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.

via Hawkes77 / Flickr / CC Licensed

Like many people, I was stuck to my computer on Friday as the news about Hosni Mubarak’s departure from the political stage was announced in Cairo.

The Egyptian protestors deserve worldwide acclaim by the way they conducted themselves. Some have said they deserve a Nobel Prize, and I wholeheartedly agree. It’s rare enough to see those qualities we all aspire to on display: courage, dignity, resilience, the refusal to stay silent in the face of injustice and a single-minded yearning for the freedoms many of us take for granted.

Yesterday, the young people of Egypt gave the world a timely reminder that they are not so different to the rest of us. At the core, they want the same things as us, and who are we to tell them they can’t have them, purely as a result of an accident of birth?

This is the beauty of democracy. Although it’s no panacea: corruption, economic collapse, inequality and injustice do not respect political forms; it nevertheless gives people a say in the way their country is run, it entitles them to have their say, no matter how unpalatable the message, and it keeps would-be autocrats at bay. It demands that bloodless coups – free elections – become part of the woodwork, so that the powerful can never outstay their welcome. To our great shame, we in the democratised lands have looked blithely askance when questioning why it shouldn’t be available to everyone in the world, not just in the so-called West. Wasn’t it from similar tyrannies that many of our own democracies originated?

It is important for us all that the Egyptians are given our full support as they transition to democracy. The same is true for Tunisia and the other soon-to-be-freed nations of the Middle East and North Africa. History is slowly moving our world in the direction of democratic freedom for all.

Last Friday, RTE’s Late Late Show invited Patrick Holford, a “pioneer in the area of health and nutrition” to talk to people about how to beat depression. It’s an interesting choice of expert because Patrick Holford has no academically recognised qualifications in the treatment of depression and has spent much of his career building up his health food and vitamin pill business. He has been the source of much controversy. Holford has claimed that AZT (a drugs cocktail used to combat AIDS) is less effective than Vitamin C and has been pulled up by the advertising standards authority in the UK for making unsubstantiated claims. In a nutshell, he isn’t the type of “expert” you want to be to rolling out when discussing something as serious and damaging as depression.

Using RTE Player I went through some of the claims Holford makes during the interview, and as it happens, many of the claims check out. There are studies around that have shown a beneficial link between fish oils and depression. There are studies that show a positive correlation between Vitamin D and seasonal depression. There are studies that link mood to obesity. Holford conveniently ties these studies into a single thesis: that what we eat is the most significant link in causing and treating depression, when many decades of clinical research would present a very different view. In other words, it’s just a confident sales pitch: read my book, eat the foods I suggest and you will feel better. Maybe it will and maybe it won’t; such is the power of the placebo effect; but in reality it falls far short of a comprehensive solution to the problems of depression.

Depression really is a grind. It differs from bad mood because it is not easy to get rid of and the depths of despair reached people inflicted by it. It can last for days, weeks, months, even years. No magic bullet has yet been found and it appears to differ greatly from person to person. There are lots of probable reasons and many treatments. It is one of the most widespread illnesses in society and is tipped to be the second leading cause of disability by 2020. Many of the most effective weapons against it (antidepressants, psychotherapy, electroconvulsive therapy) remain unpopular and stigmatised, often by the very same groups that promote healthy eating and mineral supplements. In the battle against depression what is most important are treatments that work, not ones we would like to work.

We need a serious discussion about depression in this country, not just a sales pitch by a vitamin pill vendor.

Since I started Cork Skeptics, I have had some feedback that “people were getting concerned about me”, as if that they thought I was going to be the next Jim Corr, or something. Oy vey.

So let me be very clear.

  • I don’t believe that UFO’s (in terms of aliens) exist or have ever visited us. The vast majority of sightings are explicable.
  • I am skeptical of most alternative medicine and alternative medical therapies.
  • I think Astrology is a load of rubbish.
  • I think the anti-vaccine people have very little to support their arguments and that they are putting children and vulnerable adults at risk.
  • Homeopathy is too dilute to have any effect. Save your money.
  • I don’t believe in an afterlife, ghosts, apparitions or spiritualism.
  • I don’t believe that there are great conspiracies “out there”. In fact, most of them stink to high heaven. Incompetence explains far more and we’re not that great at keeping secrets.
  • I don’t believe that prayer or meditation has any external effect whatsoever.
  • I don’t believe people can predict the future (above and beyond the use of mathematical algorithms for forecasting), or that they can read minds or any of the other stuff so-called psychics claim to be able to do.
  • I don’t believe that dowsing works. Look up the “ideomotor effect”.
  • I don’t believe that the climate skeptics / deniers have any way proven their case. The evidence is weighted on the side of man-made global warming, and yes, we should be concerned.
  • Creationism? Don’t get me started. It’s delusional. It would be a complete joke except for the fact that a large section of people in the most powerful country in the world accept it on faith. That’s worrying.

