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1) I had The Talk with my 11 year old son last night. I think I did well and I got some great questions from him. We talked about lots of stuff: DNA, puberty, the menstrual cycle, conception, contraception, XY chromasomes, how twins come about and teenage pregnancy. It was wide ranging and after a few brief factoids, I let him direct the conversation, to ask any question he wished. The only confusion that happened was when he couldn’t understand how eating a condom each month would help prevent conception. I had to go over that one with him one more time.

2) I have been suffering from a large mouth ulcer that has been lodged in the back of my throat over the past week. It is near the opening to my inner ear, so I have had an earache as well as a bad sore throat. I went to the doctor and I was prescribed antibiotics, which in hindsight was a fairly poor diagnosis. What I had was viral, not bacterial. It’s as useful as throwing a life-belt onto a road to help in a car accident.

3) I went for a medical test yesterday. The results indicate that I need to make some big lifestyle changes regarding diet and exercise. This is no surprise to me, but given my current daily and weekly routines, not to mention my love-affair with high cholesterol food and lack of exercise opportunities during the week, I am not sure where I start. It’s a huge challenge for me. Huge. No, really.

4) On the plus side, I had a meeting with my dermatologist and the result is terrific. Over four years, no recurrence and nothing suspicious looking on my skin. It means I’m now out of the danger zone. Long may it last.

If there is one thing that defines humanity, it is our beliefs. We all have beliefs. Beliefs about God, health, death, the government or our purpose in life, among many others. Beliefs can rule our lives. They can be shared and replicated amongst billions. They can persist for thousands of years, passing from parents to children, generation after generation. Beliefs can be sensible, such as the world being round, or certifiably insane, such as a world dominated by lizard people. People will kill, maim and die because of their beliefs.

Beliefs do not require facts. They can exist in our heads, completely separated from reality. Most beliefs are wrong, either completely or in part. Furthermore, most people accept that beliefs can be wrong. All they have to do is to read a newspaper, listen to other people, or turn on the TV. It is ironic then, how convinced so many people are that their own beliefs are perfectly right. They will often cling to them as if their lives depended on them, and no amount of evidence or argument will change their views.

Beliefs are strange. They are simultaneously fragile yet unremittingly tenacious. They are products of our psychological make-up. Where we acquired such mechanisms is hidden in the depths of time.

Why is it that beliefs are so difficult to get rid of? Why is it so rare to hear someone saying “ah, yes, I was wrong about all that”. How often have you heard someone admitting that their most strongly held beliefs were a load of baloney?

Perhaps beliefs are investments. The bigger your personal stake in your belief, the more you are likely to lose: reputation, friends, money, influence. You must, therefore, defend your beliefs at all costs. It could be that the consequences of not having closely held beliefs are too difficult to countenance. Maybe we defend our beliefs because they are held by people we respect and we cannot ever imagine them ever being wrong. Possibly we are fooled by confirmation bias, a well known psychological effect where our brains filter out contradictory our viewpoints. Or it could be that we just don’t like thinking about things so much.

Beliefs should never be sacrosanct. All beliefs should be challenged, allowing the well supported ones to thrive, while the flimsier ones are discarded. Beliefs that need threats to survive are the ones in most need of analysis and criticism. Poorly supported beliefs prevent us from learning and progressing. They can cause conflicts where no conflict should exist. If beliefs were more easily discarded perhaps this world wouldn’t have so many problems.

Have you ever had a set of beliefs that you subsequently relinquished? What caused the rethink? Why didn’t you discard them earlier? How did you feel about losing your beliefs?

“I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”

– Roger Ebert
(via Pharyngula)

I’m finally back from my world travels, having flown a distance of 18,000 km in the past ten days. My travels took me to Texas and Germany with a short stop in London. It’s been quite an experience. I have learned many things, such as:

1) To be very careful when booking flights with British Airways. If you try to change your booking within 24 hours of travel (even if the reason is legitimate, such as a freakin’ snowstorm), they will do everything in their power to stonewall you. I arrived in at 7.30 am into Heathrow and when I tried to get an earlier flight to Stuttgart than the 18.45 flight I was booked on, I was met with indifferent shrugs, middle-distance stares and a definite feeling that I was the bad guy for even daring to ask. I was happy to travel on standby, but that option was shut down straight away. I’m pretty certain that neither of the two earlier flights to Stuttgart that Saturday left with a full complement of passengers, but how could that possibly be their problem? That would be penetrating the bureaucracy, now, wouldn’t it?

2) Texans (at least the ones I met) are mindbogglingly polite and helpful. You could go nowhere without a “Can I help you?” or an “I beg your pardon” coming from somewhere. I have to put in a special mention to the American Airlines ground staff in Austin, who worked from 4 am to 7 pm on Thursday to ensure that all their passengers were taken care of. Almost every flight to Dallas had been cancelled and stress levels were stratospheric, but nevertheless these people worked wonders while keeping their sense of humour intact.

3) German people speak to each other in lifts, even if they don’t know each other. Now that’s just plain weird. Elevators are designed to make you feel enormously self-conscious and inadequate. This talking thing just isn’t playing by the rules.

4) When flying there is only one true currency: access to an electric power outlet. The more gadgets we carry around, the fewer chances we have to recharge. Methinks books are very safe.

5) I can now sleep on transatlantic flights! Actually, I can sleep on all sorts of flights! All they need to do is turn on the engines and pfffft, I’m out. This can mean only one thing. I’m getting OLD.

This is the second posting in my 2019 time capsule series, where I consider how the questions of the present will be viewed in 10 years time or afterwards. Today, I’m going to focus on space, and some of the big questions that may well have convincing answers within the next decade.

