Sunday, January 31, 2016

Feeling Robbed by @VirginMediaIE #336

Yesterday I was singing the praises of Virgin Media for their super broadband speeds in my neighbourhood, but today after opening my mobile phone bill - it is a different feeling. While I was in the US earlier this month for a week I got charged a whopping €61.50 for usage while roaming. Knowing that it is expensive to roam, I had kept my mobile phone activity to a minimum (except in WiFi zones). I turned off data roaming, but crucially not until the day after I arrived. I did get a text message (see below) from Virgin Media on arrival warning me of their outrageous charges of €2.50/min calls and a whopping $7.00/MB of data. I've no argument with the calls and texts which amounted to a staggering €34.54 - I tried not to use the phone at all but this proved difficult on a family holiday. Despite turning data roaming off on my phone I got charged €26.96 for "Internet Usage while Roaming".

I called Virgin Media Technical Support to check this out, and sure enough - I did access the web on the morning of 8th January. For example, I got charged €2.55 at 00.16 am for 14 seconds, and €10.40 for 60 seconds only 10 minutes later. Outrageous! When I got home I turned data roaming back on and couldn't resist contacting Virgin Media on Twitter to ask "Why bother"? 

Because Virgin Media don't have their own network I'm certain that they are at the mercy of Three who probably charge them a fortune for piggybacking on their network. I also got a great deal (including unlimited data in Ireland!) to join Virgin Media (€25/month) - so I can't complain too much. They could of course just be robbing us blind - but Richard Branson is not like that. I think?

I wonder when the people that sit down to work out the charges - what are they thinking? A business model where you charge an exorbitant fee for a service and warn customers not to use it, just doesn't make sense to me. I made a mistake - not turning off data roaming before I left Ireland. Clearly they like it when customers forget to do this - nice little earner!

Contrast the above €7.00/MB with my wife's service provider Vodafone (who I left to go to Virgin Media) - she had 200 MB a day for FREE

Virgin Media customers - be warned: Don't use your phone abroad.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Oh How Things Have Changed - 228.73 Mbps! Thank You @VirginMediaIE #337

It seems like no time ago that I and my neighbours suffered the rubbish Broadband service from Eircom. Despite many promises from Eircom, our promised speed of 8 Mbps never got near 2 Mbps and was frequently lower - I moaned quite a lot about this (see post from October 2010 here). With the arrival of UPC (now Virgin Media) on our road in March 2013 - all that changed, and since then we have enjoyed great service. I saw an ad yesterday by Virgin Media claiming up to 360 Mbps so I decided to see what our speed was this morning. I had signed up for 100 Mbps, which was upgraded to 125 Mbps free by a Tech Support rep when I was making a service query. The test below shows a staggering 228.73 Mbps - I have no idea if I could spot the difference between 125 and 228 Mbps. The speeds are getting so fast and upgrading frequently - Virgin Media don't even bother to tell us that our speed has increased. It just happens (woohoo!).

Then (Eircom)
Now (Virgin Media)

However, I and my fellow residents of Dublin are the lucky ones - we are connected to a fibre network built by UPC/Virgin Media. Most people in the country are not. My mobile phone can only pick up a max broadband speed of 0.1 Mbps at my Mum and Dad's house near Carnew - yes, that's zero point one, over two thousand times slower than my connection here in Dublin. Of course, they are not connected to a fibre network, and the local broadband over the Three network is rubbish. Many houses cannot do things like watch Netflix, work from home, or do many of the things us Dublin residents now take for granted. 

There is news today in the Irish Independent that 500,000 rural mobile users 'to get better signal' (there must be an Election soon?). This is to cover mobile phone "blackspots" because the mobile phone companies do not have to guarantee 100% coverage. While it is not practical to connect every household in the country to a fibre network, actions such as allowing Amplifiers (currently illegal without a licence) could connect more people to better speeds and services. No doubt urban speeds will continue to get faster, but rural areas should not be left behind.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Turning into an Arsehole in 10 Seconds #RoadRage #Apology #338

Yesterday morning while riding my bike into work at about 07:45 I got into a confrontation with a motorist. I was riding through Blackrock between the two lanes of traffic on my very wide Harley-Davidson. Occasionally there would be two cars close together, and I would have no option but to wait for the traffic to move on before I could make progress. Sometimes motorists move out of the way, but on a big bike I basically have to wait most of the time. This morning after a similar wait I moved through some traffic outside the Frascati Shopping Centre. I pride myself on the skill to move between traffic without touching the cars (or cages as we bikers prefer to call them). Suddenly I heard a roar behind me from a driver in a red Citroen Minivan:"HEY!". I ignored it. "HEY" again, and instead of riding away (as I should have done) I decided to confront the motorist whose car I had just passed by. Here's the (brief) conversation (with actual words):

Motorist: "HEY - MIND MY MIRROR!"

Me: (after reversing a few feet, and knowing that I had not touched his mirror): "Could you show me where I touched your mirror? (yes - I was pompous and wondering why he decided to lecture me about this after I had passed)

Motorist: "That's not what I said" (in fairness).

Me: "I have been riding through traffic for the past few minutes and not touched a single mirror".

Motorist: "Mind my mirror".

Me: "Fuck you and your precious mirror".

What made this driver confront me, and for me to turn into an arsehole and issue the F word to him in less than 10 seconds? Perhaps he was angry at being stuck in his cage while I nonchalantly passed him by? Perhaps I hated my riding skills being questioned?

