I am returning to Africa in 2020!

This year though my presence on this remarkably diverse continent will be 'virtual' by way of mentoring online training workshops to teachers/mentors and by providing new learning content that will complement national educational curricula covering topics such as geometry, arithmetic, environmental science and geography.

Working with a hardworking visionary team of men and women drawn from three continents led by the great Claire Gillissen and supported by Camden Educational Trust, I am happy to have just completed a ‘Scratch in the Classroom’ teachers’ manual for the Africa Code Week initiative which this year is planning to bring coding tuition to schools in every country across the African continent.
In 2019, over 3.85 million African youth were engaged with 47% being girls; 39,000 teachers were mobilised and 37 countries were involved.

But in all honesty I am very sad that, after 5 enjoyable years, I will not have the opportunity this year to be immersed in the sights, sounds and friendships of Africa. From the townships of Capetown to the streets of Cairo and so much in between, I have learnt so much from the rich diverse ancient and new cultures of this continent.
It is where our human species began, it is where many of my heroes and role models are from, it is where great tracts of land are still wild and populated with rich unsurpassed flora and fauna. Every time I go there I feel that in some way I am rekindling some old long lost connection.

Until we meet again in 2021, I salute all the teachers, mentors, students, children, NGOs and governments involved in Africa Code Week, which is helping to upskill and empower a whole generation of young people

‘Back to BASIC’- workshops on the coding language that helped democratise computing 50+ years ago

As part of this year’s Galway Science and Technology Festival, the computer and communications museum, in conjunction with the Data Science Institute, will host a series of coding workshops using the original programming language on the very computers by some of the same mentors that provided such teaching in schools, colleges and computer clubs in the city during the early 1980s!

The workshops will take place at the Data Science Institute subject to COVID-19 restrictions then current. If this cannot happen, we will host online workshops using virtual console simulators and reschedule the ones using the vintage computers to a suitable time in 2021.

Back to the Future - the 1980s revisited

Today so many good-minded tech savvy educators are working really hard to promote computer coding amongst our young people through coding clubs such as Coderdojo and by campaigning to have it accepted as a curriculum subject in schools. We see it as our mission to transform our kids from being passive Computer Users to active Computer Creators. Coding is a skill set that is increasingly beneficial in so many professions and will be even more so as the century rolls by.
But in some ways it can be seen as a ‘Back to the Future’ saga. For during the 1970s up until the mid 1980s,  using a computer was synonymous with knowing how to code one. It was a programming language called BASIC that introduced personal computing. In a time when few people ever saw a computer let alone use one, John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz of Dartmouth College USA designed a language in 1964 that allowed everyday people to have computers carry out many different tasks from writing letters, undertaking research, solving problems and playing games. The language was known as BASIC (Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) and had commands with easy-to-relate to English words that related to their functionality (Print, Goto, If___Then, and later Input). Programming had lost its elitism (for mathematicians only) and could be understood and programmed by ordinary people. But what truly made it accessible to all was the invention of the microprocessor, which formed the basis of the first fully-assembled personal (table top) computers that started to appeared from 1977.  The Commodore Pet, RadioShack Tandy TRS-80 and the Apple 11 that were launched that year were off-the-shelf low cost computers aimed at the ordinary consumer and schools. All three came bundled with BASIC. Within a few years the standard version of the language on most computers was Microsoft Basic invented by Bill Allen and Bill Gates.
Schools all over the world started to teach programming. By 1983, most secondary schools in Galway had computer labs populated with computer equipment donated by Ballybrit-based Digital Equipment Corporation(DEC) where students learnt to code. The demise of BASIC and indeed programming in general across educational establishments happened with the rise of application software or what we know call apps from the late 1980s.

No Trees were Cut Down in the making of these Wooden Products!

