07/03/03 A Lament To
There was a program on RTE this evening about the past eating habits of some of Ireland's offshore islanders. In the days before refrigerators, they would salt the fish that they had caught to make it last through the winter. I'm sure that they were skilled fishermen, experts at handling their small craft, and judging the tides and movements of fish without the aid of SONAR. They possessed so much knowledge about their local environment, so many unique skills and traditions, and a way of being human that is now gone. This is a better world than that one, but part of me is sad to see such a wealth of culture passed by. The achievements of our ancestors are great, the original peopling of North America and Polynesia in particular spring to mind. We should give them the admiration and respect they deserve, even if we are thankful that we do not have to face the same hardships that they endured.
04/03/03 Everyday Miracles
"Industrial progress, mechanical improvement, all of the great wonders of the modern era have meant relatively little to the wealthy. The rich in Ancient Greece would have benefitted hardly at all from modern plumbing : running servants replaced running water. Television and radio? The Patricians of Rome could enjoy the leading musicians and actors in their home, could have the leading actors as domestic retainers. Ready-to-wear clothing, supermarkets: all these and many other modern developments woul have added little to their life. The great achievements of Western Capitalism have redounded primarily to the benefit of the ordinary person. These achievements have made available to the masses conveniences and amenities that were previously the exclusive perogative of the rich and powerful." (Milton Friedman, "Free To Choose")
In our modern world, we are surrounded by everyday miracles. To our ancestors it would seem that we live in a magical world. At the touch of a button I can talk to people almost anywhere in the world, listen to the finest musical compositions in history played by accomplished performers, switch on the light so that I may read the thoughts of people who lived centuries ago. 99% of the time we do not stop to think about the progress that we have made that gives our lives such ease, comfort and choice.
10 Beautiful Women, in no particular order:
Anna Kournikova (tennis player), Jennifer Garner (actress: Sydney in Alias), Andrea Corr (musician), Alexis Bledel (actress: Rory in The Gilmore Girls), Nicole de Boer (actress: Ezri Dax in Star Trek DS9), Lisa Burke (weather presenter: Sky News), Shiri Appleby (actress: Liz in Roswell),
Emily Procter (actress: Ainsley in The West Wing), Jennifer Connelly (actress: A Beautiful Mind), Sophie Ellis-Bextor (musician).
01/01/03 A Rhyme from
If wishes were horses, beggars would ride;
If turnips were watches, I would wear one by my side.
And if "ifs" and "ands" were pots and pans, there would be no need for tinker's hands.
(If Wishes Were Horses, c.1765)
01/03/03 On a Personal
Your humble blogger was laid low during the past week by the aptly-named "Winter Vomiting Virus". I think you can guess the symptoms from its unusually blunt name, which is surprisingly free of euphemism. The lowest point is reached when you never want to eat again, and the thought of any kind of food makes you want to dash for the nearest bucket\toilet. You know you've turned the corner when you would eat anything but realise that you can't. In my mind, I got through about half a dozen burgers, with cheese. Hmmm. Excuse me...
A Conflict of Visions
"One of the curious things about political opinions is how often the same people line up on opposite sides of different issues. The issues themselves may have no intrinsic connection with each other. They may range from military spending to drug laws to monetary policy to education. Yet the same familiar faces can be found glaring at each other from opposite sides of the political fence, again and again. It happens too often to be coincidence and it is too uncontrolled to be a plot. A closer look at the arguments on both sides often shows that they are reasoning from fundamentally different premises. These different
premises, often implicit, are what provide the consistency behind the repeated opposition of individuals and groups on numerous, unrelated issues. They have different visions of how the world works."
Those words are taken from the preface of American philosopher Thomas Sowell's "A Conflict of Visions", in which he attempts to identify the ideological origins of political struggles. Sowell identifies two opposing visions of humanity, the constrained and unconstrained vision. In the constrained vision, human beings are inherently imperfect, limited in knowledge, wisdom and virtue. Evil occurs because of man's imperfect nature, and society has evolved ways to mitigate these flaws. In the unconstrained vision, there are no limits to what humans can achieve, and it is only the faults of present society that hold them back. Sowell associates the constrained vision with conservatism, and thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes & Adam Smith. The unconstrained vision is associated with liberalism and philosophers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau.
