Categories
General Personal

Small mercies

On the 29th of May, at around 21:20, I received what I’ll now class as one of the least-fun phone calls I’ve ever had – “You need to come home. There’s smoke coming out of your house, and the neighbours have called the fire brigade”. I can’t begin to tell you all that went through my mind right then; a mixed up mess of panic, trying to think of what I might have done to have a fire start (did I leave the oven on? the grill? candles?), worrying about getting home, imagining for a moment that it wouldn’t be that bad.

As I rushed home (thankfully being driven by a friend), I thought about all the work I had recently completed on the house, and somehow managed to convince myself that it wouldn’t be that bad. I realised, in the midst of all of this panic, that I had turned my dishwasher on just before I left my house, and turned to my friend and said “it’s my dishwasher”. A few minutes later, my mum called me again to say that the firemen had entered the house, and that it was, in fact, my dishwasher that had caused the smoke my neighbours had smelt and seen. On the way, I tried to calm myself down, convincing myself that it would just be my kitchen, that perhaps I’d have to replace some cabinets, clean and paint the walls, and it would be fine. As it turns out, I was wrong.

By the time I got home, the fire brigade and gardai units had left, and the ESB were there, turning off the power to my house; too much potential damage to the wiring in the kitchen, they said, to leave it on. The dishwasher was cooling in the back garden, thrown out there as soon as it was identified as the cause of the fire. Huge fans had been used to clear the smoke from my house, only a small amount of water had been used in the house. As soon as my mum walked to meet me at my driveway, I knew it was going to be pretty bad. I was completely unprepared for what I saw.

My hall, with it’s brand new insulated plasterboard and fresh skim coat of plaster (waiting to be painted), was stained black. Plaster was falling from the ceiling.

Before
Before
IMG_2717
After

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just over a week before the fire, myself and my mum had painstakingly stripped layer after layer of wallpaper from the walls to prepare them for the plaster.

The dishwasher itself was burned so much that any brand or serial numbers were unrecognisable, it was just a metal shell, full of cracked and melted crockery and glasses. Yes, you read that correctly; melted glasses.

Melted glass stuck to the basket
Melted glass stuck to the basket
The culprit
The culprit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My kitchen, which I had taken from a dark tunnel with awful wallpaper, to a much brighter, more open space, is burnt black. Nothing inside it is salvageable.

IMG_2174
Original kitchen
photo 3(1)
After renovations

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kitchen walls & ceiling, blackened
Kitchen walls & ceiling, blackened
Kitchen post-fire
Kitchen post-fire

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m not sure I have the words to describe the smell, or how unbelievably hot it was when I walked into the kitchen that night (I returned to take these pictures the next day, it was impossible to see the scope of the damage by torchlight the night of the fire). The counter was still hot to the touch, and the rooms felt as if I had left the central heating running for days on end. Naively, I thought that my kitchen and hall were the worst of it, were the only things that were damaged. I was in the house for more than 30 minutes before I went upstairs, and realised just how much damage smoke can do.

My bathroom, newly installed, was destroyed. Smoke billowed up the stairs, and the heat from the dishwasher underneath likely caused unseen damage.

Cream/beige tiles, destroyed
Cream/beige tiles, destroyed
New fittings, stained.
New fittings, stained.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The floor tiles were the same colour as the walls, a mottled beige. The grout, though you’d never know to look at this picture, was cream. All the fittings are newly installed, and are maybe 6 months old.

My bedroom is destroyed, black soot and smoke settled on everything, turning my new white duvet a scary shade of black, and destroying all of my clothes (making my delayed luggage, and subsequent battle with Lufthansa, all the more significant and difficult for me).

I've turned a corner over to show just how black the duvet is.
I’ve turned a corner over to show just how black the duvet is.
My clothes, visible soot settled on them all. They can't be cleaned.
My clothes, visible soot settled on them all. They can’t be cleaned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In short, every surface is stained and smelly, and everything I own is now more filthy than you can possibly imagine. Every soft furnishing will have to be disposed of because of the smoke and fumes which will never leave them. Every wall stripped, and in many cases, the plasterboard stripped back to the bare brick. Floors must be removed and replaced. Almost everything which is not nailed down is going in the bin, and quite a few things that were nailed down will be following. In about 1.5 hours, smoke and heat destroyed so much more than I could have imagined.

IMG_2665
My ikea-hack (a pre-fire picture)

In spite of all this, it could have been so much worse, and so I’m thankful for some small mercies. I am alive, and if I had turned the dishwasher on and gone to bed (as I often did), I’m not sure that I would be. Though I had smoke detectors in the house, I had also been due to start a new migraine medication, to be taken at night due to the strong drowsiness that it caused – with that on board, it’s not a certainty that the alarms would have woken me, and the damage to my bedroom shows how much smoke I would have been surrounded by. I have insurance, so I do not have to foot the bill for the repairs. I am hoping that I will not be out of pocket for the replacement clothing that I have to purchase (and finding clothes is another battle in and of itself), but I can only wait and see. My house, though extensively damaged, is still standing. Many of my most special things were in one of the only rooms that was not too badly damaged, containing my latest diy project – custom built-in shelves, an ikea-hack of sorts (perhaps a blog for another day). I’m thankful that my neighbours are so vigilant – the smelt the smoke, heard the alarms, and investigated. The firefighters said that the countertop in the kitchen had been minutes away from bursting into flame, their quick action likely prevented a much larger problem. I am also very thankful for all of the messages I’ve received, the offers of help, of places to stay, everything. They have cheered me up when I have felt very down, and I have been really touched that so many of you took the time to contact me.

