Asimov, robots, humans, gods

Indo col 43:

Isaac Asimov loved the future. As a professor of biochemistry and prolific science fiction writer, he wrote or edited more than 500 books, along with a vast archive of correspondence. He is considered, along with Robert A Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke, one of the greatest names in sci-fi. Asimov’s embrace of the future and all its endless possibilities is still heartening two decades after his death – he once wrote ‘I do not fear computers. I fear the lack of them’. It’s a sentiment we can all relate to, given how we freak out if we leave our phone at home by mistake and have to spend a working day without Candy Crush or Facebook, or if our WiFi isn’t allowing us to download every film nominated for an Oscar this year in less than five minutes.

One of Asimov’s most notable contributions to sci-fi are his laws of robotics, conceived as part of his idea of positronic robots – benevolent machines that would ultimately help us make a better world. The laws are: 1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Watching the latest video from robotics experts Boston Dynamics, you can only hope that they have those laws written in huge letters on the wall of their lab. The US company are known for releasing videos showing their latest developments in mechanical evolution – first they made an ungainly tetrapod that could run, albeit in an awkward fashion. Then they showed it going up and down stairs, which as any Whovian would tell you was the only way to avoid history’s most terrifying robots, the Daleks.

But last week’s video from the firm was their most unsettling yet. It showed one of their robots politely opening a door and letting another robot through it. This proved all our worst fears – the robots have developed manners. This is how they will get us, through simple acts of kindness. One by one your co-workers will be replaced by biomechanoid drones, and you won’t even complain as one of them made you a cup of coffee, fixed the printer for you, or bought you a pint on a work night out. ‘01001001001? Sher he’s grand, he covered for me the day I went home early with a hangover, sound lad, apart from his dead soulless eyes’.

Next thing you know the robots are showing up at county board meetings talking about how the grassroots club-bots are the binary code of the GAA, or at community litter picks where they win everyone over by virtue of having hoovers for arms. Then they will be running for a council job, promising to fix the roads by offering us all flying autonomous cars that will gets us home safe and sound after enjoying a skinful of their new alcoholic beverage Soylent Green, which tastes slightly familiar, mainly because it was made from members of your family.

I say we reject these polite robots and the terrible future they offer – let’s stick to malfunctioning printers and fax machines, or the most reassuringly awful technology in existence, self service checkouts; yes there is a bag in the checkout area you bleeping moron, I just told you it’s there, dear god where is a human when you need one?

The humans, it would appear, are still very much here. The comfort in the Boston Dynamics videos is that these robots are not completely autonomous – there is still a human within the operations somewhere.

It is in Artificial Intelligence that our quasi-luddite fears become genuine concerns. It’s not that robots will start wiping us out, a la Terminator – although some might argue that drone strikes already do that for us – but that a robot could do our job for us. The advice from the experts would appear to be – find a job that needs you to be human. Great advice for any heavy hitting earners: accountants – algorithms made flesh, medics – Dr Google, anyone?, and solicitors – settle everything with a drone strike!

In fact, it’s hard to think of a job that couldn’t be taken by a decent, polite robot. Who hasn’t sat in the back of a taxi wishing it was a Johnny Cab from Total Recall with a mute button to shut off the banter? Or dreamed of a robot stylist as your barber chats about the footie when all you wanted was to stare at your own reflection, contemplating your decaying cells as he trims your ear hair? Who hasn’t read this column and wondered if I wasn’t really written by a malfunctioning Furby, randomly rolling around on the keyboard? The robots are coming, not for us, but our jobs.

I look forward to a day when human resources departments are exactly that – a screening process to stop these chrome interlopers from taking our jobs. A trip to HR would be a lot more fun if they were all tooled-up Blade Runners, ditching their psychometric testing in favour of a Voight-Kampff machine, ready to weed out any ‘bots who got past their interviews and blast them in the head. First up they should test Barry from accounts, I’m fairly sure he is a robot as there’s something off about him, not least in the fact that he is always humming.

Asimov’s understanding of technology wasn’t what made him such a great writer, but in his understanding, like all great sci-fi writers, of what makes us human. God created us in his image, and our biggest fear is that we might do the same with robots – that they could be imperfect, damaged creations like us. If we adhered to his laws of robotics, the world might even be a better place. As Asimov said, the saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.

 

Bill Linnane – misogynist, love and other drugs, war, shifting

Indo col week 42, a Valentine’s special which has somehow made me History’s Greatest Monster.

I am not especially romantic. My wife would say that I don’t have a romantic fibre in my being (as opposed to not having a ‘romantic bone in my body’, which sounds odd), but I see myself as being romantic in a practical way. The kids wake at 5am, I’m the one who gets up with them, when she comes home from work I have her dinner ready, and I am a regular Sisyphus when it comes to dragging bins up and down driveways. I do, however, have my inspired moments, and one of those was the first time I kissed her when we were teenagers. I spotted her across the dancefloor during the slow set in the local nightclub, walked over to her and, without saying anything, kissed her. Amazingly, she didn’t punch me in the mouth or call security, although she probably regrets that decision from time to time, such as on Valentine’s Day 2011 when I gave her a thermos flask as a gift (with no card). I tried to talk my way out of it by saying it was a symbol of our nourishing, warming love, but apparently it was a symbol of what a terrible husband I am, and was thus dispatched to the charity shop, unopened, where it nourished the coffers of the National Council For The Blind.

I like the story of our first kiss, and imagine that some day, I will tell it to my grandkids. One detail that I would probably omit was the fact that I was on ecstacy at the time of that first kiss, because nobody wants to think that they might not be here if it were not for grandad’s substance abuse problem.

We dated briefly, then she dumped me as she came to realise that I wasn’t dark and interesting, I was just mental and was treating my body as some sort of chemical recycling centre. We went our separate ways, but a couple of years later, we dated again, with the same result, although she does console me by telling me that it wasn’t just that I was mental then too, it was also my shiny Ben Sherman shirts and Jean Paul Gaultier cologne.

Obviously I made some adjustments – working on my mental health, releasing drugs are a cancer of your soul, and also buying some new clothes – and not long after 9/11 the new me sauntered back into her life, using the destabilising of the geopolitical climate as an opening line: ‘Wow this situation in America is so intense, would you like to go for a drink to help us both relax?’ And so it was that we fell in love at roughly the same time that America fell into its various military quagmires across the Middle East. Seventeen years on, our love – like the USA’s madcap crusades – is still going strong.  

Love isn’t always about finding your heart’s counterpoint in another, or a soulmate preordained to be your special someone. Sometimes it’s just finding someone who is the right kind of crazy for you. As our ancestors would put it, for every auld sock there’s an auld shoe. Even the most black-hearted nihilists would have to admit that if Fred and Rosemary West were able to find each other, then there is hope for us all. Although obviously, real love doesn’t involve quite so much murder.

Astute readers will probably assume the reason I’m writing this is as some sort of cheapskate Valentine’s gift when I should be paying a skywriter to take to the air and spell all this out in chemtrails. Sadly, my wife doesn’t read this column, informing me that it’s bad enough having to listen to me droning on at home without having to endure me in print as well. I can’t say I blame her, as even to me my voice sounds like a hoover with a clogged filter. The fact she doesn’t read this also gives me an upper hand in arguments ‘You never support me, you don’t even read my column!’ So that’s checkmate on the thermos flask.

My wife and I fell for each other because we saw the same sadness in each other that we felt inside. We were less like the two halves of some gilt-edged heart-shaped locket and really more like the two halves of a troubling Rorschach print. I can’t look back on our life together and cherry pick the good things from the bad; sometimes our poor choices led to great things, and it’s impossible to separate my teenage self-destruction from our first kiss and the great adventure that it started. To quote Shaw, we all have skeletons in our closet, it’s just that sometimes you have to take them out and make them dance, even if it’s for a slow set like this one.

Brexit of champions, Irexit, Barrage, freedom

Wee 41 of the column and this time I get political, with terrible results.

As a portmanteau, Brexit works quite well. It rolls of the tongue, and its similarity to the word breakfast gave great material to headline writers: Full English Brexit, Brexit buffet, bed and Brexit – all potentially great headlines. Granted, none of them make sense right now, but you just come up with the snappy headline first, and then everything follows after that, much like Brexit itself, or when Elton John out on loads of weight and some wag in the tabloids ran the photos because a sub came up with the headline ‘Goodbye Normal Jeans’.

Sadly, the only part of Brexit that appears to work so far is the term itself. The tidy little quip  is the only part of the UK’s will they/won’t they trial separation that isn’t a dysfunctional mess. Yet somehow, there are some who think that Ireland should adopt an ideology that neither works as a portmanteau nor as a concept – Irexit.

From the get go, this word does not work. It is clunky, and slows down your eye as you try to figure out how to pronounce it – Ire-Zit? I – regsit? Or perhaps the gallic Irezii?  Surely whoever forced this term into existence could have tapped into the usual seam of rampant nationalism by offering us ‘Ourland’ or ‘Hiberniaaah go on’, with a poster of Mrs Doyle in full Nazi regalia. No, they went with Irexit instead, and even hosted a conference around this stupid theme.

