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I have a small favour to ask.

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I’m thinking of changing to a new blog name (but staying with WordPress).

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The water scares me.

I look out on the river beside my house. Everything is serene and quiet.  The inhalations and exhalations of the tides add a beautiful rhythm to even the gloomiest day. The glistening and the ripples, the sparkles and the splashes. It’s calmness personified.

But now, this water scares me.

It frightens me because I saw yesterday what water can do. I have seen the live TV images of huge waves pushing themselves inland, carrying trees, cars, boats and houses as if they were matchsticks. I have seen, as we all have now, the sudden loss of possessions, of dreams, of lives, of everything, in a cancerous upwelling of this self-same liquid that flows silently past me every hour of every day.

Those images will not leave. The cars turning and reversing in panic. The houses crushed to a pulp in an instant. The fishing boats floating drunkenly over roads and streets. The manicured fields: one second ordered and cultivated; the next, crushed under a mass of human detritus and shapeless debris. A vast battlefront, more powerful and destructive than any army ever launched against an enemy. A formless hegemonising goo exerting its dominance over our civilisation. The immediate nullification of decades of patient human labour. Vast swathes of land reclaimed by a master more powerful than the greatest of our technologies.

What makes it scariest of all: its unconsciousness. Its indifference to the vast suffering it inflicts. This monster is nothing but a function of physics and geology. All else is moot. You get in the way, you die; no matter how virtuous or deserving your plight. The greatest cruelty is unleashed when no mind or conscience is involved.

I look out on this expanse of water and I imagine a giant black wave of destruction turning the corner and advancing up the channel towards me. I imagine stone buildings turned to rubble in front of my eyes. I imagine the windows exploding and and an unconscionable mess flowing into every room of the house. I imagine the walls of the house groaning and capitulating under the relentlessness of the planet’s most powerful weapon. Beyond this, my imagination fails me.

So you may babble away, dear water. You may bubble and sigh. You may lap upon the shore and twinkle under the passing flutters of a playful breeze. But I cannot trust you. Your darkness knows no limit.

If you would like to vote someone in, vote for them.

If you would not like someone in, vote for anybody but them.

If you don’t want any of them in, and you are not considering voting at all, why didn’t you run for parliament yourself then?

Just remember, if you don’t vote, then you don’t get to complain about the next government because you, by your inaction, helped to put them there.

Apologies to regular readers. If you are not interested in local politics click the back button now. Quick! Hurry! I’ll give three whistles when it’s safe to look here again.

For a while now I have restrained myself from talking about politics on this blog, but since the 2011 General Election is drawing near and I feel very strongly about exercising my right to vote, I have decided to get my thoughts together on our prospective candidates, and what I can find out about them via their online presence.

I work away from home between the hours of 8am to 7pm each weekday so I am unlikely to be canvassed at all during this election. I read a lot of blogs however and I’m a Twitter addict, so I just wanted to see how these candidates have done in reaching out to the likes of me. What I have found is rather uninspiring.

Using TheJournal.ie’s excellent roundup of the candidates, here are some of my impressions.

  • Fianna Fáil (Michael Ahern and Kevin O’Keeffe) don’t have much of a social media policy at all. No Twitter, no videos, no blogs, just static web-pages and a Facebook account for O’Keeffe. Their candidate web-pages are devoid of anything that might persuade me to change my mind.
  • Fine Gael is more interesting. All of the candidates have a live video. (Pa O’Driscoll had one but for some reason it has been taken down). David Stanton’s video does not inspire a huge amount of confidence. It could have been a lot better in my opinion. I felt as if I was reading his CV and I didn’t get any feeling for what drives him and his passion for change. This is a potential government minister, so I would have expected a bit more drive. Tom Barry’s video is better, hitting the point on the main points of his candidacy. All three candidates have Twitter streams with Pa O’Driscoll leading by miles in terms of engagement and David Stanton saying aloof from any interaction with the great unwashed. Tom Barry shouldn’t have bothered with Twitter, given tweets such as the following: “Thanks to the canvass crews out over the weekend! Ye are pure marters for the cause out in that rain!” David StantonPa O’Driscoll and Tom Barry all have passable blogs.
  • Now we get to Labour. Sean Sherlock is engaging with people on Twitter but he has no video that I could find. His website is also, how do I put it, parochial. Here is a guy who could possibly find himself in the cabinet and yet he is campaigning on the subject of local roads and rezoning. Honestly, I’d prefer if these guys started thinking about Ireland and less about the parish pump. John Mulvihill has another parochial website, a Twitter stream (not engaging), and no video to give us an impression of what he is like. I am leaning towards Labour in this election but neither of the candidates inspire me with much confidence.

