Archives for category: tours and trips

Here’s a photo I took on a day trip to the Big Sur in California.

After arriving in San Francisco, I made my way down south, past Monterey and into the most wonderful coastal scenery imaginable.

Click on the photo for the full view.

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Shanghai is a city of endless fascinations for me. I was transfixed, even before the plane touched down – staring out at the strange landscape below me.
IMG_8819The only real free time I had was on my first day there. Still exhausted after the long trip, I took a short walk down to the river, taking in the immensely tall skyscrapers, the brown river dividing Pudong from Puxi, the Oriental Pearl Tower and sunset beyond the Bund.IMG_8909 Version 2 IMG_8980

The following picture gives an idea of the immense size of the city. Shanghai is like a forest, except the trees are made of concrete. It’s a city in need of more public parks and open spaces. It seems every spare metre of ground has been developed into a tall building or skyscraper.
IMG_9160On my last day there, as the sun was setting, I took this photo of the Jin Mao Tower.


I attended my 4th QED Conference this year, making me a regular at this stage, I guess. The previous conferences have all been great, and this one met the the high standard we have become accustomed to. The folks in the Merseyside Skeptical Society and Greater Manchester Skeptics do a terrific job. They deserve all the praise they get for organising these events.

Skeptical Trousers

Skeptical Trousers

The difference for me this year was that I was speaking. At the very last minute (i.e. 4 days before) I decided to enter Skepticamp with a 10 minute talk. My presentation was about ways to communicate critical thinking to a general audience, while at the same time giving the audience an idea of the main skeptical issues in Ireland. Ireland is commonly thought to be a very religious country, but it’s not as devout as many people think. Even paying lip-service to the Catholic Church is on the wane. Instead the issues are more familiar: cancer quackery, anti-vaccine, anti-fluoridation, secularism. I did recount the “Holy Stump of Rathkeale” story though, as my mind is still boggling over that one.

Wifi was not good in the main hall, so instead I took copious notes. I won’t burden you with all these, but there were some real high points over the weekend.


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Marcel Dicke, professor of entomology from Wagenigen University in the Netherlands, spoke about eating insects and their role in future food security. The statistics are worrying to say the least. With a projected population of 10 billion by 2050 and the availability of land on the decline, we may need many more options to keep everyone fed. And besides, mealworms taste GOOD. Roasted crickets taste GOOD. I know. I ate some samples…

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Acupuncture is one of those things. It’s a bit crazy, but because it’s not the worst type of crazy out there, it’s largely given an easy ride by the skeptical community. Dr. Harriet Hall was there to point out some real problems with acupuncture techniques – how it’s a lot more recent than people think, how you run a high risk of infection and how its role in anaesthesia is thoroughly undeserved.


Rosie Waterhouse gave a lecture on the satanic abuse scares of the 1990s. Heavy stuff. The story in brief is that vulnerable children under the influence of over-eager therapists began to accuse their parents of having abused them in horrific rituals. On the basis of these allegations, children were wrongly removed from their families by social workers. Rosie was one of a small, brave number of people who questioned the veracity of the claims. It brought False Memory Syndrome and Multiple Personality Disorder strongly into the spotlight. Worryingly, such allegations still persist today.

Classical Greece!

Natalie Haynes spoke to us about the Greek classics and how they still influence the storylines of soaps in the modern age. You could listen to Natalie forever – she has an engaging style with lots of laughs spread through her talk. And it is true – whom amongst us, it times of trouble, have not been consoled by sheep? Anyone? Anyone?

Our Stupid Brains!

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Bruce Hood explained how our brains really weren’t cut out for rational thinking. We learned how magical thought is an innate part of how we view the world from early childhood and that things like “mind-body dualism” and “essentialism” give us an insight into how we come to believe stupid things. These deep seated notions can survive long into adulthood.

Dawkins Clones!

Matt Dillahunty talked about debating with theists and how there was no one sure way to change peoples minds. We don’t all have to be clones of Richard Dawkins. (I know, we can all breath a sigh of relief now).  He had a few words of advice for skeptics – “Have a good reason for engaging in the conversation in the first place. Not so that you can look superior or cool.” Well said.


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Where Michael Marshall gets his energy, I do not know. What with his involvement in QED and his podcasts and debates with true believers, he’s off now trying to stop the UK government funding homeopathy – and he’s making good progress too. Marsh is a pleasure to listen to – he’s VERY funny, although the story content almost writes itself. Homeopathic Owl, anyone?

Nuclear Bloody Reactors!