In yesterday's Sunday Independent, Eoghan Harris drew similar parallels, but divided the sides into Platonists and Aristotelians over the Iraq crisis:
"At the risk of being baldly reductive, I believe that the whole of Western politics is a struggle between Platonists and Aristotelians. Plato believes man is born good and is corrupted by society: accordingly, to make a perfect man you make a perfect society, Aristotle believes man is born bad and is redeemed by society: accordingly, you can never make a perfect man nor a perfect society.
Platonists are natural socialists. Aristotelians are natural conservatives. And I am one of them. Platonists believe that if you set down a band of boys on a tropical island they will naturally set up a socialist utopia. Aristotle believes they will hunt the fat boy as per Lord of the Flies. So do I, and so do most people who have read the history of Nazi Germany, or newspapers over the past few days. Aristotelians believe that evil men will plague us to the end of time, and that when they use violence we must be ready to repel them with force. Aristotelians cannot conceive a world where all human conflicts can be settled by a chat with Mary Robinson, by cunning French diplomacy, or by United Nations inspectors who do not carry guns. In short, they see evil as endemic and endless.
Conversely, Platonists tend to see evil is some kind of eradicable error that can be eliminated by social engineering, by the right United Nations resolutions, or by people in blue berets without guns. Accordingly, they have no adequate theory of evil, and when faced with a Hitler or a Saddam are inclined to wring their hands."
I don't know enough about Greek philosophy to comment on the aptness of the names of the groups, but it seems clear to me that a neutral observer of human affairs (if such a creature could exist) would see the division itself as more important than most of the other 'little platoons' we group ourselves into: nation, religion, football team. It says something fundamental about you.
(I'm in the constrained Aristotelian camp btw)
22/02/03 Muppet Madness
Jacques Chirac wines and dines Robert Mugabe, ruthless dictator of Zimbabwe. France warns Eastern European countries such as Romania and Bulgaria that they are jeopardizing their chances of EU accession by their support for America over Iraq. As Mark Steyn puts it in Canada's "National Post", "Good thing he's not one of those arrogant bullying American cowboys, huh?"
After this performance, anyone who tries to portray Bush and America as bullying imperialists has surely joined the ranks of the muppets.
20/02/03 Gig Review
I have been a fan of Irish act Autamata for some time now, having heard their haunting track "Out Of This" on Phantom FM. When I heard their first full gig being advertised on the same station I decided that I had to go, so tonight I went along to the Temple Bar Music Centre. It's hard to categorise their style of music, but in some ways they remind me of Massive Attack or Portishead.
As to the gig itself, I was actually relieved at how good it was. The band played songs off their debut album "My Sanctuary", closing with a cover of a Cure song. Standout tracks included the aforementioned "Out Of This", the mellow "Jive County", the funky "Jellyman", and the upbeat "Postscript". I felt that they were still pretty raw, and finding their feet 'live', the vocals especially need to be stronger - what is enchanting on an album can be drowned out on stage.
In a nice touch, the first 50 people through the door received free copies of the upcoming single "Jive County". Also, after the gig, copies of "My Sanctuary" were on sale for a bargain €10 which is a lot less than you'll pay for it in a music store.
19/02/03 War &
Moore McDowell, one of Ireland's most prominent economists and academics, argues in today's Irish Independent that public opinion before a war is not a very good indicator of judging the success or wisdom of that war:
"Being against war is easy. It is choosing between evils that is hard. The real question is whether it is worse to do nothing and possibly leave the Beast of Baghdad in place, or, taking arms, to destroy him. That is not an easy question to answer. Should our leaders, here and elsewhere, respond to this outburst of public opinion in forging foreign policy on Iraq? Before you answer, consider the historical track record of public opinion on the question of going to war.
Read Zola's Nana: the crowds in Paris screamed "A Berlin" on being told that Napoleon III has declared war on Prussia in 1870. Six weeks later France was humiliated at Sedan. In London, Paris and Berlin, the public greeted with joy the declaration of war in 1914. White feathers were given to men who wouldn't join up. In 1936-39 British and French public opinion was decisively against war with Germany over the Rhineland, Austria and Czechoslovakia.
