Monday, February 29, 2016

At the Theatre of Dreams: Manchester United 3 - Arsenal 2 #307

The first game of football I ever watched on TV was the 1968 European Cup Final between Manchester United and Benfica. I must have seen United hundreds of times on TV since then - Arsenal too. I had never been to Old Trafford in Manchester and I got a treat today when my brother Brian took me to see the Premiership game against Arsenal. A full house of over 75,000 fans saw an excellent games with five goals and lots of good fast exciting play. We had great seats behind the goal (just where I am standing in the photo below), and a great view of three of the goals (including two by Man Utd new boy - 18-year old Marcus Rashford). Many of the stars of Premiership football were on view: Mesut Ozil, Theo Walcott, David de Gea, Petr Cech, Danny Blind, Danny Welbeck, and Alexi Sanchez. I had never seen so many millionaires in one location in my life! 

Old Trafford certainly puts on a show - everything is done with a sense of occasion. You get an impression of how important all this is when you are patted down by security guards before going in, there are many different languages being spoken all around the ground, and the noise and atmosphere inside is fantastic. We had a lot of "experts" around us who were mostly entertaining, though some behind us provided a running commentary throughout. All around us were passionate Man Utd fans and it felt to me as if they were kicking and heading every ball with their idols. We had to stand throughout the match even though we were in an all seater stadium. This wasn't too much of a problem as the space between the seats is tiny and uncomfortable.

On the flight home I sat beside a man who had brought his very excited young son (I'm guessing he was about 9 or 10) to the same game. He had a Man Utd jersey on and, like me, it was his first time to go to Old Trafford. I was 9 years watching George Best and Bobby Charlton in the European Cup on the TV in 1968. Addicted to football!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Being Wrong! #GE16 #308

Last Saturday I predicted that the Dún Laoghaire Constituency in the General Election would return Mary Mitchell-O'Connor, Richard Boyd-Barrett, and Mary Hanafin. The betting was as follows:

  • Mary Mitchell-O'Conner 1/14
  • Richard Boyd-Barrett 1/7
  • Mary Hanafin 8/15
  • Maria Bailey 13/8
  • Cormac Devlin 5/2
  • Carrie Smith 6/1

It seemed that Maria Bailey was an outsider, but today she is elected at the expense of Mary Hanafin (whose political career is now surely over?). How things can change in a week! Last week I was writing that Maria Bailey was probably looking towards the next election, but somehow she has surprised the pundits. Fine Gael are being praised for their "vote management" in the Dún Laoghaire constituency.

Only one canvasser knocked on my door while I was at home during this campaign - she was a canvassing for Mary Mitchell-O'Connor. She told me that "their were letters being sent around" asking some supporters to vote #1 for Bailey and #2 for Mitchell-O'Connor, but that we should ignore them and vote #1 for Mitchell-O'Connor. There were no such letters in our area. I didn't vote for Mitchell-O'Connor. During the last election campaign in 2011, she told me on my doorstep that she was only running once. Clearly she likes the trappings of Leinster House.

Fun and games over the next few weeks as the politicians argue further amongst themselves. We have voted for a mix of many parties and independents, and against the established groups. I hope we are happy with the Government we get!

Image Source: Irish Independent.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Killiney Lions Quiz #309

Last evening I had the pleasure once again of being Quiz master for the Killiney Lions Club fund-raising quiz in the Rochestown Lodge Hotel. A smaller than usual crowd were treated to lots of questions on the General Election, and on the 1916 Rising. Mixed into this were the usual general knowledge and picture rounds. One of the hardest rounds was the first - average score was about 5/10. Here are the questions, see how you do:

What character in the Harry Potter series of films was played by the late Alan Rickman?
Who are the current Guinness Pro12 Champions?
Name the three countries that the Republic of Ireland will play in the 2016 Euro Finals in France this summer.
Name the three countries that Northern Ireland will play in the 2016 Euro Finals in France this summer.
In 1929, the midlands town of Maryborough was renamed - what is the town’s current name?
What is Van Morrison’s real first name?
In the animal kingdom, what is a “polliwog”?
He died on 22nd September last year and amongst many of his famous quotes was "It's like déjà vu all over again" – who was he?
In 1978, Terry Wogan reached #21 in the UK charts with what song?
Kim Kardashian and Kanye West became the proud parents of a little boy last December – what name did they give their son?

Friday, February 26, 2016

Data Science Skills in Demand for 2016 #310

Colleges will often question themselves to see if they are teaching the right skills required from our graduates when they finish College It is difficult when planning new degrees, knowing that there will be no graduates for the first three or four years as new students work their way through each year - what skills will be required in four years time. All we can do is follow trends and consult with industry about what's needed.

Daniel Gutierrez, writing for insideBIGDATA, tells us about the Data Science Skills in Demand for 2016. The main skills are:
  • SQL
  • Hadoop
  • Python
  • Java
  • R
Image source: Ngare's Dbit Blog.
Gutierrez further writes that the above skills "will really make a difference and help specialists write their own ticket when it comes to salaries". He quotes a report based on Linkedin research that the "SQL specialists are the ones sitting pretty right now".

At the National College of Ireland, Java is the programming language of choice for our BSc in Computing programmes. I am also glad to report that in our Data Analytics programmes we cover SQL, Hadoop, Python, and R in our curriculums. Nice to know we are making a difference to people's lives with the right skills for today. I know I am certainly using more R programming in class than ever before. The skill set demands of the IT sector will of course change in the future, it is our job to respond to this and keep up to date. 

