Brexit and Northern Ireland

You probably don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to either. But this is something of a climactic week for the act of supreme national self-harm/heroic crusade to restore national pride that’s been gripping the islands off the western coast of Europe. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is about to deliver her Brexit plan to the House of Commons, where it looks set to be defeated. And what then? No one knows. Everyone seems to know what they want to happen, but no one knows what actually will happen.

So what is Brexit? Well, “Brexit means Brexit,” as May herself famously said, which strikes close to the heart of the recursive absence at the heart of the whole project. For all the talk of restoring national sovereignty that Brexit supporters have spouted, none of the fine details have ever meant so much as the act of Brexit itself: removing the U.K. from the grip of the European project. To which end, they have clung to the slender referendum victory achieved in 2016 with the grim determination of a dying man.

Brexit, like Athena, was born out of the splitting headache that’s afflicted the Conservative (and Unionist) Party in the U.K. for decades. At least as far back as the regime of Margaret Thatcher, a rump of Eurosceptic MPs have made Conservative leaders’ lives hell by putting their anti-Europe views ahead of any other needs. David Cameron, in the manner of Prometheus, decided to resolve the problem by taking an axe to it: having promised a referendum on the subject, he duly delivered in the hope that it would resolve the matter. Unfortunately, what he delivered was not a goddess of wisdom but rather a goddess of discord, who has since spread the Conservative split to the nation at large and the continent of Europe. Cameron promptly departed for parts unknown, and we’ve been living in the world he created ever since.

If the Brexit victory had been a decisive one, delivered on a clear platform, this might not have turned out as bad as it did. Unfortunately, “Brexit means Brexit” was as clear as it ever got. Worse, infighting among the Brexiteers themselves delivered Theresa May as the successor to Cameron—having campaigned against Brexit, she now promised to deliver it, meaning that no one trusted her. Two years of inelegant negotiations have followed, with Europe patiently coaxing along a nation and a party at war with itself. All the details that were glossed over during the referendum campaign have come back to haunt the Conservatives—the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as perhaps the main one—with the result that May’s proposed Brexit solution is a fudge that makes no one happy and seems doomed to defeat.

Which is where I come in. I’ve been crossing that border on a regular basis for 24 years. In the early days, back in the waning years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, most of the border crossing points were closed, and the ones that were in use featured passport and security checks, with watchtowers on overwatch from nearby hills. While the end of the Troubles didn’t bring as much of a peace dividend as Northern Ireland might have hoped (a subject for another day), the border has all but disappeared. Those border crossings are wide open, with the only sign of the change being a switch in the road markings and the units used for speed limits (miles in Northern Ireland, kilometres in the Republic). Brexit’s threat to return this situation to the bad old days is part of the reason why May’s solution is such a fudge.

Part of the argument for Brexit in the first place was for the U.K. to recover control of its borders. Not that it didn’t have that control a few years ago, but in an age where immigrants get blamed for everything, it was a powerful emotional call. It’s certainly one that Brexiteers have harkened back to as their struggle to achieve their goal proceeded by stumbles and flops. Unfortunately, the Northern Ireland border is one stumbling block that refuses to go away, and boy does it make them mad.

There were those who saw this coming, and warned about it back during the Brexit referendum campaign, but their warnings weren’t plastered across the side of buses, so they went unnoticed. Accordingly, when the EU negotiations had to deal with the details glossed over during the campaign, there was a lot of disbelief, frustration, and plain anger. The whole thing is a knot of conflicting desires and promises, and unpicking it is far from easy. But let’s take a dive:

