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Archive for September 2009

annual report, 2008-9

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I think it’s time for another annual update, though I doubt that this one will be shorter than the last. The “shock of the new” has worn off, somewhat, and there have been fewer surprises. It hasn’t been a boring year, however.


The second year at University College Dublin (UCD) did not go quite as well as the first, but I’m still on track for a solid 2.1 degree, a.k.a. “Second Class Honours, Grade I” in B.Sc Structural Engineering with Architecture. A “First” is a little beyond me, since it requires excellent results on all subjects, and I don’t see that happening. In some subjects – not all – I’m running in to problems with the teaching and assessment methods.

My grade point average (GPA) was dragged down by two subjects in the second semester: in one, Theory of Structures, I enjoyed the lectures very much, and did well in tutorials etc., but when it came to the exam, I found that I could not remember every procedure and every formula. So much of it was empirical in nature, derived from experiment and not from first principles, so there was nothing “behind” most formulae for me to hang on to.

In another subject, Statistics, the problem was that the lecturing was frankly poor, with the lecturer often late and wasting time on silly things. He seemed to expect the students to be computers, remembering random pieces of information from his and other subjects. When no-one gave an instant answer to an integration problem (from calculus), the result was a 20-minute rant on how we were not trying hard enough. As if that was not bad enough, I found that Statistics affected me like no other subject ever has: an overwhelming, enervating, sense of “I don’t care”. I know that some of it is relevant to my future – I was already aware of some parts – but I could not help thinking that most of it was not, and I may never see any of it ever again.

In particular, I’m getting more frustrated with examinations. For most courses in my programme, I think it does not make sense to have the whole course depend on what I can cram in to my head and regurgitate on to paper, by hand, in a room filled with students, in a two-hour period. You end up studying to pass the exam, not to further your understanding of the subject – though you would expect those two goals to overlap. The degree to which this applied depended on the subject, an in one subject in particular, there was no exam, and the entire course was based on continuous assessment, i.e. assignments.

If this was happening in every subject, I would start to suspect that the problems lay primarily with me, but a few other subjects showed me just how good it can be. In Mechanics of Solids, the lecturer was excellent, focusing primarily on actual problems and not on abstract theory. The assignments were challenging but doable, and the exam fell in to place nicely, leaving me with a solid A-.

In my past work experience, the standard of work we had to produce meant that it was always necessary to check sources, and use whatever resources and tools were available to us, and not try to do it all from our heads with pen and paper. I do not expect my future to be much different: rather than using my head to store information, it will be used to process information in to knowledge, and (hopefully) wisdom. I thought about drawing a “wisdom pyramid” to illustrate what I mean, but a quick internet search shows that many are thinking along the same lines. The diagram to the right is courtesy of the Institute for Innovation & Information Productivity (IIIP).

At this stage in my degree programme, UCD seems to be expecting me to operate at the lower levels, wasting energy that could be better spent on a deeper understanding of the subject. It looks as if I that will have to wait for the Master’s years – if I can afford them.


The only thing to report on this front is that I’ve passed the end of the two year trial of FTY720, and am now on the extension phase of the trial. In this phase, I’m definitely on the drug – no more placebos – but I’m not being told what the actual dose is. I should soon be told what I was on in the first two years of the trial.

With multiple sclerosis (MS), the symptoms can be highly variable, and dependent on factors other than the MS itself. It changes how your body reacts to certain stimuli and situations; for example, I have been warned against extreme heat, a warning I definitely violated this past summer (which I will say more about later). In general, though, I can consider the situation well under control.

There are certain constants in my case: the L’Hermitte’s Sign in my neck can be considered a marker of permanent spinal cord damage: I can not bend my head forward without tingles shooting down to my feet. The severity varies: it’s worse when I am tired, but also first thing in the morning, after my spine stretches during sleep.

Some things vary, such as my memory performance, which partly let me down during the last university exams. I do experience fatigue, but it doesn’t just happen: I don’t get tired if I don’t do anything, but when I do things, I get more tired than I used to, and more quickly. I can still walk miles a day, but I feel the effects more. Still, this is turning out to be a very manageable condition.


After a few attempts at finding work, I could see that the employment situation here in Ireland is such that I need not bother. Where there are openings, they are being bombarded with applications, with the result that you need to be a perfect match to the position, complete with plenty of relevant experience. (I saw reports of a thousand applications being received for one simple temporary teaching post.) At this in-between stage in my study, with only summers free, I am not a fit to any job at all.

