A contrail from a passing plane casts a shadow high in the sky.
Click on the photo to enlarge.
Often enough, both in real life and social media, I come across people who lament the past. “Ah, we were much more free back then, we could do as we wanted, and weren’t we all so happy”. This kinds of “och ochon” sentiment makes me want to puke. I’m not doubting that they had mostly happy childhoods, but implicit in their writing is that current kids cannot possibly be as happy as they were back then. To which I call bullshit. The only thing they are demonstrating are the massive defects in their memories. So here are just a few things that are much better now in Ireland than back then.
It might be hard to believe, but Ireland was a much filthier place in the 70’s and 80’s. The plastic bag levy had not yet been imposed, so we used to hang them on any available tree. It was a long time before businesspeople took action to name and shame town councils and villages into making even half an effort. There was no such thing as separating rubbish – everything went to landfill. I remember finding a dead calf in the ditch on the way home from school once. We are still a filthy nation, as David Norris recently said, but relative to decades past, there are signs of hope.
Until 1981, teachers could belt kids with fists, sticks and leather straps if they got out of line. The only psychological diagnosis for kids who stepped out of line was that they were “bold” and the only remedy on offer by the teachers was 6 of the best in front of the class. Slapping kids was a great way for teachers to release their endorphins, but fuck-all use besides this. It didn’t make classes more disciplined (they weren’t) and it didn’t stop us being extraordinarily cruel toward classmates when the teacher’s eyes were looking elsewhere – leading by example and all that.
Road journeys were a nightmare when I was a kid. Apart from the Naas Dual Carriage Way, no roads in Ireland even came close to being adequate. Hardly any town had a bypass, so the road trips were a continuous succession of bottlenecks and queues, exacerbated by the atrocious parking in every small town you passed through. And Ireland was pothole central – full of gaping voids into which cars might disappear forever. We think nothing of a 2 and a half hour trip from Cork to Dublin. Not long ago that would have been the stuff of science fiction.
The day after a sunny day in Ireland, intense pain would grip the nation. The whole country was filled with people with tomato red faces, necks, arms and that soft bit behind your knees. A few days later and we were all peeling like snakes. Misguided by the notion that a sunburn would “set the foundations of a good tan”, we would strip off and let the UV go to work on our skin cells. It’s not that sunscreen didn’t exist. It did, but nobody really saw the point of it. Better to dab on that useless aftersun lotion later on, in a vain attempt to ease the agony.
Ireland only introduced a National Car Test in the 1990’s. Before that, our roads were full of the most ancient, crapped out bangers you could possibly imagine, all contributing to those nightmare road trips. Seat belts were either absent or optional, and most kids spent their journeys lying on the flat area beneath the back window of the car, or sitting on their mammy’s lap in the front passenger seat. And it’s not like people didn’t pay badly for this fecklessness. 600 people used to die on Irish roads each year during the 1970’s – over 3 times as many as now. Those who lament the freedom were not the victims of this carnage. They were just lucky.
When I was a kid, we had just one radio station – Radio Eireann. It was talk radio with a good daubing of religion, sport and traditional Irish music. The full Catholic Mass was a mainline program on the radio every Sunday morning. TV was not much better. Radio Luxembourg and pirate radio stations were wild, lawless and frowned upon. Younger people only got their first music radio station in 1979, a full two decades after rock and roll kicked off in America and Britain.
We all looked the same too. Everywhere you looked, it was the same pasty faced (and occasionally sunburned) people in every town, in every locality. If you looked different, it’s likely you would have been stared as you walked down any street in Ireland. Casual racism tripped off the tongue and people wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Sure they were all grand, but you wouldn’t want one living next to you. Of course we were all into the black babies god love them, but it was far from an egalitarian view – underlying it was a sense that they weren’t able to cope as well as the rest of us.
Like a constant drumbeat, the news from “The North” used to keep us in an almost permanent state of depression. Every day there was some interjection of hatred, some killing and bombing, some fucking godawful atrocity, to remind us that we Irish were a screwed up lot. True, “The South” was a quieter place, but there was a sense that this was a particularly Irish problem, with our religious differences and our 17th Century animosities, still boiling away like a volcanic rupture that could never be healed. And you dare not say anything about the IRA, lest the word got around. Of all the shit things about growing up in Ireland, this was among the worst.