From here on in we are dealing with smaller parties and independent candidates. None of them have ever served as a TD and they have fairly low profiles. So you would expect them to be using every media outlet, including social media, to sell their message. Right?

  • Sandra McLellan, Sinn Féin’s candidate has no website or video or Twitter account, so apart from their policies which I think are woefully ignorant of basic economics and belong to the 19th Century, I know very little else about her.
  • Malchy Harty of the Green Party is a photographer, but he fails to put up a video of himself to tell us why we should vote for him. No blog (just a static web-page) and no Twitter. I will grant that he has a somewhat less parochial vision, but that’s about it. Very little to go on here.
  • Paul O’Neill has a website and a video. You actually get to see what this guy is thinking and what he is interested in doing. No Twitter though, no blogging and nothing in his Facebook page that I can see.
  • Paul Burke also has a static website and a video (I had to do a bit of rummaging to find it) which is quite good except for the fact that “Independent” is spelt incorrectly in the title. I find the policies here a bit wishy washy. He wants change but I don’t get a strong sense of vision around it.
  • Claire Cullinane has a static website and audio stream to help her outline her policies and a Facebook page where we find that she has been educated in the University of Life (hmm). No Twitter and no blogging – just a static web-page. Again, the policies seem quite vague. I’m not sure what I would be voting for.
  • Patrick Bullman has just a static web-page where he outlines his political philosophy. Not much else to go on.

So, what do I know? Fine Gael have definitely tried the hardest to engage with social media, Fianna Fail are a write-off, Labour are somewhat disappointing, and only a handful of independents or smaller party candidates have done very much at all to raise their profiles. While this is not the only information I will take into account when making my vote, it is interesting nonetheless.

Update: In an earlier version of this posting I wrote that Tom Barry didn’t have a blog and that based on his Twitter comments he shouldn’t have bothered to write one either. I subsequently found his blog and I need to, how do you say – eat my words. You live and learn I guess.

Why is it that when popular revolutions occur, the main opponents on the ground always seem to be middle-aged men?

What is it about those men of my age group that drives them to kick some student’s head in, battering them with sticks and putting their lives on the line in defense of an evil and corrupt regime? Are the jails and torture houses similarly populated by such men in their forties and fifties who think nothing about snuffing out the idealism of youth?

Both Mubarak and Ahmadinejad used members of my cohort to quell the protestors.  Middle aged men: not wealthy, not well educated, just tough, brutal and sufficiently cynical to do whatever the incumbent regime asks of them.

It makes me feel sick that the young idealists of twenty and thirty years ago often become the shady individuals holding the batons, the guns and the pliers.

 

Photo via mitopoietico (Flickr / CC Licensed)

So, you are out one night and you see an object in the sky that you can’t quite explain. You have never seen anything quite like it in your life before. Could it be an alien spacecraft? Have you had a Close Encounter of the Third Kind?

An alien visitation would be a truly outstanding occurrence if it were validated scientifically. It would possibly rank as the greatest discovery ever since science began. For centuries however, astronomers, both professional and amateur, have been looking into the skies without ever finding good evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial beings. Given our knowledge of the Universe, this is not surprising. Although there are many billions of stars around us, the distances involved are stupendously large. The practical difficulties involved for alien spacecraft traveling to Earth beggar belief. This is not to say it is impossible; just very unlikely. When you see a strange light in the sky, you should not jump to the conclusion that you have seen a UFO. Other, more mundane explanations are possible in the majority of cases.

Here’s a quick guide to some strange lights in the night sky, and what they might be.

  • Steady moving lights, flashing each second, possibly green or red; sometimes very bright white lights.