I was glad to hear there was a solid turnout from that most silenced of majorities – white Christian males. They are the voiceless ones in society, they were told, and who could possibly disagree – the last thousand years of human history is devoid of any mention of this vast, annoying section of society. How many times have you offered an opinion on human rights on the internet, with no-one jumping into your timeline to tell you how things really are for the struggling gender. Where oh where are all the angry white men you wonder, as you yearn for a flood of ‘well actually…’ corrections, casual racism, nonsense logic and death threats. Who will stand up for the forgotten millions of angry white blokes? Nigel Farage, that’s who.

As a preamble to his headline slot at the conference, Farage went on Marian Finucane’s show to offer some thrilling insights into Irish history, pondering why we fought the British for our freedom only to be ‘ruled by Brussels’. It seems a little childish to bring up the 800 years of brutal British rule again, but it’s hard not to. While his ancestors standing back as we died of starvation in our millions may seem like ancient history, it’s still a bit of a stretch to compare the EU building a load of roads for us to the brutal rule of a nation that saw our people as akin to dogs. Still, perhaps Nigel’s grasp of history isn’t that great, as last September he somehow ended up talking at a far right rally in Germany after being invited there by the granddaughter of Hitler’s finance minister. Surely he wouldn’t have done that if he had even the vaguest knowledge of the Holocaust, would he?

The themes of the Irexit conference were the usual smorgasboard of half-baked notions held by the angry white men of the internet – the media is silencing them (despite much of the audience on the day being journalists), the EU has too much control over Ireland (despite the clear evidence that Ireland really could have done with a lot more control in the years 2005-2007) and Nigel is the man to lead us into this glorious future (‘us’ being an army of internet weirdos).

What made the conference more remarkable was that people actually paid to go and see a man who looks like Kermit the Frog and sounds like Oliver Cromwell tell them in a plummy English accent that they should do what he says.

The turn-out at the conference was reassuringly low, but the problem with events like this is that it gives legitimacy to an ideology that is inherently wrong.  No matter how I chortle at it, I know that there are people who will read the coverage and think that Farage is right, that civilisation is falling, and immigrants are to blame. The Farage Roadshow may make for a laughable affair to most of us, but there are many who find truth in his lies, who believe they are oppressed, or under threat, or are the guardians of their race. You have to question where the line is between emboldening the supposedly disenfranchised white Christian males to become politically engaged, and the sort of deranged anti-immigration rhetoric that led to Thomas Mair murdering Jo Cox in cold blood. How far do the right have to go before they are seen as a threat to democracy, to decency, and to civilisation?

Do we really need Farage and his ilk, bringing their PT-Barnum-meets-Joseph-Goebells sideshow here, trying to set up our own Alt-Right here – or Alt-Deis, to use the gaelic? We’re only just getting over a hundred years of having lads in black marching around, preaching at us about how to live our lives, and frankly, we’ve really had enough; we need to be more open, more connected to Europe and less insular. So to to quote Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets, go sell crazy somewhere else Nigel, we’re all stocked up here.

 

Ash Valentine’s, Nollaig na mBan, huntsmen, love

Week 37 of the column:

Rejoice, cheapskates of Ireland – the stars have aligned and for the first time in decades, St Valentine’s Day, February 14, is falling on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. This is a true sign from the heavens that Jesus is a dude, as now none of us have to rush out buying chocolates or booking a table for two in a fancy restaurant, because this year the Lord has directed that we make do with some dry toast and a cup of black tea (no sugar).

Even in my godless house it was welcome news, as I still like to respect traditions, especially when they share my core belief of saving as much money as possible. I’m tempted to offer my vastly better half a lovely bouquet of rosaries, or relaxing ash facial at the local church, but instead I’m going to opt for what I get her every year – almost nothing. If that fails and she gets incredibly upset (highly likely), I can just tell her that she will get her real Valentine’s gift when Lent ends on Easter Sunday, which this year falls on April 1st, meaning her actual gift would turn out to be the gift of humour, as I don’t really have any gift for her at all. April fools!

Her celebration of Nollaig Na mBan went well, despite me mistakenly telling an elderly relative who phoned looking for her that she was off out for Cumann na mBan, leading to concern among her family that being married to a struggling writer was having an ill effect on her politics. But even Agnes O’Farrelly would have been proud to know that first order of the night was that great tradition of Women’s Little Christmas – a strip show. However, this one wasn’t some gratuitous commercialisation of the human form – it was The Full Monty for charity, although I think any woman voluntarily being subjected to an undressed male is an act of charity in itself.

The charity in question was the fund for a local community playground, because of course a children’s play area is what you think of when you heard the words ‘live male nude revue’ – a sort of Full Montessori, if you will. It was all in good spirits and through hard work, dedication and a lot of baby oil, the lads raised enough (money, you pervert) for the playground to be built, which hopefully will lead to many puns about zip lines, swinging and seesaw-yer-da’s-arse. The end of my wife’s night was nearly as thrilling as the start, as she received a half decent proposal at the taxi rank. I had her forewarned that there is a special breed of man who pointedly goes out on Women’s Little Christmas – he has crunched the numbers and he realises that with all the men folk minding the kids, and all the wives out on the lash, statistically speaking his odds are way above normal.

And so it was at the taxi rank that the local lothario set his sights on her. He told her that, serendipitously enough, he had only just separated from his wife the weekend before, which sounded like a fairly lousy way to ring in the new year. It must have been like watching When Harry Met Sally while it’s being rewound. He also invited my wife back to the hotel he was staying in, which was a smooth play as it told her that he was as feckless with his wallet as he was with the rest of the contents of his trousers, whilst also letting her know that he was technically homeless, which is very chic right now.

Somehow she managed to resist his charms – and his invite to take a stroll down the darkest alley in Munster – and come home to me, so she could giddily tell me she has still got it, before guzzling an Alka Seltzer and falling asleep for ten hours.

When I worked in a local paper, there was an elderly gentleman who would write to the letters page. They were on a variety of topics, but it was the ones about his wife I remember, as they all followed the same formula. He would recall sitting on the bus or train next to this beautiful woman, they would chat, and really hit it off, they would get off at the same stop, and they would – plot twist – both go to put their key in the door of the same house at the same time, because – spoiler alert – the beautiful woman was his wife of 37 years. When I first read them I thought they were a waste of newsprint, but as the years go on I realise I am slowly becoming him. I don’t need the huntsmen of Nollaig Na mBan to hit on my wife to know that she has still got it – I tell her all the time that she is a genetic freak (in a good way) as she has somehow managed to stay the same despite me burdening her with four children, the domestic equivalent of the hobbling scene from the film Misery. She still shines like she did when I first saw her at the local fair in 1989. Of course if you lived within earshot of our house you could testify that it isn’t all smiles and sunshine. Our relationship is like plate tectonics – two land masses collide, there are angry earthquakes and sexy eruptions, but over time all the rough edges smooth away. That said, I don’t really understand how either plate tectonics or relationships work.

She didn’t need to wake me at 3am to tell me about her fun night out, as I was, as usual, lying awake waiting for her to come home. It’s not a conscious thing, but we both do it – you just don’t sleep right when you know the other one is out, because life can be cruel and fickle, and there is a sense of dread lurking within you that your little cocoon may someday go pop. Of course, it isn’t always some terrible tragedy, accident or mishap. We used to live near a block of apartments that was known locally as Bold Boy’s Corner, due to the high number of separated men living there. It was conveniently located next to a McDonald’s, and you would see the McDads there on the weekends with their kids, sad faces all round. My Women’s Little Christmas was a solid reminder that I am fortunate to have found somebody to love and who loves me in return, and who isn’t going to leave me for a fundraising male stripper or desperate single dad who lives in a hotel room. Perhaps I will just start Lent on February 15 instead.

 

Footnote: The chap who hit on my wife happens to be in one of these photos.  Just saying this in case I end up in a landfill.

Run, fitness, fatness, run some more

Week 36 of the column, in which I stare at myself naked in the mirror, crying:

The Rarámuri are an indigenous people who live in the mountains northwestern Mexico, in the Sierra Madre. They didn’t always live here – this is where they fled to when the Spanish arrived in the 16th Century, and their remote location kept them safe from harm and from many attempts by various agents of ‘civilisation’ to homogenise their culture. It would appear that it was a wise move as many of their customs and traditions remain intact, such as the tesgüinadas, a sort of beer festival that they hold several times a year. Much of their social activity revolves around the tesgüinadas, which they hold to ask for rain, cures, or a good harvest. They also hold these festivals to mark Sunday gatherings, Holy Week celebrations, and curiously enough, race events. Despite having a thriving drinking culture, the most notable aspect of the Rarámuri is their ability to run – in fact the word Rarámuri, their own term for themselves, means those who run fast. While they do run fast, it is the distance they can run that is remarkable, as they seem to be natural-born ultramarathon runners. In May last year a 22-year-old Rarámuri girl, wearing a skirt, homemade flip-flops with an old rubber tyre for the sole, won the Ultra Trail Cerro Rojo, a 50-kilometre race through the mountains. María Lorena Ramírez had no special equipment, just a bottle of water, and she beat 500 runners from 12 countries. The year before, the goatherd came second in the 100-kilometer category of the Caballo Blanco ultramarathon in Chihuahua. But the success of the Rarámuri isn’t just about terrain – last November a Rarámuri family were finalists in the Polar Bear Marathon in Manitoba, Canada, where the temperature hit minus 20 C.

The Rarámuri are a reminder of the role running has had in human history, how we were able to use it to run from danger, chase down prey, and now, as we slowly eat and drink ourselves to death, it could be what saves us all.

