Broken Glass Pieces  by Jes Reynolds (CC Licenced, Flickr)

Broken Glass Pieces
by Jes Reynolds
(CC Licenced, Flickr)

Every so often, Facebook posts arrive, claiming that life was better in the old times. Kids were far freer. Parents were less protective. Kids spoke to each other and were not constantly absorbed by video games or hooked into their iPods and iPhones.

While I am not necessarily disputing these claims – life has changed without doubt – I think there is a great risk of over-sentimentalising the past, particularly when it comes to child safety.

In decades gone, we as kids could roam the neighbourhood as we wished. We had no use for seatbelts in cars and we would often sit in the front passenger seat. There was less protection in field sports and if you got hit you wore it as a badge of honour. We all got measles and mumps and it didn’t do us any harm. Or parents and teachers slapped us for disobedience and that didn’t hurt us much either. We could run in the schoolyards and disputes were sorted out by fights at the back of the tennis courts.

That we survived such childhoods relatively unscathed is not an indication of things being better back then. These stories merely tell us that we were lucky. There are kids, largely unknown to us, who did get lost or injured on their adventures away from home. There were kids killed and maimed in bad car accidents (which, incidentally, were 4 times more frequent in the 1970s). The same went for sports injuries and fights. We have forgotten the children who suffered lifelong injuries and even death, from contracting the measles. Some kids suffered dreadfully from classroom and domestic violence. These kids were not as lucky as we were.

Our much derided health and safety culture has made life much safer for our kids. Many of the safety measures we deride as “health and safety gone mad” had real life tragedies underlying them – tragedies that could have been prevented, given a little foresight. Life really wasn’t as safe for us back then. Just because we didn’t die or receive grave injuries is no excuse for action. We can’t use our own fortunate happenstance as an argument that things were better. The wider picture tells a different story.

Cork Harbour is often described locally as “the second largest harbour in the world”. For a long time, I’ve been somewhat sceptical of this claim, so I decided to compare its size to other harbours using the MAPfrappe website. With this website, you can quickly compare locations with other sites around the world. I used it a while ago to compare well known islands to Ireland.

First of all, here is Cork Harbour. It’s a natural harbour, dominating a region of 22 km  x 16 km east of Cork City. A very rough estimate of its water-surface area is about 70 sq km, although I am open to correction on this. The land area in the centre is Great island, home to the town of Cobh and connected to the mainland by two bridges, one road, one rail. Less than two kilometres separate the headlands as it meets the sea, making it by any reckoning, a fine, strategically important natural harbour. Its considerable depth in many places allows large ocean going vessels – tankers, container ships and liners – to enter and depart with ease.

CH - Cork Harbour

It’s a beautiful, impressive and fascinating area, full of history and natural beauty. But is it one of the biggest in the world?

According to Wikipedia, its rivals are Sydney Harbour, Halifax Harbour in Nova Scotia and Poole Harbour in Dorset. Let’s see how they compare.

Poole Harbour, Dorset UK

Poole Harbour, UK

Aw look. How cute. Cork Harbour (silhouetted like a horned monster petitioning mariners just outside) wins this one. Poole, incidentally, also thinks of itself as one of the largest natural harbours in the world. I hate to break it to you, guys.

Halifax Harbour, Nova Scotia

Halifax Harbour

Cork harbour wins this one too, even if you were to be generous and start at McNabs island.

Port Jackson / Sydney Harbour, Australia.

Port Jackson

Y’know, I was surprised at this one, because most Corkonians will gladly concede that Port Jackson is larger. It doesn’t look like it here. The main open water areas are at least comparable.

After, these three, the assessment is.. maybe. But then, are there not other spaces that could  rival Cork in size? New York, San Francisco or Rio perhaps?

New York City

New York City

It’s close. Very close. I’d nearly give New York Harbour the edge. Interestingly, the mouth – Verrazano Narrows – is so similar in size to Roches Point / Crosshaven we should really have our own suspension bridge, just for the crack.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

CH - Rio de Janeiro

Rio’s Guanabara Bay looks to me like a proper harbour and it’s clearly bigger than our own – in fact you could possibly fit the whole of Cork Harbour into it.

It gets worse.

San Francisco

San Francisco

Oh this is not good. Cork Harbour looks tiny. And they have a suspension bridge at the mouth of their harbour too.

