Jul 232008

Published in the WOW! supplement of the Evening Echo

For the umpteenth time this trip I found myself wishing I’d bought a GPS navigation system before leaving Cork. No more wrong turns, no more uncertainty, no more doubt, no more trying to decipher ineligible foreign road-signs through rainy windscreens. As it was we’d taken the wrong turn onto the motorway from Tours and were heading for Paris instead of Le Mans.

This wouldn’t have been quite so bad if we’d realised our mistake straight away. But Murphy’s Law works just as well in France, so we naturally realised our error just after passing the last convenient exit to reach the right road. Forty minutes later another exit hove into view. We were miles out, but, loath to retrace our steps on the motorway we set off cross-country.

Here a GPS would have come in really handy, rapidly calculating a new route to get us to our destination as quickly as possible. But of course, if we’d had a GPS we never would have gone wrong in the first place. Seven hours later an exhausted Jones party rolled into Cherbourg.

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Jul 032008

Published in the Wow! supplement of The Evening Echo

image Technology does a lot of things to make our lives easier. Every day we use our mobile phones, our computers, ATMs, credit card machines, POS systems (or computerised “tills” to you and me) digital television systems that automatically record the programmes we like… without tapes. The list goes on and on and on, and everything is talking to everything else over myriad global communications networks.

(image by Homer Township Public Library)

If you think about it for too long your brain starts to sizzle gently in your cranium… but that’s okay, because you tend not to. Most of us aren’t that interested in how it all works… we’re just happy that it does, because all of this digital wizardry makes our our lives just a little bit easier, allowing us to squeeze more into our busy lives. There are times though, when technology makes life harder, and that can be especially true for parents.

Why? Because technology is everywhere and our children are often better at using it, and embrace it more readily than we do. Mobile phones and the internet are obvious examples… while many parents struggle to understand them, to the children of today they’ve become practically second nature. That’s worrying on lots of levels – but mostly because it means we’re incapable of keeping up with them… let alone keeping track of them.

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Jul 032008

Written for the Evening Echo Career Moves section

image There are all sorts of reasons why people don’t go to college straight from school. There are also plenty of reasons why, after a while, those same people feel they’d like to broaden their educational horizons and explore the opportunities a third level qualification can offer.

But making that transition back into education can be daunting. Where do you start? Do you have the right qualifications to meet the often stringent entry criteria? Isn’t there a complex application process to endure? Too many questions, when what you need are answers.

One of those answers could be a joint initiative run by Business Information Systems at UCC, CIT and Cork City Partnership. The Diploma in Applied Business Computing has been specifically designed to offer people a path back to third level education, ultimately leading to employment in the vibrant arena where business and technology overlap.

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Jun 072008

image I was reading an article a week or two back about the perpetual problem of overcrowding in primary schools. Our esteemed Teoseach, Brian Cowan’s, use of the F word in the Dail had spawned the “witty” headline “F is for Failure”, above an article that went on to explore in some detail how six years ago the government had vowed to tackle overcrowding in schools during its term of office.

Apparently the commitment was to reduce primary school class sizes to a manageable 20 pupils, in line with international best practice. The reporter who penned the article seemed surprised, shocked, and even a little indignant that the government had broken its promise and shown a healthy disrespect for international convention. Which kind of makes me wonder how long they’ve been a political correspondent… but that’s another issue.

The fact that the government don’t seem to take the issue of primary school overcrowding seriously is typical, and spectacularly short sighted. It’s an unfortunate fact that young children – the foundation on which the future of this country will be built – are rarely afforded the priority they deserve when it comes to the allocation of limited governmental resources.

Let’s face it, when you’re confronted with a derailed health system, spiraling crime and an economy showing signs of stalling, taking a broader view can be a bit tricky. But while the subject of class size is perhaps easily sidelined… to do so shows a remarkable lack of foresight on the part of the government. So, nothing new there then!

Primary education is one of the most critical steps in a child’s development. It’s when they learn to enjoy learning… or not! Neglect the crucial early stages in learning, and what you churn out of the other end of the system is an army of disengaged youth – which of course only exacerbates the economic and social problems that distract politicians from tackling the core issue.

I guess it’s the same old story. Your average government minister is primarily looking for quick fix solutions: things likely to bear fruit and make him or her look good before they face re-election. Successful educational policy, by its very nature, demands a much longer term view, and it takes a while before you see measurable results out of the other end.

And so instead ministers jump from one problem to the next, implementing short-term solutions that rarely endure to deliver long-term results. It’s knee jerk politics of the worst kind, and it seems to be on the menu in Dáil Éireann far too often.

