Archives for category: about me

I’ve been nominated by Belana and Quinie to list 7 things most people don’t know about me.

Gosh – this is a tough one. Rummaging through the trash of my memories and proclivities, it’s quite a challenge to come up with one thing, let alone seven. Anyhoo, here goes.

1) I hate parsnips. Hate, hate, hate. I’ve never liked them. As a child I also hated mushrooms, carrots and pickled beetroot, but I managed to control my disgust mechanisms. I will eat them without any concerns that I might be poisoned. But parsnips? NEVER.

2) I’m not much of a music fan, but I have a wide range of musical tastes. My music collection is full of songs that I have gleaned from Shazam and Internet radio stations. It’s mixture of samba, rap, female vocals, country and classical. Recent downloads include Missy Elliot, The Chemical Brothers, Florence and the Machine and Miserere Mei. Random as hell.

3) History is my thing, these days. I’m currently reading about the Battle of Waterloo. Other books in my collection include an abridged history of Russia, an abridged history of World War I, the story of Europe after World War II and Jesus Interrupted by Bart Ehrman.

4) I don’t do enough reading these days, so I often listen to podcasts on my way to work. My favourite podcasts are This American Life, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe and 99% Invisible. I also listen to the BBC History Extra podcast and RTE’s history podcast. Not Dan Carlin though. Man, you need lots of time for that.

5) For years I was involved with H2G2, a crazy yet fascinating online community loosely associated with Douglas Adams. My moniker is/was Woodpigeon. I wrote around 30 guide entries on all sorts of random subjects. I drifted away after a while, when real life got in the way and social media came of age. It was fun and I made a lot of great friends, but what a time sink.

6) Ok, this is going to sound hugely nerdy, but I’d love to have the time to properly figure out the mechanics of solid objects. I’d love to be able to develop my own simple physics engine, and understand the principles behind it, where two dimensional objects rotate and move around subject to various different forces and impacts. I’m almost embarrassed telling you that one.

7) Have I changed my mind recently about something I once strongly believed? Yes, actually. I used to be a fervent believer in the Myers Briggs Type Indicator test – you know, ESTP and INTJ etc. Well, it turns out that it’s complete bunkum. Neither Myers nor Briggs had much of a basis for the underlying philosophy of the MBTI and there are much sounder tests of personality around.

That’s seven things. You can wake up now!

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A panther. Taking its time. Stalking up on me silently. Then pouncing.

An whale. Pulling on me. Making the little tasks weigh that much more.

A boa constrictor. Tightening. Keeping me separated from everyone and everything going on.

An frightened deer. Preferring not to interact with you, if that’s ok.

A dead pet. Just numbness.

A wandering cat. Disappearing for a while, then coming back with renewed vigour.

An elephant. Remembering what I did, and what I didn’t do.

A black dog. Always here with me. Loyal to the end, whether I want him or not.

This is my 400th blog entry. It’s hard to believe. I started posting some time in 2006, so a lot of ramblings, remembrances and randomness have poured forth onto these pages over the intervening years.

Anyway, in keeping with the generally scrambled content of this blog, here’s an Aloe Vera plant flowering. It took me some time to photograph this – one frame every 30 minutes, all day and all night for 2 weeks. I’m told it’s unusual to see an Aloe in flower, so someone in this house must be doing something right. (I’ll hasten to add, it’s not me).

Staying with the floral theme, yesterday was what we Irish call “a soft day”, so I took the opportunity to photograph a few flowers and plants in the act of budding. The macro function on my iPhone is quite passable, I think, but it sometimes takes a bit of work to get the focusing right.

I must be the slowest person ever to join Toastmasters.

My first meeting was in 1988, when I was a student in University College, Cork. I was terribly shy, somewhat socially inept and going through a very difficult period of adjustment in my life. Why I went along, I am not quite sure. Toastmasters just seemed like something I needed to do.

Having arrived late at Moore’s hotel in the centre of Cork city, I blushed awkwardly while asking the receptionist where the meeting was. I clearly remember her gawking at me and giggling as I self-consciously made my way to the meeting room. The people there were a bit older than me, but from the first day, they made me feel welcome. I joined up soon afterwards and very quickly I set myself the task of presenting an Icebreaker speech – the first speech you will do in a Toastmasters club. It was one of the most unnerving things I have ever done. Talking to the audience was almost like an out-of-body experience. I could not believe that this was my voice and that I was commanding the attention of a roomful of people.

