This year has to be one of the most uncertain years in living memory, what with Trump and Mueller, Nazis and Ultra-Nats, Mexican Walls and corruption on an epic scale, Yellow Jackets, cyber disinformation campaigns and stock market wobbles. Meanwhile Putin schemes from the Kremlin, while Turkey, China, Brazil and Saudi Arabia practice their own form of heavy diplomacy in a world with no real leadership anymore. The ghastly mess of Brexit ooses its way towards a conclusion of sorts – what that is we don’t know, but it’s likely to make a lot of people very angry.

William Gibson couldn’t have dreamt it up if he tried. Everything seems to be in flux at the moment. I wish you a happy New Year, but I fear we’re in for a very rough ride.

Apologies for the paucity of postings this year. I’ve been remiss on my 2019 anniversaries (for what it’s worth – it’s of interest to almost nobody other than myself) and I’ve yet to start collecting my favorite photos for the year. There are many explanations for this, and none. I’ve had something of a writer’s block over the past few months with a brief visit of the black dog during the latter part of the year. I’m ok, but many things I’ve been passionate about in previous years are not as strong this year. Ebbs and flows.

I wanted to write about something I’ve been mulling over these past days: my ancestry, and in particular my paternal ancestry. My father’s father’s father’s father’s line, and on back into antiquity. I could choose any combination of course – my father’s mother’s father’s mother for example, but the male parental line is perhaps the most obvious one, with the dubious benefit of maintaining the family name, at least for a few generations.

Who were these people? I don’t know. Prior to a farmer called Richard who lived in the mid nineteenth century (my great great great grandfather), I am clueless as to who any of them were, how they lived or where they came from.

I can surmise a few things.

1) They lived and survived through the roughest times in Ireland: the famines, the plagues, the penal times and the various scourings of the country by the English. Throughout all these calamities they survived, at least long enough to have had a male child, who himself was healthy enough to have children. It’s a pretty amazing feat given how often Ireland was devastated in the past centuries.

2) There were always just a few of them around at any one time: probably three (son, father, grandfather), often maybe just two of them or even one, in rare cases four. But nevertheless, just a handful of individuals- in any age – making up this paternal line. Faces in a crowd. Perhaps they were famous. More than likely, not.

3) We share the same Y chromosome, more or less. Y chromosomes don’t change much. They get passed down the male parent line almost intact from generation to generation. Interestingly, there are probably quite a few men around today who are related to me via the many brothers of some of these men. The mutations that do occur must be very revealing. I wonder have there been any studies on this, and what it tells us about the dynamics of the Irish ancestral population?

4) Although the surname typically gets passed down through the male line, amongst certainly, there was a break. An opportunistic scoundrel or just a chance encounter and a resulting pregnancy. The name then perhaps skipped into a different family with a different name. I wonder when this happened, and in the last thousand years, how many times?

5) Then there’s all the inbreeding: in how many ways does my ancestry lead back to this same parental line? In a small country like Ireland, this is probably more than I might allow myself to imagine.

A narrow line of individuals. Sons, fathers, grandfathers. All living lives that cannot easily be imagined. Nevertheless, real people, who bore witness to all the great events of their time. Each with their own problems, worries, hopes and concerns; now lost to time. All connected to me. I have so many questions.

Happy New Year.

My biggest worry? All this will end in war.

When people lose their senses and descend into conspiratorial thinking, when it’s all heat and little light, when the other side is the enemy, when people can agree on nothing, pushing through their agenda, irrespective of the consequences and the harm caused, when peacemakers are ridiculed and populists lauded, it seems the only way our species manages such situations is with violence. Terrible violence.

A few weeks before 1914, few would have imagined that the world would descend into total war. If the American Civil War had not broken out, few lives would have been threatened. People killed each other by the hundreds of thousands, because of different ideas of freedom, and not fear of annihilation.

