Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Anthea (and gin)

3 minute read 

My friend Anthea and I are very well matched. Like me, she doesn’t drink, has a dry, sarcastic sense of humor, is a women working in the tech field, has a name that everyone gets wrong, and has travelled a lot. She started writing a blog a few years ago and inspired me to do the same. She’s also mildly neurotic about doing things well and in good time like me (sorry Anthea), which is a relief when making plans together and when I'm seeking advice on how to approach various things in my own life. Anyway, these are some but not all of the similarities between me and Anthea.

I went to visit Anthea in Edinburgh once, and as we were meandering around the city, we happened upon what seemed to be some kind of food festival happening in summerhall, which is a very large and beautiful building. We went in and hung around reception awkwardly for a few minutes before deciding that there must have been no entrance fee, and that we didn’t need anyone to tell us what was going on if we just went on ahead and saw for ourselves.

We carried on and as we passed through the corridor, we walked past a table hosting drink samples. We weren’t sure at this stage whether this was a public or private event, so we did some more awkward standing around-ing until a woman came and offered us a taster. 

‘What is it?’ we asked. 
‘Gin!’ she replied. 

Oh well. We don’t drink gin*, or any other alcohol for that matter. So we asked if maybe we could try some of the mixers, and she was more than happy to oblige.

We carried on to first of many large, vendor-filled halls and were offered a selection of very fine gin samples at the next table. Blast! What bad luck, we don’t drink gin, or any other alcohol for that matter. Could we try some of your mixer?

Before long, we realised that we had accidentally snuck in to a gin festival, that should have cost about £60 each to attend. The tragedy of our total inability to take advantage of this occupied the forefront of our minds as we went from stall to stall tasting tonics, some of which were really lovely, and many of which were not. Although we didn’t pay the entrance fee, I think we did deserve some credit for powering through the awkwardness of repeatedly responding to hyper-enthusiastic sales pitches describing how:

'This gin, this gin, is the one you need.'


That’s great but we’re just here for the tonic, hand it over.’

Since then, gin has seen a surge in popularity, probably because me and Anthea were seen attending a gin festival and we hold an enormous degree of social influence. Inevitably, since then, Anthea and I have often shared links to upcoming gin festivals, saying ‘Let’s go!’. The joke has yet to grow old.

I recently suffered a 29th birthday, and received a gift so fantastic from Anthea that it reminded me of why she is one of my favourite people, and is the only person in the world who I deem worthy of accompanying me to a gin festival. 

*I did drink gin once a long time ago, spent the whole night being sick, and never drank it again. I was much younger then, and the gin was acquired by my cousins and I from a press in my grandmother’s house located ambiguously between the cleaning detergent press and the alcohol press. It is possible that the liquid stored in the gin bottle wasn’t actually gin, but the association alone is enough to put me off gin for the rest of my days.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

If you're happy and you know it...

2 minute read

I was separating my laundry today and noticed that the song "If you're happy and you know it clap your hands" was looping relentlessly in my mind. I ignored the song at first, but when it wouldn't go away I started thinking about the lyrics. 

"If you're happy and you know it..."

Well how stupid are those lyrics?, I thought. Of course you'd know it. How could you not know that you were happy? 

Then I started to remember times in my life when something bad happened, or more specifically when some taken-for-granted privilege, like good health, the company of a friend or basic financial stability suddenly and unexpectedly dropped out of my life, making me realise how happy I had previously been unbeknownst to myself. I thought about films and books in which a fall from grace through loss of privilege acted as a catalyst for positive change in the character (and concluded that there are many such films and books, despite my total inability to conjure up a single example of this narrative). 

Then I started thinking about all of the privileges that I take for granted, like speaking a language that is spoken by about 350 million other people and is a primary language in over 50 countries, being able to wear runners to work, being young(ish), being able to comprehend reality in a reasonably consistent way, being able to shower a few times a week, and so on. 

I remembered reading about what happiness is, and the consensus within the psychological community that happiness is achieved by reducing the gap between expectations and reality. I remembered reading about other interesting things like locus of control, the hedonic treadmill and the general futility of chasing extrinsic satisfiers to achieve internal equilibrium. 

Having reflected on these things for a very short time, I think that those lyrics harbor a sort of simple, unassuming wisdom. 

If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands. 