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Not Using the Delete or Backspace Key #311

I postef a few days ago about blogger JeffGoins 500 Word a Day challenge - while I am not taking his channllenge I do get an email from him every day with adive for those that do. Today he asdvises writers to forget about correcting grammar and punctions saand spelling and just write 500 word. Worry about corrections later. Sondes like a good idea, so Ive decide to try this for today's post.

I'm sure like a lot of people, I make a lot of typos as I write with a keyboard. My fingers sometime seem too big for the small keys and I oftern hit the key beeside the intedned one. I also mix up words like from and form - my fingers fdon;t seem to be connected to my brain when I write certain words. So far it is proving difficult for me to write this withour hitting the backspace of delete key!

Kevoin Ashton, in hios book "How to Fly a Horse" recounts the sotrey of Stephen Wolfram who used a keylooger to log all keystrokes over since 2003. Guess what - the key he hit most often was teh "Delete" key - he hasd used it more than 7 million times and estinated that he deleted 7% of all charcters he typed. Ashton aslo examines what Stephen King (the author) does and estimates that must erase almost two words for everyone he keeps.

All of this means that we are erasing a lot of what we do whne we use a computer. IN addition to making corrections, we sometimes sp[end a long time writing stuff only to delete it later. Maybe it's not good enough, or is out of date, or we just don;t want it anymore.

My keyboard at work is heavily stained with dust - but interestingly I can see some keys are clean from being used a lot, while otehrs are covered in dusty grime 'cos I hardly ebery use tehm (note to self - clean your keyborad!).

I've just checked the abouve text in Microsoft Word and it is 335 char words. IN addition too loads of typs I can also see a lot of red squiggly lines indicating erros.

Try this yourslef - it is quite liberating, but also an intersting thought about how we write and and how much we waste.

Admission: I pressed Backspce twice during this ecxperiment as I automatically corrected pressing an incorrect key - it is hard not to use it?!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

New Additions to Open Plaques #312

I continue to add photos and details of plaques in Dublin to the Open Plaques website - yesterday while out for a walk in Blackrock I noticed a plaque I had not seen before near the DART station dedicated to a guy called Eddie Heron. I checked the Open Plaques website, and it was not there - so I added it. Here is the plaque - it is the fifth one I've added this year (the other four are from my trip to West Palm Beach in Florida last month):

Other recent additions by me are as follows:

This one is in West Pal;m Beach - Open Plaques link.

Palm Beach - Open Plaques link.
Palm Beach - Open Plaques link.

Last one from Palm Beach - Open Plaques link.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

What Price Privacy? #313

I have been reading with some interest about Apple's refusal to cooperate with the FBI - Adrian Weckler has a great article in today's Irish Independent "Get your paws off our iPhones, Cook tells world's cops" where he sums up the situation nicely. The FBI is obviously concerned with national security in America - they had "captured the iPhone of one of the terrorists responsible for a lethal gun attack in California's San Bernardino last December" and wanted Apple to change the security software to make it easier for the FBI to hack phones. Tim Cook of Apple responded that the "implications of the government's demands are chilling". Whose side am I on?
Image source:

Naturally, I want to live in an environment safe from terrorists (and other criminals too). If I thought that intelligence from a terrorist gobshite's phone could have prevented 9/11 or the recent Paris attacks I would be all for it and land on the side of the "greater good". If it saved only one life - I would still support the FBI. That life could be mine or one of my family's. 

But what about privacy? Do I want unknown FBI agents hacking into my iPhone - well I don't. But I can't have it both ways. I would be in favour of the authorities obtaining a court order to hack into certain individual's phones if there is evidence of suspicious activity - just like a search warrant. But crooks and terrorists aren't dumb people and I'm sure they'll figure a way to get around any new security checks. Terrorist like IS can rot in jail and I don't care what it takes to get them there. But for people in civilized societies, privacy is important and should not be up for grabs for unlimited monitoring in the interest of national security. We have laws with ways and means of bringing criminals to justice - we must use and stand by these. Otherwise the terrorists win.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Shell Shape Variation PhD Data Resurrected #314

Between the summers of 1984 and 1987 as a postgraduate student in the Department of Zoology in Trinity College, I made thousands of measurements in a study of shell shape variation in the Painted Topshell Calliostoma zizyphinum (L.). Initially my research began as a project to investigate differences between the variegated and white types of this mollusc, but it expanded to a study of the shell shapes of 24 populations around the Irish and French coasts - and how the shape is influenced by environment. 29 years later I still have my data!

Calliostoma zizyphinum (L.).
Image source: Shell Collection by José Santos.
Last week in my Statistics class I used some of my own data from some of my sample sites: Castleaffy Strand in Clew Bay, Corranrroo Bay and Scanlan's Island in Co Clare, and Ballyhenry in Strangford Lough. For the Ballyhenry sample I measured two variations of the shell (white and variegated - see diagram above) - this means I had five samples from four sites. The topic being discussed was Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) - so I used my five samples to determine if there was a significance difference between shells from the five samples based on just one of my measurements - the apical angle (in degrees) at the top of the shell. 

Of course in 1987, when I was writing all my work up, I did not have the benefit of statistics packages like IBM's SPSS or the statistical programming language R. At that time I used the single mainframe computer in the College, which was located in one laboratory in Pearse Street.

