22/12/02 Don't Ever...
...order a large cocktail in TGI Fridays. Based on my past experiences with cocktails in Dublin, I naively ordered a large Long Island Iced Tea - presuming that I would get a medium sized glass. It arrived in a goblet. An 18oz goblet. The thing was massive. Thankfully, every mouthful was beautiful, their Long Island Iced Teas are the nicest that I have tasted on this side of the Atlantic - but there were too many mouthfuls. Especially when you are about to be visitied by your nephews (aged 1 & 2). How can something so small make so much noise?

21/12/02 Human Diversity Watch
According to recent research in the United States people with red hair are more susceptible to pain, needing 20% more anaesthesia than people with other hair colour. Doctors believe that genes which are responsible for red hair also have a role in managing pain. Thanks to research like this, scientists are discovering the many ways that human populations differ in more than just physical appearance. Until recently, I was completely unaware that 70% of humans cannot digest milk as adults. The Irish, along with the Tutsi, Bedouin, Czech and Spanish, are the champion milk digesters of the human race, thanks to our history of pastoralism.
The Irish, along with other Europeans, also possess a higher tolerance for alcohol than other peoples, especially the natives of Australia and North America. Matt Ridley explains why in Genome, "As late as the 18th century in Europe, the rich drank nothing but wine, beer, coffee, and tea. They risked death otherwise."

21/12/02 TV Program of the Year : Non-Fiction
One of the most thought-provoking series you are ever likely to see is "The Century of the Self", which was shown on BBC2. The series examined how Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, had put Freud's theories into practice to develop the fields of advertising and public relations. Over the course of the 20th Century, corporations and governments used these theories about "The Self" to read and to fulfil people's inner desires in order to sell products or gain votes. Whilst I do not agree with some of its conclusions, the series was compelling viewing, and opened viewer's eyes to an unsettling history of the 20th Century.

20/12/02 Album Playlist 2002
Dave Matthews Band - Under The Table And Dreaming
Kate Rusby - Little Lights
Counting Crows - Hard Candy
The Doves - The Last Broadcast
Heather Nova - South
Nick Drake - Way To Blue

19/12/02 I Have A Theory
It is common now to read articles by music critics lamenting the current state of the music scene. A quick glance at the charts is enough to depress most of them, with its litany of boybands, and the products of TV shows like "Pop Idol". But I believe (that's the theory) that many of these artists are there because their records are being bought by preteens and young teenagers - a section of society whose disposable income has exploded of late. I remember the music that I liked when I was 10, and it was not the sort to impress music critics, or older versions of myself. In the same way that a film critic is aware that "A Beautiful Mind" is destined for a different audience to "Lilo & Stitch", and assesses their merits accordingly, shouldn't a music critic judge "Coldplay" and "S Club" by different yardsticks?

18/12/02 The Two Towers
Part two of "The Lord Of The Rings" went on general worldwide release today, and, as an early Christmas present to myself, I took time off work and went to see the first showing in Savoy Screen One at 330. This is the screening for the true die-hard fans - by 3 o'clock the queue was out the door as far as The Gresham Hotel, and that was made up of people who had already bought their tickets waiting to get in for a good seat.
Unfortunately, I found the film rather disappointing. The first film, "The Fellowship of the Ring" was more faithful to the book, and was a superior film because of it. Wholesale changes have been made for "The Two Towers". I won't spoil you with details, but the characters of Theoden and Faramir have been altered to their detriment. Parts of Helm's Deep are magnificent, and parts are infuriating. The film is beautiful to look at, however, and some scenes perfectly capture Tolkien's Middle-Earth. Those who have not read the book may even prefer this to the first film. Perhaps I cannot judge the film on its own merits, but for me it was ruined by the changes.

17/12/02 Not Taking Skepticism Far Enough
RTE's ironically named "True Lives" series continued tonight with an hour long program on faith healer Tony Hogan. The concept of presenting both sides of the argument has not filtered through to the makers of this program. I'm not sure why it was shown on a public service broadcaster. Tony Hogan couldn't have asked for a more glowing profile if he'd commissioned it himself.
Some weeks ago BBC's Horizon program attempted to win the James Randi Prize (worth 1 million dollars) by proving that Homeopathy works. Not surprisingly, they failed. If RTE wanted some truth, they could have subjected Tony Hogan's abilities to the same level of scrutiny. All RTE accomplished was a  demonstration of (in Paul Martin's words) the "amazing power of the placebo effect to make the world a better place". Maybe if enough people are fooled into believing this sort of thing is helping them, our hospital waiting lists will decrease and we'll save ourselves billions of euros?

