If you step outside

Of the International Space Station

With the planet spinning below you

At 17,500 miles per hour,

You will not fall to Earth;

The forces keeping it up

Apply to you too.

But if you push yourself away,

The Space Station just inches

From your grasp,

You cannot return;

There is nothing you can do

No arm movements,

No contortions,

No forward crawls;

You will gently slip away

Your salvation always in sight.

This is a terrifying thought.

What it must have been like to live in the Middle Ages. Though it’s often unfairly caricatured as a time when people knew nothing, there is a case to be made that these times were very different – a time when humanity was in its childhood.

The people of these times knew nothing much about nature, so they relied on stories and myths to explain it all. Religion was all powerful. Anyone who could set themselves apart as a mystic – who could somehow claim to know the unknowable – had a certain advantage over others. It explains why religion and power went hand in hand over the centuries and across so many cultures. The need to understand what was hidden from us provided a great market opportunity for charlatans and storytellers of all hues.

People were at the whim of natural forces in a way we find it difficult to fathom today. Storms, earthquakes and floods could take away your livelihood. A disease could wipe out your family overnight. Bad weather could cause great famine and wipe out communities. People lived their lives at the behest of forces they knew nothing about.

During medieval times, you could play the cynic and state that all things were unknowable. The systems of thought to pursue knowledge were in their infancy, so often truth boiled down to who told the best story and who had greater authority and power. Ultimately, everything was an opinion back then. Unless you were in some sort of technical area, building castles, bridges, mills or weapons of war, nobody knew anything.

Ultimately, the technicians won out, and the same processes of trial and error used by them started to be applied to all sorts of questions about the universe. Knowledge, now substantiated by experiment and evidence, got elevated over mere opinion. It was no longer so easy to play the cynic. We discovered that certain things were knowable. It wasn’t necessary to fall back on comforting fairytales anymore. We could use our newfound knowledge to create objects not found in nature, and to apply these to our own purposes. Today, planes fly above us, we can chat comfortably with someone in another part of the world, there is plenty of food on our tables and we have a better chance than ever to live healthily into old age.

The knowledge that supports this is often arcane. It involves particles traveling at light speeds, enormous nuclear forces, complex molecules performing coordinated activities, and mathematical formulas being played out billions of times simultaneously. There are no more simple stories to explain everything in our world. It’s just too complicated. Instead, we depend on lots of expertise and deep knowledge from specialists in their narrow, focused areas, often themselves relying on massive computers to grasp what’s going on. No one person can possibly understand in detail all there is to know.

We’re now in a place where the knowledge is available to explain many of the things we thought were mystical, but most of us have only the most tenuous understanding of it, if we understand it at all. Science has moved on, but our minds remain medieval. This is what we see when people deny evolution or global warming or vaccines, or they claim the earth is flat. They don’t understand the science or they refuse to understand, so they rebel against it.

We need to redouble our efforts to explain science, support science education and foster careers in science, otherwise our world could relapse into medievalism rather quickly, and we will be left alone in our caves, cursing the stormy night.

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

Image 26-02-2018 at 22.22

Spruce tree, Castlemartyr Resort

Image 03-03-2018 at 17.41

Monkey Puzzle, Castlemartyr Resort

Image 02-03-2018 at 10.55

Irish Yew, Castlemartyr Resort

Image 01-03-2018 at 22.18

Mixed trees, Castlemartyr Resort

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

Image 25-02-2018 at 22.23

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.

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