Friday, 28 February 2014

Permission to carry on

I want to ask your permission for something, I said to The Girl.

“What is it?” she asked curiously.

Do you know what a blog is? I asked.

“A blog?” she said. “No, what?”

It’s short for web-log, I said. A log is a journal – captains on sailing ships used to write down their coordinates on a timber, like a desk, and it was called the “captain’s log,” so eventually every day-to-day journal was called a log.


When people invented computers and connected them together in a network around the world – a web – people started keeping public journals, like their own magazines, and they were called ‘web-logs’ or ‘blogs’ for short. I write for a newspaper in Ireland and a couple of magazines in the USA, and I put the articles I write – plus some other bits and bobs – in a blog. And sometimes I mention you.

“Me?” The Girl looked flattered, then wary. “Do you tell people my name?”

I talk about the times we have together, and the conversations we have, I said. I show photos I took, and some of them have you in them. But I never tell people your name, or show your face, or say exactly where we live – that’s my deal with your privacy.

“If you’re already doing these things, why ask permission now?" she asked.

Because I started when you were a baby, and I’ve been doing it ever since. And it’s one thing to tell people the cute things your child said when they were two, or four, or six. But telling the world about a conversation you had with another grownup, without that person’s permission, would be a violation of their privacy. You’re nine now, and we’re starting to talk about some serious and personal things, and I wanted to ask your permission before writing about it.

She thought about that a moment. “Nobody will know who I am?”

You can decide that for yourself when you’re an adult, I said. Until then, no.

She smiled. “Yes, you can absolutely keep doing that.”

Photo: The Girl on the ferry to Wales last summer.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Stile in a wall

The animals that we domesticate are often larger, stronger and faster than we are, but we can do two things they can't: we can build a wall, and we can climb through it using a stile.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Not for children

The Girl learned of a short fiction competition for Irish schoolchildren, and resolved to enter her own story. 

She had never written fiction, though, so like many inchoate writers, she drew inspiration from the books she’s read recently – C.S. Lewis, Harry Potter, J.R.R. Tolkien and others. Searching for more, though, she looked further afield for inspiration -- to my bookshelf.

“Is this your book -- The Road?” she asked me on the phone, as I rode the bus home.

What, by Cormac McCarthy? I asked. I had read the novel a few years ago, after it won the Pulitzer Prize; the author was already known for works like No Country for Old Men, and The Road continued his favourite theme of brutal men surviving a harsh landscape. For the latter novel, though, McCarthy switched from his usual American West setting to that of science fiction – a post-apocalyptic wasteland where all life is dying. I loved the crystalline prose, but the story was perhaps the bleakest ever written; Hollywood actually had to dial down the brutality to make it into a film.     

“That’s the one,” she said.

Um … yes, I said slowly. Have you been trying to read it?

“No, I was just looking at the covers of books on your shelf.”

Okay, I said -- because that’s absolutely not a book for children.

“Why not -- does it have a sad ending?”

And a sad beginning and a sad middle, I said. And the interludes between those sad parts are sadder still.

“Would I be able to read it when I’m ten?” she asked.

You can read it when you’re thirty-five, I said.

Fine,” she said in mock petulance. “I’ll just have to find my own things to add to my story” – her story that, I discovered, so far involved wizards, magical animals, secret societies, school-children, vampires, and fairies all fighting climate change.

I don’t think you have a shortage of ideas, I said.

Photo: The road outside our home a few years ago, in one of Ireland's unusual snows. 

Monday, 24 February 2014

Personal notes

I strive to add something to the blog each day, but technical difficulties have slowed me down lately; my apologies. Also, I might not see your comment or e-mail immediately, but will get to it in a matter of days, so don't think I'm ignoring you.

Thank you!

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Stained Glass

At the Country Museum in County Mayo.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Owl on the Burren

Stewie the Owl, orphaned and raised by humans at the Raptor Center by the Ailwee Caves in County Clare. The humans who work there say owls are difficult to train, as they have the attention span of a kitten -- they are constantly alert and being distracted by random sounds in the distance. They can hear sounds kilometres away, so now that the surrounding countryside is full of cars and other human noises, they live in a world of distractions.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Latest article at Grit

My latest article for Grit magazine, on coppicing, is live on their site -- check it out.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Pub near our home

Where we live in the Bog of Allen, where the ground is soft and wobbly. The camera isn't tilted -- the pub is.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

The Real Social Network

The other night I saw the end of a life well-lived. I didn’t know him; I just saw his funeral.