I hated running, but I loved exercise. I started going to gyms two decades ago, and since then there were very periods when I did not train at least three times a week. While most people enjoy the social aspects of team sports, I loved the solitude of the gym, with my headphones on, working through stress and calories at the same time. But running was torture. About six years ago I realised that with a young family, the early morning was the best time to exercise, and that I would need to find a way to do it that was time-efficient, and non-dependant on gym opening times. I would, I realised, have to start running.

So I would be out pounding the road at about 5am. People used to look at me funny when I would tell them this – and, to be honest, when I would encounter another runner I would often think ‘what’s that quarehawk up to at this time of the morning?’ But in running I found a peace that I never found in gyms. Out there, with no-one around, I was all alone with my thoughts, in rain or ice or snow, hammering at the roads and enjoying the loneliness of the short-to-medium distance runner. I never ran more than five or six kilometres, and if I didn’t feel great, I would run slowly (or walk quickly), like you do in the office when someone holds a door open for you but are a bit too far away to it be be more mannerly than annoying.

While running may feel like torture when you start, you adapt very quickly, as you feel the athletic abilities hardwired in your DNA kicking in. Running is part of who we are.

There’s an old (scientifically inaccurate) analogy about boiling frogs – that if you put a frog in hot water, it will jump out. But if you put it in cold water and slowly turn up the heat, it will sit there until it cooks. Gradual change doesn’t feel like change at all. And so it has come to my attention that I have put on weight. Over the last two years I stopped exercising. A change in work patterns and a slight injury to my hip saw my gym attendance and running both dwindle and eventually stop. Then, the final nail in my oversized coffin, I started driving everywhere. My relationship with food and drink changed, as sought more comfort in both than I should have. Life is like a box of chocolates – thanks to those little cards telling you what each sweet is, you know exactly what you are going to get, and if you eat too many, you’re probably going to get diabetes. I haven’t got it, but if I keep going the way I am, it’s only a matter of time.

All this has came to a head with me asking my wife if she had been using the tumble dryer more than usual as I thought my jeans might have shrunk. After she had stopped laughing and realised it was a genuine question, she pointed out that I was just getting old, and maybe it was time to get some more elasticated waistbands. Over my flabby body, I thought to myself. So it is that I face into the new year with the same resolution as everyone else – to live a little better, and a little bit more like the Rarámuri.

Christopher McDougall’s book Born To Run, in which he spends time with the Rarámuri and tries to unlock their secrets, is a good inspiration. We may not all have their innate ability, but we can certainly learn a lot from their attitude to running. They don’t do it to win, they do it because they love it. They run in groups more than they do alone – the plethora of athletics clubs here would suggest this applies to all of us – and they also love those beer festivals – anyone who has witnessed an athletic club’s Christmas drinks will know that they aren’t exactly puritans. Neither do the Rarámuri need any high tech gear – you don’t need to break the bank to get state of the art trainers. When I started running I wore a pair of trainers I bought in Heatons for less than 20 euro. When I wore out the soles in them, I went back and bought another. Granted they may seem like high end equipment to a people who run in flip flops made from old tyres, but it shows that once you have the will, a high vis vest and a bottle of water, you can go at 2018 like Forrest Gump.

Happy Middleclassmas

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Wrote this for the Indo as I am the go-to guy for middle class ennui.

 

There are few events in the annual calendar more middle class than Christmas, save perhaps the Grand National, Irish Open or Ideal Homes Exhibition. It is a time of year to gather round the Rangemaster in the back kitchen, earnestly discussing your fear of the hard left with neighbours you don’t really like, sipping some M&S mulled wine out of Waterford Crystal glasses wrapped in artisanal kitchen roll. No need to turn on the heating, as your own smugness keeps you nice and toasty. But wait – what if you aren’t having the most middle class Christmas possible? Here’s 12 key signs that should clear up any concerns.

  1. Debating when Christmas actually starts – The debate over when the decorations go up is one that rages in the middle class home. The younger generation try to force a December 1st kick off, but the more traditional (which is code for religious) among us know that to do it before December 8 is a mortal sin. Granted, this makes December 8th a perfect storm – you need to get all the stuff down from the attic, source a quality natural tree (this year there is no such thing, as they are all lopsided thanks to an actual perfect storm named Ophelia), and still make it into your nearest city to bumble about attempting to get all your shopping done in one chaotic 24-hour period. Best to follow the advice of D’Unbelievables and have breakfast the night before to get a head start on the day.
  2. Discussion of how Roses symbolise our decline – The fall of Irish society can easily be traced by one annual event – the diminishing appearance of tins of Roses. Firstly, they aren’t even tins anymore, but rather some sort of soulless plastic, which means you can’t use them as a long-term storage for leftover pudding or cake, but it is in their decrease in mass that we can see how we are failing future generations. The whole family discuss how, back in the olden times – ie, when things were great – a tin of Roses was the size of an indoor swimming pool, and there was enough chocolate to give the entire extended family Type II diabetes. Now there is barely enough for grandad to choke on, and the new wrappers should come with their own instruction manual. The whole country has gone to the dogs.
  3. Giving Irish-made gifts – During the December 8th trolley dash, it is important that you charge headlong into the Kilkenny Design store to stock up on Irish gifts. You aren’t entirely sure how to ascertain the Irishness of the items you buy, but feel fairly certain Irish people were involved if they are vastly overpriced and made from scatchy wool that would not be tolerated by other nations. It also helps if the packaging has a picture of a dolmen on it.
  4. The quest for spiced beef – A regional delicacy, the hunt for a good joint of spiced beef takes on aspects of a Homeric odyssey. Advice is sought from all quarters on which guilded butcher is best; do they have craft or artisan in the name? No? Well then they can burn in hell.  Once the most artisanal producer is selected, the order is placed well in advance, usually the start of February, because another aspect of being middle class is being tragically well-organised. Of course, nobody actually eats spiced beef, as it is terrible.
  5. Which turkey to buy – Bronze turkeys are better. You have no idea why, or what bronze means (Is it wearing fake tan? Is it an Olympian? Is it the bird from one of those old penny coins?), but somehow it seems superior to the ordinary loser turkey (technically they are all losers as they all get eaten) most people have. You get bonus points if you actually hand select the turkey on the farm, as this shows you are connected to the land and your place in the food chain, ie, at the top of it. If you are considering a goose, you have transcended middle classness altogether and are now ‘posh’, and therefore an exile in your own land. You probably call Stephen’s Day Boxing Day too.
  6. Cheese board – The modern incarnation of those little hedgehog displays made from a pineapple, cheese cubes and cocktail sticks, the cheese board is really only suited to festive ads on TV, as everyone is already on the verge of a cardiac arrest and the last thing their arteries need is a solid tonne of unpasteurised lard injected into them. Nonetheless, a cheese board appears, with everyone forced to pretend they know which weird knife is meant to be used with which cheese. Later on the knives will be used by children pretending to have a Klingon honour ritual.
  7. Midnight Mass – It’s Mass, but more traditional. It also follows the middle class traditional of preparedness, by giving you a clear run at the following day so you can baste the turkey every 15 minutes for its full six-hour cooking time. Of course, being up this late on Christmas Eve opens another can of festive worms – when to open the presents. Do you do it Christmas Eve, half cut on port, or on Christmas morning, half cut on mulled wine? Here’s a handy guide – if you do it on Christmas morning, your inner child is alive and well and is still caught up in the joy of Christmas. If you do it Christmas Eve you are admitting that you are old, that there is no magic in this world, and you have suffocated your inner child with cheese and port.
  8. White lights, no tinsel – Tinsel is a little Eighties, n’est pas? So you subject your tree (and yourself) to a 60-yard length of fairy lights – in minimalist white only – and some 4,000 baubles. This is a great idea, as it turns dressing the tree into an extended game of Buckaroo, as you endeavour to get the baubles on the tree while a psychotic toddler, out of their head on those cherry Roses nobody eats, endeavours to knock them all off by kicking the tree like a proto-lumberjack.
  9. Physical activity – For two days a year it is ok to sit and do nothing – Christmas Day and St Stephen’s Day. The middle classes feel chronic guilt about this, as they do about almost everything else, and so a brisk walk is needed on one or both of the mornings. This is carried out in the name of ‘working up an appetite’ or ‘working off that cheese board’, and will see the group wrap up in their new scratchy wool scarves and head out. Whilst on the walk the group will beam and greet every other walker they see as though they were long lost friends. These are the only days of the year when being friendly to strangers is deemed ‘not weird’ and is not something that should be carried through to the New Year as some sort of terrible resolution.
  10. New Year’s Resolutions – Everyone else knows they are a waste of time. Yet each year you set yourself a new, insanely high bar – peak fitness, no more cigars, eat less cheese – and each February 1st you ditch all your big plans and just continue as normal in a general state of shame and that most middle class of feelings, disappointment.
  11. Disappointment, the gift that keeps on giving – The middle classes understand that things are ok but could probably be better, which is why every single gift comes not just with a gift receipt but a loud declaration that the receipt is with the gift, information that is shared before the person has even got the present. ‘If you don’t like it you can take it back’ you nervously titter, as they stare in confusion at the set of Irish made cheese knives and dolmen-shaped cheese board.
  12. Bickering – much like the centuries long storms on Jupiter, the middle class family is in a constant state of friction. It rarely hits full-on arguing, unless someone cheats at Monopoly, or denies that Liam deserved to win Bake Off, but it is always there, a constant loving hum of good-natured ribbing over what colour turkey should be, where to buy the best cranberry sauce, or who was meant to pick up the red cabbage in M&S. Then, after three long days locked in the house together, we all go our separate ways, simultaneously breathing a sigh of relief while also counting down the days until next year.