Dame Sue Ion showed us that the UK seems to be getting somewhere with its energy strategy these days. In the next few years, traditional fossil fuels in our houses and cars will decline, to be replaced by electricity – and for that there will need to be a very diverse set of energy sources and management systems. Nuclear Power is part of that equation, which is more than can be said for Ireland, with it’s blanket opposition to nuclear from almost everyone.

Ancient Doubters!


The wonderfully eloquent Jennifer Hecht did a terrific job of explaining how atheism and doubt has always been with us. There have always been doubters and people who opted out of cosy religious consensuses, sometimes at great risk to their lives. They did this because they got frustrated with the bullshit and the lack of proper explanation for tragedy. With phrases like “the meat in our heads wrote the Ode to Joy and Hamlet” I could have listened to Jennifer forever. Poetry and language are powerful and underused tools to communicate our viewpoints.

Skeptical tribes!

AC Grayling spoke about the many different skeptical traditions, and how there was such a thing as “good scepticism” and “bad scepticism”. It was an academic lecture going way back to the time of ancient Greece and explaining how thinking has evolved over the centuries. This is an important story that everyone should learn about.

And then it was over…

Some of the Irish attendees at QEDCon

Some of the Irish attendees at QEDCon

I just missed two “big” talks – an evangelical preacher who lost his religion and the story of our sun. It’s a pity as they seemed to be well worth attending.  It was great once again to meet my friends from the different parts of the UK and Ireland and it barely needs to be said that I’m already looking forward to 2016.

I travelled back to Singapore last week – a welcome change from the bitter cold of Cork in January. While it was mainly a work visit, I got a chance to do some sightseeing.

Singapore Apartments

Singapore is a tiny island, not much bigger than metropolitan Dublin; but it packs a population of over 5 million people. Because land is not an option, people build upwards. Thousands of apartments dot the landscape. The racial mixture in each block is carefully managed to promote harmony amongst the resident ethnic populations.

Singapore Gardens by the Bay

There are a lot of tourist attractions, particularly around the Marina Bay area. The Gardens by the Bay, shown above, is particularly spectacular at night, with stunning colours and a laser light show illuminating the park.

Singapore Botanic

We did not go to these gardens; instead we went to the Singapore Botanic Gardens. It’s a gem. I’d love to have spent a few days there. The National Orchid Garden is a must-see. Here are a few examples of the flowers on display.

The Orchard Road area has some interesting street art and artistic gems. Here’s a piece that particularly impressed me. At a distance it looks like a large urn, but when you look closer, the whole vessel is made from just 4 letters. Very clever.

We took a quick trip to John F Kennedy Arboretum yesterday. This botanical park, resting on the slopes of Sliabh Coillte in Co. Wexford, is home to over 4,000 different species of trees.

Greeting us when we arrived was a a path, strewn in all directions by purple rhododendron flowers. I took an photo with Instagram that captures the moment very well.

Rhodo flowers


John F Kennedy park was a regular place for us to go when I was a child. I think I was usually quite bored there, as trees and flowers did nothing for me.  Over the past few years, I have gained an interest in trees, so every time I come back there now, I learn something new.

It’s a delightful, tastefully designed park that is becoming even more graceful with age. It is a wonderful amenity in Ireland’s South East. I’ll be back again soon.

Today I took a visit to Garinish Island in West Cork. This is a beautiful garden paradise a short boat trip away from the village of Glengarriff. The gardens are a wonderful fusion of exotic plants and beautiful buildings.

At the core are the Italian Gardens, purpose built for the Gardens by Annan Bryce and Harold Peto. The Caha Mountains in the background provide a delightful backdrop.

Garinish Italian Garden


On a hill overlooking the island is a Martello Tower, an old watchtower built to warn of French invasion during the Napoleonic Wars. The view from the top affords a view of the bay across to Eccles Hotel in Glengarriff.




Eccles View


Garinish is a haven for different plants and trees that would not easily survive in Northern Europe. The climate in West Cork is almost completely frost free, giving sub-tropical plants a fighting chance. Some plants, particularly many species of Rhododendrons and Myrtles, have thrived. I took a few macro shots to explore this further.

I also took a few shots that I converted to Instagram. Prominent is the Roman Temple from which a fine view of the Beara peninsula can be seen.

We passed by a group of Common Seals on the way back. They were basking in the sun, relaxing. I knew well how they felt.

Garinish Seals

Another week travelling, this time in the opposite direction. Over the last three weeks, I’ve been in three equally sized corners of the world. I still miss Shanghai.

I’m in Silicon Valley: an endless suburbia straddling San Francisco Bay, and home to some of the brightest technical minds on the planet. Photographic opportunities are somewhat limited, but there are some wonderful gems, not far from the hustle and bustle.