Running a One-way ANOVA in SPSS found that there was a significant difference between at least two of my five samples (F=236.053, P=.000) - but which two (or more)? We run what's called a TukeyHSD (Honest Significant Difference) Test to compare each sample with the other four in turn to see if there is a significant difference between each sample. In this way we can determine which samples are different from each other - below is the output from SPSS for this test: 

The results shown were very interesting. The most important column above is the "Sig." column (third from right). Prior to this test I would have set a significance level of 95%, which means I would have just a 5% chance of making an incorrect decision - this is represented as an alpha value of 0.05. If my "Sig" level is less than 0.05, I have found a significant difference. As you can see above, the "Sig" is less than 0.05 in almost all lines which compare each sample with all others in turn - these indicates that each sample is significantly different from each other. Highlighted in yellow is a comparison of the two Ballyhenry samples (variegated and white) - here the "Sig" is higher than 0.05 which indicates that there is no difference between these two samples. While I have found a difference in shell shape between the samples, only the two Ballyhenry samples are not different. This is not a surprising finding given that the two Ballyhenry samples were taken from the same location. Shell shape is influenced by the environment (such as wave power, sea current, exposure, seaweed cover). Given that the white and variegated topshells live in the same location, I have found that their shell shape does not differ and can make a preliminary finding that the shell colour is not affected by the physical environment.

For further details of my research into shell shape variation see:

O'Loughlin, E.F.M. (1989). 
Notes on the distribution of Calliostoma zizyphinum (L.) (Mollusca) on the shores and shallow waters of the Irish coast. Bulletin of the Irish Biogeographical Society No 12.
O'Loughlin, E.F.M. & Aldrich, J.C (1987). 
Morphological variation in the painted topshell Calliostoma zizyphinum (L.) (Prosobranchia:Trochidae), from inter-tidal rapids on the Irish coast. Abstract. Journal of Molluscan Studies, volume 53, pp267-272.
O'Loughlin, E.F.M. & Aldrich, J.C (1987). 
An analysis of shell shape variation in the painted topshell Calliostoma zizyphinum (L.) (Prosobranchia:Trochidae). Abstract. Journal of Molluscan Studies, volume 53, pp62-68.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Writer's Block? #315

My more astute readers with notice that since January 1st I have been adding a hashtag with a number to each blog post - a few have even asked WTF is that for? The number for this post is #315 - it is a step in a countdown from 366 days from January 1st to December 31st 2016. One of my ideas for blog posts this year is to spend at least 15-20 minutes everyday and write a blog post on any topic. Most of my posts are about education, but I also throw in some personal stuff like family and reviews about places I've been or books I read. So far this year I have managed a post every day, though I am the first to admit that many of them are very, very trivial. This post will be the 52nd one this year, which is equivalent to the combined total for January, February, March, April, and May last year. There's no doubt that keeping this up will be difficult, especially if I want to avoid trivial posts!

What do I do when I run out of ideas to blog about? Jeff Goins, writing in his own blog, suggests "5 Ideas for Writing Blog Posts When You Feel Stuck". So my comment on this is the subject of today's post - only 314 more posts to go! Here are Goins' suggestions:
  1. Confess a dark secret
  2. Call someone out
  3. Ask a question
  4. Teach something
  5. Pick a fight. 
My favourite one is (not surprisingly) #4 where Goins suggests sharing "something that you’re a natural at and generously share your knowledge with the world". I like to think that I do this with my YouTube channel, and of course it gives me plenty of topics to write about (my next post on this subject will be about a new landmark in my channel occurring in the next few weeks). For #3 above, Goins tells us that the "world doesn’t need you to have all the answers; it just needs you to speak up, to lead the conversation". I know I have more questions than answers. Very few of my posts fall into the "Call someone out" or "Pick a fight" category above - one such was during the 2011 General Election when I openly stated my intention to vote for Mary Hanafin of Fianna Fáil. I got quite a response to this (see here) - "Larry" and "Richard" took me to task, and I nervously responded.

Goins has a blog challenge where he has 2,578 people signed up to write at least 500 words a day. I have signed up just to see what his daily emails to me for 31 days will state - I'm not committing to taking up his challenge, though it is a very interesting one. Goins finishes his article with some sound advice: "What you must remember about blogging, about all writing actually, is that people don’t remember vanilla content. They don’t tweet links to mediocre articles and don’t tell their friends about someone who is average".

This post is 522 words long.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Who will win in the Dún Laoghaire Constituency? #GE16 #316

With less than a week to go to the General Election, thoughts of most voters inevitably turn to their local constituency and who will get their precious "Number 1". My own constituency of Dún Laoghaire is, as always, lining up to be an interesting competition. Two elections ago this was a five seater, in the last election it became a four-seater, and this time it is effectively a three seater with the automatic return of Seán Barrett having served as Ceann Comhairle. This will mean that our quota will be a lot higher than normal, thus making it more difficult to get elected. 

Newstalk's Ivan Yates predicts that Mary Hanafin will win her old seat back, and that Mary Mitchell-O'Conner and Richard Boyd-Barrett will also win seats.

FG's Mary Mitchell-O'Connor will top the poll, followed by PBP's Richard Boyd-Barrett. The last seat is there for FF's Mary Hanafin to win, but not before seeing off FF's Cormac Devlin and FG's Maria Bailey.

Sheehan is not as sure as Yates about the last seat.

Most people agree that Labour will lose Éamon Gilmore's seat here. Gilmoire got a massive 11,468 votes in the last election, and was elected on the first count. Much of this was a personal vote - his retirement, combined with poor performance in the opinion polls points to a seat loss.

