Archive for September 2008

That 1970s experience

September 29, 2008

Back in my family home I still have an old reel-to-reel tape recorder. I am not absolutely sure how old it is, but I think I may have received it as a birthday present in 1970. It was an Uher recorder, much like this one. For the next few years I recorded lots of stuff – much of it music recorded from the radio, but also some television programmes (sound only, obviously), people talking, that kind of thing. Then towards the end of that decade I decided that cassettes were more practical, and the old tape recorder was put away.

Recently I was cleaning out a little and I came across the old machine, and the dozen or so four-hour tapes that I had kept. So I plugged the thing in, put on a tape (which reminded me how fiddly all this was), closed my eyes and was transported back, initially to 1971. I was living in Germany at the time, and I recorded lots of music from German radio stations, and also from the British one broadcasting to their armed forces there. So here it was, all back again: the terrible bubblegum music, but also the Beatles, and long forgotten bands like the Tremeloes and the Small Faces. But also bands we still know or remember, like the Rolling Stones, Slade and T Rex. That summer I spent a few weeks in Ireland and recorded from RTE radio (only one RTE radio station was around at the time), and there was Larry Gogan, sounding exactly as he does now and playing some tracks which made me wince – did we really ever listen to such stuff?

I also recorded some TV programmes, including an episode of ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘ (long forgotten, although the star actors are both still known – Robert Vaughn is on our screens quite a bit). What intrigued me there, more than the (audio only) show, was the advertisements: heavily weighted towards cigarettes and beer: ‘On a hundred airlines around the world, the greatest name in cigarettes is Rothmans’; and ‘Carling Black Label, light-hearted lager’ (whatever that means) – if you were around at the time, you may still be able to sing along.

As I said, it was audio only, so I was spared the sight of flares and dodgy haircuts. But as I sat there I was right back in the 1970s, and it felt like yesterday. I must get the whole thing digitised; but maybe if it’s not whirring around on a tape it won’t be the same.


The lost world of typewriters

September 26, 2008

One of my very earliest memories is of a typewriter. An electric typewriter, in fact, and it was located in my father’s office. And as a boy of four or so years , every so often I was allowed to sit at this wonderful machine and write something. In fact I could neither read nor write, so all that happened was that I hit the keys and filled a page or two. Afterwards my mother and sister would pore over the output, and would try to find actual words. If you remember the infinite monkey theory – i.e. that if you give an infinite number of monkeys a typewriter each, then over a period of time one of them will eventually produce one of Shakespeare’s plays – I could have been one of those monkeys.

About four years later I remember asking my parents for a typewriter for Christmas. I got one, but a toy one with a ball instead of keys, which you tuned manually to produce the letter you wanted to print. I was so disappointed not to have received a ‘real’ typewriter. But in fact I should have been impressed, because the basic technology of that machine was not long afterwards to be turned into the concept behind the IBM ‘golfball’ typewriter (more properly called the IBM Selectric).

Later on, in early adulthood and at the beginning of my professional life, I acquired a number of typewriters (nine, if I recall correctly), and eventually the holy grail for me was to get one with an output that looked printed rather than typed – making the arrival of proportional spacing particularly desirable.

Then came computers and printers, and typewriters became something antique – it happened almost overnight. I still held on to my last one for a while, finding it convenient to use it to address envelopes. But eventually I began to feel it was clogging up my desk, and it disappeared somewhere into a cupboard.

The other day I found one of my old typewriters: an Adler. I took it out of the dusty cupboard, wiped it clean, stuck in a piece of paper and clattered away. The sheer nostalgic joy of hearing the keys hit the drum, and the sight of the typos that were there immune from the power of the backspace button. What a feeling! The ribbon was badly faded, but you could still read the output. And even when the keys hit each other and got stuck somewhere just off the page, this too seemed to prompt such wonderful memories of shouted expletives.

I’m not sure if anyone still sells new typewriters, but there is a good trade in places like eBay. I could sell mine (I believe it is a particularly desirable model in the hands of collectors), but I think I’ll hold on to it as a reminder of this amazingly low-tech method of home-made printing. And I’ll put my old fountain pen right next to it.

So who are my heroes?

September 25, 2008

I was talking with a small group of first year students earlier this week, and one of them asked me who were my heroes. There are of course many ways of tackling this question, but I took it to mean that I was being asked to name people whom I particularly admired and, I decided, who were around in my lifetime – so excluding Charles Dickens, William Wilberforce, Charles Babbage, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and anyone else long gone before I was born.

So here is my little list – as far as I am concerned, all people who made a contribution to the world which left it a more civilised, fair, progressive and humane place. The first is Willy Brandt, German politician, member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), and Chancellor of what was then West Germany from 1969 to 1974. In many ways, he could be said to have brought Germany back into the world community from the horrors of Nazism and the guilt that followed: a visionary, tolerant and determined leader, who pursued and found reconciliation.