The ghosts of Christmas past

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Wrote this for the Indo about everyone I went to school with, burn in hell guys.

Ah Christmas – a time to get together with old friends, when everyone comes back home and reunites, talks about how their lives have changed and gain a deeper understanding of who we really are, and the strange elliptical paths that lead us back into each other’s orbit once a year. Of course, there are also the ghosts of Christmas past who suddenly materialise in front of you in the pub, before you have the chance to run and hide – here are ten of the worst offenders:

  1. The Wild Goose – Up until 2009, they sounded like Micheal O Muircheartaigh being possessed by a sean nos demon. But then they emigrated, and depending on whether which hemisphere they ran away to, they now either sound like Ben Affleck in Good Will Hunting, or Alf Stewart in Home & Away. But it’s not the accent that makes them grate – it’s the confidence they have been imbued with, as they talk down to you about the land of milk and honey they have discovered, repeatedly mentioning the great ‘quality of life’ in a country either plagued by mass killings, or a species of spider that nests in toilets and can kill with one bite. You smile and nod and casually ask them when their flight back is, so you can count down until this wild goose takes their grey wing, jumps in the tide and effs off back to where they now claim to come from.
  2. The Swan – The easiest way to track your own demise is in the faces of your classmates. You look at their thinning hair, wrinkly eyes, and Nineties clothing and think – do I look this goosed? The answer is a ghastly ‘yes’. But there are always those genetic freaks who seem to age like a fine wine, as opposed to the bitter vinaigrette that you have become. The Swan went from so-so extra in the soap opera of your teenage years to looking like an actual movie star, all rippling physique, Milan style and an inner glow that blinds your weary, squinting eyes.  You desperately try to avoid them but are drawn to their beauty like a moth to a sexy flame. After resisting the urge to stroke their face and hair, you go home, stare in the mirror and weep.
  3. The Success Story – They made a fortune selling their company after getting deep into either tech or something to do with gluten. You know this because not only did your mother tell you this fact repeatedly, but The Success Story is now nonchalantly telling you the exact same thing. After their 20-minute TEDxThePub talk on how great they are at blockchain (you assume it’s something to do with Minecraft), they finally get round to asking you what you do, and then offer a nondescript ‘good for you’, before you are finished telling them. They eye the room looking for fellow moguls, before offering you a business card and disappearing, much like your own sense of self worth.
  4. The Breeders – So how many kids do you have? That is their opening line. Kids are all that matter, the validation of your entire existence. No kids means no life, right? Wrong, and they are about to get a masterclass in what it means to be alive. Just as they try to whip out their phone to show you photos of their sticky brats, you show them the tribal tattoos you got after spending six months living with pygmies in the Amazon basin, or the crocodile bite on your leg, or just the photos of your studio apartment in the city centre, which is overflowing with Bang & Olufsen kit and smells like sandalwood and lemongrass. You can tell you just ruined their evening, as they desperately wanted to feel sorry for you, to crinkle up their already-crinkly faces as they tell you ‘it could still happen’. No it couldn’t you tell them, as this planet is hurtling towards its doom thanks to overpopulation, and someone had to be the hero who wasn’t vain enough to believe their bloodline had a right to continue. Satisfied with yourself you walk away, covering up the bite mark from your neighbour’s cat and the rubbish tattoos you got on an Ibizan booze cruise.
  5. The Ex – Oh my god, there they are, across the bar, the same bar where you first met, this has to mean something, this is deeply serendipitous, it’s basically the video for Last Christmas by Wham! It’s like the last few decades never happened, your eyes lock and you are both back in that moment all those years ago, young and wild and free. No kids, no mortgage, nothing but an open road, vodka shots and the morning after pill. Your heart is jackhammering and you think you might be about to have a cardiac arrest as your left arm has suddenly gone numb. On closer inspection your arm is numb because the actual love of your life has your elbow in the vice like grip. Through a frozen smile they whisper ‘what are you staring at?’ followed by ‘is that drool?’ You snap back to the present and the moment has passed, you are back where you are fairly sure you belong, and everything is fine, this is fine, as you are almost certain that this is happiness. On mature recollection and reflection you remind yourself that The Ex used to eat with their mouth open, read terrible crime novels and believed in homeopathy, so it probably wouldn’t have worked out anyway. Probably.
  6. The Poor Mouther – Despite coming from the largest farm in the province, they talk as though they grew up on an allotment in the inner city. Everything is terrible, the whole country has gone to ruin, it’s all the fat cats at the top who have it all. You wonder whether you should bring up the 80,000 tax bill they got for never mentioning their plant fire firm to the Revenue, but you don’t want to ruin their Christmas by pointing out that they are actually incredibly wealthy. The conversation reaches a crescendo when they declare that we would all be better off dead, before wishing you a merry Christmas and heading off into the night to drive their poor auld 171 Porsche Cayenne back to their 800-acre smallholding.
  7. The Who – Hey! It’s you, how are you, how is…..everything? This is the traditional greeting for the person you don’t quite recognise. You know them from somewhere – Irish college, scouts, Bebo – but you aren’t 100% sure where. One thing you are entirely sure of is that you have no clue what their name is, despite the fact that they have used yours six times in five minutes of chat, so the pressure is growing, especially now your partner is staring meaningfully at you and waiting to be introduced to your friend. Clearly there is only one way out of this – offer to buy them a pint, and never come back from the bar. The only thing worse than this particular social nightmare is being the one who nobody remembers.
  8. The Bully – They made your life a living hell for six years, yet somehow here they are, chatting away as if nothing happened. They seem to have suffered some sort of memory loss as, not only are they talking to you, they are talking about ‘the good old days’, as though there were such a thing. Your brow furrows as you wonder if they are luring you into a false sense of security before giving you a dead leg, purple nurple or atomic wedgie, like the one that you got in 1994 which means you now can’t have children. No, they just want to chat, and you slowly come to realise that they managed to take all that anger they had in school in channel it into something more productive than giving you PTSD, as they are now CEO of a vulture fund.
  9. The All Star – They won an All-Ireland in 1996, and somehow the celebration party is still going on. They look like they might be about to have a heart attack, as they play online poker, swill pints, and complain about the modern game, and how the young stars now have no class, before drunkenly hopping into their car and screeching off to a lock-in or possibly into a ditch. Never meet your heroes.
  10. The Hero – Back in school they told everyone they were a Level Eight Vegan (they only eat gravel) but secretly ate a big dirty kebab every time they had a lash of pints. After school they got seriously into Facebook activism, endlessly posting conspiracy theories about how Big Oil and Big Government were secretly watching us all through our webcams, and Infowars was the only real news left in the world. Despite their strong opposition to capitalism, they actually live and work in Saudi Arabia, wiring up the homes of oil-rich royals with IoT technology, so they can watch beheadings on their tablets. The Hero sees nothing wrong with this at all, but somehow thinks Ireland is a police state, just because they got busted with a nodge of hash on New Year’s Eve 1999.

 

There are of course, many more contenders for this list, including old teachers, disgruntled former co-workers, cousins you don’t have anything in common with, or racist friends of your parents. While once a year really feels like more than enough time spent with any of these ghosts of Christmas past, they do serve as a reminder of how much you love your oldest friends, your family and the people you chose to surround yourself with, because Christmas is all about the present.

Christmas, shops, Matt Damonnnn, Popefest

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Week 35 –

It turns out that I wasn’t all set for the Christmas at all. I think I was asked the question so many times that I actually lost all sense of the true meaning of being ‘all set for the Christmas’, and basically forgot that gift-buying actually takes a little bit of effort. The kids were easy – with four children I usually start the next year’s shopping on St Stephen’s Day, getting the best out of the sales while also fitting in the festive tradition of fainting in a queue in Smyth’s, or shoving someone out of the way when Next opens at 5am. However, as Christmas is all about the kids, I more or less forgot about everyone else, and by everyone else I mean my long-suffering current wife.

For the budget romantic who is as short on ideas as he is on disposable income, there is only one place to go – TK Maxx. A sort of Brown Thomas for people on zero-hour contracts, TK Maxx has it all – literally. It’s like the treasure horde of a flock of time-travelling magpies – mounds of relics of ancient and alien cultures all collected and dumped into a warehouse just off the highstreet. You want a stuffed grizzly bear? You got it. You want a leather onesie? You got it. You want a million different household decorations, all themed around pineapples? Tragically, you got it.

But even when you think you have found the most bizarre items of clothing, footwear or soft furnishing, and are holding it aloft in mild horror, you will see someone looming behind you, gazing at your find like this diamante pineapple is the final missing piece in their presumably hideous home. Tk Maxx is a reminder that everything has its place, and every ugly lamp will someday meets its ugly nightstand in an ugly house.

Few people have the stamina for TK Maxx- you need to clear your schedule, get loaded up on protein shakes and Red Bull, and go at those rails like it’s an old-style threshing, wildly grabbing items and flinging them in the general direction of your basket or possibly just the ground, arms flailing like you’re drowning. Using this technique I managed to select a range of reasonably priced gifts, including some jewellery that appeared to be made from Kryptonite she reacted so badly to it, and a pair of gloves that it turned out were for men, thus reigniting the old ‘shovel hands’ debate that has been raging since our GP passed a remark that she had big hands.