I saw a few curious things on my flight over from London. While travelling past Iceland, I noticed a dark line of shadow imprinted on the clouds far below. It took me a few seconds to realise that it was caused by our own plane’s vapour trail – a shadow cast from far above. What was even more interesting was that the head of the shadow – where the plane should be – was surrounded by a small rainbow. It’s called a “glory” – an optical phenomenon caused by the reflected rays’ passage through tiny water droplets.

Plane Shadow 1

Plane Shadow 2

Greenland was uncharacteristically bereft of cloud, so I could see clearly the high snowy mountains of the coastline. Deep in the valleys, I could see massive glaciers grind their way to the sea. As the plane headed inland, these glaciers began to engulf the mountain tops, until the mountains themselves disappeared under the enormous ice-cap.

Greenland Ice Cap 1 Greenland Ice Cap 2

We arrived into San Francisco early, and with time to kill, we headed towards the Pacific Coast Highway, one of my favourite spots in Northern California. Thick sea fog was assaulting the coast, lending a certain dullness to the scenery. We wound our way South from Pacifica to Santa Cruz, past driftwood strewn beaches and high cliffs. It’s a relaxing part of the world.

I’m staying right beside the Shanghai Tower, which is frighteningly high, believe me. It’s 650 metres tall – the second highest skyscraper in the world. You get a crick in your neck just looking up at it.

This video was just posted on the Internet by two Russian guys who climbed to the top. Then, as if that wasn’t terrifying enough, clambered out to the end of the crane at its apex. Health and Safety folks around the world would get sick just thinking about it.

If you have the stomach to watch the video, did you see the skyscraper far below it? The one that looks like a bottle opener? That’s the Shanghai World Financial Centre, “only” the sixth tallest skyscraper in the world. I’m staying on the 83rd floor and as the photos from my window will testify, it’s already pretty high.

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The trip to Shanghai comes to an end tomorrow. It’s been a wonderful experience and very different to how I expected it might be. I’m craving to see more of the country from this one whistlestop visit.

Don’t worry – there is no “Day 3” post. Yesterday was not eventful for me. Just work, a nondescript meal at a restaurant near the hotel and then bed.

I woke early and made my way across the Huangpu river to The Bund, the old financial area of Shanghai. Barges ploughed their way past the skyscrapers of Pudong as kites floated silently in the air. The morning was misty and dull, but not too cold.

I then walked up to Nanjing Road, one of Shanghai’s biggest shopping areas. From what I hear it’s usually crowded with people, but this morning only a few brave souls walked the street. Having watched some elderly people practice T’ai Chi, I flagged a taxi back to the hotel.

Our meal this evening was hot-pot. Each diner is given a pot of water and vegetables, then presented with small portions of meat, mushrooms, noodles, prawns and fish cakes to cook and eat. It was delicious and a lot of fun. We then walked to a local market with small alleyways and lots of interesting, good quality items on sale. Shanghai is an expensive city, although I suspect some local knowledge would come in handy in this city.


Some other things I took in: taxi passenger doors only open on the right-hand side, so it’s always a case of first-in, last out when getting in the back. The driving isn’t great – we’ve had more than one close shave over the last few days. None of the drivers know English, so a card with the destination address in Chinese is an ideal accessory when travelling.

I’m learning a small amount of Mandarin Chinese. Yes and No sound a bit rude to Anglophones, so I should have no problem remembering them. Other than that, it’s a very difficult language to learn. The way you say something is at least as important as what you say.

And, no, I’m not improving with my chopstick prowess. It gets worse when anyone is looking at me, and worse still if they start commenting about how bad I am.

It snowed today, a rare event for a city that shares the same latitude as Jerusalem and Austin.

I took a short time-lapse video this morning with the sun poking through the clouds; the light playing games with the February dullness.

This evening, we ate in the Langyifang Restaurant. It’s situated in a gigantic modern mall close to the hotels. We sampled a large mix of local foods, mostly similar to what might be found back home.

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My impression of the city so far is much less of a culture shock than I would have expected. Shanghai is brash, modern and unquestionably upmarket. Most items on display cost the same as what might be paid in Europe. Many of the big brands are here, including Haagen Dazs, KFC and TGI Fridays. Clearly, if we want an authentic Chinese experience, we are in the wrong place.

One of my colleagues, an American, has mastered Mandarin Chinese, both oral and written. My Chinese colleagues tell me it is word perfect without much of a trace of an accent. Knowing how to read the Chinese characters is especially impressive, as this is a much bigger challenge for Chinese children compared to western kids. Mastery involves familiarity with several thousand symbols, many of which vary in meaning depending on the context in which they are written. On top of being masters in Chinese, many of my colleges speak English perfectly. Truly, I feel humbled here.

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