Archive for September, 2007

The Way Back

So, I get onto the flight back from Germany and sit down next to a man in a cap and shellsuit. Before I’ve belted myself in he tells me that he only wears these clothes when he’s flying, because he flies a lot and he likes to be comfortable, but during the day he wears a suit and tie, for giving the demonstrations of the product he makes in the factory he owns out on the west coast of the US.

Then, he tells me about how he must be the only person on the plane who doesn’t have a mobile phone. Christ, he hates the things. One time he was in MIT and this university professor told him in the queue in the bookstore that technology enslaves while it liberates. Another time he was taking this girl out to dinner and she kept answering phone calls from her mother. So he said, you do that one more time, and I’ll walk out of this damn restaurant. So her mother called, and he got up and walked out, but paid the bill beforehand, even though they hadn’t arrived with the starter. She ran out of the restaurant after him, saying ok, ok, you proved your point. Another time a friend of his came out from Ireland to his beach house, and his friend got a call, so he walked out of the house and went down onto the beach for a half hour. When he got back to the house, his friend says, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend, and he says, no, I’m not offended, you can talk as much as you like; I just don’t want to have to listen to you.

Then, he asks me some recommendations for places to drink in Dublin, so I give him some, and he hands me his card, in case I want to look him up any time I’m on the west coast. Then he shows me his AT&T global calling card, and says, see this? This is my cellphone.

I thought he was a bit boastful, and he looked grey and tired, as though he’d spent too long doing this sort of thing, and at times he seemed to be a bit tired of his tales himself. But I thought he was ok. I’d rather talk to someone during the flight than not talk. There was a lot more to the conversation -talk about how to get the best room in the best hotel for discount rates, how to make sure that your flight won’t be delayed (get an early one), how some guys are able to give demonstrations the next day even though they’ve been out drinking till 5 in the morning but he can’t, his millionaire friends- and then we land.

At the baggage carousel I wish him the best, and he heads off before my case comes out.  It’s half one in the morning and the queue for the taxi rank in Dublin airport is doubled over on itself, so I go right down to the end, and start queueing. The man said that he was going to get a taxi, but there’s no sign of him, and I figure that he’s already gone. Then, about 20 minutes later, I’ve made my way right to the front of the queue, which means that I’m right beside the people at the very end of the queue. I look across, and there he is, talking to someone else he’s met.

I’m about to say hello again, when I see that he’s got a mobile phone in his right hand, and he’s talking to someone. And I think, he must have asked the other person for the loan of his phone. Then he takes the phone -a very spiffing one indeed- and puts it into his own luggage. As I turn my head to make sure that he doesn’t see that I’ve seen him, I can see him looking my direction in the corner of my eye, but the taxi attendant comes to my relief by sending me up to the space where my taxi will come and take me home.

Gone Fishin’

…for schnitzelgruben, although I suspect my limit is lower than the fifteen managed by Sherrif Bart in Blazing Saddles.

This is my first visit to modern Germany. In fact, it’s my first visit to Germany ever. I am disgracefully ignorant about the place.

I will be back in a few days.

The Interpretation of Eames

How many good things can one say about Robin Eames? The BBC has a stab.

Peace advocate Lord Eames, 69, led the Church during the worst years of the Troubles and was a key advocate for peace.

Just for emphasis’s sake, let’s cut to the meat of that sentence:

Peace advocate Lord Eames [….] was a key advocate for peace.

And there’s more:

He has also received a prestigious peace award, the Tipperary International Peace Award.

I’m sure there’s a way of saying that in terms less…gushing. Anyway, he’s been awarded Freedom of the City of Armagh, whatever the hell that is.

I can reveal that he is partial to the odd Kit-Kat, as he once stood in front of me in a queue at a filling station, and I saw him pick one up. I like Kit-Kats too.

Messenger Shoot

I spent part of yesterday afternoon watching The Generation Game, David McWilliams’s new series on the Irish economy.

I was prompted to watch it after reading a remarkably worded editorial in the Sunday Independent:

Naysayers like David McWilliams and that other prophet of doom, RTE’s George Lee, have been busy spreading the woe and creating fear, all the while hoping we watch their television shows and buy their books. They are no more than opportunistic cranks profiting handsomely from peddling their misery.

Then you had Marc Coleman at the same paper, adopting a slightly more moderate tone:

The question is why does RTE want to run down our economy? It is precisely in order to protect it from the pressures of commercialism and sensationalism that RTE receives a licence fee. It also has the privilege — unique amongst national broadcasters — of being allowed to generate advertising revenues. With these privileges comes a responsibility to produce factual, level-headed and accurate analysis. Its latest spate of economic horror movies are exactly the opposite, and their timing couldn’t be worse for the economy and the jobs that depend on them.

Then you had Brendan O’Connor, also in the same paper, who, wisely eschewing economic analysis altogether, saw fit to criticise McWilliams’s choice of car, and clothes:

But then, McWilliams, you suspect, wouldn’t be seen dead in a Merc, which is after all a potent symbol of the new money vulgarity that upsets David so much.