Oh, and we forgot:

Tokyo

Tokyo

or:

Auckland Manukau, NZ

Auckland Manukau

or, staying in New Zealand:

Kaipara Harbour, NZ

Kaipara Harbour, NZ

Whoa. Still though, we’re big for Europe, right? Right?

I give you:

Lisbon.

Lisbon

and:

Brest

Brest

and finally,

Oslo

Oslo

Folks, we need to take a long, good look at ourselves. Even if we are only the second largest harbour “by navigable area” (a claim I suspect given the sizes of Rio, San Fran and Tokyo, or we want to be pernickety about what harbour really means, we have to content ourselves that the claim “2nd Largest Harbour in the World” is dodgy. Seriously dodgy.

Still beats Dublin, though.

We were treated to a wonderful morning a few days back. Fog and frost covered the fields, the rivers and the hedges. All was quiet. Armed only with an iPhone and Instagram, I visited a few beauty spots and took some photos. Some of them had a good reaction on the Internet, so I have reproduced them here, going back to the originals and seeing if I could improve on them.

View from Belvelly Bridge

View from Belvelly Bridge

Belvelly Castle, Great Island, Co. Cork.

Belvelly Castle, Great Island, Co. Cork.

Fortified House, Ballyannan, Midleton, Co. Cork.

Fortified House, Ballyannan, Midleton, Co. Cork.

Estuary, Ballyannan, Midleton, Co. Cork.

Estuary, Ballyannan, Midleton, Co. Cork.

Midleton, Co. Cork.

Midleton, Co. Cork.

Castlemartyr Resort, Co. Cork.

Castlemartyr Resort, Co. Cork.

Castlemartyr Resort, Co. Cork.

Castlemartyr Resort, Co. Cork.

A STATEMENT FROM Catholic bishops that it would be a “grave injustice” for instant porridge to be sold in supermarkets is being distributed parishes all around Ireland.

A document entitled “The Meaning of Porridge” argues that, “Porridge provides for the continuation of the human race and shur, aren’t there lots of poor craturs in Africa just dying for a bit of Flahavans”? They argue that “to redefine the nature of porridge would be to undermine it as the fundamental breakfast cereal of our society” and that “Children have a right to natural breakfast cereal, not that icky unnatural instant stuff or, heavens preserve us, Coco Pops”. 

The statement outlines the Irish Catholic Church’s definition of what it considers to be “real” porridge, backed up by strict biblical interpretations, i.e. when Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back at Odlums and Gomorrah.

Launching the document today at Saint Patrick’s College today, Bishops Liam MacDaid and Kevin Doran said that the document was prepared in the context of the upcoming referendum on the state recognition of instant porridge. “Porridge is, of its nature, a wonderful breakfast meal eaten by both men and women throughout the country. Whoever heard of men making porridge? That’s a woman’s job.” Doran claimed.

“Won’t someone think of the children?” MacDaid spluttered. “Next thing they’ll be sowing their wild oats all over the place. And then we’ll have instant toast and instant marmalade all sorts of feckin’ abominations”.

A new advertising campaign “Hello Ready Brek, Goodbye Eternal Happiness” is planned to shock the faithful into siding with the Bishops.  

This article has been stolen from The Journal.ie and unmercifully mangled into something altogether different, less expensive and tastier. I mean, do you want same-sex marriage instead of porridge for breakfast? Do you? Ha. I thought not.

I want you too forecast the weather on the 21st of May next year. 2015. Off you go.

The options are quite few. Sunny, cloudy, rainy, showery, windy. Snow? Not so much. We’re talking about May after all.

Ken Ring predicted snow in May last year. Furthermore, he predicted regular quantities of snow for every month leading up to May. According to Ken, the first months of 2014 in Ireland would be bitterly cold. As it happened, we barely got snow in January, not to mention the fact that our winter was mild, as winters go. What’s worse, he failed to predict the intense winter storms of 2014. As predictions go, Ring’s analysis was well of the mark.

Here’s the thing. If the options are relatively few, then there is a good chance that some of your predictions will turn out correct. Even if you guess at random, you won’t get everything wrong. Sometimes you will predict sunshine, and you’ll be right. Ken Ring, who is wont to make a huge number of predictions, knows this very well. He’s made a career from crowing about his correct answers, all the while expecting that few people will call him out for getting it wrong. If they do call him out, he’s got plenty of stock answers to give. “Forecasting is an inexact science”, “It was partially right”, “I was out by just a few days”, “it wasn’t quantity, it was regularity” – special pleadings that allow him wiggle room from what, ultimately, was just guesswork.