We simply don’t seem to have the structures or faculties to pull ourselves away from the brink. No way of calming the fires or seeing the bigger picture. When it comes to fear, paranoia and hatred, our institutional frameworks are found sadly wanting.

I hope I’m wrong about all this. I really hope I’m totally mistaken.

I have hazy memories of the Pope’s visit to Ireland in 1979. The early morning start, the huge lines of traffic on the road to Dublin, the long walk to Chapelizod, the corrals, the Papal stage in the far distance, the great tents, the popemobile and the vast, vast crowd. It’s the crowd that I remember the most. There were periscopes on sale that helped me get an idea of the vastness of it all. As a ten year old, I was only allowed on my dad’s shoulders for a moment, but what I saw has stayed with me.

It’s different this time. A different pope. A different age. I’m a different person. I don’t have many thoughts on his trip. I’m not travelling to see him. There is no message he can give that will have any effect on me or my family. He represents a corrupt, arch-conservative organisation that has held back progress – particularly for women and gay people – for decades; an organisation that still refuses to take proper responsibility for the abuse scandal unleashed on children around the world; an organisation whose involvement in health and education comes with a high price tag. It’s long past the day when health, education and social welfare should be the prerogative of non-governmental organisations pursuing their own narrow agendas.

So, no. I’m staying put, like many of my fellow Irish people. If he reminds people to be better humans to each other, all the well. If he asks them to be better Catholics, well, there’s better ways to spend your time.

If someone was born in Jan 1, 1900 they would have been around for the first plane flight, the first commercial radio broadcasts, votes for women, the sinking of the Titanic, the First World War, the rise of communism, the end of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, the rise of the motor car, jazz music, antibiotics, Hollywood, plastics, the Wall Street Crash, fascism, the Second World War, the Holocaust, atomic weapons, the Cold War, the welfare state, television, the end of colonialism, American hegemony, domestic equipment, rock and roll, jet liners, satellites, the death of JFK, the contraceptive pill, men on the moon, the oil crises, terrorism, the killing fields of Cambodia, closeup photos of the gas giants, personal computers, IVF, the transformation of the office, the end of communism, mobile phones, and the internet.

We’re only 18 years into the 21st Century and we’re shocked by Brexit and Trump. If the last century is anything to go by, we’ve seen nothing yet.

I’ve been following a discussion on Meetup.com where a guy is alleging that we are not true sceptics. I think his point is that we are far too pro-establishment and that a real sceptic has to be anti-establishment, almost by definition.I think this comment gets straight to a core difference between science-based sceptics (us lot) and conspiracy based sceptics. Conspiracy based sceptics seem to me to distrust claims from official sources, or at least the official sources that they have an ideological bent against. They take it as given that “the establishment” is lying to us, and therefore it is important to be sceptical of everything they say. Science-based sceptics are distrustful of any claim where there is no evidence to back it up. These are very different starting positions.The conspiracy position seems tempting. Official sources lying to us might seem quite reasonable at times. There are plenty of examples where that has indeed been the case. However it seems to me to be a very flawed position. They indicate that because someone is from a particular group, then they must be lying, irrespective of the content of what they are trying to say. Apart from this being a classic ad hominem attack, I can think of many situations where official sources have told the truth. I can also think of plenty of situations where anti-establishment folks have told bald-faced lies. So, being establishment or anti-establishment is no real indicator of whether you are speaking to reality, or telling pork pies. You have to assess the evidence as it exists.If conspiracy based sceptics will agree that official sources sometimes tell the truth, then what is their barometer for distinguishing between truth and lies? It doesn’t seem to me they have any real way to do this. The tendency is to look for an even bigger lie, so that their initial position can be preserved. This creates an enormous rat hole – and a vastly irrational rat hole at that – lies upon lies upon lies: a vast edifice built on nothing but suspicion and distrust.Conspiracy based scepticism is seductive, to be sure, but ultimately, it’s an irrational ideological position, and a dangerously misleading one at that.I want to contrast this with science based scepticism, which is about discovering the truth of a claim based on available evidence. Whether that evidence comes from official sources is neither here nor there. What matters is whether the evidence is good. Science based sceptics will accept official sources when the evidence is there, and reject it when it’s not. Sometimes, official bodies can be quite good with evidence: particularly when reputation and integrity are important, and concerns about public repercussions are high. Sometimes, determining the truth in a situation requires specialist skills and detailed scientific knowledge, something only professional bodies may have access to.One thing that science based scepticism has, that conspiracy based scepticism does not have, is a proper barometer. If evidence arises that supports a position previously dismissed, then the science based sceptic must assess it on its merits. If supporting evidence is shown to be wrong or fraudulent, then the sceptic must assess this too, potentially changing their minds based on it. Science based sceptics have to be willing to change their positions based on changes in the evidence base. They have to be able to admit that they might sometimes get things wrong.As a science based sceptic, I am ok with official bodies making claims, so long as those claims are based on good science and good evidence. I an also ok with non-official groups making claims, when those claims are based on good science and evidence. I am not ok with official bodies making claims when those claims are made up. I am also not ok with non-official groups doing likewise. Even if an official organisation is involved with something I might disagree with, I still must listen when they make properly supported claims. For me, it’s all about the claim and its supporting evidence, and less about the people making it – and that’s where science based sceptics are very different to conspiracy based sceptics.