Over the next two years I worked through more speeches, performing different roles in the club. I barely missed one meeting during that time. Toastmasters offered me something that I was not getting from college – a chance to express myself, to follow my own interests and to interact with friendly people from all different ages. It just seemed to suit.

After leaving college, my work found me in Belfast for a few years, then Prague and finally Dublin. Five years had passed since my last Toastmasters meeting, but despite the crazy hours I was doing in work, I had a yearning to go back. I joined the Dublin Toastmasters club in Buswells Hotel and I spent 3 years there, slowly grinding my way through the remaining speeches in the manual. I completed my tenth and final speech just before I relocated back to Cork.

It was now 1997, and marriage, babies, a house and new job opportunities were to take pride of place in my life until 2003, when I joined the local club in Midleton. I’ve been there ever since, and I’ve enjoyed almost every minute of it. Despite having served in all sorts of roles in the club and entering every competition that has been going, I’ve taken the advanced manuals at my own slow pace. I’ve yet to get any Advanced Toastmaster qualification. What I have gained, however, are great friends, a good deal of self-confidence and a relative proficiency in public speaking and presentation skills. I’ve gone on to set up a skeptics club in Blackrock Castle Observatory and to dabble in podcasting in my spare time. I am currently president of two clubs: Midleton and the club at my workplace.

Toastmasters for me has been a great experience. No two meetings are ever quite the same. You never know what is going to pop up that might give you a laugh, a jolt, or a pause for thought. The people who attend the meetings, irrespective of their backgrounds, all have fascinating stories to tell. I have learned to underestimate nobody. I have also learned the secret of good presentation skills: practice. The more you present in front of people, the easier it gets and the more polished you become. Toastmasters offers nothing except an opportunity to improve your abilities in a supportive environment. It’s the best way to learn.

I have only the vaguest of ideas where I go from here. I’m hoping to complete my first advanced stage in the next few months and to complete my presidency with two reasonably strong clubs by the end of the year. Beyond that, I don’t know. Maybe a new and scary challenge will present itself. I still have lots to learn and new challenges to take on. Here’s to the next 23 years.

Find a Toastmasters club in your area. World / UK Ireland

I need to apologise. I’ve been very quiet with my blog postings over the past few weeks.

The reason I have been remiss?

Stuff.

Stuff? Yes. Stuff. Those dreary things that get in the way of regular blogging. Reality. Life. Work. That kind of thing.

I’ve had a lot of Stuff to deal with over the past while. Every time I think I have enough Stuff on my hands, more Stuff seems to come along out of the blue.

I’m very rich in Stuff right now. I’m like a Stuff magnet. If there were shares in Stuff, I would have a triple A rating. Stuff investors would be delighted with me. Commentators would be speculating about a Stuff bubble.

For a while, I pretended the Stuff wasn’t there. People would tell me I had a lot of Stuff to be getting on with, but I would politely ignore them, imagining that a few blog entries would hoover up the Stuff. As you can imagine, this strategy hasn’t quite worked out as I expected.

I promise I will be back in action soon. Just as soon as the flow of Stuff begins to abate or I decide to stuff the Stuff for a while. Stay tuned.

Back in 2007 I was diagnosed with stage 2 melanoma. I had a small, painless, black mole on the side of my neck and like most Irish males, I tried to ignore it. It was only after a lot of prodding from close friends and family that I actually did something about it.

Two operations and biopsies later, I realised that I had dodged the bullet. The melanoma had not spread to my lymph nodes. After multiple trips to the consultants in the intervening years, I have had no re-occurrances, either primary or secondary.

Because of our skin type, Irish and British people are among the most susceptible to melanoma in the world. It is one of the leading killers of people under the age of 30. The incidence of melanoma is increasing worldwide and if it is not caught early, your survival chances are minimal.

This Canadian public announcement tells you all you need to know. Check your moles, avoid prolonged exposure to the sun, don’t wait to seek help if you notice something abnormal.

Ok – I think I have pressed the right doohickeys, pushed the right whatchamacallits, entered the correct thingamabobs and set in force a train of irreversible events that may lead to total annihilation, but it’s done.

We are now live on sunnyspells.wordpress.com. Nice view, eh?

Ok – I am moving my blog from the old woodpigeon01.wordpress.com account, just up the road to a brand new address: sunnyspells.wordpress.com.

Hopefully, when all this is done, you will be automatically redirected to my new web address. If you have subscriptions or you are linked to me via a blog reader, you might want to check that you are still getting my posts and update your settings as appropriate.

Right then. Wish me luck. See you on the other side.

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.

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.

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