Americans wanted overwhelmingly to stay out of the war until Pearl Harbour allowed FDR to get them into it, for which he had been manoeuvring. British public opinion supported the Suez invasion.
American public opinion supported Kennedy and Johnson in getting into Vietnam. French public opinion was behind the war in Algeria from 1954 to 1958. European public opinion was deeply hostile to Kennedy in his confrontation with the Soviet union over Cuba. European public opinion was against Afghanistan, and the US led intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo.
On that track record, would you reckon that we should allow emotional demonstrations to determine how foreign policy is forged?"
Today saw the introduction of "Congestion Charges" in London. Drivers entering the core of the city have to pay a £5 charge. Some of the economic logic behind these charges make sense. Charging for something encourages someone to make better use of that resource. Imagine how hard it would be to get a parking spot in Dublin city centre if you didn't have to pay for it - and it's not easy now, but at least the spots are being efficiently used. The thing is, though, that when you are stuck in traffic, you are paying a price - your time. I do not believe that people are so stupid that they need the added weight of a charge to make the best decision about how to travel. This means that the charges are distorting the underlying reality of the cost of the daily commute, which is conveyed to them through prices, time and comfort. I hope that Dublin does not follow London in adopting the charges, but have you ever known a revenue-generating scheme that the Irish government didn't like?
One final thought, it doesn't strike me as a very egalitarian move for 'Red Ken' Livingstone to bring in charges for something that was free (in money terms). You now have to pay for the privilege of driving your car through London. Rich people get yet another opportunity to distinguish themselves from the common people.
15/02/03 Drawing A
"I'm not convinced. Why now? Why are we in a situation where we should resort to violence exactly now?" (German Foreign Minister Joschka Fishcer during an exchange with US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld)
The UN Security Council asks for more time for inspections. Saddam has had 12 years to comply. At the last Security Council meeting, the US and Britain offered Saddam one last chance to disarm. He did not take up this chance. If their threats are not mere bluff and bluster, they must set a deadline. Why now? Are Britain and America under immediate threat from Iraq? Probably not. So why now? Well, why should Britain and France have declared war against Germany when it invaded Poland? British cities were not under threat. You have to draw a line and say this far and no farther.
14/02/03 Thought for
"She knocked me out. I mean it. I was half in love with her by the time we sat down. That's the thing about girls. Every time they do something pretty, even if they're not much to look at, or even if they're sort of stupid, you half fall in love with them, and then you never know where the hell you are. Girls. Jesus Christ. They can drive you crazy. They really can." (JD Salinger)
13/02/03 The White
Professor Niall Ferguson's televisions series "Empire" ended tonight on Channel 4. The theme of the closing episode was how the British Empire exhausted itself in two world wars against empires far worse than their own - those of Germany and Japan. The British Empire was the largest empire in history, and also the least malign. The series promised so much, but left me feeling disappointed. The closing scene was quite affecting: Ferguson argued that America has taken of most of the roles of the British Empire, and finished by quoting Rudyard Kipling's exhortation to empire, "The White Man's Burden", from a US Air Force base, with F-15s taking off in the background:
"Take up the White Man's burden, send forth the best ye breed.
Go, bind your sons to exile to serve your captives' need;
Take up the White Man's burden, and reap his old reward,
The blame of those ye better, the hate of those ye guard.
Take up the White Man's burden! Have done with childish days--
The lightly-proffered laurel, the easy ungrudged praise:
Comes now, to search your manhood through all the thankless years,
Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom, the judgment of your peers."
13/02/03 I Love Poker
"Sometimes nothin' can be a real cool hand." (Luke Jackson, "Cool Hand Luke")
Poker is becoming increasingly popular, especially amongst twenty-somthing professionals. There are articles in the media about the big tournaments and the few clubs in Dublin where you can play. Discovery Channel is running a series of documentaries devoted to Poker and casinos. There is even a TV show, "Late Night Poker".
