Interlude – Pictures of Trees

Well unsurprisingly, last Thursday brought on a relapse. Throat is sore again; my head feels like a hat. So it’s another photography special. Here’s some pictures that weren’t quite good enough to publish when I felt well.

Actually I meant to use them but didn’t have a chance at the time, what with the car crash a couple of days later. (It had been a busy summer, hasn’t it?) All taken in local woodland during August, using the Galaxy Note‘s default camera.

Martina and the Tree
Fairy shelving  units
A spring
Crazy modern architecture

My College Is Trying To Kill Me

Engineering

“Check Ignition”

A Bowiesque start to the day. This is the note I left myself so that when I got up at 7:00 I’d remember to make sure the car battery hadn’t died. It had happened the day before, thanks to a faulty ignition lock on the new old car that allows you to take the key out without fully switching off the electrics. If it had happened again I’d need to start charging immediately to have any hope of making it in on time.

Our team was holding a 9:00 a.m. meeting ahead of a project deadline. Between myself and another member being ill, we hadn’t had a full meeting since the project’s inception. We’d worked through the fever and pretty much got it finished online, but we needed to meet to finalise and sign off on the thing. The battery, to my relief, was fine.

And that was the last thing that went right today.

The first lesson was that even if you arrive at the college at 8:30 you still won’t find a parking place on the campus. I had to go out to the park-and-ride facility again, and so arrived slightly late. However there was only one other member there anyway. Not being quorate and not feeling under any real pressure, we chatted with classmates as we waited. But just as another team member turned up, someone said something that reminded me – in my hurry I’d forgotten to display the student parking permit on my car. To avoid a clamping, I had to rush back out to the facility. By the time I got back it was after ten.

And there was a smell of panic in the air. While I’d been gone, the word had got round that the lecturer had put an ambiguous message on the online noticeboard. Whereas we’d understood that we needed to have a team contract and the briefest description of what our project involved, it now seemed our deadline objectives were:

1 – Project Teams Identified
1 – Project Assignment Outline
2 – Signed Project Team Contract

We’d done the rest, but what exactly was a “project assignment outline”? What examples we could find suggested it was a pretty detailed breakdown of our (imaginary) client’s problems and how we intended to fix them – including crap like time and cost estimates, diagrams, charts. All to be done by 6:00 p.m. the next day. We starting allotting the writing tasks. If we broke it down and did a section each we could probably pull something together in time.

No wait, we’d made a mistake. It wasn’t tomorrow at all. It was 6:00 p.m. today. That… That wasn’t really possible.

So perhaps the lecturer had made a mistake. Why were there two items one on that list? Maybe the second didn’t belong. It was time for our first lecture; we did go in but I spent most if it on my phone, furiously searching documents on the noticeboard for clarification. I decided to email the lecturer about it. We might not get a reply in time, but anything was worth trying.

As luck would have it, we met him after the lecture. But he was cagey, and refused to give us an answer any more enlightening than the one he later sent by email:

As mentioned in class the perspective of this project assignment is as if the project team were working with the Client as consultants.

The project assignment outline should be written to reflect this in terms of depth and scope.

What?

Lunch would have been next but there was an extra lecture we were supposed to attend about plagiarism policy. We couldn’t afford the time, so skipping the thing we were already skipping lunch for (I had also skipped breakfast because of the panic in the morning) we took a room, hooked my computer up to the projection system, and started brainstorming some sort of response to those nebulous criteria. By the start of the next lecture we had something, just not in English. I sat at the back – missing important background to our next assignment – hammering our thoughts into some sort of document.

I should point out incidentally that I am still running a slight temperature here. I’m not entirely over whatever it is that’s kept me mostly asleep the last few days. Adrenalin cleared my head then, but as I write this I’m in bed paying for it.

Then a mad rush to email and print this stuff – he wanted it both ways. It wouldn’t send; it seems I couldn’t make the secure connection my email requires via the college’s network. (Which incidentally would suggest that any communication to the Internet we make on campus has to be open to sniffing by the college – I will have to investigate that further.) By the time we solved the printing the lecture for which this submission was effectively the deadline had already started, so I sat in that figuring out a solution to the email problem. Half way through, it sent.

Here’s your chance to guess the ending.

Yes, there was an extension. Many other people, it seemed, had also been thrown into confusion. We now had until Monday to do this. But that’s not the highpoint. It turned out our instructions had been deliberately ambiguous – to “see how we’d handle it”. A real-world situation.