If one prediction can be excused, a whole year of them is more difficult to explain away. That’s what one Irish blogger has done – taking his predictions and scoring him on each one for accuracy. So far, at just over 26% (and that’s being generous), he’s not doing that well, and is well short of the 80% accuracy he claims to have.

Ken Ring was on the radio a few days ago (96FM Cork Opinion Line November 14) and as usual he captivated his audience by giving specific predictions at specific locations for days many months in the future. When I was listening to this, I wondered why this guy didn’t have the ears of every major weather forecaster in the world? I can think of two answers to this. Either he’s right and they’re too arrogant, stupid and/or conniving to listen to him, or he’s talking – how can I say this delicately? – ah yes – bullshit.

Weather forecasting is a critically important field, affecting our lives in all sorts of ways. Bad weather can cause financial hardship, destroy livelihoods, ruin economies and cost lives. Flooding, storms, droughts, freezes and heatwaves all cause damage, sometimes into the billions of dollars.  If we knew for certain that an enormous hurricane was going to roll across our city in 3 months time, imagine what could be done to save lives and protect homes and businesses. Who wouldn’t want better, more accurate forecasts? According to Ken, the world’s met offices don’t want them. Maybe they want to keep such fantastic knowledge away from the public? Maybe Big Weather is in league with Big Pharma or the CIA or whatever you are having yourself, to ensure governments and insurance companies are on the receiving end of huge damages claims? The mind boggles.

A little bit of scientific understanding tells us that the atmosphere is hugely complicated, and that errors, even in the best prediction models, get larger and larger over time. Five to seven days is the limit these days, and let’s face it – it’s not bad. Governments and agencies will continue to push back this envelope as much as they can, because ultimately it’s worth it. The science of weather forecasting has, er,  a bright future, so to speak.

It is reasonable, therefore, to assume that Ken Ring is not a great forecaster, but instead, a crank. The type of crank who thinks he’s Galileo because he thinks he’s stumbled across something amazing, yet nobody who cares about their credibility will listen to him. There was just one Galileo. Cranks who think they are Galileo, or Einstein, or Steven Hawking? Thousands and thousands. Just ask physics professors, who are sick to the teeth of receiving unsolicited and unreadable manuscripts from armies of lone geniuses.

It’s a pity Ken gets such publicity. Clearly he’s answering a desire in people to know what the future holds. In this way, he’s no better than a fortune teller or astrologer. What’s bigger the pity is that media organisations line up to listen to his words of wisdom, all the while discrediting real weather forecasting organisations. All they would need to do is to measure him by his predictions.

I want to talk about bad ideas and good ideas.

Bad ideas originate from many directions. They can be based on the convictions of so-called gurus – the L. Ron Hubbards, or the Andrew Wakefields of this world – whose insane teachings are cherished like nuggets of gold by their many advocates. They can be based merely on a distrust of officialdom, such as is evident in the comments of the New World Order zealots, or the many and varied conspiracy-theorists in our midst. They can arrive from wishful thinking, like belief in angels or the Loch Ness Monster, or the idea that ancient aliens founded cities on the planet long before we arrived. They can be based on literal interpretations of ancient scriptures, evident in fundamentalist interpretations of Islam and Christianity. They can capitalise on fear or feed ancient prejudices, leading to pogroms, slavery and racism.

Bad ideas are like viruses. They are most successful when they exploit the parts of our brain that deal with our strongest emotions – love, fear, joy, loss and hatred. In this way they can persist for generations. Superstitions, astrology, homeopathy, fairy belief, white power, anti-semitism and witch-hunting all have a long, inglorious provenance, but this alone doesn’t make them good ideas. Not one bit.

Bad ideas inhabit a twilight zone, bolstered up by groupthink, forgiven with generous excuses and defended by Byzantine forms of apologetics. When the emperor has no clothes on, attacking the small child becomes the order of the day.

Bad ideas hurt. They sometimes kill. Quack medical practitioners, their heads stuffed with bad ideas, can give advice that endanger their clients’ health. Unscrupulous charlatans can empty the bank accounts of the unwary as they offer them false hope about themselves and loved ones. Governments have gone to war based on bad ideas. Bad ideas cause world leaders to bluster and prevaricate while the world’s climate changes, decade by decade.