Macker never changed his clothes as he criss-crossed the continents, explaining how Uruguay was the old Ireland and China was the new America and stuff like that, all with punchy names and catchphrases.

I think it’s fair to say that the Sunday Independent didn’t like the programme. Whether this had anything to do with the fact that McWilliams was particularly scathing about the primacy of the property market, and newspapers get a fair wodge of advertising revenue from property market-related products, I have no idea.

I also spied an report (I think it was in the Sunday Times, where, incidentally, Liam Fay called McWilliams’s method ‘quasi-Marxist’ (!)) saying that estate agents had said that people had pulled out of deals after watching the Generation Game. From first hand experience, this rings true. A friend of mine, a property developer who has a bit of cash to spare, had his eye on a noice heyuse in a leafy Dublin suburb, and told me at the start of last week about his plans to put in a bid for it. Then, the day after the Generation Game, he’d told me that having watched the programme, he wasn’t so sure, and had decided to hang on for a bit longer.

So, what of the programme itself? There were a few things struck me while watching it:

  • The extended metaphor of the Irish economy as ageing dancefloor diva was a good starting point. In my short experience of observing such matters, it appears to me that, broadly speaking, there are three models used when thinking about an economy, whether global or national: as an inanimate object (like a pie, or a car), an animate object (a person, or an animal, though ‘Celtic Tiger’ is a form of wishful synecdoche), and as a deity. The last form is the hardest to grasp, but it is the most powerful one for convincing people that they need to make all sorts of sacrifices. McWilliams’s Irish economy takes the form of an ageing woman out on the pull at a nightclub, but it may have been more appropriate to use the form of an ageing prostitute in a red light district. Most women will not starve if they forego the disco: they can always go somewhere else instead. And they can generally afford to refuse any male suitor they don’t find sufficiently attractive.
  • He was absolutely right about the multinationals, and how quickly they could do a runner, given the availablity of cheaper labour elsewhere. For senior managers in these corporations, it is scarcely more complicated than comparing hourly rates in Dublin and Bangalore, and then, if you like what you see, saying ‘make it so’ to your team. It would also have been useful to mention the fact that in Ireland, many of these companies employ far higher proportions of contract labour than they did back in 2000. That is, they are better placed to do a runner now than they were then.
  • The graphics and the atmospherics were plain silly.

All in all, though, after complaining about RTE last week, I thought it was a good programme. You don’t have to share McWilliams’s values, or his taste for coining cutesy categories, to realise that a lot of his diagnosis is spot on. I look forward to hearing his prescriptions.

Update: Just noticed that Michael Taft makes some better, more thorough points here.

Twelfth Monkey

It might be said to be both remiss and out of character for one whose blog got described as ‘the quintessence of calm and genial common sense’ not to thank Mick of Slugger O’Toole for placing me at number 12 in Iain Dale’s Top 20 Irish Blogs, so I post my thanks here. Praise is always welcome, of course, but especially so when it comes in the form of confirmation that one is not a raving nutcase!


You see all this stuff about the kid who got tasered and arrested for asking John Kerry a few impertinent questions (or for asking a few questions impertinently, take your pick)?

My thoughts:

  • There are plenty of queues where, if you ask the wrong questions, you are likely to get dragged off in cuffs. It could happen to you in a shopping centre, or a fast food restaurant, or at the bank. You only have to know the right questions to ask.
  • There are plenty of situations where there are no queues in the first place that might allow you to pose your questions. If you attempt to circumvent the conventional channels (e-mail, fax, handwritten letter with lots of underlining in red) in order to ask questions of the chief executive of a private corporation, by say, walking through the front door of a building and heading straight for his office, you are also likely to be arrested. A recurring scene in TV programmes and films is the bold hero brushing past the secretary saying ‘you can’t go in there…’. In real life, getting as far as the secretary would be quite an achievement.
  • There is talk of how this has sparked a debate about free speech. In many places in the supposedly democratic societies I know about, free speech doesn’t exist. You may be ‘free’ to open your mouth and express your opinions in the sense that you are not gagged, but there are consequences. When expressing yourself freely conflicts with the objectives of the authority to which you are beholden -for, say, your pay, your security or your health- you will suffer consequences. Since most people are painfully aware of the consequences, they don’t express themselves freely.
  • Many forms of authority do not take kindly to being questioned directly, especially when those questions reasonably expose the unreasonableness of authority. At this point, authority sees no need to provide an explanation: it just resorts to whatever powers it has to put an end to the discussion. See the case of this 70 year old man who was not allowed to buy a bottle of wine because he had no ID.
  • In this case, it wasn’t John Kerry’s authority that was being questioned, but the authority that permitted the event in the first place on the understanding that it would take place in accordance with certain conventions. So, to question the validity of the 2004 elections, the charade of the two party system in the US, and the idea that Kerry did not get where he was by simply being a great guy, is to question the legitimacy of the authority that allows for the event to take place. In doing so, he invited the fearful footsoldiers to act. Failure on their part to act would have invited punishment from their superiors in the security hierarchy. If instead of asking those questions, he’d asked about how nice Kerry’s hair looked, how great Kerry thought American democracy was, and to what extent Kerry thought Americans were under attack from evil, the footsoldiers would have had an easy afternoon.