16/12/02 Taking Skepticism Too Far
I am a little disturbed by the spread of the idea into mainstream media that the moon landings were faked by the American government. The Internet is full of unconventional ideas, but this has now reached such a point that NASA are considering commissioning a book to refute the allegations. The scientific explanations issued by NASA and others are easily available, but scientific explanations do not impress some people. Perhaps those people should then consider the actions of the USSR. They had most to lose from an American moon landing. They also would surely have been the ones most capable in 1969 of spotting a faked landing. Why would they have kept quiet? Could they not have easily faked their own landing?

16/12/02 Thought For The Day
"During the festive season we must not forget those who are less fortunate than ourselves."
"The poor?"
"Indeed. They may attempt to burgle your house while you are at church."
        - Mr Cholmandy-Warner, "Harry Enfield & Chums"

16/12/02 TV Program of the Year : Fiction
My choice is The West Wing. Although this season is probably the weakest so far, at its best, it remains an excellent drama series. Josh & Donna are fantastic in every scence. One wit suggests that they get married and move to their own spin-off sitcom. Alas, "blonde, republican, sex-kitten" Ainsley Hayes has departed, as the actress has jumped ship to a new series. Rumour has it that Rob Lowe (Sam Seaborn) is also quitting at the end of the next season. I'm a little suspicious, too, that the Republican candidate in the upcoming Presidential election, Governor Ritchie from Florida, is a caricature of George W Bush.
I'll keep on watching, though I'm not helped by RTE's scheduling of the show at 11pm on Thursday nights. As they are the first station in these islands to show new episodes, you would imagine that they would treat the program with a bit more respect.

16/12/02 Have you noticed...
how attractive the presenters are on TG4\TnaG? Continuity announcers, weather forecasters... the girls are all babes, the guys are all... not ugly. Is this a coincidence? Maybe only beautiful people can speak Irish? I remember the storm that was raised when RTE attempted to drop some meteorologists from the weather forecasts for younger presenters. Do TG4 get a special dispensation from this sort of criticism?

15/12/02 Irish Politics
The big story of the week in Ireland was the death of a premature baby whose mother was refused entry in her local hospital because it lacked facilities to deal with the case. The mother was forced to travel to another hospital and the baby tragically did not survive. This blog has been critical in the past of the Minister for Health, Michael Martin, however I have to say that much of the criticism he has come in for this week is unjustified, and represents knee-jerk journalism at its worst. Some journalists have even called for Martin to resign. As stories in the Sunday Indepedent and the Sunday Times reveal, however, the maternity unit at Monaghan hospital was closed because insurance companies would not cover it, claiming it was no longer up to a 'sufficient standard'. It seems that our society now judges medical resources based on their legal status, rather than whether or not they might help someone to survive. Can you really pin that solely on Michael Martin?

15/12/02 Sunday Mornings
Phantom FM provide the perfect way to start your lazy sunday mornings with Pearl's "Sunday Morning Come Down Slot". Thankfully, you will not be blasted away with the latest pop hits, but will be introduced to a wonderfully diverse set of mellow acts from Ireland, Britain, America, Canada, Scandinavia, and continental Europe that you may not hear anywhere else on Irish radio. I had never even heard of Kate Rusby until I was fortunate enough to catch her poignant cover of Iris de Ment's "Our Town" on this slot, and her "Little Lights" in now number one on my playlist.

14/12/02 Breaking News : EU Shuts Down Toyland
In a move which will cause dismay in households across the world, European Union officials today moved to shutdown Santa's Toyland workshop in the North Pole. Competition officials say that they could no longer tolerate the monopoly position enjoyed by Santa in the production and delivery of Christmas toys to children. Officials were concerned by the lack of an appeals process for children deemed "naughty" by Santa. Toyland was also cited for flagrant violations of equality legislation, as it maintains an "elf-only" hiring policy. Animals welfare officers were also outraged to discover that Santa has been genetically-engineering flying reindeer in his top-secret laboratory. The origins of these creatures had been shrouded in mystery, with some suspecting that they were an isolated herd discovered by Santa. Scientists are now speculating that Rudolph's red nose may be a side-effect of the engineering process.
These breaches in EU law may be enough to result in criminal charges being brought against Santa, with the possibility of a lengthy jail term. Officials were unavailable for comment on the disastrous effects that these actions will have on Christmas Day.