I apologise to this unknown driver for using the F word - but not for anything else.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Using My Own Data in Class #339

Preparing class notes is part of every Lecturer's job. Some lecturers will use notes created by others, some will use lecture notes provided by text book authors, while other will create their own. My preference is to create my own - I find I understand the subject better, and consequently am in a better position to teach it.

I use a lot of material from textbooks and examples form the web. Creating notes for students has got easier with online resources. So - if I want to show an example of a chart, it will be easy to find a suitable example online (citing source of course!). Not being an active researcher, I have very little of my own data to use in notes - YouTube Analytics from my channel is about the best that I can do. However, last evening I introduced the topic of "Multivariate Analysis", and while preparing the notes I remembered that I did a lot of this type of analysis for my PhD between 1985 and 1987. There is no soft copy of my PhD, and only three hard copies were ever printed (I have one, the Library in Trinity has one, and God knows where the other one is!). There is also a microfiche copy in the Trinity Library. So I decided to use a chart from my PhD to illustrate the results of a multivariate analysis - here it is (scanned from my hard copy):

This shows three populations of Calliostoma zizyphinum (a marine snail) from Scanlan's Island (Co Clare), Rosmoney Bay (Co Mayo), and Audley's Castle (Co Down). I took ten shell measurements for loads of shells at each site and fed the results into a computer which generated the above printout, and it shows that the three populations can easily be separated based on their measurements. Shells to the left of the diagram are a lot narrower that those on the right. I got a bit of a buzz in using my own 30 year old PhD data in class for the first time, and explaining to students what it means.

My PhD was submitted to Trinity in January 1988 as a printout only - no online or disk submissions in those days. Inside the back cover I included a printout of all my data, which I have since scanned into a file. Now - do I dare carry out the multivariate analysis I did in 1987 on the same data again? It would be interesting to see if modern tools would show the same result. What would I do if they didn't? 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Is a postgraduate degree necessary to get a job? via @TimesHigherEd #340

Many undergraduate students ask me about continuing their studies after they graduate - a Masters is sometimes looked upon as a ticket to a getting a good job. It can be an expensive year or two, but can definitely improve a student's prospects (though I'd love to see hard evidence of this). 

Image source:
Victoria Halman, writing for Tines Higher Education, asks the question: "Is a postgraduate degree necessary to get a job?". In her article, Halman quotes research that "confirms that having a postgraduate degree will enhance earnings over time". A postgraduate qualification is becoming an "unspoken requirement" for many positions, and it is "becoming the norm".

For some positions, a postgraduate degree is a mandatory requirement - try getting a job as a Lecturer in a university without a PhD! In my own career I am certain that my PhD played a significant role in being hired by CBT Systems in 1989 and NCI in 2002. If I lived my life again I certainly would do the PhD again. 

I'd like to think that students would embark on postgraduate study because they really want to study/research in a particular area - in other words they are passionate about their studies. I'd hate to think that they think it is the ticket they need for a job. I have met many students with Masters degrees who find it difficult or near impossible to get a job, but most seem to get on the job ladder. 

It is also an opportunity to prolong student life - this was certainly a factor for me in making the decision to continue as a postgraduate student in the Department of Zoology in Trinity in 1983. The late Professor JNR Grainger encouraged me to do so - I remember well him commenting on my final (4th) year project that I "had a talent for research" and should use it. I did, and added nearly four more years to student life.

My own opinion, for what it's worth, is that students should get some work experience after graduating, and then come back for a Masters after 2-3 years. I also think that students should definitely go to a different College for their postgraduate studies for different experiences in a different academic environment. Postgraduate study is very rewarding and worth doing - but only for the right reasons.

My first business card.
One final note - does it guarantee a job? As I said above, I feel it was a benefit when I was hired by CBT Systems. However, when I was getting my first business card I was not allowed to add either "Dr" as a title, or "PhD" after my name. This decision was of course made by people who did not have a post graduate qualification, but was made in case I looked over-qualified and in case it intimidated others. How things have changed!

Euegen O'Loughlin, M.A., Ph.D. (Dubl.)

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Irish obsession with third level is unhealthy via @IrishTimes #341

Writing in an Opinion piece in today's Irish Times, Pat O’Mahony (Education and Research Officer at Education and Training Boards Ireland), tells us that over "the past 50 years, we have become obsessed with the idea that third-level education is the way to achieve our economic destiny". According to figures he quotes "the numbers going to college have ballooned from 11 per cent in 1965 to 69 per cent in 2011. Ireland now has the highest proportion of young people with third-level qualifications across the EU". Impressive stuff I think you'll agree. However, Pat also quotes recent research by the HEA that one in six of our third-level students drop out after first year. The EBTs (I had never head of this group before today) were set up in 2013 and provide education for programmes like Youthreach and Skills for Work - essentially non-third level training programmes. Pat  (in the Irish Times article) suggests that more emphasis be placed on apprenticeships. Pat is right in suggesting that more students should consider apprenticeships, but my sense is students should not pigeon-hole themselves in any particular area.

A Carnew boy gets a PhD!
(With my Dad - 14th July, 1988)
College is for everyone.

There - I said it!

College is no longer for the elite that it once was - it is open to all and should remain so. So what if one in six drop out after first year - the more that go to College, the higher this figure is going to be. This opportunity should be available to all school leavers, and those coming back to education. Access to education is a human right, it is a European right, it is an Irish right.

No exceptions.

If we put barriers in the path to education, we are not doing the right thing by our students. Pat O'Mahony is well meaning is his thoughts - specifically "would it not be better if, on leaving school, these young people entered employment through an apprenticeship". But please - do not ever deprive students of an opportunity to go direct to third-level (in fairness - O'Mahony suggests that apprenticeships could be followed by College).