Why share all this? I’m hoping to help people avoid a similar disaster, to learn from my rather hard lesson, if you will. If I had closed more of my doors, the smoke might not have caused such extensive damage, and I might not have been left with nowhere to live, and 2 or more months worth of repairs to be done. If I had gotten around to giving my neighbours some contact information for me, they might have been able to contact me sooner, instead of having to rush around to get my mum (though, of course, this wouldn’t have made a difference to the damage). If I didn’t have insurance, I would be completely lost. And of course, there’s the elephant in the room – my dishwasher. The firefighters who attended my house said that dishwashers were a very common cause of fire, something which I didn’t know, and would never have thought. I was in the habit of turning on my dishwasher before bed, something which I know many people do. So, I implore you to look again at the pictures I’ve shared, at my stained bedroom, and imagine the smoke filling the house while you sleep, and I promise you, the pictures do not do justice to just how badly damaged everything is (I have grown fond of saying “however bad you think it is, it’s worse than that”). If you often turn on the dishwasher before bed, consider this a cautionary tale – break the habit, and potentially save yourself the heartache I’m now experiencing, or maybe even your own life.

A more complete gallery of images can be seen below:

 

Categories
General Personal

I just want my socks

Dear Lufthansa, Sky Handling Partner, and MultiTrip.com,

I’m writing this while sitting in my mother’s house, wearing almost the only pair of socks to my name. The reason for this begins on Friday night, and almost unbelievably, is still continuing now, as I write this, on Tuesday evening.

On Friday night, I returned to Dublin on Lufthansa flight LH982 from Frankfurt Main Airport. Unfortunately, though my friend and I checked in our luggage together, his case arrived in Dublin, but mine decided it would quite like to extend its stay in Frankfurt by a spell, and never showed up on the luggage belt. I made the fun journey to the Sky Handling Partner desk to report the missing luggage, confirmed my contact details and description of the luggage, and headed home, safe in the knowledge that Lufthansa find most missing bags within the first 24 hours (PDF). 24 hours later, Lufthansa hadn’t found my bag, and I became very familiar with the  phrase “Tracing continues, please check back later.”

Since I travel a lot for martial arts trips, and I’m always aware of the dangers of lost or delayed luggage (and broken bones!), I have multi-trip travel insurance with Multitrip.com (in fact, I opted for a premium level of cover to allow for a larger amount of luggage compensation in the case of loss). Once my bag didn’t arrive on Saturday, I knew I’d need some help or provision for some emergency supplies, so I searched around the Multitrip website and eventually found a number to call. I was redirected to a call centre and told that this line was for medical emergencies, and that I’d have to call the claims team on Monday since they’re only open Mon-Fri, 9-5. I was advised that I should buy whatever I need, and then I could send the receipts in for consideration of refund, but they couldn’t confirm I’d be covered for these expenses.

Anyone who follows me on twitter, is friends with me on facebook, or knows me in general will understand why I had to explain to Multitrip why simply “buying whatever I need” wasn’t an option – shortly before my trip to Germany, I had a house fire. Most of my clothes are not currently wearable, and have been deemed impossible to salvage also, so I had recently had to buy lots of replacement emergency clothes, for which I am, of course, still waiting for a refund from my home insurance. Most of these replacement clothes were in the case that had been lost, leaving me in a very difficult position. Multitrip said there was nothing they could do, I would simply have to wait until Monday.

By Sunday, I was feeling pretty worried that my case still hadn’t been located, so I researched my rights regarding delayed luggage, and came across the Montreal Convention. This is a convention which says that airlines must pay compensation for many of the common problems with air travel, such as delayed flights, denied boarding, and delayed luggage. There are lots of resources which explain the convention, so I was reasonably confident of my understanding of it when I called Lufthansa. Lufthansa told me that, of course, they would pay for my emergency expenses, but only 50% of them. When I asked for clarification, I was told that this was part of the Montreal Convention. Huh?

LufthansaTweet

I checked and double-checked the convention, and all of the sites I had found, and none of them had any statement which implied that airline liability was somehow capped at 50%, so I asked Lufthansa on Twitter to clarify. They told me that any refund is in accordance with their liability policy (PDF), which they linked me to.

I checked Lufthansa’s liability policy, and can find no mention of this 50% provision anywhere there either. Though I have since asked Lufthansa several times on twitter, facebook, and over the phone, I have had no explanation for why this 50% policy seems to be known by every call centre operative, but seems to appear nowhere in their own luggage liability documents. In fact, I was told by one representative, who I spoke to on Monday, that anyone in Lufthansa would tell me that it was 50%, but that they couldn’t tell me why. To do that, I’d have to get in touch with Customer Service, and there is no phone number for Customer Service, I may only write to, or email them. The last time I emailed Customer Service (5/9/12), their reply arrived on the 9th of November, 2 months later…

By Monday, my bag still hadn’t arrived, so I called Multitrip to speak to someone about a claim. This is when I found out that my bags are magic. You see, Multitrip defines a “trip” for me as starting when I leave my “home” (place of residence, not country of residence), and finishing only when I return to my “home”. You would imagine, then, if bags didn’t arrive in Dublin Airport, a place which I am not currently resident, that they would be part of my trip – no, my bags are special. Multitrip only care about your bags on the way out to your destination – in other words, there is only cover for a delayed bag on one leg of your trip. If your bag is delayed on the way home, you’re just plain out of luck. So while I must complete trips by returning to my home, my bags need only fly to my destination, and apparently magic themselves home. I informed Multitrip that I would be cancelling my policy and looking elsewhere, and I can only encourage you to check your own travel insurance policy to see if your insurer also doesn’t care what you lose on the way home.

Shortly after calling Multitrip, I received my first call from Lufthansa – they thought they had found my bag. They were going to try to get it on the 5pm flight, and would call me back to let me know if they had managed it. They didn’t call me back. Monday evening came and went, and with absolutely no clothes available to me, I had to go and buy some supplies.

On Tuesday, when my bag still hadn’t arrived, I called Lufthansa. They told me that there was something wrong with my phone, that the number I gave them must have been incorrect, that no one could get through to me. I found this hard to believe, since my phone is almost never switched off, has a voice-mail facility, and had received multiple calls on both Monday and Tuesday without issue. I confirmed my number (it was correct), and gave them an additional number to try (my mum’s phone). When I arrived home from work that afternoon, they hadn’t called my mobile, nor the alternative number I provided them with. I called Lufthansa again, asking why I hadn’t been called, confirming my details again, and was told that someone would call me back soon to arrange delivery. When I asked why I couldn’t just arrange delivery now, Lufthansa said that the delivery company had to speak directly to me before arranging delivery; so the company that apparently couldn’t call me or leave a message needed to call me or leave a message before delivering my luggage. Great.