14/12/02 Book of the Year Winner
As this is the inaugural award I am going to bend the rules slightly and pick Bjorn Lomborg's "The Skeptical Environmentalist" as the book of the year. Even though it was published in 2001, I didn't get around to reading it until 2002. In this book Lomborg attempts to present the true state of the world with regard to hunger, poverty, pollution, resources, growth etc and contrary to the doom-merchants' warnings things are far better than you would imagine them to be. Lomborg devotes particular attention to exposing the Kyoto Treaty as a costly misuse of our resources. One of the most important books on the environment that will ever be written.

13/12/02 Maintaining A Christmas Tradition
Buying the Christmas RTE Guide is one of my Christmas traditions, I find that it is the best source of TV listings for the festive period. Some gems to watch out for are repeats of the classic history series "The World At War", the "League of Gentlemen" special and both seasons of mockumentary "The Office" on BBC2. One film that captures something of the essence of Christmas is Tim Burton's marvellous "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (TV3 Dec 22), a magical stop-motion animated tale of a world where every holiday has its own special land. Other films to put you in the mood for Christmas are the delightfully-irreverent "The Muppet Christmas Carol" (N2), and Raymond Briggs' much-loved animation "The Snowman" (C4), which are both shown on Christmas Eve.
The highlight of Christmas Day itself is Nick Park's "Chicken Run" (think "The Great Escape" with chickens) showing on both RTE and ITV. "Only Fools and Horses" is resurrected by the BBC for a special on the big day, but they should really have let the series finish when Delboy finally became a millionaire.
On St. Stephen's Day, TG4 (why them?) show the premiere of stylish scifi-action flick "The Matrix", which isn't as clever as it thinks it is but nonetheless remains an enjoyable cinematic experience. There is also a modern adaptation of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" on BBC, though it will be hard for anyone to surpass Jeremy Brett's definitive Sherlock Holmes.
And finally, there's a chance to remember to remember the "Sweet And Sour" events of the World Cup on Saturday the 29th as Network 2 devote an evening of programs to the tournament. There's a straight review, there's highlights from the Apres Match team and then *that* interview between Roy Keane and Tommy Gorman.

11/12/02 Book Of The Year Runner-Up
The runner-up in my inaugural "Book Of The Year" award is "The Blank Slate" by Steven Pinker. Subtitled "The Modern Denial Of Human Nature", this book examines how the idea of an inherent human nature is anathema to many of today's politically-correct intellectuals. To them anyone arguing for genetic influence on human behaviour, personality or intelligence is not merely in error but in sin.
Pinker is Professor of Psychology at MIT, and uses his knowledge of recent findings in genetics and neuroscience to destroy the theory that humans are blank slates, waiting for the environment to bestow them with a personality, talents and traits. Pinker shows the dire consequences that humankind suffered in the 20th century at the hands of social engineers such as Marxists who earnestly believed in the blank slate. The book is an important one, but for entertainment value and new knowledge gained, I prefer a previous book by Pinker, "How The Mind Works" in which he presents the evidence and findings of the new science of evolutionary psychology.
Honourable Mention : "Counting Sheep - the Science of Sleep and Dreaming" by Paul Martin.

10/12/02 The Survival Of English
This week's episode of "The Adventure of English" covered the period after the Norman Conquest, and examined just how close English came to extinction. After the Conquest in 1066, English became the third language in its native land, displaced by French and Latin and surviving purely as an oral language. Even in their names, the English were becoming French - such wonderful names as Ethelstan and Dunstan making way for John, Robert, Richard, Simon, Stephen and William. England was the language of the common people, French the language of the upper classes. Today, we use Old English words like cow, sheep and pig to describe the animals in the field which would have been tended by English-speakers, but we use French words like mutton, beef and pork for the meat produced by these animals because the food was eaten by French-speakers. Most of our words relating to military matters, legal affairs or government are French in origin.
English was saved when the loss of Normandy in war separated England's French overlords from their cultural and linguistic homeland, and instead of extinguishing English, French and Latin enriched English. Where an English and French word described something similar, their meanings diverged slightly, so we have, for example, ask and demand, wish and desire, meaning and significance - equipping English with a rich vocabulary to convey subtle differences. When English went on to reclaim its position as the first language of the land after the Black Death, authors such as Chaucer and Shakespeare would use that rich vocabulary to produce some of humankind's greatest literary works.