My favourite version of Poker is 7-card Stud. However, the maximum number of players is 7 and sometimes that isn't high enough. With Texas Hold'em, you can easily play with 10 people. Therefore, I've come up with a hybrid version of Poker, which incorporates elements of Stud and Hold'em poker. First you receieve 3 cards: 1 face down, and 2 face up, followed by a round of betting. Then 2 cards are dealt out to the middle of the table, these are community cards which can be used by anyone. There follows another round of betting. One more community card is dealt to the middle of the table, followed by another round of betting. Finally, you are dealt one more card, face down. This leaves you with 4 cards, 2 face down, and 2 face up. You combine these with the 3 community cards to make the best hand of 5 cards - and bet away, if you're still in. You end up with the same number of cards, and rounds of betting, as in 7-card Stud or Texas Hold'em. I hope it works out :)
12/02/03 A Thought
If wars, violence, and the threat of force settle nothing, why do Americans speak English?
12/02/03 Happy Darwin
"Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out the reason for its own existence. If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilization, is: 'Have they discovered evolution yet?' Living organisms had existed on earth, without ever knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin." (Richard Dawkins, "The Selfish Gene")
Today is the anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, who showed humanity their true origins in his masterpiece "On The Origin Of Species". In Britain there is a campaign underway to have February 12 declared a national holiday, in honour of Darwin. I can't think of many people in history more deserving.
For those of you (including myself!) who find "Species" daunting, Professor Steve Jones has written an accessible book called "Almost Like A Whale", which updates Darwin's central arguments with late 20th century knowledge (and prose).
11/02/03 Going It Alone?
I have to laugh whenever I hear a commentator discussing the Iraq crisis use the phrase "going it alone". When they use the phrase they do not mean that the United States is going to invade Iraq without any support, but without UN approval. "Going it alone" in that case means undertaking an action with the support of about half the developed world - Britain, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Poland, Hungary, Australia, to name but a few. World wars have been fought with smaller coalitions than that on one side.
And why do certain people give UN decisions such moral authority? Can something be morally right with UN approval and wrong without it?
10/02/03 The Second
Tonight saw the conclusion of "The Second Coming", a two-part drama shown on ITV starring Christopher Ecclestone. The drama explored what would happen in our world if a man showed up claiming to be the son of god - and displayed miraculous powers. It was a brave idea for ITV to explore, and Ecclestone put in a fantastic performance, however I thought that the plot dragged in places. Also, in the real world, if someone turned up with miraculous powers, it is far more likely that they are using advanced alien technology (or are advanced aliens masquerading as humans) than divine beings. Star Trek covered this issue in several of its episodes. I was disappointed this possibility was not explored more in "The Second Coming".
09/02/03 When Principle
Minister for Health Michael Martin has announced plans to ban smoking in pubs and restaurants from January 1st, 2004. This poses something of a dilemma for me. I detest smoking, and nights out would be much healthier without having to expose myself to other people's smoke. It would also mean that my clothes wouldn't smell like an ashtray when I get home. However, I believe that if people want to smoke that is their choice, and the owners of the establishments should be able to decide whether or not they want to allow smoking. People who wish to work or frequent bars then take the risk upon themselves as a personal choice. I have a niggling doubt that the Government won't impose a blanket ban, though, and this is their opening negotiating position.
07/02/03 To Championship
Anyone who has played the scarily-addictive computer game "Championship Manager" will appreciate this quote from Joey Gudjonsson, Aston Villa's new Icelandic signing:
"I know almost every player by name already. I play a lot of Championship Manager and Gareth Barry is always a good buy. Hopefully he is just as good in real life."
05/02/03 Thought For
"Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life."
Thomas Sowell, insightful as ever, draws parallels between the current attempts to disarm Iraq, and the failed attempts to keep Germany contained in the 1930s. The League of Nations failed in the 1930s to keep Germany, Italy and Japan in check. Will the United Nations fail to deal with the far more surmountable problem of Iraq?
28/01/03 Consumer Watch
I am a great believer in individual responsibility. If you are obese, and are prone to over-eating in MacDonald's, that does not give you a right to sue them. However, I would still love for Danone to be sued for their incredibly patronizing Actimel (sp?) ads. One of them features three people standing at a football match. Two are shivering (wearing hats and buttoned up jackets), whilst the other, despite having a completely unbuttoned jacket, seems oblivious to the cold. This person is supposed to be experiencing the immune boosting effects of Actimel. How on earth does an immune-boost (whatever that means!) drink make you warmer? It shows the low view that PR departments have of consumers. I'm just waiting for someone to fall sick because they didn't take adequate precautions against the cold, and go after Danone. Unlike with MacDonald's, they might just have a case.
