Friday, August 31, 2007

Suffer the little students

Okay, whatever about the predicted job losses - and some of those claims have been way over the top - I can't muster up any additional sympathy for the Shannon lobby because the loss of the Heathrow connection "will cause cost and logistical difficulties" for students. Gimme a break already.

The AA and the foreign national penalty point fraud

The Automoble Association claims it has "evidence of widespread fraud by companies whose Irish drivers are caught committing penalty point offences". So, what is the evidence?
Almost 440,000 drivers have received points since their introduction in 2002 but 108,000 of these drivers do not hold an Irish driving licence and so the points cannot be applied. The 'foreign' licences include those from Northern Ireland, the UK, Eastern Europe and further afield.

"The AA is also aware that there is a large amount of anecdotal evidence that individuals and companies are routinely putting forward non-nationals as the driver when an offence is committed -- even if the real driver holds an Irish licence -- in order to avoid penalty points," said Mr Faughnan.

"If your licence is not Irish, then you can thumb your nose at everything we are trying to do in road safety enforcement. This is undermining our system, and it has to be stopped."
I don't think this evidence is all that strong, to be honest. The AA says it "strains credulity that one in four drivers are esaping points because they are from the North or abroad at a time when one-in-ten of the population are non-nationals". Doesn't strain my credulity.

First of all, the overall percentage of the population is irrelevant. What's relevant is the percentage of people on the roads who have out of state licenses. And, since it seems that there's no real effort to compel those who relocate from other EU states to adopt an Irish license, I would bet that the proportion of foreign-licensed drivers on Irish roads is greater than ten percent.
  • Isn't it possible that immigrants are more likely to have the type of jobs that require lots of driving?
  • And, yes those born outside the state might make up a tenth of the population, but I would bet immigrants make up a bigger proportion of the age bracket that is most likely to speed, etc. (I figure those born outside the state comprise less than 10% of children and the elderly.)
Next, if the penalty points system is deterring people from speeding, as the AA believes, then surely those who are not so deterred (foreign license-holders) will be more likely to speed or whatever.

I doubt the fraud that the AA thinks is so wide-spread is having any real effect on the numbers at all.

A Sort of Homecoming

Never much cared for Manchester United and I don't pay that much attention to the English Premiership these days, but I'm looking forward to seeing the game tomorrow between United and Sunderland. I don't know what it is about Roy Keane, but I've always liked him. He's the kind of guy who you just knew was making his team better and that he'd find some way to beat you.

Now I realize that there's an awful lot of hype and bandwagoning (yes, it's a word - I said so) here with regards to Keane & Sunderland, but I can't help myself. I guess I'm a sucker for any guy who looks like he's ready to kill someone when his team loses. (I dearly wish there was someone on the Mets with that level of commitment; they're breaking my heart lately.)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Carbon neutral Vatican

And, speaking of the environment and carbon offsets and that ... stuff, what is the Vatican up to? A month ago they announced that the Vatican was going to be the first "carbon neutral" state. In order to achieve this the Vatican is going to plant trees in Hungary to offset the emissions and energy use in the Vatican.

Uggh. First of all, I love how they decided to plant their trees in Hungary, where I'm sure you can get more ... bark for your buck (can I claim credit for that one?) as compared with planting in Italy.

Secondly, how does this decision to be more carbon-neutral than thou make sense when the Vatican is about to launch a low cost airline for traveling to Lourdes and other holy sites. Shouldn't the Church be discouraging such trips if they're really committed to the environment cause? I know some people will talk about hypocrisy or whatever, but really this sounds like a great case of one hand not knowing what the other is up to.

It's probably not coincidental that the whole carbon offsets program sounds so much like the Church's old indulgences practice. I wonder if the Catholic Church's decision to go down the offset route was a simple case of nostalgia overriding thinking.

Carbon offsets

The Sunday Tribune reported this week that carbon offsets are "not nearly as effective as previously thought". Well, that's something.