I’m spending a lot of time with Affinity Photo these last few weeks – originally looking at how to improve my portrait photos on the iPhone, but now looking at trees and buildings. I’m experimenting with methods of isolation – removing the subject from the foreground and placing it on a complementary, neutral background. It’s trickier than it seems, particularly when it comes to trees and plants – the complexity is immense. I’ve been working on selection refinement and feathering as ways to reduce complexity and to allow the subject to sit well with it’s background with no jagged edges.

Here’s a selection of photos I’ve been working with. I took all of them over a single hour last week in Castlemartyr Resort in Ireland, and I’ve since been working on extracting them from their backgrounds. Castlemartyr Resort has some stunning trees for me to work on.

Oak Tree, Castlemartyr

Oak tree, Castlemartyr Resort

Pine Trees, Castlemartyr Resort

Pine Trees, Castlemartyr Resort

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Spruce tree, Castlemartyr Resort

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Monkey Puzzle, Castlemartyr Resort

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Irish Yew, Castlemartyr Resort

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Mixed trees, Castlemartyr Resort

Lastly, a photo of the castle on the hotel grounds.

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I hope you like them.

Over the last few weeks, I have been listening to Neil MacGregor’s terrific “Living with the Gods” BBC podcast. It has helped me to reconsider some of my views on religion and belief.

The podcast is wonderful, in that it brings you on an audio journey to places and peoples across the world. You name it, it’s there – from the dank caves of southern Germany, to the sacrificial pyramids of Aztec Mexico, to the great Kumbh Mela festival in India. Newgrange is mentioned, as is the Angelus that booms out on Irish radio each day. It considers the symbolism in religion, the common rituals, the public displays and private moments, and the relationship of religion to the exercise of power. It takes all these disparate elements and synthesizes them into a concrete, powerful narrative.

What I hear from all this is that religion is core to who we are. In all religions, our own nature is echoed back. It is a mirror, reflecting our greatest fears, our greatest needs and our hopes for the future. If you bypass the specific details of any one religion, you find the same needs there. These great longings are familiar to so many of us.

Religion doesn’t even need gods or supernatural agencies. We’ve seen in the last century the damaging power of secular belief systems gone awry. It seems that people will reach out for anything that gives them a sense of security, purpose and answers. God is just one alternative among many.