I waited another hour or two, and then called again to ask why no effort had been made to call me. I was told that it must have been an issue with my phone (again), that my number was wrong (again), and that it was now too late for any deliveries so there was nothing they could do. My luggage was going to spend another night tantalisingly close, but not with me, because apparently I’m harder to get a hold of than the Doctor.

At about 7.30pm that evening, I received a very interesting call from the delightful Sky Handling Partners (seriously, check out that professional looking site – doesn’t it fill you with confidence?) who wanted to arrange for the delivery of my luggage the next day. After a brief conversation about what time the luggage would come at, I asked how they were able to call me this evening, when they had been completely unable to for the past two days. The answer I got was brusque to say the least. I was told once again that my number was wrong (it still wasn’t), and that there was a problem with my phone (there wasn’t, and still isn’t). When I said that my number wasn’t incorrect, and that I had even provided another number as an alternate contact, I was told that they had tried twice on Monday, that they didn’t have the time or resources to keep calling just one passenger over and over, and that they have other airlines to manage, you know! I tried to ask why they didn’t leave a voicemail if they were unable to get through, but I was cut off, and told that there was no point in going through it all again. I was genuinely appalled at the way I was spoken to, so after terminating the call, I called back to ask to speak to Customer Service so that I could register a complaint. I’m reasonably certain that it was the same, extremely rude woman who answered the phone and told me that they don’t have a customer service department, and if I wanted to register a complaint, I’d have to write, so I asked for the email address in order to do so.

This brings us to today – I’m still without my luggage, though hoping that it will arrive today. The way Sky Handling Partner spoke to me, however, gives me no confidence in the planned arrival of my luggage, and makes me worried about what condition my luggage might be in if it ever does arrive. I have submitted a complaint to Lufthansa about the way this has all been handled (Feedback ID FB-ID 21983388 if you’re reading, Lufthansa!), though I’m not confident about the speed of their reply, and I simply won’t accept this 50% provision unless they can show me where it’s mentioned in that linked liability policy they gave me – how can a company insist on being 50% liable for something that’s 100% their mistake? I’m out-of-pocket for more replacement clothes I’ve had to buy to replace the replacement clothes that Lufthansa lost, and with Lufthansa seemingly only willing to pay 50%, I’m likely to be left out-of-pocket in the long-term. I fly often with Lufthansa, and have always thought of them as a very reliable airline, but these current difficulties have made me rethink that position.

So, Lufthansa, Multitrip.com, and Sky Handling Partner – please, I’m not asking for much. I don’t want world peace, or the Hope Diamond, I just want my dirty socks.

 

Update

Lufthansa have replied to my complaint, thankfully a good deal more promptly than last time. Sadly, the answer they have given is still unsatisfactory, because it doesn’t really answer anything at all:

Dear Ms Keane,

Thank you for your online feedback via www.Lufthansa.com

dated 17 June 2013.

We regret that your checked baggage did not arrive following your flight LH982 from Frankfurt to Dublin on 14 June 2013. Please accept our sincerest apologies for this unfortunate occurrence and for any inconvenience caused. In addition, we are sorry to learn about the unfortunate event that happened to your home prior to your trip.

Luggage is normally handled with accuracy and care and the vast majority is processed without incident. Of course, we realise that statistics are of little meaning to a passenger whose luggage has been delayed and regret the less than positive impression gained. According to our records we are glad that your baggage was delivered on 18 June 2013.

In cases of delayed baggage delivery the customer is entitled, to a reasonable extent and taking his/her standard of living in consideration, to buy consumer items and toiletries which correspond to the content of the baggage which is temporarily delayed.

Please allow us to explain that interim purchases are refunded in accordance with the Montreal Convention and with Lufthansa policy which is, as you are aware, 50% for clothing and 100% for undergarments and toiletries. This procedure fulfils the legal rules and regulations. Should you wish the full amount for your interim purchases to be refunded you may send the items of clothing purchased back to us, along with the original receipts, to the address below:

Deutsche Lufthansa AG
P.O.Box 710234
60492 Frankfurt
Germany

Furthermore, in order for us to process your claim, kindly ask you to provide us with your receipt of interim purchase in PDF or JPEG format along with your complete bank details, including IBAN (International Bank Account Number). Thank you for your assistance in this matter.

Emphasis my own there, highlighting the paragraph where they discuss their policy, but still fail to tell me where exactly this policy is specified. I have responded to clarify that, due to issues in Dublin, my bag was not returned to me on the 18th, but is still in Dublin Airport. I have also told them that their policy explanation is not accepted, because that is not the policy which is stated on their site.

Thank you for your reply, but I’m afraid that while I’m aware of your 50% policy, it doesn’t seem to be stated anywhere in the policy documents which you linked to me, and as such, I don’t see how you could possibly apply it. There is no mention of 50% or sending clothes back in the liability document which you linked me, so I do not accept this option as viable or correct.
Additionally, further issues with unreturned phone calls mean that your records are incorrect – my baggage was not returned to me on 18th of June, and instead is still in Dublin Airport today.
I am not asking you to cover exorbitant expenses and I haven’t purchased expensive specialist replacement clothes – I purchased desperately needed socks, underwear, and the cheapest and plainest t-shirt that I could find while I waited for a mistake that I didn’t make to be resolved, and it is simply unacceptable to state that your policy is to only refund 50% when a) the error was not mine, and therefore I am not 50% (nor any percent) responsible for it, and b) it’s not actually stated in your policy. The policy document sent to me is here – If you could be so kind as to highlight for me where on this page the 50% margin is made clear, I’d be delighted to review it.
At the moment, I am not satisfied to close this complaint.

I’ll keep you posted with further updates if and when they come.