I thought carbon offsets were intended to assuage the guilt of celebrities, politicos and trendy wealthy people. I tell you it's a real blow to learn that these people are still feeling guilty when they drive their hummers to the airport to hop on their Gulfstream jets for a weekend of skiing at Vail or wherever.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Playing for a tie

There has been a lot of comment on President Bush's speech the other day and his mention of the Vietnam War and the way it ended.
… one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like "boat people," "re-education camps," and "killing fields."
I'm not sure it was politically clever to make use of Vietnam in his speech. Anyone on the anti-war side can point to the throngs of refugees who've abandoned Iraq as modern day "boat people", which undermines his point.

However, I think his point about re-education camps is valid. I sure wouldn't want to have been an ally of the US after such a pullout. I have no doubt that America's enemies would be better treated following an American victory than would America's allies in the event of an American defeat.

But, Vietnam is not the most interesting analogy Bush made. Nor is Japan, every neocon's favorite analogy for the modern day middle east. What interests me is how Bush referred to the Korean War in a positive way, even though it was a war without a victor or without an end.
Today, we see the result of a sacrifice of people in this room in the stark contrast of life on the Korean Peninsula. Without Americans' intervention during the war and our willingness to stick with the South Koreans after the war, millions of South Koreans would now be living under a brutal and repressive regime. The Soviets and Chinese communists would have learned the lesson that aggression pays. The world would be facing a more dangerous situation. The world would be less peaceful.

Instead, South Korea is a strong, democratic ally of the United States of America. South Korean troops are serving side-by-side with American forces in Afghanistan and in Iraq.
Is Bush trying to say that America could play for a tie in Iraq, that the war could be inconclusive? What would such a stalemate look like and would the American people accept that, be willing to accept the conditions of endless military presence and, possibly, low level casualty numbers? And, does this signal a willingness to consider a less than democratic regime, such as prevailed in South Korea until the late 1980s?

The answer to all those last two questions is 'no' {duh - had to edit what I wrote), although I know a lot of people assume the answer to the last one is 'yes'. I don't. Bush and too many of the people around him have invested too much in the notion that liberty is universally sought and democracy universally implementable. Still, the fact that he talked about Korea as a success does hold out the possibility that some form of less than democratic regime would be considered.

Probably no 'undemocratic' option is being considered, but that's what occurred to me when I read the speech.

Turn for the Erse

Crushing loss for the Mets, but I had to laugh when I saw the back page of today's NY Post. The Post turned the St. Patrick's Day slogan 'Erin Go Bragh' into Aaron Go Blahh after Aaron Heilman gave up the game winning home run to San Diego last night. How long has the headline writer been waiting to use that one?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Back to the Future

"Live the dream". That's what the DeLorean ads used to say when the DeLorean was 'the dream'. I can remember the first time I saw one - in a parking lot near Albany, NY. It was almost like seeing the space shuttle parked there.

Last night I watched a three-year-old documentary on Belfast's DeLorean experience. Although I knew that DeLoreans were built in Belfast, I knew virtually nothing about how John DeLorean and his car project was received there and what sort of effect it had. It seems like DeLorean's failure was a real body blow at the time, which didn't surprise but seeing the pictures and hearing the stories made it less theoretical.

One thing that did surprise me was that there were only 9,000 DeLoreans ever built. I suppose I'd have guessed 100,000 or more. Of those original 9,000, 6,500 are still on the road. So, an enthusiast in California who runs a business refurbishing DeLoreans is considering producing new ones, only 20 or so year.

I wonder if the demand will warrant a bigger production or a new model DeLorean. I still like the look of the car, but I'm not really a 'cool car' guy. I mean, when the cool people were buying DeLoreans, I was driving a putrid green 1969 Cheverolet Greenbrier station wagon. There's just something about the DeLorean that appeals to me more than any other sports car that has me hoping that somehow new life is breathed into the car.

Monday, August 20, 2007


I was in France and missed the news that Phil "Scooter" Rizzuto died. Of course, I never liked the Yankees or anything to do with them. Still, I used to get a kick out of listening to Rizutto call Yankee games even if I'd never have admitted that to anyone.

Rizzuto wasn't particularly good at announcing baseball games (truth is, I thought he was terrible), but he was entertaining. And, he was old school: old school baseball, old school decency and old school funny. I loved his old stories about playing with the great players of the past, but I also liked his regular Brooklyn Italian guy stories and his grandfatherly hokiness. He was a character, but not the sort of false, invented 'character' that too many of today's sports broadcasters are.