May was largely taken up by university exams; June by preparations to move house – again – and the move itself. My new place is closer to the university in general, and much closer to the parts of the university I will be visiting the most, specifically the Civil Engineering department. July was a quiet month of settling in, with several hospital visits associated with switch to the FTY720 extension trial. Finally, August arrived.

On the last day of July I flew to Houston, Texas, to visit old friends of mine, staying in their house about 50km north for four weeks. The daytime temperatures rarely went below 30°C, usually exceeding 35°C, which explains why everything is air-conditioned. I think the kids were pleased to see me: there are photos of me, on the couch, with all three of them on top of me (a classic dogpile). We visited Johnson Space Centre, including Mission Control, had a good steak dinner, and even got to go to a baseball game. (The Houston Astros beat the Florida Marlins 4-1.)

My interests in architecture and cities meant that I really wanted to see downtown Houston too, which took some doing. My friends live in a different county, out where the Houston Metro buses don’t run, so the best way to do it was to travel to my friend’s office, which was closer, and get the buses from there. The service was surprisingly good: the buses weren’t that regular, but they did run to schedule, so you could plan the trip. best of all: a trip costs just $1.25, including a free 2-hour transfer if you use a smart card, which I did.

The scale of Houston made it slightly daunting to someone on foot, in that heat, but after a little research and familiarization, I found Houston scored highly on my “friendly city” criteria: you could tell where you were and where you were going, things worked as advertised, and it was possible to leave the map in the pocket and navigate by intelligent guesswork. The downtown area features a network of tunnels linking the various buildings, complete with coffee shops and restaurants; these cater to office workers, mostly closing by 3PM. Up on the street, though, the locals suffering the heat presented the other side of Houston: largely Hispanic or African-American, and clearly impoverished, some apparently refugees from New Orleans.

One pleasant surprise: it was possible to walk straight in to the tallest building in Houston, the Chase Tower, and take an elevator to the Sky Lobby on the 60th floor: no cost, no formalities of any sort, just an elevator that makes your ears pop. I also paid a visit to the Museum of Fine Art, wandered through a wall-to-wall Who’s Who of Impressionism, and found myself standing in a room holding seven Picasso pieces. The place was nearly empty, even though it was Free Thursday.

Back in Dublin, I’m preparing to start university again on Monday, though I’ve already been back there several times. I’m involved with the Mature Student Society there, and helped out on the orientation day last weekend, giving a short speech about my experiences and motivations. I still find it easier to speak in public than in private, for some strange reason.


The Asus eee PC 1000 is still going strong, running the Ubuntu Linux Netbook Remix. It survived the trip to the USA with flying colours, and over the last year, about the only problems it’s experienced have been those I caused myself. In the university library it’s kept me typing for over five hours at a stretch.

My Houston friends gave me a parting gift, in the form of an Apple iPod Touch (8GB). I wouldn’t normally buy any Apple products, due to their corporate policies (DRM, lock-in, the walled garden, etc.), but this is turning out to be extremely interesting. It’s a very good MP3 player, but I didn’t know it had wireless networking, email capability, and more. It’s basically an iPhone without the phone, which coincides nicely with my current plans to cancel my current mobile phone account. (I’ve been overcharged by my current provider, and I’ve had enough.)

The applications are also very interesting. For example, I’ve found a version of the Ilium eWallet software I’ve used for years, for storing passwords and other sensitive information. There’s also a version of Skype, as well as some interesting games, such as Jelly Car and iMafia III. It’s only been about ten days at this time, so I’m still getting used to the iPod.


Another year, another birthday, another 60 credits, another step closer to  … what? I ended the previous annual report with a hope that the world wouldn’t fall apart under my feet, and look at what happened. I was expecting a housing market crash, but I was not expecting such a monumental balls-up. Never mind sub-prime mortgages, I had much more to learn about insurance, derivatives, and the dreaded Credit Default Swap. Still, it could be worse: I seem to have picked a good time to be absent from the job market and living a low-income, low-expenditure lifestyle. I’m having health checks and receiving MS therapy at no cost to me, and I even had enough slack, financially, to afford a trip to the USA, so I have to say that life is pretty good. I think it’s time to put this report to bed, and follow it there. Until next year, good night.

Written by brian t

September 6, 2009 at 1:47 am