The second is Desmond Tutu, Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town in South Africa from 1986 to 1996, and a vocal opponent of apartheid but also an advocate for peace and reconciliation.

The third is John Lennon, a complex and sometimes difficult character, but whose music (with Paul McCartney and the other Beatles)  defined a generation and helped push the western world towards a more open and confident culture.

And finally, Richard Branson, whose approach to business made it possible to have a role model for young people in industry and entrepreneurship. And he’s a blogger.

So these were the ‘heroes’ I gave the students, off the top of my head. No doubt there could have been others, and maybe it is of doubtful value to have heroes at all, as this may push a search for values into the realms of celeb culture. But in the end individuals can make a difference, and can influence others to lead a better life. And so, that was my list.


PS. Wendy (see comments) points out that this list didn’t include any women! Many of my women heroes are writers (particularly Rose Macaulay, on whom I may yet blog separately), and maybe some musicians (Joan Baez). On the politics side, they include Hillary Clinton.

Meeting the Minister

September 24, 2008

Today the seven Irish university heads (accompanied by the CEO of the Irish Universities Association) met the Minister for Education and Science, Batt O’Keeffe TD. To get the substance of the meeting out of the way, it was made clear by the Minister that the growing crisis in public finances would make it very difficult to provide resources for the higher education sector that would compensate for inflation and any accumulated under-funding. We did talk about possible ways of alleviating the problems we faced, and some longer term strategic options (one of which is, of course, the return of tuition fees). It wasn’t a cheerful meeting – there was nothing cheery that anyone could really say. But at any rate it was a constructive engagement between the Minister and the presidents, and that’s a good thing. He means to do the right thing for the sector, I believe, but doesn’t have any discretionary resources, and probably won’t have for some time. We all emerged from the meeting feeling grim. I suspect the Minister did, too. It is, I think, now time for us as a country to face the inevitability of a new understanding as to how higher education is resourced, if we are serious about wanting a quality system.

As for the universities, we are now working together well. We don’t all have exactly the same views on all tactical matters, but we are all agreed on the strategy needed for the sector. If there isn’t much else to celebrate, the strengthening partnership between the seven universities is a good thing.

So what else was there to be observed? The meeting took place in Leinster House. At least, we entered by the front door of Leinster House (the location of the Irish Parliament, the Oireachtas, for those reading this who are not from Ireland), but after that we seemed to be taken on a mile-long hike through the building, or maybe it was eventually another building, to be taken outside for a photograph in what seemed to be at first a completely different part of Dublin. Tea and coffee was on offer at the meeting, and some dodgy looking biscuits, but perhaps in the interests of cost saving nobody dared touch it (and who knows what cut price blends are now being used?). As we sat there, somebody from government said that we were now probably in the worst year, financially, since 1979.

Well, there are interesting times ahead.

The highs and lows of PowerPoint

September 24, 2008

Almost exactly 28 years ago I began work as a full-time university lecturer. That same month, there were some 15 or so other new lecturers starting in the university, and to get us into the mood we were given an induction course. I don’t remember all that much about the course now, but one session was all about the use of ‘overheads’. Back then it was a reference to the use of acetate slides on an overhead projector. To me this always seemed to be a hugely clunky tool – a big machine that tended to make noise and overheat, requiring either pre-prepared slides (and I cannot even remember how the printing on these was undertaken), or using felt pens to write on a roll of transparent sheeting resting on the projector. Most annoyingly of all, it was thought to be good practice to put a piece of paper over those parts of the slide that were not yet to be exposed, and to pull down the sheet gradually to reveal each new bit of wisdom.

In the years that followed I often saw speakers giving a lecture or at conferences struggling with this equipment, including the time when a spectacularly boring speaker at one event knocked over the projector – though it must be said that this rather enlivened an otherwise tedious event. I tried occasionally to use overheads at lectures, but rarely.

And then along came PowerPoint. At first, it was a computerised way of creating slides for overhead projectors (at least for me); and then, gradually,  it became a way of producing an electronic presentation sent directly to a projector. It revolutionised the whole idea of how you could present a topic and make it memorable. And a decade and a half later, PowerPoint, and its competitors, are everywhere.

The problem now is that, all too often, the medium has become the message, and the presentation doesn’t so much illustrate the point as obscure the fact that there isn’t one. So now, often when you go to a particularly interesting event you may find that a selling point is that computerised displays are prohibited.

In fact, PowerPoint can still be a very valuable tool, but it must be used with discretion and intelligence. The standard approach – 26 slides spelling out all the key points, with the presentation printed out for everyone in the audience – increasingly represents bad practice, as it may actually inhibit the intellectual connection between the presenter, the topic and the audience, creating an automated process of very little value. What I try to do now is to use it for the purposes of punctuation rather than summary: to emphasise certain key issues; sometimes even in an interplay between what I say and what I put on screen, with one providing an alternative perspective to the other.