{For anyone who never heard Rizzuto call a baseball game, you may know his voice from Meat Loaf's Paradise By The Dashboard Light.}

Friday, August 17, 2007

Military cemeteries & monuments

We stopped at British, French and German as well as American cemeteries. I hadn't expected to see a German cemetery. The styles of the cemeteries are different for each nation. The American cemeteries are the biggest (and fewest) in the region, they are meticulously maintained and, often, have a massive memorial/chapel.

The French cemeteries are nowhere near as well maintained and the stones are less attractive. The British seem to like many small cemeteries spread around. They're well maintained, but not quite as perfect as the American cemeteries. And, the German cemetery I saw was much more haphazard - rows were very ragged - and had a much greater percentage of unknown soldiers.

{I took some pictures, posted here. My photos from the British cemeteries didn't come out.}

One thing that I really wanted to know was how did the cemeteries fare during World War II. Reims was the center for a lot of fighting during that conflict. All those graves and the big memorials at the American cemeteries look like they could have been destroyed during the Second World War.

I was particularly curious about the monument at Chateau Thierry, which is absolutely huge. I can't believe that it wasn't blown up during the German occupation. And, I can't believe that the Nazis didn't take issue with those Germans buried in the German cemetery - never mind those in the American cemetery - under the Star of David. The Germans were buried very densely, usually four per cross, but Jewish soldiers were buried singly under rounded stones featuring a Star of David.

The Champagne region

Anyway, as I mentioned below, I was in France this week. My first time ever. It was one of our usual two day whirlwind tours taking in (primarily) cathedrals and cemeteries. Here are a few observations:
  • I know there's a stereotype that French people are rude, etc., but I didn't find that other than in one place - Beauvais Airport {what a nightmare that place is}. Other than there, however, everyone I dealt with was extremely patient with this ignorant Yank, who did a lot of pointing and waving and/or mangling the French language beyond all recognition.

  • I knew that the 15th was a Holy Day of Obligation (Mass in the Cathedral), but I hadn't anticipated it being a national holiday too. Virtually nothing was open on Wednesday, but thankfully, we found a sufficient number of food outlets and activities to keep us going for the whole day.

  • Nobody lives in the Picardy and Champagne regions of France. I simply couldn't believe how empty the land is there. You can drive for miles without seeing much more than a few farms. It struck me that this part of France is much more sparsely populated than is Belgium, which isn't all that far away.

  • We went to Reims because it sounded interesting, but I actually would rather have had more time in Laon, a small city north of Reims, and spent less in Reims.

  • I almost never drink champagne, but when I saw it for less than €5 in the local supermarket, I figured I'd give it a go. And, it was tasty. I wish I could have brought home a few bottles, but of course you can't carry liquids on board a plane these days.

PR disaster?

There seems to be an almost universal belief in the media that Aer Lingus's handling of the the Shannon-Heathrow slots switch is a PR disaster for both the company and the government. I'm not so sure.

First of all, the more Shannon protests the more Aer Lingus is getting a good wind behind its sails before it launches the new services up north. This is despite the fact that Aer Lingus is launching this new service 'on the cheap'. The Shannon noise is deflecting attention from Aer Lingus's low cost strategy in Belfast.

Secondly, the government may or may not be experiencing a PR disaster. Obviously, I don't know for sure, but I'd be pretty surprised if this decision (Heathrow slots out of Shannon) was taken on information gathered during the summer. In fact, I would be pretty sure that the company has been studying this one for a good while. I would also imagine that the government, as a major shareholder, was at least aware of this possibility. Maybe it's a coincidence, but the timing of the announcement couldn't have been better for the government - after the election and after the restoration of power-sharing in the north.

If this decision had been announced, or even hinted at, before May 24, the electoral fall-out would have been huge. And, if it had been announced before power-sharing had been restored a great early coup for the new executive would have been lost. As it is, the new executive looks great and the government got the election it needed. And, even though the Shannon protest looks like a tough one for the government right now, I suspect that the negative effect in the Shannon region might be temporary and that the gains in perception among people of the north (that the Irish government values them enough not to cave in to the Shannon lobby) will be longer lasting.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

American Hajj

Charles Krohn, deputy director of public affairs for the American Battle Monuments Commission, says that every American should make an effort to visit an American military cemetery overseas during their lifetime. Krohn wrote this in Sunday's Washington Post, which was perfect timing for me because I was in France on Tuesday visiting American military cemeteries.