It’s likely to be an aircraft. This is probably a trivial case as most people are aware of what planes look like at night. Near airports, planes can have very bright landing lights turned on that can drown out any flashing beacons.

  • Steady moving light with no flashing. Moving slowly. Seen after sunset or before sunrise. Can be very bright, but usually quite dim objects. May disappear almost instantaneously.

You may have seen an artificial satellite. There are hundreds of satellites in the sky, normally only visible in the night sky after sun-down, when the light is still shining on them. The sudden disappearance happens when it moves into the Earth’s shadow. If the light is very bright, it is likely that you have just seen the International Space Station, quite a common sight in our skies these days.

  • Orange flickering light, floating around 50 to 100 metres above the ground. May dim slowly after a few minutes.

You have possibly seen a Chinese Lantern, a small, inexpensive hot-air balloon made out of paper and wire. Chinese Lanterns have become very common around the country at celebrations, Halloween and New Year’s Eve.

  • Steady bright light. No apparent movement. May be close to horizon or visible in the southern sky. Much brighter than surrounding stars.

It’s possible you have seen Jupiter or Venus, two surprisingly bright planets at certain times of the year. After the Moon, these two objects are the brightest objects in the night sky.

  • A very bright point of light in the sky. It lasts momentarily, then disappears again. Object may move slowly. So bright you might even see it during the day.

You may have seen an Iridium Flare, essentially the reflection of a low-orbit Iridium satellite, originally used to provide satellite mobile communications. The reflections can be surprisingly bright.

  • Very bright green or red light in the sky, about 200 metres above ground. Appears to move slowly.

You may have seen an emergency flare. This is a very bright firework, shot up in the sky as a distress signal to nearby shipping. In Ireland, flares are often sent up during celebrations like the New Year.

  • Fast moving bright object. May travel a large distance across the sky in a split second. Possibly a greenish colour associated with the event.

You may have seen a fireball. This is a rocky object from space that has collided with the Earth’s atmosphere, heating up and exploding on impact. It may also be a satellite re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. Such an event is worth noting! You should make a note of your observation with the International Meteor Organisation.

  • Strange diffuse lights, illuminating clouds. Moving rapidly, possibly rhythmically. There may be more than one light in the sky.

You may have seen the effect of searchlights shining up on clouds. Local festivals and event organisers sometimes use searchlights to attract attention to their shows at night.

Other sightings may have arisen from light reflections, optical illusions or mistaken identity. It may be that the witnesses were very tired at the time or under the influence of drugs or medication, or they may have been the subject or originator of a deliberate hoax. The key thing is to always discount the more mundane answers before ever jumping to improbable conclusions.

TAM London, 16-17th October

What follows is a summary of how the blogosphere reacted to TAM London this week. It’s quite a mix of views and opinions: some quite serious and critical, some hilarious. I encourage you to take a look at some of the blog entries themselves as you will get a real flavour of what worked and what didn’t work at the event.

We start with Iszi Lawrence (@iszi_lawrence). In her blog entry, she loved Jon Ronson, Alan Moore and Marcus Chown, didn’t quite get the point of Richard Dawkins’ speech (sex with chimps or something) and did NOT like the early start. Photo to prove it as well.

Martin Robbins (@mjrobbins) gives the blow by blow account of activities in The TAM London 2010 Live Blog, including some videos, quotes, twitter comments and links to relevant podcasts.

Crispian Jago (@Crispian_Jago) loved the conference but he had a few nitpicks. He was not a fan of the panel discussion accompanying the Storm video and he was slightly bemused about the point of Melinda Gebbie’s appearance. He also felt that Josie Long was slightly out of her depth. The commenters on Crispian’s blog were largely in agreement on this (except PZ Myers – ppfft).

Dave Gamble (@david_gamble) posted some of the most memorable quotes on his blog and also had something to say about the audience being perceived as great “Champagne Skeptics“. More anon.

Scepticool (@scepticool) in his blog post, The Brilliance and the Problems of Diversity, had a few quibbles about Alan Moore’s and Melinda Gebbie’s role in the proceedings. He loved PZ Myer’s speech and Rhys Morgan’s award.

English Atheist (@EnglishAtheistloved the whole event and wants you to sign his Tiger petition now.