Keep the paths to College open. If a student does not succeed - they have learned by the experience and may want to try again. I myself failed second year in Trinity, and thanks to my Dad - was encouraged to try again.

The National College of Ireland (where I work) has a mission: "To Change Lives Through Education". We mean it. College is for everyone.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Attendance Rates for Third-level Lectures are Falling Due to Online Notes via @IrishTimes #WhatsNew #342

Students have unrealistic expectations, says Dr Greg Foley in last Thursday's Irish Times, on "the level of work required to perform well in college". He points to the amount of course notes that lecturer's are making available online and the "growing dependency culture in which students rely on material posted on the internet by their lecturers". He states that we are discouraging "students from being independent learners" by doing this. So what do I think?

We use Moodle for all course resources in NCI. I can't imagine not using it for my classes - my own teaching work relies heavily on me posting not only course notes, but exercises, sample files, and links to other online resources. I also use it to communicate with students and to do things like post results of continuous assessments. In short - it is a vital tool for me that I could not do without.

Has Moodle pushed my students into a "dependency culture"? Of course - I don't know the full answer to this. But my sense of it is that students are becoming dependent on Moodle (and other CMSs). If I forget to upload notes ahead of a class it is almost certain that at least one student will email me and ask (sometime demand!) when will they be uploaded. Many students follow along my lecture with my notes on their screen (at least I think that's what most of them are doing) - some even add their own notes. 
Is Moodle to blame for a "dependency culture"?
Image Source: Moodle.Org.
The trouble with some lecturers is that they themselves attended class years ago when there was no online material and many will long for the "good ol' days" when you had to write everything down. It's almost as if we had to do it the hard way - so so should today's students. Thankfully most of us have got over this nostalgia trap and make good use of on-line resources. At least I think we do - I have seen very few course pages belonging to other lecturers. I have not ever been at a best-practice in Moodle session - we all do our own thing. I'd like to see some research on this.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Looking Ahead to Semester Two #343

Tomorrow is the start of a new semester at the National College of Ireland, and it is both a busy and exciting one for me. I will be teaching the following modules:

Business Data Analysis
Higher Diploma in Data Analytics
Advanced Business Data Analysis
Higher Diploma in Data Analytics
Advanced Business Data Analysis
BSc in Technology Management
Managerial Foundations of Information Systems
BA in Management of Technology in Business
Business Systems Analysis
Certificate in Business Analysis

Above is one module more than I normally do - so it will be busy getting through this lot. I'm guessing there are about 160+ students in the combined classes. The Advanced Business Data Analysis module is a brand new one for me (it follows on from the Business Data Analysis module). I've had to brush up on statistical techniques such as Multiple Linear Regression, Multiple ANOVA, and Factor Analysis. Also I will be using the R Programming language in this module. I'll be keen to emphasize that it is not a programming module as we will be using R packages mostly. Nevertheless, I'm expecting this to be a challenging module. 

An extra challenge is that for the first time I will have a BYOD (bring your own device) class, students will be using their own laptops during the new Business Data Analysis class in a normal lecture theatre as there is huge pressure on labs in the College due to the success of our Springboard courses. Hopefully this will work out OK - this is on Monday nights and due to Easter Monday we will lose a class that I cannot afford to do in order to cover all the content.

While working on the Business Systems Analysis module, I will be updating the content for the module due to the release of the BABOK v3 last year. This will also mean an update to my Introduction to Business Systems Analysis book which I hope to get done before the semester is complete. There's also a re-submission of the Higher Diploma in Data Analysis course as we are adding a Data Visualization module, this in turn requires a reshuffling of other content to fit it in.

It's good to be challenged!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

50 Years of AIMS, and my Dad #Proud #344

Last year was the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Association of Irish Musical Societies (AIMS). My Dad (Joe) was once National President of this organisation in 1980/1981. Last evening, at The Lodge pub in Carnew, Dad was presented with a commemoration pin presented to all former Presidents of AIMS. They also presented him with a framed photo with the AIMS chain of office from 1981. He looks great - in the photo he was 50 years of age. Today, with the pin, he is 84 (almost 85) - and still going strong. Congrats Dad!

Dad in 1981 with the AIMS chain of office.
Dad (with AIMS 50 Years Pin) today.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Abandonment in eLearning Courses? via @emasie #345

In his latest edition of "Learning TRENDS", Elliott Masie notes a sharp rise in "abandonment in eLearning courses". Masie reports that learners "take the first session - but don't return for the next section" especially in MOOCs where there is often a 85% abandonment rate of registered learners after the first few segments of learning.

There are of course several reasons for abandonment. Among others, Masie suggests reasons such as "Interest Fulfilled", "Return If Needed", and the "Slippery Slope". I agree with his assertion that learning content creators need to "watch and learn from Television Producers about changing models of participation". 

Short, sharp, and focussed video content is what users want - I think this is a factor that everyone in the eLearning world acknowledges. It is here to stay. Asking learners to wade through hours of content in a MOOC or any other online course is an invitation to increase the abandonment rates. 

The pattern of student drop out of a typical course.
Source: Science20.
A recent report from Think With Google, tells us that a whopping "67% of millennials agree that they can find a YouTube video on anything they want to learn" and that what the report calls "micro-moments" are the new battlegrounds for "people's hearts, minds, and dollars". This trend has implications for Education at all levels. At third level, our courses are still broken into 3-4 years, in turn broken into semesters, then weeks, and finally 1-2 hour classes - the same as it has been for centuries. I see it in my own classes that it almost impossible to retain students' attention for a 50 minute lecture. This of course is not a new phenomenon - I was a student once myself who switched off seconds after the mention of Krebs Cycle in biochemistry class. No Facebook or YouTube to distract me in the 1970s!