My bus rolled through the dark night I was riding the bus from my job in Dublin to our home in the Irish countryside, and the tiny roads take us through one rural village after another. That night police stopped us just outside one where a funeral was being held; as there is usually only one road through town, there was nothing to do but wait half an hour or so.

I’d seen funerals here, but never one this big – by my estimate, several times the population of our village. I pictured half the farms and houses for many miles around emptying out for this man, who by all accounts was not wealthy or renowned, but simply beloved.

I was one of the only people left on the bus, and the driver and I stepped out, caps to chest, chatting as the procession slowly passed. Turns out the bus driver lives down the road but we’d never met either, and that set us talking about mutual acquaintances and local gossip. We’d seen each other once a week for years, never exchanging more than a sleepy mumble – but now that we’re on first names I can more comfortably pass the long ride chatting, or more comfortably bring up the delicate matter of the drunk in the third row.

We don’t get enough moments like that, when a stranger suddenly a neighbour. We become moral animals when we care about others as we do ourselves, and in most eras that wasn’t a problem.
Whether in Stone Age tribes or bucolic villages, we lived in the constant presence of people like ourselves, with whom we shared a lifetime of memories and on whom we depended. Accommodating one another was in our obvious self-interest.

For our neighbours, local and family histories can go back a thousand years or more, so relationships run deep. They might have conflicts or even feuds, but after sharing three sacraments, a football championship, the rights to the nearby pasture and two great-grandmothers, they learn to get along. Relationships like this civilise us, and thousands of such threadlike connections, layer upon layer, cushion the weight of the world.

Today, though, we spend much of our lives alone even in a crowd, often insulated by headphones and absorbed in a screen of some kind, whether a laptop, television or phone. In this protective bubble we find it easy to treat the icons on Facebook like the icons on a video game, or the cars on the road like moving images on a screen. We can fill online comment boxes or the space between our cars with language we would never use over a cup of tea, because we can now live in a world free of identity and consequences. As individuals we default to being self-absorbed, and now we have technology that allows us to stay that way.

We had drifted apart long before the digital revolution, though, across most of the Western World and particularly in my native USA. Thirteen years ago American sociologist Robert Putnam, in his seminal book Bowling Alone, compared survey data from across the decades, exploring how often people ate together, joined clubs, talked to neighbours and so on. The conclusions were dramatic and sweeping: Most traditional forms of human interaction have declined, and some have almost vanished.

Read that again: Most traditional forms of human interaction have declined, and some have almost vanished.

“Human interaction” covers quite a bit of ground, of course, and Putnam goes through hundreds of pages of examples – any of which might seem tiny in isolation, but fit like mosaic pieces to portray a crisis. Over two decades, for example, the number of times Americans entertained friends at home had fallen by half. “Time diary” studies show that Americans spent a third less time socializing in 1995 than in 1965. Instances of family members vacationing together, going to church together, or “just sitting and talking,” as one poll put it, have all declined. Gradually and silently, hundreds of millions of neighbours became strangers.

Of course, many Americans work longer hours than they used to and commute longer distances, but those have become solitary activities too. Many of our jobs consist of work at individual “workstations,” and carpooling has nearly disappeared as an institution. Going out for drinks afterwards declined almost 50 per cent, and Cheers, the television show about the bar “where everybody knows your name,” has become a period piece.

Nor do we eat together, that basic glue of communion; the number of families who eat dinner together fell by a third in the last 20 years of the 20th century, while the number of old-fashioned restaurants fell and the number of fast-food “refuelling stops” doubled. (1)

Participation in bridge clubs, local politics, men’s clubs like Kiwanis and Knights of Columbus, after-work poker games and bowling leagues – hence Putnam’s title – have all receded into shrinking pools of elderly since the Woodstock era, when young people stopped joining. (2)

Putnam’s 2000 work spawned a decade of journal papers and studies looking at various kinds of “social capital” and hot academic debates over its definition. Most of us, though, know it when we see it, and when we have it we live longer, feel better, are stronger, healthier, and have more meaningful lives when we are part of a close family or a loyal group of friends. Our community gives us gossip confidantes, fellow sport fans, walking companions, fellow worshippers, and an unspoken savings-and-loan of personal favours. They are, in short, the ones who share in the numinous moments of our lives.

Most people won’t have the centuries-old relationships that some families here have, of course, but they don’t need to. Sometimes a chat with a bus driver is enough to build what Putnam calls “thin trust.” Our lives are made up of thousands of tiny gestures like this every day, and ninety-nine out of a hundred fly right by us. We don’t think much about the pedestrian who shifts to one side to let us pass, the clerk who smiles at us, or the kids who walk around our property instead of through, but we coast on a sea of such courtesies, and where such moments disappear – say, in a violent inner-city neighbourhood – we immediately feel their absence.