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Keeva-with-a-K O’Shea

3 minute read 

My name is Keeva - not Caoimhe - O’Shea. This normally seamless first stage of introduction tends to cause all sorts of bother and frustration for people when they meet me, ruining my first impression and thereby destroying my chances of ever achieving the role of Secretary-General of the United Nations, which is a largely reputation-based role. If only my parents had named me something simple like me Antonio, Ban or Gladwyn, I would certainly have become Secretary-General by now.
Many people insist that my name is Caoimhe and I’m just getting it wrong. My friend Anthea has exactly the same problem, and wrote about it in her blog last year so probably thinks I’m stealing her blog entry idea, which I probably am. Her account of it is arguably funnier and more succinct than mine, so if you want to read about this topic from a more experienced blogger, just go here go here and know that I suffer the same pain as Anthea.
When I meet a new person, there are different protocols for responding to this issue within different settings. If it’s in a pub and they can make a sound that I can recognise, that’s enough. My voice is naturally quiet and I’m not going to waste my limited communicative resources to correct and annoy them. Among groups of friends, if a new person gets it wrong, sometimes someone else corrects them, which I like. Other times I’ll correct them, or just leave it if the conversational flow would suffer from it. At work, most annoyingly, it must be corrected. Immediately.

Keeva's office is just down there.... 

One time I was doing sound for an artist who refused to respond to my corrections when he called me Caoimhe. He was preparing for his show, which ended up being a really incredible show, so was assumably grounded in a psychological and spiritual dimension which was far beyond the futility of things having names in the first place. I was inexperienced at that time and didn’t know too much about this pre-show higher cognitive plane. So, when he said ‘Caoimhe’ and I automatically responded with ‘Keeva’ he completely ignored it, perhaps assuming that I was preparing for a role in a play as a parrot and was engaging in some form of method acting. Eventually, he responded to one of my ‘Keeva’s', with a ‘Huh?’. I explained that:

“it’s Keeva.”
“- Caoimhe?”
“- Caoimhe?
“- Caoimhe?”
“Keeva! With a ‘K’!”

He sort of laughed at how worked up I’d become, and responded:

“Keeva-with-a-K O’Shea!”

He has called me by this full title ever since.
Sometimes people ask me where the name Keeva originates, thinking that this will smooth over the frustrations that we’ve just overcome in ascertaining my name. They quickly realise their mistake, as I’m forced to launch into another painfully complicated explanatory ramble:

I was born in Holland, and lived there from the ages of 0-2 and then lived in Germany from the ages of 2-4*. When we lived in Germany, other kids in Kindergarten used to call me 'Kiwi' because they couldn’t pronounce the name 'Caoimhe'. This practice was surprisingly upsetting to two year old me. So I wrapped myself up in a Caoimhe cocoon and emerged from the chrysalis shortly afterwards as a phonetically magnificent Keeva, not realising that only in Germany do people take things literally enough as to actually believe you when you tell them your name. I’ve been a Keeva ever since.
Except that my name is actually Aisling, but that’s not important.

* I try my best to leave it at that but sometimes can’t help but elaborate on my geographical origins: ...next we moved to Donegal for a year and Kerry for four years before moving to Galway, which I call my home because I’ve been there since the age of 9 with the exception of four years for college in Maynooth, so why not.

Monday, 6 February 2017


6 minute read

The Dream 

Richie has a dream to visit Turkmenistan. I knew this about him when we met, and accepted it then, without thinking much about it. So I've missed the opportunity to have any issue whatsoever with this dream of his. I hadn't realised that this dream would ever impact my life, but this year we're aiming to travel a bit, and hopefully to expand our horizons beyond Europe. Enter, Turkmenistan.

Specifically, he wants to visit the Darvaza gas Crater, more commonly known as the Gate to Hell, Hell's Gate or the Door to Hell. It is a pretty amazing thing. It's a 230 foot wide, 66 foot deep pit of flames in the otherwise barren desert landscape. The origins of the pit are somewhat unclear, but the consensus is that a group of Russian geologists were drilling for oil in the desert back in 1971 and accidentally drilled into a broad methane gas reserve causing the ground to collapse, bringing the rigging equipment with it into the crater. Methane gas is both toxic and explosive, so the geologists set fire to the crater in order to burn off the noxious gas but underestimated the amount of gas in the reservoir. The methane combusted, but didn't burn off, and has been burning brightly in the desert for 46 years now.

So the Gate to Hell is a massive, burning hole in the ground in the Turkmenistan desert. Very cool! I'm actually excited by the suggestion to visit this place, and start googling the second I read Richie's email suggestion. I rapidly develop a set of concerns about the journey.

Issue 1: Travel sickness 

I suffer from travel sickness. You can read more about what that is and what it's like to have it here (no gross details, don't worry). Long story short, a windy road of any kind whatsoever is something I struggle with and have been fortunate enough to avoid on my previous travels.