My cap, reusable beverage cup, wallet, watch, face mask along with a number of my other personal items are made from wood. The source is cork, a species of oak indigenous to the Iberian peninsula and the Mediterranean region. It is one of the few trees that can be harvested without having to cut it down.
A few days ago I received a face mask made from cork. Thanks so much Sónia Almeida Santos for this lovely reusable nature-friendly gift which I will always treasure. I met Sonia last September in Mozambique where she is the national organiser for Africa Code Week and where I went to teach coding to staff/student mentors from Maputo’s main university and to school teachers.
I have been fortunate to have visited the world’s main cork forests located in Portugal. They are spectacular and are truly a unique renewable natural resource. Local farmers carefully cut off the bark with small axes ensuring that the trees are not damaged. Once the bark is taken off, numbers in big print are painted onto the trunks signifying the specific year of harvest. These trees are then left alone for another nine to twelve years.
With no logging involved and no mechanisation, these primeval woodlands support a rich diverse ancient fauna that is of European and global significance, including the endangered Iberian lynx, the Spanish imperial eagle and the Bonelli's eagle. Some of the trees can be over 200 years old.They are also an important stopover for migratory birds travelling between northern Europe and Africa as these intrepid avian travellers use them for a bit of rest and recuperation before continuing on their epic journeys.
Only a few decades ago, cork was the only material used to cap wine bottles. Unfortunately the switch to plastic stoppers and screw tops represents a serious threat to the future of the cork oak forests, their rural communities and their biodiversity. The local farmers who practice mixed farming of cereal cultivation, livestock grazing and tree harvesting would be forced to convert the woodlands to other uses in order to survive. In fact the truth is that these ancient habitats and the sustainable industry that they support should be a template to the world on how human societies and the rest of nature can be mutually beneficial.
Thankfully the Portuguese have made great strides in recent years in diversifying the range of products made from cork and tens of thousands of people work in the industry.
So we as individuals can play our part in supporting the forests and their inhabitants. Buy when possible only wine with cork stoppers as well as purchasing all the other fantastic new products that are now available. Many of these items are now on sale in Galway.

P.S. Some more info on the Cork face masks- According to one reliable source, 'cork' does not absorb dust and prevents the appearance of mites and, therefore, contributes to protection against allergies.

Jack Charlton: Ireland’s favourite Englishman, RIP

Photo shows some of the memorabilia that I still have of Big Jack, both during his time with Leeds United (my childhood collection of ‘Shoot’ and ‘Goal’ magazines) and with Ireland (a “Put ‘em Under Pressure” disc record featuring musicians such as Máire Ní Bhraonáin and  Davy Spillane, produced by Larry Mullen of U2.- best sports anthem ever!- check out https://bit.ly/2CwmQw6 ). As a kid I was a fan of Don Revie’s legendary Leeds ('Peacocks'), a team of ‘Sniffer’ Clarke, ‘Hot Shot’ Lorimer, Norman ‘Bites Your Legs’ Hunter, ‘Top Cat’ Cooper,  Johnny ‘The General’ Giles, ‘Big Jack’ Charlton... Later on,  as with the whole nation, I became a loyal follower of Jack’s boys- Packie Bonner, Ronnie Whelan, Mick McCarthy, Paul McGrath, John Aldridge, Ray Houghton…