Good ideas, by contrast, originate from systems that expose ideas to reality. When ideas don’t work, they are jettisoned in favour of better ideas. Over time, the best ideas rise to the top. Practical trades, such as plumbing and bricklaying, have no time for bad ideas, because they simply do not work. The currency of these professions are good ideas – ones that have stood the test of time, that do what they are intended to do.

Good ideas emerge from science and engineering all the time. We put men on the moon due to a string of great, practical ideas. The computer on your lap, that phone in your pocket, that car you drive, the pacemaker keeping your father’s heart ticking – they all happened because people built good ideas upon good ideas upon good ideas – a solid pyramid of innovation.

Good ideas are hard to come by. Bad ideas are ten-a-penny. In medicine, bad ideas cost lives, so there is a continual search for ideas that have the potential to do great good – to extend the quality of our lives and ease suffering. We’re still not there but each year a few new useful ideas are discovered. In the end, that’s a positive, hopeful story.

We look at race relations differently. We look at human rights and animal rights differently. We look at gender relations and sexuality differently – not because they are the faddish thing to do, but because they concur with objective reality. They match with how things really are when they are put to the test.

I understand the danger of bad ideas. I greatly value good ideas. And that is why I am a sceptic.

Via @therealbanksy

Via @therealbanksy

A couple of days ago, a local politician noted with interest the number of “non-indigenous” people, in one instance, who have been given houses off the housing list. While the comment itself seemed innocuous, the reaction was predictable, with many commenters on social media vehemently agreeing with her. A Twitter friend, who is in the public eye, sees this attitude every day. When politicians make such announcements, widespread agreement is almost guaranteed from a large section of the community.

Facebook comments

But no. None of these people are racist. It’s something else, apparently.

The thing is, if that “something else” is not racism, it’s still very ugly.

And in some ways they are right, it’s not just about race. It goes way beyond that. Travellers, obese people, single mothers, feminists, homosexuals, people of other religions, the non-religious – all targets of the same anger and prejudice. Easy scapegoats for those with an axe to grind.

Left to fester, this can boil over into something like what happened in Waterford this weekend, a semi-pogrom in the 21st Century. Idiots taking the law into their own hand.

This is why politicians need to be so careful with their public utterances. The anger, the scapegoating and the hatred is all out there, a background noise in our society. We need community leaders to do their bit to address this – to direct the anger to where it needs to go – not stoking the flames of prejudice. When councillors rush towards populism to appease latent bigotry, they have to share some of the blame when things get out of control.

AngelI was involved in a Cork 96FM radio programme a few days ago, talking about angel belief. Prior to my bit on the programme, a number of women were interviewed. They were deeply invested in their beliefs, many claiming to have seen visions or having received the assistance of angels at important moments in their lives. The women were clearly very religious, many of them describing themselves as “spiritual”, as opposed to paid-up Catholic Mass-goers.

They talked about their encounters with angel healers. According to them, the healers were able to tell them things they couldn’t possibly have known in advance. It was clear that the healers were using cold-reading and warm-reading techniques. Psychologists and mentalists have long discovered that these methods are not at all magical; instead they prey on mental flaws and blind-spots that we all possess. These manipulative and deceptive practices still catch the unwary, hook, line and sinker.

Angel belief has been given a shot in the arm because of a recent pronouncement by the Pope, who recently declared that they exist, whether we choose to believe in them or not. The Pope may well be saying this from a position of belief, however part of me suspects that he is addressing a wider problem within his Church. There has been a notable decline in church involvement by women, who have become disillusioned by the behaviour, attitudes and scandals within the world’s biggest boys’ club.

What strikes me about angel belief is the power of the imagery. I doubt if there are many things more potent than the idea that an authority figure is caring for us and nurturing us. It’s inculcated in us from childhood. When things get bad, we can rely on this image to make us feel better. Mary and Jesus are portrayed as nurturing, parental figures for this very reason. While this kind of belief can seem harmless enough, I have some concerns. Should things continue to get worse, then instead of focusing on the problem, people could be wracked by guilt for having disappointed their “angel”; that, in some way they are being punished for a transgression. This could pile additional stress on what is already a difficult situation. Additionally, such feelings of comfort are temporary and unlikely to solve chronic issues and problems fixable with outside help. Far from being a solution, angel belief could morph into a permanent avoidance strategy. I don’t think that’s healthy.