What more needs to be said? Princes and privilege and power and that total arrogance that enabled every single thing to be swept under the carpet until it all came vomiting out in the 1990’s and 2000’s. Awful, awful, awful. And what’s worse, is they still haven’t yet grasped the lessons to be learned from it. Some of them still think they are kings of the hill.
Though Ireland was technically part of the First World, there was a sense where we knew this couldn’t possibly be true. While many European countries had got their shit together, we were still rummaging around, looking for it like it was gold bullion. There was no money for anything, we had a particular breed of clientelist politician, the weather was awful and anyone with a bit of get-up-and-go had got-up-and-gone. Gay Byrne once famously said that we should contact the Queen of England to ask her to take the country back, while apologising for the state we had left it in. A lot of people would have nodded their heads about this.
So, you know, it’s better now. Not at all perfect, but better. Kids have more choices and more opportunities to engage with people who are different to them. They are safer. They don’t have to live through that atmosphere of barely comprehendible hatred that we all just took for granted. They don’t need to feel they are lesser beings than anyone else. Despite all it’s faults, I prefer the Ireland of today. I really do.
Barring a major incident, Chris Froome is now safely on course for a second Tour de France win this weekend. Apart from his extraordinary performance on the first day of the Pyrenees, he has played an intelligent long-game, keeping a close eye on his greatest rivals while handing the daily glory to an array of less threatening competitors. The only chink in his armour came yesterday, when Nairo Quintana finally escaped his clutches on the last mountain climb, chopping 30 seconds off his 3 minute winning margin.
If only he could confine his challenges to the fearsome courses and competitors. Froome has been subjected to quite intense media speculation and rumour over the past few days. He has been spat at, had urine thrown at him and is regularly the subject of obscene gestures from spectators on the roadside. Throughout the tour, and particularly since his Stage 10 win, he has had to defend himself against those who believe he is winning, not by effort alone, but with the help of performance enhancing drugs such as EPO.
I am of the camp that believes that Froome is innocent of these charges. Without a doubt, cycling has been tainted enormously by the scandals of the past 17 years. It is therefore reasonable to ask if something untoward is happening when a rider puts in a huge performance nowadays. However I think that on the whole, the sport is much cleaner than it used to be, particularly for the top General Classification contenders.
The pressure to clean up the sport has never been stronger. The sport needs money and nothing scares off sponsors more quickly than allegations of drug taking. Sky, a company in an industry where perception is everything, would have a hard time explaining how much they knew, or were aware of, should a major drug scandal erupt within their team. Furthermore, given Team Sky’s publicly stated views on doping, they would be exposed as dreadful hypocrites should the reality belie their words.
Official testing has improved greatly in the last few years. The standards are more stringent, the testing processes more robust and unannounced tests are common in order to catch the cheats. There are also serious repercussions for competitors who miss a drugs test. Not perfect perhaps, but at least they place a determined cheat under greater pressure not to be caught napping.
More importantly, there are the many other ways the story could get out. A GC competitor has more than just officials to worry about. The cycling press are a hardy lot, and as the Lance Armstrong story demonstrated, unlikely to be fazed even when extreme intimidation is applied. If they hear a sniff of a scandal, they won’t easily be diverted from uncovering the truth. So far, they have remained relatively quiet on the subject of Froome. If anything, it’s a sign of health.
Cyclists also need to be on the guard for other cyclists, both competitors and team mates. Although cycling is a team sport, it is also fiercely individualistic and competitive. Game theory applies. While there are alliances, there are plenty of incentives and opportunities for defections. Cyclists change teams all the time. Enmities between competitors are poorly concealed and even within teams, riders can’t fully trust other cyclists. The incident where Rafal Majka’s communications “stopped working” at a crucial point in Stage 17, thus depriving Alberto Contador of much needed support, doesn’t lend itself to impeccable trust between team mates.