Education content developers and providers need to absorb the above trend, and design learning around smaller chunks of Learning Objectives. Many third level institutions define a 12 week module with just 4 or 5 learning outcomes. Coming form an eLearning background myself I always thought that this was a bit ridiculous - eLearning was about developing Learning Objects (one per learning objective). A short three hour course could have 12 to 15 learning objectives. These were small chunks of learning developed individually and then assembled into a longer course. The elearning course was always structured in a way that students could always take the learning objects that they needed, and skip the ones they didn't need. My colleagues in CBT Systems/SmartForce in the 1990s were ahead of their time.

A new debate is needed in the next few years before this evolution in learning turns into a revolution. Thanks to thought leaders like Elliott Masie, I think this debate is underway and in good hands. Where it will lead us - we have to wait and see!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Great Animated Explanation of Stephen Covey's "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" via @fghtmediocrity #346

In class I sometimes refer to Habit #7 in the late Stephen Covey's  "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People". I am a great believer in sharpening the saw by taking breaks and never carrying over annual leave days from one year to the next. I came across the video below created by Malkhaz Geldiashvili, and I think it is a great way to explain the 7 habits.  

I don't know if I have ever met a "Highly Effective" person - very effective, yes. I certainly can't consider myself to be "highly effective" as I have a lot to learn according to Covey's list of habits. His book is one of those in my house that has been on a bookshelf for years, but I have not read it all. Perhaps it's time to dust it down and read it all? I'll report back later in the year if I do so!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Taken Before Their Time #347

Rock music has lost many notable artists recently, many who I grew up listening to. It seems that the generation that is just 10-15 years older than me are starting to gig in that great stage in the sky a little too early. Look who we have lost (and their ages) in the past year:

  • Glenn Frey of the Eagles (67)
  • David Bowie (69)
  • Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead (70)
  • Phil Taylor of Motörhead (61)
  • John Bradbury of The Specials (62)
  • Natalie Cole (65)
  • Jim Diamond (64)
  • Errol Brown of Hot Chocolate (71)
  • Cilla Black (72)
  • Steve Strange of Visage (55)
  • Chris Squire of Yes (67)
  • Bob Burns of Lynyrd Skynyrd (64)
  • Leslie Gore (68)
  • Demis Roussos (68)

Image source: Classic Rock Bob.
All these music icons were in their sixties or early seventies - it has indeed been a terrible few months for music. Of course in my youth I would have thought of anyone older than 50 was ancient, but the ages of the above are uncomfortably close to this 56 year old.  

Please - God? Take no more, or at least wait until they are too old to rock.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Are traditional lectures better than watching a video? via @timeshighered #348

Dr Stefan Rennick-Egglestone of the University of Nottingham, writing in the Times Higher Education website last September gives his opinion on "This is why traditional lectures are better than watching a video". While he sees some value in recording lectures, he refers to these videos as "souvenirs of a module", he sees no substitute for the "the enforced regularity of attending a lecture at a fixed time, every week, which can provide a useful structure for learning". Looking through logs of views for his videos, he finds that "many students watch the videos only in last-minute binges before a coursework deadline, instead of during the week in which they were directed to watch them". In my own blog post yesterday I reported that YouTube Analytics from my channel shows similar evidence of my own students viewing videos one or two days before an exam. Dr Rennick-Egglestone also points out the "social nature of traditional lectures" and how they provide a forum for discussion for students. 

Image Source:
While I am in agreement with most of Dr Rennick-Egglestone's points, I do think he sees some value in providing short videos as a "supplement to a traditional lecture" rather than a recording of the whole lecture. I have never recorded a lecture, though I have made a video at my desk by recording a voice-over for one of my PowerPoint notes at the end of a semester when I had not covered all content in class. I have made lots of short videos to supplement my classes - I find that these work well for my students.

The way content is consumed and delivered has changed enormously in the past 27 years that I have been working in education. The first lesson I created in 1989 was delivered on a 5.5 inch floppy disk - it could only be viewed on an IBM compatible PC, and nothing else. Today I could create the same lesson in a fraction of the time and in seconds have it available on multiple devices all over the world. The likes of Amazon Prime and NetFlix have changed the dynamic of how we watch and learn. No longer must we wait a week for the next episode - I think the same can apply for lectures. A lecturer can (as Rennick-Egglestone points out in his article) respond to levels of attention in a classroom, but not online. But I feel that the balance of video versus the classroom is swinging towards video. A good lecture should also make for a good video, while a bad lecture will not improve when recorded. There are many challenges facing lecturers with increased administration and research work as well as teaching. Video may be a help or a hindrance - but it is up to us to make it work. I see more and more of my (particularly younger) colleagues engaging in video creation. One day we'll all be doing it.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Using YouTube Videos for Exam Preparation #349

When I first set up my YouTube Channel it was with the intention of providing videos primarily for my own students. The channel took off with more than just my own students viewing the videos - indeed, viewers from Ireland are just a small fraction of the overall number of views. 