Right.

Of course you do get difficult customers in the real world, and you do your best to please them. The customer is always right; at least until they’ve paid. But when one customer’s indecisive requirements cause you to let down others, you need to think again. And in this exercise that’s precisely what the other lecturers today were – clients that I didn’t give my full attention to. If this were real reality, I’d have to seriously consider ditching the problem client.

We didn’t take up the extension. Whether by accident or design, this last lecture mentioned Parkinson’s Law – Work expands to fill the time available. It had expanded enough already.

Ice Cream Tuesdae

Girl in cow costume promoting Free Cone Day ou...
Free ice cream if you’re hallucinating

Huh. There’s a “reduced fat” version of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. I supposed if you made bullets with blunter tips, you could sell them as “reduced lethality”.

This insight brought to you by the fact that I’m still sick as a boiled slug. I am not a fan of the B&J product. It is, let’s face it, more or less frozen sugar. But I am craving sweet things and loading up on calories makes sense to me. I reckon if you’re running a temperature all day, you need to fuel it. So this is fever food.

Or wait, are you meant to starve a fever? In that case it’s cold food. It’s OK, I have both.

It’s all rather confusing. I’m staying at my mother’s place and she’s having double glazing put in. I wake up this morning, all the windows are gone. I go back to bed. Wake up again a bit later, the windows are back. Fine. It’s some time before it’s explained to me that this wasn’t just a weird dream.

The Tithes That Bind

The catholic church St. Kilian in Mulfingen in...
The catholic church St. Kilian in Mulfingen in Southern Germany. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We think it’s bad here, where if you don’t pay a tax your children could be kept out of university. In Germany, they’ll refuse to bury you.

For this is church tax. Yes, they have church tax in Germany. Actually this is in a lot of countries, and it’s not quite as weird as it sounds. Instead of being forced by social pressure to put money in a collection, a percentage of your income tax is funnelled to the religion you nominate. And yes, it can go to none at all.

It seems that more and more people though, while nominally Catholic, have not been paying Catholic tax. The kind the church would like us to refer to as “lapsed”, of Catholic backgrounds but who, whether due to abhorrence of its actions or simple lack of belief, no longer take any active part. Maybe going at Christmas. Maybe getting married in church to please their mothers. Maybe being buried in the family plot.

No longer. It appears things were brought to a head by a Catholic theologian who took the issue to court. Interestingly, he in no way wanted to refuse a contribution. His objection was to doing it through the taxation system. It was a church and state thing. Or if you want to take a religious point of view, a God and Mammon thing. But the upshot is that the Catholic Church in Germany has come down hard on paying your dues. In or out, no more fannying around. If you aren’t a subscribing member, you will be refused… services.

As marketing it’s a master stroke. People will value what a religion provides much more if it has a certain exclusivity. The Catholic Church – Members Only. It seems a perfectly sensible business model – for an insurance company, or a breakdown service, or a gym. I’m not sure how they’re going to make this work for a religion though. I mean, the important thing in Christianity is what you believe, isn’t it? Not what you invest. Will deathbed repentance still be good enough, or will you have to sign a cheque for your backlog of tithes before you get absolution?

Because that’s awful reminiscent of something the German Catholic Church did before once, and it didn’t work out well.

Beaten Off The Track

Well damn you, College. Three weeks I’ve been going now, three colds I’ve caught. I’d swear the place is one vast Petri dish. I have a fever, a sore throat, a bad attitude. I’ve been taking Lemsip and acinacea by the cupped handful, but it just seems to get worse.

So here’s a picture I took in Tuam the other day. I was going to save it to illustrate some article on slow work progress, or lack of investment in infrastructure, or… I don’t know, something an overgrown railway track would illustrate. But actually, it doesn’t do a bad job of representing my mental processes right now.

Doing Teamwork By Yourself

The Engineering Faculty has some fairly decent overhead projectors

For our first project, we have to work in teams. But how can we build them when as yet we have little idea of each other’s skills, talents, and weaknesses?

I thought Well, apply communications technology, and took it upon myself to create a message board. With this we could discuss stuff when we weren’t in college, get to know each other better. And as an adjunct I thought we might have a spreadsheet – online but closed to non-members – where we could volunteer skills information; easy enough to set up with Google Docs. This would be helpful to everybody, but it would also demonstrate the useful sort of stuff I can do. Why, people would be bidding to have me join their project teams.

I got quite into this for a couple of days. When I looked up, everyone had formed into groups without me.