Sinn Féin may do well, but not enough to come near winning a seat. Fine Gael's Maria Bailey is also tipped to do well, she will surely be a more serious candidate in the next election following the probable retirement of Seán Barrett. 

Probably the best indicator is the betting - Paddy Power calls it:

        Mary Mitchell-O'Conner 1/14
        Richard Boyd-Barrett 1/7
        Mary Hanafin 8/15
        Maria Bailey 13/8
        Cormac Devlin 5/2
        Carrie Smith 6/1

Me - I go along with Paddy Power and predict Boyd-Barrett, Mitchell-O'Conner, and Hanafin will take the seats

Friday, February 19, 2016

Book Review: "Easter Dawn - The 1916 Rising" by @TurtleBunbury #317

Last Christmas I got a very pleasant gift of a copy of Turtle Bunbury's new book: Easter Dawn: The 1916 Rising. I had stopped to read it about two thirds of the way through to read Charles Spencer's book about the Regicides of Charles II (reviewed yesterday). But I got back to it again and finished it last night.

Image source: Amazon.
I have read a lot about the 1916 Rising, and of course know a lot about it from learning Irish history in school. There's so much about it on TV and I have already this read through "Courage Boys, We are Winning: An Illustrated History of the 1916 Rising" by Michael Barry (reviewed here) this year. So it was always a possibility that I would learn very little that is new in Bunbury's book. At €29.99 (Easons today) it is a very pricy book - I'm glad I got it as a present and I would definitely feel cheated if I had spent this much.

The book will be an excellent source of information for those who are not familiar with the events and people of the 1916 Rising. There's not much new for most Irish people - perhaps the book is aimed at a non-Irish market. The only surprise for me was to learn that the wife of James Connolly was Lillie Reynolds - a Protestant born in my hometown of Carnew in Co Wicklow. In all my years I had never heard of this, and my Dad who has lived all his nearly 85  years in the parish of Carnew - never heard it either. Wikipedia states that Lillie was born in Carnew, but elsewhere I have seen this disputed and that she was from Rathdrum or Rathnew. The best part of the book for me was the short summaries of the leading participants. Not much new, but good reading nonetheless. The book is written in small sections, and never feels like a narrative of the Rising. Most of the photos I had seen before in other books - again not much new.

Overall - a good, if pricey, read for those looking to find out about the 1916 Rising for the first time. For all others, there's little new for your money.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Book Review: "Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I" by Charles Spencer #318

Amazon is getting really good at recommending books that I might like - and with a Kindle price at €4.70 (and no postage), I couldn't resist a one-click "Buy Now" purchase of "Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles", The mid-seventeenth century was always a fascinating period of Irish history for me - probably inspired by G.A. Henty's "Orange and Green: A Tale of the Boyne and Limerick" (1888) which I read as a young teenager. This period of Irish history, and especially the War of the Two Kings and the English Civil War, is also deeply immersed in British history.

Image source: Amazon.
Charles Spencer (brother of Lady Diana Spencer), has written a fine account of the men who were involved in the trial of King Charles I. 59 men signed the King's death warrant before he was led off to the block. When Charles' son, Charles II became king in 1660 - vengeance was uppermost on his mind. In 1660, 10 regicides (king killers) were executed (9 by being hanged, drawn, and quartered). More executions and assassinations followed, and even up to the death in exile of the final regicide - Edmund Ludlow in 1692 (43 years after the King's execution) warrants still existed for the arrest of the regicides. Incidentally, I mentioned Edmund Ludlow in my own book, Exploring Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way, when writing about the Burren in Co Clare. Ludlow is quoted as saying about the Burren: "Not a tree whereon to hang a man; no water in which to drown him; no soil in which to bury him".

While there were so many regicides for Spencer to write about, he concentrates on a small number (like Ludlow). Many went into exile and lived in hiding and fear for the rest of their lives. One of the things that stands out throughout the book is the faith and piety of many of the regicides as they faced their gruesome deaths. They looked to The Bible for inspiration and courage - remaining true to what they saw as God's will to be done. Many never wavered from their belief that executing the King was the right thing to do.

Many innocent people, including thousands in Ireland, were killed during the mid-seventeenth century as the English fight amongst themselves. In the middle of all this were 59 men of conviction, who did the unprecedented in signing a death warrant for a king, brought to life again by Charles Spencer in a thoroughly enjoyable book.


Wednesday, February 17, 2016

How Teacher Salaries Are Different Around The World #319

A couple of days ago I posted about how Irish 18-29 year olds struggle with Maths. Ireland has a 29% rate of people not reaching an adequate level of numerical proficiency in this age group. Compared to South Korea (7.1%) - I wondered why such a big difference? Is it our teachers?

According to The Guardian, in an article entitled "How the job of a teacher compares around the world" teachers are treated differently all over the world - and when it comes to pay, there can be a marked difference. Below is a snip from the article web page comparing teachers salaries in OECD countries:
Image source: The Guardian.
Switzerland's teachers have the highest average salary of $68,000, while Indonesia's teachers get just $2,830. It is interesting to compare Ireland and Korea again. From above, the salaries are practically identical, but still the vast difference in numeracy between the two countries. We can't blame low salaries for Ireland's poor performance in the numeracy survey (though cost of living is not included in above survey). Are we attracting the best teachers into our education system where the average salary is $47,300 (€42,500 approx)? 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Fine Gael's Election Manifesto on Third-Level Education is Excellent - But Can They Deliver? #GE16 #320

At a whopping 140 pages, Fine Gael's Election 2016 Manifesto (published today) seems to have a lot. Everything from Disability, to Housing, and to Banking. In fact there are 29 separate sections - somebody has been working very hard to put this together. With so many sections, there can be no more than a few pages for each section - so I headed for the four and a half pages devoted to Education.