My most recent series of videos was again aimed at my own students - these were about conducting statistical tests by hand. Effectively, I conducted each test as I would have in class, and crucially: how I would have expected students to do so in an exam. There are over 100 students studying the Business Data Analysis module and they sat an exam (set by me) on the morning of 12th January last. It was interesting for me to see if the videos I created were used by the students. While I can't tell who the viewers are, I can tell (using YouTube Analytics) which countries the viewers come from. Here a chart of the last 28 days view figures for just one video:

Of the 298 views, 219 were from viewers based in Ireland. Given that the majority of the views happened just before the exam took place (the peak is at the day before the exam), I think it is safe to conclude that most of these viewers were revising for their Business Data Analysis exam. This pattern is repeated in all stats videos on the "By Hand" playlist.

It is interesting to note that most views were just before the exam - are students leaving their revision very late at almost the last minute? Or are they just using the videos as a refresher before the exam? I can't tell if students have viewed the videos more than once, but the figures suggest a lot of last minute revision for this exam. There might be a paper in this?

It is gratifying that the videos are being used for the purpose intended. I have not marked the exams yet (and if I had I would not comment about it here) - hopefully the videos were a help for both revision, and understanding the content.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Choosing College Courses #350

In the spring of 1978 I filled out a paper CAO application form with my top four choices as follows:

  1. Pharmacy (UCD)
  2. Pharmacy (Trinity)
  3. Science (UCD)
  4. Science (Trinity)

No doubt I added more to this list, but I can't remember what other choices I made. At the time I did not know that Pharmacy in UCD and Trinity was the same thing, UCD did not actually run a Pharmacy course at the time. I had 17 CAO points made up of 3 each for five C honours and 2 for an A in Ordinary Maths. Under the current system this would be somewhere between 350 and 410 points. Somehow 17 points was good enough for Science in Trinity, but not for UCD. With the limited help of a Career Adviser I made up my mind that since I was studying Biology and Chemistry in the Leaving Cert that I wanted to be a Biochemist. I really didn't know what a Biochemist was. I wasn't particularly good at Chemistry - I was good at Biology while History and Geography were my favourite subjects. Looking back I don't think that I was well informed about the choices ahead of me in the CAO process - not like the avalanche of information available to applicants nowadays. BTW - I remember delivering my application by hand to the then CAO office in Clare Street. No Internet thingie in those days!

Meeting Leaving Cert students at an NCI Open Day.
In the past week, Dr Derek O’Byrne (Registrar in Waterford Institute of Technology) wrote an Opinion piece for The Irish Times on High third level drop-out rates are due to disatisfaction with courses not ability (typo in an Irish Times headline!). In this piece he refers to Higher Education Authority research showing that "one in six students dropped out in first year". If this trend is followed we can deduce that approximately one in six CAO applicants this year will also drop out. O'Byrne also refers to work by the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning that "satisfaction levels with chosen courses is a primary cause of student non-progression". Clearly, if a student is not satisfied with his/her course, then maybe it's for the best that they drop out and try something else. Leaving Cert students are under tremendous pressure to pick a course - I'd hate to be in that phase again. Computer Science was not an option in my day, I would almost certainly choose that if I were filling out a CAO form today.

It's difficult to give advice to Leaving Cert students - all are different. They have different abilities, different ambitions, different motivations, different likes/dislikes. Around 60,000 students will be sitting the Leaving Cert this year and us Colleges in September will shoe-horn them into just a few hundred courses. It it any wonder that some will drop out after a year? There's no stigma or shame in dropping out - it is your response to this that counts and what you make of your life afterwards. My advice is simple - go for what you like and what you are good at. Follow your heart, not just your head.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Seámus Quinn RIP #351

While I was away in the US my Uncle Seámus Quinn passed away after a short illness. He was 87 years old and was married to my Godmother and Aunt Breeda (O'Loughlin). Because of being away I was unable to attend his funeral which I would very much like to have been at to support and grieve with the Quinn family. Both Seámus and Breeda were always very good to me and I miss them both - I have fond memories of visiting them in Portaferry, Co Down.
Seámus Quinn (with Chris Finnegan, left) at my Mum's 80th birthday party in Dublin, 27th August, 2014.
When I was a student in Trinity I had many opportunities to visit Seámus and Breeda in Portaferry as I stayed many times in the Queen's University Marine Biology Station there. I always got the warmest greetings at their house on Windmill Hill. Indeed the last time I saw him was during my trip around the Northern Ireland coast in the summer of 2014 was in Portaferry. Again he was delighted to receive me and we had a great conversation about the Northern Ireland coastline - specifically his beloved Ards Peninsula. He also admired my Harley-Davidson and I think he would have fancied a "go" on it if he was younger. I recall a few miles after leaving him that I had forgotten to take a photo of him with the bike - I thought to myself that I would be back again soon. It was not to be, and I regret now not having turned back to get the photo. 

Rest in peace Seámus, I know that you are happy to be with Breeda again. I hope they have a wee Black Bush above in Heaven!

Friday, January 15, 2016

Back to Work #352

If I needed any reminders that my holiday in Florida was over I got them this morning and today. Sub-zero temperatures this morning made us feel at home (not!), while this pile of 210 exam scripts was waiting for me at the College:

I'm always slightly nervous in starting to grade exam scripts. Most of these scripts are in award years, and I am fully aware that a student's future may well depend on a grade that in my judgement which I award based on the answers in front of me. Grading takes a long time - an average script (if all questions are answered) may take 15-20 minutes. This means that this pile could take up to 4,200 minutes (or 70 hours). However, I know without opening them that there will be some excellent scripts and some poor ones - with the rest in between. The average time is likely to be less than 10 minutes in many cases. Here's hoping that the grades will reflect the effort put in by each student.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Going Home #353

Our short trip to Florida is now over and we are waiting at the departure gate for the flight from New York to Dublin as I write. We arrive to freezing weather at 05:00 after a week of temperatures in the low twenties. It was lovely seeing my daughters Claire and Vicki again, even if only for a few days. We had some good laughs, ate well, and drank (more than) a few glasses of wine. Our base was West Palm Beach, but we also traveled to Miami, Orlando, and a Cape Canaveral. WPB is a very nice city - especially the centre: City Place. I might never be back there again, but I'll certainly have fond memories of WPB.