Gimpy (he didn’t actually go to the event itself), found the whole idea of TAM London “expensive, insular and divisive” and accused us attendees of being “Champagne Skeptics”. He wrote that greater JREF involvement would suppress grassroots activism and suspects that the JREF have somewhat malign motives towards the UK Skeptic community. Needless to say, this blog entry received a whole pile of critical feedback, most notably from Martin Robbins who accused him of paranoia and having a distorted and fearful view of what is a very positive and noteworthy movement.

Paul S Jenkins (@PaulSJenkins), writing as An Evil Burnee, wrote 2 blog entries. Paul was very positive about the event, his only grumble being the frugality of the conference pack (I hear ya). Paul noted that perhaps there has been more a move this year towards atheism and informality.

Ben Warsop (@BENWARSOP) weighs in on the good vs dickishness debate between DJ Grothe and PZ Myers and finds little fertile territory in shrillness and combat.

Simon Dunn (@sighdone) came up with ten mind-blowingly provoking things about the event. Since I could not find any eclairs there, I must conclude that he’s the one who ate them all. I have no evidence whatsoever to justify this accusation but since he discovered that magic actually exists he must, therefore, agree with me totally. No takebacks or crossies.

Stevyn Colgan (@Stevyncolgan) loved the meeting and wrote two very comprehensive blog entries about the whole thing. His gripes concerned the expense of the event and the technical problems that frequently bugged the presentations.

Jim Christian (@jimchristian) wrote two great entries about the event. He enjoyed the speeches and captured the best moments very well. His only quibble was with the food, which had him nipping over to the local M&S on the second day.  (Day 01 / Day 02)

Trunkman (@TrunkmanUK) starts his review with an enjoyable review of Ghost Stories. I am now intrigued what THAT MOMENT was all about. His review of TAM London is divided into 3 postings where he covers each speaker in turn: how he was pleasantly surprised by Sue Blackmore and Cory Doctorow and awed by Richard Dawkin’s presentation; how he felt the second part of the first day was a bit flat (I agree completely). He also describes the evening show with Jon Ronson and Tim Minchin, and like many he felt it was far too self-congratulatory for his liking. It’s one of the best reviews (warts and all) of the event and I would love to read his thoughts on Day 2.

PadainFain (@PadainFain) doesn’t mince his words in his review. I think a lot of the criticisms are on target. The Green Room, where the speakers were separated from the audience, was brought up as a particular niggle about the event.

Stefano Borini (@forthescience) wrote extensively about the event. He said that the conference this year was perhaps more serious than last year, focusing on the emotional level of skepticism. He captured some of the best quotes from the event and was not a fan of the panel interviews. He also did a great job in capturing the essence of the Grothe / Myers debate.

Dr. Dean Burnett (@garwboy) describes how he tried to pass himself off as Tim Minchin, suspected Richard Dawkins of secretly harbouring an AK47 in his tweeds, uses the “g” word to describe Randi, discovered that the Alpha Course was, well, kind of what he expected it to be and captured defecatively the essence of Ghost Stories.

Snipe also does a review where they describe Alan Moore’s voice as “congealed thunder”. I also note they got the spelling of Crohn’s Disease wrong which makes me feel better – I tweeted it as “Chrome’s Disease” during the meeting myself.

In conclusion, yes, there were tons of niggles and some very pointed criticism, but the general impression is of a very enjoyable, meaningful conference. Roll on TAM London 2011.

Lake Constance lies at the far southern tip of Germany. It is one of Europe’s “great lakes”, a major stopping point for the Rhine river as it meanders its way from the Alpine peaks to the North Sea. We started our trip today in Lindau, a pretty island town on the north-eastern shore of the lake. From there it was a short boat journey to the city of Bregenz in Austria. We took a cable car to Pfander – a mountain that provided some wonderful views of the entire lake.

Short video below:

Yesterday I visited Ulm Cathedral in Germany. At 568 ft high, its steeple is the tallest in the world. The sense of space inside the building is quite breathtaking, and the view from the top is, well, you’ll have to judge for yourself how well I coped with it..

Fortunately, no humans were splattered on in the course of making this photo, but it’s the intention that I have a problem with.

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