While overcrowding crops up in the news with alarming regularity, it’s not a problem that’s distributed equally among all schools. For small rural schools the problem can be exactly the opposite: too few pupils can be as much of an issue as too many. The very same week I read the article lambasting the government’s record on overcrowding, we enrolled our youngest daughter in the local National School. Come September she will be the only child in her class. Yes, you read that right… the only child!

Great, you might think… no overcrowding problems there, and you’d be half right. The problem is that just last year the school reached the critical mass of pupils needed to qualify for a third teacher. As is common in small rural schools, multiple years are accommodated in the same classroom, sharing the same teacher. Getting the third teacher means that the number of pupils in the school are now distributed between three educators in three different classrooms, which means that class sizes are currently manageable. Now, with only one pupil starting school next year, they’ll probably lose the additional teacher… pushing class sizes up again.

In our topsy-turvy education system, it seems that even having less pupils isn’t a solution to the overcrowding problem. Something, somewhere, is terribly wrong.

May 212008

Published in the Evening Echo 21/05/2008

Watching “Wild China” on the BBC tonight was amazing. I never knew, for example, that wild Asian elephants still survive in the forests of central China, or that gibbons – which I thought confined to South East Asia – still roam the canopy in some of China’s forests. The sheer diversity of life unfolding on the screen was staggering – plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals.

But like so many of the world’s wild places, the amazing biodiversity of these Chinese forests is under threat. Much of China’s virgin rainforest has been felled to make way for rubber plantations – rubber that’s helping to fuel the inexorable rise of one of the world’s fastest growing economies. The economic imperative, as so often seems to happen, overrides the environmental one: short term gain taking precedence over long-term vision.

National Biodiversity WeekMuch closer to home, we’d spent much of the day looking at biodiversity on a much smaller, but equally fascinating scale in one of Ireland’s wild places. Ireland’s National Biodiversity Week is running from 18 to 25 May this year, scheduled to coincide with the United Nations International Day for Biodiversity on 22 May.

“Biodiversity Week is Ireland’s contribution to a global celebration of biodiversity which aims to increase awareness of the importance of biodiversity and promote action to tackle the loss of many of our species,” said Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, John Gormley, TD, as he unveiled the nationwide programme of events last week. “This is the second year that my Department has supported Biodiversity Week and already it has developed to the extent that we now have over 200 events taking place throughout the country.” And I have to say it’s a laudable effort in a country where we have plenty to redress when it comes to our environmental credentials.

Keen to get involved, and to expose the children to more of the wonders of Irish nature, we headed out to a Biodiversity Day event at the Irish Natural Forestry Foundation’s headquarters in Manch Estate, Balineen.

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May 142008

Published in the Evening Echo, 14/05/2008

A non-too-bright thrush has chosen to build this year’s nest in the bush outside our kitchen window. What’s wrong with that, you might ask… well, there’s nothing wrong with the bush per se, it’s just where it’s situated.

The bush is pretty big bush, with lush, dense foliage that offers plenty of cover and shelter. It’s also high enough to mean the nest is pretty safe from ground-dwelling predators. All in all it’s a pretty good nesting site – apart from the fact that it’s just outside the back door, which puts it on the children’s flight-path as they head from the house, to garden and back again. With the weather improving, they’re doing a lot of coming and going… and peace and quiet around that particular bush is going to be in short supply.

I spotted the nest a few weeks ago. Standing at the kitchen sink one morning I noticed the parents flying to and fro. A quick look when they were out of sight revealed the nest wedged firmly between the boughs of the bush at about my shoulder height. Chancing a quick peek inside I counted three perfectly formed, beautifully speckled eggs nestled in the moss-lined cup. Having confirmed the nest was in use I beat a hasty retreat to allow mum to return to tend her clutch.

Ever since I was a little boy I’ve felt a rush of excitement at finding a birds nest in spring. There’s something wonderful about being so close to the genesis of new life that’s both fascinating and inspirational. Seeing the parents come and go, hearing the chicks clamouring for food, and witnessing their incredible journey as they grow and eventually fledge.

I guess when you think about it it’s like the whole parenting palaver distilled into a few short months: finding a partner, setting up home and bringing youngsters into the world, followed by a frantic and exhausting struggle to provide for them until the day they finally fly the nest. In one way I guess the birds have it sussed… they have the whole process done and dusted in short order, and then take the rest of the year off. We, on the other hand, sentence ourselves to the best part of twenty years of hard labour.

The girls were thrilled when they arrived home from school and I showed them my discovery. I lifted them up and showed them the nest very briefly, explaining that we had to be careful not to disturb the mother to make sure she didn’t abandon the nest. They were so excited… and that filled me with a deep sense of satisfaction.