She also got a bag that by some miracle she actually liked and some other stuff that I can’t even remember as I went into one of those capitalist mate-spawn-die trances halfways through, a sort of Xmastential crisis. Long story short, she got a present, and it wasn’t the worst she ever received, which is what I would call a Christmas miracle.

Much of my Christmas was spent assembling Lego and wondering what Matt Damon was thinking. After a year in which abusive men finally started to get their comeuppance, Damon cast aside his ‘Hollywood nice guy with a high IQ’ stance to adopt the rather weak ‘not all men’ angle, where instead of condemning people like Harvey Weinstein, he said people should be celebrating the nice guys. Guys like, well, Matt Damon basically. He misread the room in glorious fashion, veering off in the direction of becoming a sweater-vested masculinist, rather than seeing serious issues at the core of masculinity itself.

His Good Will Hunting co-star Minnie Driver even wrote an op-ed about his tone deaf comments – Driver, of course, being the girlfriend who found out she was dumped by seeing him tell Oprah Winfrey that he was single. Let he who is without sin cast the first #NotAllMen.

Now that we have Christmas out of the way, it’s time to start focussing on the summer and that most special of seasons – festival season. This year there is only one gig in town, only one headline act worth seeing, and that is Pope Francis’s visit here. This Electric Popenic, which includes Mass on the main stage in the Phoenix Park and an acoustic duet with Queen Elizabeth up North, this is one show that everyone will want to see.

It won’t be divisive, like when Garth Brooks threatened to bring his accursed sounds to this land, but it will be a shining beacon of hope and positivity, like when Garth Brooks failed to get a license for his gigs. Granted, the pope’s visit is set to cost about 20 million euro, money that will presumably be wired here from the Vatican by Western Union transfer, but it will be worth it as this is the coolest pope ever – even though it isn’t that hard to be the coolest when your predecessor looked a bit like a panto villain and was once a member of the Hitler Youth.

Pope Francis is a sign that the Catholic church might actually be able to change – he is the first Jesuit pope (Jesuits being the Kraftwerk of the Catholic Church), the first from the Americas, the first from the Southern Hemisphere, and the first pope from outside Europe since the 8th century. He’s also the first Pope fully trained to deal with the wild atmosphere of festivals, given that before his seminary studies he was both a chemical technologist and a nightclub bouncer. The countdown to Popefest 2018 starts here, let’s just hope the touts don’t snap up all the tickets. See you in the pit.

 

Varadkar kar away, more Brexit, Meehawlll, Celtic Phoenix

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Week 34  –

At this time of year, there is nothing better than settling down to enjoy a classic movie. I was delighted to catch a screening of Disney classic Darby O’Gill And The Little People at the weekend. It is a gem of a film: There is something so natural about the old special effects, where they made the leprechauns look tiny by using huge sets and simple lighting. I wasn’t long into the film when I realised that it wasn’t the original I was watching, but rather some sort of reboot starring Leo Varadkar. The story had changed slightly too, and instead of being about some zany shenanigans involving special people from a magical land far away, it was about Brexit. Soon it clicked with me – this wasn’t Darby O’Gill at all.

It seems that the crock of gold we are paying to the magical Strategic Communications Unit is all being spent on oversized lamps, vast desks and enormous chairs just to make our leader look more like one of the little people, ie, you and I. The Taoiseach’s weekly video was a wonder, as it was impossible to take in anything he said because viewers were too busy trying to figure out if the corridors of power were either very small or just far, far away. I’m no fan of big government, but for our Taoiseach to actually shrink himself seems a little drastic. If he is trying to win the youth vote by looking like a child, perhaps he could try to be a little more BFG than YFG.

The whole Brexit debate was a piquant end to the political year. The Brits came crawling back to us after we kicked them out, begging us to sign the divorce papers so they could move on with their new lives in a bedsit in Crouch End, with Union Jack duvet on their single bed, counting all that money they now have for the NHS, like a modern day Silas Marner. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for them: The Brexit talks were basically that diner scene from Good Will Hunting, with us screaming how you like them apples after getting Donald Tusk’s mobile number.

One person who did not share in our festive orgy of schadenfreude, however, was Micheal Martin. In an interview with Joe.ie, he slammed what he called the modern ‘megaphone diplomacy’ of the Taoiseach and his human-sized colleague, Simon Coveney. Deputy Martin tut-tutted at political announcements by Twitter and even going so far as to lament the absence of Bertie Ahern’s quieter diplomacy, a skill that shone in 2014 when Bertie told a party meeting (sans megaphone) that he didn’t think much of Martin and wouldn’t be saying anything nice about him. If he had just subtweeted him it would have been less cruel.

Speaking of the collapsed bouncy castle that was the post-Celtic Tiger decade, it seems we have finally bounced back from our pit of despair. Things are picking up – no more will we have to worry about discerning between wants and needs, no more will we need to furrow our brows as we try to understand what a CFD is (I think it’s the stuff that makes fridges cold?), no more will we have to have actual money when we can rely on credit. But more than all those things, no more shall we have to pretend to be happy about buying off-brand goods, as we are now actually happy. According to the 2016 European Quality of Life survey, carried out by Eurofound, the EU agency for the improvement of living and working conditions, we are back to Celtic Tiger levels of life-satisfaction. The signs were there – a bar (roll those Rs) just opened in Dublin that charges eight euro a pint, various property developers are back from whatever limbo they were hiding in and are raring to go, and, according to public health experts, our cocaine use is rising – all the benchmarks of a society that is ready to lather, rinse and repeat the same mistakes of the 2003-2007 years. Hopefully some developer will get cracking on a few thousand shoebox apartments filled with tiny furniture where Taoiseach Varadkar can shoot his next video, because if there’s anything a life in politics teaches you, it’s the concept of forced perspective.

Milkshake duck, Keaton Jones, blogging, my glittering career

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Indo col week 33

 

In June last year, Australian cartoonist Ben Ward, known by his Twitter handle @PixellatedBoat, tweeted a joke. It was a simple three-line gag about a character named Milkshake Duck, the cartoon duck who everyone loves…until five seconds later when the duck is revealed as racist. The joke perfectly fit its medium and obviously enough loses a lot in translation to print, but the use of the term Milkshake Duck has since taken hold and has become shorthand for the perils of internet fame.

Andy Warhol may have predicted that in the future, everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, but thanks to the internet it’s really more like 15 seconds. As soon as someone is thrust into the limelight for a viral video in which they wear a funny jumper or a write blog post about feelings (all blog posts are about feelings), the internet regurgitates some dirt from the person’s past, and their brief moment of fame rapidly pivots into a slightly less brief moment of notoriety.

The latest Milkshake Duck is an American schoolboy named Keaton Jones. The 11-year-old made a short video, shot by his mother, in which he called out the bullies who made his life hell. She shared it on her Facebook page, and it has gone on to be viewed more than 20 million times. Soon, Hollywood celebrities like Mark Hamill, Chris Evans and Mark Ruffalo were tweeting their support, offering to bring Keaton to movie premieres, while a GoFundMe page set up for the family racked up US$60,000.

It was at this point that the mechanics of internet fame kicked in, as I regret to inform you that it would appear this Milkshake Duck’s mother Kimberly is a racist. Old Facebook posts by Keaton’s mother showed the family draped in Confederate flags, with one daughter holding a gun. In other posts Mrs Jones mocked civil rights protesters.

Then the recoil started – these people weren’t innocent victims, they were the monsters all along. The mother set her Facebook page to private, but it was too late. The GoFundMe accounts were frozen, and a little kid who was upset at being bullied has become the innocent victim of viral hate.

By today, Keaton and his family have learned some hard lessons about the internet and how it works. It is an archive of every mistake you have ever made, a treasure trove of casually abusive comments, off colour jokes and general obnoxiousness – and that’s just your Facebook account. In the silent world of the internet we can be our worst selves, falsely believing that we are invisible and anonymous, when actually almost none of us are. When we post, we might as well be standing on a street corner with a megaphone screaming out our thoughts, or going to the toilet with the door open. Take it from someone who learned the hard way.

More than a decade ago I was working in a job that I didn’t especially enjoy. I was going through the proverbial ‘difficult time’ personally, and a lot of my frustrations with myself and my then employers came to a head with a series of splenetic posts on the absolute mess that was MySpace. Soon I was in an office with the head of HR and CEO being given a final written warning. I’m glad it happened; it served as an incredibly valuable lesson at a point where the digital age – led by social media game-changers like MySpace and Bebo – was shifting into top gear. Internet 101 is be prepared to stand over everything you say, because sooner or later it will come back to haunt you.

I spent another seven years working with the same company, living under a cloud of shame. I kept my head down, worked hard and worked well, and atoned for my mistake. As the company came asunder, I heard there might be redundancies – so I got in early with my requests, and kept rattling the cage until New Year’s Eve 2014, when I picked up my cheque and skipped out the door. I no longer work in the media, and I’m happier for it. I found the old written warning recently, and briefly contemplated getting it framed – it’s a reminder that I shouldn’t take life too seriously, but also a reminder that change, no matter how traumatic at the time, can often be a positive thing.

The company I worked for, Landmark Media, is being sold to the Irish Times. This was news to nobody; it was a miracle that TCH – as they were known when I Milkshake Ducked myself – managed to make it this far, and I would imagine there are a lot of people breathing a sigh of relief. However, there are many more who are now facing redundancy. The problem for anyone working in the media in Cork who loses their job is – where do you go from here?