Dark Matter

Dark matter in the observable UniverseWe look into the skies and we try to understand why the universe acts as it does. Unfortunately some of our biggest questions don’t have good answers. We resort to placeholders such as “dark matter” and “dark energy” to explain why galaxies spin the way they do, why the universe seems to be expanding at an accelerating rate, and other conundrums that make little sense to us with our conventional models of the world. With the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider, it it possible that answers may be found and that our understanding of the world will need to be rewritten within the next 10 to 20 years. What progress will we have made by 2019?

Extraterrestrial Life

ET DNAThe Earth is the only place we know of that contains life. Our planet is saturated with living organisms: from the deepest undersea valleys to the highest mountaintops; the rims of the hottest volcanoes to the frozen wastes of Antarctica. Life came into being only a few hundred million years after the Earth itself formed and somehow managed to survive the hellishness of our world’s early existence. Life is pretty rugged. And yet, we know of no other place: no planet, no moon, no comet or asteroid, where life is present. But there are hints. Methane, water and microfossils on Mars, ice volcanos on Europa and Enceladus. Who knows what we may find? Probes are being developed as we speak. Will we discover, as some think, that life is not just confined to one small planet, but is virtually everywhere?

Tomorrow: Technology.

via europa.eu

via europa.eu

 

 1989. What a year.

Tiananmen Square. The Salman Rushdie affair. Exxon Valdez. Poll Tax in the UK. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Solidarity winning the Polish elections. The flight of people into the West from Hungary. The freeing of the Guildford Four. The end of the Berlin Wall. The Velvet Revolution. The fall of Ceaucescu.

In one mere year the world had changed utterly. 

It was like that in my life too. In 1989 I turned 21. I was in my last year in college, I got my driving license and I travelled to the USA for the first time, on a wonderful four-month work visa in Ohio. A year later and I had a major career decision made – one that influences what I do to this day. I would be in Belfast, doing some real work, gaining new friends, traveling to far flung places and looking upon life with a very different set of beliefs compared to the preceeding decades. 

What is truly odd is how recent it still feels to me. As if it were just yesterday. In a sense, I feel that little enough has changed about me since then. The things that enthused me then still occupy my mind now. I’m pretty sure that if I was blogging back then that I would be writing about much the same things as I write about now. If I were to write down my personal interests and fascinations, many of them would date back precisely to this period in my life. It’s as if a flowering took place then, and I have spent most of the rest of my life building upon its foundations. 

Of course I have changed in many ways. I know lots more. I understand myself better. I have much greater responsibilities. I know what love, loss and fatherhood means. I have had my setbacks, and I have learned to take them on the chin. There are a few more grey hairs, blotches and scars, but these are the inevitable external factors associated with the passing years. Deep down, I am essentially the same man who emerged from adolescence those twenty years ago. 

It’s scary. I strongly believe that  life is all about personal development and growth, and yet it’s stunning to observe how little my thinking has moved on since I first moved into adulthood. I’d like to feel that during the next 20 years (should I be lucky enough to experience them) that I can develop  myself in surprising and different ways. As I am learning however, this may be quite a formidable challenge.

Some of you are aware that, these last few weeks, I have been going through a health-crisis that had the potential to change my life dramatically. One minute everything was plain sailing, the next minute I was plunged into a world of anxiety, where control over my future had been placed, quite literally, into the hands of other people.

I’m glad to report that I was given some good news over the weekend. Hopefully now, I can put these events behind me, even if it means that I need to face the future somewhat more tentatively than I did in the past.

I have been overwhelmed by the goodness in people who heard about what I was going through. Friends, family members, colleagues and Internet friends all conveyed their concern in different ways. Many people, I know, felt more worried than I did myself. They reacted to my news in a way that often surprised me. I could see in their faces, their tone of voice and the words they used, that it affected them on an emotional level that I haven’t quite managed to reach myself.

How did I get through it? Simple really. I didn’t get a chance to think about it. It all happened far too quickly. Over the coming days and weeks, maybe I’ll have more time on my hands to consider how this little soupçon of mortality has affected me. I’m beginning to appreciate that my time on this incredible planet, with all its fascinating fellow travellers and its sights, sounds and stories, is very brief indeed.

This is going to be a crazy week.

I am back in work in Dublin today, trying to compress a full week’s work into one day. Then I have an internal training conference to attend on Wednesday and Thursday. On Friday I have to be down in Cork to meet my doctor (and hopefully get the thumbs up), and then I scoot back up to Dublin so that I can attend my graduation ceremony!

And all this could change in an instant..

The whole experience of my Masters results has taught me to be suspicious of reasons and justifications, even when they seem blindingly obvious.

Had things not gone well with my thesis, I would have been able to fall back on a some very plausible reasons as to why I did not succeed. People would have understood, sympathised and consoled. I would have had a convenient comfort-blanket at hand to justify my failure. No-one would have been any the wiser, including myself.

The thing is, though, that I succeeded despite these set-backs. The obstacles put in my way were not, in themselves, sufficient reasons for failure. Huge though they were, they didn’t stop me from getting such high honours.

What I have learned, therefore, is that it is sometimes possible to succeed despite external adversity. Blaming other people or the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune is not always the most honest means of justifying failure. Often, perhaps, failure comes from within.

That’s a very good thing, too. Failure from within provides an opportunity to learn. While I can’t always do much about what happens around me, when it comes to me and my behaviour, change is possible.

I think I have learned more from this experience than just the subject I studied.

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