  1. The Northern Ireland border right now is open, as are all borders in the EU. Brexit would see it closed, but that would conflict with…
  2. The Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to the Troubles. Closing the border would breach the agreement, something that…
  3. The Irish Government really don’t want. In this desire they have the backing of the EU, frustrating the hell out of the Brexiteers. One suggested solution is to put the customs barrier in the Irish sea, between Britain and Ireland, but that would cause an explosion among…
  4. The DUP, who are currently taking a break from not running a government in Northern Ireland to spend time holding the whip hand over Theresa May’s minority Conservative government. The idea of closer ties to Ireland than the U.K. is pretty much anathema to everything the DUP stand for, so they’re now even willing to turn to…
  5. The Labour Party, led by old-school socialist Jeremy Corbyn. Strange times make for strange bedfellows, and there’s none stranger than the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian DUP and the red-or-dead Corbyn, whose suspicion of the EU project is long-held and has kept Labour from serving as a capable opposition during the entire Brexit imbroglio. Worse for the DUP, Corbyn has long been sympathetic to…
  6. Sinn Fein (Northern branch), who are taking a break from not running a government in Northern Ireland (with the DUP!) to continue not taking their seats in the U.K. parliament. Like the majority of people in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein are anti-Brexit, but they find themselves impotent on three fronts to do anything about it. They haven’t even been particularly vocal in support of a…
  7. People’s Vote. Essentially a re-run of the Brexit Referendum, this time with more clarity and detail, it’s the favoured option of most Remainers, though the success of any effort to remain in the EU is far from assured. And given the lack of time remaining, the absence of a plan for a new referendum and the poor odds of getting a negotiated Brexit deal through, we might end up with a…
  8. No-Deal Brexit. It’s the outcome that none but the hardest of Brexiteers are hoping for, but it still lurks on the fringes, waiting for its moment. The U.K. (including Northern Ireland) simply drops out of the EU next March, with no new trading agreements in place. Food and medicine shortages and travel barriers all await, and no one knows just how bad it might get.

The frustration among Brexiteers with what their slapdash approach to negotiating with the EU has delivered boiled over this week. Priti Patel, an emblematic figures for a government that’s big on rhetoric and small on detail, complained that Ireland too was likely to suffer from food shortages in the event of a No-Deal Brexit and that the Conservative negotiators should have used this as a lever to get a better deal from the EU. Not only was this wrong-headed on a factual basis—Ireland is more food-secure than the U.K. is—but the spectacle of a U.K. parliamentarian suggesting food shortages as a way of dealing politically with Ireland was historically inept to a staggering degree.

Yet this is where we are right now. Staring down the barrel of a process that began two years ago and has no more certain an outcome now than it did then. Those driving it in the U.K. are more wedded to the ideal than they are to any of the details. Those dealing with it from the outside are restricted to managing the fallout (the Irish government have spent a lot of money preparing for the worst case outcome), and there have been continual reminders that the EU would be happy if the U.K. just gave up on the idea and gave the EU another go.

I’d be happy to see that myself. Not only would it make crossing the border to Northern Ireland in future a less fraught affair and keep those of my family who live there more secure, but I like the fact that the U.K. are in the EU. As grumpy and unwilling a member as they’ve been, they’ve also served in some ways as a counterbalance to the centralising influence of France and Germany. The EU is not perfect, but its contribution to peace and prosperity across the continent has been a strong one. I’d rather see the U.K. inside, pushing for the changes it wants to see, than on the outside, lacking the power to push for changes and having to deal with it in a purely self-interested fashion. If there’s one big benefit that EU membership has brought, it’s confirming that nations, no less than people, are part of a society. Brexit would be a big step back from that understanding.

Advertisements

A Month with the apple watch

I’m one of those terrible people who opt for Mac instead of Windows, iPhone instead of Android. I have an excuse—I’ve been using Apple devices since the Mac Plus, back in the 1980s—and I’ll argue the advantages, but I know the costs too. As much as Apple devices tend to be reliable and enjoyable to use, they’re not cheap. So if I’m going to add to my collection, I don’t do it without a lot of thought.

I’ve been eyeing the Apple Watch for years now. Partly because I like having new shiny technology to play with, and partly because of my mini-ecosystem of Apple devices that it can interact with. However, the earlier versions suffered the limitations of new technology in such a small form factor, and I had cheaper options available to me. It was only with the release of the Apple Watch Series 4 a while ago that I decided the time had come. I broke open my piggy bank and availed myself of some new wrist decoration.