09/12/02 Christmas Is Coming
I love December. It is not quite the magical time that it is for children, but even for adults it is a special time. There is something heart-warming about walking home on a cold dark night whilst passing the glow of Christmas tree lights in houses.
In the run up to Christmas itself, there are office parties to enjoy, christmas shopping to be done, cards to be written... and then when Christmas arrives there is a time to relax, to treat yourself, and to renew ties of friendship and family.

08/12/02 The Adventure Of English
ITV will be showing the second installment of "The Adventure of English", which is a documentary series on the evolution of the English language from a regional dialect to the world's first language, presented by Melvyn Bragg. It covers much of the same ground as Bill Bryson's excellent book "Mother Tongue"
however, it was interesting to hear Seamus Heaney speak in Old English (or Anglo-Saxon), reciting lines from the epic poem "Beowulf". It sounded more German than English to my ears. If you happened to time travel back to England, circa 850 AD, you would not stand much chance of being understood if you started speaking in what we consider to be English.

07/12/02 Pig Latin Explained
Occasionally in the past I would be watching an American TV show such as Friends or Roswell and one of the characters would start speaking in a weird language - usually when they wanted another of the main characters not to blurt out something that they shouldn't. "Ix-nay on the oyfriend-bay", for instance, actually translates as nix (the latin word for "no" or "stop it" I think) the boyfriend. I had no idea what they were referring to, but apparently they are using a play language called Pig Latin, which is popular with American schoolkids as a sort of code.
To convert from English to Pig Latin :
1. If a word begins with one or more consonants, move the consonant or consonant cluster to the end of the word.
2. Add the letters "ay" to the end of the word. So "pig" would be "igpay," "porker" would be "orkerpay," and "swine" would be "inesway."
3. Simply add the letters "ay" to the end of the word if it begins with a vowel. Thus "animal" becomes "animal-ay."
You can save yourself the trouble by using this online translator.

05/12/02 The Budget
Yesterday was Budget Day in Ireland, the boom years are over, so we were back to the grim task of trying to balance the books. One notable tax increase was the doubling in the government levy on credit cards to €40, this will raise considerably the price of using a credit card for people who use it infrequently, as I do. Would a small percentage charge for each use not be better?
There was an interesting article in today's Irish Indepdent by Marese McDonagh, on the origins of income tax - yesterday was also the anniversary of its introduction in Britain in 1798 to raise funds to defend Britain against Napoleonic France.

04/12/02 Onset of Insanity Postponed
Thanks to The Answer Bank I have found out the name of the song used in the Sky advert (26/11/02 entry). It is called "You're So Cool", and it's from the "True Romance" soundtrack, composed by Hans Zimmer. It has been used in Volkswagen ads, and the Young Americans TV series. It can be downloaded from this Young Americans site - the music for the series is excellent, with artists like Nick Drake and David Gray providing mellow background music.
How did people ever manage to find out the answers to these kinds of questions before the internet?

03/12/02 Political Correctness Watch
As part of RTE's "True Lives" series, we were treated to a documentary on the Cuban health system and the effects of the US embargo, although there was not much truth on show. Apparently, Cuba is a country remarkably free from corruption, and if only the US would lift its embargo everything would be alright. My theory is that Cuba is poor because it is a communist totalitarian dictatorship, and that Fidel Castro has been enriching himself and his cronies at the expsense of the Cuban people for decades. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe Castro is a billionaire because he keeps winning the Cuban national lottery.
The politically correct in the West are as blind to Castro's faults as an earlier generation were blind to the faults of Stalin, praising the USSR whilst millions died of starvation. Given the choice between believing the words of people like that, and the actions of Cuban people who risk their lives to escape to a better life in Florida (Elian Gonzalez was not going on a holiday to Disneyland), I will trust actions over words.

02/12/02 Consumer Watch
Price increases for public transport in Dublin come into effect today. The line that CIE is spinning is that the fare increases are on average 9%, but this is very disingenous. If you add up all the increases to all fares and average them out it is 9%, however, they have increased the most common fares by the most. The 75c bus fare has gone up to 90c, that's a 20% increase. CIE's revenues will go up by far more than 9%, you can be sure. Maybe the fares have to go up, but do they have to be so loose with the facts?


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