“Members of a community that follows the principle of generalized reciprocity – raking your leaves before they blow onto your neighbours’ yard, lending a dime to a stranger for a parking meter, buying a round of drinks the week you earn overtime, keeping an eye on a friend’s house, taking turns bringing snacks to Sunday school, caring for the child of the crack-head one flight down – find that their self-interest is served,” Putnam wrote. (3)

Since all our human institutions are just groups of people, such widespread and tight bonds of community transform the landscape; they turn a church into a parish and a political drop-box into a movement. For much of the USA’s history, political decisions were made at the local and state levels, built from thousands of town-hall meetings, caucuses, conventions and chautauquas. The nation hosted a rich stew of multiple political parties no longer found in the USA, partly because the two largest parties passed laws to ban their competitors and partly because power shifted to the federal level when the republic became an empire.

By the post-war era, politics had gone national and the number of choices had narrowed to two, yet Americans were as committed as ever. “Not only are Americans flocking into bowling leagues and garden clubs,” wrote Life magazine in 1964, “they are satisfying their gregarious urges in countless neighbourhood committees to improve the local media and garbage collections and to hound their public servants into doing what their name implies.” (4)

So what caused my native country’s transformation in less than half a century? Putnam and many other researchers point to television, which fills a few hours a day that used to be spent in contact with others. Time researchers John Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey reported in 1995 that Americans spend about 40 per cent of their free time watching TV, the highest rate in the world. “Television,” they conclude, “is the 800-pound gorilla of leisure time.”

Another factor might be the passing of the wartime generation; most of Putnam’s indicators peaked in the mid-1960s among an adult generation of Americans who had spent their formative years in the greatest conflict in human history. They had either spent the war years as young soldiers or as children organising recycling and blood drives on the home front. Almost all the change has been due to generational succession, with older Americans from a more dutiful time dying off and younger, hipper generations taking their place.

The mid-20th century USA offers a rich mine of surveys and focus groups from which to draw data, but in truth most traditional societies were built around mutual aid, worship, politicking and labour exchanges, all lubricated with schmoozing. Nineteenth-century New Englanders made “informal Sunday visits, attended maple sugar parties and cider tastings, stayed for extended visits, offered assistance in giving birth, paid their respects to the family of the deceased, participated in quilting parties, and raised houses and barns. … It was through visiting, in fact, that they created their communities.”

From the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, though, the number of Americans who had attended even a single meeting on town or school affairs in the previous year was cut by 40 per cent, and the number who had been officer for any local organisation also fell by 40 per cent. In 1973 most Americans engaged in some kind of activism – they signed a petition, wrote their congressman, made a public speech or wrote an article. Twenty years later most Americans did not do any of those things, and 20 years further on such behaviour seems plucked from an alien world.

This erosion of trust cascades through our entire social infrastructure, costing us not only in political idealism and energy but in dozens of other neglected ways. “Other things being equal, people who trust their fellow citizens more volunteer more often, contribute more regularly, participate more often in politics and community organizations, serve more readily on juries, give blood more frequently, comply more fully with their tax obligations, are more tolerant of minority views, and display many other forms of civic virtue,” Putnam notes.

“Moreover, people who are more active in community life are less likely (even in private) to condone cheating on taxes, insurance claims, bank loan forms, and employment applications. Conversely, experimental psychologists have shown that people who believe that others are honest are themselves less likely to lie, cheat, or steal and are more likely to respect the rights of others. In that sense, honesty, civic engagement and social trust are mutually reinforcing.”

Since those pre-hipster generations began dying off, our religion and politics have grown ever more apocalyptic, and my countrymen grew more and more suspicious of their leaders. In April 1966, in the middle of race riots and the Vietnam War, 66 per cent of Americans rejected the view that “the people running the country don’t really care what happens to you.” In December 1997, in the midst of a long prosperity, 57 per cent of Americans endorsed that same view.

This creeping death of our better angels had an immediate impact on the legal profession after the Sixties; crime, for instance, skyrocketed as generations of children grew up without a social network to limit their behaviour. Various other studies show all manner of less severe behaviour has worsened – for example, the proportion of drivers not stopping at stop signs trebled in the 1980s and 90s.