My resulting purchase is the 44mm Apple Watch Series 4 with a Space Grey Aluminium Case and a black Sports Loop wristband. The Series 4 represents a step up in screen quality and device speed over previous iterations, but the basic functions are essentially the same: it’s a combination of fitness tracker, mobile phone adjunct, and, well, watch.

All of these things my previous smartwatch, the late, lamented Pebble Time, also did to some degree, and its colour e-ink screen provided allowed around five days of battery life, at the cost of much slower responsiveness. However, Fitbit’s buyout of Pebble has finally led to support being cut off. Given that the Pebble Time no longer works with my favoured fitness app, Runkeeper, moving to the new platform was an idea whose time had come.

Initial impressions of the Apple Watch were as favourable as they usually are for Apple Products. Out of the box, it paired with my phone and set about downloading watch apps to match those on my phone. The build quality is good too—a month in, and there are no signs of any scratches or damage, which is something that the plastic-bodied Pebble couldn’t boast for as long. Battery life testing revealed that it wouldn’t match the Pebble, but I get two days out of it without struggling, which feels pretty solid.

As for what it’s like in use, the responsiveness that Apple’s custom silicon provides means that simply raising your wrist (it asks during the setup procedure which hand you wear your watch on) brings it to life. Tapping the screen will do the same, and both of these actions will also wake Siri (of which more later). You can pick and choose among a wide range of watch faces, most of which are customisable in terms of look and utility. I opted for the Infographic watch face, which makes a scattering of commonly used apps and functions available through on-face “complications.”

Fitness Tracking

Fitness tracking has become a major feature of the Apple Watch because that’s what people wanted. Not only does it use Apple’s three-ring system to track calories burned, exercise duration, and hourly activity, but it also regularly reminds you to keep up a constant level of activity. I can see how these reminders (which can be turned off through the companion watch app) might become annoying, but as someone who has a tendency towards laziness, especially in the winter months, it’s a useful goad to avoid couch potato status.

Whereas the Pebble Time offered only a step tracker, the Apple Watch adds GPS and heart rate tracking. (There’s even an ECG function, though that hasn’t been enabled in the software yet and may not be outside the U.S.) Both GPS and heart rate tracking work well and consistently, and the battery life is good enough to use it as a sleep tracker one day out of two. One minor issue is that the glass back of the watch irritates the skin on my wrist a little—so it’s best not too wear it too tight or too consistently.

The Apple Watch also integrates well with whatever fitness apps you might be using. Not only can I activate Runkeeper within the watch, but it will also pay attention to what you’re doing at any given moment and ask you if you want to track your activity if you’ve been walking or running for ten minutes or more. As a GPS tracker, it’s great, but in Ireland the LTE version isn’t available yet, as no mobile providers support them. Which brings us to the next subject—the watch’s relationship with your phone.

Phone Companion

One of the reasons that I got the Pebble, and later the Pebble Time, in the first place was to reduce my habit of spending time looking at my phone and its notifications. That effort was … questionably successful, because while you could read the notifications on your wrist, you couldn’t respond to them. The Apple Watch actually allows that, within limits.

One of the big surprises with the Apple Watch for me is how well Siri works.  Simply raise your wrist and talk and it’ll respond. This makes simple actions like setting a timer or a reminder much quicker. You can even use Siri to dictate responses to messages, which again works much better than I expected. Certainly more quickly than the other Watch-specific option of drawing each letter out on the screen. The Apple Watch does provide canned responses to messages too, which are even quicker, if more limited (and easy to accidentally send).

The Apple Watch does a fine job of having some basic phone functions handed off to it. It’s not going to cure your Twitter addiction—thankfully for both you and its battery life, Twitter doesn’t work at all with the watch, beyond delivering notifications. However, if you’re looking for a way to reduce the number of times you take your phone from your pocket or bag, this could help a lot.