26/01/03 Men Are as
the Time is.
Over the weekend, I watched "O", which is a modern reworking of Shakespeare's "Othello", set in a present-day American high school. The rivalry between Iago (or Hugo - Josh Hartnett) and Othello (Odin - Mekhi Phifer) is transferred to the basketball court. The film was surprisingly enjoyable, even with such reworking the essential strength of Shakespeare's characters and plots still shine through.
I am a sucker for American high school films though, going all the way back to "The Breakfast Club". Quite possibly a true Shakespeare fan might be horrified by it!
What I would really like to see, however, is an adaptation of one of Shakespeare's classics in its original setting. The plot, events and characters would be unchanged, and I'm sure that some of the original language could be retained. I find that it is only by reading that I can appreciate Shakespeare's wonderful use of language - even with nods to modern times, as in versions like Baz Luhrman's "Romeo & Juliet", the English is so different to our own to be at times almost incomprehensible. In the meantime, I think I might have a shot at reading "Othello".
22/01/03 Give War A
One of the biggest news stories in Ireland at present is the protests by some in Ireland (primarily those on the Left) about American use of Shannon airport to transport personnel and equipment to the Gulf. Ireland is technically militarily neutral, not to mention militarily neutered, and under Irish law, foreign powers must seek permission if they wish to transport "weapons or munitions of war" through our airports. There has been some confusion, which the protesters have sought to exploit, as to whether soldiers may carry their personal weapons without permission. Another common objection is that the the UN has not approved military action against Iraq, so Ireland should not be aiding a military build-up whose ultimate target is Iraq. To me, both of these objections result from a combination of political cowardice and woolly thinking.
Ireland, along with all the other members of the UN Security Council, voted to send in weapons inspectors to disarm Iraq of its "weapons of mass destruction". Iraq's compliance (or appearance of compliance) with the UN is caused by one reason - the threat of force that America and Britain project. For this threat to be real, the Western Allies must have troops and equipment within striking distance of Iraq. Does anyone honestly think that without that threat Iraq would care what resolutions the UN pass? If we are not prepared to see force threatened and perhaps ultimately used against Iraq, then we should have voted no to the UN resolution - and should not be even on the UN Security Council. Irish politicians, especially the Ministers for Defence, Transport and Foreign Affairs, should come out and publicly give permission for the US military to transport any conventional weapons they desire through Shannon.
(Title taken from PJ O'Rourke's book of the same name)
21/01/03 Thought for
"It is not a free nation's duty to liberate other nations at the price of self-sacrifice, but a free nation has the right to do it, when and if it so chooses." (Ayn Rand, "The Virtue of Selfishness")
20/01/03 Gangs of New
Over the weekend, I saw "Gangs of New York", Martin Scorcese's epic tale of the street gangs of New York in the middle of the 19th century. Visually the film is stunning, and parts of it are brilliant, although the plot is a bit of a mess. More worryingly, even as I was watching it, alarm bells were going off in my head about its dubious use of history - and my knowledge of the history of the American Civil War era is not extensive. The film's climax coincides with the New York Draft Riots of 1863, when thousands of Irish immigrants, angry at President Lincoln's conscription order, went on the rampage. I'm trying to avoid spoilers here, but the film's portrayal of the riots is highly questionable. This articlefrom the Daily Telegraph gives a fuller account of it's distortions.
Aside: I found the link to the article on Emily Jones' weblog, which is well worth checking out.
13/01/03 Public Transport
Employees of Dublin's public transport companies are planning to go on strike for four hours on Wednesday, between the hours of 11am and 3pm. Why? Because Seamus Brennan, the Transport Minister, wishes to split the various bus and rail companies into competing entities. The reaction of the employees suggests that this is a very good plan, and that the employees have some cushy number to be so scared of change. Let's not forget the DART strike, when DART drivers went on strike demanding bonus payments because the company wanted to hire new drivers. What do you think would happen in any other sector if an employee tried a stunt like that? The sooner the companies are split (and sold off to the private sector) the better.