For this reason, the proportion of lawyers and judges in the population doubled after holding steady for the previous 70 years. The proportion of police and security guards also almost doubled, and television, film and on best-seller lists filled with increasingly sadistic crime and courtroom dramas. As conservative writer P.J. O’Rourke wrote more than 20 years ago, a (then single) generation of hipness has made us all familiar with the jargon once known only to criminals and criminal lawyers.

Some areas of public life might seem to have improved; the number of organisations in the USA more than doubled in the last few decades of the 20th century. Many of these organisations, however, have no individual members, and most are based not in the Midwest or South like the older and more traditional organisations – the Boy Scouts, Kiwanis, Boys and Girls Clubs, VFW and the American Legion. Many of the largest and most influential non-profits to arise in the USA in the last few decades operate out of a few zip codes in Washington, DC. They are lobbyist firms, whose members tend to write a check to Washington rather than meet in their local town hall.

The modern USA has a few institutions that might seem to take the place of old-fashioned relationships, like crime watch groups, but Putnam calls them “sociological Astroturf, suitable only where the real thing won’t grow.” What modern Americans call “neighbourhood associations,” likewise, can quickly turn into fashion-enforcement groups, trying to stop their property values from haemorrhaging any further; friends of mine who moved into such neighbourhoods complained that they couldn’t repair their homes properly, grow gardens or hang their clothes out to dry.

The popularity of Putnam’s work meant the number of papers studying “social capital” has multiplied in the years since, and more recent studies show a continuation of the same long-term trends. His main work predated the rise of so-called social media, but while some studies show they do not further destroy social capital, they don’t seem to build it either; people who have more friends have more Facebook friends, but Facebook doesn’t build friendships. (5)

Works like Bowling Alone also focused entirely on the USA, with its massive and highly studied population, and no similar work has pieced together hundreds of studies from other parts of the world. The UK has seen about as much erosion of social capital as the USA, according to a 2009 study by the Italian sociologist Francesco Saracino, but most European countries have seen less. (6)

Moreover, if Europeans have done far better than Americans in maintaining their communities, Ireland seems to have done far better than Europe. In Limerick, notorious in Ireland for its poverty and crime, a recent study looked at “an extremely disadvantaged inner-city community” with “one of the most deprived Electoral Districts in the country” and found that even there, 80 per cent of residents felt a part of their neighbourhood and three-quarters of residents say people “look out for each other.” No two polls are precisely equivalent, but the number of Americans overall – disadvantaged and wealthy, rural and urban – who answer similar questions positively peaked at 55 per cent after World War II and had fallen to less than 35 per cent by the time Putnam was writing in 2000. (7)

Perhaps Ireland has merely lagged behind; it had a highly traditional and agrarian culture until the final years of the 20th century, when an economic boom brought some of the same suburban sprawl and social disruption that other Western countries had seen decades before. My in-laws remember growing up here as children with horses and carriages, and in some cases without electricity or indoor plumbing. Of course, far fewer people had televisions, and no one owned the mountains of personal toys that US suburbanites do today.

In other words, you can see Putnam’s generational transformation here, too, but perhaps two or three generations behind the USA. That makes my adopted home an ideal place to see the things that our own culture lost, that would otherwise come to us only through the memories of the elderly or not at all.

We watched this happen the other night at the funeral. For generations my countrymen have handled birth, child-rearing, sickness, old age and death by paying expensive specialists to do it for us, out of view, and we merely show up for a ceremony. In a more traditional age, though, family and next-door neighbours were the ceremony, laying out the body on the kitchen table, gathering around it to drink, mourn and celebrate their life in the world to come.

What made our bus wait for half an hour was not a line of cars, you see, but a line of people. Friends and family, perhaps a thousand of them, marched down a lightless country road on a winter night – for miles, I’m told — carrying the body of their loved one in a wooden box to the church. It wouldn’t have surprised me if they had sawn the box.

This would have been normal a century or two ago in more industrialised countries; today, we can imagine that many people turning out for a celebrity they never met, but not for a neighbour.

The driver and I stood there a long time watching them pass, and I thought the deceased had been a lifelong part of an older and real social network, the one that you don’t leave when you die.