The Computer on Your Wrist

As for its most basic function, the Apple Watch is a fine watch. It’s not much to ask, and the WatchOS doesn’t get in the way of that simplest of jobs. In fact, WatchOS is largely solid across the board, with some odd quirks that are the result of the device’s history. The field of icons that used to be how the Apple Watch’s apps were navigated is still there, just a press of the Digital Crown away, and it’s still hard to find the app that you’re looking for in the field.

For the most part though, WatchOS does a good job of easing you into using the Apple Watch, teaching you the basics of the interface in your first few minutes of use, then leaving you to play, as is standard with Apple devices. It’s not the free-standing computer on your wrist that you might want it to be, at least not in the LTE-lacking version, but it’s as close as you can get right now, and if you can forget that your phone is somewhere nearby, there’s little difference. I’ve even indulged in a few Dick Tracy moments of phone calls made through the Apple Watch, though the otherwise solid built-in speakers struggle to overcome traffic and crowd noise. My main regret is that my much-loved AirPods suffered a washing machine-related incident from which they’ve never recovered, as they seem very much designed to work with the Apple Watch.

In short and in summary, if you’ve just skipped to the end to find out, I’m pretty happy with my Apple Watch. It wasn’t cheap, but that’s why I have a piggy bank in the first place—and it’s a lot cheaper than replacing any of my existing Apple devices. A month in and I’m comfortable with having it on my wrist, with the fabric Sport Loop keeping it sat snugly there. I haven’t even played with many of the apps and functions yet, and every few days I find another advantage or two to it. Thus far I’ve had few regrets buying Apple products, and while the Apple Watch might seem like it might be the most frivolous of those purchases yet, it sees as much use in everyday life as any of them.

Passionate Intensity

I’m not a poetic soul, but a few poems have stuck in my head over the years. One of the first was William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” For a kid who was brought up Catholic and always preferred readings from the condensed strangeness that is the Book of Revelations, Yeats’ poem seemed like a distillation and perfection of that theme. Even so, it featured one couplet that my understanding stumbled over.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

As a kid, that never made much sense. How could you be the best if you lacked all conviction? How could passionate intensity be a bad thing? The context of the rest of the poem didn’t help much, revolving as it did around a world falling apart and seeming to approach some kind of apocalypse. Maybe I just needed to mature a bit and learn more about the world, but the meaning of that couplet seems all too clear in these days, when the world is indeed falling apart and the future is looking darker than it has in a long time.

We’re surrounded by people who are full of passionate intensity these days. You see them at podiums, hear them declaiming the facts that they know, endure their scorn whenever you try to engage or argue with them. It’s the age of Trump, but he’s just the most visible modern version of a long-standing situation. Those of us from Northern Ireland will be just as familiar with Ian Paisley, whose granite-cold certainty admitted of no doubt and swept along many others in its wake.

Yeats’ poem is endlessly quoted because it’s endlessly applicable. Within the poem itself, it looked back to the devastation of the First World War, observed the bitterness of the Irish War of Independence, and looked forward to the horrors of the Irish Civil War and the Second World War to come. It seems prophetic because of what came after it was written, but it also simply records what always happens, and the couplet above is central to that.

The passionate certainty of those like Trump and Paisley comes from the fact that they rest their beliefs on certainties of their own. In Trump’s case, his certainty is that he is never wrong and never fails. Paisley’s was his own fundamentalist reading of the bible. If you’re certain, no time needs to be wasted in reflecting on the rightness of your actions: you have a launching point and a direction to travel in. Moreover, others will see your certainty and envy it, seeing in you someone to emulate and to follow. In your certainty, their own doubts will dissolve, or at least be forgotten about. They can forsake their own intellectual work in favour of having answers provided from someone who presents themselves as having them all.