Such a pity it is that the details become so important. People will kill and die over the minutiae of their own faiths. Wars have started over trivial differences, people executed and tortured for not adhering to the orthodoxy of the day. Even today, so many people take delight in disparaging other people’s religions (and I’ve been one of them) to the point that demagogues can exact discriminatory laws and great injustices can take place with nary a whisper. Behind the details, we forget that at the core of much belief is something entirely understandable: something quintessentially human.

Such a pity that more people don’t reach out to understand religious practices elsewhere around the world, because the impression to be formed is that no matter where we are or who we are, there is a commonality that runs through us all. Having no religion or being inquisitive within one’s own religion, may be advantageous in this regard.

Thought is given in the podcast to life without religion. This is possibly the least satisfying part of the series, as it suggests that it’s unsustainable in the long run. At the end of the series, MacGregor makes the bold statement that we run the risk of society breaking up completely – this is something I would have wanted to understand more. Personally, I see many people making a good fist of living without gods or the traditional rituals of yesteryear. I don’t see how humanistic societies can’t operate for the success and happiness of their peoples: the record of countries like Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands is a case in point. Even Ireland is a happier place now that we have allowed God to fade into the background. Perhaps such states of affairs are unsustainable and perhaps communities are in peril, but at least a counter argument can be made in a world where we don’t now have to rely on revelation and traditional authority alone for matters of truth and belief.

Please give the podcast a go and let me know what you think.

In some ways, 2017 was a surprising year. I was expecting it to be all doom and gloom, and it certainly had its moments of awfulness, but lots of things happened and I’m surprised how much I managed to do over the year. Kids growing up: all teenagers now, some work trips to America and Singapore and a very enjoyable holiday in Wales. Day trips to Waterford and Kerry. Added to that were trips to see Brian Cox and Alt-J in Dublin, as well as hosting Professor Edzard Ernst here in Cork. I was busy at work though, and this resulted in me taking less photos and being less active online overall. I tend to get bored taking the same types of photo all the time.

Ballydowane, Co. Waterford

Ballydowane is a wonderful rocky cove near the coast road between Waterford and Tramore. It’s off the beaten track, but worth the spin. This tiny island is a regular subject of much local photography.  I took this photo in early January.

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Dromana Gate, Co. Waterford

Dromana Gate is located near Cappoquin, Co. Waterford. The gate is a Hindu-Gothic design originally built in wood and papier-mâché to celebrate the marriage in 1826 of Henry-Villiers Stuart and his wife Theresia Pauline Ott. It was later reconstructed in stone. It’s a fascinating structure – out of place for Ireland, yet a reminder of our varied cultural heritage.

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Pink Rock, near New Ross

I used to pass through this area of the country almost every week when I was a child. The River Barrow flows here, on its way to Waterford Harbour. It’s an area of steep ground and great views to New Ross and beyond to the Blackstairs mountains in Carlow. A large bridge is being built here at the moment, which will take traffic from Rosslare to Waterford, avoiding the narrow bridge in New Ross, which has been a bottleneck for decades.

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Fields of Barley, Co. Cork

During the summer, I took some photos in the fields close by the house. Some of them turned out well, I think.

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Lismore Castle

Lismore is a terrific place to go for a day out – the gardens are a real gem and the castle is such an imposing edifice over the Blackwater River. This photo was taken in May with the Rhododendrons in full bloom.

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Honeybee in flight

I took this photo with my iPhone in early June, patiently using burst photography to try to get the right shot. For a phone camera, the results worked out quite well.

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Coumshingaun Lake, Co. Waterford

In late June, I ventured with a group of friends into the Comeragh Mountains. We did the Coumshingaun Horseshoe. It’s one of my favourite walks in the country. A hard slog at the beginning, but it levels off quickly. The views are delightful.

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Waterford Greenway

This was the year we explored the Waterford Greenway properly – travelling over two different days the length of the route from Dungarvan to Waterford. It was fantastic. A relaxing journey, but not by any means trivial.  A great centrepiece of the Greenway is the viaduct in Kilmacthomas.