Categories
General Personal

Dad

Don’t think of it as dying, said Death. Just think of it as leaving early to avoid the rush.”  – Terry Pratchett, Good Omens

A little over a month ago, on April 13th, my dad died. Really though, this story begins much earlier than that. In October 2010, my dad was first diagnosed with cancer, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, after finding a lump in his throat. We were told that it was very treatable, even curable, and he began treatment (CHOP). When he began to lose his hair, I shaved his head. He seemed to respond well to the treatment, and at the end of March, he was given the all clear. Unfortunately, after just 5 months in remission, the cancer returned. It had grown and was continuing to grow quite aggressively, and had spread beyond the initial lymph nodes. So, in September 2011, treatment resumed again. The cancer seemed to respond to the treatments (ICE, GemCis, and then Velcade), but only for a while before it began growing again – it was chemo-resistant and very difficult to treat. The stem-cell transplant that we had hoped would take place in January was postponed, as the doctors simply couldn’t clear his blood of the cancer cells.

Dad began to spend increasing amounts of time in the hospital, spending some nights there virtually every week in March. On April 7th, my dad turned 56. We celebrated his birthday, even though he was feeling quite unwell, and thrush in his throat (a complication of his immunocompromised state) made it difficult for him to eat and drink anything. He returned to the hospital on April 10th, and was diagnosed with pneumonia. He saw his oncologist on the morning of April 11th. The doctors explained that they had done everything they could, but that they could not see a way to beat the cancer. They intended to treat the pneumonia, get him out of hospital, and make sure his remaining time was a easy as possible. We thought that we had a few months of time left. We visited that night, and the following evening, and though a little sleepy due to the pain medication for his throat, dad was able to talk to us all.

On the morning of April 13th, when we called the hospital to check in as usual, the nurses told us that dad had deteriorated quite a lot overnight. We all went into the hospital, and spoke to the nurses, asking them to address the elephant in the room: was this it? They told us that he had deteriorated very sharply, and that they were not going to be able to cure the pneumonia either. We asked for an idea of time, and they guessed at a few days. About an hour and a half later, dad simply opened his eyes and stopped breathing.

The days that followed were difficult, but we were greatly helped by friends and neighbours (who were also dealing with another tragedy – the death of our friend and neighbour, who passed away about 30 minutes after my dad). The two funerals took place, on the 17th and 18th of April, and our community rallied together to support each other, and both families, in a way which makes me proud to be a part of the neighbourhood. And then, slowly, we tried to return to our lives.

In the weeks since, I have thought often about my own beliefs. As I’m not religious, and have no belief in an afterlife, there is no comfort for me in the idea that I will meet dad again when I die. I wondered whether, at a time like this, someone with no faith might feel hopeless or lonely, but that hasn’t been the case. In the deep sadness which has underpinned every action in the previous weeks, I have drawn comfort from friends and family, from the wonderful moments of happiness as we remembered dad in all of his grumpy, practical joking, leaving too early for everything, tv-hogging glory. I have been touched by realising how many people cared about my dad and my family, by seeing our very large local church filled to capacity and then some, by the constant hum of activity in our house as people came to see us and say goodbye to dad. I have found solace in all of the messages that I have received via twitter and facebook, from people who have simply been moved by dad’s passing.

I have also thought a lot about my stance on superstitions, psychics, alternative medicine, and my general efforts to think critically about these things, and I’d like to share some observations. Dad died on April 13th 2012, and anyone who is paying attention will note that that was a Friday. Though that particular Friday the 13th will remain as a beacon in my memory, I have no greater fear of Friday the 13th, the number 13, or any associated superstitions than I did before my dad died. Friday the 13th was not responsible for my dad’s death, any more than Saturday the 14th would have been, if he had died 24 hours later.

Dad died of cancer, or more specifically, of pneumonia (and other conditions) associated with his immunocompromised state and cancer. I still believe that the doctors did everything possible to cure him, and that we would not have been helped by alternative medicine. Since dad’s death, I have watched several video advertisements, read articles, and generally been exposed to a number of alternative cancer cures. Though I am upset, and emotionally fragile, I am still not convinced that switching to an entirely plant based diet, having a daily coffee enema, drinking litres of fruit juice, taking antineoplastons, or any of these other treatments would have cured my dad, and if I was diagnosed tomorrow, I wouldn’t choose them for myself either. I still think that people who prey on the ill and vulnerable are wretched, and dad’s death hasn’t changed that.

In the last week of dad’s life, we were told first that he would have months, and then that he had days, perhaps a week. In truth, once he deteriorated, we had only a few hours. This hasn’t shattered my trust in the institution of modern medicine, but rather, has highlighted how, sometimes, patients and conditions behave in unexpected ways. Though stories of people outliving their expected 6 months are often told, there are, I’m sure, stories like ours to counterbalance that. As dad was known for leaving far too early for everything (in case there was traffic, a flat tire, a road closure, etc.) I’d like to think that he just didn’t want to delay! I would, of course, have liked for dad to be one of those stories, and for him to have amazed doctors by living beyond their expectations or making a recovery, but it simply didn’t happen, and truthfully, another 6 months would have been unfair if he would have had to endure the pain and general difficulties that he saw in the last week of his life.

In the past, it has been said to me that a critical thinking position will crumble when the issue is personal – i.e. when it is one’s own family member (or someone to whom you have a strong emotional connection) who is ill, rather than someone you’re reading about in an article. The past month has been one of the most emotionally charged and challenging periods of my life, and I believe, a fair test of this statement. Having tested the theory, I still don’t believe that having kids, experiencing death, or any other emotional upheaval will make me suddenly change the way I think, place less value on rational thought, or make me regret trusting conventional medicine. Or as I like to call it, medicine.

My dad taught me to think and stand up for myself, and made sure I knew that when something appeared to be too good to be true, that it probably was. Even though our lives are changed forever because dad is gone, I’m still me, and I still think the way I did before.

Dad had long maintained that, when he died, he wanted “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” played at his funeral, and we couldn’t but honour that request. A memory which will stay with me forever is laughing through my tears as I heard the congregation whistling along, and I know that dad would have been amused indeed. I’m grateful that we have so many wonderful memories to choose from when we want to remember dad, and they’ll continue to help us smile when things are jolly rotten.