Ireland becomes a worldwide phenomenon- thanks to an Englishman!
Jack rightly deserves demi-god status in Ireland. A down-to-earth honest-to-goodness working class Geordie lad with no airs and graces, we adopted him as one of our own as he helped reinvigorate our pride in the nation. Not surprising in one sense as Geordie/Northumberland has a strong ancient cultural and ethnic affinity with Ireland going back to the influences of St Aidan and Lindisfarne, the nearby Gaels of Strathclyde and even further into prehistory. As manager of the national soccer team, he brought not just Irish soccer onto a global stage but also helped foster a new sense of Irishness that had not been seen before. Getting Ireland into two World Cups and one Euro Cup were magnificent achievements in their own right. But it was what happened around the soccer team that left behind a benign legacy towards Ireland that still resonates today. Jack the Englishman was the unofficial commander-in-chief of a legendary ‘Green Army’ whose male and female ‘troops’, armed with nothing more than emerald football jerseys, tricolour flags and Irish rebel songs, successfully breached international borders by chartered flight, ferry boat and Volkswagen van to swiftly overcome all resistance, capturing in the process the hearts and minds of the local populations. These friendly Irish invaders, with their craic and beguiling nature, charmed the world for many years thereafter. In the 1990s, it was ‘cool’ to be Irish. In the 1960s Bealtlemania took hold. Three decades later it was an 'Irishmania' that erupted globally particularly in the field of entertainment with musicians (Sinead O’Connor, Chieftains, U2, Clannad, Cranberries, Boyzone, Corrs and Eurovision winners), actors (Liam Neeson, Pierce Brosnan, Brendan Gleeson, Colm Meaney), Irish themed films (Michael Collins, In the Name of the Father, Devil’s Own, The Field, The Committments), comedy (Father Ted, Ballykissangel, Graham Norton), and of course with the dance, rhythms and costumes of Riverdance. As a direct result of the Green Army travels, the ‘Irish pub’ phenomena took root in nearly every large city across every continent. Unlike many of the Irish bars of old that existed in Irish diaspora neighbourhoods in Britain and USA, these new hostelries were bright and attractive places, full of young Irish and non-Irish alike, happily mixing together, enjoying tasty Irish food and drink in an environment decorated with Celtic memorabilia, where the strains of both live traditional Irish and Irish rock music had the crowds dancing and singing until the small hours of the morning. Exports of Guinness, whiskeys, cream liquors and Munster butter quickly skyrocketed, having a positive impact on the home economy. Huge numbers of young people left Ireland to build, decorate, manage, serve and play music in these new establishments. I was one of those very fortunate people that was part of this new wave of Irish emigration during the early-mid 1990s. After establishing Monroes as Galway’s first seven day music venue and a popular hostelry, I spent an exciting few years managing in the pub trade overseas. Thanks to Jack, I had some great adventures, made lifelong friends and went through some strange experiences during this chapter of my life. To mention one of many- on a dark snowbound winter night in Reykjavik, I had a surreal but most enjoyable rendezvous in an Irish pub filled with very friendly Englishman swapping stories about their fellow Geordie, Jack Charlton. Nothing strange there until one realises that they were all British Army squaddies (soldiers) from the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers Regiment dressed in full desert military fatigues. What!?- hot desert military maneuverers in ice-covered Iceland!? -Strange but true! But that is another tale for another day.
Thanks Jack for the memories. You will always be Ireland’s favourite Englishman. Rest in Peace- Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Sadly the dream inspired by Jack soon began to turn stale as greed, arrogance, gombeen men and ‘plastic paddywackery’ reared their ugly heads. The subsequent so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’ allowed the worst excesses of Irishness to come to the fore, influenced by an Old Boys ‘me-féin’ elite of overpaid bankers, a particular corp of politicians, top sports executives, property speculators (I would never honour them with the label of ‘developers’) and their small town imitators who travelled the world flaunting their wealth, staying at the best hotels, and appearing at all the Irish soccer games. FAI lost the run of itself by appointing the billionaire Denis O’Brien (who had undermined parliamentary democracy for his own ends) as its President for Life and allowing John Delaney to indulge himself with the coffers. Irish drug gang lords with their ‘bling’ culture began to be seen and loudly heard in the Spanish holiday resorts and elsewhere frequenting and sometimes sponsoring sporting events. Too many of the hastily built global Irish pubs of the 2000s degenerated into tackiness characterised by garish shamrock/leprechaun signage, never ending ‘Happy Hour’ cheap drink promotions and foul-mouthed binge drinking Irish tourists distorting the true meaning of the rebel songs that they belted out. I am hoping that the stains of these elements from the post-Jack era are rapidly disappearing.