The perils of being one of the few outposts of the national media that lies beyond The Pale is that once you leave, you can’t stroll into another paper and start work there. There are other options – for subeditors it seems technical writing is the best fit for their skills, while journalists can segue into content creation, PR or communications jobs, but the problem is in how many get let go at the same time, and how many jobs there are out there. The economy is picking up, but if a hundred media professionals in Cork lose their job at the same time, there simply won’t be enough jobs to absorb them all.

But it isn’t the end of the world – you will get another job, and you will look back and marvel at how you resisted the change when it came. Although it might be an idea to delete all those Facebook photos of you in Pairc Ui Chaoimh draped in a Confederate flag before you go into any interviews.

 

PTA, pride, failure, Brexit

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Indo col week 32

It seems something of a miracle that I managed to avoid attending a parent-teacher meetings until last week. I always had great excuses for not being there – either work or just a complete lack of interest in going – but the day finally came where I could no longer avoid it, as this wasn’t just any parent teacher meeting, but the only one of my daughter’s Junior Cert cycle. This was Serious Business – no more chats from disinterested national school teachers about colouring inside the lines or how good the child is at sharing; this was a serious talk about the foundations of a life and career – this was education with a clear purpose. So I stuck on a tweed waistcoat so I would look more erudite, had a quick peruse of some memorable quotes from Pearse’s The Murder Machine in case it kicked off, and headed along.  

As soon as I walked into my daughter’s school I felt a familiar sense of dread. The nicotine yellow walls, hand-crafted motivational posters with ‘positivity’ and ‘prayer’ written in gradually diminishing fonts, the dead light from halogen bulbs – this was an anxiety dream made real, all it needed was my teeth to fall out or for me to wet myself, which seemed increasingly likely as I was starting to panic.

I was given a printed guide to the classrooms, informing me which teachers were in which rooms. It might as well have been written in Sanskrit. I tried to read my daughter’s report card to match up some names, imagining the teachers as depressed Pokemon, adamant that I was gonna catch ‘em all. Obviously, I wasn’t going to catch even half of them, as the whole system was rife with confusion. Other parents milled about, queues formed with no beginning and no end, with no-one quite sure who or what they were queueing for.

I started to wonder if this was a test in itself, if we were the ones being secretly graded and judged by the Department of Education. I’m very clever for thinking that, I thought to myself, wishing there was someone else around in a tweed waistcoat who would appreciate my tremendous wit. No, I thought, save it for the column – this sort of grand insight is the premium content that my readers deserve. Don’t waste it on these poor schmucks shuffling from desk to desk. Besides, I appeared to be in the wrong queue again and needed to move.

Eventually a helpful transition year student saw I was struggling and guided me to a corner, and there I was, the perennial buachaill dána, back in bold boys’ corner, surrounded by rather shoddy paintings of Jesus. All I was short was a dunce cap.

Finally I got out of the corner and got facetime with some teachers; the first one didn’t seem to know my daughter at all but told me about the class and their self care plan for the year ahead. Back in my day self care was a sin and they said you went blind from doing it. We smiled and nodded at each other, and said goodbye – she went back to correcting homework, I went back to my corner thinking that really, teaching isn’t all Dead Poets Society, is it? If someone stood on a chair in the self-care class and shouted ‘oh captain my captain’ you’d probably have a departmental inquiry before small break.

I moved on to the next teacher, who did know my daughter, and this was when things got intense. She was full of praise for her, saying how hard she works, how she was a pleasure to teach. I could see the teacher wasn’t just saying this because of my tweed waistcoat and obviously eruditeness, but because she meant it. The next teacher was the same, and the next. As I moved from one to the other I started to get more and more emotional, and by the time I got to the fourth teacher I was blinking back tears.

It’s a strange thing to realise that you might be an okay parent. We spend so much time fretting about passing on all our bad habits and mistakes, that it is extraordinary to think that we might be raising someone who will be better than us. In theory, every generation should be some sort of upgrade – it didn’t work that way for my poor parents, who used to have to grit their teeth for my parent-teacher meetings, as all but the art and English teachers said I was going nowhere fast.

Perhaps a knock-on of that experience is that I would give myself a C- as a parent – fair to poor, could do better. After my daughter’s parent teacher meeting, I realised that my wife and I might actually be getting a solid B+ – there is always room for improvement if we worked hard, but we weren’t failing by any stretch of the imagination. It feels good to know your best might just be enough.

That said, my self-satisfied bubble burst when I got home and my wife and daughter realised I left the parent teacher meeting without talking to half the teachers. I tried to explain that the last thing the event needed was a middle aged man in tweeds in the middle of a classroom, sobbing with pride. That, I claimed, was a scene better suited to one of those sensitive Educate Together places; if poor auld Jesus up on the convent school wall managed to hold in the tears, then I should too.  Besides, is it not the spirit of continuous assessment that I should go along next year too and speak to the other half of her teachers?

The biggest shock of the night wasn’t that my daughter had given up history, but that anyone is allowed to give up history. I had assumed it was compulsory, but apparently not, which I assume is also the case in the UK, where there seems to be a lot of cramming about what the Empire may or may not have done to their neighbours over the past few centuries.

The current stumbling blocks over Brexit and the border seem to cause confusion with many on the mainland, as they wonder what they ever might have done to deserve such a hardline approach from the Irish Government. Presumably the same people avoided watching Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley as they assumed it was a documentary about the impact of agriculture on climate change, or In The Name Of The Father because they thought it was one of those Jeremy Kyle Show DNA test specials.  Yet while there may be some gaps in the UK’s educational policy when it comes to their own history, it is great to see so many people frantically try to brush up on several centuries of imperial unpleasantness in the space of a week. Here’s to lifelong learning.

Ikea, Amgen, elections, promises

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Indo col 31

I woke my wife at 5.30am when I read the headline. She was panicked – where the kids ok? Was the house on fire? Had we won the Lotto? No, it was way more dramatic than that – Ikea might be coming to Cork. She sat up in the bed. ‘What?’

Exactly – what? There had long been rumours that us tasteless culchies would get our own outlet of the iconic Swedish store, but now it looks like it might finally be happening. No more will we have to use our imaginations or creativity to furnish our homes – now we have world’s greatest purveyors of budget taste. Granted, within six months of it opening, every home in Munster will have the exact same interior, but that’s what is so great about shopping in Ikea – no more thinking. We can just walk around it with smears of meatballs sauce on our lips and dead eyes calculating heights and widths of various bits of storage that we only need to store the small bits we already got in Ikea Dublin and were able to bring home in the boot.

 

So it’s an exciting time for us boggers – now we can take the old sideboards and chaise lounges that have been in the family since Famine times and throw them all in a skip, only to replace them with a Fuurkenfoola or Ziffoowqska or whatever goofball names Ikea have given their furnishing this week.

 

Although the location has yet to be officially confirmed, it appears a lot of the focus is on the old Amgen site. It’s called that not because the pharma giant Amgen are based on it, or were ever on it, but rather that they were supposed to be there.

 

The Amgen announcement came back in 2006 – the site was to be developed and a staggering 1,100 jobs were being created. Everyone in Cork started preparing their CVs and readying the plans for their leaving do, as these weren’t just any jobs, they were pharma jobs. We were all going to be rich, rich I tells ya. But then the rumours started, whispers that the plant wasn’t going ahead.

 

This was roundly refuted by the then Minister for Trade and Enterprise, Micheal Martin, who when asked about these rumours, asked: “Who is spreading these rumours? Who is putting it around the place? It is outrageous that this would be said. Why would I want to do that? … This is a fairly stupid rumour, to be frank.”

If he seems tense, it’s probably because he was making those comments in April 2007, a few weeks before the general election. One month later, Fianna Fáil and the Greens swept to power.  

 

Then, in August 2007, the announcement was made that the Amgen plans were being scaled back. For any of us living in east Cork, the dream was already over. Everyone had heard the rumours – the parent firm was in freefall and the plant was never going to be built.

 

One look at the site confirmed most of those claims. It had gone from being a hive of activity, to having a few lonely machines moving piles of earth about the place with no real purpose. Finally, in December 2007, what we all knew was confirmed; Amgen were not coming to east Cork, and we were all back to staring at the wall in our dead-end jobs.

 

So now, as we teeter on the brink of the another general election – the least desired one ever called – the petit bourgeoisie of Munster can only hope and pray that this isn’t some ergonomic carrot on a Swedish-designed stick, and that the old Amgen site doesn’t become the old Ikea site.

 

It seems strange that a people who fought so long and so hard for the right to vote could now be at a point where we really don’t want to vote at all, but that is the case right now. Frankly, we have better things to be doing than standing on a freezing cold doorstep being bothered by people who aren’t going to change our minds, smiling insincerely through chattering teeth as they try to undo several generations of Civil War politics that have been written on our hearts.

 

Nobody wants those old wound reopened, or to see a fight outside a chipper at 3am on December 23rd because somebody called someone else a ‘Free State Bastard’. And what about all the posters – this is the time of year for tasteless festive tat and Yuletide advertising, not grinning politicians looming over us on every lamppost, watching our every move like Father Christmas if he was chair of the local branch of Macra. So please – give the people of Ireland what they want for Christmas – no election, and an Ikea that we can get to without having to navigate the Fury Road that is the M50.