Image source: Fine Gael.
Fine Gael have a four point plan to "to invest in a reformed and well-managed education system that makes sure that the economic recovery leaves no child behind". Sounds good. Point 4 is about Higher Education.

My first reaction is that I am impressed - there are several items that catch my eye, here's just a few:
  • “Earned Autonomy” for Universities - giving more independence to set there own resource requirements (good), but within "strict" guidelines (bad)
  • Online Higher Education - they are only promising (bad) to conduct an "extensive consultation exercise". But this is a step in the right direction (good)
  • Technological Universities - Fine Gael plan to "prioritise those institutions with clear ambitions and plans for the furthering of industry-relevant technological research and education". This sounds like a challenge to IoTs more than an election promise.
  • Springboard - this is currently a very successful programme and good value for tax payer's money. Fine Gael promise to review the programme with a view to introducing "new 2-year courses" for specific skills shortages (again - good)
I would not normally read election manifestos, nor recommend others to do so. I also have never voted for Fine Gael in my life (blue shirts and all of that!). The manifesto on third-level education reads like a document created with a real desire to make Ireland a top education environment for third-level. If only I believed that Fine Gael could deliver on this? Will there be any money left over after they "look after" the likes of Michael Lowry and other Independents and small parties that they will have to rely on to secure a majority? What proposed policies will have to be sacrificed to negotiated settlements with others? 

Fine Gael - I like what you are saying, but I don't believe you can do this. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

22% of Irish 18 to 29 year olds struggle with Maths via @StatistaCharts #321

One of the most interesting newsletters that I have signed up to, and actually read and enjoy, is the Statista "Chart of the Day" - this is an interesting view of statistics from research and surveys conducted all over the world. One of Statista's recent reports tells us about "The Countries that Struggle The Most With Math" (see embedded chart below).

The data are based on OECD studies into numeracy skills in the 18-29 year old age group. Top of the list is the United States with "29 percent of 18 to 29 year olds not reaching an adequate level of numerical proficiency" - from this is is deduced that they struggle with maths. Interestingly Ireland comes fifth in this study with 22.3% failing to reach an adequate level of numerical proficiency.

Infographic: The Countries Struggling The Most With Math | Statista

You will find more statistics at Statista

One of my first reactions on seeing these data was that this means that 77.7% of Irish people in the 18-29 age bracket DON'T struggle with maths! I'd like to know who they are! Methinks that Statista are also guilty of a slightly misleading headline to their post - I'm certain that many people who do reach an adequate level of numeracy also struggle with maths from time to time.

Singer Lily Allen was recently in the news because she tweeted that she has "not used Pythagoras's theorem once" since she left school 15 years ago. I must confess that in the near 39 years since I left school I have not found it necessary to use it either. 

Image source: The Telegraph.
Maths of course is more than learning about a theorem by Pythagoras, who has bored maths students for over 2,500 years. But how do we improve our numeracy rates? In the same study, South Korea recorded a very impressive 7.1% - how do they do it? The above statistics makes for difficult reading for anyone involved in our education system - there's nothing to be proud of in these figures.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Portaferry #322

Today I spent much of the day in Portaferry in County Down - I had attended the Month's Mind Mass of my late uncle Seámus Quinn. With both my Aunt Breeda and Uncle Seámus now sadly passed on, I am already wondering if and when I will be back in Portaferry again. I felt quite sad leaving the town as I have many happy memories of many happy visits there. The last time I visited Portaferry was in the summer of 2014 during my ride around the Causeway and Mourne Coastal routes - indeed this was the last time I saw Seámus. 

Below is a short  extract from my book Exploring Northern Ireland's Causeway and Mourne Coastal Routes in which I wrote about Portaferry:

Portaferry to Strangford (85 km)

Strangford Lough is the largest sea lough in Ireland or the UK - it is also a Marine Nature Reserve. It includes several areas of special interest to marine conservationists and is recognised internationally as a major location for marine research. Arriving in Portaferry I first make my way to Windmill Hill overlooking the town. From here is one of the best viewing points in the lower part of the Ards Peninsula - you can see southwards towards the Irish Sea and the Mourne Mountains, west towards the town of Strangford, east towards the Isle of Man, and northwards up though Strangford Lough over the town of Portaferry.

View northwards over Portaferry to Strangford Lough.

At the top of Windmill Hill are the remains of Tullyboard Windmill that are still in good condition. It was one of the many windmills that dotted the hills of the Ards Peninsula and was built in 1771. Like other windmills in this area it was used for scutching flax and for grinding grain. However, it was destroyed by a fire on Christmas Day in 1878. From the top of Windmill Hill you can see the old St Patrick’s Church, which was built in 1762, and its adjoining cemetery. I pay a visit to the grave of my dear Aunt Breda who is also my Godmother. On a bright sunny afternoon looking out over Strangford Lough, this seemed like the most beautiful and peaceful resting place in Ireland.