What of Yeats’ “the best,” who lack all conviction, then? If the worst are those who never doubt themselves, the best are those who have spent large portions of their lives examining their own actions, developing a habit of doubt that haunts and slows them. They rarely share the dynamism of the worst, and without gifts of rhetoric or charisma, they struggle to convey just why it’s a good thing to question and to understand. In the world we now live in, “experts” are dismissed when their carefully constructed logic crashes up against dearly-held certainties.

Of course, this is a simplification. The world is complex, and not all of those who interrogate their beliefs are paralysed by doubt.

We’ve been lucky until quite recently, living in the shadow of the twentieth century’s horrors. We’ve had living reminders of the damage that Yeats’ “worst” can do, of what handing over our doubts and fears to those who seem utterly certain of their rightness will lead to. Having a strong public education system helps with that too—the world is massively complex, not least in how the people within it interact, but giving people the tools to decipher it for themselves lets them make an informed decision as to whether they will go along with others’ certainties.

Amazingly, I managed to get all the way through that without mentioning Brexit. Draw your own conclusions from that—or maybe I’ll return to that particular collision of dreadful certainty and earnest doubt at a later date.

The Upgrade Urge—Apple’s October Event

I’m really not in a position to be buying new technology now.* I’m in the middle of a job hunt and I ought to be saving every penny while the employment market remains a fickle, teasing wretch. Why, then, did Apple run an event yesterday designed to remind me that my existing array of gadgetry is but a dusty heap of aluminium and silicon, no more than one careless step from the technological grave?

Yes, all of Apple’s announcement events are supposed to do this. But this one was personal. They specifically announced updates to (almost) every Apple product that I own, and if I find out that Tim Cook did this just to annoy me, I’m going to be … well, I’m going to be impressed. Impressed, but also annoyed.

I wish I was exaggerating. My mostly superannuated selection of Apple technology consists of my elderly Mac Mini, my much-used MacBook Air, and my relatively youthful iPad Pro (which, with accompanying Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard case, has taken on many laptop-style duties over the past year). Everything mentioned in the last sentence saw an update at Apple’s October 30th event, and none of those updates were small ones.

Mac Mini

The oldest of my Macs is my Mac Mini, which has been sitting beside my TV since 2010. It’s done solid service over the years, and I’ve kept it youthful by feeding it as much RAM as it will take and performing some mild surgery to replace its hard drive guts with a solid-state alternative. Yet it’s been slow and clunky for some time now, its major services taken over by an Apple TV (along with my iPhone, the one Apple item I use so much that I often forget it exists), with only the lack of a viable upgrade from Apple keeping me from considering a replacement.

Well, yesterday Apple answered the prayers of us Mac Mini devotees and delivered unto us a new machine, sleek in its smallness, patterned in gunmetal grey, and pulsing with barely contained potency. In other words, it’s been so long since the Mac Mini had an upgrade that Apple was able to claim that the new one is five times faster than its predecessor. Which was a good bit faster than my much older version, so this one would blow the doors clean off if I were to opt for it.

Which I won’t. Not yet anyway. Not because I don’t want to—it’s a desirable little chunk of metal and silicon—nor because I can’t afford to—I can, I just know I shouldn’t—but because, as mentioned above, most of its main duties have now been shifted onto the much more suitable (and cheaper) shoulders of the Apple TV. While not a perfect machine in and of itself, the Apple TV is designed to work through a television and does so nicely. To the point where I’ve ditched cable TV in favour of broadband services. In the meantime, my Mac Mini remains as it is, quietly acting as a media server. It’s happy, I’m happy, and one day we shall part, but that is not this day.

I’m sure the new Mac Mini will sell well anyhow. Just not to me right now.

MacBook Air

My MacBook Air is a little younger than my Mac Mini, being of 2012 vintage. For all that, it’s still running well and speedily, courtesy of having an SSD from the start. I don’t ask too much of it these days, as the battery has long since left behind the days of offering multiple hours’ service, but when I just need to type something, it’s the go-to machine. It’s also survived an unfortunate encounter with a glass of breakfast orange juice, courtesy of a replacement keyboard and some repair guides from iFixit.com—living to suffer another day.