Taxes, welfare, Black Friday, KISS

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Indo col week 30

I quite like paying taxes. This is partly because, as a low earner, I don’t pay a lot of tax. However, it is also because I have been so well supported by the State over the course of my life. In my 20s, I went from work to the dole to the back to education allowance, which – along with third-level grants – saw me through to masters level. When I took redundancy three years ago, I got a similar level of dole payment to what I had been earning for a 37-hour week, as well as full medical cards for my family and I. After eight long months I was fortunate enough to get a job, but even then the State supported me, via the Family Income Supplement (FIS). We recently got a statement from the Department of Social Protection on how much we were paid in FIS last year  – more than 12,000. This is because we were a single income household with a low wage and considerably more children than we can afford. I can give you various reasons for the excessive amount of human life I have co-created, but overall I would say that economics rarely features in the romantically engorged mind. Except maybe in David McWilliams’s mind, he seems to really, really like economics.

 

So I pay tax, and I get support in return. From my point of view, Ireland is a good country to live and work in. I’m always slightly bemused by the various Robespierres of the hard left, talking about Ireland as though we were currently trapped in a live re-enactment of Swift’s Modest Proposal. There are things that need to change here – a quick flick through the pages of this paper will give you a dozen or more good examples – but overall I would say that I love living here, and I love my country, not in some chest-thumping, nationalist fashion, but rather in a pay-my-taxes, clean-up-after-myself way. That said, I’d always be open to finding a solid tax efficiency – or loophole as they are more commonly known.

 

The furore over firms using offshore structures to increase their profits and reduce their taxes isn’t all that different from me claiming credits for waste disposal or pet ownership or just about anything I can legally use. But I felt great sympathy for poor Bono, who gets the most stick for this, as though he should give all his money to Revenue and go live in a wheelie bin to be true to either his beliefs, his lyrics or his attempts to make the world a better place through whatever charity it is he has been going on about recently. At this time of year especially I think of poor Bono, getting dogs abuse for being a tax exile, albeit a charismatic one. It must suck to be rich sometimes. So tonight, as I do every night at this time of year, I thank god that it’s Bono who is the multi-millionaire tax-exile hate figure, instead of me.

 

Obviously all this gauche talk of money or my lack thereof is leading to the pleasing announcement that I no longer qualify for FIS as I landed myself with a second job (it’s this, my role as opinionista). This means I will now pay more tax – hooray! – and also will get less support from the State. I’m delighted. Obviously, I’m still not quite at the level of earnings of Bono, but I can at least now buy the odd treat without feeling like I am tightening the Primark corset of the ‘squeezed middle’. There is a great joy in spending money you have worked hard to earn. Except of course on Black Friday, when there is no joy in spending money at all.

 

I’m sure there are upsides to globalisation – having a Starbucks/Subway/Costa on every street corner, or our kids talking about sidewalks and gas stations – but Black Friday is not one of them. This is especially true of our watered-down version of it. While the Americans get to have the real fun, stamping each other to death and shooting assault rifles into the air as they try to buy a six metre wide TV for a fiver, over here it is just a big sad rip-off. This is partly due to the fact that the US is a low tax economy – anyone bleating about how much cheaper things are in the States might want to try getting sick there, or losing their job there, before they start seeing it was some economic utopia.

Yet somehow we have decided that Black Friday is something worth adopting, despite the obvious disparity between our economies. UK consumer group Which? Has pointed out that more than half of the deals offered in the UK on Black Friday last year were cheaper or the same price at other times of the year. It is no different here, but we get swept along in the hype, acting as though 15% off electronic items is worth queueing up for. It seems only a matter of time until we adopt Thanksgiving itself, holding a celebration of the arrival of the Normans in 1167 and all the awful things they gave us, such as feudalism and Dublin.  

If you need a good example of how different we are from Americans, just spend a few minutes watching Fox. It’s like the TV station in The Hunger Games, if it were hosted by an animatronic Adam Smith and Libertarian Barbie. You would imagine it would take a lot to get banned from the station, given the Rolodex of the criminally insane it uses to keep its couches warm. Step forward Gene Simmons: The KISS frontman, best known for having an oversized tongue and some terrible opinions about women, was on Fox to promote his new book, which comes with the snappy title On Power: My Journey Through the Corridors of Power and How You Can Get More Power. The book, which gives expert tips on how to be more like Simmons – ie, ‘powerful’ – is actually a follow-up to the equally snappily titled Me, Inc.: Build an Army of One, Unleash Your Inner Rock God, Win in Life and Business.

After his interview on Fox Business, he burst into a Fox News meeting, shouted ‘hey chicks, sue me!’ and mercifully only exposed his chest and navel. He also took the opportunity to thump two people on the head with his book, which is probably as close it will ever get to actually stimulating a human brain. Sadly, Simmons is now banned for life from the station, which means he has one less platform for his various lessons on economics, which, unsurprisingly, are largely centred on how rich people like him shouldn’t have to pay tax to support ‘the welfare state’. So if you needed one more reason to feel pride in being a taxpayer, it is that it makes you that little bit less like Gene Simmons.

Cars, freedom, men, Weinstein

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Week 29:

I am driving. Not as I write this – I’m not quite at that level of proficiency just yet, where I can stare down at a glowing screen in my lap while careering across lanes at 105kph. In fact, I’m not even at the stage where I can confidently pick my nose when at traffic lights. I am still at the stage of the death grip on the wheel, hands locked at ten and two and nothing else will do, eyes peeled open to a degree that would make Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange wince a little. But yes, I am generally driving, and after two decades of only using public transport and the kindness of friends, family and my long suffering wife/chaffeur, I am now an independent road user.

Things have changed out there; the last time I drove it was in a Nissan Sunny, and it was so long ago that the salesman pointed out that it had ‘electric windows’ as though he was telling us it could fly. Fly, it could not. The car was a sluggish lump of ugly metal, and the few journeys I made in it felt like I was leading a platoon of Soviet tanks into the badlands of Afghanistan. Cars today are remarkable – even my sexless Fluence drives like a hovercar from 2525 in comparison to that so-called Sunny.

Using the bus is a distant, troubling memory. It seems like a long time since I had to join the human centipede that is public transport, surrounded by the sniffling masses, listening to the tinny din of those people who don’t know about headphones and instead choose to play their music on a phone’s miniscule speakers. A lifetime on the buses and trains taught me that hell isn’t other people – it’s being trapped with other people. I quite like the human race, even with their headcolds and lack of headphones, but I like them a lot more now that I am not trapped in a metal tube with them for an hour a day.  

But one thing has jumped out at me from my few months on the road: Leaner and new drivers are not the menace I thought they were, but fully qualified men of a certain age, usually mine, are. When I see someone aggressively cutting across lanes in a tunnel, running a red light, or just being casually obnoxious, it is almost always a guy like me behind the wheel. Is life this short that we have to nuzzle up against the rear bumper of the person in front like an aroused canine, or just beep at everyone over everything? What is it with blokes in cars? In fact, what is it with blokes in general?

On Saturday I was in the game shop with my son. A man in his fifties came in to buy some games. The girl behind the counter told him that since he had spent more than seventy euro, he could have a free T-shirt. Any T-shirt, he asked? Any T-shirt, she said. Can I have that one? he asked, pointing at her T-shirt. She made some flippant comment to brush it off, he got his stuff and left. I felt a mix of emotions – pity for the man, who was so tone deaf that he didn’t realise that what he said wasn’t flirty, or funny, or anything other than unsettling; embarrassment for the staff member, even though she seemed wearily used to this sort of ‘top bants’; and a general sense of shame over being a bloke.

I tend to drop kick all these aspects of men into the same cauldron of oedipal horrors – the aggressive driving, the creepiness, the inability to read the room. How did we get here? We spent so long styling ourselves as some sort of apex predator that we sacrificed essential components of our own humanity. We have devalued ourselves in this process. Look at jobs where nurturing is required: What percentage of creches staff are male? If you advertised for an au pair and a man showed up, would you call the cops right away or wait until he was gone? We just can’t seem to free ourselves from this predatory status, even though we have devalued our role as carers. Look at the concept of the stay at home dad – why isn’t that more common (apart from the limits of the glass ceiling, which is really more like a Temple of Doom-style descending stone roof with spikes in it)?

The horror stories emerging about rich and powerful men and how they treated women have led me to conduct a rather grim internal audit of my relationships. Overall, it’s been pretty bleak. I can give you a few weak reasons for this – growing up in a viciously Catholic Ireland, or just the magic porridge pot of emotional problems that is being adopted, but while there are reasons, there are no excuses. I just treated people poorly, and especially women. I try to be a better person, but it’s hard to tell if I’m a decent human being or just better than I was. This change can’t happen fast enough: I worry about my sons and the sort of men they will become. I just don’t want them to have my problems, my hangups. They may have the advantage of growing up in a more enlightened time, but they also have a father who is trying hard to overcome a cultural hangover. Hopefully by the time they reach manhood, those self-driving cars we keep hearing about will offer them some moments of quiet contemplation on the commute home to think about how to improve their relationships with the opposite sex. Or they may just use the time to give their noses a really good pick.

Gods, death, poppies, war

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Week 28 of the column.