Krohn says (rightly, from what I saw) that most of the American military cemeteries are devoid of visitors.
With the exception of the Normandy American Cemetery, which attracts thousands, others are virtually devoid of visitors, especially American visitors.
Krohn would like to change that and I agree with him that more Americans should visit these cemeteries. However, the experience of visiting the cemeteries is probably mostly frustrating for those who do visit and nothing like what Krohn experienced.
I work for the commission, yet nothing prepared me for the experience of seeing row upon row of crosses and Stars of David, maintained in absolute splendor. Walking with a cemetery superintendent who tells the stories of the fallen, my soul churned as I absorbed the extent of their sacrifice.

I'm an old soldier with combat experience. I appreciate the notions of valor and sacrifice. Still, my emotions were overwhelmed while I heard men and their exploits described so simply. There is no high-brow language. The superintendents say: Here's who's buried here, this is what we know about him, and this is what he was doing when he was killed.
I would have loved that experience myself. Yet, I had to make up the stories because the visitor centers at the cemeteries I stopped at were completely devoid of information.

The rows of crosses are affecting, but there's nothing about what these men were doing when they died. The neatness of the cemeteries, the uniformity of the crosses, the sparse information on them all contribute to a beautiful scene, but one that tends to detract from the reality that these men lived and died in extraordinary, terrifying, ugly circumstances. There's nothing at all about what they/their units/or the entire Army was doing in the area around that time that the battles raged.

One flimsy photocopy is all that's available to visitors and there's more information about the architects of the various monuments than there is about what the men who fought the battles were doing, what life was like, how they died. My kids were asking me all sorts of questions, but I didn't have any answers for them. Mr. Krohn's American Battle Monuments Commission has to do a better job of providing information for those who do visit.

{And, the maps they provide should include town names and road designations that the average visitor will find on a French road map - otherwise, there's a lot of trying to follow small signs on unfamiliar roads.}

Thursday, August 09, 2007

"Disastrous privatisations"

Yes, the government knows best. Our government ministers are better at running things than any corporate bosses. They can run the army, the health service, education at all levels, the social welfare system, public transport, airports, the phone service, and on and on and on. That's the view of Fianna Fail TD, Niall Collins, although he didn't actually talk about most of those services. Collins criticized the
"disastrous outcomes" of his own party's decision to support the privatisation of State agencies such as Eircom and Aer Lingus.
If he doesn't like the privatization of Eircom or Aer Lingus I presume he'd rather not see any other services privatized.

Both of those decisions were right for the Irish state. I don't believe that the government has any business running a business in a competitive market and I don't believe the government can successfully run such businesses. One of the big reasons governments can't run businesses in the competitive marketplace is that politics often get in the way of making the right decision to allow the company to compete.

I won't pretend to be expert in the operations of an airline, but if ending the service between Shannon and Heathrow is the right move for Aer Lingus then it's the right move. And, if it's not the right move it won't cost me anything (I'm not a shareholder).

That doesn't mean I'm not sympathetic to folks in Shannon, but is there nothing they can do to make it worthwhile for Aer Lingus to continue to serve Heathrow from Shannon?

I've heard many spokesman talk about how those routes were profitable. If that's true, then surely it wouldn't cost much to make Shannon more profitable as a location for a couple of Heathrow slots when compared with some of Aer Lingus's routes to Heathrow. Or is it possible that the routes from Shannon were not actually profitable.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Alms for Jihad

I hadn't heard of this book before I read this column by Mark Steyn. From what Steyn says, Cambridge University Press has recalled all the unsold copies of this 2006 book and asked libraries around the world to take the book off their shelves.

If Steyn is right and this is nothing more than a wealthy Saudi using his money and power to stifle a discussion of what his charities are up to, then this is pretty alarming.