The MacBook Air has seen more regular updates than the Mac Mini, but in comparison to the Retina screen-enabled rest of the Mac laptop lineup, it’s been something of a red-headed stepchild for a while. Minor processor tweaks have bumped up its speed, but the budget Mac laptop was looking a little dated and cheap before yesterday. Now, though, it has been given the Retina screen users have been crying out for, as well as substantial processor and graphics speed bumps and the new butterfly keyboard that Apple is much enamoured of (though its users are more ambivalent). Available in multiple colour options and with a Touch ID fingerprint sensor, the MacBook Air finally feels like a modern laptop again.

Not that I’ll be upgrading though. For a start, all the upgrades have seen its price jump to €1,379 for the base model. Less than the ultralight MacBook or the MacBook Pro but no small beans. The price may well come down in time, but for the moment it’s not really a budget option. Second, my iPad Pro has usurped most of my MacBook Air’s functions in daily life. And that’s what I’ll get to below.

iPad Pro

Having saved up my pennies, I splashed out on an iPad Pro just over a year ago. This was very deliberately meant to be a laptop replacement—I added a Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil to the purchase, and I made sure the device itself had plenty of storage onboard. In the year since, I’ve been more than happy with it. It’s light enough to tote anywhere, powerful enough to handle anything I care to throw at it, has a good enough battery to last for days at a time, and is a serviceable enough typing machine for me to write a NaNoWriMo novel on it last year. All in all, I like it a lot.

This love wasn’t ended by Apple’s announcement of a new iPad Pro yesterday, but maybe it was dented a bit. The new machine is both an upgrade and a refinement: faster and better looking, with the physical Home/Touch ID button removed in favour of a Face ID camera system. The gadget ecosystem has been upgraded too, with a new Smart Keyboard case that provides a better typing experience and better protection and a new Apple Pencil that locks magnetically to the iPad for safekeeping and charging. As is not unusual for an Apple upgrade, everything just feels a little better, a little fresher.

And I won’t be buying one. Of course I won’t—my iPad Pro is only a year old. I’m not crazy! Much though I may envy the improved gubbins that my newly aged device will never provide me with, it does everything I need to it to with aplomb, and nothing other than an excess of cash and a sudden break with reality could persuade me to spend that much on such (ultimately) minor improvements.

Technological envy is a real thing, but patience works as an antidote. The tech you’ve got will serve you well, and the longer you wait, the better the reward when you finally do decide to splash out. Whether it’s for one, six, or eight years, the upgrade urge can be resisted, no matter how well Apple targets its events at you.


*This hasn’t stopped me. I broke open my piggy bank** to add an Apple Watch to my Apple menagerie just three days ago. A review will be forthcoming once I’ve been using it for a while.

**Actually a real thing, but also actually a cow bank. It was a present from a friend. Don’t judge me.

Election Relief

Last night, I was worried. Yesterday we had another public vote here in Ireland, and with reports of low turnout, the result seemed to be more in doubt than it had been just a few days before. Things haven’t gone as badly as I feared, but there’s still worth to seeing how it came to this.

There’ve been quite a few public votes in recent years, between referenda and actual elections, and they’ve attracted attention beyond our own borders, for good reason. This time, we had both an election and a referendum—the former to choose a president for the next seven years and the latter to decide whether to remove a requirement to legislate for blasphemy from the Irish Constitution. At the moment, final results are being tabulated, but it seems that worries I had late last night about the outcome won’t bear fruit.

The less interesting vote was the referendum on removing the reference to blasphemy from the constitution. The reference was widely seen as an anachronism, but unlike earlier referenda on gay marriage and abortion, this one didn’t inspire much in the way of vitriol on either side, apart from some of the usual figures opposing the change. Right now it looks like the 37th Amendment to the constitution will be passed with support from all age groups. Instead, all the controversy in the final days of campaigning revolved around the presidential election.