There probably isn’t a ‘right’ way to use PowerPoint, but there are some wrong ways. Most will make better use of it if, for a while, they give it a rest, and reflect on what this particular medium can do best.

Rediscovering the railways

September 22, 2008

If you consult the article on rail transport in the online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, you will find a link to a map published in 1896 showing the density of the railway networks in Europe at that time. Interestingly, Ireland (together with Britain and Belgium) had the densest railway system, with more kilometres of track per 100 than any other country.

So now to more recent times. The other day I was standing in Mullingar station in Co Westmeath, Ireland, and could not help reflecting on the evidence this provided me of the changing fortunes of Ireland’s railways. The original station dates from the 1840s and was built during the period of intensive investment in the network. It was developed by the Midland and Great Western Railway, who at the time were in a race with the Great Southern and Western Railway to build a track to the West of Ireland. The direction out of Mullingar for the purposes of this competition was to Athlone; today, that particular track, though still physically there, is disused. In fact, when it was closed to passenger trains half of Mullingar station became redundant, while the other half was eventually renovated and brought to modern standards. So now, if you come to Mullingar station you can see a modern, clean and efficient station; until you walk round the end of the building and find a disused track and decaying buildings and equipment. It is somehow deeply symbolic of the ambivalence of Irish public policy from the mid-20th century towards the railways.

It is not that long ago that policy makers were openly musing about the possibility of shutting down the railways altogether, with the sole exception of the commuter line running just North and South of Dublin. Well, no longer. Over the past couple of years the first new bits of railway line have been opened, and plans are afoot to re-open disused lines. Often the immediate impetus has been the need to clear at least some commuter traffic off the roads, but more generally there is now a recognition of the benefits of diversity of transport and the potential of the railways as a fast and relatively clean way of getting people and goods to their destinations.

Of course, the railways are also shot through with nostalgia. In Ireland and elsewhere, every so often people put back on the tracks an old steam engine or two and travel back in time. Steam trains, of course, would provide a very poor environmental solution to transport problem, using coal and belching all sorts of things into the atmosphere. But they look romantic, and so they help to sustain the image of rail travel as something more aesthetic and genteel.

So what we have in the railways is an old form of transport that has been reinvented to fit the age of scientific innovation; steam replaced by electricity, and the clickety-clack of the wheels on the rails by the smooth gliding feeling of the carriages on the newly welded steel track. Inside the carriages, over-brewed tea, crisps and inedible sandwiches are being replaced by paninis and gourmet lunches. And so the railways may now provide us with a sound and pleasing form of transport for the era ahead. The time has come to build those tracks.

Students as customers?

September 21, 2008

Tomorrow (or rather, I should say later today, as it’s past midnight) I shall be welcoming a new group of first year students to Dublin City University. It’s a moment I really enjoy, as you can almost smell the sense of excitement and of a new adventure amongst the people in the room – a lot of raw idealism mingled with just a tad of anxiety. It is always a moment when I experience the sense of shared ambition between the students and the faculty, and when I hope fervently that this survives and prospers throughout the time they spend with us.

One of the things I try to tell the students is that they are not here just to acquire the information and analysis that we give them – it is a much more equal relationship than that, and must be driven by a sense of shared purpose and the willingness to engage in mutual learning. And what this also raises is the question as to what the relationship is between the students and those of us who are employed by the university.

From the 1980s it became common to talk about students as the university’s ‘customers’. The thinking behind this was based largely on the desire to describe a relationship between autonomous and more or less equal parties, with the students entitled to demand support and performance from lecturers and professors. Academics on the whole have been uncomfortable with this label, in part because it suggests that higher education is a market activity in which a commodity is being bought by (or on behalf of) the students. But if they are not customers, what are they? They are certainly not just pupils under instruction and subject to the lecturer’s control.

This is important also because the gradual introduction of quality control measures into academic life has made it necessary to consider what role students should have in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the courses they are studying. Some of the early quality assurance systems almost excluded students from the process. On the whole that has been remedied, or is being remedied, but there are still questions about the extent to which student opinions should be accepted as objective measurements – the fear being, for example, that popularity will be confused with quality.

We probably have not yet resolved the issues in this debate. However, it should be clear to all of us working in universities that students are not our subjects, but our partners in the adventure of higher education. We need to treat them with respect and listen to their opinions and act on their judgements to the greatest degree possible. When we do so, we are also likely to benefit from the contribution that many many students will make to the quality of the learning experience that we, as university staff, can and should also enjoy.