(1) Bowling Alone, Page 100-101
(2) Data from the American Bowling Congress, via Putnam, p. 108
(3) Putnam p. 135
(4) Life magazine, Feb. 21, 1964, p. 91, 93
(5) Social Capital and the Spiral of Silence (2012)
(6) Social capital and subjective well-being trends: Comparing 11 western European countries. Francesco Sarracino. The Journal of Socio-Economics, Volume 39, Issue 4, August 2010, Pages 482–517
France and the United States: A comparative analysis of social capital on both sides of the pond, Patrick Merle and Weiwu Zhang, French Politics 10, 269-289 (September 2012)
The French move half as often as Americans. “Legal Sources of Residential Lock-Ins: Why French Households Move Half as Often as U.S. Households”; Ellickson, Robert C. University of Illinois Law Review.
(7) Bowling Alone, 467

Photo: The graves at Glendalough.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Excellent door

The entrance to the Museum of Archaeology in Dublin, between Stephen's Green and the houses of government.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

New article at Mother Earth News

The venerable Mother Earth News has just published an article I wrote, "Use Vintage Technique to Grow More Food in Less Space." If you want to know how Victorians were able to grow so much fruit in a wet and chilly country, by all means check it out.

Monday, 10 February 2014


The Cathedral in Dublin, celebrating its 984th birthday this year.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Big Questions

I missed the bus and had to wait for the next one in the freezing rain, in Dublin’s official Belligerent Drunk neighbourhood (Motto: You don’t need toilets here!), but coming home to The Girl makes it worthwhile. So as I showered she sat outside the door and told me about her day – she had taken part in a quiz competition recently, and had studied hard for it, but all the trivia began to feel … trivial.

“The books we read don’t answer any of my real questions,” The Girl said.

What’s on your mind? I asked.

“Like, why are we here?” she asked.

Are you asking about the purposes of God? I asked.

“I’m asking about our purpose,” she said.

Well, I said, you know how we’re like cells of a greater body? I asked. “Uh-huh,” I heard her say from outside.  

What happens when your body is wounded? I asked.

“It makes new, special cells to fix the damage,” she said. “Like white blood cells to make a scab.”

Exactly, I said. You know how humans have done a lot of damage to the world? And a lot of people are still doing terrible things to each other?

“Yes,” she said. Well, I said, there need to be new, special people to fix things, a little bit at a time. And you’re special.

She digested this for a few moments. Remember one of the lessons I gave you last week, I said? The Pareto Rule?

“I remember,” she said. “The 80-20 rule. Like, 80 per cent of whatever –it-is comes from 20 per cent of people.”

Sure, whether good or bad, I said. Sometimes it’s more like 90-10, or 99-1, I said. Sometimes that one, just a few people here and there, are all it takes. 

"By doing what, though?" she asked. You'll figure it out as you get older, I said, and I'll help where I can. You could heal the sick, or write things people need to hear, or grow food, or do science experiments, or teach children. You'll probably do several things. And the world's going to see some difficult times ahead -- whatever one you pick, you'll be needed. Just make sure you're making the world better.

What do you think of that answer? I asked.

"I suppose," sounding far away. "Let's read Harry Potter -- is that okay?" she said. 

Sure, I said, coming out dressed. We don't figure these things out in a night, I thought.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Post hoc ergo propter hoc

For tonight’s lesson, I told The Girl, I want to tell you two sentences. Listen carefully, and let me know if they are true:

Snow White’s mother wished she would have a daughter, and she got her wish.

“That’s true,” The Girl said emphatically, and I nodded. Okay, I said, what about this:

Snow White’s mother wished she would have a daughter, and her wish was granted.

“Oh! That one’s not right!” she said. Why not? I asked.

“Because …” she said, trying to find the words. “Because who granted it? Just because she had a girl, it doesn’t mean someone made her have a girl.”

Right, I said. Even if you assume God grants wishes, it doesn’t mean he – or something – intervened.  It’s a mistake people make all the time, thinking that because something happened after something else, that one caused the other. In Latin it’s called ‘post hoc, ergo propter hoc.’

“Post-duck… um…” The Girl began.

Just think of a hawk that delivers our post, I said. It can fly, but the other hawk is too proper to go through the air -- post-hawk air-go, proper hawk. Can you think of another example?

“Witches!” The Girl said, and there was a pause. Okay, I said, keep going with that thought.

“Well, they used to burn witches, right?” she said. An old woman would walk by your field, and all the slugs would get your crops, and you could say the old woman caused it, that she put a hex on you.”

Excellent, I said; I’m really proud of you. With things like that it's obvious, but it's harder in things like experiments, because you’ll often see things happen together – called correlation -- and it will be tempting to think that one causes the other. Correlation doesn’t mean causation.  

I’ll give you another example: a lot of fake medicines -- ‘herbal’ pills and such -- do the same thing, saying they’ll cure your cold. You take it, and your cold gets better.

“But it would have got better anyway?” The Girl asked. 

Sure, I said – it’s a cold.