I am not going to condemn people who believe in angels. What people choose to believe is up to them, so long as they are not trying to foist these beliefs onto us, or put other people’s health and mental health at risk. Angel healing is big business, as anyone who has recently visited a book shop will testify. It saddens me that so many people are locked in a parent-child relationship with an imaginary entity. It allows the angels’ real life proxies – the authors and healers profiting from these beliefs – to be viewed very uncritically by their adherents. Given the subject matter they claim to be experts on and the fact that their only “evidence” is personal anecdote, these people are not quite as knowledgable as they make themselves out to be.

Blackrock_CastleWhen we look back in history, it can seem self-evident that previous generations were poorer in almost every way imaginable. To us, they had fewer material resources, a benighted mindset, poorer social structures, rudimentary health systems and a throwaway attitude towards human life. Yet, such a way of looking at the past may be deeply biased.

It may well be an illusion to think of our times as objectively “better” than in the past. Instead, we might only be considering how the past complies with the current zeitgeist. The further back in time we go, the less familiar things become. If we were to apply a percentage to how things comply with the present, then starting at 100% (now), we see this percentage reducing the further back in time we went.

No matter what period people are born into, it’s likely that they would apply the same bias. Whether they lived in the 1920’s, or the Middle Ages, or during the Roman Empire, they would always start at 100%. Their sense of the past would be framed completely by their present, possibly making them believe they were living in the most perfect of ages, irrespective of how bad these same ages might seem to us now.

Such an outlook means we must look at history not as objectively imperfect, but rather relatively different compared to the world we live in today. In the values we measure highly today, the past is unlikely to match up well. However, other measures, of lesser importance to us today, might have been deeply prized in another time. Where a time in the past is 100 – X percent like this world, this missing X becomes hugely interesting. It defines something that we would struggle to appreciate now, but nevertheless would have been crucial to the lives of people of those times, and vitally important if we wish to properly understand historical contexts.

Examples of that missing X could be music, folklore, poetry, humour or religious practice, all now lost to the sands of time. It could be skills and handiwork, no longer practised. It could be the toys and games played, the foods and the sports, of which we know little. All of this possibly lead to lives worth living for those times. When we hear older people bemoaning how older times were better, perhaps we hear echoes of this missing X.

The missing X applies not just to time, but to space too. Foreign cultures may not be poorer to our minds, as they are different. To understand it properly would require living there. To make a spot assumption that our culture is somehow better (or for them to assume it for themselves) is dangerous territory indeed.

All this is not to say that the values of our time are worthless and immaterial. Issues such as feminism, LGBT rights, racism, slavery, child-cruelty, empiricism, medicine and science have made this world a better place and, I would argue, objectively so. However we still need to be mindful of a creeping bias that turns the past into a caricature of itself. Making this mistake blinds us to what might really have been going on. At best, it leads to an imperfect view of our past. At worst, it deepens prejudice and intolerance.

Last night, my eldest son, who is preparing to do his Junior Cert this year, asked me a question. Why should he study history, he asked, wanting to know what jobs might be available after doing it.

In truth, I don’t think there are many directly related jobs, unless you fancy being a historian or an author, but I think that’s missing the point. History is a vitally important subject for reasons that transcend basic job market economics.

First of all, it gives us a sense of who we are, and how we came to be. It tells us stories about our locality, our country and our civilisation that in turn, give us an insight into why things are how they are. Great historical events don’t die quickly. They create echoes that last to and through our present day. History is there in everything we experience. By understanding this we enrich our minds.

Secondly, the stories it tells can often be related to decisions relevant to the present day. History is bubbling over with stories of people who had great decisions to make, and the consequences of those decisions are often described in gruesome detail. History is probably the only laboratory in which many of our decisions can be tested. In history we find context, and from that context we can move forwards, mindful of the mistakes made in the past that lead nowhere, or even to disaster.

Thirdly, history can do wonders for our critical thinking skills. Where there is a narrative, there are often one or many counter-narratives. We learn from our past that nothing is quite as straightforward as it seems, and that the stories we are told often have gaping holes or mind-boggling complexities. We discover that that simple stories often deliberately overlook or distort events in order to push a particular viewpoint or ideology. Being sensitive to these distortions is no bad thing. A careful reading of history asks us to look beyond propaganda and to seek out the untidiness, while also valuing expert consensus where it exists.

History is a powerful subject. It would be a pity to see it commoditised or deprecated simply for its job-winning value. History has to be seen as more than the means to an end, as there is so much to be learned beyond our first job. It’s a type of learning that can accompany us throughout our lives.
It’s a friend to the grave.

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