For life is quite absurd
And death’s the final word
You must always face the curtain with a bow.
Forget about your sin – give the audience a grin
Enjoy it – it’s your last chance anyhow

 

Categories
General

Ten miles in the snow. Barefoot.

Yes, in my day, we had to walk ten miles to school, in the snow, barefoot, carrying our books in our hands, while rabid dogs nipped at our cold, snow covered ankles and tried to steal the lunch that we had to work 27 hours a day to pay for. And we were grateful for it! Well, not really, but it seems that any sort of nostalgic discussion must, inevitably, devolve into a sort of odd, one-downmanship where each had it worse than the one before.

As you may have guessed, this is a post about the good old days, and why I think we shouldn’t give them up just yet. Make no mistake, I am a lover of technology. I’m on almost every social networking site, and my iPhone might as well be grafted to my hand with the amount of time that it spends there. I’m a big fan of computing, and the fact that I no longer have to queue in a bank simply to pay a bill has, on occasion, made me giddy. In short, I wholeheartedly embrace our always-on world, and if and when someone discovers a way to simply transmit information directly to one’s head (perhaps through some sort of implanted USB/Firewire port), I’ll be first in line.

With that said, however, I can’t help but lament at the loss of certain skills which are, in my opinion, timeless. Perhaps it’s  a little “Stepford Wife” of me, but I genuinely enjoy cooking – from scratch. When I bake, there are no mixes. When I cook, there are no pre-prepared vegetables. It’s true that it takes a little longer to peel those potatoes, chop those peppers, and dice that meat, but cooking for real has given me so many valuable skills – the ability to follow a recipe, an understanding of different weight and volume measurements (and conversions between them), and, perhaps most importantly of all, the knowledge of what things are made of. It’s this knowledge that helps me to avoid purchasing completely useless and pointlessly expensive products like this:

Pancake Mix

I promise, this is a real product. And the fact that anyone would buy this makes me despair for the future of hungry people everywhere. (If you are someone who doesn’t know why this is so ridiculous, shame on you!) Pancakes are arguably one of the most simple and versatile things you can make in a kitchen, working with both sweet and savoury fillings, and requiring only the most basic ingredients to make – flour, eggs, and milk. Meaning that this pancake mix is, essentially, flour. Flour in a smaller, and much more expensive bag than any other flour available in the supermarket. This fact isn’t even hidden – the ingredients state pretty clearly that basically the only ingredients are flour, rising agents, and a pinch of salt – i.e. self-raising flour. I honestly cannot fathom why anyone would buy such a product…unless there are an awful lot of people out there who are completely unaware of what pancakes are really made of.

This is not just bothersome because I enjoy cooking – it implies that there are plenty of people without a basic knowledge of cooking, something which I consider an essential skill. Convenience foods exist for those times when it’s simply inconvenient to go through the process of preparation, and while a diet entirely composed of them probably isn’t very healthy, they certainly won’t be too damaging. And I’m sure that, sometimes, it’s lovely to be able to bake some bread without having to activate yeast, wait for dough to proof, etc. This isn’t a convenience food though, this is a “we saw you coming” food, as it’s honestly no more convenient that making pancakes the “hard way”, with your unbranded, non-pancake-mix flour. It’s a package of stupidly expensive flour, designed to be bought by people who don’t look at ingredients. And the fact that they continue to sell it (and that people continue to buy it) makes me honestly worry about the future of baking trays and weighing scales everywhere.

There is a genuine joy in making things yourself, and while it may not always be practical, it is almost always fun. For every kitchen disaster, there will always be a really tasty treat (or at the very least, several too-wonky-to-display cakes to dispose of)

Since today is, apparently, National Punctuation Day, I’m going to roll another “back-in-my-day” complaint into this blog – namely, the slow decline of writing and reading skills. (I will save comment on the fact that virtually every day of the year has now been attributed to some cause or other for another blog). Rather than rehash the same arguments about the fact that children no longer read as much as they used to, I’ll simply touch on a few other points instead.

There is a generation of children and young adults emerging from our schools without a number of basic skills such as penmanship, letter composition, spelling skills, and punctuation usage. We are all working increasingly on computers, and this makes it easy to rely on typing as a means of communication, but penmanship is still important. While it is not necessary for every child to have perfect script, it should at least be legible!

One only has to do a quick Google search to see just how many people have no idea how to lay out a letter (be it a personal letter, or a business letter). Reliance on MS Word (and similar) templates, pre-programmed CV templates, and job-search websites has allowed people to simply forget, or worse, not learn how to put together a basic letter. However prominent the internet and email become in business, it is still important that people can put together a professional looking document if they need to. Personally, I cringe when I receive emails that contain the “Hi” and the following message on the same line; I always insert spaces as if I were writing a traditional letter, not just to be a fuddy-duddy, but because it actually makes the email easier to read and understand.

Finally, we come to spelling and punctuation. It is a particular bug-bear of mine that so little emphasis is placed on correct spelling and punctuation. We arrive to school speaking English, and so, very little time and effort is put into teaching any English grammar. In fact, I recall arriving into my penultimate year in secondary school only to find our entire class being given out some handouts and exercises on basic English grammar, because even then, there were people making the same mistakes. Knowing how to spell and use punctuation isn’t just something boring and archaic, it’s an important skill. Correct spelling and punctuation make it instantly easier to understand whatever it is you’re trying to communicate, and indeed, incorrect spelling, grammar, and punctuation actually impact on the speed at which people read and understand text to a measurable degree.

The thing about grammar is that, just like cooking, it’s all bark and no bite. A grammar book might look like an absolute monster, but the truth is that most grammar rules are quite simple, and even make a lot of sense. Just like following a recipe, following those rules and directions will make your final piece, be it a simple email or a preachy blog post, so much better.

Categories
Current Affairs General

Whatever you do, don’t call me an atheist.

It will probably come as no surprise to hear that, on the whole, I’m not a true believer. I don’t believe in God, Allah, Jesus, Mohammed, or any other higher power that is on offer. I have come to this belief (or lack thereof, as the case may be) after many years of thought and personal exploration. I don’t feel the need to “convert” religious people to atheism, nor do I feel a particular need to constantly argue about belief with them. Simply, they believe, and I don’t.