Portaferry is well known as a boarding point for the short ferry journey across the lough to Strangford. Watch out for the ferry going sideways when the tide is in full flow. Overlooking the small harbour where the ferry arrives and departs is Portaferry Castle. On the seaward side the castle is intact, but several walls have fallen on the landward side. It was built in the sixteenth century by William Le Savage, who was a descendant of the ‘Savages of Ards’. This family were Norman knights who invaded England with William the Conqueror and came to Ulster in 1177 to seek their fortune. You can go inside to look at the thick walls and see the places where wooden floors once crossed overhead. Beside the castle is the Exploris Aquarium, which is well worth a visit to see the fascinating marine life from the lough and from the Irish Sea. Also here is the Portaferry Lifeboat Station which replaced the Cloughey station in 1980. One of its best known rescues was on 26 May 1985 when a converted fishing vessel, the ‘Tornamona’, hit rocks and sank at the entrance to Strangford Lough. On board were the Dunlop brothers, Joey and Robert, who were on their way from Portaferry to the Isle of Man TT races with a cargo of racing bikes.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

New Irish Euro Coin Proof Set #Proud #323

I have been collecting coins for as long as I can remember - most of what I have is a load of junk, but nevertheless I like to get the occasional proof set. The Irish Central Bank has recently released its 2016 proof set which commemorates the 1916 Rising and the 100th Anniversary of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.

Image source: The Central Bank.

The set contains regular proof versions of the 1c to €1, but it is the 2€ coin that gets the special treatment. We are now starting to see these coins in circulation. Quoting from the booklet that accompanies  the set, the coin's design is based on the "figure of Hibernia who stands atop the GPO building in Dublin". The design is by Emmet Mullins and it is a brilliant, if small, design that does justice to 1916. 

Friday, February 12, 2016

Election Promises - this time: Labour. #GE16, #324 @labour

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At 96 pages, Labour's Election Manifesto is the longest one I have come across so far - but I am only interested in what they have to say about third-level education. I searched their web site in vain to find the manifesto, and a tweet to @labour asking where it is got no response. Nothing for it but to Google "Labour Election Manifesto" - hence my 96 page result.

As in some of the other manifestos, the word "university" is not mentioned once. The word "college" is mentioned seven times - mostly in relation to Further Education Colleges and Institutes of Technology.

The section in the manifesto dealing with third-level starts out with "Labour abolished third-level fees in 1995, and we are opposed to their re-introduction". They did indeed abolish fees, but over the last five years in government they have presided over an increase in the student contribution to €2,500/year. Only in the Labour party could they see this as free fees. The first policy on the manifesto is that Labour expect "expect radical reform in third level institutions" in particular "the reform of academic contracts". Now they have my attention - so I decided to read on, but.... nothing on what they plan to do about contracts. Labour are committed to improving standards in third-level, but there's nothing new in this - so are all the other parties. They have an interesting idea to create an "Education Ireland" brand to make us a "Centre  for International Excellence". I also like their idea for international students: "Postgraduate students should be allowed work in Ireland for up to a year after they complete their studies. High-value research students should be allowed bring their families to Ireland if they are staying for more than two years" - at least this is progressive thinking. But how are they suggesting they will do this? The answer is - Labour will "prioritise the development of a one-stop shop website which can enable international students to learn about Ireland, pick a course and apply for their visa". A website - that will do it!

The other three party (FG/FF/SF) manifestos/election plans that I have reviewed are long on strategy, but short on ideas. Labour at least tries to be innovative, even in the face of possible disaster at next week's election. There seems at the moment that there's a very small chance that they'll get to implement any policy - so like the others, they can say and promise what they like.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Fianna Fáil's manifesto for Third-level Education #GE16 #325 @fiannafailparty

Having taken a look through both Fine Gael and Sinn Féin's plans for third-level education in their policy documents over the past couple of days, today it is the turn of Fianna Fáil's "An Ireland for all" document. 
Image Source: Irish Election Literature.
I first reaction that I am not too impressed. So much of what they want to do - improve access, provide more resources for teachers and students with difficulties, re-introduce post-graduate grants, are also policies for other parties. Fianna Fáil do say they will freeze the student contribution "fee". They also say that they will "Raise Higher Education funding and standards" - to this they will provide €100 million for "current funding to Higher Education institutions". Given that there are over 40 Higher Education Institutions, that a bargain!

Perhaps the stand out policy for me is that Fianna Fáil will "Explore the roll out of an income contingent loan system to assist students and parents with costs". Student loans are thorny subjects in other countries, and can land students in debt for many years after they graduate. The commitment is to just "explore" - so we'll have to see how this will develop.

I suppose a political party has to have a manifesto, but the election will surely result in a hung Dáil followed by negotiations on policy with other parties. Basically, FF, FG, and SF can say what they like.

Tomorrow I'll see what Labour propose for third-level education.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

What does Sinn Féin say about Third-level Education? #GE16 #326 @sinnfeinireland

The Sinn Féin Election Manifesto is 58 pages long, and I took a quick look this morning about what it has to say about third-level education. Like Fine Gael's Economic Plan (36 pages) there is actually very little mention of third-level education. Sinn Féin do however have some specific policies - they promise to abolish fees and introduce grants for postgraduate students. Good ideas I'm sure you'll agree. 

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Like the Fine Gael Plan, the word "university" is not mentioned, and the word "college" is used only once (in one of their case studies, p 12). I like their commitment to "academic freedom must be protected" and their stance that education is "a basic and fundamental human right". They also state that they will "invest additional funds to tackle staffing shortages at third level". Good!

Can the third-level sector rest easy reading the Sinn Féin manifesto? So far so good, though if they get into a government with other parties there is bound to be a lot of horse trading and who knows what educational policy will be. I would l certainly have liked to see more focus on research in the manifesto - indeed the word "research" is mentioned only once (in a reference to "fisheries and seafood" (p 55). I would like to see a better commitment to improving access to third-level, abolishing fees is not enough - this didn't work before when Labour did this in the 1990s.