Singing in the rain!
America for me is a wonderful country and I have always loved coming here. The exchange rate between the dollar and the euro does not make it an ideal destination financially, in addition I found a lot of things expensive, especially the booze. But everywhere people were so friendly, and my only complaint about the trip was the number of mosquito bites I got. I do hope to get back to America again before the end of the year. God Bless America (and all other countries too!).

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Kennedy Space Centre #354

On our last full day in Florida we first said goodbye to Claire who returned to New York, and then we headed north to Cape Canaveral to visit the Kennedy Space Centre. Another long drive (2.5 hours), but very much worth it. A cool day with not much of a crowd was ideal for seeing the attractions. Star of the show at the Visitor Centre was the Space Shuttle Atlantis. There is a big exhibit and display surrounding the shuttle which itself is displayed tilted to one side. It is an incredible ship full of history and adventure. Don't bother with the simulator - it is very boring and a major disappointment. 

We took the bus tour to the launch pads and along the way we saw the giant buildings and vehicles used to house and transport the rockets. We were treated to the story of the Apollo missions which I fondly remember from when I was a kid. The huge scale of everything blows your mind away as we are all used to watching launches on our TV sets where things look so small. Our bus driver was also very entertaining - he seemed to know a lot of astronauts personally.

Space missions mark one of the high points of what technology can achieve. Even old timers like me can look on in awe at rockets and shuttles, and just for a few moments wonder what it would be like floating around in zero gravity. The Kennedy Space Centre is definitely worth a visit.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

No Guns & Ammo, but Outlets #355

One of the things we thought about doing while in America was to go to a shooting gallery and fire a few rounds. However, the spoil sports Americans insisted on first taking a course, and no drop in shooters. How better to overcome the disappointment of not being allowed to shoot than to go to an outlets park. Not.

When you pick up a guide to the Palm Beach Outlets, the smallest section is the Men's section. I was fed up within seconds of parking the car, so I decided to walk around rather than into each shop. Eventually I did go into a Sunglasses Hut, but as I break my sunglasses on a regular basis I was not interested in anything over $20 - sadly the $250 Ray Bans did not tempt me.

Usually there should be a gadget shop or a DIY store to keep the lads busy while the girls check out last year's fashions, but not here. The only thing I bought was an ice-cream, but it was delicious!

Monday, January 11, 2016

Universal Studios #356

No trip to Florida is complete without going to a Theme Park for the day. The girls had decided on Harry Potter World, so it was off to Universal Studios in Orlando for some magic. It is a three hour drive from West Palm Beach to Orlando so it was a long way to go (and back) in one day. When we arrived we had a delicious lunch in the NBC Grill and Brew Sports Bar. The day was quite cool, but despite this there were plenty of people about. There was plenty of space in the car parks and lots of tables at the restaurants. The longest we had to wait for any of the attractions was about 30 mins - I would not like to be here on a busy day. 

The highlight for me was the Harry Potter ride - good fun and very exciting. I also went on a short roller coaster ride, but chickened out of doing the Dragon Challenge (the girls said it was "brilliant"). The Spider Man 3-D ride was also very well done and very exciting. Overall - the movie-themed attractions make this a great day out and well worth the visit.

We arrived in the early afternoon so only had a half-day to squeeze in as much as we could. We were charged over $100 a ticket each so it was not cheap - this was a full day adult price. Inside the park there are plenty of themed shops, bars, restaurants, and souvenir stands. So many that the park often feels like an outdoor shopping mall with a few attractions scattered about. There's absolutely no way you can get around without spending some money (I bought a fridge magnet!) - this place must take in hundreds of thousands of dollars everyday. 

For young and old alike - Universal Studios is a treat and a magical day out.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Shops, shops, and more shops! #357

Looking lost at the Garden Mall.
The Garden Mall on PGA Boulevard in Palm Beach Gardens is like a giant version of the Dundrum Town Centre. Lots of shops with the same name, plus Bloomingdales, Sears, and Macy's. We were there to visit the Apple Store to get Claire's iPhone fixed - we were pleasantly surprised when the Apple Agent took one look at the phone and said he would replace it for free! Later I had a look at the Microsoft Lumia 950 in an AT&T store - I'm impressed. I was told by an AT&T agent that it is the best built phone in the shop, and just about the best camera. Unfortunately the lack of Apps (no Chrome or Google Maps) is a major drawback for me - not to mention the big price tag.

I wandered around the Mall looking like a guy who was wandering around waiting for his girls to finish shopping. Eventually we got out of the place only to repeat the same in a Publix supermarket. At least I very much enjoyed the company and the driving. We are cooking a barbecue this evening, so already I am settling down with a beer and relaxing with the girls - what a holiday is all about!

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Miami Beach #358

Today we travelled down to Miami to see one of America's most famous cities. We intended to go to Downtown Miami, but ended up in Miami Beach. As today is Saturday the traffic was very busy and the street and beaches were crowded. We found parking easy enough (in a big American car park) and then went to the beach to dip our toes in the Atlantic. We then went to a bar without realizing it was the Ritz Carlton - one round of drinks: $70! Here a my three beautiful daughters just before the drinks arrived:

Perhaps the main attraction in Miami Beach is the Lincoln Road Mall - a great pedestrianised street with lots of high street shops, bars, and restaurants. We had pizza on the street - reminding ourselves how cold it is at home! We went into lots of shops - I just bought a Stars and Stripes cover for my phone.