Within this atmosphere of regulation, suspicion and media scrutiny, I also wonder how some of the top players might view their legacy. Do they want their record to stand among the greats of cycling, or their names to be uttered in the same sentences as Armstrong and Virenque, particularly when the possibility of being caught out as a top-tier rider is enormously high? Surely the risks are now too great?
It’s possible I am wrong, and in that case I will gladly accept, once again, that I have put far too much faith in human nature. In the meantime, I remain on the sidelines, urging Froome on and wishing him the very best as he races down the Champs Elysées on Sunday.
A BBC news report today reported that a woman in the US died from an attack of the measles. While the measles does not normally kill, a small percentage of people who get it can die; others will be left with serious health problems for the rest of their lives. If you are a rational person, measles is not something that you and your children should ever have to deal with.
Measles is one of the three diseases, along with Mumps and Rubella, that the MMR vaccine is effective in preventing. Vaccines like MMR act by priming the immune system with a weakened version of the virus. This allows your body to create antibodies, so that when the real disease comes around, the body is ready to defend itself. The mechanics of how vaccination works is not new: it was pretty much understood by the 1940s, and as the graph above shows, it has proven itself over and over again to be highly effective against the types of diseases that destroyed the lives of so many people throughout history.
The woman who died was immunocompromised, which means she was unable to take any vaccines because of a health condition. Small babies and people like this woman depend on vaccinated people to stay free from these diseases.
The choice to remain unvaccinated is therefore not a simple personal choice. If you or your children do not take vaccines, you put people such as this woman at greater risk of being exposed to the measles. While measles might be unpleasant for you, you could be directly harming their lives. This goes beyond personal choice. It makes you a menace to public health. Expect lawsuits to arise in this case against the people who put this woman’s life at risk by not vaccinating. If they had been more responsible, she would be alive today.
You will see a lot of websites, alternative practitioners and some celebrities preaching the benefits of not taking vaccinations. They are wrong. The studies they use to support their beliefs are poorly thought out, incomplete, and in a few high profile cases: fraudulent. They have confused the idea of personal choice with what is good for society at large. They condemn “big pharma” and the “sickness industry” while forgetting that executives and employees of these organisations get sick too. They talk about poisons while conveniently forgetting that almost everything is a poison – it’s the dosage that matters. They cherrypick from anecdotal information and they exaggerate the dangers in order to frighten parents of small children. Not one major medical organisation agrees with them. Not one. They are manifestly wrong and they are putting lives at risk.
Ultimately, vaccines are a lot safer than the diseases they prevent. Less than a hundred years ago, people used to die, routinely, from smallpox, tuberculosis, bubonic plague, cholera, polio, tetanus and diphteria to mention just a few. Nowadays nobody does, or at least they shouldn’t. The reason is vaccines. While there can be side-effects to taking vaccines, they are usually minor and transient.
If I could recommend one link to take a look at, it’s this one: it shows clearly the difference that vaccines made when they were introduced. The evidence could not be clearer than this.
The bottom line: if you are scared by all the scare stories out there, talk to your doctor. Vaccines are safe, effective and help save lives; not just yours, but others who need vaccinated people like you to keep them alive.
Up to the time I was 21, I was very religious. I never missed Sunday Mass, contemplated the priesthood once or twice, and I tried to live my life according to the words of Jesus. I believed, fervently, in the power of prayer. Then, in what seemed like an instant, it all came apart. Suddenly, it didn’t seem so rational that our souls went somewhere else when we died. The idea of a God of the Universe caring much about the goings on of some obscure species on an obscure planet now seemed rather bizarre. And then there was the problem of suffering and why a loving, all powerful god would permit evil to happen in the first place. My worldview changed overnight, but I have never looked back.
I had an agnostic phase, then an atheist phase, but nowadays, I think of myself as humanist. I am still an atheist, but this word is an inadequate description of who I am. My atheism informs how I look at religion, but that’s about it. I self-describe as a skeptic, but this also is only part of who I am. It has made me appreciate the value of science and evidence and I see it as a useful tool, helping to evaluate the claims people make. I am a secularist in that I believe a secular state, that is indifferent to religion, is better for everyone, religious and non-religious alike. I am agnostic in that there is much I don’t know, yet I am not willing to accept that just because I’d like something to be true, it therefore must be so.