At stake in the presidential election was whether or not current President Michael D. Higgins would be returned for a second seven-year term. Higgins had campaigned in his first election on serving only a single term, but he’s proven a popular and even well-loved incumbent, and despite his age he’s in tune with the progressive mood that’s seen Ireland tackle some of the darker elements of its past and return those referendum victories in recent years. As such, it was possible that he would stand unopposed, as has happened with the Irish presidency several times in the past.

That this didn’t happen was mostly down to Sinn Fein. By promising to put their own candidate in the race (something no other political party did), they ensured that there would be a race. In this, they were continuing Sinn Fein’s efforts to whitewash the party’s public image, to the point where it might be seen as a valid party of government in the future. That this gambit seems to have been less successful than they hoped was partly down to their own candidate, Liadh Ní Riada, who struck a condescendingly aristocratic figure in the debates, and partly down to the candidates who followed in their wake.

With the major parties unwilling to challenge a popular incumbent, there were no popular or experienced candidates in the field. Instead, Higgins’s challengers came from the political fringes or from reality TV, specifically the show Dragons’ Den. Rounding out the field in addition to Higgins and Ní Riada were Senator Joan Freeman and businessmen Gavin Duffy, Sean Gallagher, and Peter Casey. For most of the campaign, the challengers lagged far behind Higgins in the poll. Then the election took its reality-show businessmen trend a bit further down the Trump line.

Peter Casey, largely undistinguishable from his Dragons’ Den cohorts, decided to bolster his campaign with some anti-Traveller bigotry. The Travelling community in Ireland, both north and south, has long been an easy target for this kind of political grandstanding, and Casey threw in some welfare-dependency jibes for good measure. There’s always an audience for such rhetoric among those willing to blame the less fortunate for their troubles, and Casey enjoyed a predictable boost in his polling numbers amid the controversy, as he at first seemed to consider withdrawing, then doubled down on his rhetoric.

While I’ve been writing this, the final results have come through. Higgins has indeed won a second term with 55.8 percent of first preference votes, with Casey taking 23 percent and no other candidate reaching 7 percent. Plenty of people (again, the usual candidates) have been rushing to put Casey in a Trump-like position, arguing that he only said truths that the “establishment” would prefer to suppress and that the media conspired against him. Which is a little rich given that Casey’s surge relied purely on his willingness to play the media game, ginning up controversy to get support from the permanently dyspeptic.

That 23 percent figure, you see, is something that’s been visible in politics and culture for a long time. I first noticed it during the presidency of George W. Bush. No matter how incompetent or hateful a regime, if they pay at least lip service to the grievances and bigotries of their supporters they’ll rarely dip below 20 percent approval ratings. Stirring up hate and resentment works as a strategy.

Which is why I was worried last night when I heard that turnout for the election was low. After all, getting voters inspired to vote is how Ireland has seen referendum-driven change in the past few years. With Higgins seen as a certainty and few people inspired by the blasphemy referendum, only Casey voters were genuinely driven—even if only by their own personal hatreds and the promise of a candidate who seemed to reflect them.

That inspiration served to take Casey only to 23 percent, but he may well spend the next few years trying to spin it into a political role. Certainly others will be pushing him to do so now. For the rest of us, who heard his rhetoric and looked to recent events in the UK and the US with a shiver, it serves as a warning. There’s been a lot of positivity in recent years, as the Irish, especially the young, have been reminded that elections actually do matter. However, taking success for granted is only a positive form of apathy to replace the more cynical apathy that existed beforehand.

Ireland isn’t immune from the ravages of Trumpian or Brexit-like campaigns. We have advantages of size and culture (the lack of any pretensions of power) that make such campaigns harder to get started, but as Casey’s antics show, there’s always an audience for them. The only answer is engagement, staying active, and speaking out. Let’s hope this proves to be a blip rather than the beginning of a trend.

