Winter Solstice at Newgrange, Ireland

5,000 years ago, an extraordinary people lived in Ireland. They were farmers, hunters and builders. Without the benefit of the wheel, and with tools made only of flint, they carved their culture into history. Along the banks of the River Boyne, they built houses to their dead, repositories to their spirit – monuments to immortality.

Brú na Boinne: Monument to Immortality

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Newgrange – exterior (image courtesy SacredSites.com)

I don’t spend all my time involved in learning and development.

No, no, no.

Among my more arcane, but nevertheless very satisfying interests is in the culture of the Neolithic (New Stone Age), and particularly the culture of the Beaker People of Western Europe. An event central to the lives of the people of this culture in Ireland (which resonates with us today) occurs today Monday, 21st December on the Winter Solstice in the northern hemisphere.

At ten minutes to nine on the morning of the shortest day of the year, a pale and weak sun slowly rises above a ridge in the Boyne River valley in County Meath, Ireland. As the sun’s rays penetrate the dawn mist, a solitary building sits atop it hill… waiting.

Waiting as it has every year for over fifty centuries to shine once again as a beacon to the Spirit Of Man – a place where people forever bound to the earth can, however briefly, capture the Fire of the Sun and touch the sky.

Newgrange is best known for the illumination of its passage and chamber by the winter solstice sun. Above the entrance to the passage at Newgrange there is a special opening called a roof-box. Its purpose is to allow sunlight to penetrate the chamber on the shortest days of the year, around December 21, the Winter Solstice.

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Light Enters the Tomb at Newgrange (image courtesy Irish Times)

At dawn, from 19th to 23rd December every year, a narrow beam of light penetrates the roof-box and reaches the floor of the chamber, gradually extending to the rear of the passage. As the sun rises above the horizon, the single light-beam widens within the chamber so that the whole room becomes dramatically illuminated. This event lasts for 17 minutes, beginning around 9am.

Newgrange’s accuracy as a time-telling device is all the more remarkable when you consider that it was built 500 years before the Great Pyramids in Giza, and more than 1,000 years before Stonehenge. The interior of the tumulus consists of a long passage leading to a cross-shaped chamber. This burial chamber has a corbelled roof which rises steeply to a high-point of close to twenty feet above the floor surface. The recesses in the chambers contain large stone basins which would have held the cremated remains of those being deposited in the tomb. During excavation of the tomb, the remains of five people were found.Newgrange Entrance Stone

At the entrance to Newgrange (see image right) stands the highly-decorated Entrance Stone.

The carvings on the stone  include a triskele or triple-spiral motif which is found only at Newgrange. This motif is repeated along the passage into the tomb, and is carved into the rock again inside the burial chambers of the tumulus.

Despite much speculation, we still do not – and probably never will – know the meaning of these carvings, but I think that we can say that on some level, they indicate a perception of the divine on the part of the tomb builders. In Ireland, Newgrange (and the other monuments of the Boyne valley ritual landscape) represents a thread to our culture that leads us back to our ancestors, the very first farmers and settlers on the land. If you are part of the Irish diaspora, it’s part of your heritage too. Beyond this little island of Ireland, it represents the richness and depth and quality of human knowledge, and ability, and capacity to wonder, and achievement.

In 2007 and 2008, the event was streamed live over the web; sadly budget cuts by the Irish government mean that the  solstice has not been streamed since 2009. However, you may get a sense of the occasion by viewing archive footage of the the absolutely spectacular 2007 event here, and the 2008 event here (both in Windows Media format).

For those of you who couldn’t make it to Newgrange today (or who have a Mac or Linux machine, ergo poor or non-existent Windows Media viewing capabilities)  as a special solstice treat I have created an edited version of the 2007 Newgrange Winter Solstice sunrise.

[Video courtesy of the Irish Office of Public Works]

December 22 2015 | e-learning | 4 Comments »

Government to tax learners with “failure fee”

The government is set to tax learners with a “failure fee” in the next budget.

Today, a source close to the Minister of Education announced that the Department intends to tax the corporate sector through a levy on incorrectly answered questions in e-learning evaluations in an effort to generate money for the public purse as the Irish economy recovers from the Global Financial Crisis.

When questioned further the government source – who did not want to be named for national security reasons – elaborated on this plan, by saying that:

The e-learning sector in Ireland is doing really well, despite the downturn. There are lots of people out there using courseware over and over again, basically for free once they pay for it. We are looking for a way to continue to generate revenue from people every time they use a piece of e-learning. After consulting with experts, we have developed a bold and innovative approach to do this: we are going to charge learners a fee when they answer test questions incorrectly.

The government have already cut primary teacher numbers (making the student-to-teacher ratio the highest in Western Europe), and re-introduced third-level fees for the less well-off. The source continued:

We are working with a number of prominent Irish e-learning providers to mandate that an extra piece of code called Reactive User Scoring Expensing (RUSE) will be embedded in all e-learning content that will require the learner – or their company – to sign up with PayPal and the Department of Revenue so that they can be automatically charged a “failure fee” of one cent every time they answer a question wrong.

We are also collaborating with organizations like ADL/SCORM to add a new field to IMS manifest files to help us track this levy, so that when a user submits their test, the data is sent to our database. There seems to be a concern at EU level that this affects Irish citizens’ privacy and human rights, but in these tough times we have to put aside such selfish ideas and think of the greater good of the nation.

The senior civil servant elaborated:

This has been incorrectly called a stealth tax. It’s not. We want everyone to know about it. We see this as an opportunity to monetize a previously untouched area of education, and a great way to motivate people to study even harder and answer questions correctly during and after training courses.

Frankly, if people are too stupid to get the answers right, they’re too thick to be in a job. We think that we’re doing companies a favor by letting them know how many eejits they have in their midst, which is keeping people with real skills out of employment. Based on current worker fail rates, this scheme will also net us about €6 million in the first year, which is a real sweet deal.

An opposition spokesperson stated that

this is typical of the gombeen-man ignorance in this government: everyone knows that this will fall flat on its face, just like the debacle over water charges. I don’t know, sometimes I just despair of this crowd of wasters. They are truly unfit to hold public office in a modern democracy.

Industry insiders speculate that a move by the government to implement this program, called the Finance Act for Knowledge and Education – or FAKE – will lead to an increase in ‘unsupervised education’ and dangerous ‘free-form learning’ taking place ‘off the grid.’

One particularly gloomy respondent considered that Ireland would see a resurgence of the ‘hedge-schools’ which emerged during the Penal Laws in the 19th Century. What’s worse, it’s the kind of “innovation” that governments internationally will see as a legitimate source of tax revenue fill the state’s coffers as we head into the general election ahead.

If you want to help stop this disaster, please e-mail the Secretary of the Department for Education. Contact Ms. Avril O’Fol at afool@deptofed.gov with the e-mail header “Stop the madness.”

It’s important that you do this today, the first of April 2015, or it will be too late.

Thank you.

______________________

Notes:

A Gombeen Man is a pejorative Hiberno-English term used in Ireland for a shady, small-time “wheeler-dealer” or businessman who is always looking to make a quick profit, often at someone else’s expense or through the acceptance of bribes.

An eejit is similarly an offensive term used in Ireland that deliberately insults somebody’s intelligence or foresight. An idiot.

April 01 2015 | e-learning | 2 Comments »

Five years of pain for Irish students…

5years1

 

Find out more tomorrow…

 

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