There are those who would argue that letting the children see the nest is wrong – that nature should be left well alone. In the interests of environmental conservation, they argue, we should shield nature from people, isolate it, protect it. I couldn’t disagree more.

By letting children experience and understand nature first hand, you’re doing far more good than harm. You see, when you shield nature from children, you’re also shielding children from nature, and that’s a mistake.

Books and classrooms are all very well, but the relationship between children and nature needs to be hands on: kids need to experience nature first hand to foster and encourage their inherent fascination with the natural world. Fail to do that, and they disengage; disengaged children grow to become disengaged adults… and we’re all painfully aware of the environmental damage they can cause.

Apr 162008

Published in the Evening Echo on Wednesday 16/04/2008

Classroom “I believe the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way,” says the first line of the song “The Greatest Love of All”. Originally recorded by George Benson in 1977 for the Mohammed Ali film “The Greatest”, the track became a hit almost ten years later for Whitney Houston.

The reason I mention it is that perhaps someone could add it to Education Minister Mary Hanafin’s iPod playlist… as a gentle reminder. Last week the minister continued to defend the Government’s funding for education, despite growing evidence that primary schools across the nation are facing huge shortfalls.

This is making the news again… but of course if you’re a parent with primary school children it’s hardly news. Practically every primary school in the country is going cap-in-hand to parents for voluntary contributions to bolster the inadequate government funding, and asking them to help out with ever more wacky fund raising events in the desperate scramble for cash. Where is all this extra money going? Is it being spent on fancy learning aids to enhance our children’s education? No, it’s being used to pay for basic essentials like heating, electricity, insurance and cleaning – all things which should be covered by the state.

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Mar 272008

Time ticking away Time is a curiously elastic commodity. One minute it’s flying by so quickly you don’t even notice it’s passing, the next it draws out into what seems an eternity. Have you ever looked at the clock, thought you had plenty of time to do whatever it is you needed to get done, only to glance up at it again a few moments later to find all of that time had evaporated?

It happens to me… a lot. Time, in our house, compresses and expands with gleeful abandon. Take this morning for example. This morning started off normally enough, time seemed to be behaving itself. Then the children started “playing” with a bit too much exuberance, time compressed and in the blink of an eye I lost a couple of hours. Suddenly it was lunchtime.

Take an arbitrary period of time… let’s say two weeks. If you were off on your holidays for two weeks, and were set to leave in exactly two weeks you can guarantee that the fortnight before you travel will drag on interminably, while your two weeks in the sun will veritably fly by. You’ll be home again almost before you realise you’ve been away. That’s time playing it’s “funny” little games again.

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Mar 122008

Stumbled across this wonderful writing advice on the web. It’s an article by best selling Science Fiction novelist C. J. Cherryh, and, as the author encourages sharing I thought I’d post it here in its entirety. It really is great advice, and although its naturally biased towards fiction writing (which is what most non-fiction writers secretly long to write anyway), there are heaps of useful suggestions that will help to make any writing more dynamic and engaging.

The most important thing to remember, as always, is that when you’re writing rules are never absolute. They offer guidance, but if breaking rules helps you convey your message more effectively, do it! Or as C. J. Cherryh so eloquently puts it: “CHERRYH’S LAW: NO RULE SHOULD BE FOLLOWED OFF A CLIFF”.


Writerisms and other Sins:

A Writer’s shortcut to stronger writing.

by C.J. Cherryh

(c) 1995 by C.J. Cherryh

Copy and pass ‘Writerisms and other Sins’ around to your heart’s content, but always post my copyright notice at the top, correctly, thank you, as both a courtesy and a legal necessity to protect any writer.

Writerisms: overused and misused language. In more direct words: find ’em, root ’em out, and look at your prose without the underbrush. You may be surprised by how much better it looks.

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Mar 072008

I spotted this over on Maryrose Lyons’s Brightspark blog; it’s an article on the New York Times website highlighting use of the much neglected semicolon. The New York City Transit public service placard, which extols the virtues of not leaving your newspaper behind when get off the trains, says simply:

“Please put it in a trash can; that’s good news for everyone.”

It’s great to see the rarely used little punctuation mark getting such a prominent airing, though I doubt the exposure will trigger an explosion in usage among New York commuters, more’s the pity.

I was amused to see that the article had been amended. It seems the New York Times originally left out the crucial comma (shock, horror) in the punctuation of the book title “Eats, shoots & leaves” by self-proclaimed punctuation pedant Lynn Truss.

Just goes to show, punctuation is something even the best in the business can (and do) get wrong.

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