Moments of Clarity

Autumn is my favourite season. I may be a little biased because I was born in September, but still. There’s a clarity you only get in autumn, when it’s too cool for a heat haze but the sun is still strong enough to burn away the mist and fog. On days like that, you can see all the way to the horizon in perfect clarity, every outline sharply delineated.

This blog has, after around seven years of life, undergone a bit of a facelift. Part of that is the new title. When I first created it, the intent was to document some travels I was planning and provide a replacement for the LiveJournal site I’d been using for years. (The archives of that site are available through the link above.) Given that the LiveJournal site had been a collection of random thoughts, the process for creating a title mostly consisted of coming up with some vaguely pretentious and throwing it up there. “The Limits of Human Imagination” was vaguely pretentious enough for my purposes, and it’s served in a mediocre fashion ever since.

So why the new title? “The Clarity of Now” seems just as vague and pretentious, right? Well, there’s a little more thought behind it this time. This past twelve months have seen as much upheaval as I’ve had to deal with since, well, the year that saw me set up this blog in the first place. In fact, a lot of the events of that time have echoed in the past year. The main difference is that I’m not the person now that I was then. I have – I hope – more insight into myself. More clarity, if you will.

The Clarity of the Now, then. Why? Because I’ve come to understand that now is the only thing we can have clarity about. The future is always unformed, and all the worrying and obsessing that we might do about it won’t change that a bit. The past might seem more solid, but try to recreate that past and you’ll find that memories aren’t to be trusted. We’re prone to obsessing about past mistakes and regrets just as much as the future and to as little purpose. The past is fixed and gone, providing lessons to learn from, and the future remains unborn in the now that we have and that we create moment by moment.

You may have noticed that it’s not just the titles of my blogs that tend towards pretension. That’s okay. This is a statement of purpose going forward, so I’ll allow myself a little bit of pretension this once.

I’ll still keep writing about my travels, whenever they happen. And when I have time, I’ll add more detailed diaries of those travels under the travels tab above. (Including the long-delayed addition of my Greek odyssey.) I do have some new travels planned, for all the craziness of this last year.

I’ll get back to writing reviews too, as my cultural consumption gets back on track. Thinking about how I react to what I watch, read, and play is something I enjoy doing, and it’s good to have an outlet for that. Plus, whoever reads this might get pointed in the direction of something they’ll enjoy, which would be a bonus.

The main thing though is to start doing something that I’ve wanted to do for a while: talk about the world as it is and what might be done about it. About politics, society, the environment. I’ve made multiple abortive attempts at this already, only to pause and reconsider, daunted by the scale of the subject. Well, I’m going to try again, and this time I’ll stick with it. A single person may only be able to make a small difference, but there are so many people making an effort already, and it’s the pebbles that make the avalanche. I’ve done little pieces here and there, but this pebble is tired of being stationary.

So that’s the reasoning behind the revamp. The acceptance that the only clarity there is is now. These are serious times, but there’s light to be found, and we can see all the way to the horizon, even at sunset.

Portugal – Escape to the Atlantic Coast

Belem Tower, perhaps the best known sight in Lisbon, if not all of Portugal.

Dublin around the time of the Ides of March is a perilous place to be, packed with tourists and locals eager for an excuse to party and imbibe a beer or two. Getting from one end of O’Connell St to the other can take up most of St. Patrick’s Day if you’re unwary. Most years, I stay at home while the parade’s on or make the most of the long weekend in quieter gatherings with friends. This time I took myself out of the country entirely and spent five days in Portugal instead.

This isn’t a thorough description of what I did on that trip. If you want that, you can check it out here: Portugal 2018 What it is is a brief run through the best parts of the trip, which took in two cities, lots of walking, and nearly as much in the way of custard tarts. I’m not sure how well the latter two balanced out in the end, but I hadn’t put on any weight by the time I came back.

Continue reading Portugal – Escape to the Atlantic Coast

Travels, Reviews, and Assorted Musings