The Saudi in question is Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz, who Irish people will recall as he was at the center of the passports for investment scandal during the Haughey years. So, Mahfouz is an Irish citizen and, according to Alms for Jihad, at the center of a big bin Laden funding operation.

I don't know what's in the book that hasn't been published in the Irish Independent and Irish Times since September 2001, but I'm curious. Over the past six years, there have been many articles about Mahfouz, his investments, his charities and the connections to bin Laden.

Rachel Ehrenfeld, who was sued for libel by Mahfouz for her book Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed – and How to Stop It, writes about her legal problems in today's NY Post.

Interesting stuff. Now I want to find a copy of Alms for Jihad and/or Funding Evil.

Irish brothers at war

Boston 1775 recounts a story of two Irish brothers who found each other on opposite sides during the Battle of Saratoga. After the battle the two armies were talking to one another across the river when the brothers spotted each other and rushed into the river towards one another. One had left Ireland for America and the other had joined the British Army.

I think I've read similar stories about battles between the English and French around that time. Still, it seems such an amazing coincidence that it's almost unbelievable.

Matt Murphy from Queens

On a whim Matt Murphy and his friend decided to go to see the Giants and Nationals in San Francisco last night. They're traveling to Australia and had just finished the first leg of their trip. Murphy and his friend got seats way out – about 430 feet from home plate. Not great seats, but not bad either when you consider the situation.

The Giants' Barry Bonds needed only one home run to break the all-time record. Last night he hit it and, following what looked like a deadly scrum (you can see some of that here ), Murphy emerged with the ball. The ball is all his and will probably earn him at least a cool half million bucks. When I saw how battered and dazed he looked as police escorted him out of the stadium I wondered if he thought it was worth it.

The best part of this story is that Murphy's from Queens and he's a Met fan.
When the pile cleared, a guy in a Jose Reyes Mets jersey -- Murphy -- emerged with the ball in hand.

"We thought he was wearing a Dodgers jersey," Ryder said. "New York is almost as bad."
"Almost as bad" – good job Matt. It's always good to annoy Californians.

Obviously, Bonds's homer is a big story in the US. Even the BBC has a report on Bonds's homer. But, for many fans Bonds's unlikeable personality and the allegations that he took steroids have really taken the joy out of this achievement. It's pretty much, 'Ok, now let's get on with the games'.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Dipped headlights

When I was learning to drive in New York State all I ever heard about were low beams, high beams and parking lights. I never had any doubt as to what those terms meant. When I moved to Ireland I heard terms like "side lights" and "dipped headlights", but I was never sure what those terms referred to.

Eventually I came to the conclusion that side lights were analogous to the parking lights. I think. However, I never figured out what "dipped headlights" means. I'm pretty sure dipped headlights are the same as low beams, but so many people here drive with what I thought were sidelights, that I've never been certain.

So, this week when I got the new Rules of the Road book I thought I'd have a look through it, hoping to find an explanation. No luck. There's a lot of discussion as to when dipped headlights should be used, but no precise explanation as to what that term means.

There is a five page glossary at the back of the book, but dipped headlights aren't explained there either. I suppose the Road Safety Authority could argue that they can't explain every term in the glossary due to space considerations, but then I wonder if it was necessary to take up space defining any of the following words and terms: abreast (isn't that plain English?), arrhythmia, binocular vision, cardiovascular diseases, congenital myotonic disorders, deceleration (more plain English), Garda Síochána (are we giving out this book free to tourists?), hazard (please!), Luas (is there anyone in Ireland who hasn't heard of it at this stage?), maneuver (okay, manoeuvre - whatever), muscular atrophy, negligence, ophthalmic optician, paraplegia, prescription, or vigilant.

If anyone doesn't know those words of basic English I would assume they'd be more likely to get out their dictionary than to check the back of the Rules of the Road for definitions. And the medical terms? If you need to know, you know and if you don't need to know, you don't know.

Foot & mouth experts

So many flashbacks. Every news program is featuring pictures of those pyres of burning animals from 2001. The look of fear on the farmers' faces and the experts. I'd actually forgotten about the experts.