Recently, however, I’ve started including a caveat whenever religion is discussed – I don’t believe in God, but I’m not an atheist. The reason I’ve started doing so is because I find myself disinclined to be associated with some of the more famous atheist names, and some of the more recent atheist activities. I don’t believe in God, but I don’t believe in Dawkins either.

Richard Dawkins is a very talented and intelligent man. His books are interesting, compelling, and convincing reads. Broadly speaking, I believe the same things he does (i.e. in the existence of evolution, that evolution explains our development, that there is no higher spiritual power, etc). I don’t, however, believe that the best way to go about spreading your message is to be abrasive, combative, and, to a certain degree, as extremist as those you deride.

Due to his status as a prominent atheist and his obvious pro-evolution stance, Dawkins appears in countless interviews and programs. One such example, which I found particularly hard to watch, and which demonstrates my difficulty with Dawkins, is his interview with a creationist woman named Wendy Wright. I’ve embedded the first part here, you can follow on to watch the entire interview (7 parts) on youtube.

I found it genuinely difficult to watch this interview all the way through, and probably not for the reasons you might expect. Granted, the creationist is quite annoying and her laugh/dismiss way of answering each question gets old very quickly indeed. But equally annoying is Dawkins’ interview technique; he doesn’t address any of her questions, merely batting them away. Rather than addressing her points, he simply verbally bludgeons her for the duration of the interview. In short, while it is supposed to be an interview, it is actually two people talking beside each other, with neither listening to, or addressing the queries of, the other party.

The documentary “The Root of All Evil?” aka “The God Delusion” is another program which, in my opinion, misses the mark. In this program, Dawkins had the opportunity to address genuine questions and issues, but instead, he simply paraded the worst examples of extremist faith believers possible, to reinforce his own point that religion is the cause of all wrong. While it is true that there are extremist factions associated with almost every religion, the majority of followers of any religion are not represented by these extremists. Choosing only extremists to demonstrate what is wrong with religion is fundamentally flawed – it doesn’t really represent any of those belief systems accurately, and it only demonstrates the beliefs and practices of a minority of followers. Rather than consulting anyone with more moderate beliefs (i.e. one of the majority), Dawkins specifically selects the most extreme believers, knowing that it is much more difficult, if not impossible, to construct an argument for those extremist beliefs that would harm others, for example (who would really argue that it is correct to want all non-Muslims off the lands of Muhammed, and that it is acceptable to resort to violence to achieve that?).

What’s so annoying about this is that it is poor, lazy argument technique. It is harder to paint those with moderate beliefs, the majority, as crazed, dangerous, or insane, so he doesn’t try. And this is exactly the kind of argument that he will not tolerate from any believer, as seen recently in his reaction to the Pope’s comments with regard to atheism and Nazis. The Pope’s comments appear to be directed at atheist extremists, and while it is not made clear what he sees as an extreme atheist, what is clear is that he is, somewhat ironically, employing the same strategy as Dawkins – highlight the worst possible example, and imply that they are the majority. It’s sloppy, lazy, ignorant, and offensive to imply that simply because extremists exist that everyone who believes anything (even if that belief is no belief) agrees with the extreme views. And Dawkins is often as guilty of that as the various Creationists, Muslims, and religious leaders he interviews and rallies against.

I absolutely don’t support the Pope, or any of his declarations that seem to imply the worst of any who don’t believe in God, but that doesn’t mean that I think it’s acceptable to lower myself to his level by painting all religious people as fundamentalist extremist nutters. To do so will, ultimately, achieve nothing; no one will learn anything, it will only serve to prove to each side of the debate that they were right to assume the worst of the others.

Indeed, one could argue that this has been shown by the Pope’s recent visit. The comments made in his speech about atheism rapidly overtook most of the other issues to do with his visit (e.g. child abuse, monies from fund-raising, etc.) and brought out the worst in all concerned, leading to the word Nazi being used more times in the last week than I have seen it used in several years previous. True believers from both sides (yes, atheist “true believers” too) spent the duration of the visit trading verbal blows, and by the time it was all over, both sides were convinced that their assessment of each other was correct. After all, did the Catholics not call atheists Nazis? And did those Nazi atheists not do all within their power to disrupt the Pope’s visit, up to and including threatening arrests, violence, etc? Well, no, not really. An ill advised comment in the Pope’s speech led to a ridiculous game of chinese whispers, resulting in people maintaining that the Pope had said outright that atheists are modern-day Nazis, and overreaction to internet chatter and personal opinion led to prominent atheists (such as Stephen Fry, Terry Pratchett, etc) being virtually tarred and feathered by newspapers, and even to people being arrested, to protect the Pope.

The demonisation of atheism in the media means that many people will believe that the Pope was right to compare atheists to Nazis, and that being an atheist means that you want to murder the Pope, declare anarchy in the Holy See, and redecorate with a combination swastika and pentagram theme. The demonisation of the Pope in the media (mostly internet based, to be honest) means that many people will believe that the Pope actively molested children himself, and that all young people should be kept at a safe distance, lest they be sucked in, molested, and warped by his papal-magnetic-child-bothering field, provided he’s not too busy spending money senselessly and denying any and all accusations.

Time and time again, both sides of the debate engage in the same ridiculous, over-the-top mud slinging, and afterwards, they go home, safe in the knowledge that they were right after all. Surely it is time for a new tactic? Would it not be more effective to ignore the ridiculous comments, and instead focus on the real issues (e.g. child abuse, money, etc)? Would it not be better to prove disparagers wrong by behaving in a dignified and mature way?

Argue against religious belief if you want, but please do so logically, rationally, and well. Using twisted, exaggerated, contorted examples of faith does no one any good, and merely serves to show that fundamentalists exist in every walk of life, even if they choose to call themselves atheists.

Categories
General

Where have all the cowboys gone?

A few nights ago, I arrived home after a wonderful weekend in London. It was dark, and rainy, and both myself and my brother rushed to get into my car and out of the miserable weather which had welcomed us home to Ireland. Unfortunately, in all the rush and excitement (and tiredness too), my brother put down his hand luggage bag in the car park, and forgot to pick it back up before we drove off. We discovered this later that night, and it put a bit of a damper on our otherwise brilliant weekend.

