was a multi-media presentation about the mill narrated by Lally. He of course was from Mayo (Tourmakeady) - I recall his voice telling the story of Foxford as if he was part of the history himself and worked all his life in the mill. 

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.