There’s plenty more where that comes from.

What do I believe?

  • I accept that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming.
  • I accept that modern medicine has provided us with truly incredible breakthroughs: vaccination, antibiotics, anti-rejection drugs, to name but a few.
  • I believe that human psychology explains a great deal about how we all can be fooled and mislead, and how otherwise intelligent people can be lead down rat-holes.
  • I am not cynical about people. Most people are honest and earnest in our work, our interests and our dreams for the future. I believe that people have been capable of extraordinary achievements and that such events should be celebrated, not derided.
  • I believe we all make mistakes. Mistakes give us an opportunity to learn something new.
  • There are not “two sides of the story” when it comes to established facts. Flat Earth theory is not “an alternative viewpoint”. It’s just plain wrong. Ditto most alt-med, creationism, etc.
  • I think we could all do with a course in critical thinking and a better understanding of logical fallacies.
  • I am willing to be proven wrong.
  • I think we should learn more about probability and statistics. One in a million chances, hell, one in a billion chances will occur, given a big enough population size.
  • I am passionate about education. It should never stop. We always have something to learn.
  • I accept that our knowledge of many things is woefully incomplete. We have a lot more to understand and hopefully, some day we will get there. I would like to see Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s cured in the morning. There is so much we just don’t know, and it’s tragic. I am comforted however, in knowing that there are people out there who have dedicated their careers to solving these terrible problems.

So bottom line? I am fully behind that apparently humdrum, but often surprising and beautiful thing we call reality. If people are getting concerned about that, well, I’m not sure what else I can say.

 

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.

2010 will go down as one of the most disastrous years since statehood for our country. Many will be thankful it is gone. Strangely enough, 2010 turned out to be a surprisingly good year for me. Borrowing an idea from my friend Linda, here are some of my highlights:

The trip to the Nordlingen and Steinheim craters.

My son running in a blizzard in Derry.

Twitter.

My Astronomy entry on WordPress that got thousands of views each day.

C’s surgeries and the pain and worry that followed.

TAM London 2.

Setting up Cork Skeptics in the Castle.

B and E’s wedding.

Hochgrat, Lake Constance and Ulm.

My two podcasts for the 365 Days of Astronomy.

The Saltee Islands.

42.

Sherkin Island and getting electrocuted on Cape Clear.

Climbing Slievenamon with my twins.

The drive back from Germany to Cork.

New responsibilities in Toastmasters.

My trip to Austin, Texas and the chaotic trip home.

Kites on Mount Leinster.

The boiler breaking down.

Climbing the Galtees in the snow.

Blogging for Blackrock Castle.

Helping to set up a new Toastmasters Club.

Moving apartments.

The Dead Zoo.

My daughter’s big day.

Doing the rounds with my better presentation speech.

I am thankful most of all for my wonderful kids, my girlfriend, my family, and all my friends. 2010 had a lot of ups and downs but looking back, the experiences were ones to cherish. Roll on 2011.

The day turned out to be wet and misty, so instead of our planned hillwalk we ended up walking the Glenshelane Forest Trail near Cappoquin, Co. Waterford. “Glenshelane” translates into “Valley of the Fairies” and with its meandering streams and moss covered trees there is something magical about the place (or at least the parts that have not been the subject of recent tree-felling).

By accident, we ended up at a place called Melleray Grotto. It’s a strange place. Nestled beside a bridge across the Monavugga river, the grotto has a large shelter and car-park in addition to the usual statues of Mary and St. Theresa. According to the signs and leaflets there, three children saw multiple apparitions of the Virgin Mary there in 1985, the same year as the moving statues phenomenon in Ireland.

The children reported seeing Noah, Jesus and the Devil among other biblical characters. According to them, Mary spoke to them on a number of occasions. The free leaflet provides us with a transcript of what she said: pronouncements like “I Want Prayer” and “The World Must Improve” – not exactly the most inspirational of stuff. She even went on to predict a great cataclysm in 1995. Unless I am much mistaken, this did not happen in 1995, or am I wrong? (Ah, but of course, there was that matter of a divorce referendum…).

I was left with the distinct impression that the whole thing was a hoax or a prank that went somewhat out of control, or perhaps the exploitation of people who might have been in need of professional medical help. Over the period of the “visions”, thousands of people descended on the place, just as they were doing in similar places around the country.

On the seats nearby was a Catholic newspaper that seemed gave the distinct impression of a religion on the ropes; as if they had rounded up the wagon train and all you could see, looking from the outside, were guns pointing at you. Everyone becomes their target – atheists, secularists, liberal Christians, Muslims, anyone who does not sign up to their strict interpretation of Christianity. This is fine, I guess, for preserving intact the worldview of the faithful, but useless as a vehicle for attracting new recruits. The paper is full of anger, bitterness and despair for the future.

