Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Ireland IV: Sheeran's Pub

Executive summary: Sheeran's Pub is a quiet spot in the even quieter hamlet of Coolrain, County Laois.

Longer version: Within a few days on either side of the winter solstice, darkness comes early in Ireland, not to mention the pervasive and damp cold that comes along with it. The best thing to do when faced with a cold, dark, damp Irish winter night is to plant oneself in front of a roaring fire and have a drink or two.

Fortunately, just up the road from the family stronghold of Peafield is Sheeran's Pub, now in business for over 200 years. It features friendly barmen, a roaring fire, and regulars, of which the roaring fire is probably the most crucial contributor to a good time.


The place has a thatched roof and feels more like your grandmother's house than a pub, but that's par for the course 'round these parts. People wander in from the darkness periodically, but no one seems to leave.


The peat-burning fireplace is too hot to sit right next to, and some of the nearby seats are unofficially owned by regulars who see no need to relinquish their familiar seats to outsiders, so we skirt the edges of the warmth and avoid international incidents at every opportunity.

Yes, we have that here

The Guinness is dramatically better in Ireland, to the point where I don't see a reason to drink it in the US ever again, but the dark liquid is little more than the enabler for unexpected conversations, new friends, and later bedtimes than planned.

Then again, considering that the room we're staying in at the 300+ year-old farmhouse is cold enough that we can see our breath, perhaps the pub is more of a safe haven than we give it credit for!


Monday, April 28, 2014

Dark Matter

I wrote this a few weeks ago right after it occurred to me that I hadn't made a blog post in a month, and that's usually a wakeup call of sorts for me. As I'm in my seventh year of doing this, I tend to be pretty regular, so when I'm not, it gets my attention. I held off on posting this immediately thereafter, as there were bigger fish to fry, but I believe the words are still relevant. And besides, if this subject weren't relevant beyond the moment of realization, then it wouldn't really be worth talking about, anyway.


There's a parable that floats around the interwebs every so often, and it does so with vague attribution. You probably know it, but if you don't, I'll summarize it quickly.

It's about a philosophy professor who stands in front of his class silently, produces a large mayonnaise jar, then fills it with golf balls. He asks his class if the jar is full (yup).

Then he produces some pebbles and pours them into the jar, and they obviously rattle down and fill in around the golf balls. Same question to the class about the jar being full, same answer (yup).

Then he produces some sand, pours it into the jar, and it again fills in around the other stuff. Same question to the class, same answer (yup). Like with most good stories told by good storytellers, the students gradually catch on at each step along the way that Something is Happening, thus gradually enticing the listener to prepare for a punchline or a lesson.

As his coup de grĂ¢ce, as the jar really appears full this time, he produces a couple of beers and easily pours them in. Lesson time.

Golf balls = big life stuff: health, family, friends, passions

Pebbles = medium life stuff: job, house, car

Sand = small life stuff: unspecified, but man, it's the small stuff. It's picking up your dry cleaning and going for coffee.

"You see," says the professor, "if you put the sand into the jar first, there's no room for the other stuff. If you spend your time on the little details in life, there's no time for what's truly important."

Class is stunned. Finally someone asks about the beer, and the story gets its lighthearted conclusion: "no matter what, there's always time for a couple beers with a friend."

Memorable, yes. Good lesson for today's doe-eyed youth, yes. Only problem is that's it's complete and utter horseshit.

For starters, it's written too poetically to have actually happened as it's told. Next, it follows the formula of every good joke or story. Finally, there are no identifying details with which to actually verify a single word of it.

But those aren't the reasons it's horseshit. Those are mere technicalities that skirt the real issue, and they're common to most every parable or fable out there.


Time for a physics break.

So...there's this thing called spacetime, and it's our three familiar dimensions (x, y, and z) woven in with our less-obvious fourth dimension, time. Spacetime is awesome, and it's frequently described as a thin sheet of rubber stretched across a frame. This analogy works pretty well, as it's easy for most of us to visualize a big ball making a smooth indentation in this rubber sheet, and then to visualize smaller marbles and such having their paths altered as they roll near these big indentations.

This is cosmology on a grand level: the effect of gravity on the scale of galaxies and stars and planets. It's a good introduction to the concepts of space and time being both intertwined and also flexible, as we're used to rigid three-dimensional things like concrete and steel buildings. It's also a convenient lesson about how to make abstract concepts that are difficult to grasp (fourth dimension?!) more approachable, which is a useful skill as one cavorts down the path towards string theory and its extra six or so tightly-curled dimensions. That's a whole different level of mindfuck, but we'll save that for another day.

Anyhow, this rubber sheet of spacetime is pretty easy to grasp, and it's easy to imagine a whole bunch of indentations of various sizes from all the stuff that's out there. It's also pretty easy to imagine that the astrophysicists could calculate how all this stuff moves, and how the observable universe bends and stretches, because hey, we can see all these galaxies and stars and planets and understand the indentations they all make in the rubber.

There's just one little problem. Stuff doesn't move quite like it should. Stuff moves as though there's other stuff, Invisible Stuff, making its own indentations in the rubber sheet. And it turns out that there's a lot of it. Like, OMG, it's over a quarter of the stuff in the entire universe. It's been conveniently named Dark Matter, and yeah, there's also Dark Energy and whatnot, but Dark Matter is good enough for today's rant. We're still working to understand it, to "find" it (whatever it means to find something that's invisible), and to figure out where it came from.

Physics break over, or [/physics] for you geeks.


The astute among you Seven Faithful Readers may notice that I already sneakily worked in balls of different sizes in the physics lesson, setting you up for some rad connection between the stupid mayonnaise jar story and the amazingness of physics. That's actually just a clever coincidence, as this is really about the Dark Matter.