Driving to and from Miami Beach was interesting. The highway was at least four lanes wide and I've noticed that many Americans like to speed and cross multiple lanes at a time. The road network here is brilliant and makes our M50 at home feel like a country lane. Nevertheless I enjoy driving here, though I am jealous of the many Harley-Davidson riders (no helmets!).

Friday, January 08, 2016

Reunited #359

First day in West Palm Beach and I have the thrill of getting together with Roma, Claire, Kate, and Vicki - all five of us reuniting for the first time in two years. Here we are celebrating a late Christmas with some pressies, a glass of bubbly, and a selfie! We also had fun today touring around a Walmart - has to be the biggest shop I have ever been in. Another treat is in store this evening as we are having dinner in Ruth's Chris Steakhouse. So far West Palm Beach is a very nice place. We are very close to a railway line and the loud klaxon of passing trains, but otherwise a great family day so far.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Destination Florida #360

Today I am taking the long trip from Dublin to West palm Beach in Florida (via New York) - I estimating that it will take about 20 hours from leaving my house to arriving at our destination. We have a short two hour stopover in JFK - thank goodness for Immigration pre-clearance in Dublin. It is two years since my last trip to the US - we will hopefully enjoy some good weather with a family get-together in West Palm Beach. Posts for the next week or so will be about Florida!

Image Source: @destflorida

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Book Review: "Courage Boys, We are Winning: An Illustrated History of the 1916 Rising" by Michael Barry #361

I have read many books about 1916 and some of the participants, and I received a present of two more 1916 books this past Christmas. The first of these is named after a famous quote from James Connolly "Courage Boys, We are Winning". Michael Barry is a photographer and he has produced an interesting book of photographs based on the lead up to, and including, the Rising.

Image Source: Amazon.
The book is a mix of well-known photographs, a few I had not seen before, plus some present day photos (by Barry himself). Each photo is given a caption and explanation, which is almost - but not quite a narration of the Rising. I found the photos of the damage to O'Connell Street (then Sackville Street) and its surroundings, plus the maps, to be the most interesting. The carnage caused by 18-pound shells and fire was devastating. Many of the buildings were demolished after the Rising, but it is interesting to see what Dublin looked liked at the time. I had no interest in the photos of buildings and streets as they are today. However, this may be because they are already very familiar to me as I live in Dublin. For those outside Dublin this will be of more interest. 

The book is limited by the dearth of photos from this time period - for example, it includes the only two known photos from inside the GPO during the Rising. It gives a flavour of the time, but is a long way short of a complete illustrated history of the Rising. Perhaps the photographs just do not exist, possibly explaining why Barry padded the book out with more recent photos. This book is €24.95 in Easons, and while is is a great present to get to add to my collection of 1916 books, is it very expensive for what you get. 

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Teaching my Mother a thing or two! #IlovemymumandIdontcarewhoknows #362

I have been working as an educator for almost 27 years (1989-2002 with SmartForce, 2002-present with NCI, plus my YouTube work). During this time I have had people of all ages and abilities in my classes, and I'd like to think that I was not ever nervous preparing for and going into a class.

Last Saturday I had a lesson with my Mum on how to use her new Samsung Galaxy S3 smartphone - it was a Christmas present from my sister and myself to her. It is her first ever smartphone and the first time she will have used a touch screen device. Bear in mind also that she does not have a computer either. She is 81 years young and I felt a bit nervous as we sat down at the kitchen table to get to grip with the S3.

I was first struck by the fact that this was in the kitchen where I grew up and that when I was small the roles were reversed. My Mum was my first teacher - she showed me how to hold a knife and fork properly at the very same table, she taught me how to behave, she helped me with my homework, she tested my spellings, she taught me how to blow my nose and wipe my ass, she taught me the value of reading, she taught me how to skin a rabbit and clean out the guts from chickens - in short my first life skills were learned at my Mum's apron strings. Now for my first lesson as the teacher!

Changing from an old-fashioned button style Nokia phone to a smartphone is not easy - especially for people like my Mum were are not used to technology. I decided that priority #1 would be to get her up to speed with text messaging and making/receiving phone calls. This worked out very well - the main problem was tapping at the centre of each letter on the glass keyboard and correcting spelling mistakes. We sent messages and phoned each other from opposite sides of the kitchen table. Mum is a quick learner and I began to relax - with every message and phone call I could see her begin to relax too. Feeling comfortable with texting and  making calls, we moved on to Facebook - she was keen to see what all this was about. I set up her account and added all immediate family as friends. It will take time to get used to this, but already in the days after setting this up she was "liking" and "posting" on Facebook. All the notifications are a bit annoying at first - but once she is used to Facebook she will have the smartphone licked.

It felt strange at first teaching my Mum a thing or two - but I can safely say she is one of the best students I ever had!

Monday, January 04, 2016

Back to Work #363

Today is my first working day of 2016 and I am back at the office ready for the New Year. The Christmas and New Year break are over - the College has been closed since 24th December last. While the 11 day break was very welcome, I always feel that taking time off at this time of year is wasted a bit - especially this year when we had dreadful weather. There are three official working days between Christmas and New Year that come out of my annual leave allowance - I don't really mind this, but I'd much rather have these three days in the summer. 

