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I have a small favour to ask.
If you read this blog, please say hi in the comments below.
I’m thinking of changing to a new blog name (but staying with WordPress).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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..