Fortunately there were enough of us left over to form another group. Team Not So Savvy At Team Stuff, we could call ourselves. Though actually I think this unusual selection process has left us with a pretty good assortment.

Perhaps not the best organised though. We had our first team meeting today. Only two of us turned up, and one of those was an hour late. OK that was me. I’d been up far too late trying to catch up with my reading on the whole area of project management. I learned a lot in theory, but in the morning completely failed the practical.

I know it’s a terrible cliché, but as my alarm blared away, doggedly failing to wake me, I actually had one of those anxiety dreams where you find yourself in an exam you’re completely unprepared for. I know, someone whose been through an exam system gets those dreams for the rest of their life, even when the cause for anxiety is wholly unrelated.

Only here I actually was failing to prepare for something I’m soon going to be graded on. So really it was hardly a dream at all. More just my subconscious doing a sardonic voice-over.

War On The Poor

Man walking dog, Lahinch, Clare, Ireland
Clare in better days (Photo credit: Mark Waters)

It’s not that I don’t have any time. It’s just that I don’t have any time where I’m not thinking “I should really be studying now”.

But the news today finally got my attention. It seems only recently we were having a war against poverty. Now, it’s all-out war on the poor.

I really didn’t expect Clare County Council to be leading the charge though.

Some background: In 1977, during a boom not so unlike the one just past, Fianna Fáil bought an election largely by abolishing local taxation. From now on, the towns and counties of Ireland would be funded not by householders, but from central government. This situation was allowed to continue even after the economy fell face-first off a cliff in the early 80s.

After this latest crash though, and the terrible deals made to get out of it, they need all the money they can get. So if there’s an asset that can’t be hidden – like say a job or a house – a tax has been slapped on it. At the moment there’s only what they call the Household Charge, an almost token €100 a year. This is just a clever ruse though. They believe people will be shamed into paying it. What householder cannot afford €100? Look at all you get for it! But it’s a trick; what they want is to get people onto the radar. Ultimately of course they intend to charge us far more than €100 a year, but thanks to the intervening 35 there is no reliable and comprehensive registry of home ownership in this country. So a property tax would be an administrative impossibility – unless we are tricked or forced into volunteering the information ourselves.

That’s why they’re being such hard-asses about it. Central government is forcing local to force people to put themselves on the register, by the brutal tactic of declaring how many households there are in a given locality, and reducing central funding by that times €100. Local government will now run out of funding for services like water and sewage and waste – unless they squeeze it out of the people they’re supposed to be representing.

Another service local government funds – for reasons lost to time – is higher education support. What fee assistance and maintenance grants they provide though are heavily means-tested and only paid to the poorest. And now, in Clare at least, applicants will also be required to provide proof that their families have paid the Household Charge.

This is not right, and it’s not right for a whole bunch of reasons. It’s contrary to several important ideas about how society works. Are we really going to stop services for everyone who hasn’t paid their taxes? Other forms of education too? Hospital services, welfare? If so, then surely Bertie Ahern should have all his pensions withdrawn. Are we going to put pressure on parents by withdrawing life opportunities from their children? Will we discriminate against children and young adults because of the choices of their parents? Will we set families against each other to raise tax?

Yes, some people aren’t paying this because they don’t want to get on that register when they know they’re going to be hammered by a new property tax. These though are hardly the people who qualify for the paltry maintenance grant. Others refuse as a form of protest, because they consider it unjust that the ordinary citizen of this country is being forced at financial gunpoint to pay off the losses of multinational banking giants. And they are right, it is unjust. To pay this tax is effectively to hand money over to a banker; not money that you ever owed to a banker, but money that a corrupt government promised to this banker. Why would you pay that?

And then there are some who simply haven’t been able to spare that €100. This is an (inadequate) subsistence grant which only the poorest, remember, can qualify for. Making it a condition of educational assistance provides yet more discouragement to the underprivileged, pulls jobs and wealth still further away, strikes another blow for the rich against the poorest. Another in an incessant rain of blows.

But it really doesn’t matter what the motivation of parents is. To use their children as an instrument against them speaks of a society that has divested itself of all values except the monetary. I realise Clare County Council are under a lot of pressure from our broken government, but they need to be deeply ashamed about this.

Oh, I have no dog in this fight by the way. The banking industry’s failure has already taken away all maintenance and fee support for postgraduates. I will have to borrow the money for my degree. And pay it back, with interest, to a bank.