Each big news story has its own legion of experts that the news producers trot out for a more knowledgeable perspective. What I'd forgotten until yesterday was how unsuited for television are those people who are experts on animal health. The look and manner of these people makes them probably the least television friendly folks ever seen on the box.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Bridge collapse

I don't know the bridge that collapsed the other day. I've never been on it or at least I don't remember being on it during any of my trips to Saint Paul.

However, that such a bridge could fall was not beyond my imagination, even if I probably would have chalked it up as an unreasonable fear. There are dozens of huge bridges and elevated roadways in the New York area and if you happen to spend any time staring at the bottoms of most of them you can find yourself wondering how it is that they're still standing.

If you're stuck in traffic on the Deegan Expressway approaching the George Washington Bridge, it does your heart no good at all to look too closely at what you're about to drive on. The Tappan Zee? That was only built to last 50 years, a deadline that's already passed. And, whatever you do, never spend any time looking up if you find yourself underneath the Pulaski Skyway.

And, of course, 20 years ago a bridge over Schoharie Creek along the New York State Thruway collapsed, killing ten people.

These things happen. You like to imagine that the government agencies who are responsible for ensuring such things don't happen are infallible, but that's not possible.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Talking up the property market

Brendan O'Connor says that he would buy property now, if he had the money. Why?
Well, for starters, property is good value these days. It's certainly cheaper than it was six months ago. While the official figures on aggregate surveys are talking about drops of two to three per cent in property prices, anyone who is out there in the jungle will tell you that it is a buyer's market bigtime.
When I read this on Sunday I thought, well, maybe, but I doubt it. I don't read his columns too often, but nothing I've read by him makes me think he has any real insight into the functioning of the property market. He cites some people who spend more time studying this than I do, but I'm still skeptical.

There has been a lot of new housing added here recently and despite O'Connor's assurance that interest rates are still low, that doesn't mean the recent rises haven't seriously hurt those who borrowed when they were lower.

Some people have borrowed an awful lot of money to buy property and even a 2% hike in interest rates can be a terrible blow. There's no margin for trading up and the higher rates are not going to entice new people into the market. O'Connor seems to believe that what goes down must come up, but even if that's true that doesn't mean we're at or near the bottom yet.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Bronx is Burning

That's the title of ESPN's dramatization of the 1977 Yankees season. I haven't seen any of it, but sounds like it's not too bad. When I was in the US I bought the book on which the series is based simply because I knew I wasn't going to get to watch it.

Anyway, I'm enjoying the book, but I don't know if it's a good book. I think it's more like a very good magazine. Maybe a sort of tabloid newspaper annual for 1977. Here's what I mean.

There are two different stories here that the author, Jonathan Mahler, is telling simultaneously. One is the story of New York in 1977 and the other is the story of the Yankees in 1977 (this is the basis for the t.v. series). Both are interesting stories and obviously, there's some overlap, but I don't know if there's enough to make the book work.

The baseball part is all right, but I've read a lot about the Yankees in those years already and there's not a lot here that's new to me. Nice as a refresher.

The chapters that deal with the city - the politics, the blackout, the fear (specifically Son of Sam) - I think are better. That might be because I have my memories of that year, but I'd forgotten a good deal and also that I probably knew less than I thought. I was 13 that summer and living upstate, but I spent most of July in Queens. I remember the fear, particularly the blackout.

The problem is that the book jars as it shifts from the hard news to the sports. A few chapters on the mayoral election followed by a couple of chapters on the Yankees. It's like reading a tabloid newspaper, except that the sports is mixed in rather than at the back.

As a series of short stories it works well, possibly only if you have enough background knowledge. I don't know. I don't think it works as a unified narrative, however. As a gimmick it would probably have been better as two short books in the one package - maybe one of those where you turn it over to find the other book.

Unbrdled optimism on RTE

I love the weather forecasters we get on RTE 1. The other night John Eagleton (I think that's his name) smiled and told us that the forthcoming holiday weekend would "probably not be the worst of the summer". Have we had anything close to a good weekend this summer? I'm still laughing at his "upbeat" forecast.

In a somewhat related note, I was gone for two weeks. Two nights before I left I cut the grass as short as I could. Yesterday evening I went out to hack down the jungle that grew up in the 19 days since I last tackled the yard. Time to get a couple of sheep, methinks.