While I didn’t hold out much hope for a return, I filed a report with the airport lost and found, and kept checking their “Found Items” page on the website to see if it had been reported. Imagine my surprise when, 2-3 days later, I got a call to say that the bag had been found. I was pretty happy, and went out to the airport to pick it up. It was when we were confirming that the bag was really mine that I realised that I shouldn’t have been quite so happy – while the books and some other bits and pieces were still in the bag, my brother’s Nintendo DS and charger were gone. That’s right – whoever found the bag first didn’t turn it in. Instead, they went through its contents, and stole from it. How disappointing.

Over the years, I’ve come across many lost wallets, bags, money, etc. And with each lost thing that I’ve found, my first reaction is to wonder where I can turn it in. I’ve looked in wallets and bags to find some identification, I’ve called numbers in phones to try to find the owner, but I’ve never, ever, even considered rifling through the contents and taking what I liked from them. And who would? Who was brought up to believe that it’s acceptable to take someone else’s belongings, simply because they’ve had the bad luck to misplace them?

Once, I found €20 on the floor of my office lobby. I picked it up, and went straight to reception to hand it in. I remember the receptionist looking at me as if I was a bit mad, and saying that if no one claimed it, I could have it. That was the last thing on my mind. I was remembering my time as a college student, when €20 in your pocket made you feel pretty flush, and thinking that if I lost my €20, I’d want someone to return it.

I would always try to return something lost, because I know how frustrating it is to arrive home and discover that something is missing. The hassle of cancelling and replacing cards, the stress of trying to find the missing item, the sadness when you realise that it’s really gone. Apparently, this is not the way everyone thinks. Where have all the cowboys gone?

Categories
General Science

Why I will continue to stand

Even though it is difficult to do so, it is important to stand your ground. It is even more so when people try to pull that ground from underneath you by discrediting you with facts that really have nothing to do with the ground upon which you stand.

My day job is as a web developer. I work for a company which distributes pharmaceutical and other products (such as cosmetics). Until today, my company did not know about my protest, and are most certainly not in support of it or behind organising it. They know now, as I have had to avoid their good name being drawn into disrepute when it is really me that the homoeopaths seek to target.

Today, in an effort to make me look bad and to heap discredit on my protest, people began to throw the name of this company around like mud. This displeases me greatly, as they don’t deserve it.

I will say it, and I will continue to say it. Homoeopathy doesn’t work. I have always believed that it didn’t work. Bogus science is what drove me to get my degree and do my own investigations.

If homoeopathy worked, you wouldn’t have to personally discredit me to prove it, you would just be able to prove it. The fact that you have attacked my credibility, rather than providing evidence, simply shows that the only response you have is to attack me personally. And that puts you firmly on the lower moral ground.

For shame, homoeopaths. Today, you have sunk to a new low.

Categories
General Science

From one form letter to another

So, this week my 1023 campaign has seen a fair bit of media interest, and has had at least one article published so far, in the Sunday Times. The Times, being very fair, opted to let the Irish Society of Homoeopaths and a practising homoeopath, have their say. Both responded with what are fairly typical comments, which I will now attempt to redress.

The Irish Society of Homoeopaths is reported as saying that I, and other campaigners, have no idea how it works:

The Irish Society of Homeopaths has criticised the planned mass overdose, claiming campaigners have “no understanding of how homeopathy works”.

Having done a large amount of research, I would rather argue that I do have an understanding of how homoeopathy works, and it’s probably a better understanding than many practising homoeopaths. I understand that there is no mystical or spiritual properties to the medicine. I understand that the medicine cannot contain any active ingredients as a result of its factor of dilution. I understand that there is no way water can have a “memory”. And, finally, I understand that the comment above is a standard comment, rattled off in response to anyone criticising homoeopathy.

As I’ve said, time and time again, there is nothing in these homoeopathic remedies. There can’t physically be anything in these remedies unless the process of succussion allows homoeopaths to break the laws of physics and chemistry. I also know that water can do many things, and exist in several interesting and unique forms, but it doesn’t have a memory. The water cycle tells us that water exists in a continuum, moving between states, but never being created or destroyed. With that in mind, would you want water that had, for example, travelled through a sewage processing plant, to have a memory of where it had been? There is nothing about homoeopathy that would make water selectively “remember” the minuscule amounts of anything put in it. In short, water does not have a memory, and to suggest that it does, and indeed base a treatment plan on it, is nothing short of ridiculous.

The second quote, from a practising homoeopath (Sheelagh Behan), states:

A highly diluted homeopathic remedy will never act unless the symptoms of the patient fit the specific symptoms that the remedy will treat.

To my mind, this seems to go against certain principles of homoeopathic treatment. For a start, if we are to believe the original “like treats like” principles of homoeopathy, then the medicines should not have no effect. In fact, they should induce the very conditions that they claim to treat. Sleeping tablets should induce insomnia, malaria treatments should induce malarial symptoms, etc. To say that they will have no effect or that they will not act is to ignore one of the founding principles of homoeopathy.

Another principle of homoeopathy is to treat the patient, not the symptoms. Consultations with homoeopaths are frequently long and involve many questions to establish a patient history, so that their symptoms and feelings can be looked up in the big book of homoeopathy to discern a treatment program. This often results in custom remedies being made for the person. With this in mind, and their heavy “patient-first” emphasis, one has to wonder if they support generic over the counter homoeopathic “medicines” being sold in places like boots, where a practising homoeopath isn’t on hand to question. What if the consumer gets their symptoms wrong, and purchases the wrong remedy? Will there be no effect, or will they be stricken with another illness that they are, inadvertently, taking the homoeopathic cure for?

If homoeopathy is truly the highly personal and efficient replacement for modern medicine, then how do mass produced, over the counter sugar pills fit into it?

I call on any homoeopath who is offended by my demonstration to answer the questions above without resorting to bashing conventional medicine.