By all accounts Sinn Féin are set for a good election with perhaps winning as many as 30 seats. If they do get into government there will of course be a lot of tough choices ahead for Sinn Féin, and their coalition partners, to make. My wish is for education at all levels to be a priority - more than any other sector it looks far beyond the present and into the future lives of our children.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

@FineGael's Long Term Education "plan" #GE16 #327

I'm not usually one for checking out political party manifestos or plans, essentially I don't believe what they say - now matter how well-intentioned or well-meaning they are. In our electoral system where an overall majority for one party has not been achieved since 1977, everything has to be negotiated post-election with other parties.

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Fine Gael has published "A LONG TERM ECONOMIC PLAN TO KEEP THE RECOVERY GOING" (their caps), and I decided to look at what their plan for education at third level is. Sad to report that it is very little, and very vague. The word "University" is not mentioned once in the 36-page document and the only time the word "College" is used is a single reference to the Garda College. In contrast - the word "etc" is used four times in the document! I also looked for reference to "third level" education  - none to be found, and the HEA (Higher Education Authority) is mentioned just once in a rather grand statement:

We will benchmark entrepreneurial activity in Irish higher education against appropriate international peers and work with the HEA to ensure an ambitious and implementable plan to identify and address skills gaps, ICT and STEM needs. (p22).

There's no proposal on how above is to be done, though I'm sure in time that Fine Gael will publish a green paper on their policy, followed by a white paper, and maybe even an orange paper (to complete our national flag colours!). This proposal concentrates on "entrepreneurial activity", with no mention of learning and teaching, or research. There's no mention of funding for research in third-level, though there is a vague statement about "Doubling investment in publicly performed research".

Oh dear - not much in this document for the third-level sector to get excited about. I suppose it is natural that I, as a third-level employee, would look into such documents as above and see "what's in it for us". I'm sure others do this from other sectors. I would hope that the successive policies of all our governments of improving access to third-level education is continued and improved further. For me, providing funding for conversion courses in areas like Data Analytics, Software Development, and Cloud Computing is an inspired use of public money provided by the Springboard and ICT Skills initiatives, Long may they continue, and I certainly hope that Fine Gael, and all the other parties, commit to this.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Sometimes NOT Going to College is the Best Thing to do #328

There's no doubt that there are many successful people in the world who did not go to College. If your measure of success if getting a career that you love, then College may not be for everybody. Sometimes dropping out or not going at all may well be the best decision that a young person can make when they leave school. There's enormous pressure from teachers, career advisers, classmates, and parents to "pick a course" in a College as a natural progression from school. 

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Tessa Cooper chose not to go to College and it was "it was the best career decision" she ever made. Writing in the Guardian Online she tells us about looking for a job straight from school (it was not easy without a degree), and being determined not to let the lack of a degree hold her back. At the age of 24 she is now a Product Manager having worked for The Guardian, Comic Relief, and FutureLearn. Judging by her success I've no doubt that she would have succeeded at College too. I feel that she set out to succeed and overcome barriers (such as no degree) that got in her way. This separates her from many others who do not have the same determination. If you would like to find out more about Tessa, see her website called The Start-out where she has a "collection of stories, advice and ideas to help young people find and develop a career they love".

There's no law that says you must go to College straight after school. Most of my own students are mature learners over the age of 25 - many have never been to College before. Colleges like the National College of Ireland (as our mission statement says) change lives though education, by providing courses for older students. Whether it is an undergraduate or postgraduate degree of study - learning part-time while working suits many people. Some students keep on working during the day, and study by night. It's never too late to go to College, my oldest ever student was in his 70s! 

Studying for a degree is a very fulfilling and rewarding achievement. It is not for everybody. Some employers, such Ernst & Young, have now removed the requirement that you must have a degree in order to apply for a job. It will be an interesting research study in years to come to see if this will make a difference.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Carnew Musical Society and AIMS honour my Dad #329

It's always nice when a community never forgets and honours one of its members. In the Gorey Guardian this week you can see an article by Fintan Lambe entitled "Carnew Musical Society and AIMS honour Joe O'Loughlin". He occupied many positions on local and regional committees - culminating in a two year term (1980-1982) as national President of the Association of Irish Musical Societies (AIMS). He was presented with a gold pin and a copy of a portrait of him in his chain of office in honour of his contribution to AIMS and Carnew Musical Society.

Image Source: The Gorey Guardian.
Dad loves his music and is still a keen supporter of the Carnew Musical Society. He and my Mum Phil love to go to shows - Carnew Musical Society will be hosting its 50th show this November. I'm certain that both have seen every one of the previous 49 shows several times! Your community and family are very proud of you Dad!

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Fundraising for Mellon Educate #330

This morning I assisted Roma for a while in her bucket collection for Mellon Educate in the Bloomfield Shopping Centre in Dún Laoghaire - she's off to South Africa again this year. I have managed to reach my 57th year without ever having done this before, and I have to say I was both nervous and uncomfortable about asking people for money. I had the quiet shift between 09:30 and 10:30, and I guess I collected about €20 in that time (including a tenner from a nun!).

It is an interesting people watching experience. Some people of course put their hands in their pockets and drop a few coins into the bucket. Many say they'll "get me on the way back". Some apologise and say they have no change. Others avoided even looking at me as they passed by. One or two were a bit rude. I'm in no doubt that I have done all of the above to other bucket collectors!