Mobile communications

September 20, 2008

Recently I was travelling by train, and was sitting at a table in a railway carriage. Opposite me was an elderly lady, and next to her a young man. The latter was, shall we say, very fond indeed of his mobile phone (cellphone). He used it a lot. He called many people. And when he did so, he spoke with a very loud voice. What he said was of no great consequence; generally he was advising the person he was talking to on where he (or the train) now was. This went on for some time. Them just as his phone rang and he reached for it, the lady opposite me (and next to him) reached out and grabbed the phone before he could take it. She put it in her handbag, and told him he could have it back when either he or she reached their destination. He was clearly stunned and thinking about what to say when others who had seen this began to applaud. So he stayed silent. I left the carriage before either of them did, so I did not see the end of the drama.

Mobile phones are now ubiquitous. Apparently there is a service you can buy in Hong Kong whereby the rent you a mobile phone and, while you have it, call you every 15 minutes, so that the people you are with can see that you are important. While the idea of this may seem terrifying, you have to admire the entrepreneurship.

Are we all just too addicted to constant communication? Of course I have a mobile phone also – indeed, I have referred to it in this blog, and you may recall that it is an Apple iPhone 3G. But not many people can call me on it; only about five have the number. I do not like constantly being called, and think that the occasional period of silence is a good thing. But on the other hand, I have to admit that I use the phone a lot for instant messaging, either by SMS (text) or email. So I cannot say that I avoid the temptations of mobile communication.

It is of course wonderful to be able to be instantly in touch, wherever we are. It means that we can bring our community with us as we travel, at least in some sense, and to enjoy their company and their comfort. I would not wish to be without that any more. But I also acknowledge that we are losing the opportunity for quiet reflection, because even when we are silent others around us may not be.

My grandmother, towards the end of her life, used to say that 20th century people were afraid of what they would find if they were confronted with silence and solitude. Maybe what we have to try to do is to find that appropriate balance between sociable communication and peaceful insight, and the ability to gain something from both.

The enduring attraction of vinyl

September 19, 2008

Nostalgia is not on the whole my thing, but there’s no other way of classifying this: I have just taken delivery of my first vinyl ‘record’ since, I think, 1985. Every album I have bought since then has been on CD. The first CD I bought – if my memory is correct – was Parallel Lines by Blondie, and I believe also that this is the only album I had (until now) both in vinyl and CD versions. I was so captivated then by the clear, crackle-less sound in the digital product that I went straight over to that format. And in the 20+ years since then I have bought a very large number of albums in all genres; until iTunes and the iPod opened up a new platform, but that’s another story.

As readers of this blog will know, I am a fan of the music of the band A Fine Frenzy, and of Alison Sudol’s (their singer) beautifully lyrical and haunting songs. So when I saw on Amazon that there is a vinyl version of the band’s album, One Cell in the Sea, I decided to add that to my collection, and so I have my first real ‘record’ in years. This in turn has taken me back to my vinyl collection, now very dusty and neglected but still there: about 280 albums, at a quick count, and goodness knows how many singles. And I’ve been putting them on my old hi-fi gramophone,and it’s just great. How wonderful to hear the crackles again after all these years – but also, maybe I do think that the sound itself is just that little bit clearer and crisper than CD; or maybe that’s wishful thinking.

But it seems I am not alone. There have been articles in the media – such as this one – that vinyl sales are soaring and even eclipsing CD sales. I don’t really know how this will work in the digital age, but to me it’s a very comforting thought. Some good things, in the end, don’t go away.

As banks fall, is it time to panic now?

September 19, 2008

Well, no. Absolutely not. But it is clear that what we are now witnessing is something at any rate much more complex than an economic slowdown. Lehman Brothers, HBOS, AIG – it all seems to be coming closer to us (after all, AIG sponsors Manchester United).

This afternoon I was standing at a supermarket check-out, and two elderly ladies were chatting – first about a planned birthday party, then about grandchildren, and then about the credit crunch and the liquidity of investment banks. And that’s when you know that the problems of the financial world have landed on our doorsteps.

But in a funny kind of way, this isn’t the 1980s, either. I doubt that we are going to have 20 per cent inflation, or even 20 per cent unemployment – all things that we witnessed at some point back then. The foundations of our economy are now different, and unless everything melts down (in which case what I am writing doesn’t matter anyway) we will not go back to those experiences.

In the end, there is little that destabilises society so quickly as panic, and it is important amidst all the financial storms that we remain calm. What we need in particular is a sense of purpose and determination, and a clear focus on the things that will help to get us put of the downturn at the earliest opportunity. In my own setting, I am assuming that public money will be scarce for a while, and this means driving our strategy to develop streams of income from other sources. At times such as this, we need to be particularly good at innovation, and to be ready to be imaginative.

It is not the time to be cautious and defensive. It is time to be entrepreneurial, and not too risk averse. DCU’s new strategy, on which I shall write again in due course, will – I hope – reflect that, and I hope the same will be true for Ireland.