It’s a ramshackle place where one’s common understanding of the world takes a somersault, to be replaced by arcane stories and apparent miracles. A place where normal critical thinking takes a vacation. Not so different, I would think, to Hindu shrines half a continent away, with their votive candles, petitions and magical holy water. The pleas and prayers are sodden with desperation and agony. Rather than making people more comfortable about their troubles, I wonder if it only makes things worse by assigning an agent, a conscious cause, to their suffering. If their problems – serious illness or  a bereavement  say – were caused by a conscious agent, then you will never stop asking why and no answers will ever come. That’s not comfort in my book.

The Grottos is an odd, fascinating and somewhat sad place: a distinct throwback to the Middle Ages and an insight into the power and irrationality of human belief.

Tonight I am performing cutting-edge science. I am searching for planets revolving around stars some quadrillions of kilometres from here. My equipment? A laptop and an Internet connection. The cost? Just a bit of my time. The possible benefit? Contributing to discovery of entirely new worlds.

On December 16th, a new project – Planet Hunters – was put online. The aim is simple. You are given a whole series of light curves (graphs) from different stars, and your mission – should you choose to accept it – is to identify anything that might indicate a planet crossing in front of its parent star. It’s easy to learn. In a few minutes you can be searching for far-away planets like an expert.

Planet Hunters uses data from a satellite known as Kepler, whose job it is to study hundreds of thousands of stars over an extended period, looking for signs of planets crossing in front of their parent stars. Planets are very dim compared to stars, so they are almost impossible to detect visually. However if they happen to cross in front of a star, the light from that star decreases momentarily. This decrease can be picked up by powerful telescopes and it is these occurrences that Kepler is keeping a lookout for.

That’s where we citizen scientists come in. Many of these small drops in brightness are not easily detectable by computers. Humans are good pattern recognisers, so we can often see anomalies that a computer might not recognise. Searching through the light curves for transiting planets is a bit like finding a needle in a haystack. The planet, the star and the Earth need to line up exactly, so only a small percentage of stars are likely to show anything of interest, even if they have planets revolving around them. If enough stars are sampled however, new planets will certainly be discovered. Some scientists reckon that Kepler will quadruple the number of exoplanets known to us. We currently know of 700 planets revolving around stars other than our sun.

What hit me about searching were the many different types of light curves available. Many stars are relatively uniform, but others show complex variations and rapid fluctuations. The picture below gives you an indication of some of the star patterns I came across today.

So far in my searches I have come across a few patterns that may indicate a planetary transit. The software permits you to tag and highlight possible candidates. The same pattern is shown simultaneously to other users, so that comparisons can be made and observation errors reduced. If many people are tagging the same feature, then it is likely that something interesting is going on. Having us “citizen scientists” involved is of huge benefit to the real scientists,who would otherwise need to sort through a deluge of data.

Here are my 4 best candidates from my searches so far. They may turn out to be nothing of importance, but in any case for a few hours searching it’s been a fascinating introduction to the world of planetary discovery.

via NASA Earth Observatory

One of the things about living in Ireland is that we rarely get that much snow. In most areas it usually arrives in the depths of winter – January or February maybe – stays for about a day and then disappears again. Apart from one day last year, my kids have never woken up to snow outside their home. It’s curious because Ireland has a very high latitude on this planet. We share the same distance from the equator as Moscow, Edmonton, Gander and other bitterly cold and ice-bound places on the planet. The reason, of course, is the North Atlantic Drift: a current of warm oceanic water originating off the coast of Florida. The warm waters off our coast and prevailing northwesterly winds normally keep temperatures well above zero for most of the year.

Not so this year. A high pressure area over the North Atlantic has served us with frosty Arctic air for the best part of two weeks now. Snow, almost unheard of in November, covered most of the island with the east of the country getting a particularly thorough battering. My mother in Kilkenny is housebound and my sister in Wales was unable to come home for a wedding this weekend because of near blizzard conditions in Waterford.

Much to the disappointment of my children, Cork was spared from the snow. Snow was threatened yesterday morning but instead we got drenched by icy rain. It froze instantly to the roads, briefly turning the whole city into a massive skating rink.

NASA’s Aqua satellite took this wonderful photo of Ireland on Thursday. You can clearly see the snow clouds pasting the east coast of Ireland before venturing out into the Celtic Sea. The mid-West of Ireland, from Clare to Cork, remained relatively unscathed, while seven-foot deep snow was reported in the Wicklow mountains.

A winter to remember, for sure.

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