I have a few things to look forward to this year:
  • I am teaching a new module this upcoming semester (Advanced Business Data Analysis) - I'm looking forward to learning about some new statistical techniques for this module
  • I've often dabbled in the R programming language, but now it is part of the above ABDA module. I have spent some time over the recent holidays learning some more R and will need to get better at coding for statistics
  • I will publish my third travel book (Exploring Ireland's East and South East Coasts)  this year - hopefully before the summer. Following on from Exploring Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way and Exploring Northern Ireland's Causeway and Mourne Coastal Routes, this will be the final part of my trilogy of books about exploring the full Irish coastline
  • All things going well, I am hoping to tour northern Germany, Denmark, and Sweden this summer on the bike. Destination Berlin!
  • In September this year the wonderful Roma and I will reach 30 years of wedded bliss. We have no plans yet how to mark this, but I'm sure we will find a way to do so!
  • My Dad Joe reaches 85 years young on March 31st - definitely a family gathering is in order to mark this birthday milestone
  • I am really looking forward to all the 1916 celebrations. I have long had an interest in modern Irish history and like many Irish people I look back on 1916 as a key moment in the foundation of our Republic
  • We will also have a General Election early this year - I love politics and will follow the build-up and the election closely. I have already decided who my #1 vote is going to (Mary Hanafin of Fianna Fáil) 

Happy New Year to all!

Image source:

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Christmas Shopping #364

I wrote this to share with my daughters before Christmas...

So... there I was chatting to the sister last Saturday and I asked about what her grandson Dan would like for Christmas.

"Hollister" she says - straight off, "size 10-12 year old"

"Jaysus" says I (to me self) "Isn't that stuff expensive?" (again to me self)

"Leave it to me" says I to the sister, "Where can I get it?"

"Dundrum Shopping Centre" she says - again straight off.

Right - it's off to Dundrum I have to go.

So...there I was this morning on the Harley passing everyone out at the lights on the way to Dundrum

No problem parking for me - I'm on a bike and I can park where I like. I chose Roly Saul's as the place to park. #FeelingSmug!

In I walk, no idea where Holister is. Eventually I find my glasses to read the computer to search for "Hollister".

A man comes up to me - "Are ye all roight there mate?"

I'm tempted to tell him I'm not his "mate", but say instead (in my best South Dublin accent) "Can you please direct me to the Hollister Store?"

"No problem mate" he says - "up the escalator and it's straight to your left, Happy Christmas".

I thank my new best friend and head off to the escalator, already getting warm inside my heavy biker gear. #FeelingSweaty

I pass by Hollister twice before I see it having walked up and down the hall twice. #FeelingSweatier

I walk in and go straight to the nearest sales assistant and ask for "something for a boy, 10-12 year old" #FeelingLikeAProfessionalShopper

"What size?" says he - I reply "10-12 year old".

"We don't do boy's sizes" says he, "how about an XS in men's?". He shows me a trackie which would cover Dan from head to toe with a lot to spare. #NowWhat

Then I get a brainwave - "Would there be anything in the ladies department that might fit?" #Genius

A nosy lady interrupts us "Oh My God no - if he sees a girl wearing the same thing in the park he'll kill you!" #BestAdviceEver

"That's it - he's getting a football" says I, and remove my sweaty body from the shop #LetMeOutOfHere

There's NOTHING in Dundrum Shopping Centre.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Removing Thumbnails from YouTube Channel #365

Previously I blogged about declining numbers of views on my YouTube channel - one of the possible explanations for this was the introduction of customized thumbnails. In May of last year I added custom thumbnails to most of my videos and almost immediate noticed a rapid decline in views. I did this on the advice of my YouTube Partner Content manager, but I had to design the thumbnails myself. I opted for a basic plain background with large text, plus a photo of myself. 

Example of one of my thumbnails.
This week I got some negative feedback about the thumbnails - mostly in relation to the photo. "Too stuffy" and "too formal" were the comments, and I was advised to either replace them with something else or drop them altogether. I was also told that they would not tempt people to click on my videos to view. While this was very negative comment, I welcome it and want to act on it.

I have decided to remove all thumbnails from my channel over the next few days, and see what the effect is. Views normally increase in January after the Christmas and New Year period anyway, so hopefully removing the thumbnails might accelerate this growth. I'll report later on any effect - positive, negative, or neutral.

Friday, January 01, 2016

2016 - A Year To Look Forward To #366

For many people in Europe, 2016 will possibly be marked as the centenary of the Battle of the Somme - especially in Germany, France, and the UK. A great slaughter of about 1,5 million young men which began on July 1st 1916. But here in Ireland it is the death of 15 men that marks out 1916 for us. The Easter Rebellion has iconic status for many Irish people who looked back on it as the foundations of our Republic. As it happened before Partition and the Civil War divided the country it is an event that many can look back on without divisiveness.

When I was learning Irish history in school during the 1960s and 1970s, it effectively ended at 1916 and the War of Independence. I have no recollection of the 50th Anniversary celebrations in 1966 - I was not yet seven years old and was in the senior infants' class. My Mum tells me that when she was in school they had to learn the 1916 Proclamation off by heart - I don't remember if we did this.

I'm looking forward to the 1916 commemorations. I have several books to read and still have to visit sites like Arbour Hill Cemetery where many of the Rebellion leaders are buried. Perhaps I'll blog a bit more about it - one of my resolutions for 2016 is to post on every day if I can!

Easter Proclamation of 1916.png
"Easter Proclamation of 1916" by originally uploaded to the English Wikipedia by w:User:Jtdirl - It was originally uploaded to the English Wikipedia by w:User:Jtdirl at 05:33, 25 February 2003 Jtdirl). Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.