Being an atheist is a lonely old slog. Most people will cling to the belief that there is something out there watching over us, be it Jesus, Yaweh, Allah or whatever MechaGodzilla the Scientologists funnel their taxes towards. Few people will actually offer such a bleak world view as the true atheist – that there is nothing else out there, no higher power, and we are all alone. Of course, you don’t sell it to people in quite such a bleak way – you say that you believe people are innately good, that all religions were just an extension of that goodness, an extension that ultimately got corrupted by the power-hungry, in much the same way the leaking extension you got built during the Celtic Tiger got corrupted by lazy builders and pyrite.

Us devout atheists are few and far between, but what makes it even more isolating is the fact that we don’t have the structures of religion. There are no parish tea dances, no community hall bingo, no festive services. But in the broader sense I’ve wondered that the hell I’m going to do when I die. Being freed from the strictures of Catholic rites is great, but we still need some sort of ritual – I can’t just get stuffed into a recycling bin and turned into Soylent Green, or have my ashes chucked into a landfill. How will we say goodbye when we know there is no journey to the other side? Do we have a sacred decommissioning of our Facebook profile, a ritualised restoration of factory settings on our iPhone, or one final Instagram shot of our bespoke artisanal funeral buffet? Or just have Siri conduct a service, while Alexa paraphrases Mary Elizabeth Frye for the eulogy:

Do not stand at my grave and weep

I am not there. I do not sleep.

I was cryogenically frozen, it wasn’t cheap,

So the money I owe you all I will have to keep.

The hardest part of being an atheist has been dealing with loss. The absence of an afterlife isn’t just hard to come to terms with for yourself, but for your loved ones. Since my father’s passing I have been crushed by grief, as I know that he is gone and I will never see him again. I’ve spent much of the last 12 months breaking down at inopportune moments – I meet people in work who knew him and they tell me how much they liked him, and I break down. I find an old letter from him to my mum written in the 1970s in which he promises not to drink and drive (apparently it was all the rage back then) and I break down. My son points to a photo of my father and asks me who he is, and I break down. It has been a year when I occasionally thought I was going to have some sort of breakdown, as I try to make sense of it all – this life, all our lives, and the fact that we all die. The dormant Catholic in me still sees November as the month to think on all these things, to remember all the souls no longer in existence, and the supreme importance of trying to follow the one commandment shared by all religions – try not to be a total jackass.

Speaking of remembrance and jackasses – it’s poppy season again in the UK, a time for flag-waving jingoism of the highest order, when the atrocities of war and sacrifice of the fallen is completely overshadowed by an orgy of imperialism. Where’s your poppy mate, don’t you honour our brave boys, spit on the flag is it mate, do you want to bring back Hitler, is that it? No more can UK TV presenters or sports stars quietly think about war and honour, they need to stick the biggest poppies they can find on their lapel or they are deemed to hate freedom.

I have a distant relative who fought in the First World War, Colonel Jim Fitzmaurice, and of his experience he wrote: “Dead German, British and French soldiers lay about in every conceivable position and condition—here and there a dead horse, a broken field gun. I had never seen a dead man before. I looked again at those dead soldiers — I looked at the poor dumb beasts — dead with their poor glassy eyes turned to the heavens. It was impossible to think. I decided that a very serious job had to be done, that I had better stop thinking and get along with my own particular portion of this big job — C’est la guerre.”

He was 17 when he fought in the Somme. I wonder what he would think of the obsessive poppy-watching in the UK, whereby every weatherman and celebrity chat show guest has to wear a big red poppy or be torn apart by the media; what would he say to the rising nationalism, of the UK’s plan to remove themselves from the European project? After the war Fitzmaurice made aviation history by making the first east to west Atlantic flight, which he managed with two Germans. Even though he fought in the Great War, he understood that divisions make us weaker. The poppy has become that most awful thing – a virtue signal, a way of telling people you care, whether you actually do or not. It’s like an analog hashtag, or the words of the gauche bore who feels the need to tell you about their many donations to charity. It seems a tragedy that there is a sense of relief when Armistice Day has passed, and we no longer have to endure shallow displays of remembrance.

In terms of overcoming divisions, you have to admire the gumption of the three Alliance TDs who are riding out to North Korea to try and find a resolution to the secret state’s nuclear Mexican stand-off with America. Of the three, Waterford TD John Halligan should be best placed to find some common ground with Kim Jong Un as they both have sentient hair, complete lack of belief in god, and experience dealing with difficult characters (Shane Ross and Trump, respectively). If nothing else, this could be the greatest episode of Hall’s Pictorial Weekly never made, and sher if it stops us all from dying in the Third World War, isn’t that much better than fixing the roads?

 

Monsters, friends, Tom Humphreys, excuses

 

Week 27, bleak af.

 

There is a man I see around town. He looks a bit like an absent minded professor, slightly dilapidated and a bit bewildered. He seems affable enough, with a sort of half smile on his face as he meanders around the supermarket, staring blankly at yogurts and cleaning products. He had a great job with the council for almost three decades, and was even lucky enough to get out with an early retirement package before the court case began. During the trial, the court was told that it was a German website that tipped off authorities to what he had on his computer – almost 14,000 images of children as young as one year old being violated, raped and abused. One of the gardai who dealt with the case said it was one of the worst he had encountered, while the judge said he was horrified by it.

I think about all these things when I see this man. He is a sad, pathetic figure, and I usually feel sorry for him – he has the look of someone who has no-one to care for him, to wash his clothes properly or tell him to fix his hair. I don’t grab my kids and run when I see him, because it’s not the threats you can identify that you need to worry about.

Contrary to our collective unconscious – or your local community group on Facebook –  the monsters aren’t hiding in the bushes or driving around estates in black vans trying to snatch kids. They are standing next to you at the checkout, beside you in the pub, in front of you in church, or even in your circle of friends.

Everyone has that one friend who just can’t seem to get their life together. To most of my friends, I am that person, but even I found someone who was more of a disaster zone than I am. We were friends from childhood, but as we grew older, I settled down while he just couldn’t seem to find the balance in his life to make any relationship work. I married and had kids, he wallowed in drugs, prostitutes and pornography. His obsession with the latter overshadowed everything – he lived in a country where it was freely available and seemed to be endlessly consuming it. I’m no prude, but when I would visit him he would be scurrying off into some shady back section of a shop and come out with a bag stuffed with increasingly brutal DVDs.

We would poke fun at him about it, but it was relentless. His lifestyle choices generally, and the social circle he kept, which as he said was full of ‘the wanted and the unwanted’, meant that he was on a downward spiral.

I was chatting to him on Gmail on evening when he said he had been at a friend’s house and had seen some ‘extreme’ material. With a sense of rising dread I asked what he meant. The videos involved girls aged eight or nine – the same age my daughter was at the time. So I told him he needed to call the cops on this ‘friend’. He said no way, this guy was his pal. I told him his ‘pal’ was complicit in a crime, that he was part of a culture that delights in the rape and torture of little children. My friend was indignant, saying with absolute certainty that the children in these videos weren’t being raped, they were enjoying the abuse.

Some friendship fade out over years as your lives change. This one ended at that moment. I told him to never contact me again, and that if I saw him anywhere near my family I would call the police. I got a few abusive messages after that, but blocked him. In the intervening years he has tried to get in touch, expressing remorse that we ‘fell out’, but not once did he say that he had a problem, or that he was wrong, or that he needed help. I very much hope that I never see him again, because whether or not he ever actually harms a child, he clearly has the paedophile mindset – that children enjoy abuse.  

I’m slow to use the term ‘child pornography’ as the word pornography implies consent, eroticism, or pleasure. These are images of worst kind of rape and torture – the most sadistic abuse imaginable. These are lives being ruined, and while the perpetrators are the active agents, those who watch the videos and share them on the internet are just passive versions of the same monsters.

All of this was in my head in the last two weeks as I wondered how I was able to pull the shutters down on two decades of friendship – but Tom Humphreys, an actual, active paedophile who defiled a child, was still deemed worthy of defence by some of his peers. Perhaps those who stood by him had trouble asking themselves the same question I had to ask after I severed ties with one of my oldest friends – what the hell is wrong with me? How did I end up friends with someone so morally bankrupt, so unfeeling, so utterly sick? But not every paedophile is as visibly odd as Jimmy Savile. Many of them are perfectly affable, average members of society who are secretly despicable creatures. They can be great writers, good friends and monsters all at once. But once the last aspect is revealed, your own humanity should recoil in horror. There is no ‘forgive and forget’ here.

But still there are people like the author John Grisham who in 2014 said that the American courts needed to be more lenient with people who watch videos of children being sexually abused, talking about an old law school friend who was sent to jail for this very thing. Grisham blamed alcohol, and bizarrely, boredom, for his friend’s moral decay. There are no excuses for enjoying the abuse of a child. Even Kevin Spacey somehow thought that telling the world what we already knew, that he was gay, somehow explained his assault on a 14-year-old. This isn’t about gender or sexual orientation – it’s about adults, children and abuse.

In the trial of the man I see shuffling around my town, one of the arresting gardai testified that he thought the man downloaded 13,845 images and videos ‘out of boredom as much as anything else’. In the end, the man got off with a four-year suspended sentence, due to a statement from the Granada Institute that he was unlikely to pose a threat to the community, and also because he was his mother’s sole carer. She died earlier this year, so now he is alone, muddling about the place looking confused. Some day he will die, have a tiny funeral, and that will be that. The world won’t be any safer or better, but there will be one less identifiable menace in my hometown, and – more worryingly – many, many more that I don’t know about.