Categories
General

Love the skin you’re in

Unless the skin you’re in is skinny, of course…

As I was reading the various news sites that I frequent (some for news, some for laughs), I came across another “big is beautiful” type article, and remembered that I had been meaning to post about the subject for a long time. Now seems as good a time as any.

This article in, yes that’s right, the Daily Mail, is what reminded me that I wanted to blog. The article is a self serving puff piece, even more so than usual, since the author is writing about herself.

The title sets the stage for an all to familiar argument – “Alice is beautiful, confident, and the average size of a woman in Britain today…so why does she still feel fat?” I could dash off a quick comment that said she still feels fat because she actually is fat, but that wouldn’t do the article justice when there’s really so much more to it.

The article is a glowing review of life as a “bigger” person, complete will all the usual adverbs – curvy, big and beautiful, etc. However, while most articles merely imply that skinny girls must be starving or dysfunctional, this one comes right out and says it, with choice phrases such as “I look at skinny women and wonder how they can live in such denial. It is not possible to be thin and enjoy food.

I despise articles like this because of exactly that kind of rhetoric. I suppose that I would be considered one of those skinny girls living in denial. After all, I do slip into size 6-8 clothes with little trouble. I also train hard every day to make sure that I still can. I watch what I eat, but I never starve (as anyone who knows me can attest to, I don’t do well when hungry!). I love to cook, to bake, and I experiment in the kitchen quite often – whipping up some sort of dessert or some new dinner based on what’s in the fridge, and I manage to do so without putting on so much weight (unlike the author).

The “average” woman may be getting bigger, but being a “wobbly size 18″ isn’t a step forward in women’s liberation, it’s a health risk. The simple fact of the matter is that it’s not healthy to be overweight. It places increased strain on all of your organs. It puts you at risk for a number of conditions, such as diabetes, heart attack, high cholesterol, etc.

If you really want to be a role model, if you really want to make a difference to women, then why not try doing something that includes all women, not just those that have to shop at plus-size shops. How about campaigning for a consistent size scale across all clothes shops, so that I can go and shop for jeans that are W 28″ L 28”, instead of picking up a 4, 6, and 8 because there’s no telling what any size will be in most shops? Or how about campaigning for some consistency in the existing size numbers, so that a size 6 would be a 6, no matter what shop you’re in?

I understand that you want to be proud of your body, but if you respect yourself and your body, you should look after it. It’s like any other piece of equipment you own – it needs maintenance, and the right fuel to get along. If you don’t fill it with the right stuff, and don’t keep it in tip-top condition, it will break down. And, unfortunately, it’s not as easy to find a new heart as it is to find a new wing mirror.

It seems to me that this average woman is as elusive a beast as the mythical unicorn. I have heard women of all shapes and sizes complain that they can’t find clothes to fit. There may be shops that cater exclusively to plus size women, but I find that I’m often reduced to shopping in the children’s department of big clothing stores such as M&S simply to find clothes that will fit without alteration. The “average woman” must truly have the pick of the litter when it comes to clothes shopping though, since apparently all shops cater to her. I can only hope that, in time, someone with enough influence will manage to change the way clothes are sized so that I can find clothes that look mature and fit well.

The point is this – it’s great that you feel happy about your body, but why does feeling good about being big and curvy have to be inextricably linked with being better than someone who is skinny? It doesn’t have to be this way.

If you want to be a role model, then show people how to be healthy and curvy – it’s possible to be both. Show people that skinny girls can be curvy too. And for goodness sake, lay off of the skinny-bashing!

Categories
General

My New Year’s Resolution

As 2009 draws to a close, many people will be asking the usual question – “What is your new year’s resolution?”. As per usual, however, I’ll be telling them that I don’t have one. As it so happens, I don’t believe in new year’s resolutions.

It’s not because I don’t think that there’s a value in resolving to improve yourself or your life, but rather that I believe that you shouldn’t wait for a new year to roll around before you do so. If at some point, you feel like you need a change because you’re unhappy in your job, in your relationship, etc. then the time to act is at that point, not at an arbitrary future date. You don’t need a new year to come in order to spruce up your CV and/or portfolio, to reconnect with long lost friends, or to decide to spend more time with family. Putting these things off until the new year just means you’re more likely to keep putting them off or leaving them “on the long finger” for a very long time.

Deciding to make life changes around the new year, and then telling people that you’re doing so, can help to motivate you, but in practice, I’ve found that all it does is motivate people to tell others about the changes they’re planning, rather than to actually do them. It’s easy to get caught up in the fuss and noise of it all, and make promises to yourself that are impossible to keep. There is nothing wrong with resolving to exercise more, for example, but if you also resolve to eat better and change your career and sort out your relationship and organise your house and…quickly, one resolution spirals into a glut of resolutions, and the simple fact of the matter is that not even Wonder Woman herself could make all of those changes instantly on January 1st and keep to them without a stumble.

Then there’s all that additional pressure to keep your resolution because it’s a “new year’s resolution”, even if it turns out that the decision wasn’t for the best. You’ve made all of those important promises, and each one is equally important, and what’s more, you’ve made your intentions public too. Looking at it in the stark light of day (or the stark light of January 31st), it should be clear that you’re not setting yourself up for success, you’re setting yourself up for a fall, a fall which will probably be made worse because others around you will know that you haven’t kept your promise (or perhaps, luckily, they’ll be too busy drowning in their own resolutions to notice).

The thing is, spread out over a year, all of those things above are perfectly manageable. With a little hard work and time, you can change your career, or your family life, or your house. It’s just that, unless you’re some sort of Ultra Woman (or Man, because this is an equal opportunities blog), it’s going to be really tough to make all of those changes at once. So, why try? Instead, sit down with a calendar and plan a bit. Maybe February is the month to focus on the house, and March or April a good time to work on your career. Or maybe a little bit toward the career each week, along with a little bit toward the house, can get you moving forward with both by April or May.  Rather than make a glut of impossible promises, just think about what you want to change, and the best way to change it. Not just in December and January, but all the time.

Coming into 2010, why not make a resolution to make sensible resolutions, and then never make another “new year’s” resolution again.