11/01/03 JRR Tolkien
I finished re-reading "The Silmarillion" by JRR Tolkien, which relates the ancient history of the mythical universe of Middle-Earth, in which his epic "The Lord of the Rings" takes place. The book is not for the casual reader, one is hit by an almost bewildering list of characters and places, and reminds me of the Bible in its structure of semi-independent stories. However, for an avid Tolkien fan, it is a must read. I have added some quotes from the book to my Tolkien quotes page.
Now, onto a more controversial topic - some commentators in the Guardian and New York Times have alleged that Tolkien is a racist, as they notice that his evil Orcs are black and have slant-eyes. Jonah Goldberg takes on this allegations in this brilliant column for National Review Online:
"One is tempted to ask who is the real racist here? On the one hand we have people - like me - who see horrific, flesh-eating, dull-witted creatures with jagged feral teeth, venomous mouths, pointed devilish ears, and reptilian skin, and say, 'Cool, Orcs!' On the other hand we have people, like Mr. Yatt, who see the same repugnant creatures and righteously exclaim 'black people!'"
I was not too impressed with Niall Ferguson's new history series on Channel 4, "Empire", timed to coincide with the release of his book of the same name. The first episode was titled, "Why Britain?", however, for me, it did not really answer the question of why it was Britain, a small island off the coast of Europe, that ended up with the largest empire in history. An interesting point made by Ferguson was that it was the benefits that England obtained from the "Anglo-Dutch" merger of 1688 when Prince William of Orange became King, such as a central bank and stock exchange, that allowed it to harness its wealth to beat France in the Seven Year's War. I have read Ferguson's "Cash Nexus", and Ferguson uses his knowledge of the financial history of Europe to good effect. But why was it Britain and not anyone else that was in a position to benefit from these Dutch inventions?
I also thought that this program focused far too much on India. What of America, Canada, & Australia? The capture of Quebec, a pivotal turning point in North American history, barely warranted a mention. Perhaps next week's episode will address this, as it focuses on the migrations from Britain to its colonies, but I think I would have preferred a more conventional history and assessment of the British Empire.
08/01/03 Sounds Like
"New Labour plan to up the number of poor students in Britain's universities by making students poorer." For more humour like this, check out Herd Of Sheep, Britain's version of The Onion.
05/01/03 Thought for
Angels do not exist, but if they were to exist, they would sound exactly like Heather Nova on "Second Skin".
04/01/03 It's January...
...and the TV stations decide that it's time to hit us with their new shows, now that everyone is broke after Christmas and can't afford to do anything else but watch TV. RTE have season 4 of "The West Wing". Network 2 have Friends and Scrubs. Sky One have Enterprise, Buffy & Angel. Channel 4 have Empire, a documentary series based on the upcoming book by Niall Ferguson which examines the good and bad points of the British Empire. For some strange reason, all the above shows cluster on Monday and Thursday nights. How did people manage before video recorders?
04/01/03 A Nation Once
Mark Steyn takes a typically witty look at the victory of "A Nation Once Again" in a BBC World Service poll to find the Top 10 Songs Of All Time.
"Indeed, in its new role as underminer of the BBC Top Ten A Nation Once Again is far more subversive than it ever was as a rallying cry against the reviled Crown: For what could be more exquisitely mischievous than a virulently parochial anthem of unregenerate nationalism winning a survey intended to demonstrate that music is the universal language?
I can't help feeling that in this strange poll there are some profound lessons about the illusions of the age. Those of us skeptical of multiculturalism will be heartened by the dizzying variety of local prejudices on display in these unlovely songs."
02/01/03 The Blank
Finally got around to creating a page of quotes and reviews devoted to this excellent book by Professor Steven Pinker, which was my favourite book published in 2002 (see entry 11/12/02).
01/01/03 An Anniversary
Today marks the first anniversary of the introduction of the Euro as legal tender in Ireland (although monetary union technically occured several years earlier). Here is an article that I wrote some time ago assessing the cost of this introduction, something which seems to have escaped the attention of most commentators.
01/01/03 My New Year's
Based on my success at fulfilling previous year's resolution, this year I have decided not to make any resolutions.
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