I've spent the last few years prioritizing the pursuit of time over the pursuit of money, as it didn't take me too long to realize that accumulating vast amounts of cash wouldn't be much good if there was no time to use it (and I should probably point out that I didn't have the piles of cash anyway).

Time is a curious one, as it could be interpreted lots of different ways. For some, it's daily time: time to walk the dog, time to cook dinner, time to read to the kids. For others, it's weekly or monthly time: time to go to the beach, time to make art, time to fiddle with the car. For others yet, it's a different level of time: time to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, time to really explore Thailand, time to build a house.

For me, it's a blend of those three flavors of time. And I've learned a bevy of time-management techniques that unlock this hidden world of being able to do lots of things that don't seem possible if you think you're busy. None of it is rocket science. But still, for me, something ain't right. What it really boils down to isn't time, I guess, but freedom. And freedom is more than time. It's more than even time and money. It's time and money and what we'll just call bandwidth. And therein lies the rub. Bandwidth is my Dark Matter.

You see, most of the time, my mayonnaise jar looks pretty approachable. There'll be a golf ball or two, some pebbles, and some sand (and on a good day, it's all soaked in beer). Plenty of room, right? But I'll be damned if that jar isn't full of Dark Matter, invisible yet undeniable in its pull. Time for more golf balls, like spending time with friends? Sure, but for some reason, those balls won't go in the jar. Time for more pebbles, like making our rental house more livable or doing some interesting side work? Sure, but for some reason, those pebbles won't go in the jar. Time for more sand, like getting a haircut or researching interesting races or catching up on semi-important emails? Sure, but for some reason, that sand won't go in the jar.

Jar looks empty, isn't.

Uh oh.


I've got (and have fought for) a fair amount of time in my life, and I've at least got enough cash to keep things moving along, but I find myself so bloody bandwidth-limited that I'm not sure what to do. There are times when I feel like a drooling imbecile, and for a guy whose livelihood relies upon being smart from time to time, that's a touch on the scary side. It is a state of mind that could be mistaken for having an unobstructed soul, or being calm as a Hindu cow (which is one of my favorite lines in Fight Club), but I don't think either of those is quite the case. It's the Dark Matter in my gray matter, interwoven and invisibly overwhelming, and I've yet to identify it. The astrophysicists are on the hunt for their Dark Matter, and I'm on the hunt for mine.

I've got some hypotheses, and I won't use this as a venue to discuss them, as even with all this context and lead-in, there's a good chance that what I write will be taken out of context. And I also run the risk of coming off like the walking talking embodiment of a grand coalescence of first-world problems, and the necessary disclaimers to avoid that seem like too much work. So long story short, this is little more than a longwinded kvetch with no resolution, except that I'll promise to keep hunting for the Dark Matter, or more simply, to find out what the fuck is wrong with my jar.

Gratuitous and multi-quasi-symbolic photo


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Ireland III: St. Fintan's

It's hard to swing a cat in Ireland without hitting something that's older than the US, so it's important to stay focused and only devote attention to things that are both old and interesting.

St. Fintan's in Mountrath only dates to 1861, nearly qualifying it as new construction, but it's a very cool church nonetheless. After driving by it every day, we finally made a little bit of time to stop in and wander about with a tripod.


I don't really consider myself a religious person (um, at all), but I dig architecture, and I also view architecture with a different eye when it was created without CAD and cranes and all those other modern conveniences.

Votive with photo-fodder backdrop

Further, when it's pissing rain in the wintertime in Ireland, which it was doing on this particular afternoon and evening, the available options for activities dwindle pretty swiftly.

Just add light

I went to the trouble to bring a big strobe with me (camera gear was easily >50% of my sparse luggage), and it was TOTALLY worth it. I found it to add a new dimension to my travel photography, and hey, new things are exciting!


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Ireland II: Lifespan

Our first stop in Ireland was Peafield, the family farm in County Laois (pronounced "leash," obviously).

The farmhouse and stables are roughly three hundred years old, which is longer than the US has been around but shorter than the shelf life of a Twinkie.

Most of the farmhouse has held up pretty well, but there's some inevitable decay, too.

Does not repel rain

Three hundred years is a damn long time for a house, but it's not even a blip on the cosmic time scale. Staring at the stars has a way of realigning one's thinking about lifespans.

Especially on a frigid Irish night.


Monday, April 14, 2014

Ireland I: The Easy Way

So...first post in over a month. Been interesting 'round these parts, to say the least. I had originally scheduled something far more brooding for today, but decided to run with this instead. After all, I've got scads of photos in the backlog, and there's a metric pile from Ireland that needed to get kicked off in serial fashion. So here goes...Ireland I of XV or so :)

Over Christmas and New Years, we traipsed off to Ireland to visit Ethel's family and to contract pneumonia. Well, that was my joke prior to the trip, because Ireland is not known for its temperate winters, and it only ended up being partially true.

Maybe it's the crushing boredom that can dominate air travel that's been my motivation, but I've discovered that I hold flight and airport photography quite dear. Perhaps this next clause will be noticed by the kind folks at Expedia or something, but I'd have a hard time saying no to spending a bunch of time in the air with the sole purpose of making pretty pictures of the changing terrain and light silently sliding along miles below, plus cool airport architecture between flights.







I also haven't been sleeping well on flights lately, so I've gotta do something with my time...

As you can infer, we landed in Dublin and it was raining, but we followed that up with a full Irish breakfast, so no hard feelings there.

Little did we know that the 17 hours it took us to get to Dublin was going to be the easiest travel of the trip...oooooooh, foreshadowing!

Much more to come, and sorry for the radio silence.


Past Detritus