I don't really know what's involved in the trip, but I'm pretty sure that public transport in this area, especially in the desert, will fall somewhere between non-existent and not for the faint hearted on the travel comfort spectrum.

Issue 2: Heat, food, general sickness 

With maximum temperatures estimated at 31°C in May when we were planning on going, the temperatures in Ashgabat lie just within the parameters of comfortable range. Damn, that's one excuse out.

Because I have issues with my stomach, food is always a concern for me when travelling. I have a very strict diet, which is impossible to adhere to when travelling without causing everyone around me a great deal of hassle, but fortunately I generally get away with eating a typically normal diet for about a week before it starts to make me feel very sick. All of this is fine within Europe, and I could probably last a long stint across the US or any Western country if I was strict enough with my diet. Areas like Central Asia scare me, because I don't know what to expect, but I do know that it probably won't lie within my fussy limits for a low to medium budget. In Turkmenistan, Richie tells me, "all they eat is goat". I'm pretty sure this is a gesture of mocking hyperbole on his part, but am somewhat afraid that it's true.

The combination of suboptimal travel and food conditions with just about tolerable heat, little access to typical comforts like shade of any kind, running water etc., along with other small hassles like visa applications, substantial flight costs and so on, serve to muster a generalised sense of anxiety about visiting the Turkmenistan desert.

Issue 3: Hell's Gate: A giant spider magnet

With issue one and two out of the way, I can tell you the most pressing, and only potentially deal breaking issue I have with visiting Hell's Gate. Within six minutes of googling, my excitement had quelled, diminished, and been replaced by dread upon finding a description of Hell's Gate as a "spider magnet". Apparently, this desert is home to camel spiders. In fact, if you google image search "camel spider", the results will be peppered with images of Hell's Gate.

If you haven't heard of them, camel spiders aren't actually spiders. They're solifugae, or in lay-man's terms, they're half spider, half scorpion monsters. They're huge. Being the only source of heat and light in the desert, Hell's Gate is very attractive to the massive population of camel spiders which inhabit the desert. It's actually a strange and fascinating phenomenon. After being drawn to the crater, rather than cosying up and toasting themselves some marshmallows, as reasonable spiders would do, they launch themselves into the pit. This awesome vice vlogger explained that this is probably them "trying to reunite themselves with their dark lord".

It's actually sort of good then, I reason, trying desperately to maintain my enthusiasm about this suggested trip. There might be a few spiders around, but they don't stay, they jump in. Hell's Gate gets rid of them. Hell's Gate is my friend. I love Hell's Gate. That tides me over until I find a forum post that describes quite how many spiders there are in the area surrounding the crater. The guy said that there was about one spider per three or four feet. Sitting in my living room, I make a rough estimate, and against my will I imagine that there are twelve to fifteen of those spiders in this room. Then I imagine that this room is a very hot desert, and I'm wearing sandals. Well maybe it'll be nighttime when we get there, I reason. But I'll still be wearing sandals. Is it better or worse to be plunged into darkness and not see them? We'll probably camp there, Richie told me. I imagine sleeping in a tent and knowing that they're out there. At this point, a short circuit occurs in my brain and cuts my imagination off. Panic is setting in. I remember the concept of cognitive dissonance, and that experiment where people who held a pencil in their mouths, forcing the surrounding muscles into a smile, reported greater feelings of happiness than those whose muscles were forced into a frown under experimental conditions. So in a desperate bid to muster enthusiasm, I force a smile (without a pencil). Sitting in my sitting room, keeping up the experimental smile, I do another twenty minutes or so of googling but all of the above concerns grow only stronger. I park the idea for now. I read somewhere that your memory of an event is greatly affected by the end of the event, so that you could have had a lovely experience but a poor ending may totally warp your memory of it, e.g. an excellent lunch ending in an unpleasant interaction with a waitress may later be recalled as an unpleasant lunch, or a torturous gym session ending with calming stretches may be encoded into memory as a pleasant gym session. So I bring my maniacal smile for a swift, pleasant ten minute walk and forget about Turkmenistan.

Two days later, Richie tells me a new fun fact that he came across while reading a little more about camel spiders. The desert is very hot with little to no shade. When you walk through the desert, you carry a shadow with you. The spiders are thrilled with this: 'a shadow! There are never shadows here!'. So, along they trot to hang out in the shadow. All day. They follow you. An army of giant spiders, in your shadow.


Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Travel Sickness

4 minute read 

The Keeva case (me) 

I suffer from travel sickness. I always have done, and although it's improved in time, it's always a central consideration for me when planning a trip. If you're reading this and thinking "no way I'll travel with her, she'll get sick on me", please don't abandon our travel plans, I haven't thrown up in about nine years. I just feel sick, I don't get sick!

"Dog ate my boarding pass."
One of the reasons I'm writing this post is to send to friends when they say things like: "but you couldn't really get travel sick, you've done so much travelling". If you've just received a link to this page from me, I can see why you'd think that, but I swear I'm not just making an excuse to avoid your birthday, bat mitzvah, funeral, or other exciting event.
Although the amount of travel I'm done in the past year may seem to indicate that I have a steel strong vestibular system, I really don't. I wouldn't be able to face a bus trip from Galway to Kerry, or Galway to Donegal without feeling very ill. I know this for sure because when I was a child we lived in Kerry and drove to Donegal most Christmases. It was quite awful. The last bus I got from Donegal to Galway was in 2012 after my dad's car broke down, leaving us stranded in Letterkenny and having to get the bus home. This was the first time I'd visited Donegal in just under ten years, and managing the car journey up there was already an achievement. After a mild nervous breakdown, I trudged up the steps and onto the coach. Despite taking motion sickness tablets, I felt overwhelmingly nauseous from hour two to hour four and actually cried for the entirety of the last hour. Fortunately for everyone on board as well as myself, I didn't get sick, but after I rushed home to bed I lay there thinking "I am never taking that bus, or any bus like it, ever again".

What is motion sickness? 

The truth is, nobody really knows why motion sickness occurs. The leading theory is that a mismatch between the inner ear and the eyes (e.g. inner ear senses motion but your eyes don't sense the same degree of motion if you're if looking at a book, other passenger, or even out the window) causes the brain to think that you have been poisoned, which triggers nausea in order to reject the ingested poison. The main advice I've received over the years is to try to overcome that mismatch by keeping your gaze on the horizon. This isn't always possible, but I do it when I can and assume it's helping.
There is huge motivation to cure this ailment, because it impacts some of the world's biggest industries, including the space and aerospace military industries. More recently, with 3D movies and more depth of field in movies and video games, motion sickness affects these media industries too. I don't know if there is there is a cure out there, but it's nice to know that some of the world's best researchers are out there trying to find it.


I've been to see a neurologist and an ENT specialist, and neither of them could offer a cure for travel sickness. Since I've started taking migraine prevention medication, I think it's eased off a little but it's hard to remember. If I'm taking a bus trip or a long train trip that I'm concerned about, I arrive half an hour early to get a front or window seat if possible (if you know someone who seems neurotic about which seat they sit in while travelling, this could be why). I take Stemitil but it doesn't stop it, it just eases it. I took Sturgeon once but it made me so drowsy that I couldn't keep my eyes on the horizon, so that made me feel sick anyway. I eat ginger before travelling in case it improves it but it doesn't stop it. If you're reading this and you have a solution that I don't know about, feel free share in the comments below.

Friendly Europe

Travelling around Europe is great because it's cheap (especially if you're flexible) and very smooth sailing motion sickness wise. To put the following information in context, anyone who gets travel sickness knows that the hierarchy of doom, in doom descendent order goes like this: Boat, bus, car, train, plane. Here are all of the routes that I travelled in 2016:
Dublin -> Prague -> Dresden -> Prague -> Dublin
Dublin -> Bristol -> Dublin
Dublin -> Edinburgh -> Dublin
Dublin -> Bratislava -> Vienna -> Salzburg -> Munich -> Barcelona -> Dublin
Dublin -> Athens -> Budapest -> Dublin
Dublin -> Nantes -> Rennes -> Nantes -> Dublin
Dublin -> Brussels -> Dublin
My motion sickness comrades will be happy to know that I was able to travel all of these routes without ever getting a windy bus of any kind. In fact, the Galway -> Dublin Airport bus is the longest bus journey I've taken all year. Aside from that bus, I covered these routes without ever having to endure more than a 30 minute airport shuttle bus (none of which were challenging) or more than a 4 hour flight or train journey. I rarely needed to get a bus at all, and never needed to get on a boat. I probably just wouldn't do the trip if it involved a boat. Thanks, Europe!

Here's to 2017! 

If any of you reading this suffer from travel sickness and want to ask or offer advice on medications, prevention tactics or routes to take or avoid, go ahead and get in touch. I'll be travelling more this year and hopefully my reflections on travel at the end of 2017 will be as flawless as those of 2016. In the meantime, let's hope that NASA do some good work in the coming years!