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Valentia Island, Co. Kerry

In July we travelled to Valentia Island in search of some of the largest tree-ferns in the country. We ended up in Glanleam house, walking through jungle paths, eventually breaking out to see some of the finest vistas Ireland has to offer. This picture was taken near the Tetrapod Trackway.

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Roche’s Point, Cork

On one of the summer days, we took a bike trip to Roche’s Point. This is the picturesque entry point to Cork Harbour, offering stunning views across to Crosshaven.

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Cardiff, Wales

I had a wonderful week with the kids in Wales. Cardiff Castle is one of my favourites – it dominates the city centre and it gives people an opportunity to walk through centuries of history. And what a history! Norman dungeons to gruesome medieval punishments.

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Stonehenge, England

I’ve wanted to go to Stonehenge for years. It’s one of the most iconic locations on Earth. And, right, it’s a busy place in summer – crowds of tourists everywhere. But I wasn’t prepared for the vast expanse around it, the barrows, the Cursus, the feeling that this area was a big deal millennia ago. A prehistoric Roman Forum, Mecca or Vatican City, of which no written clues have been left behind. If you are in England, I urge you to go.

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Bath, England

Bath is a city like no other. There is a deep sense of beauty in this Roman city, built of Jurassic stone. Modernity and great antiquity side by side with each other.

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Rhosilli Bay, Wales

I was here many years before, but I had forgotten how beautiful this place is. In the distance is Worm’s Head, a tidal island that’s connected to the mainland for a few hours each day.

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Silicon Valley, California

While Santa Clara valley is not the prettiest place, close by are areas of wonderful natural beauty. I was there in August, and one evening I took a trip up Sierra Road near Milpitas to watch the sun set over the valley. It was worth the drive.

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Shark Fin Cove, California

The Pacific Coast Highway is a favourite place of mine when I go to California. I always find something new on this route, and last August was no exception. This is Shark Fin Cove, not far from Santa Cruz.

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Comeragh Mountains, Waterford

The Gap is one of the most scenic walks in the Comeragh Mountains. Starting from the car park in the Nire Valley, it’s a relatively easy walk followed by a steep ascent to the plateau.

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Singapore

I was fortunate to be able to travel to Singapore again this year. It was so strange being in city so warm and humid when temperatures were in the single digits back home. After work, we would make a special effort to see different parts of the city. The area around the Marina Bay Sands and the Singapore River are particularly picturesque.

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So, quite a year last year, all said. Some great memories and interesting places visited.

Here’s to 2018.

It’s hopeless. There is no hope.

It’s hopeless imagining that white people will be the only people at the table, that other races will go back to doffing their caps to their supposed betters. That women will know their place and stay quiet behind their male superiors. That church authorities will rule over their wombs and their life choices. That love’s province must return exclusively to male with female.

There is no hope whatsoever that these days will return.

There is no hope that oil and coal will continue to power our lives and choke our lungs. No hope that we can persist in a myth of continuing to pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and our oceans with no consequences. No hope that polluters will not be judged harshly by history.

Those days are gone. They will never come back.

There is no hope that the young will simply fall silently in line with the edicts of a dying generation. There is no hope that the eager and educated across the world will remain content with second best. No hope that the way to compete with all this is to withdraw behind a high wall.

We are entering a new world. A world of racial and sexual equality. A world that increasingly sees itself as a single group of people, utterly dependent on the environment around them. When I look at teams of old rich religious white men wanting to set back the clocks, I see despair in their eyes. They are a minority of a minority of a minority of a minority, and they know it. Their only answer now is division, authoritarianism and bloody war. It’s pathetic. A futile attempt to turn back time.

I don’t know what the future will bring. I know that some nasty twists await as this story plays itself out. War, extremism, violence, repression, terrorism. It’s all there. It’s all possible. It’s not going to go smoothly.

But I know this. We’re not going back to the way it once was. It’s impossible. There’s not a hope in the world.

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