When Will You Die?

It’s news to no-one that RTE TV evening programmes are complete shit. But a special shout must go out to How Long Will You Live? – a tut-tut lifestyle programme presented by shaggy haired vaguely posh Northern doctor Mark somebody.

The programme makes recommendations so that you can live longer. These are: stop drinking and eating fatty stuff, and do some exercise. They have to get a shaggy haired vaguely posh Northern doctor Mark somebody to present it because you just can’t get the nuns these days.

It never mentions what you might do with these precious extra years. It’s not as if there will be anything good on TV then.


I noticed that the subheadline of the main story of today’s print edition of the Irish Independent -the conclusion of the coroner’s inquest into the death of Brian Murphy- refers to the event as a ‘tragedy’. (‘Family can no longer sue over Anabel tragedy as time runs out’)

Although the word gets used a lot to denote something very sad, almost everyone knows that ‘tragedy’ doesn’t, or shouldn’t, simply mean ‘very sad’, even though many people might not be aware of its classic meaning.

Most of the time, the word preserves a certain sense of the inevitable. So you might hear talk of a ‘plane crash tragedy’, which appears to imply that there was nothing much that the victims could do about it.

But I suspect that most people, if they thought about it, could detect something not quite right about a subheadline that read ‘Fred West murders 12 in Cromwell Street tragedy’. It would be hard to shake of a nagging sensation that -even though the victims’ deaths were certainly very sad- what was being implied was that the event had to some extent been a tragedy for Cromwell Street, or even Fred West.

So, there was something about the use of ‘tragedy’ in this subheadline which bothered me. The coroner detailed that Brian Murphy was the victim of ‘a vicious assault’. The word ‘tragedy’, with its connotations of inevitability, imbues the event with an ambiguity that the coroner’s verdict is intended to remove. If it was a tragedy, why the verdict of unlawful killing? Was it also a tragedy for the perpetrators, even if their families could reasonably be described as ‘very sad’? What does ‘Anabel tragedy’ mean? Was it a tragedy for Club Anabel? For the people who frequented it?

I feel like I’m pinning a lot on one word in a solitary subheadline here. Maybe the intention was just to portray the family’s predicament as ‘very sad’. Looking back through its archives, the paper describes all sorts of things as ‘tragic’: a fire that killed Irish students, the death of Princess Diana and many other car crashes, Anna Nicole Smith. But I can’t help but think that had a similar event taken place in a different environment, with different protagonists, the category of tragedy would not have applied.

Would the word ‘tragedy’ have made it to the subheadline if, instead of former Blackrock College students, those involved had been ‘skanks‘, as they might get called by the Independent, or recent arrivals from Eastern Europe or Africa? And what if, instead of outside the Burlington, this had occurred in one of those areas that one sometimes hears referred to as ‘knackeragua’? Would it be a tragedy then?

On Not Speaking To Evil

As the war drums get battered ever louder, here’s an interesting take on Iran and the US from Shlomo Ben-Ami. He is pointing towards a solution to the current tension by way of a grand bargain between Iran and the US.


In the American-Iranian equation it was the United States, not Iran, that conducted rigid ideological diplomacy. Iran backed the US during the first Gulf war, but was left out of the Madrid peace conference. Iran also supported America in its war to depose the Taliban in Afghanistan. And, when American forces overran Saddam Hussein’s army in the spring of 2003, the encircled Iranians proposed a grand bargain that would put all contentious issues on the table, from the nuclear issue to Israel, from Hizbullah to Hamas. The Iranians also pledged to stop obstructing the Israeli-Arab peace process.

But American neoconservative haughtiness – “We don’t speak to evil” – ruled out a pragmatic response to Iran’s demarche.

Iran’s mood changed by the time America’s entire Middle East strategy had gone adrift, but the grand bargain remains the only viable way out of the impasse.

Rest of article here. It could all be pie-in-the-sky, though, since it appears based on the assumption that the current US administration would in fact be interested in pragmatism. Is there evidence to suggest that it would?

Oil Me Up, I’m Goin’ In

You might have thought that failed jazz musician Alan Greenspan’s words about oil and Iraq:

“I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.”

implied some sort of criticism of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Not so, as he helpfully clarifies in this Wall Street Journal interview:

Tell me about your views on the importance of deposing Saddam.

My view of the second Gulf War was that getting Saddam out of there was very important, but had nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction, it had to do with oil. My view of Saddam over the 20 years … was that he was very critically moving towards control of the Strait of Hormuz and as a consequence of that, control of the oil market. His purpose would be very much similar to [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez’s actions and I think it would be very dangerous for us. So getting him out to me seemed a very important priority.

So, there you have it. Raving lunatic and eternal outsider Alan Greenspan says Iraqi civilians needed bombing because the US needed to exercise control of the oil market.  Crazy bastard.  What next? The US needs to bomb Iran to exercise control of the oil market? He should keep his flights of fancy to his sax playing.

On a side note, the idea that it was ‘largely about oil’ tends to obscure the fact that oil is largely about other things.

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September 2007