It will be in a different light that I will pass all bucket collectors from now on - I expect I'll be a soft touch for the next while. Even if I choose not to donate I will try to be polite no matter what the cause is.

For more information about Mellon Educate, check out the video below:

Friday, February 05, 2016

Election Kick Off #Yawn #GE16 #331

So - General Election 2016 is finally here, and the fun begins. Three weeks of election promises are coming our way and each party will make us happier and more prosperous if we elect them. What a bore! 

Two elections ago I got a letter published in The Irish Times about using a colour scheme to both identify and shame political parties who leave their poster ties behind. Today, on our road there are still poster ties from elections past - I think most people will agree that the whole country is still littered with these plastic "fuck you" reminders from our politicians. I challenge them all to remove not just their own, but all ties from lamp posts that they are removing posters from after the election.

Apparently, poster campaigns are very effective. Often I hear about election candidates who have had a brilliant poster campaign, and have benefited at the ballot box. In my constituency (Dún Laoghaire), some candidates decided to put up posters before the official "off" - Cormac Devlin (FF) and Mary Mitchell-O'Conner (FG) suddenly discovering the need for "Public Meetings" that require their faces to grace our lamp posts before the election starts.

Because of this blatant misuse and abuse of the rules about election posters, neither Cormac Devlin or Mary Mitchell-O'Conner will get a vote from me. Do you think I am stupid? Do you for one second think I am going to look up at a poster on a lamp post on my way to the polling booth and think to myself: "Wow - what a great poster - I think I'll vote for that candidate".  Jaysus!

More election rants over the next three weeks!

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Nine Million @YouTube Views #332

Yesterday my YouTube Channel passed the nine million views mark. As always I am greatly humbled and honoured that the channel has had so many views, and that so many people find my videos useful. Yesterday in the elevator in the College a student, not in any of my classes, thanked me for my statistics videos which he said helped him pass his exams. The 9,007,320 views, since November 5th, 2007, is charted below:

Click image for larger view.

You can clearly see that the upwards trend in views of a couple of years ago at first stalled and then declined. The narrow pointed declines show Cristmas/New Year period each year. This year the decline was to a new low of 1,004 views on Christmas Day. You can also see a very sharp decline from early May of this year - this is the time I introduced thumbnails as graphics to each video in the channel. I removed them in January this year and am already seeing a good rise in views (at the right side of the chart) in response to this move. 

It also took a long time to move from 8 to 9 million views, almost nine months (it took just four months to go from 7 to 8 million). This reflects the steady decline in views this year. There is a lot more competition of viewers on YouTube, and of course some of my videos on the likes of Excel versions 2003 are now getting very dated.

Anyway - as soon as I saw the number, the Katie Melua song "Nine Million Bicycles" came into my head. No doubt it will be an ohrwurm (ear worm) in my head for the rest of the day. Here she is..... Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Do you need a Masters to get a job? #333

Students coming up to their final undergraduate exams often ask me for advice about doing a Masters - specifically if it will give them a better chance of a job. Last week I also posted about if a postgraduate degree is necessary to get a job. Since then I have come across an article in The Independent (UK version) that London Zoo was "under fire for advertising job vacancy seeking ‘unpaid intern with a Masters degree". No - the internship was not about shovelling shite, but was for part of a conservation project that relies on volunteers to get the work done. The job ad (since removed from ad agency) stated that applicants should have "undergraduate or Masters level degree". The article further goes on to put the Zoo under fire for this because it is based in London where the cost of living is very high, and therefore would exclude everyone except those whose families "have the financial means to support" them.

Image source: London Zoo.

If a Masters graduate is passionate about conservation and animals - I don't see anything wrong the with advertising the position as done by the London Zoo. However, it is an indicator of the ever higher qualifications required for some positions - perhaps in the future a similar ad would look for a PhD student. 

Students have to manage their own expectations when it comes to job - expecting to walk into a 50 grand a year job is not a practical expectation. I'm a supporter of internships whether paid or unpaid - vital experience is gained that otherwise might not occur. Students of all qualifications should consider it as just one step of many on the road to a career of their choice.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Bringing BYOD to the Classroom #BYOD #334

As Colleges grow and attract more students, there is inevitable pressure of classroom availability. Some classes are moved on-line, while Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) offers the opportunity to turn ordinary classrooms into computer labs. This semester I am holding a class in an old style tiered lecture theatre where students are bringing in their own laptops instead of using computers in a lab. I'll be sure to report here on this throughout the semester. 

The Open University published a report a couple of years ago: Innovating Pedagogy 2014, in which it states that "BYOD could be considered as enriching and extending existing teaching methods" and that it "is a means to introduce everyday social learning to the classroom". Up to now, I and many of my colleagues work in a traditional controlled classroom environment. In a computer lab everybody has the same access to the same software and other resources. It is much easier to plan a lesson if everyone is using the same device. When students bring their own - things change. For example - last evening in my BYOD class some students asked how to do things in Excel using a Mac (which I have never seen, never mind use). Others used Google Docs instead of Excel and I found myself unable to answer their questions. For the first time in a few years I felt I was not in control in a class, and I felt foolish and unprepared for this to happen.

Image Source: The Workflow.
BYOD is a new challenge for me and I hope that my students and I can work together to make things work for an "enriching experience". Like anyone who walks into a class to deliver a lesson - we like everything to "just work", and not to be concerned with things like Google Docs on a Mac being used when you planned Excel on a PC. BYOD is here to stay - let's hope we are ready for it.