Humanism is something more. It informs how I feel about things. It brings in important values such as compassion, integrity, honesty and friendship. It says something very profound to me. That I am here for a short time, and while I cannot personally change many things, there are people around me who affect me and whom I affect in turn. That there is a world here that should be respected, as it is our only home in this Universe. That our enthusiasms and loves and hobbies and friendships are something to be cherished. That others may not be so lucky and that we should strive to make life better for everyone, not just a fortunate few. That education and healthcare and control over our bodies and freedom from oppression should be our birthrights.
These are universal aspirations that are shared by many, non-religious and religious people alike. Some people base this common understanding on their theology. I arrive at it because I realise that life is short, and the people around me are important and deserving of respect and compassion.
I often think I have not changed much from the time I was religious, but humanism has opened my eyes to others and their differences. When I was growing up, “Protestant” meant “them”, “Catholic” meant “us”. Being “Irish” was different to being “English”, as was “American” or “Nigerian”. “White” and “black” and “asian” all carried different meanings – not always benign. Sexuality was spoken about in hushed tones. Similar distinctions could be made regarding disability and mental illness. Humanism has helped to blur these distinctions. It’s more important that we relate to people, not because they are Christians or Irish or Americans, but because they are humans like ourselves. Likewise it’s important to acknowledge differences, but to realise that siblings from the same family are often more different than two people from different backgrounds and different continents who happen to meet, have a laugh, and fall in love with each other.
As a humanist, the greatest distinction I make is between people who want these things, and those who want the old orders to prevail. I am not sympathetic to those who advocate for theocracy, the exclusion of women or the suppression of sexuality along narrow lines. I oppose those who believe the world is to be exploited with little thought for long term consequences. I am appalled by traditions of mutilation and ostracisation that still prevail, despite the misery they wreak. People who put their ideologies ahead of universal education are a danger to us all, no matter how well meaning those ideologies are. Our shared humanity should always trump the thoughts that are in peoples’ heads. It’s people that are important – not their beliefs.
On World Humanist Day, I’m celebrating my humanism and the amazing fact that I can share a tiny sliver of time on this planet existing with other wonderful and fascinating creatures, some of whom also happen to be humans. I long for a day when this sense of belonging, humility and cooperation is shared by all the governments of this world. Unfortunately we have a long way to go.
Lots of people around the world do not take any homeopathic treatments. Lots of people do. Both groups tend to live to similar ages and are largely prone to the same conditions as they go through life.
You can think of it as a kind of thought experiment. On one hand, you have people who tend to see illness as something to wait out. Most illnesses – sniffles, coughs, pains, lows, wheezes – they come and go. It’s often a matter of tolerating them until they eventually die down and disappear. Maybe an analgesic, if necessary, will temporarily ease the symptoms. On the other you have people who, at the first sign of a cold or an ache, it’s off down to the homeopath for a dose of oscillococcinum, or whatever you are having yourself.
This intrigues me, because as far as I can see, in both cases the outcomes are pretty much the same. It’s just that in one case, there is this persistent belief that some kind of external remedy needs to be taken. This belief is always confirmed once the symptoms die down, as they normally do.
That’s why I regard homeopathy as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. You see, every time it’s called on, it seems to work. The prescribed remedies actually seem to do the trick. Until one day, they don’t.
The normal, non-homeopathic person will then trot off down to the doctor to find out what’s going on. The homeopathic person has so much invested in their beliefs that they will wait it out, possibly consulting their homeopath a few times, thinking they need something else. All the while, time is ticking away. The old reliable sheep has suddenly revealed itself to be a wolf, and yet the patient is oblivious to this. They convince themselves, until they have no choice, that the growl they hear is just a new kind of bleating.
I don’t think this is healthy. Homeopathy, because it appears so successful for lesser ailments, works against people when they actually need to go to the doctor. It works against their pets, their kids and other family members. Not only do you have to contend with a change of health, you have to deal with a change in your belief system, and that might just be too difficult to accept.
Better, I think, to leave the pills out. It’s not true to say they don’t do anything. While they certainly don’t do anything good, they have the strong potential to make situations worse.